A country at war with itself. Bombs and civilian massacres. Yet, in Damascus, the music plays on.
By the pool, glistening, oiled, and muscular bodies gyrated to a juiced-up version of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Atop huge speakers, a Russian dancer swayed suggestively in front of the young, beautiful Syrian set drinking imported Lebanese beer with salt and lemon. Behind them, columns of smoke were rising—signs of car bombs and explosions, of an encroaching war.
At a Damascus wedding, as elsewhere in the capital, citizens try to tune out the violence. (Kate Brooks for Newsweek)
One woman in a tight swimsuit playfully squirted a water gun, joking that she belonged to the pro-government militia, the Shabiha, meaning ghosts or thugs, which is believed to be responsible for a recent massacre of more than 100 people, many of them women and children. “The opposition wants to kill us—they even announced it on Facebook,” the woman said, and blithely went back to spraying herself with water.
The pool party at the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus was just getting started.
The Turkish jet shot out of the sky by Syrian fire was almost certainly hit by a rocket provided by the Russians—who might have pressed the button as well, reports Owen Matthews.
A Turkish plane downed by Syrian fire over the Mediterranean 10 days ago was almost certainly hit by a Russian-supplied rocket fired by Russian-trained technicians, diplomatic sources in Ankara and London told The Daily Beast on Sunday. The Turkish Air Force F-4E Phantom II disappeared from radar screens at 11:58 a.m. June 22. Syria’s Foreign Ministry later admitted that its forces had downed the plane after it violated Syrian airspace.
Soliders launch a Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile as part of a joint CIS air-defense exercise at Ashuluk military range near the Caspian Sea. (Rogulin Dmitry, ITAR-TASS / Landov)
“The evidence indicates that [the Turkish plane] was hit by a Russian-made Pantsir,” a Western diplomat with knowledge of the ongoing NATO investigation into the shooting told The Daily Beast. Russia supplied Syria with 36 mobile Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile launchers in 2007 at a cost of $900 million. “At a range of 13 nautical miles, it’s the only kit the Syrians have with the range, response time, and accuracy” to have downed the American-made F-4, the diplomat said.
Soviet-era weaponry—mostly RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades—has been used to down many U.S. helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, and a U.S. F-117 stealth bomber was shot down over Yugoslavia in 1999 by a 1980s-era Soviet missile. But if confirmed, the downing of the F-4 by a Pantsir will be the first time an American jet has been shot down by modern Russian antiaircraft technology.
Slowly but surely, the carnage in Syria has come to the capital, a city which had previously been insulated from the country’s mounting civil war.
The dentist in central Damascus is multitasking, toggling his attention between a soccer match on television and a Facebook chat about the first time he killed a man.
Two terrorist explosions hit the parking lot of Justice Palace in the center of Damascus, June 28. The blasts injured three people and caused damage to 20 cars in the lot. (Carole Alfarah / Polaris)
“It was my first operation, after joining the rebels about three months ago,” he writes, asking, like nearly all Syrians, not to be named for fear of reprisal. “He was an inspector in the security forces, a midlevel rank in military security. I watched his house, his car—or rather, his cars. And then I shot him.”
Suddenly he interrupts his story: “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!” he writes. “Wow, nice goal. Italy, 2. Germany, 0.”
While U.N. is unable to determine blame for Houla massacre.
Turkey said on Thursday that it will be stationing antiaircraft batteries on the Syrian border, as United Nations envoy Kofi Annan announced he would convening an “action group” of diplomats in Geneva on Saturday. The move comes two days after Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that “every military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria in a manner that constitutes a security risk or danger would be considered as a threat and would be treated as a military target.” Meanwhile, a preliminary U.N. report inquiry could not determine who carried the massacre in the town of Houla, when armed gunmen allegedly walked door to door and shot people. The report said it is unclear if pro-government forces were responsible, or rebels—or if the killers were from “foreign groups with unknown affiliation.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that any Syrian vehicle approaching the border “will be treated as a military target.”
Turkey called a formal meeting of NATO Tuesday after one of its warplanes was shot down by Syrian antiaircraft fire last week as the two sides traded accusations amid rising border tensions.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament in Ankara on June 26, 2012. (Umit Bektas, Reuters / Landov)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Parliament Tuesday that “we have passed to a new state after this incident; the rules of engagement have now changed,” and said that he was “warning the Syrian regime not to make the mistake of testing the military determination of Turkey.”
Erdogan promised angry parliamentarians that any Syrian vehicle or personnel approaching the border “will be treated as a military target and dealt with robustly.”
From paid protesters on both sides and outsiders’ money to the rise of an ominous, unknown ‘third party,’ the media war is oversimplifying what could be a powder keg.
Having just returned from Syria a few days ago, I can confirm that the situation on the ground there is very disturbing, though perhaps not in the way that many might assume. As it stands, the government remains in control over most of the country—including the economy—despite the best efforts of propagandists to say otherwise. Yet if the Syrian economy worsens, and if the crisis there comes to involve more and more groups—both inside and outside the country—there is a growing possibility that what started as a conflict between the Syrian government and a ragtag group of rebels will become a powder keg that could escalate into a regional war and possibly even an international confrontation.
