Mother Superior Agnes Mariam de la Croix (born Fadia al-Laham) is a Catholic nun from Syria who bills herself as an advocate of peace, moderation, negotiations, and reconciliation. As Syria descends into its third year of wanton slaughter, it is understandable then why so many war-weary Westerners would welcome Agnes and lend her their ears and open their hearts.
But just as tired, thirsty people stranded in the desert must beware of chasing mirages of oases, Westerners must beware of Mother Agnes.
“Yesterday the regime killed three of my close family members. They were in prison since one year. Now they were killed on the same day.” Salim Idriss, General Commander of the FSA, looked at me with glazy eyes. We met at the same place where he was holding talks with some of the rebel groups of the so-called Syrian Islamic Army. This new coalition of some fifty rebel groups in Syria was formed on 29 September 2013. A few days before this official announcement they already declared not to recognize the Syrian National Coalition and that the wanted the Islamic law as the basis for legislation.
If they are that strong, why would they decide to talk to the official FSA almost immediately after their foundation, I asked. The answer Idriss gave me was surprisingly obvious: they want more weapons and more money. The main group of the Islamic Army, Liwa al Islam is part of the Supreme Military Council of the FSA (SMC). And they, just like some other groups of this Islamic Army, are represented in the SMC. But most of all it is the timing that explains the formation: two weeks after the US decision not to attack the Syrian army but make a deal with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons instead.
The frustration runs deep in the rebel camp. On the one side they see extremist groups like the Al Qaeda linked Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams) becoming stronger, better equipped and richer, while on the other side the promised arms and other support to the FSA by the West are nothing more than a joke. A few days before the US attack that never happened, Secretary of State John Kerry called to Salim Idriss to guarantee him an attack would happen. It would have changed so much indeed. The Syrian army was frightened to death while ISIS was moving their headquarters every day, as these Jihadists too were convinced they were to be bombed. It would have triggered a wave of defections. As a matter of fact the wave already started with former Syrian Minister of Defence, Ali Habib as the most symbolic one.
The result of the non-attack was immediately clear. Bashar Al-Assad appeared on Fox news as if he had already won the war. And ISIS started an attack on the strategic important city of Azaaz. Azaaz lies on the border with Turkey, controlling the way from Aleppo to Gaziantep. It is a stronghold of one of the FSA brigades, the Northern Storm. I met with them the first time I went into Syria. It must be said that this group does not consist of the most educated fighters and that they were not managing the liberated city as they should. They were also the ones who kidnapped the nine Lebanese pilgrims who were liberated last week. When ISIS attacked Azaaz it believed it would be welcomed as liberators from the Northern Strom ‘crooks’. Not so. Strong groups as Liwa Al Tawheed and Ahrar Al Shams came to stop ISIS, while the citizens of Azaaz started protesting against the presence of ISIS and the totalitarian rules it was imposing.
Six months earlier, in April 2013, I spent a few days on the headquarters of the FSA. It was just before ISIS was founded. I witnessed how from the early morning until after midnight FSA groups from all over Syria visited Salim Idriss. They all came with the same story: we can make progress but we need the right weapons. But instead of arms, President Obama decided to send hot meals. Again, ISIS did not exist and Jabhat Al Nusra didn’t represent more than five percent of the total of rebel fighters. With proper arms the FSA would not only have saved many lives, it would also have made the growth of these Jihadist groups impossible.
But here we are today, overseeing the mess we allowed to happen and wondering what we should do. Trying to forget our broken promises, we found a new one: Geneva II. Now every Western country repeats that the only way out for Syria is a political solution. The vast majority of the Syrians couldn’t agree more. But how on earth is this going to happen now? The West has been defeated on the Russian diplomatic chessboard. After the chemical weapons deal Assad feels victorious. Most of the world’s attention is now going to the so-called terrorists and is hardly reporting his atrocities anymore. Assad is more than happy that we will try to find a political solution on the same chessboard he and his Russian friends have won the last game.
