Syria’s 18-month-long conflict is deepening sectarian divisions, breeding more and more openly Islamist Sunni rebels talking about the rebellion ushering in Sharia—and raising the prospect of an ungovernable postwar nation.
While the international media focus on whether al Qaeda has latched onto the escalating Syrian conflict, opposition activists and human-rights observers are less alarmed than the Pentagon about the trickle of foreign fighters arriving in the war-torn country than about the home-grown hardening of sectarian attitudes among Syrians and the adoption by rebels of more muscular Islamist views.
Syrian rebels pray at a military base north of Aleppo, July 24, 2012. (EPA / Landov)
They worry that the prolonged strife and blood-letting is disfiguring the rebellion, turning what started out as a more secular effort to oust President Bashar al-Assad and his minority Alawite-led government into a sectarian confrontation between Sunnis and religious minorities that could render Syria so fractured it is ungovernable as a single state.
“The conflict has become more sectarian and more Islamic,” says Ole Solvang of Human Rights Watch. “It was a lot more secular a year ago.” He says he’s noticed in the last 12 months more fighters sporting beards and more wearing headbands proclaiming, “There Is no God but God, and Mohammed Is His Messenger.” Fighters are becoming radicalized and talking openly of the rebellion ushering in an Islamist state based on Sharia. When asked whether they are fighting for democracy or Islam many are now emphasizing the latter.
As military attacks near Damascus.
Government troops have begun an assault on the town of Daraya, on the southwestern edge of Damascus, killing 25 and wounding more than 200 in the past two days. Across the country at least 100 people—including 59 civilians—were killed Thursday, as rebels reportedly left the area. “They are using mortar bombs to clear each sector. Then they enter it, while moving towards the center,” said Abu Zeid, an activist who is in the area. In Aleppo, where violent warfare has been raging, the city is still partially controlled by rebels. Two hundred deaths were reported Wednesday, as violence continues to intensify.
As U.N. monitors depart.
Fighting continued in Syria on Thursday, with tanks and helicopters reported in Damascus as the United Nations monitors were expected to depart the country. Activists said that Syrian forces had fired mortar rounds on a Damascus suburb that overlooks the Qasioun mountain, with early reports of government troops going house to house to search for rebels. Hundreds have been displaced due to the fighting in Damascus as heavy fighting on Wednesday claimed an estimated 47 lives. The U.N., meanwhile, organized a Security Council meeting on Syria for August 30—the day that the last of the monitor are set to leave the country.
Scarred by fighting and violence, a generation of traumatized kids is paying the real price of the conflict. By Mike Giglio.
“We have an injured guy, and the situation is very dangerous: His hand is amputated and his leg is also amputated,” says the kneeling eight-year-old boy, as he fastens a clothespin to the sleeve of his younger brother’s shirt. “Now we bring him to Turkey.”
Antakya, Turkey. Hakam (6), Eyad (3) and Hassan (5) are playing "Field Hospital" in Huda Idris's flat. Huda Idris is taking care of the brothers until their relatives reaches Turkey. The brothers mother lost an arm and got seriously injured in a rocket attack in Homs, Syria. (Yusuf Sayman)
It’s just a game but one that mirrors his reality all too closely. For the last two weeks, Hakam Balika, 8, and his three brothers have been living in Antakya, a city near the Syrian border in Turkey, refugees from a war that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. The boys fled here with their parents after their mother was badly wounded during government shelling of their hometown of Homs. She lost her left arm and much of her left waist and thigh, and doctors don’t know if she’ll walk again. After she was stabilized at a rebel-run field hospital in Homs, her husband drugged her and the boys so they’d stay quiet, then smuggled them to Turkey, a harrowing trip that involved traveling underground through drainage pipes. Now he keeps constant vigil over his wife at a hospital in Antakya.
The boy’s injuries are less visible but no less real.
As eight reportedly killed in Damascus.
Russia believes that Syria will not use its stockpile of chemical weapons, a Russian state newspaper reported on Wednesday. President Obama said on Monday that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that could cause action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West against taking any unilateral action. Meanwhile, the Syrian Army reportedly sent tanks into Damascus and shelled the neighborhoods where the rebels are rumored to operate. At least 24 people were reportedly killed nationwide in Aleppo on Tuesday, as rebels said they are gaining ground.
Over the past two months, as the carnage has continued, Medecins Sans Frontieres has secretly been providing emergency care to people in Aleppo and the surrounding provinces.