Mohammad Hannon / AP Photo
Already, tourism has collapsed in Damascus and much of the country’s economy has become stagnant. Nevertheless, Syria’s historical self-sufficiency, coupled with help from the likes of Russia and Venezuela to meet shortages, means that the economy is not in dire straits. What is clear, however, is that the violent instability facing the country (whatever its origins or aims) is exacerbating a shaky economy that was weak even before the crisis blew up last year. Today, money is coming into the country from many sources, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, among other nations who are supporting one or more of the various players. Yet such political inflows of funds have a tendency to eventually do more harm than good.
Some of those inflows, for instance, are funding propaganda, which serves to exaggerate Syria’s genuine problems—economic and otherwise—as part of a great spectacle to sway world opinion. This includes Saudi money coming into Syria via Lebanon to fund demonstrations, with people getting $30 a day to protest—in front of cameras and microphones, of course. That isn’t to say that there aren’t many genuine demonstrators with real grievances; at the same time, the government habitually stages its own propaganda shows, also inducing people to whoop it up for the media. Such stage-management, along with fake torture videos and a host of other propaganda stunts, provide false justification for or against outside meddling, with some Europeans and certain people in Washington pushing for various military options, and a broad group led by Russia and China, but also including many in the region, calling for diplomatic solutions to the crisis.
A Russian ship was to deliver choppers to Syria—until a U.K. insurer canceled its sea coverage and made it a pariah. Owen Matthews on the first act of intervention in the Syrian crisis.
Britain has acted to block a shipload of Soviet-era attack helicopters from reaching Syria in the first concrete act of international intervention in the escalating Syrian conflict. On Tuesday, the U.K.-based marine insurer Standard Club canceled all cover for the MV Alaed—a cargo ship that had just collected a shipment of between 12 and 15 Russian-made Mi-25 attack helicopters—as well as all other vessels owned by the Russian shipping company Femco, prompting the ship to turn back to Russia.
Courtesy of Vesseltracker.com
The Alaed, which was sitting off the West coast of Scotland, had obtained the helicopters—better known in NATO parlance as Hinds—from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad. The choppers, which had been sold to Syria by Russia in the early 1990s, had been undergoing a refit in Russia.
"We were made aware of the allegations that the Alaed was carrying munitions destined for Syria," the Standard Club said in a statement Tuesday. "We have already informed the ship owner that their insurance cover ceased automatically in view of the nature of the voyage."
Responding to Hillary Clinton's charges.
Russia responded Friday to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's charges that Moscow was sending new attack helicopters to Syria, denying that any arms deal goes beyond "defensive" technology. "There are no new deliveries of Russian military helicopters to Syria," the Foreign Ministry said on its website. Clinton said Washington had information that choppers were on their way to Damascus, but the ministry said there were only "previously planned repairs of military equipment delivered to Syria many years ago." NBC News reported that U.S. military officials said Friday that ships carrying Russian troops were on their way to Syria to guard the country's interests there.
Hillary Clinton’s announcement that Russia is sending arms to Damascus is the administration’s latest attempt to get Putin to dump Assad—but it’s a long shot when Syria is in dire need of real U.S. engagement, says Tamara Wittes.
Secretary of State Clinton revealed Tuesday that Russia is sending helicopter gunships to Syria and called Moscow’s claims that its arms are not used against Syrian civilians “patently untrue.” Russia’s support for the Syrian regime is not new. Yet even as the Obama administration ups its pressure on Vladimir Putin to abandon Bashar al-Assad, it is still struggling to find a path that can end the violence in Syria and begin a political transition without demanding deeper American engagement. But as the helicopter headline indicates, violence is taking a tighter hold on the Syrian crisis. The time may quickly be drawing near when U.S. interests in regional stability will demand more than diplomacy.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a news conference during the ministerial meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum in Istanbul, June 7, 2012. (AP Photo)
The current situation is a diplomatic and military stalemate, albeit a bloody one. U.N. envoy Kofi Annan has had zero success in establishing a real cease-fire or moving Assad into negotiations with the opposition. The U.N. monitors sent into Syria have not even been able to visit sites of recent suspected massacres and are themselves now targets of attack. The armed rebellion has been unable so far to dislodge the regime, but neither has the regime’s violence crushed the rebellion. Russia is still blocking stronger action at the U.N. Security Council. But more direct action, such as working with those who are arming the Syrian opposition, creating safe-zones on the borders of Syria, or threatening military intervention by a U.S.-led coalition, are risky endeavors and not saleable to a war-weary U.S. public—or a war-weary U.S. president.
