Geopolitics

On The West's Betrayal Of Syria, History Will Not Be Kind

Ten years after the popular Syrian uprising against the Assad regime, we see the wider impact of both the moral and a strategic error committed by Western democracies to not intervene.

-Analysis-

PARIS — "It's worse than a crime, it's a mistake." As we mark the sad, 10th anniversary this month of the start of the civil war in Syria, the quote attributed to French politician Boulay de la Meurthe comes straight to mind.

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Ten Years Of War And One Of COVID, Syria Facing Economic Abyss

The economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, coupled with COVID-19 travel restrictions, are causing the already war-ravished nation to drown in even greater misery.

SYRIA-LEBANON BORDER — Near a checkpoint on the border between Syria and Lebanon, 50-year-old Joelle says that conditions are simply "unbearable." A member of a Christian family originally from the city of Homs, she has spent the past 30 years in Masnaa, in the Lebanese Beqaa Governorate. In all that time, things have never been this bad, she explains.

For many Syrian residents, the 375 km-long border between Syria and Lebanon has always been an ecosystem where they earned their income. Back and forth trips between the two countries were common. But today, 10 years since the war that ravaged Syria began, the area is now mainly an observation post for all the upheavals that these two interlinked economies are experiencing — even if movements of goods and people have never been fully interrupted.

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The Fall Of Idlib, No Safe Place Left In Syria

The camera pans across families waiting around with their luggage and children. Men stand with rifles slung over their shoulders, ready to board the evacuation buses north.

Migrating birds pass overhead. "Where are they going, do you know?" asks a voice, from the man holding the camera. "Every year, they go to their homes and then they come back."

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Forced To Flee, Kurds In Syria Fear They May Never Return Home

Turkey has forced the Syrian Kurds into an astonishing trap, leaving hundreds of thousands with little choice but to flee.

BARDARASH — Ten days before crossing the Iraqi border, 37-year-old Mahmoud Issa was giving English classes at a school in the Kurdish and Arab village Ras al-Ayn, in northeastern Syria. Today, he's eating rice doused in tomato sauce from a plastic box under a hanger belonging to the Peshmerga, the Kurdish Iraqi armed forces, near a village lost in the charred, meandering hills between Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Turkish bombs have begun falling nearby and radical Muslim groups on Ankara's payroll have crossed the border. The images of the abuse, humiliation and executions they inflict have spread terror throughout the region. The Syrian regime has begun its retreat to the northeast.

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Geopolitics
Marta Vidal

In Jordan, A Safe Space For Refugee Fathers

A group in East Amman gives men from Syria and other conflict zones an opportunity to open up and talk through the many ways they struggle.

AMMAN — Each week, a group of 15 or so refugee men meet at a community center in East Amman and sit in a circle. They laugh and cry together while sharing stories they always divide into two phases: before and after the war began.

War and protracted exile have stripped them of their traditional roles and identities as protectors and financial providers for their families. This group is a safe space in which they get to be vulnerable. They realize they're not alone — but most importantly, it's a chance to be heard.

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Society
Tamim Nashed

Refugees Need Acceptance, Not Mandated Integration

Strict integration protocols can have the opposite effect on asylum seekers, compounding their sense of otherness, a Syrian man now living in Austria argues.

-Essay-

VIENNA — I left Syria in August 2012, as there was no other choice. I had friends in Austria and that is why I ended up in Vienna. At the time, I had no idea what the words "refugee," "asylum" and "integration" meant.

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Syria Crisis
Osama Moussa and Tom Rollins

Yarmouk, A Palestinian Tragedy Plays Out In Syria

The Yarmouk Camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus has been the site of a grueling “zero-hour” offensive since last month.

Yarmouk: Stories of building collapses and neighbors killed reverberate around the diaspora through voice-notes and pictures sent almost the minute fleeing residents emerge from the camp. In one, an elderly Palestinian man cries into his phone, "The street has become dust … my house is gone, gone!" to the sound of shelling behind him. Others recount civilians hiding in basements for days on end with no news, or elderly neighbors dying in their homes for nobody to rescue them.

The Yarmouk Camp for Palestinian refugees and the areas of south Damascus have been the site of a grueling "zero-hour" offensive since April 19, as the Syrian government moved to wrest back control of the area from jihadi and rebel groups. On Monday, the last Islamic State fighters pulled out from Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad toward the deserts in Syria's east, marking the first time the Syrian government has been in full control of the capital since the beginning of the Syrian uprising and conflict.