At the same time there are serious cracks in the anti-Assad coalition. The new Egyptian government pulled out for internal reasons and made a common position of the Arab League as good as impossible. But even more important is the anger of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were not only appalled by the sudden American-Russian deal, the non-attack and the rapprochement to Iran. They are even more angered by the fact that the US failed to inform the Kingdom on these crucial steps.
It is no coincidence that it is Saudi Arabia that is behind the formation of the Islamic army. Even though the new president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) was a Saudi choice, it seems that Saudi Arabia has stopped its support for the SOC and is concentrating its efforts on the fighting groups on the ground. The statement of the Islamic Army of 24 September makes three things clear. First, no more support for the SOC. Second, by asking for sharia, but excluding ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra, the Islamic Army is clearly meant as a counterforce against these two Jihadi groups. Third, as the main brigades are part of the SMC, it is meant as a wake-up call for the FSA.
Last week in Gaziantep I had a coffee with Mansour, an activist who spent one year in one of the worst prisons of the Syrian Air Force. Coming from a secular family he told me how one of his nephews joined Jabhat Al Nusra. Not because he believed in Jihad, but because he needed the money to buy food for his family. The big difference between Al Nusra and ISIS is that while all of the ISIS fighters are extremist Jihadists, a lot of the Al Nusra fighters are not. They join Al Nusra because they need the money. FSA brigades don’t pay as they have no money. I heard this story time and again, inside and outside Syria. This is the reason why Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS split after a short period of joining forces. Most Al Nusra fighters couldn’t live with the ‘too extremist ISIS’ way of working. Also, ISIS is seen as non-Syrian and most of the foreign fighters are with them.
What should be done? If we put all pieces together, we must conclude that the situation is not that much different as it was six months ago. There is a military stalemate on the ground. The political opposition is divided. The Syrian army is not very strong and avoids fighting on the ground. Instead they are targeting the population by bombing from the air and long distance missiles. Six months ago we were fearing Jabhat Al Nusra, today we fear ISIS. And just like six months ago, Bashar Al Assad is not prepared to move one inch. The one thing that probably has changed is the perception the world has of the Syrian conflict. The propaganda machine of Assad has done a good job.
So, if we are serious about ending this catastrophic conflict, stopping the Jihadists and getting the most brutal dictator of the 21st century out, there are not too many options. A political solution will only be possible if the people around Assad – military or civilian – understand they can’t win anymore. They will be the ones that need to be convinced they will have a better future without Assad. But as long as Assad is in his current winning mood, this will never happen. Therefore there is no other solution than go back to square one: arm the FSA with weapons that can stop airplanes and long distance missiles. Give them money so they can pay their soldiers. Give them training so they stop committing war crimes and punish those who do. Make sure that humanitarian aid is reaching all Syrians, also those in liberated and disputed areas. Because only a stronger FSA will be able to unite forces and negotiate the so much needed political solution for Syria.
Those who have long counseled against the United States taking control of the arming of Syrian opposition forces have recently updated their argument: it is now simply too late for Washington to do anything useful, even if it wanted to. According to this line of reasoning the Assad regime has been stabilized by the chemical weapons agreement and Russian-Iranian aid, while jihadists, luxuriating in arms and money, have been attracting manpower away from nationalist leaders denied meaningful assistance by the West. As one Italian observer asked me last week, “Why bother? Do you really expect the followers of General Idris to fight a two-front war against the regime and al-Qaeda?”
Well no: the leader of the Supreme Military Council will be fighting neither a two-front war nor a one-front campaign if deprived of weapons, ammunition, equipment, and cash. He will be increasingly sidelined and ultimately erased so long as the preponderance of outside aid goes to the axis of codependency currently dividing and destroying Syria: the Assad regime and its jihadist partners in crime. Is this what the West wants?
Clearly it is what the Assad regime, its supporters, enablers, and apologists want. Clearly it is what al-Qaeda and others who murder with impunity want. It is, in short, what every criminal in Syria desires. Syria is in the process of dividing between a crime family deeply indebted to Iran and Russia in the west, and a hodgepodge of sectarian primitives in the east, with Kurds in the northeast trying to protect themselves. Is this, Kurdish self-defense aside, what the West is seeking?
