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Syrian Refugees

Flee, Then Wait

Thousands have fled en masse as the situation in Syria deteriorates. But the refugees still cling to the idea that they’ll return home to a normal life, reports Mike Giglio from the Turkish border.

From Reyhanli, the Turkish border city where he arrived as a refugee last week, Moustafa, who asked to withhold his family name, has been calling home to Aleppo, Syria, regularly to check on his birds. He keeps 15 canaries in his barbershop in Bistan al-Qaser, a bustling neighborhood filled with tradesmen and small-business owners, and from the start of the surprise rebel push that took hold in Aleppo last month, he could tell the birds were ill at ease. When a regime shell fell in Salaheddine, the poor neighborhood across town that has seen the brunt of the fighting, the canaries screeched and fluttered wildly in their cages. Then the shelling grew more frequent, and it drew into Bistan al-Qaser itself—one shell destroyed a well-known coal shop; another exploded in the local park. Moustafa soon found himself passing the days alone in his shop, the birds screeching nonstop.

Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees arrive at the Turkish border town of Reyhanli in July. (Umit Bektas, Reuters / Landov)

With the situation deteriorating rapidly in recent days, he gathered his family and finally fled—but not before giving the keys to his shop to a rebel fighter he knows in town and asking him to keep an eye on the birds. Sitting in a four-room house in Reyhanli last night, where he lives now with three other Syrian families, Moustafa held out hope that the refugee experience would be more like a prolonged trip abroad than a dissolution of his former life. “We’re hoping the situation will be solved soon,” he said. “But we don’t know how long it will take.”

As fighting in Aleppo has intensified, residents have fled the city en masse. But many have yet to cross the border into Turkey. Instead, they wait things out in the surrounding area, or elsewhere in Syria, hoping the situation will settle down enough for them to resume their lives. A number of his neighbors had even brought their families to the countryside, Moustafa said, then returned to Aleppo to hold down the fort.

TURMOIL

Syrian Troops Escalate Violence

Syrian Troops Escalate Violence Ahmad Gharabli, AFP / GettyImages

As they try to take Damascus.

Syrian government troops are ramping up violent attacks as they push rebels out of the capital city, Damascus, and fight for the most populous city, Aleppo. According to CNN, Free Syrian Army fighters are reporting executions in Damascus by Syrian forces. The escalating fighting is sparking fears about a full-blown battle for Aleppo, where rebel forces are controlling significant portions of the city. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the U.N. General Assembly that the situation could be much worse and described it as a “vicious battle.” Tens of thousands have already fled the violence in the north in recent days.

Read it at CNN

DIFFERENT STROKES

Syria Won’t Be Libya

President Obama’s strategy in Libya helped depose Qaddafi in short order. But P.J. Crowley says the same tactics won’t work in Syria—and the crisis will only get worse.

The resignation of Kofi Annan, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy for Syria, made official what was long ago apparent. His six-point peace plan was going nowhere because the Syrian regime and opposition weren’t following it, and key countries including Russia, China, and the United States weren’t able to agree on an acceptable solution to the crisis, much less impose it on the combatants.

Mideast Syria

Syrian rebels sit in a pick up truck in Aleppo, Syria, Saturday, July 28, 2012. (Alberto Prieto / AP Photo)

It may still be true that President Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered, but his last day is some time off. For the moment, diplomatic options have been spent. The civil war is on and it will be a fight to an uncertain finish. The conflict could outlast Assad, however and whenever he falls.

Government forces, despite steady defections, remain loyal to Assad. They retain considerable firepower and are increasingly willing to use all that they have–tanks, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft–to put down the popular revolt. Whether or not Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against the rebels, they have undoubtedly deterred an overt outside intervention. The lesson for other rogues like Iran and North Korea could not be clearer.

WAR

Assad Retakes Parts of Damascus

Assad Retakes Parts of Damascus Mario Tama

As rebel strongholds fall.

It was a day of rest, not to mention the holy month of Ramadan, but government troops in Syria were entering Damascus with tanks and armored vehicles in order to push out the rebels. Activists in the city said mortar rounds were fired and Syrian troops were retaking former rebel strongholds in the capital city and succeeding. Across the globe, in a mainly symbolic vote, the United Nations voted to condemn Syria’s use of heavy weaponry against civilians, which is seen as not much more than a slap on the wrist.

Read it at The Irish Times

VIOLENT STRUGGLE

Syrian Activists’ Moral Toll

With Kofi Annan citing the escalating Syrian violence in his resignation as U.N. envoy, activists tell Mike Giglio they’re agonizing over their armed revolt and the methods they’ve had to use in their revolution against Assad.

