Debate Over Death and Suffering in Syria; Rebel Unity Efforts

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 – The Joshua Landis blog

In 2010 the UN estimated that 32% of Syrians were living in poverty, estimated at 2$ a day or less – that was before the currency had fallen by half, the economy collapsed, strict economic sanctions were placed on Syria, and fighting engulfed the country. In all probability, a conservative percent of Syrians living in the direst poverty has surpassed 50% or more than 11 million people.

A rocket strike has leveled buildings and killed at least eight people in a neighbourhood of Aleppo, activists say. The source of the attack on Jabral Badro appeared to be a ground-to-ground missile, possibly a Scud. Another report said 20 people were killed with 25 missing.

U.N. numbers on Syrians in need of help far too low, survey suggests
By Roy Gutman | McClatchy Newspapers

ISTANBUL — The first detailed survey of the humanitarian crisis in northern Syria suggests that the United Nations has grossly underestimated the number of civilians in dire need of assistance, a situation that experts say plays down the scope of the catastrophe.

“Syria is the largest IDP crisis in the world,” said Clare Spurrell of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, the leading body monitoring internally displaced people worldwide. “The longer we underestimate the reality of what is happening on the ground, the further we are getting from an appropriate response.”

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees released new figures Monday showing 2.08 million people in urgent need in six provinces of northern Syria. That’s way below a partial survey of the same provinces that the Syrian opposition and 10 international aid agencies conducted over four weeks in January.

That survey, undertaken by teams of researchers who met with local relief committees, religious leaders and local police, among others, estimated that the number of people in urgent need totaled at least 3.2 million in those provinces: Idlib, rural Aleppo, Latakia, Raqqa, Hasaka and Deir el Zour. That’s nearly three-quarters of the provinces’ estimated population of 4.3 million.

Of those, the survey found that 1.1 million are people who’ve been forced from their homes, making them dependent on others for food, shelter, health care and clean water.

And the situation is almost certainly worse than that: The researchers completed the survey in only about 40 percent of the provinces’ area and excluded the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, where fighting has raged since July. Once the survey is completed in the remaining 60 percent, the numbers are expected to go up.

Newly Displaced Syrians Head For Turkish Border
Deborah Amos and Rima Marrouch
February 18, 2013, All Things Considered – NPR

Syrian people wait at a customs gate at the Turkey-Syria border near Reyhanli, Turkey, last week. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing central Syria, heading to southern Turkey. Enlarge image

Syrian people wait at a customs gate at the Turkey-Syria border near Reyhanli, Turkey, last week. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing central Syria, heading to southern Turkey.
Gaia Anderson/AP

A new surge of Syrian refugees is swamping humanitarian aid agencies in southern Turkey, where official refugee camps are full.

But the newcomers may be just the tip of the iceberg. In central Syria, civilians under attack by combat jets, tanks and artillery have fled towns and villages north of the city of Hama, and thousands are on the move.

“What they do now, they burn everything ahead of them. They bomb this area with everything they’ve got,” says Hossan Hamadah, a Syrian-American from Texas.

He’s seen firsthand the devastation of the new army offensive. He was in central Syria a few days ago to deliver bread and blankets to families on the run, but found only burned and abandoned houses.

“And I’m telling you, it’s a very, very weird feeling when you walk into a place and there’s not even a cat,” he says. “I just want to see something alive moving. Nothing.”….

Sharmine Narwani: Unreliable data can incite and escalate a conflict – the latest UN-sponsored figure of 60,000 should not be reported as fact, Friday 15 February 2013

….Casualty counts during modern wars have become a highly politicised business. On one hand, they can help alert the outside world to the scale of violence and suffering, and the risks of conflict spreading both within a country’s borders and beyond them. On the other, as in Syria, Iraq, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, death tolls have routinely been manipulated, inflated or downplayed – a tool for the advancement of political interests.

As if to underline the point, Libya’s new government recently announced that death tolls had been exaggerated during the 2011 Libyan civil war; that there had been around 5,000 deaths on either side – a long way from the reported tens of thousands of casualties that set the scene for Nato’s “humanitarian” intervention, or the 30-50,000 deaths claimed by opponents of this intervention.

While physically present in Iraq, the US and British governments were unable to provide estimates of the numbers of deaths unleashed by their own invasion, yet in Syria, the same governments frequently quote detailed figures, despite lacking essential access.

Syria’s death toll leapt from 45,000 to 60,000 earlier this year, a figure gathered by a UN-sponsored project to integrate data from seven separate lists. The new numbers are routinely cited by politicians and media as fact, and used to call for foreign intervention in the conflict…..

