Administrative Update plus Round-Up

Original source: | Dec. 20, 2013 | No Responses

This article was taken over from Syria comment to bring it into attention of Informed Comment community for discussion.

As many noticed during the recent period of silence at Syria Comment, responsibilities have pulled us away from being able to post regularly. Though we are currently on break, I should explain that the demands of the academic year’s schedule will sometimes decrease my availability for writing articles and posting news round-ups.

I will still be available to post work from other writers, and will also continue to do some moderation, though not always in a timely fashion.

—Matthew Barber

The names of the Syrian revolution Friday protest days

For now, a brief roundup…

Before looking at the important recent stories, please look at this October article, if you missed it previously. Though challenging for many, it’s content is still relevant and raises important food for thought: Partitioning Syria by Gary Gambill

Fisk wonders if presidential control of security is continuing to decline, and whether Khan’s death implies internal challenges to Assad: British prisoner Dr Abbas Khan found dead in Syrian jail days before he was due to be handed over to MP George Galloway – Independent

In a scandal that will inevitably embrace the Syrian and the British governments, a British prisoner in the hands of the Syrian state security police has been found dead in a Damascus prison only four days before he was to be handed over to British MP George Galloway to be taken home to Britain on the instructions of President Assad himself.

Dr Abbas Khan, who was arrested by Syrian government forces while working as an orthopaedic surgeon in the Aleppo region and held incommunicado for more than a year, “committed suicide” in the state interrogation centre at  Kfar Soussa in Damascus, according to Syrian security authorities.  Khan’s mother, Fatima, who was herself in Damascus and had seen her son four times in the past four months, was eagerly awaiting his release this weekend when she received a telephone call from a Syrian official to say that he had hanged himself with his pyjamas.

His family in London – where Abbas was born – had received a bundle of letters from him in the last few weeks expressing his delight at his imminent release.  “He was saying ‘I can’t wait to be back with you guys’,” his sister Sara told me today.  “He did not commit suicide.” …

George Galloway was flabbergasted.  When I telephoned him, he described Khan’s death as “inexplicable”.  He had just booked his air ticket to Damascus when he heard the news from Dr Khan’s family – and then from the Syrian deputy foreign minister himself.  “As yet, no satisfactory explanation has been given to me.  The idea of a man committing suicide four days before he was to be released is impossible to believe. …

… Syria is now certain to become embroiled in a political crisis that suggests President Assad may not be able to control his own security authorities.  Dr Khan was a London-born doctor and no longer had any political importance – he had been arrested after treating women and children in rebel-held areas of Aleppo well over a year ago – yet he was taken from the Azra prison where he was being held last week to the Kfar Soussa interrogation centre, a jail where inmates are held just after arrest and just before their release.

For a tragedy of this importance, for what many clearly believe to have been a murder – for a British citizen whose release has been ordered by President Assad himself only to be found dead in state security police custody – will require a full explanation not only from the Syrian government but from Assad himself.  Repeatedly, Assad has claimed that he is solely in charge of Syria, and – despite disquiet among Syrians at his decision to hand over his chemical weapons to the United Nations last summer – nothing has hitherto suggested that Assad’s word might be crossed.

Yet the death of Abbas Khan now raises the devastating possibility that there are those in authority in Damascus who want to challenge the power and prestige of their own president.  It is clear that the Syrians intended to make a conciliatory gesture towards the West by releasing Khan – yet his death suggests there are those who wish to destroy Assad’s chances of a reconciliation with Western powers which only a few months ago were set on destroying his regime in a military attack. …

U.S. Weighing Closer Ties With Hardline Islamists in Syria – FP

Syria region where polio found excluded from 2012 vaccination drive – Reuters

The Syrian government excluded the largely rebel-held province of Deir al-Zor – where polio broke out this year – from a 2012 vaccination campaign, arguing that most residents had fled although hundreds of thousands were still there, a Reuters investigation shows. …

Whose sarin? by Seymour M. Hersh – London Review of Books

Brown Moses’ rebuttal: Sy Hersh’s Chemical Misfire – FP

Also see this: Report Detail Could Further Implicate Syria in Chemical Attack, Analysts Say

Buried in the annex of a United Nations inquiry into chemical weapons use in Syria is information that some outside analysts say could further implicate the government of Syria in the deadliest of the five confirmed attacks. …

Saudi Ambassador to Britain declares greater autonomous action on the part of the Kingdom and takes stab at US policy: Saudi Arabia Will Go It AloneNYT

… We believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East. …

… But this year, for all their talk of “red lines,” when it counted, our partners have seemed all too ready to concede our safety and risk our region’s stability. …

… Saudi Arabia has enormous responsibilities within the region, as the cradle of Islam and one of the Arab world’s most significant political powers. We have global responsibilities — economic and political — as the world’s de facto central banker for energy. And we have a humanitarian responsibility to do what we can to end the suffering in Syria.