Ziyad, 28, is an activist lost. When Syria’s revolution began, in March 2011, as a protest movement stressing peaceful change, he dove into the mix, joining with like-minded young people across the region in the rush of the Arab Spring. Now that the uprising in Syria has become an armed and increasingly bloody affair, Ziyad, who asked that his real name not be used for safety concerns, is not sure where he stands. He experimented with the revolution’s violent side, he says, then pulled back, and has found himself in a murky place, drifting back and forth between Turkey and Syria as he works to help the cause while trying to keep his focus on its civilian side. He has settled into depression, as he puts it. “I can’t believe what the revolution was and what it has turned out to be,” he said on a recent night in Antakya, a Turkish city near the Syrian border.

Free Syrian Army in Idlib

A member of the Free Syrian Army looks at the valley in the village of Ain al-Baida, in the Idlib province of Syria, not far from the Turkish border. (Sezayi Erken, AFP / Getty Images)

As the conflict in Syria drags on, young activists are still playing a crucial role—coordinating and communicating over the grassroots networks they utilized to organize protests, documenting and disseminating news, and connecting journalists to people on the ground. But as the death toll mounts, some are struggling with the idea that their efforts often work in lockstep with an armed revolt. “Many activists are now aligned with people they would rather not be,” says CyberDissidents.org co-founder David Keyes, who has been analyzing the role of activists in the conflict. “But war makes strange bedfellows.”

In his resignation as the U.N. peace envoy Thursday, following a failure to bring about even a basic cease-fire, Kofi Annan offered an impassioned assessment of how far Syria’s struggle has come from its roots. “A mass movement, born in the demand for civil and political rights and the empowerment of voices for change, emerged in Syria after March 2011,” the former U.N. secretary-general wrote in an op-ed for the Financial Times. “But, for all the extraordinary courage that it took for the protesters to march each day in the face of escalating violence by the government, this did not become a movement that bridged Syria’s communal divisions. Opportunities to overcome this were then lost in increasing violence.”

Uprising

Syria’s Islamist Rebels

In the armed uprising against al-Assad, some rebels have drawn scrutiny in recent weeks—fighters of a dedicated Islamist bent. Mike Giglio talks to one of their leaders at the Turkish border.

The small gathering last night in Antakya, at a popular cafe in the center of town, was like many others in this Turkish city near the Syrian border of late. A few Syrian activists and a rebel soldier were casually smoking cigarettes and shooting the post-Iftar breeze with talk of the ongoing conflict across the way.

syria-jihadist-giglio

Members of a Syrian Jihadist group train (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)

It was announced that a new face would soon be stopping by, and the mood slightly tensed. Someone grumbled about extremists. The woman in the group, dressed in a low-cut shirt, briefly worried if she should cover up.

Mohamed Aisa, 32, wears the conspicuously moustache-less long beard that marks a salafist—a strict and passionate adherent to fundamental Islam. He sat down, smiled, and surprised the group by plopping two packs of Winston Reds on the table and lighting a cigarette. “Salafis say you shouldn’t, but because I’m the leader I can smoke,” he said.

Costly Alliance

Can Russia Afford Syria?

The Kremlin’s support for the Assad regime is supposed to protect Russian interests in Syria, but across the Middle East, Russia’s stance is earning a cold shoulder, writes Anna Nemtsova.

Russian officials are striving to hold onto their economic interests in Syria by supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad. But they are paying a steep price.

Last week Saudi tycoon Mubarak Swaikat cancelled multimillion-dollar contracts with Russian gas and oil companies, a Kuwait newspaper reported. “This is the least that I can do to support our brothers in Syria,” he told Al Aan, an online newspaper. Earlier, Saudi businessmen boycotted a delegation of big Russian business companies at the chambers of commerce in both Jeddah and Riyadh. It was to demonstrate the attitude for Moscow’s “unfair and unjust way they have been dealing with Syria,” a Riyadh Chamber of Commerce official said. And Russia’s diplomatic relations with Qatar have been downgraded since last December when Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko was beaten by Qatari officials in Doha airport. But none of these messages or protests changed a thing. The Kremlin stuck with Assad.

So far the Kremlin’s alliance with Assad has cost Russian companies long-term contracts with other Arab nations. Russian politicians are called a “dictator’s friends,” and diplomats are treated coldly. Moscow is seen as the Syrian opposition’s enemy. And while Russian authorities repeat that theirs is a principled position—the worst scenario for Syria would be civil war or chaos if Assad falls, they say—large scale economic losses await Russia in the Middle East whatever the outcome.

Once official Moscow declares full support for another regime, it sticks to it, say pro-Kremlin experts, so as not to fall into the same trap it did with Libya, where it wound up supporting the losing side. But independent analysts believe that Russian officials have miscalculated and once again backed the wrong horse. Other analysts argue that Russia was thinking less of its image and more about the billions it earned from weapons shipments sent to Syria over the years.