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Syria Crisis
Alaa*

Letter From Damascus: How Geopolitics Unfolds In My Backyard

Alaa, a civil society worker in the Syrian capital weighs in on the impact and the perception of civilians on the ground toward foreign intervention in her country.

DAMASCUS – I have lived in the Syrian capital of Damascus since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. I haven't left Syria for more than a week, and even then it was only to Beirut and only recently, which means only after seven years of war.

I was in Damascus when U.S. president Donald Trump announced that the U.S., the U.K. and France would launch a joint airstrike targeting Syrian military facilities. I was in Damascus when the strikes hit. I didn't see them from my house, but I didn't have to witness the explosions with my own eyes to be able to understand what it means for Syria and what it means for us civilians on the ground.

Anyone who has followed Trump's speeches since he was elected president can see that he has always criticized the peaceful approach of former President Barack Obama's administration and its soft policy decisions regarding the use of chemical weapons. This is particularly true regarding Obama's 2013 declaration that there would be a strike in Syria – a threat he never followed through on. Looking at it this way, it seems Trump didn't want to go back on his own initial statement that threatened retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, because this would ruin his image on an international level and he would be viewed in the same way as Obama, who he has publicly criticized.

There is no difference between the Russian airstrikes and those of the U.S., U.K. and France

He had two options. Trump could have authorized a big strike that would break the regime's back, and send a message to Iran and Russia that the U.S. is still an influential player in the region, and that the Middle East is not just in the hands of Moscow. The other option was to have diplomatic negotiations between Washington and Moscow – which would, of course, not be public – that would result in a strike just for the sake of showing that Trump did not back down from his original threat.

The second option is what ended up happening. Trump's statements gave me and others on the ground watching and waiting for far bigger expectations for the strike. I think, however, that he chose not to escalate but not to back off either.

Demonstrators in London protest the U.K."s involvement in the airstrike against Syria Photo: Rob Pinney/ZUMA

As for my opinion concerning the strike itself, nobody can deny that France, the U.K. and the U.S. are colonizing countries that make decisions and take action based solely on their own interests. It is equally undeniable that while the strike in Syria was an assault on the country, there is no difference between the Russian airstrikes and those of the U.S., U.K. and France. What is the difference between Russian jets bombing Eastern Ghouta and Saturday's joint strike bombing military positions?

The Russian bombing has graver humanitarian consequences because Moscow has sometimes targeted civilian areas and not just military. However, the Russian presence in Syria and the U.S. attack are both violations of Syria's sovereignty. Both countries operate only in terms of their own best interests.

Of course, the responsibility lies from A to Z on the shoulders of the Syrian regime who let these foreign powers have a presence in Syria. It is the regime who opened the country's borders and allowed foreign states to carry out these violations. It is the regime who bears the responsibility for allowing Russia to plan most military operations and negotiations on the ground, creating for itself such an influential presence that it has almost become Syria's ruler.

Both countries operate only in terms of their own best interests

The evacuation of Eastern Ghouta, for example, has all taken place under the patronage and coordination of Russia. For this reason, I cannot consider the U.S. decision to strike in Syria a violation of its sovereignty if I do not also view Russia's presence in Syria in that same light.

As for the consequences of the attack, I think it is a message that the U.S., under Trump's administration, will no longer let Russia make decisions regarding Syria on its own and on its own terms. The U.S. wants to be able to say, "I am the leader of the international community and any deal should pass through me."

In addition to this, I don't believe that Russia will be able to continue to cover the use of chemical weapons in Syria anymore by using its veto at the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. has shown that it is ready to move on its own. However, the U.S. has also shown that it does not have a problem with the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure using other weapons. Chemical weapons continue to be its only red line.

Honestly, it's very hard for me to watch how these countries choose these arbitrary red lines and decide to act on them. The international standards and policies that they work from are so far removed from the human lives that are lost. At the end of the day, it is clear that there is no value placed on human beings. For these countries, what is most important is the type of weapon used and whether or not intervening for the sake of saving civilian lives suits their own interests.

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Ideas
Dominique Moisi

Syria, Victim Of Western Errors Of The Recent Past

We should not be proud of of the insufficient response against the Damascus regime, but total inaction would be even worse.

