Flooded with refugees, Turkey has asked the U.N. to set up a shelter inside Syria’s borders. Christopher Dickey on the strategy’s disappointing and dangerous record.
On Thursday, the Turks pleaded before the U.N. Security Council for support to establish a safe haven inside Syria where refugees might take shelter from the bombs and tanks of the savage Assad dictatorship.
Adem Altan, AFP / Getty Images
Sounds reasonable, no? And humanitarian, for sure. But it’s not. When the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, claimed the initiative is essentially part of a strategy “promoting imminent military intervention under humanitarian pretexts,” he was just stating the obvious. And for just that reason, when it comes to safe havens, there is nothing safe about them. They generally offer poor shelter, and often give probable cause for escalating violence.
There’s no question the tide of refugees trying to escape the Syrian civil war is at the flood stage. According to the latest U.N. statistics some 230,000 have fled in all directions and sought to register as refugees. Many wind up with family or friends in Lebanon, others in a new camp—or perhaps inferno is a better word—in Jordan’s desert. About 80,000 have gone to Turkey so far, and Turkey says it just can’t handle more than 100,000, a threshold that could be crossed in a matter of days.
The new envoy from the United Nations to Syria said on Saturday that the need for new leadership in Syria is both “urgent” and “necessary.” It is the first day on the job for Lakhdar Brahimi, who became special envoy to the war-torn country after Kofi Annan resigned last month as his six-point peace plan unraveled. Attempts at a ceasefire and other peacemaking measures have failed in the country, and upwards of 20,000 people are thought to have been killed in the violence so far. The fighting began after the people of Syria mounted protests against President Bashar al-Assad—Brahimi said on Saturday that the people have “legitimate” demands and that the government must face them.
Many well-off residents of this besieged Syrian city found life good under Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But when the government began indiscriminately attacking rebels and residents alike, Assad’s support from Aleppo’s upper class has evaporated, writes Mike Giglio.
Issam Jouma used to be a supporter of the Syrian regime. He lived in Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, and the center of much of its wealth. A dentist going about a nice life with his wife and five kids, like many Aleppo residents he thought things were okay under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Alessio Romenzi, AFP / Getty Images
“I was very comfortable in general. There were small things we were uncomfortable about, but those things were out of our control. My financial situation was not bad. I had bread; I had gas. Everything was available. When I would go to government buildings, they actually helped me, because I’m a doctor,” Jouma says. “People were proud that Bashar was the president. He had a lot of support.”
Support for Assad was far from unanimous under one of the Middle East’s most repressive regimes—talk of dissent tended to be hushed, often with warnings that “the walls have ears.” But Assad was promising slow and measured change, and for people like Jouma that was enough. “Compared with the Arab leaders around us, we thought Bashar was honest,” he says.
Targeting air bases and other army compounds.
Could this be a turning point? A rebel unit comprised of army defectors launched a huge coordinated attack against Syrian troops in Aleppo on Friday. Three offensives targeted an artillery training school, a compound of the air force intelligence and an army checkpoint, according to a local activist. The attacks come two days after President Bashar al Assad admitted that his troops have not been able to squash the rebellion. The battle for Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, has lasted more than a month, with neither side able to push the other out.
And allegedly capture two pilots.
Syrian rebel forces reportedly shot down an air force fighter jet in the province of Idlib and took the two pilots captive Thursday. An amateur video shows rebels yelling “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as the pilots parachute to the ground. Nearby, government forces killed 20 people, including eight children and nine women in bombardments. Human Rights Watch is reporting that Syrian troops have attacked civilians waiting in bread lines near Aleppo at least 10 times in the past few weeks. Reports from Czech diplomats and Syrian rebels are also indicating that Austin Tice, an American freelance reporter covering the war, has been detained for the last two weeks by the Syrian government near Daraya, a suburb of Damascus.