SECRET ORDER

Report: Obama Backs Syrian Rebels

Report: Obama Backs Syrian Rebels AP Photo

Reuters says president issued secret order to CIA to oust Assad.

President Obama has authorized U.S. support for the rebels who are trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The president issued a secret order earlier this year that allows the Central Intelligence Agency and other departments to help the rebels organize against the dictator, though the U.S. government won’t be arming the resistance fighters. The United States is also working with a Turkish secret command center that was set up to support Assad’s opponents.

Read it at Reuters

WAR OF WORDS

The Syrian Rebels’ Spinmeister

As the Assad regime bombards Aleppo, the rebels are desperate not only to repel the military, but to shore up morale and build outside support. Ammar al-Wawi, the Free Syrian Army’s leading spin doctor, tells Mike Giglio the government is “like the walking dead.”

Syrian forces assaulted rebel strongholds in Aleppo with tanks and artillery Saturday afternoon, and it seemed a massive confrontation in the country’s largest city was almost at hand. As the shelling raged, Capt. Ammar al-Wawi, the rebel commander and spin doctor, was holding court in a Turkish luxury hotel. Sharply dressed in a pin-stripe suit, he sat in the vast lobby of the Ottoman Palace, a short drive from the border with Syria. The hotel is on the outskirts of town—and to facilitate the meeting, al-Wawi had grandly sent a car. He was flanked by aides, and four cell phones were spread out on a coffee table before him, ringing often with requests for news of the war. "There are more phones in the car," al-Wawi said. 
 
As the regime marshaled its forces around Aleppo and the lightly armed rebels braced for the fight, international officials were sounding the alarm. The top human rights official at the United Nations warned of “atrocities” and “imminent confrontation,” as the U.N. reported some 200,000 people had fled the city. A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department worried that a “massacre” might be at hand. Al-Wawi, though, was keeping his cool. “We are in control,” he said.

The regime’s forces were depleted, al-Wawi claimed. Defections, always publicized with great fanfare, had hit the Syrian military hard. Its focus in Aleppo on artillery and air power—helicopters had been firing into rebel strongholds of late—was more a cry for help than a show of force, masking the fact that the numbers were no longer there. Aleppo would soon become a Syrian version of Benghazi—though with the twist that, even then, help from the West would be unlikely to arrive. “It was once a powerful regime, but now they’re like the walking dead,” al-Wawi said.

A former government intelligence officer, al-Wawi defected to the rebel Free Syrian Army last July. From there, he quickly became a regular presence on YouTube and Arabic-language TV, where he advocates for rebel forces and fires threats at Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In the process, al-Wawi has become one of the highest-profile figures in the opposition. But he’s more than a flashy spokesman—when not in the Turkish border area, where the FSA military council is based, he can sometimes be found commanding a battalion in Aleppo. He said he’d returned from Syria the previous day.

Al-Wawi seems to embody two defining features of the uprising: armed resistance, and an increasingly aggressive media campaign. In the hotel lobby, he propped his iPad on the table and used a ruddy finger to flip through a photo gallery that showed him posing with munitions at his desk. In the photos, his attire changed from officer’s garb to power suit—he was fighter and public relations flack all at once.

Syria

Photos of the Assault on Aleppo, Syria

Residents of Aleppo fled Thursday as Syrian forces gathered on the outskirts of the town, preparing to taking on the rebels who have established strongholds in its neighborhoods. Even before the assault began, clashes broke out in the streets, leaving several dead and hospitals begging for blood donations. Below, The Daily Beast collects some of the heartbreaking photos being shared from the country on Twitter. (Warning: graphic content.)

DIGGING IN

Syria: Rebels Warn of Drawn-Out War

The Syrian Army is trying to prevent the country’s commercial capital from becoming a base for a rebel offensive against Damascus. Damien McElroy, Adrian Blomfield, and Magdy Samaan report.


Both sides are waging a bitter struggle for control of the city of 2.5 million people.

"It will be a long battle,” said General Manaf al-Filistini, a defector from the regular army who is now fighting with the rebels. He predicted a guerrilla war in Aleppo for months to come.

Syrian Rebels

Syrian opposition fighters rest in a former primary school in the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels clashes with government forces on Wednesday. (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)

Reality on the Ground

Syrian Rebels Far From Victory

The general who heads the Free Syrian Army says his forces are dangerously divided and underfunded, al Qaeda is gaining a foothold in the conflict, and a major win that could topple the regime, like seizing Aleppo, is still out of reach.

The general leading Syria’s armed rebellion cautioned yesterday that his forces remained dangerously divided and underfunded—and that al Qaeda and other jihadist groups are taking advantage of the confusion to gain a foothold in the ongoing conflict.