-Analysis-

PARIS — When it comes to interventions, military as well as humanitarian, things work in cycles. The massacres in the African Great Lakes region in 1994 played a decisive role in the U.S. decision to intervene in Kosovo five years later. You could perhaps even factor in the 1994 release of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. I still remember a conversation I had at the time in Washington, a few days before the intervention took place, with a senior American official. "We don't like people being forcibly put on trains in Europe over here," he told me. "It brings back bad memories."

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Syria Crisis
Youmna al-Dimashqi

How Western Strikes Against Syrian Regime Look To Syrian People

Better than nothing? Too little, too late? Settling their own scores? The people on the ground in Syria have no false illusions as to what's at play with Western attacks in response to reports of the use of chemical weapons.

DAMASCUS — Afaf Mohammed lives near the Scientific Research Center in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh – a facility that was targeted by missiles on early Saturday as part of a joint military operation by the United States, the United Kingdom and France against the Syrian government's alleged chemical weapons capabilities.

The sound of heavy blasts woke the 25-year-old mother of two at around 3:50 a.m. She sprinted across the house to check on her children, and by the time she reached them she could already see flames and explosions from her window, she told Syria Deeply.

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Ideas
Tyler Cowen

Syria And The Troubling Parallels With 1914

From Saudi Arabia to Iran, Moscow to Washington and beyond, the rising global tensions over the Syrian war could explode in unpredictable ways.

Some strategic games are too complex to be readily modeled, and when we see such games in the real world that's exactly when we should be the most worried. That's my immediate reaction to the situation in Syria and environs.

Consider the distinct yet interrelated clashes going on. Not only did the U.S. strike early Saturday at Syria's chemical weapons facilities after the regime used such weapons against its citizens in Douma. Tensions between Israel and Iran have been escalating. It seems that Israel recently bombed Syria to limit that country's support of Iran-backed Hezbollah and to send a signal to Iran. There has also been talk that Hezbollah concentrations in Lebanon will lead to another conflict there. The situation in Gaza has heated up again, with Israeli fire against Palestinian demonstrators leading to significant casualties. As a sideshow to these struggles, U.S. President Donald Trump declined to certify that Iran was in compliance with its nuclear accord and may ditch the deal altogether. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu's government faces significant corruption charges.

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Ideas
Marie-Hélène Miauton

Here We Go Again: Iraq To Syria, Chemical Weapons And Collective Amnesia

-OpEd-

Tensions are reaching a bursting point over Syria! Just as Saddam Hussein's (hypothetical) possession of weapons of mass destruction led U.S. President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, the (alleged) use of lethal gases on Douma, a district in Syria's Eastern Ghouta controlled by Islamists, now allows Donald Trump to announce harsh reprisals.

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Ideas
Renaud Girard

Syria, How Did It Come To This?

-Analysis-

PARIS — The Syrian population continues to endure various armed conflicts. Despite all the attention this war gets from international, political and humanitarian organizations, it is now more than seven years since it began — and Syria is suffering from three open wounds.

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Syria Crisis
Abdullah

Idlib Diary: Mental Health Care In Times Of War

Abdullah, a psychosocial health worker in Idlib, discusses helping families cope with depression and other mental health issues that are rampant across the city.

IDLIB The bombs and missiles falling on Idlib are getting more frequent by the day.

Usually, when it's calm, my colleagues and I make home visits to provide psychological support to individuals and families. If there is fighting in the area, we can't move from the health center. Recently, we had to stop working for an entire day because of the intense fighting. But we haven't closed our operations and are trying to keep it running until the fighting stops. God willing, this will end soon.

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Syria Crisis
Youmna al-Dimashqi

'Waiting for Death' In Eastern Ghouta's Underground Bunkers

As the Syrian government continues its offensive in the Damascus suburbs, civilians cower in underground shelters hoping for an end to their living hell.

Ayad Saryoul has spent most of the past month in an underground shelter he shares with his family and 40 other people. Sometimes spending 18 hours straight underground, he passes the time by counting the number of rockets and shells that fall on the besieged Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

"There's nothing else to do here," says the 27-year-old resident of Eastern Ghouta. "We're waiting for death to come at any moment. Either by way of shelling or disease."

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Syria Crisis
Fernando Travesi*

Documenting War Crimes In Syria Can Serve More Than Justice

-OpEd-

In the Syrian conflict, loss means means different things to different people. For many, it means the loss of loved ones. For those displaced or forced to flee the country, it also means the loss of their homes, properties, jobs and communities. For most, it means the loss of predictability, welfare and security.

