A senior Syrian army general who defected in 2012 said in a recent interview that President Bashar al-Assad had sold out Syria to Iran and opted to use repression and violence as a means of snuffing out dissent right from the start of the uprising against his rule in 2011.
“Bashar never opted at any time for serious and credible reforms, but instead chose to destroy the country rather than lose power,” former Syrian army Gen. Manaf Tlass told the Wall Street Journal in an article published on Friday.
“He sold Syria to the Iranians,” Tlass, who lives in France now, said.
The article looked into the July 18, 2012, bombing in Damascus that killed four senior Syrian officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, just weeks after Tlass defected.
The article said new revelations about the bombing pointed to a “startling theory” that it may have been an inside job in order to silence regime voices that had been open to accommodating with the opposition at the time.
By Khaled Hosseini
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.
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.
September 28, 2013
The Syrian Coalition strongly condemns the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s attack on the Church of the Annunciation in Raqqa, as well as the group’s attempt to make the church a military headquarters. What ISIS is doing goes against the holy teachings of Islam. It goes against all codes of ethics and against the right to equal citizenship. It infringes upon the basic human right of freely practicing religious rites. It is a complete disregard to holy sites and religious and cultural heritage.
ISIS in no way represents the aspirations of the Syrian people. It does not respect the principles of the great Syrian revolution. As the Assad regime targets mosques and churches, destroying the Syrian people’s cultural and religious heritage, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant now mimics Assad’s targeting of churches and turning them into military headquarters.
The Syrian Coalition reiterates its full commitment, before God and the Syrian people, to protect all rights of Syrians regardless of their political, religious, or ethnic backgrounds. It also pledges to prosecute those who have committed such heinous crimes as attacking holy places.
We ask for Mercy for our martyrs, health for our wounded, and freedom for our detainees.
Long live Syria and its people, free and with honor.
What You Need to Know About the Syrian War 9-16-2013
Syria is much like Egypt. While it is a Muslim-dominated country with a rich Islamic history, it has also had a secular, authoritarian government for decades. And like Egypt, Syria is a country of considerable ethnic and religious diversity, a country with a high literacy rate, a large educated class, and a reasonably good educational system. The point here is that there is no more popular support for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria than there is in Egypt. The Arab world is very much divided in its vision of the desired outcome of the Arab Spring.
The Syrian opposition Free Syrian Army is headed by defected leaders of Assad’s military establishment, and the majority of its fighters are defected Syrian military soldiers and citizen militia, and they number about 200,000 fighters. Of these, roughly 10,000 are Syrian Islamist fighters. There are also about 2,000 foreign jihadist fighters from around the world, who have come to Syria to fight because of their deep Islamic religious fundamentalist beliefs. These are estimates were provided by FSA Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi.
The Syrian people are desperate. As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright remarked recently on the television program Face the Nation, it is hard to imagine how things in Syria could become worse as a result of an American military strike. The Syrian civil war has caused the most dire humanitarian crisis on the planet. Over a 100,000 people have died, every manner of war crime has been committed by the regime against its own people, and over two million Syrians are now refugees, many being without the most basic means of survival. The likelihood that a targeted U.S. strike against military assets of the Assad regime could actually make things worse for the Syrian people is an argument that simply does not stand up to critical scrutiny. How could things be worse?
The Syrian opposition has been accepting support from any and all sources. The majority of the opposition fighters have made it quite plain that they are not particularly fond of the presence of foreign fighters in their country, but anyone who opposes Assad is a nominal ally.
I believe that it is true and fair to say, and I say this as an Obama partisan, that the Obama administration missed an opportunity to be the principal ally of the Syrian opposition, and thus deferred this role to the jihadists. On the other hand, American involvement taints the noblest of motivations in the eyes of the Arab world. It is a foreign policy no-win scenario for the Obama administration. Thank you, George Bush.
Here, from the archives, is the essence of the political philosophy of the Syrian opposition movement, published in February of 2013 by the conference of the Syrian National Coalition, in Cairo, Egypt:
The Syrian Coalition’s Closing Statements of the General Assembly Meeting Outline the Framework of a Political Solution and Announce a Date for the Selection of a Prime Minister for the Interim Government
In its meeting on February 21-22, 2013, in Cairo, Egypt, The Syrian Coalition defined the framework of a political initiative that is inline with advancements on the ground, while at the same time ensures achieving the goals of the revolution, the preservation of human life, stability, infrastructure and institutions. Such a political solution must be founded within the following fundamental parameters:
1. Achieving the goals of the Syrian revolution, which include: justice, freedom, liberty, and dignity, while preserving human life, and sparing the country further destruction, devastation and dangers. Furthermore, it is important to preserve the unity and sovereignty of Syria, geographically, politically, and socially, as the ultimate goal is to achieve a civil, democratic and pluralistic Syria, where all citizens are equal regardless of gender, religion, or ethnicity.