By Ruth Sherlock
Medecins Sans Frontieres has been secretly operating a field hospital in Syria for the last two months, with doctors performing hundreds of life-saving operations on those caught up in the conflict, the organization disclosed.
A wounded Syrian man is taken to a hospital after government forces shelled the rebel-held Salaheddin district of Aleppo. (Ahmad Gharabli, AFP / Getty Images)
The state-of-the-art medical center, which is equipped with an emergency room, operating theater, and resuscitation area, was built in a rebel-held area in the country’s north. It opened its doors in late June after many months of planning and difficult missions to smuggle the medical equipment into the country.
According to deputy prime minister.
The Syrian government is prepared to discuss the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil revealed Tuesday in a press conference. He cautioned, however, that Assad’s departure must not be a precondition for engaging in peace talks. Following President Obama’s threat Monday of military intervention should Syria use chemical weapons, Jamil also warned that “those who contemplate [intervention] are rushing into a much wider confrontation, one that goes beyond Syrian borders.” Syrian opposition activists report that at least 20 people in Damascus and a dozen more in Aleppo were killed by recent government attacks.
While Obama warns Assad on chemical weapons.
Japanese journalist Mika Yamamoto has been killed while covering the ongoing conflict in Syria, Japan’s government confirmed on Monday. Yamamoto was a veteran war correspondent for Japan Press, and had covered the Afghan war and the U.S.-led invasion of Baghdad. A YouTube video posted Monday by an activist in Syria reportedly showed Yamamato’s body, although it’s not clear where and when she died. Meanwhile, President Obama told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that if chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, it’s a “red line” for the U.S.
The Free Syrian Army is restoring a tentative order to the streets of Al Bab, despite ongoing rocket attacks.
The main civilian hospital in Al Bab, Syria, sits on the highest mountain in the city, overlooking the old military base where president Bashar al-Assad’s forces fired artillery rounds at it just one month ago. Its windows are shattered and its walls have gaping holes where the rockets hit. Debris crumbles from the ceiling and blinking lights dangle from single strands. But inside the destroyed entrance, down the blackened hallways, through the blown-out doors, there is a room with a light on.
A mother and father stand next to their 3-month-old boy, the only patient in the building. The boy makes small gasping sounds as the oxygen pumps into his lungs. He had been born prematurely and this hospital, though intense fighting has devastated it, is the only medical building in Aleppo province with enough oxygen to keep the baby alive.
“The hospital in Aleppo refused him as a patient,” the mother says. “They just didn’t have enough resources to help.”
The family didn’t know how they would coordinate medical care for their baby after the battle for Al Bab. The city was left in disarray—local governing bodies fell apart and half of the city’s buildings were closed. But, the family says, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) helped them find a doctor who was able to give their child around-the-clock care. The rebel group reopened the hospital just a few weeks ago and has staffed the building with a dozen FSA soldiers to protect it.
Tensions over Syria’s chemical weapons spilled over Monday with an explicit notice from President Obama: if Assad uses them or they fall into the wrong hands, the United States will get involved. Mike Giglio on why Obama chose to speak out.
The back-and-forth between the United States and Syria over chemical weapons reached a new height on Monday—and this time it was Barack Obama who ratcheted up the dialogue. “That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria,” he said at a press conference in Washington. “It concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us.”
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the daily press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House August 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
The issue of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s suspected stockpile of chemical weapons has weighed heavily on the international community as the uprising against Assad rages on, and in increasingly bloody form. Concerns flared up last month amid reports that the regime had started moving some of the weapons, though whether the movements were motivated by a possible deployment of the arsenal or simply for safekeeping was unclear.
The concerns are twofold: will the weapons fall into the hands of one of the little-understood groups taking up arms in the rebellion against Assad? Or will the regime deploy them as part of its vicious efforts to put that rebellion down? “The truth is, we just don’t know,” one American official told The New York Times last month.
Even as Assad’s jets strike neighborhoods of the nation’s largest city, fighters keep assembling new bombs to continue the attack. Erin Banco goes inside a FSA weapon factory.
Abu Fahdel squats down and rearranges his rockets, neatly pushing them up against the wall, his hands stained with melted lead. There are dozens of weapons stored in the bombed-out building on the outskirts of Al Bab and he had made all of them by hand.