And yet, Syrians remain active and resilient —even after seven years of horrific violence. Despite being deprived of their basic human rights, many are fighting to protect their dignity, their voices and their memories.

Amid these devastating conditions, Syrian activists have relentlessly documented the suffering and crimes on the ground, and their tragic impact on the civilian population. Often with little means to support their work, and at the risk of their own lives, they have created an immense archive of information that has made the Syrian conflict one of the most documented in history.

For civil society groups, the primary motivation for documentation, especially in the early stages of the conflict, was to gather evidence for future criminal prosecution trials. Not all methods used on the ground, however, were able to collect forensic evidence that would meet the high standards required for a trial. What's more, without concrete plans for future trials, many civil society activists have begun to doubt the usefulness of documentation efforts.

But there is still hope. These innovative documentation strategies can be helpful in ways beyond criminal prosecution.

Documentation can protect victims' rights.

A land title is no longer just a piece of paper but a powerful tool to reunite and stabilize a family torn apart by violence. A YouTube video, if properly documented, can serve as hard evidence in a trial to prosecute perpetrators of serious crimes. If the recording process is given the necessary attention and respect, personal accounts can help victims protect their dignity.

Towards accountability

The issue of sovereignty has incapacitated the international community's efforts to help Syrians get justice. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been unable to act due to votes by Russia and China in the UN Security Council. Efforts toward ad-hoc hybrid tribunals, with varying degrees of involvement from international or domestic courts, have also been unsuccessful.

Representatives from the International Center for Transitional Justice Photo: Official Facebook page

The legal principle of universal jurisdiction has brought small victories. Swedish courts found two members from non-state armed groups guilty of a "terror crime" and found one Syrian Army soldier guilty of a war crime. German courts sentenced one member of Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and are currently prosecuting a member of the Free Syrian Army.

Syrian civil society organizations played an essential role in the success of these cases, highlighting the importance of strengthening relationships between national and international actors working toward accountability.

The creation of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) sought to consolidate the processes of preserving evidence related to human rights violations and to prepare files for future criminal prosecution cases on the regional, national and international level. Initially, due to lack of clarity on how the mechanism would function and frustrations with the international community, Syrian organizations were reluctant to partner with this UN body. These relationships have since improved and if they continue to strengthen, the IIIM could become a key actor in the long path of bringing justice to Syrian victims.

Documents and declarations

Despite legal limitations, documentation can protect victims' rights by memorializing, acknowledging and building accountability for suffering.

For future reparation and restitution efforts, it is essential to have land titles to return properties to their rightful owners without the interference of third-party actors who could easily take advantage of the vulnerable situation. Civil documentation can also assist with guaranteeing other civil rights like the processes for refugee returns.

The fates of those still missing or forcibly disappeared have long been a source of pain and confusion for families. Documentation efforts may become crucial for loved ones to find the truth, if families, communities and international actors improve the way information is protected, centralized, analyzed, coordinated and exchanged.

Victims too are increasingly feeling discouraged from contributing their stories to a seemingly fruitless endeavor.

Acknowledging the pain of victims is the first step toward justice and is important for the process of recovery from traumatic events. Listening to personal accounts enables organizations to better adapt to the needs of communities. In addition, this could generate a deeper understanding of the situation among the general public, garner more support from the international community and, eventually — hopefully — lead to change.

Documentation for these purposes, however, is not without its own challenges. The conflict has increased distrust and polarization between communities. That, in turn, impedes information sharing. Different goals result in strained relationships between organizations, which can shift focus from protecting victims' rights.

Victims too are increasingly feeling discouraged from contributing their stories to a seemingly fruitless endeavor. It then becomes a challenge for organizations to incorporate these voices in their projects.

Despite these setbacks and challenges, helping Syrians use their own voices to become empowered is a worthwhile effort and can bring results. Over a year ago, the International Center for Transitional Justice began an unprecedented collaboration with 10 Syrian human rights organizations to document the destruction of schools and its long-term impact. Next week, the Save Syrian Schools project will host a public hearing-style discussion in Geneva, Switzerland, where some of the victims of these crimes will share their stories in front of high-profile justice advocates serving on a "Panel of Conscience."

Whether it be gathering quantitative and qualitative data, recording personal stories, documenting missing people and property rights or sharing personal videos and images through social media, even the smallest detail has the potential to help impacted individuals and communities on their long journey toward recovery and justice.

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