Syrian Rebel Hunting For Snipers

Syrian rebels hunt for snipers after attacking the municipality building in the city center of Selehattin, near Aleppo, on July 23, 2012, during fights between rebels and Syrian troops. Syrian rebels "liberated" several districts of the northern city of Aleppo on Monday, a Free Syrian Army spokesman in the country's commercial hub said. (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)

Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, who heads the military council of the Free Syrian Army, said in an interview that notions that the Syrian regime may be on its last legs are belied by the difficulties the rebels continue to face on the ground. “The reality is not like it appears,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”

A string of FSA successes over the last two weeks—including the seizure of border posts and the first sustained offensives inside Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two most important cities—has brought with it speculation that an endgame may be at hand. Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, has seen particularly intensive fighting in recent days, and the unexpected rebel presence there has dealt a blow to the strongman stature of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “The fall of Aleppo will be the fall of the regime,” Sheikh said.

JUMPING SHIP

Two More Syrian Envoys Defect

Two More Syrian Envoys Defect Louai Behsara, AFP / Getty Images

White House says Assad’s days are “numbered.”

Assad’s senior officials are seemingly dropping like flies. White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed Wednesday that two more senior Syrian envoys had defected, a sign that President Bashar al-Assad’s days are “numbered.” While Carney did not give names, he confirmed that Syrian ambassadors to the UAE and Cyprus had left Assad’s inner circle amid a growing number of defections by high-level officials. Earlier, a source told AFP that Lamia Hariri, Syria’s charge d’affaires in Cyprus, had defected from the regime, while a member of the opposition said Hariri’s husband, Syria’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, had also defected. The slew of defections, including one last Wednesday, come on the heels of the Syrian ambassador to Iraq’s public renouncement of his post.

Read it at Association France Presse

Insurgents

Syria’s Rag-Tag Rebels

The Free Syrian Army's top brass is based in Turkey—though some soldiers say ground troops are in charge. Despite the friction, the rebels are waging an increasingly successful campaign, reports Mike Giglio from the border.

Behind the concrete walls at Apaydin, a refugee camp near Turkey’s southern border with Syria, lives the top brass of Syria’s armed rebellion. The camp is home to the military council officially leading the Free Syrian Army’s fight against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, along with more than 2,000 Syrian military defectors and their family members. Turkish authorities keep Apaydin under tight control. The FSA leaders can’t leave or receive visitors without permission from their hosts.

Syrian Rebel Hunting For Snipers

Syrian rebels hunt for snipers in Selehattin, near Aleppo, on July 23. The rebels "liberated" several districts of the northern city on Monday, according to a Free Syrian Army spokesman. (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)

Yesterday afternoon, in a house a few miles down the road, Khaled Issa, a former Air Force officer who now commands two companies of FSA soldiers, sat in a living room buzzing with fans. Like many rebels who use Turkey to rest and recover or restock supplies, Issa can come and go with ease, and he planned to rejoin the fight in a matter of days. On the front lines, he said, he felt little connection with the military leaders holed up in the Apaydin camp—“they just give us support in the media,” he said, and advocate with foreign governments. Instead, the insurgency was being directed by the commanders on the ground, who tend to coordinate informally with one another instead of looking to instructions from a chain of command. “The real work is being done inside Syria,” he said.

The Syrian uprising has been roughshod and loosely organized from the start, a fact that has played heavily in discussions over supporting the rebels in the West. Amid so much apparent confusion, though, the FSA has managed to pull together a series of concerted, coherent, and strategically important efforts over the last two weeks. Longstanding concerns over command and control, these recent successes suggest, may be obscuring the fact that FSA is running an increasingly effective campaign on the ground—even if it remains hard to tell who’s directing the efforts behind the scenes. “We’re still talking about a rag-tag army, but they’ve been able to strike a severe blow against the regime,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center.

DEADLY

Syria May Use Chemical Weapons

Syria May Use Chemical Weapons AP Photo

While more fighting is reported in Aleppo.

Syrian officials said Monday that they would use chemical and biological weapons if foreign countries intervene in the escalating civil war. Foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the army would not use the weapons against the rebels, but rather if “Syria faces external aggression.” Syria did not a sign a 1992 international convention that banned the stockpiling of chemical weapons, although its leaders have long denied having weapons stockpiles. Although Damascus residents did not report new fighting in the capital early Tuesday, residents in Aleppo reported shelling and clashing.

Read it at Reuters

Syria’s Ex-Premier: Regime Collapsing

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.'

  1. What's Next in Syria? Play

    What's Next in Syria?

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    Did We Underestimate Bashar al-Assad?

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    Assad Warns Against Stirring Chaos in Syria

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