We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners. Nothing is ruled out in our pursuit of sustainable peace and stability in the Arab World as King Abdullah — then Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince — showed with his leadership of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We showed our preparedness to act independently with our decision to reject a seat on the United Nations Security Council. What point was there in serving in an international talking shop when so many lives are threatened, and so many opportunities for peace and security are being thwarted by the U.N.’s inability to act?

We continue to show our determination through our support for the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition. It is too easy for some in the West to use the threat of Al Qaeda’s terrorist operations in Syria as an excuse for hesitation and inaction. Al Qaeda’s activities are a symptom of the international community’s failure to intervene. They should not become a justification for inaction. The way to prevent the rise of extremism in Syria — and elsewhere — is to support the champions of moderation: financially, materially and yes, militarily, if necessary. …

Patrick Cockburn: U.S. Turns Blind Eye as Saudis Fund Jihadists in Syrian Conflict – Democracy Now

Cockburn on the Independent: Mass murder in the Middle East is funded by our friends the Saudis

Film taking aim at Saudi monarchy opens in Syria – AP

King of the Sands

“King of the Sands…” purports to show events leading up to the creation of Saudi Arabia in 1932. In the movie, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud is portrayed as a merciless ruler fighting opponents with a sword, commanding that the hands of thieves be cut off, ordering the stoning of couples for having premarital sex, and taking numerous wives himself. He is also shown as a man who enjoys underage women.

 A Confused Situation in Northern Syria – Aron Lund

… In a widely read article, the Wall Street Journal portrayed the events at Bab al-Hawa as part of a simple radical-moderate conflict: the Islamic Front had chased the SMC out of Syria, punching a big hole in American strategy before the planned Syrian peace conference in Geneva. Some SMC officials seem to agree. But as new details emerge, the truth appears to be considerably more nuanced. …

For its part, the Islamic Front claims that it only intervened to safeguard the Bab al-Hawa area after a distress call from the SMC leader, Salim Idris, who wanted help protecting his warehouses against attacks by an unnamed group.

Idris himself has come forward in support of this version and seems eager to downplay the conflict between him and the Islamic Front. According to Idris, the SMC headquarters have not been “occupied” by the Islamic Front, rather they are locked and empty after the SMC abandoned them. “I could return to the [SMC] headquarters any time I want,” he claims in an interview with the U.S.-funded al-Hurra television station, “but the entire region is in danger. Most forces have abandoned their headquarters. There’s an unnatural situation in the entire northern region, to be honest. In the northern area of Syria, there is confusion and there are checkpoints for different forces and alliances. The situation in northern Syria is no longer clear, no longer safe.” …

… One of the reasons for the chaotic and dangerous situation in the northern Idlib area is a spate of clashes between the SRF and the Islamic Front. In the days after December 6, these groups faced off, putting up roadblocks in the area, kidnapping each other’s members, and blocking convoys of supplies. …

Arabic article suggests that Oman is hosting secret negotiations between regime and rebels (via Andrew Hammond @Hammonda1): انباء عن مفاوضات سرية بين النظام السوري وشخصيات معارضة تستضيفها سلطنة عمان

Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah

Syrian conflict said to fuel sectarian tensions in Persian Gulf – WP

… Kuwaiti Sunnis have been among the most prominent financial supporters of Syria’s rebels, raising tens of millions of dollars through both traditional charity functions and online canvassing using social media sites. Prominent Sunni families have sent sons to fight for Islamist rebels in Syria, and Kuwaiti Twitter and Facebook pages devoted to the conflict regularly applaud the slaughter of Shiite forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Although less conspicuous, Kuwaiti Shiites have launched parallel efforts to build support for Syria’s pro-government Shiite and Alawite communities, according to the Brookings report. At a forum in Kuwait City last year, a Shiite group claimed to have raised the equivalent of $81 million for Assad’s forces. Many of the country’s city-dwelling Shiites have begun to refer to Sunnis as “Bedouin” who are less authentically Kuwaiti, the report said.