Undoubtedly it is not the West’s idea of how Syria should evolve. Yet the situation playing out now on the ground is, in large measure, the product of Western hesitancy, doubt, skepticism, and indifference. While Western statesmen counseled against militarizing the situation in Syria, supporters of the regime and the jihadists alike armed their clients and favorites. While Western leaders intoned solemnly about the absence of a military solution for Syria, the supporters of the two extremes went for outright victory. While Western politicians called for a negotiated political transition to a pluralistic democracy, their adversaries created hard facts reflecting military reality on the ground.
In the end the much maligned and often ridiculed Sarah Palin may be speaking accurately for what is left of a morally hollowed-out West when she suggests that we avert our gaze from the horror of Syria and “let Allah sort it out.” The Obama administration’s version of the “leave it to God” approach characteristically reflects lawyerly deliberation and close attention to strategic communication.
The chemical weapons framework agreement and the process it has spawned are carefully compartmented as objectively good in terms of eliminating toxic weapons, even as they elevate a family regime to the status of principal party in a long-term contract. A Geneva conference is pursued to discuss a subject—political transition in Syria—that the Assad clan and its Iranian and Russian supporters deem to be devoid of practical meaning. The anti-regime rhetorical component of the administration’s approach is routinely serviced: there is no way Assad can continue to rule Syria; he has lost all legitimacy; he has killed many people, and he should step aside. The occasional official statement objecting to a specific regime outrage combines indignation with operational agnosticism. “The United States strongly condemns the Syrian regime’s continued siege of Ghouta and other Damascus suburbs… We also warn the regime not to repeat the massacres of Houla, Banias, and Baida… Those who are responsible for massacres in the Damascus suburbs and across Syria must be identified and held accountable.” By whom? How is this to happen?
Is there a plan to make anything happen beyond the cataloguing and neutralizing of chemicals? Probably not. This administration has, in the Syrian context, avoided identifying objectives and thinking through a strategy. It has sensed that to do so could take it places it did not wish to go.
This is fully understandable. The president has domestic priorities. He no more wants Syria to dominate his last few years in office than Harry Truman wanted to be transfixed by Korea. Yet by keeping his distance he sees a dictator whose dismissal he demanded consolidate his power. He sees al-Qaeda establishing bases in Syria. He sees mass murder and countries friendly to the United States flooded with terrified, destitute refugees. He has his chemical agreement and his secretary of state pursues a peace conference whose previously agreed premises are now dismissed by Russia and the regime it protects. It is the policy equivalent of the Michael Jackson moon walk: the illusion of forward movement while remaining motionless. It is artful and complex, yet it fools no one: friend or foe.
Yes, we can safely stipulate that forces following the direction of General Selim Idris will die on the vine without adequate support. As Idris himself put it in an recent interview, “This is what happens if you do not provide forces on the ground with arms and basic life necessities including food, drink, and a bit of pocket money. Unfortunately, we simply do not have access to these things. Therefore the connection is weak, and to insure strong and solid hierarchical formations, we must also supply arms, ammunition, logistical support, and enough money. We call it ‘management, organization, and mobilization.’” Idris’ detractors in the West call it pure delusion. They have doubted and denied from the beginning the efficacy of aiding Syrian nationalists, and now they engage in pure schadenfreude as they decry Idris’ dire straits and proclaim, with ill-disguised joy, the inability of the United States to rescue him at this late stage.
Is this good enough for the Obama administration? Has it quietly decided that Idris is yesterday’s news, and that Syria is now but a carcass to be devoured jointly by a crime family and other practitioners of sectarian violence and hatred? So long as chemicals are catalogued and destroyed is all else tolerable, irrespective of the consequences for Syrians and their neighbors?
Only the president knows. We, 23 million Syrians, and their neighbors would be in a much better place now had different decisions been taken in Washington over a year ago. That is history. Is it now really too late for American support to make a positive difference for Syrian nationalists and for Syria itself? We cannot and will not know without trying. Failure to try would be only the latest self-fulfilling prophecy of impotence, yielding the latest, but surely not the last, of unintended negative consequences for millions of people and for the reputation of the United States.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
One Month On After The World Officially Gave Up on Us.
