The Syrian Front: Waiting to Die in Aleppo

World News Forum

By Christoph Reuter in Der Spiegel A typical street scene in Aleppo. The front lines in the city are no longer the scene of intense fighting, as the focus of the battle has moved elsewhere. But the city remains divided and death commonplace.

Driving through the outer districts of the city, a ghostly wasteland begins. The streets and the half-destroyed residential buildings are empty and the only sounds come from shredded metal signs moving in the wind — and the occasional thunder of distant artillery.

Eastern Aleppo has been virtually abandoned, as have most residential districts located away from the front. Those left in the city prefer to crowd into housing right up against the battle lines, which have remained virtually static in the last two years. Paradoxically, people feel safest living within range of enemy tank and sniper fire. Such are the rules of Aleppo.

The reasons are pragmatic…

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Mary Edwards Walker: The Only Woman to Receive the Medal of Honor

By Daniel Arkin

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker between 1911 and 1917 (Library of Congress – public domain) via NBC News

In 1916, a high-ranking U.S. military board revoked Medals of Honor from nearly 1,000 recipients, a move that sent shockwaves across the country as former service members suddenly found themselves stripped of their hard-won awards.

A former Army surgeon who had braved some of the most harrowing years of the Civil War was among the many veterans ordered to return their honors. But the physician, who was partial to wearing the glinting Medal with a top hat and bow tie, refused to part with the prize.

It was not the first time Mary Edwards Walker refused to play by the rules.

“She wore the Medal every day of her life, from the moment she received it to the day she died,” said Sharon Harris, author of “Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919” and a professor at the University of Connecticut.

Walker — the first and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor — was a tough, tenacious iconoclast who stood firm before her foes, be they Confederate soldiers or Army bureaucrats, Harris said.

An enemy of social convention

Walker had ruffled feathers from an early age, attracting jeers and insults as she walked the streets in men’s trousers and starched collared shirts, according to Harris.

“Boys chased her and threw rocks at her,” Harris said. “She once said that nobody would ever know what she had to go through just to step out the door each morning.”

And yet Walker was relentless. She pushed her way to a degree from Syracuse Medical College, the nation’s first medical school, and later set up an independent medical practice in Rome, N.Y., with a husband she later divorced after 13 years of unhappy matrimony.

She met her greatest challenge at the outbreak of the Civil War. As the republic broke on ideological fault lines, Walker descended on Washington, D.C., and demanded a spot in the Union Army. Her bid for a commission as a medical officer was rejected, but she volunteered anyway, earning a spot as an acting assistant surgeon — the first of her kind in the U.S. Army.

Read more at NBC News

Syria’s Lost Generation

By KHALED HOSSEINI APRIL 11, 2014

There are now 2.5 million refugees from Syria, 1.2 million of them children. Photo credit; Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

SOMETHING about the boy was not right. He seemed disoriented, detached from his surroundings. He barely spoke, and when he did, it was in flat monosyllables, his eyes unfocused and downcast, as if too heavy to roll up from the weight of all they had seen. He was the picture of quiet devastation, of a childhood forever splintered.

He was 14 years old, a Syrian refugee, sitting with his family in a small room in the registration building of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Erbil, northern Iraq. In the crowded, noisy offices downstairs, scores of newly arrived refugees queued to register, including an exhausted-looking, dust-sheathed family of Dom Gypsies and a Syrian woman with a club foot, who limped about the hallways and pleaded with every passer-by to give her asylum in Germany.

In the upstairs office, the boy’s father sat across a table from me. A supple, boyish-looking 36-year-old, he recounted, with admirable calm, the story of his family’s harrowing escape, two weeks earlier, from their hometown, Aleppo, and their subsequent trip across the Turkish border and into the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Before the war, he said, he worked at a shoe store, and his three children excelled at school. It was a modest but happy middle-class life. But then came war, and suddenly rocket-propelled grenades were whooshing in all day and Aleppo was honeycombed by falling bombs. He lost his job and his children’s school closed; they would lose two full years of schooling before the family’s eventual escape.

Soon, there was no electricity, no telephone service, no food. The father sold the family’s belongings, down to the last piece of furniture. When the money ran out, he borrowed flour from neighbors for his wife to make bread.

“Sometimes we weren’t eating for two or three days, but just giving the bread and water to the children to eat to survive,” he said.

