Why Syria's Splintered Opposition Is Assad's Real Ace In The Hole

Analysis: Bashar al-Assad has benefited from Russian and Chinese support to stay in power. But from neighboring Turkey, where many top Syrian exiles are based, one observer says the splintering of the opposition may be the real force to ensure Assad&#

Key player in the Syrian opposition, Haitham al-Maleh (Freedom House)
Key player in the Syrian opposition, Haitham al-Maleh (Freedom House)
Fehim Tastekin

ISTANBUL - Hafez al-Assad massacred the city of Hama in 1982. Yet this atrocity did not make Assad a ‘butcher" in the eyes of many Syrians. In fact, after the massacre, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets of Damascus to cheer the Syrian leader for his tough response to what was perceived as an Islamist challenge to public order.

Bashar al-Assad is now on the same path as his father, but with one important exception: while Bashar has no qualms about stepping into his father's combat boots, he is still attempting to walk a reformist line.

With the defeat of rebel forces in Homs last week, crowds came out to celebrate Bashar's victory and show support for the regime. And though these demonstrations may look like a throwback to his father's era, the iron fist no longer guarantees regime survival.

Still, Bashar has two important dynamics working in his favor: first, even if the opposition refuses to admit it, reforms have shored up the basic pillars of his regime. Second, infighting amongst opposition leaders has cast doubts on their ability to present a unified front against Assad.

Syrian opposition leaders established the Syrian National Council last January in Istanbul. The SNC's ostensible goal was to implement a strategy similar to the one that eventually toppled Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. But now the SNC is in crisis, faced with internal divisions and inching ever closer to irrelevance. On February 26th, a group of 20 members broke-off from the SNC, citing dissatisfaction with the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. This group has since formed its own opposition movement, the Syrian Patriotic Group. Then on March 13th, three key players - Kamal al-Labwani, Haitham al-Maleh, and Catherine al-Talli – announced their opposition to the SNC, criticizing it for not doing enough to support the Free Syrian Army. Al-Labwani came out with scathing criticisms of the SNC, saying that, "Some are in it for personal gain and the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to monopolize aid and weapons to gain popular influence on the ground. We don't want to replace the current dictator with a new one."

By March 17th, five different groups had broken from the SNC and organized under a new umbrella, advocating for a humanitarian corridor for refugees and weapons for the Free Syrian Army. Kurdish parties are similarly wary of the SNC, viewing it as a stooge of the Turkish government. Another important organization, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, views the SNC as little more than a body of armchair oppositionists.

Falling in a trap

Syrian divisions have landed the Friends of Syria - a group of foreign nations that support regime change in Syria - in a difficult position. This coalition remains committed to upholding the Syrian National Council's legitimacy, even as the organization deteriorates into a shell of its former self. The insistence on regime change in Syria has effectively paralyzed the international coalition and caused Russian and Chinese overtures to fall on deaf ears. Even UN and Arab League initiatives have foundered in this environment.

Widespread claims equating the Assad regime with the rule of the Alawite minority have further worsened the situation and triggered some ugly ‘Sunni" reflexes. These interpretations fail to capture the nuances underlying the uprising.

After all, Sunni forces were used in the Hama crackdown and Assad's notorious Shabiba militia includes Sunni members as well as Alawites. However, there are also many Alawites who do not support the Assad regime, but fear for their security in a post-Assad Syria.

Many of the prevailing views on Syria fail to grasp the political dynamic of violence in the country. It is often forgotten that the jihadist "Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant" instigated its armed uprising on January 23, 2011, before peaceful protests had gained momentum. This sudden outbreak of violence pulled many would-be reformists back into the Assad camp.

Unfortunately, stopping the bloodshed does not seem to be the priority for the parties involved in this conflict. Arab League General Secretary Nabil Al-Arabi puts it bluntly: "The Syrian opposition believes that the way out of this crisis is only possible through the ‘Libyan scenario," and negotiation attempts with the president Bashar Assad will lead to nothing."

But because of the Chinese and Russian veto, the Libyan scenario will not work in Syria. With this option off the table, the Friends of Syria are looking to topple Assad by stoking a civil war.

Turkey has landed center-stage in these efforts, with its slogan of "regional solutions to regional problems." It should come as no surprise that this policy has led to claims that Turkey has taken the role of unofficial NATO enforcer in the region. Turkish officials were also angered when Guardian writer Jonathan Steele compared Turkey's situation to Honduras, which opened its border to Contras fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

In the end, a quick unraveling of the Assad regime is looking more distant by the day. In February, defecting General Mustafa al-Sheikh claimed that the Syrian army had dwindled to 30-40% of its former capacity and was bound to collapse by March. That isn't going to happen. Now the big question is whether the Friends of Syria meeting - due to be held on April 2nd in Istanbul - will lead to constructive dialogue, or simply a renewed effort to arm the opposition and escalate the civil war.

Read the original article in Turkish.

Photo - Freedom House

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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