2. The removal of Bashar Al-Assad and all of the security and military leadership responsible for the decisions that have destroyed the country and terrorized its people. These individuals do not fall within the confines of any political framework and will not be a part of this political solution. They must be held accountable for their crimes.
3. The political solution and the future of our country encompasses all Syrians, including honorable persons from within the current security forces, the Baathist regime and any other government, civil or political organization, so long as these individuals were not involved in crimes against the Syrian people.
4. All initiative must be defined by the above parameters, set within a specific time frame, and must include a clear and announced goal.
5. International guarantees from the Security Council, and especially from Russia and the United States, as well as international support and safeguards are important for the realization of any initiatives through a binding UN Security Council resolution.
6. A commitment to continue supporting the revolution on the ground to tip the scale of power in support of the revolution.
7. Obtaining the necessary support from the friends of Syria and its neighbors within the region is also vital for a successful political solution within the above parameters.
8. The General Assembly of the Coalition is the only body authorized to propose a political initiative on behalf of the Syrian Coalition.
The Syrian Coalition’s General Assembly has decided to form an interim government for Syria that will carry out its duties from within the Syrian territories. The Coalition set a date of March 2nd, 2013 to select a prime minister from amongst the candidates nominated by the General Assembly, within the agreed upon parameters and after consultation with Syrian opposition forces and the revolutionary movement.
The General Assembly of the Syrian Coalition condemns the barbaric bombing and assault, which once again targeted several civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo. These attacks were carried out using Russian made ballistic missiles and caused severe damage and loss of life.
These bombings and attacks on densely populated neighborhoods with missiles launched from a distance of over 400 km away are a crime against humanity. The head of this criminal regime, those who carry out these attacks and those who supply this regime with weapons of mass destruction bear the full moral and political responsibility of these crimes. Furthermore, those who deprive the Syrian people from a fair and equal defense by failing to provide them with the necessary weapons to do so also bear the moral and political responsibility of these vicious attacks.
Last Update, 4:47 p.m. In the aftermath of a deadly bombing in Damascus on Thursday, a man emerged from a small knot of bystanders crowded around a camera crew from Syrian state television to vent his anger at the foreign Islamist fighters he held responsible. “We the Syrian people,” he said, “place the blame on the Nusra Front, the Takfiri oppressors and armed Wahhabi terrorists from Saudi Arabia that are armed and trained in Turkey.”
Pointing at the ruined street near the headquarters of President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling Baath Party, the man described the location as “a civilian place — a mosque, an elementary school, the homes of local families.”
Watching a copy of the report online, Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer monitoring the conflict from Vienna, noticed that this man on the street, whose views so closely echoed those of the Syrian government, had a very familiar face. That is because, as opposition activists demonstrated last June, the same man had already appeared at least 18 times in the forefront or background of such reports since the start of the uprising.
AMMAN, Jordan — In a listless border town, the teenager goes unnoticed, one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the Syrian civil war, dashing across villages and farms to land in Jordan, just five miles from home.
But this young man carries a burden — maybe an honor, too — that almost no one else shares.
He knows that he and his friends helped start it all. They ignited an uprising.
It began simply enough, inspired not so much by political activism as by teenage rebellion against authority, and boredom. He watched his cousin spray-paint the wall of a school in the city of Dara’a with a short, impish challenge to President Bashar al-Assad, a trained ophthalmologist, about the spreading national revolts.
“It’s your turn, doctor,” the cousin wrote.
The opening episodes of the Arab uprisings are growing more distant, the memory of them clouded by fears about what the revolutions have wrought. In Egypt’s chaos, activists talk of a second revolution, and in Tunisia a political assassination this week has imperiled one of the region’s more hopeful transitions. Then there is Syria, where tens of thousands of people have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled the country and the idea of the nation itself is disappearing amid cycles of sectarian bloodshed.
COVENTRY, England — Military analysts in Washington follow its body counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war. The United Nations and human rights organizations scour its descriptions of civilian killings for evidence in possible war crimes trials. Major news organizations, including this one, cite its casualty figures.
Yet, despite its central role in the savage civil war, the grandly named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is virtually a one-man band. Its founder, Rami Abdul Rahman, 42, who fled Syria 13 years ago, operates out of a semidetached red-brick house on an ordinary residential street in this drab industrial city.
Using the simplest, cheapest Internet technology available, Mr. Abdul Rahman spends virtually every waking minute tracking the war in Syria, disseminating bursts of information about the fighting and the death toll. What began as sporadic, rudimentary e-mails about protests early in the uprising has swelled into a torrent of statistics and details.