“Now the talk is about Shia-Sunni,” a Kuwaiti newspaper editor was quoted as telling the report’s author. “It has become popular, very normal. . . . It wasn’t like that in Kuwait.”

West signals to Syrian opposition Assad may stay – Reuters

…”Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” said one senior member of the Coalition who is close to officials from Saudi Arabia.

al-Julani, head of Jabhat al-Nusra interviewed by al-Jazeera English - Al-Qaeda leader in Syria speaks to Al Jazeera

The leader of al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, one of the most powerful groups in the war-torn country, has told Al Jazeera that that the conflict is nearing an end and that his fighters hold the upper hand.

Jabhat al-Nusra presence in Syria

“Bashar al-Assad Is Not As Bad As These People!” – A Libyan On Joining Jabhat al-Nusra – Yalla Souriya

Bashar Al Assad: An Intimate Profile of a Mass Murderer – New Republic

Syrian and Iraqi Kurds more divided over Syria – al-Monitor

Gaza fighters head to Syria as refugees flow in – BBC

… Fahd al-Habash had been avidly following news about Syria and saw it as a just, holy war. “The situation in Gaza is calm. There’s no fighting with Israel right now and Fahd wanted to fight against the Shia [Muslims],” Shehata al-Habash says. …

… However the movement between Gaza and Syria is not just in one direction. Dozens of Syrian refugees have headed here since the war started, as well as hundreds of Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria. …

… UNRWA is now supporting 1,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in the Gaza Strip. They are entitled to the same benefits and services as refugees who were already based in Gaza. …

Osama al-Shehabi (Abul-Zahra al-Zubeidi): An al-Qaeda Leader in Lebanon – Aron Lund

In a press statement issued yesterday, the U.S. State Department declared that it had sanctioned Osama Amin al-Shihabi as a “specially designated global terrorist.” The statement went on to explain that Shihabi has recently been appointed head of the Nusra Front’s Palestinian wing in Lebanon. …

The Belated Birth of the Waad Party – Raphaël Lefèvre

The New Power On The Ground In Syria (on Zahran Alloush) – Mike Giglio

Syrians disappeared in ‘campaign of terror’ – al-Jazeera

Government forces snatching people in a ‘systematic attack’ on civilians, UN says.

The Other Arab Awakening – Thomas Friedman – NYT

AND so it turns out that there were actually two Arab awakenings.

There are the radical revolutions you’ve read about in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya, none of which yet have built stable, inclusive democracies. But then there are the radical evolutions that you’ve not read about, playing out in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf monarchies. The evolutions involve a subtle but real shift in relations between leaders and their people, and you can detect it from even a brief visit to Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The Gulf leaders still have no time for one-man, one-vote democracy. But, in the wake of the Arab Spring, they’re deeply concerned with their legitimacy, which they are discovering can no longer just be bought with more subsidies — or passed from father to son. So more and more leaders are inviting their people to judge them by how well they perform — how well they improve schools, create jobs and fix sewers — not just resist Israel or Iran or impose Islam. …

Aron Lund on refugees: Slamming the Golden Door

Syria’s neighbors are overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis. Syrians now constitute more than one-fifth of Lebanon’s inhabitants, and the attendant growing economic burden and religious tensions threaten to pull the country back into civil war. In Jordan, the Zaatari refugee camp has grown from a collection of empty tent grounds in 2012 into what is now one of the country’s largest cities, where 2,000 new refugees arrive every day.

Poor Third World nations are shouldering almost the entire burden. Apart from Syria’s hard-pressed neighbors, significant numbers of refugees have also been received in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries. In distant Brazil, the government recently announced the creation of “humanitarian visas” for Syrian refugees. Syrians will now be able to apply for asylum at Brazilian embassies in the Middle East, something that hardly any other state allows.

… But in looking closely at the numbers, a pattern emerges. In almost every case, the states most deeply involved with fanning the flames of the Syrian civil war—like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and Russia—are also the ones most reluctant to take in its refugees. It is remarkable that a wealthy fellow Arab country like Saudi Arabia (with a population of 28 million), has still not offered to resettle a single Syrian refugee.