The argument most used by those against the planned US airstrikes was that bombing Assad would “make things worse" and "kill more innocent people”. When asked for viable options to the alternative, most agreed that “doing nothing” was best since there “are no good guys in Syria”, including children. One infamous, yet seemingly popular, ex-politican suggested to “let Allah sort it out" as Assad continued to slaughter Syrians on a daily basis using conventional means.
Now, long after the ‘to strike or not’ campaign was resolved (so to speak), the world continues it’s debates over the merits of a UN report on the chemical massacre with no discernible goal. Even a part-time blogger, sitting from his home in the UK proved that only someone with the resources of the Assad regime could have carried out this attack, to think otherwise is fantasy. The Assad regime was not able to muster much of an excuse other than having an advisor to Assad, Bouthaina Sha’aban, claim that rebels kidnapped young Alawite children from Lattakia and then gassed them to death in Damascus. This story was used after the Assad regime denied that any chemical weapons were used at all.
So, just how much better did things in Syria get in the past 30 days? How did the “let’s do nothing” policy affect actual Syrians?
Not including the 678 confirmed deaths*** from the chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta on Aug 21, 2013, this is how the rest of our month in Syria went, death-wise that is, under the wise option the politicians agreed on, which was to “do nothing” from Aug 21, 2013 to Sept 20, 2013:
Of the 98 girls under the age of 18 that were “conventionally” killed by Assad’s forces since Aug 21st, 12 were killed in airstrikes. 65 in shelling. 8 from gunshots and 9 children were executed. All by Assad’s forces.
Of 229 boys under the age of 18 that were “conventionally” killed by Assad’s forces since Aug 21st, 25 were killed in airstrikes. 125in shelling. 36 from gunshots and 17 children were executed and one died as a result of no medical care. All by Assad’s forces.
This means that 327 children were killed in the last 30 days alone. That’s 11 children every single day. To you, that is a number and a faceless statistic, to us, it’s a human child. This death toll of children, according to anti-war supporters, is apparently and hypothetically “better” than it would have been should a strike against Assad’s military had taken place, again, a hypothetical strike.
And yes, we do not mince our words. When I mention that 26 children were executed in various raids by Assad’s forces in the last month alone, it literally means these children were executed. These executions are by far not the first nor the last.
209 women were also killed in the same period, as were 1016 civilian men. In total, this means that 1,552 innocent civilian human beings were killed in Syria since Aug 21, 2013. The majority killed in the non-stop shelling of Syria’s cities and towns by Assad’s forces.
There were also 1,133 combatants killed in the same period, which brings the total death toll to 2,285 human lives lost.
Sine the US airstrikes were called off, not a single anti-war* proponent that opposed the US strikes has protested nor voiced any concern for the deaths of 2,285 people, all killed from Assad’s war against the people of Syria. Then again, we should not have expected any concern from this crowd as they actually hoisted photos of Assad, the man responsible for this massacre, at rallies. One pro-revolution, yet anti-strike/intervention Syrian activist @DarthNader summed it up best regarding these protests: “Remember when all the anti-Iraq war demonstrations had pictures of Saddam Hussein? Me neither.”
In the past month thousands of more Syrians have fled the country joining the 2 million + (registered only) refugees in countries that have become increasingly more hostile to them. Every 15 seconds a Syrian becomes a refugee. The so-called ‘World Powers’ have no plan to stop this flood of despair, nor do they anticipate or appreciate the demographic ramifications and nightmares it is causing host nations and the entire region. The conflict in Syria is not contained within the borders of Syria despite what one may think. As Assad promised Syrians “Assad or we burn the country" he has also promised the world that he will "set the region on fire" should he fall from his throne. What does the anti-war crowd think of this regional disaster? They have yet to acknowledge it or are callously indifferent to it.
One only needs to spend a few minutes watching some of these clips to understand what Syrians are up against.