In the absence of good options, the administration is flailing away at Russian support for Assad, calculating that losing Russian support might make the Assad regime give up the fight and yield to a negotiated transition. Given the resolve that both Putin and Assad have shown so far, it’s a long shot at best. The real danger, though, is not that diplomacy will fail. The real danger is that during the time spent cajoling Russian officials in Moscow, Los Cabos, and New York, events in Homs, Daraa, and Damascus will drive the crisis over the abyss into an entrenched, sectarian conflict with spiraling regional consequences.
Mac Margolis reports on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s efforts to aid Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad.
In Venezuela, La Negra Hipolita is considered a latter-day saint. Born a slave, she cared for the infant Simón Bolívar, who grew up to become Latin America’s storied liberator, and later, the hero of President Hugo Chávez.
From left: AFP / Getty Images; Juan Barretto, AFP / Getty Images; Alfredo Estrella, AFP / Getty Images
Syrians would be forgiven for regarding Hipolita somewhat differently. In late May, militias loyal to Damascus killed over 100 noncombatants, including 49 children, in the farming town of Houla, while the Syrian government allegedly looked the other way. Two days before the massacre, an oil tanker named for Bolivar’s favorite nanny arrived in the Syrian port of Banias with a shipment of 300,000 barrels of Venezuelan diesel. This time, La Negra Hipolita was nurturing Chávez’s new best friend, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Chávez may be ailing and his reelection prospects dimming, but the embattled Venezuelan strongman who is fighting cancer and a revitalized opposition, never forgets an amigo. He has lavished allies from Cuba to Argentina with cut-rate fuel or petrodollars, and stood up for a rogue’s gallery of autocrats who fall in disfavor with the “gringo empire” to the north.
Says Syria could be hurtling toward civil war.
While speaking in Denmark, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Russia’s policies make civil war in Syria more likely. “[The Russians] are telling me they don’t want to see a civil war. I have been telling them their policy is going to help to contribute to a civil war,” she said, adding, “the Syrians are not going to listen to us. They will listen maybe to the Russians, so we have to keep pushing them.” Clinton also explained that the case for military intervention in Syria gets stronger every day. A spokesman for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron expressed a similar sentiment saying that “all the options on the table” are being considered.
Say they’ll stop adhering to peace plan Friday.
Lunchtime on Friday will be a tense moment in Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels announced Wednesday a 48-hour deadline for President Bashar al-Assad and government forces to cease their attacks on the Syrian people. If the government cannot do so, rebels said they will resume fighting back after adhering to a United Nations-imposed peace deal. Reports of violence have been widespread throughout the country, including 108 killed in Houla last week and 13 found shot execution-style this week. If the government did not halt such violence, rebels said, they would “no longer [be] bound by the…peace plan.” Rebels want troops withdrawn to their bases, a leader said in a video announcement. The U.N. said it continues to maintain a significant part of many cities and towns throughout the country.
Victims had their hands tied behind their backs.
United Nations peace observers discovered 13 bodies Wednesday with their hands tied behind their back, which officials said is a clear sign they were executed. The findings are another sign of the growing violence in Syria. Maj. Gen. Robert Wood, the chief U.N. observer, said he was “deeply disturbed” by the “appalling and inexcusable act” after the bodies were located in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. Wood did not pin the killings to either side of the conflict, saying that all should “exercise restraint” to “end the cycle of violence.” As world leaders called for action, Russia and China blocked a U.N.-sponsored intervention. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice warned of a failed peace plan, saying violence could spread across the region, adding that Syria had “blatantly violated” peace commitments.
Even in the aftermath of the brutal killings of 108 people by pro-regime militias, Moscow is standing by its longtime ally.
For months, international pressure has mounted against Russia to give up its dogged support of Syria, as Bashar al-Assad, the country’s strongman and longtime Russian ally, has ramped up his brutal tactics against his scattered opposition. Earlier this week Sergei Lavrov, Moscow’s hardline foreign minister, appeared to be backing away from Assad after news broke that militias loyal to the regime massacred 108 civilians in Houla, including 48 children.
Syrian government soldiers during combat in Houla, Syria on May 27, 2012; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images; Seth Wenig / AP Photo)
"We do not support the Syrian government," Lavrov said Monday as British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited Moscow to persuade Russia to back tough international sanctions.
"What is important is ending the violence. We support the plan of [the United Nations–Arab League peace envoy] Kofi Annan."
While U.N. observers find 13 dead bodies, bound.
Russia and China both opposed a United Nations–sponsored intervention on Wednesday, one day after special envoy Kofi Annan returned from Damascus and said that Syria is at a “tipping point.” Russia’s deputy foreign minister said Wednesday that the country is “categorically against” foreign intervention in Syria and that any new steps by the Security Council—on which both Russia and China hold important veto power—would be “premature.” Annan arrived in Damascus earlier this week to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although those talks have reportedly gone nowhere. Meanwhile, Turkey—neighboring Syria—expelled Syrian diplomats, becoming the 13th country since Tuesday to order diplomats to leave. The U.N. misison said on Wednesday that 13 dead bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs in Deir ez Zor, in the eastern part of the country.
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.