A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover during clashes in Aleppo yesterday. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters-Landov)
“Look what I made,” he says holding up a gun defiantly. “I did that.” The gun is made out of what looks like pieces of wood and lead. It resembles a rifle and is probably just small enough to kill a bird. It definitely won’t last in street battles in Salaheddine, one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in Syria. The rest of the weapons are rockets set aside for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to transport to Aleppo and use to fend of government forces.
Fahdel says he started making weapons for the FSA last year at the beginning of the revolution. He has been operating inside an old animal hospital that was bombed during a battle between rebels and Assad soldiers in May, its windows shattered and walls burned from fire exchange. The weapons are made in rooms that reek of chemicals, filled with leaking sinks and ammonium nitrate powder thrown across the counters.
Rebel fighters are reporting that their forces have seized the area around Aleppo’s airport and are fighting government troops for control of the vital supply hub. “Our fighters are in all neighborhoods close to the airport,” one commander told The New York Times, saying their progress was due to a supply replenishment. Government media, which previously were dismissive of the Aleppo siege, confirmed the fighting. This progress comes as the United Nations announced it would be replacing special Syria envoy Kofi Annan with Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian minister who helped negotiate the end of Lebanon’s civil war. With luck, it won’t take him long to do the same in Syria.
The Syrian regime has as much as $25 billion stashed in offshore tax havens and investments across the Middle East. Finding that fortune could be big business for an elite group of modern-day treasure hunters.
Even as the war in Syria rages and Bashar al-Assad clings to power, the race to find the regime’s vast—and mostly hidden—fortune is already underway. Experts say al-Assad and his associates have amassed as much as $25 billion through investments in banks, state industries and other concessions, and has stashed the money in offshore tax havens and in investments across the Middle East.
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs on the wall inside a Syrian state television and radio building in Damascus on August 6, 2012. (Khaled al-Hariri, Reuters / Landov)
Finding the money is of keen interest to the modern-day treasure hunters who specialize in recovering the wealth of fallen dictators. Sometimes called financial intelligence or forensic accounting, the industry comprises lawyers, accountants, ex-spies, former law enforcement investigators and even some retired journalists, all of whom look at the unrest in Syria as a business opportunity. Some firms charge several thousands of dollars per hour for the sleuth work of a team of six to eight investigators. Others get paid a “success fee,” a small percentage of the overall haul.
“I’m hunting myself and I want to be first in the queue for my clients,” says Steven Perles, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents the families of victims of terrorism. Specifically, Perles is gunning for $413 million for the families of two U.S. contractors who were beheaded by al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. In 2011, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals awarded the judgment against Syria after it found Assad’s regime provided material support to the terror group. Perles said he has hired researchers to track down the assets.
In worst-case scenario to secure chemical weapons.
If—or when—Bashar al-Assad’s regime finally topples, the U.S. and its allies are considering sending forces in to protect the sites of biological and chemical weaponry that could fall into dangerous hands. This could take tens of thousands of ground troops to properly secure the areas against pillaging. “There is not a imminent plan to deploy ground forces. This is, in fact, a worst-case scenario,” an anonymous U.S. official told Reuters Thursday. Other diplomatic sources said as many as 50,000 troops might be needed to guard possibly dozens of chemical stockpiles and weapons sites across the country.
A wave of kidnappings after an alleged Hezbollah sniper was taken hostage and Bashar al-Assad bombed the Syrian city of Azaz is stoking fears of mayhem in Lebanon. Mike Giglio reports on the flashpoint for the violence.
In a video posted Tuesday on YouTube, three armed men, their faces concealed behind scarves, stand behind a captive in a white-walled room. They are identified as fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force in the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, broadcasting from Damascus. Identity cards are held to the camera that name the captive: Hassan Salim al-Mokdad, a man from a powerful family in Lebanon. His captors accuse him of being a sniper from Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon and a close ally of Assad’s minority Alawite regime.
Screengrab of a video that allegedly shows Lebanese hostage Hassan Salim al-Mokdad. (Youtube)
The video has since become a flashpoint in a murky chain of events that has heightened long-standing concerns that the Syrian conflict will spill out across its borders—and that new groups from outside the country could be drawn into the mayhem.
On Wednesday, more than 20 Syrians were taken hostage inside Lebanon, where refugees, along with opposition fighters and activists, have been flocking as Syria’s conflict rages. In an interview with Lebanese television, members of the Mokdad family said they had abducted Syrians “affiliated with the Free Syrian Army” and would release them only in exchange “for our son Hassan al-Mokdad.” according to Now Lebanon.
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.