To even begin to describe the humanitarian disaster inside Syria is daunting in itself, nor can my words make one fully appreciate it. The WFP cannot even get food into places it is “allowed” to serve (which is a small fraction of Syria). The United Nations is forbidden to offer shelter to liberated areas in the North of country unless invited to do so by the Assad regime (don’t hold your breath on an invite Mr Ban Ki-Moon). Close to 60% of all healthcare facilities in the country are either gone or badly damaged. Diseases not seen on a wide-spread scale since the 19th century are now common across much of the country. We are now witnessing some of the first cases of starvation and death from malnutrition in the suburbs of Damascus. In some areas, less than 10% of schools are even functioning, thus creating a generation of children who are uneducated, forgotten, traumatized and know nothing but misery, hunger and war with absolutely no end in sight. Today’s disaster will pale in comparison to what tomorrow has in store.
In addition to the lack of response to the humanitarian disaster, President Obama has refused to provide any support to the FSA*** and has actively blocked any nation from providing any real support. The world desperately wants the US to take the lead in arming the FSA, without this leadership, no significant support will arrive. This in turn has not only allowed Al Qaida (ISIS) an entry into Syria, it has swelled their strength at the expense of the FSA and has resulted in Al Qaida invading and occupying at least two towns in the past 3 weeks alone (not including the towns and at least one provincial capital already under their control). These terrorists have executed about a dozen Syrians only in the last week or so for crimes such as being “infidels”, “traitors” or because they are from the Alawite sect. The dead in the past few days include at least 1 doctor and one media activist. It’s clearly in the interest of Al Qaida for the Assad regime to remain as it stands today, and for the country to remain as it is now. To think otherwise means you have not followed this group (AQ) long enough. A chaotic “failed state” in the ‘Levant’ region which is run by warlords where Assad is the largest at this point in time, is literally, to them, a God-send. We must also not forget that it was Assad himself who bears the largest burden of the responsibility for Al Qaida in Syria, releasing many of them from his prisons when the revolution began and using the pool of Jihadi’s that he trained to fight in Iraq starting in 2003.
Lost in the UN debate over the chemical massacre (bear in mind that Assad used chemical weapons on 26 separate occasions before Aug 21, 2013) and even lost in this article I write, is the humanitarian disaster at hand. No sooner had the first children of Ghouta succumbed to the sarin gas was the subject changed to “chmical weapons”, not “chemical deaths”. Forgotten are the 55,255 dead civilian Syrians (not including the 18,424 dead fighters) as of Sept 21, 2013. Forgotten are the majority of voices in Syria that wish to live in peace and above all in freedom from tyranny.
One month ago, it appeared that the world was ready to act against Assad and save us. Yet now this possibility is a distant dream. Assad has successfully won the media war, albeit using nothing more than lies and fantastical stories that, to the un-informed, have casted a shadow of doubt on the countless atrocities he has clearly committed. This doubt has foolishly directed policy-makers to make populist and unfounded decisions instead of acting on the principle of ‘doing the right thing’. I have no issue with the democratically elected process by which these decisions were made, however, the system by which a voter in the US or UK elects his/her representative based on a broad mandate, foreign policy included, was not utilized as it was historically. The public elects politicians entrusting them to be “informed” of policy issues, issues that us “regular people” don’t have time to inform themselves on nor would it be efficient to vote on (every single policy issue). A major problem with this process is that most representatives are not informed and are in-fact, deeply misinformed on Syria.
Most Americans, right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, did not want the US to get involved in WW II despite desperate pleas (and even espionage and propaganda) from the British. What if Pearl Harbor was not attacked? Would the US have stood by idly as Hitler continued to gas Jews and occupy Europe? Lucky for humanity, Hitler made the choice easy for Roosevelt when he declared war on the USA.