At some point this year, Syria will overtake my native country, Afghanistan, as the world’s largest refugee-producing state. There are now 2.5 million refugees from Syria, 1.2 million of them children. Two-thirds of Syrian refugee children, and nearly three million children inside the country, are out of school.

They face a broken future. Syria is on the verge of losing a generation. This is perhaps the most dooming consequence of this terrible war.

Read more at The New York Times

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The Conscience of Syria

An Interview with Activist and Intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is often called the conscience of the Syrian revolution. Born in Raqqa in 1961, he was arrested in 1980, while a medical student in Aleppo, and imprisoned for his membership in a left-wing organization. He remained a political prisoner until 1996, spending the last of his sixteen years behind bars in the notorious desert-prison of Tadmur (Palmyra).

Saleh has emerged as one of the leading writers and intellectual figures of the Syrian uprising, which began three years ago this week. In 2012 he was given the Prince Claus Award (supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) but was unable to collect it, as he was living in hiding in Damascus. Now living in exile in Turkey, Salehwrites for a variety of international Arabic-language publications. Along with a group of Syrians and Turks, he recently established a Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul called Hamish (“margin” or “fringe”). Saleh has published several Arabic-language books, most recently Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014).

For many in the West, the situation in Syria looks very confusing. On August 31, 2013, for example, President Obama said the “underlying conflict in Syria” was due to “ancient sectarian differences.” It is often heard – both in official foreign policy circles and among leftists and antiwar activists – that there are “no good guys” in the Syrian conflict, that all sides are equally bad, and therefore there is no one to support. What do you think of this stance? How would you respond to those who say there is no one to support in Syria?

Actually I find it confusing that many people in the West find our situation in Syria confusing. Is it a matter of information and knowledge? I tend to think that it is a matter of politics. Confusion could be a function of a certain position toward our struggle: inaction, which in my opinion is the worst kind of action, not from our perspective as Syrians but also from a regional and international perspective, not to mention humanity and human solidarity with the oppressed.

Sectarian differences? What a subtle analysis! When an armed structure uses the supposedly national army, media organs, and resources to kill its own people when they oppose its tyrannical rule—this can hardly be considered a sectarian conflict. We’re not talking about just any structure—we’re talking about the repressive state apparatus of the Assad regime. It thus becomes absurd to explain the Syrian struggle in sectarian terms. To the best of my best knowledge, states are not sects, are they?

I am by no means turning a blind eye toward sectarian tensions and conflicts in Syrian society. Many writers, myself included, have written about sectarianism in Syria. My main conclusion is that sects are politically manufactured entities, and sectarianism is a political tool for controlling people, a strategy for political domination. It certainly is not a matter of social “differences” but rather a method for guarding social privileges and transforming a struggle against tyranny and manipulation into sectarian strife, a fitna. The word fitna has religious echoes about it, and it is remarkable that the ‘secular’ Bashar Assad used it sixteen times in his first speech after the beginning of the revolution on March 30, 2011.

Even now, after more than a thousand days of the Syrian struggle, it is still a tremendous political and ethical mistake to say that all we have are bad guys. The regime is essentially criminal and has no solution whatsoever to Syria’s many problems. I think those who says Syria’s sides are equally bad are the same people who believe in that despicable slogan of realpolitik: a devil you know is better than a devil you don’t know. Meaning the devil you know isn’t really a devil after all. It’s only the devil you don’t know who is the bad guy. This is bad politics, devoid of knowledge, devoid of human values.

Read more at the Boston Review

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The Names of the Revolution


Posted by Matthew Barber on Saturday, December 14th, 2013

From the inception of the Syrian uprising, each Friday has been given a special title by activists involved in protests. Fridays were important in the beginning because more protests would occur on that day than any other day of the week. Protests would often take place immediately following communal prayers in mosques where large groups of people would have already congregated together, something impossible in Syria outside of institutionalized contexts like the mosque or a place of education.

Each Friday bore a name such as “The Day of Rage” or “The Day of Defiance” and such titles were picked up and circulated by both the Arab and Western media. The practice of naming the Fridays was started by the “Syrian Revolution 2011” Facebook page, run by Fida’ ad-Din Tariif as-Sayyid ‘Isa, a Syrian activist in Sweden.