DAMASCUS, SYRIA — The crack of a sniper rifle and the boom of exploding shells seemed to take turns as Hanadi slipped out of the apartment and onto the dark street.
Seconds later, a shell landed nearby and Hanadi groaned, worried that the Syrian army would storm the neighborhood that night — before she got her camera back from the repairman, leaving her unable to record the fighting.
Walking down the street, carefully planting her feet, she glanced left and right through open doors, concerned that her husband might see her.
At the corner, a few young Free Syrian Army fighters manning a checkpoint recognized her immediately.
“Abu al-Majid is inside,” one of them said, referring to her husband and pointing in the direction she had just come from.
“What do I want with Abu al-Majid?” she replied. They warned her about a government sniper ahead, but she continued walking through the intersection.
When antigovernment protests first began in Dara in March 2011, the then-high school senior didn’t join, believing that President Bashar Assad was blameless. That changed in June though, when Assad called the opposition “germs.”
“From that point I joined the opposition,” she said. “They came out asking for freedom, so I came out also asking for freedom.
At about 7:30 p.m. on July 11, Ola Abbas sat down at her laptop in her apartment in southeast Damascus and summoned her courage. She then compressed her rage, which had been building up for months, into 187 words that have changed her life.
At about 10 p.m., she clicked “Send” and posted her message on Facebook. In it, she explains that she now sides with the Syrian rebels and no longer supports Syrian President Bashar Assad. She fled to Beirut the next day and to Paris a week later. Everything has changed since then.
Abbas, 38, was the face and voice of the regime. For 15 years, she presented the news on Syrian state television and radio. Most recently, she spent more than a year telling Syrians that there was no uprising, that the rebels were merely armed terrorists determined to sow chaos, that there was an Israeli-Saudi-Western conspiracy against her country, and that Assad was the protector of the country’s sovereignty.
“We all love him. He always boosts our morale. Before we go to the front, he reassures us. He plans the fighting teams every morning and dispatches the most battle-hardened and willing ones to the toughest areas. This is a man who pays attention to the morale of his troops in order to get the best out of them,” says Colonel Mehmet, one of men gathered to hear Eissa’s address.
The ongoing chaos and violence that have come to define the Syrian civil war — a war that has now raged for close to two years, with no signs of abating — not only forced the names of ancient cities (Aleppo, Homs) back into today’s headlines, but reminded anyone who might have forgotten that Syria has long been a key crossroads and a major player not merely in the Middle east, but on the global stage.
In 1940, seven months before the United States entered World War II and nine months after Germany invade Poland, LIFE sent photographer Margaret Bourke-White to the young (and, as it turned out, destined to be short-lived) republic in order to document Syria’s pivotal role — cultural, geographical, military — in the region. Eight decades later, in photographs that ran in LIFE and many more that did not, LIFE.com recalls the Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and other Syrian cities and towns as they appeared in the middle part of the last century.
This is how LIFE described the situation to its readers in the magazine’s May 20, 1940, issue, published mere weeks before Paris fell to the Germans, leaving Syria (briefly) under the rule of Vichy France:
Should Hitler strike east or Mussolini jump into the war or Soviet Russia pile on, the world spotlight would instantly narrow on far forgotten Syria. Here is now massed a formidable French army under the old warhorse Maxime Weygand, ready to rush either to the defense of Egypt or of Turkey and the Balkans. Here is a sample of the brains, the men and the material of France and its colonies. Here flies the flag of France …raised at sunrise to the bugle call Au Drapeau at Aleppo.
The French expeditionary forces in the Levant States, chief of which is Syria, has tanks and planes, motorized guns … The army’s numbers and the names of its generals are dark military secrets. Best guess is that it has now at least 150,000 men. It includes men from the far-flung domains of France: Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Senegalese, Annamites, Madgascar Malgaches, Lebanese, Syrians, Bedouin camel fighters, Cherkess Cossacks of Syria and large units of the French Foreign Legion. One of the most polyglot companies ever assembled, these men of many tongues and colors now bathe on Beirut’s one fine beach, shop in the suks, peer into the Tomb of Saladin in Damascus and swelter in the heat of Homs and Aleppo.
The ancient fortresses of Syria could not long stand against air bombing. But the olive groves are just high enough for a small tank to get under … Action may come without warning. For Syria, long a crossroads of world trade, has been watered by men’s blood for far longer than Flanders. In this natural cockpit where Asia, Africa and Europe meet, have fought Abraham, David, Alexander, Ramses, Sargon, Menelaus, Pompey, Bohemond, Nureddin, Saladin, Tamerlane, Baibars the Panther, Suleiman, Mohammad Ali, Lawrence of Arabia and [British General Edmund] Allenby.