More than two years after the first protests emerged, we are now facing global 'Syria-fatigue'. Those that were kind enough to donate towards the humanitarian cause are now ignoring our continued call for assistance in what to many non-Syrians have labeled an “ugly conflict”, thus justifying the lack of human compassion towards our disaster. It has even caused a number of revolution supporters to doubt themselves and the revolution itself, crushing them under a mountain of impossible obstacles and endless tragedies. This makes the critical work of humanitarian aid much more difficult without their presence. To make matters worse, Al Qaida in Syria is kidnapping aid workers, activists, doctors and regular Syrians at a rate fast approaching that of the Assad regime, thus making it one more party, along with Iran, Russia, Hezbullah and Iraq all aligned against the people of Syria. Al Qaida do this in order to force the local population to submit to their self-apointed “Emir’s” very much like what the Assad family has done to Syrians for 40+ years.
To imagine that a single cruise missile smashing into Mount Qassioun in Damascus (where Assad’s SCUDS and CW rockets are launched from) could have possibly sent Assad’s forces scattering in chaos, sent Al Qaida back to their caves, dissuaded Russia to commit further support, caused Iran to withdraw from a battle it cannot win, sent Hezbullah back to Lebanon and the thousands of Iraqis fighting for Assad back to where they came from and caused millions of refugees to begin the trek back home and rebuild their lives may seem like fantasy, yet I challenge those who claim they rationally assume that the strike would “make things worse" to also concede that the strike could also make things better given that it’s now a hypothetical event.
As for us Syrians, we are all in agreement that what is happening at this very moment is the worst case scenario. Far worse than any predictions or wishes, and that doing something, anything, is better than nothing.
I’ll borrow and rephrase a quote from economist Henry Hazlitt in his book “Economics in One Lesson” in the context of exposing the shallow and hollow argument politicians use to justify their current policy of “doing nothing” in Syria and that supplying the FSA ” may make things worse”
“… but the tragedy is that, on the contrary, we are already suffering the long run consequences of the policies of the remote or recent past. Today is already the tomorrow which the bad economists politicians yesterday urged us to ignore.”
Yours Sincerely, The Revolting Syrian.
My long rant is not worth the kilo-bytes used to create and process it on your laptop screen without asking, or begging you to help us do something to end this. You may not be able to convince Obama to carry out an ‘unbelievably small' strike, but I'm sure you can spare a dollar for a person who has lost everything in their life.
You can help the only major international medical organization, Doctors Without Borders, treat Syrians in clinics inside Syria. You can also provide 10 homeless Syrians with a tent, cooking equipment and clothing, all fit into a single box called Shelterbox.
Help one of the most efficient government-run charities, the Danish Refugee Council, help millions of refugees get by. A non-government affiliated charity, CARE, also operates in the refugee camps as well, you can help them here as well as the International Rescue Committee, whom you can help here.
You can also support a local, reliable and trustworthy Syrian charity by selecting one from the list found here. All are registered in the US, Europe and Turkey with open accounts and exemplary track records.
And finally you can help the United Nations Refugee Agency , despite their many shortcomings, help millions of Syrian refugees. They are by far the largest aid organization and have the widest reach.
All statistics of the dead complied from the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) from Aug 21, 2013 - to Sept 20, 2013. The VDC is considered the most conservative when counting the number of dead in Syria
*”Anti-War” is defined in this article as actual anti-war protesters, far left supporters, far right supporters, conspiracy theorists, neo-conservatives as well as Al Qaida sympathizers. Obviously all of the mentioned groups do not adhere to the same ideology nor do I accuse any one of supporting the other except on the sole topic of being apologists and supporters of the Assad regime.
** More than 700 of the dead have not been accounted for yet due to the hurried nature of burial and the fact that most of the dead were not identified and buried in mass graves. Most residents of Eastern and Western Ghouta agree that the actual death toll is closer to 1,400.
***I will not discuss or include words such as “moderate” to describe the FSA. They are Syrians and Syrians by and large are moderate people, we do not need to label ourselves as such to prove anything to the world. 90% of the FSA defend their home towns & sleep in their own homes, if they have one left. The current battles with Assad is a highly localized fight. Just because Al Qaida is in Syria, does not mean we Syrians are “all terrorists” or “bad guys” now. Al Qaida and Assad are the “bad guys”. Prove to me otherwise.