While on historic visit to Iran.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on Thursday called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer power, calling Assad’s regime “oppressive.” Morsi is in Iran for a diplomatic conference, and it is the first visit for an Egyptian leader since that Iran broke its diplomatic ties with Egypt after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But Iran has remained a key ally in the region to Syria, although Morsi proposed the formation for a four-nation alliance between Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to end the bloody Syrian crackdown. Morsi also mentioned the ties between the Syrian rebellion and Egypt’s Arab Spring—considered the inspiration for a wave of uprisings in the region.
Alarm is rising in Turkish border towns like Antakya among residents and politicians who fear the onslaught of refugees—now estimated at 80,000—will overwhelm them and bring sectarian unrest across the border.
Malik Balian thinks he has as good an idea as anyone about the number of Syrians in Antakya these days. Since they began to appear last year, he has sold them mobile phones from his busy Turkcell shop in the center of town. They come as refugees to this city near the Turkish border with Syria, but many are revolutionaries too, looking to continue their work for the uprising at home. Revolutionaries need to stay connected, and they come to Balian for SIM cards and USB Internet sticks.
A Syrian family sits on a pavement after they were not allowed entry to Turkey near the Syrian-Turkish border line on August 27, 2012 (Aris Messinis, AFP / Getty Imaged)
“From 9 in the morning until 12 at night, the Syrians come in and out,” Balian says. He guesses that he’s served 3,000 to date—and that thousands more now live in Antakya and the surrounding border province of Hatay. “There are a lot of Syrians here,” he says.
Like most Antakya residents, Balian is Alawite, hailing from the same religious sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As in Syria, Turkey’s Alawites—an off-shoot of Shiite Islam—are a minority in a predominately Sunni country, and many express solidarity with Assad. But Balian says he’s one of the good guys, harboring nothing in the way of sectarian concerns.
Where are you, Mr. Assad? Syria’s president sits down for an interview, allegedly in Damascus, saying that the situation on the ground in Syria is ‘better.’ Mike Giglio on the defiant TV spot.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will project an image of calm control when he takes to Syrian television for a sit-down interview tonight, saying he can sum up the regime’s fight against the rebel forces in a single sentence: “We’re heading forward.”
The interview with the pro-regime al-Dunya TV will be aired tonight, and portions of Assad’s remarks were revealed in previews of the screening. Facing his interviewer across a coffee table in a blue suit and tie, Assad appears at ease as he discusses his government’s fight to contain the 18-month-old uprising that seeks to overthrow it.
“The situation on the ground is better now, but the conclusion is not there yet,” he says. “That needs more time."
Assad has largely kept out of the public eye since the rebel push was punctuated by a bombing in Damascus that killed four members of his inner circle last month. Rumors have swirled about his whereabouts ever since. In the interview, Assad seeks to put them to rest.
Homosexuality is illegal in Syria, despite Assad’s promises of reform. Why some gays are joining the revolution. By Reese Erlich.
Mahmoud Hassino knew he was gay at age 12. He wasn’t attracted to girls, but he was very interested in his male friends. Later, as a teenager growing up in Damascus, his mother figured out his sexual orientation and gave him what he later realized was good advice.
Mahmoud Hassino defends the rights of gays in the Syrian uprising, a controversial view even among secularists. (Reese Erlich)
Don’t admit your homosexuality, she cautioned the Syrian youth. “You will have trouble finding work and socializing with people.”
Despite tight cultural restrictions, Hassino says, he had no problems finding gay partners. “There are gay men everywhere,” he says with a quick smile. “You just had to have good gaydar.”
With violence spiraling in Syria, and refugees pouring into Turkey, Ankara has decided to temporarily close its doors to those fleeing the regime. Mike Giglio reports on why.
At the Turkish border crossing of Cilvegözü on Monday, Bilaal Aude said he’d just crossed into Turkey as a visitor, with a stamped passport in hand. Yet his countrymen who had tried to take shelter in Turkey as refugees, he said, were stuck on the other side. After fleeing the spiraling violence in Syria, they arrived at the border, where Turkish authorities told them they’d have to wait in Syria. They were gathered by the hundreds, Aude said, under tents provided by rebel soldiers across the way. “They’re in a rough situation, sitting over there,” he said.