Some months into the uprising in 2011, people complained and proposed that the process of naming the Fridays should be democratic rather than performed by a small group of website administrators. A new system emerged whereby a number of options for the next Friday’s name would be posted on the Revolution Facebook page, and visitors were able to vote for the title of their choosing. Each week, multiple thousands vote on these names.

The names have reflected themes that concern the uprising during the particular week that a name is assigned. Back when the uprising was still characterized by protests rather than skirmishes, activists would incorporate the current Friday’s name into the slogans and banners used in demonstrations.

At the beginning, names began as simple, one-word titles such as “The Day of Honor” that were general in scope. Then the names began to express specific ideas, like “The Day of Loyalty to the Kurdish Uprising,” or positions that could be endorsed, like “The Day of No to Peacekeeping Forces in The Land of Sham.” Eventually, names grew unwieldy in length and included statements, i.e. “The Day of Full Preparation for Full Mobilization; Russia is the Enemy of the Syrian People” or “The Day of Allah Is Great: He Supported his Worshipers, Made his Soldiers Mighty, and Defeated the Factions Alone” (an excerpt from a prayer recited on Eid). Some titles employed cleverness: “Revolution University – Martyrdom Engineering.”

We recently collected all of the names given to the Fridays since the beginning of the uprising and list them below with translations. December 9 marked the 1000th day of the revolution; all of the Friday names listed below except the final one (Dec. 13) constitute the first 1000 days of the revolution.

Read more at Syria Comment

Rare snowstorm near Syria-Lebanon border brings havoc, disrupts aid

A Syrian refugee shovels snow outside her tent in the makeshift refugee camp of Terbol near the Bekaa Valley town of Zahleh in eastern Lebanon on December 11, 2013.(AFP Photo / STR)

At least two people were killed and 14 injured as the first snowfall of the season hit Syria and Lebanon. High winds and freezing temperatures affected refugee camps and disrupted international aid. More severe weather is expected this winter.

The storm, named ‘Alexa,’ took the lives of two people and injured 14 others in Lebanon, Ya Libnan reported, citing Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh.

The winter storm caused transportation chaos in the region and grounded the UN humanitarian airlift, which was scheduled to bring food and supplies from Iraq to the northeastern Kurdish areas of Syria. Tens of thousands of people are isolated in those areas, waiting for the aid to arrive.

Read more at RT-Novosti

A People Without a Story

A Tamil man sweeping at a mass cemetery of Tamil Tigers.

FOUR years ago this week, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam announced that their struggle for an independent homeland in northern Sri Lanka had “reached its bitter end.” The group had been fighting on behalf of the Tamil people for more than a quarter-century, and its defeat was absolute.

Today, great sections of Tamil country are still a scene of devastation. The houses are either destroyed or brand-new; the land is uncultivated and overgrown; there are forests of decapitated Palmyra palms, damaged by heavy shelling. And then there are the relics of war — graveyards of L.T.T.E. vehicles rotting in the open air; the remains of a ship, its superstructure blown to pieces and in whose rusting starboard a gaping hole gives on to blue sea.

When I first arrived there last March, I saw the loss in primarily military terms. But the feeling of defeat among the Tamils of Sri Lanka goes far deeper than the material defeat of the rebels. It is a moral and psychological defeat.

In that forested country of red earth and lagoons, it is possible to visit the bunker of the leader of the Tigers, a torture chamber of a place that sinks three levels into the ground. There, in the fetid air, infused with the smell of urine and bat excrement, one senses the full futility and wretchedness of what the rebel movement became in the end.

For the truth is that the Tamil defeat has less to do with the vanquishing of the L.T.T.E. by the Sri Lankan Army and much more to do with the self-wounding (“suicidal” would not be too strong a word) character of the movement itself. The Tigers were for so long the custodians of the Tamil people’s hope of self-realization. But theirs was a deeply flawed organization. Under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers pioneered and perfected the use of the suicide bomber. This was not simply a mode of warfare, but almost a symbol, an expression of a self-annihilating spirit. And it was to self-annihilation that Mr. Prabhakaran committed the Tamils. He was a man who, like a modern-day Coriolanus, seemed to lack the imagination for peace. He took the Tamils on a journey of war without end, where no offer of compromise was ever enough, and where all forms of moderation were seen as betrayal.