… In Europe, Germany is the only large nation (with a population of 82 million) making an effort to take in Syrian refugees. It already shelters around 8,000 asylum applicants and recently started bringing in 5,000 more refugees. It is in talks with the UN to eventually resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees, or 80 percent of the EU’s pledges for UN resettlement.

Sweden (with a population of 9 million) has received even higher numbers of refugees, but not on the UN quotas. Instead, it has become the primary destination for private Syrian asylum seekers entering the EU illegally. Since the start of the crisis, Sweden has granted residency status on humanitarian grounds to some 25,000 Syrians, which is the largest number anywhere outside the Middle East (in total, some 50,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in EU countries; that’s 2.4 percent of the global total). In addition, Sweden has informed the UN that it could take 400 refugees on its quota for 2013. …

Aleppo and the Battle for the Syrian Revolution’s Soul – Aron Lund

Uncertain Future for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s Political Party – Yezid Sayigh and Raphaël Lefèvre

VansGuard wrote a song for Syria:

VansGuard explained the motivation for the song in an email:

One day i was reading the news, here in America, and Syria was on the headlines. But right under that headline was a big article about the Grammys that would take place the next day… This juxtaposition of suffering and luxury existing so closely together in our consciousnesses, blurring the line of right and wrong, and allowing us to click on the next hot topic without a second thought, struck me as terribly awry. The next day photos from the Grammys were in the spot where the article on Syria had been the day before. The Grammys had now become the most important topic. I cried for the apathy of America and i knew i had to write a song to speak out for the people of Syria. So i did.

Those concerned with the array of humanitarian issues facing Syria should follow the project Focus on Syria, created by Italian aid workers and researchers (disponibile anche in Italiano).

Syria’s Alawite Villages: ‘Scenes of Beauty As Well As Unspeakable Horrors’ – WSJ

It’s not only the religious minorities that come under fire in Syria; sexual minorities are suffering as well. Here’s an FP article from this month on the struggles facing gay Syrians: Out and Down in Syria’s Civil War – Haley Bobseine

…For gay Syrians, nowhere is safe: Across the country, they have been the target of attack by pro-regime militants and armed Islamist militias alike…

…Amir recounts how one of his gay friends, Badr, was kidnapped this summer by Jabhat al-Nusra, which extracted information from him about other gays before executing him. “Several days later, Jabhat al-Nusra gathered people in the square and denounced another guy as a faggot,” says Amir. “They chopped his head off with a sword.” …

… One morning, pro-regime militiamen stopped him at a checkpoint. Najib recognized one of the men, Kheder, from an unofficial gay park they used to frequent prior to the revolution. The men blindfolded him and brought him inside a building, demanding $15,000 or else they would hand him over to the state security apparatus. “After that they told me to take off my clothes. They took my phone and started to take pictures of me,” Najib says. ”Another other guy kicked me in my face and called me a prostitute and cursed at me. Then they sexually molested me.” …

“A gay person in Syria is between two fires — the regime and the opposition,” explains Najib. ”The issue is that most people do not see targeting homosexuals as being problematic.” …

And here’s an earlier article with several harrowing accounts of homosexuals being targeted: Gay Syrians Are Being Blackmailed, Tortured and Killed by Jihadists – Vice

Gay Syrians

“I think I was targeted for two reasons: because I’m a Druze, and because I’m gay,” he said. “They told us, ‘You are all perverts, and we are going to kill you to save the world’.”

… Ram is one of seven gay Syrian men who I interviewed in Beirut this September. All of them fled Syria after their homosexuality was discovered and their lives were directly threatened in the chaos and radicalism that has engulfed their country. …

… Patricia el-Khoury is a Beirut-based psychologist who provides counselling to some of the most traumatised gay men to have escaped Syria. She said that it is their isolation that causes the biggest psychological impact and makes them even more vulnerable than the tens of thousands of other refugees who have flooded into Lebanon. “Guilt is everywhere when I talk to these guys,” she said. “They feel that it is their fault that they have lost their families.”

Problems with the various attempts to map the Syrian conflict (French): L’insurrection syrienne et la guerre des cartes – Fabrice Balanche

Syrians living in London beg Prince of Wales to intervene in conflict tearing apart their homeland – Independent

Interesting conversation between Joshua Landis and Elias Muhanna: Qifa Nabki – The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant


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