In recent weeks, as opposition forces have continued their push to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the regime’s crackdown has reached new heights, wreaking havoc on rebels and civilians alike. As a result, the number of refugees pouring across Syria’s borders has spiked. Last week the United Nations announced that more than 200,000 Syrians had become refugees due to the conflict. Turkey has taken in more than any nation—and its decision to close the border to them last night has caused an international stir.
The move reportedly left more than 7,000 people stranded in Syria. Yet Suphian Altan, a spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry, which runs the camps, said the closure would only be temporary. The border, he said, along with newly constructed refugee camps, would be open again to refugees in a matter of days.
The closure may have as much to do with logistics as it does with sending a message. In Ankara on Monday, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, used a press conference to make a call for more international support. “We will emphasize that this burden now needs to be shared by the whole international community,” he said, “not just by Syria's neighbors.”
The number of people killed in recent days in the nation’s bloody civil war rises from a high of 200 to as many as 400—many of them women and children—as the Assad regime cracks down with unprecedented viciousness. And rebels and civilians are bracing for worse.
The bodies around Damascus continue to pile up. On Sunday two prominent Syrian opposition groups ramped up the number of dead in the Damascus suburb of Daraya to more than 200 this week, following days of what appear to have been vicious attacks by regime forces. And the dead continue to turn up, the groups said, with many bearing the marks of execution. “There are still bodies being discovered,” says Sipan Hassan of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Much about the number and nature of the deaths has been difficult to verify. But rumors of the fearsome brutality with which victims were killed have already stretched far and wide among those pushing to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Sitting in a café Sunday night in the Turkish border city of Antakya, a hub for opposition activity, one rebel coordinator made a macabre chopping motion with his hand when the subject of Daraya was broached. A young associate then pulled up a grisly photo on his mobile phone that showed a man with his face cleaved between the nose and chin.
Whatever the facts on the ground in Daraya may be, word of the killings has already put a sense of fear into even seasoned members of the Syrian opposition.
“What was discovered in Daraya is horrible,” says a Damascus activist who goes by the name Alexia Jade. “Assad forces stormed through and killed anyone they came across. Their blood lust is uncontrollable.”
The new United Nations envoy to Syria had the good sense to try to beg off. Former Algerian foreign minister and veteran U.N. troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi is 78 years old and has seen more than his share of war and peace, and then more wars again, in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. He leads a pleasant life in Paris now, as a distinguished elder statesman on the global stage. One of his children, Rym Brahimi (the former CNN correspondent), is a princess in Jordan, and he’s an adoring grandfather. Brahimi himself is so genteel and so pleasant in social intercourse that any of us who’ve met him must wish him ease in his golden years.
Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio
But in the end, Brahimi took the Syria job anyway. While he judges his own chances of success in delivering peace as very slim, he believes that somebody’s got to do it. “These missions have to be undertaken,” he told the BBC after the announcement last week that he’d be replacing Kofi Annan. (The former U.N. secretary-general lasted only six months on the job, and during that time Syria moved from massive protests and sporadic violence to all-out civil war.) “We have got to try. We have got to see that the Syrian people are not abandoned,” said Brahimi. “I might well fail, but we sometimes are lucky and we can get a breakthrough.”
A senior U.N. official describes Brahimi as “a mission-impossible type,” but that’s really a backhanded compliment. Brahimi’s first stop on the treacherous road to Syria’s salvation: New York City for some tough talks with the permanent members of the Security Council. All of them claim they want peace in Syria, but all of them are, to greater or lesser degrees, implicated in making war there. The Americans, French, and British constantly talk about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a goner. Washington has pushed for ever-more severe sanctions, and is trying to help the rebels organize militarily and politically. But Assad is still there thanks to support from the Russians and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese. Indeed, his Russian-armed troops are still fighting with horrific effect all over the country.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has stepped up his air campaign in the country’s north, leaving hundreds dead in areas nominally under rebel control.