Read more at The New York Times

In contrast to Stephen Harper, Britain’s PM David Cameron goes to Sri Lanka to ‘shine light’ on abuses

Cut Off: Starving Syrians Hope to Live Through Winter

A young boy sits alone in a rubble-filled street in the Harasta area of Damascus. What the chemical weapons failed to achieve is now being gradually accomplished by hunger: the annihilation of a city.

As the world focuses on Syria’s chemical disarmament, thousands of people in the country face a more pressing concern: starvation. Cut off by ongoing violence, they are dying because they have no access to supplies. Many will not survive the winter.

Three-year-old Ibrahim Khalil survived the chemical weapons attacks on Aug. 21. But then, 10 days later, he died of hunger — just as the next child died hours after him and a third died four days later in the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya.

When the world learned of the sarin gas attacks that took place in the suburbs of Damascus this past summer, it reacted with outrage, leading to Syria’s dismantling of its chemical arsenal, which was declared complete by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Thursday. Yet hardly anyone seems to be taking notice of these new deaths. After being under siege for months, cut off from food supplies, electricity, water and any form of aid, people are beginning to die of malnutrition.

Children are also starving to death in Yarmouk in the southern part of Damascus and other places sealed off by government troops. But nowhere is the situation as fatal as it is in Muadhamiya, where six children had died by mid-October “and dozens are already so weak that an ordinary cold would kill them,” says Dr. Amin Abu Ammar, one of the last doctors in the suburb.

The fact that President Bashar Assad agreed to destroy his stockpiles of chemical weapons is a piece of good news from a war that is not producing any other positive reports. In fact, it’s too good, so good that the chemical weapons inspectors were promptly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and it seemed as if the rest of the war had ceased. And while European governments are mainly concerned about foreign jihadists infiltrating Syria, there are about 1,000 armed local fighters in Muadhamiya who don’t even have any contact with neighboring towns.

Read more at Der Spiegel

New Islamist Bloc Declares Opposition to National Coalition and US Strategy

By Aron Lund for Syria Comment
Sept. 24, 2013

Abdelaziz Salame, the highest political leader of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, has issued a statement online where he claims to speak for 13 different rebel factions. You can see the video or read it in Arabic here. The statement is titled “communiqué number one” – making it slightly ominous right off the bat – and what it purports to do is to gut Western strategy on Syria and put an end to the exiled opposition.

The statements has four points, some of them a little rambling. My summary:

– All military and civilian forces should unify their ranks in an “Islamic framwork” which is based on “the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation”.

– The undersigned feel that they can only be represented by those who lived and sacrificed for the revolution.

– Therefore, they say, they are not represented by the exile groups. They go on to specify that this applies to the National Coalition and the planned exile government of Ahmed Touma, stressing that these groups “do not represent them” and they “do not recognize them”.

– In closing, the undersigned call on everyone to unite and avoid conflict, and so on, and so on.

The following groups are listed as signatories to the statement.

1. Jabhat al-Nosra
2. Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement
3. Tawhid Brigade
4. Islam BrigadeIslamic Dawn Movement
5. Suqour al-Sham Brigades
6. Islamic Dawn Movement
7. Islamic Light Movement
8. Noureddin al-Zengi Battalions
9. Haqq Brigade – Homs
10. Furqan Brigade – Quneitra
11. Fa-staqim Kama Ummirat Gathering – Aleppo
12. 19th Division
13. Ansar Brigade

Who are these people?

The alleged signatories make up a major part of the northern rebel force, plus big chunks also of the Homs and Damascus rebel scene, as well as a bit of it elsewhere. Some of them are among the biggest armed groups in the country, and I’m thinking now mostly of numbers one through five. All together, they control at least a few tens of thousand fighters, and if you trust their own estimates (don’t) it must be way above 50,000 fighters.

Most of the major insurgent alliances are included. Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham are in both the Western- and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC a.k.a. FSA) and the SILF, sort-of-moderate Islamists. Ahrar al-Sham and Haqq are in the SIF, very hardline Islamists. Jabhat al-Nosra, of course, is an al-Qaida faction. Noureddin al-Zengi are in the Asala wa-Tanmiya alliance (which is led by quietist salafis, more or less) as well as in the SMC. And so on. More groups may join, but already at this stage, it looks – on paper, at least – like the most powerful insurgent alliance in Syria.

Read more at Syria Comment