Last week, roughly a dozen Syrian rebels lounged in tracksuits on a shaded garden terrace outside a house near Azaz, a town along Syria’s northern border. They were fasting for Ramadan, and hunger made the day pass slowly, but that suited their purpose. Around midnight that night, they planned to make a foot patrol to Menagh airport, a government stronghold where 270 soldiers loyal to the regime have been holed up for several weeks. The airport is the military’s largest north of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, and the rebels are girding for a fight. “We don’t want to let them rest,” said the group’s de facto leader, a 36-year-old former locksmith whose nom de guerre is Abu Dujana.
Syrians throw earth over the grave of Free Syrian Army fighter, Emad Nimeh, 18, who was killed today in an airstrike, during his funeral procession in Al-Bab, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Muhammed Muheisen / AP Photo)
In recent weeks, President Bashar al-Assad has drawn down his forces along the Turkish border to shore up government control in Damascus and Aleppo. But a fragmented geography of rebel-controlled areas remains its wake. The Free Syrian Army, the main rebel fighting force, maintains little to no ground presence in many of the areas that Assad’s army has abandoned. Collapsed sand berms, the occasional burnt-out vehicle—and in one case—a couple of plastic lawn chairs reside under an awning where government checkpoints once stood.
But in these areas, there is no need for a military presence on the ground; death comes from above. Forces loyal to the regime continue to shell the northern towns controlled by the FSA. Over the past two weeks, Assad’s forces have stepped up an air campaign, which has left hundreds dead, nearly all civilians, in the towns of Azaz, Al-Bab, Tel Rifaat and Mara. As long as the regime shells at will and wreaks havoc on the area, rebel control is only partial. And the stubborn pockets of resistance, especially the well-defended military installations planted firmly at points in the countryside, are flush with weapons and ammunition, which the rebels sorely lack.
200 dead after ‘execution-style’ raids.
More than 200 bodies were found in houses near Damascus after what activists are calling an “execution-style” door-to-door raid by government troops. Assad’s troops had just taken the working-class town of Daraya back from rebel forces when opposition leaders claim they proceeded to execute civilians using close-range shots and sniper fire. A local activist told Reuters he witnessed an 8-year-old girl shot three times as she was fleeing the war zone with her parents. An estimated 440 people were killed by the government troops Saturday, according to a local Syrian organization that monitors casualties.
Opposition leaders have been begging for help from the West for more than a year. But Obama and Cameron’s focus on the regime’s chemical weapons has many of them asking: Why now?
On Wednesday night, the conflict in Syria got Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron together on the phone. During the call, it was revealed on Thursday, they touched on a subject that has featured prominently in the high-level verbal wrangling on Syria that has played out in the international community of late: the stockpiles of chemical weapons in the possession of the regime. After the call, Cameron’s office gave word that he had adopted a stance backing the one put forward by Obama at the start of the week—that the issue of chemical weapons constitutes “a red line,” in Obama’s words.
AFP / Getty Images
“Both agreed that the use—or threat—of chemical weapons was completely unacceptable and would force them to revisit their approach so far,” a Cameron spokesperson said.
On Friday, a Russian foreign ministry official called such talk “premature,” adding that Moscow had received a “guarantee” from the Syrian government that the chemical weapons would not be used. Syria’s foreign minister, meanwhile, took to Sky News to warn its international rivals that intervention in the country would not be “a picnic.”
Former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab grabbed headlines at a press conference Tuesday, urging Syrians to rebel and claiming President Assad's regime is 'on the verge of collapse.'
Before jumping into Egypt or Syria, the U.S. needs to think about what comes next, next, and next. And then, don’t jump, writes Leslie H. Gelb.
A country at war with itself. Bombs and civilian massacres. Yet, in Damascus, the music plays on.
There is no sign of capitulation as the Syrian government’s bombardment of the city heads into its 20th day.