Counting the Dead in Syria
By Armin Rosen in Atlantic

Syria’s strategic stalemate, made worse by US inaction
Tony Karon, Feb 20, 2013 – the National

Not only is the Obama administration no longer convinced that Syria’s armed rebellion is about to topple President Bashar Al Assad, a rebel military victory does not even appear to be Washington’s preferred outcome.

A little over a year ago, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Assad regime as “a dead man walking”, and President Barack Obama expressed confidence, in his 2012 State of the Union address, that “the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed”.

This year, by contrast, Syria barely rated a mention in the same speech, with Mr Obama vowing only to “keep the pressure on the Syrian regime … and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian”.

The rebels clearly can’t win the war with the current level of support being offered by outside powers. Moreover, Mr Obama has reportedly dismissed proposals from within in his administration for arming insurgents, and Monday’s European Union rebuff of efforts by the UK, France and Italy to lift an embargo on arming the rebels reinforced the sense of western reluctance to invest in a rebel military victory.

The policy logic underlying these decisions was articulated on Sunday by new Secretary of State John Kerry, who said his goal in Syria was “to see us have a negotiated outcome and minimise the violence”. He admitted that achieving that goal remained exceedingly difficult, but insisted that it was in the best interests of “the Syrian people, and the region and the world, to make every effort to explore ways to achieve that negotiated outcome”.

Pursuing a military solution, Mr Kerry warned, risked the “implosion” of the Syrian state, with far greater regional risks.

Two years into the rebellion, Syria’s civil war remains locked in a strategic stalemate, reports of a renewed rebel offensive notwithstanding. The slow but steady erosion of the regime’s grip on much of the countryside underscores the fact that the rebellion has become an irreversible political-military fact, but its failure to capture a single major population centre suggests the regime’s better-equipped forces have lost neither the will nor the ability to fight.

Western powers want Mr Al Assad out, but not to be replaced by those leading the armed rebellion, many of who are hostile to US regional interests. Many of the rebels’ most impressive tactical gains are being recorded by jihadists such as the Jabhat Al Nusra group, branded by the US as an “international terrorist organisation” and Al Qaeda affiliate…..with the political influence on the ground of Mr Al Khatib’s organisation unproven, the US appears in no hurry to pursue the military victory of which he speaks. And the Obama administration has recognised that the factors maintaining the regime – its security forces have not collapsed precisely because most of the Alawites and other key minorities see the rebellion as mortal threat to themselves – are unlikely to change any time soon.

Even if the regime were dislodged from Damascus, that would be unlikely to end a civil war that threatens the survival of the Syrian state….Even as the rebels make new tactical gains on the ground – downing two regime aircraft, capturing an oil town and the Al Furat hydroelectric dam in the north-east, and an airbase in the north, as well as launching a new offensive in the suburbs of Damascus – a substantial shift in the strategic balance does not appear forthcoming….

Worldview: Kerry’s plan for Syria is sadly familiar
Trudy Rubin, Inquirer Opinion Columnist, Sunday, February 17, 2013

Heaven help John Kerry! The newly minted secretary of state has already announced he’ll launch a fresh initiative aimed at ending the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Last spring, then-Sen. Kerry appeared to grasp what was needed to break the deadly stalemate. But his current approach, and the White House’s deep antipathy toward any serious U.S. involvement in Syria, mean Kerry is embarking on a mission impossible. Unless, that is, the secretary can persuade the president to change his mind.

Before I get to Kerry’s approach, let me remind my readers why any of this matters. Despite early White House expectations that Assad would fall, the Syrian struggle is now mired in a bloody stalemate in which more than 70,000 people have died and a country is being pulverized. Barring a new approach, neither side is likely to triumph in the foreseeable future.

“The more probable outcome,” according to the astute Syrian opposition activist Amr Al-Azm, “is the collapse and fragmentation of the state,” and possibly a sectarian genocide. The blowback could affect Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel.

A failed Syrian state also would provide a power vacuum into which outside jihadis could flow, permitting them to radicalize local Islamists and obtain dangerous weapons from captured regime arsenals. And once a state collapses – as we know from the Iraq experience – it is very difficult to rebuild.

Back to Kerry. He understands this danger and warned last week about an “implosion” of the Syrian state.

Kerry also understands why Assad won’t budge. “He thinks he’s winning and the opposition is losing,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing. “We need to change Bashar al-Assad’s calculation,” he added.

Indeed, backed and armed by Russia and Iran, and aware that Washington won’t give crucial antitank or antiaircraft weapons to the rebels, Assad seems confident that his regime can survive the fighting. So does Moscow.

While the rebels have managed to take control of some rural areas, no city has fallen yet. “In Bashar’s calculus, he just needs to weather the storm,” Azm told me. “And he’s not necessarily wrong.”….

Last spring, Kerry talked of arming the rebels. Now, instead of charting a new strategy, he seems limited to repeating past (failed) efforts, urging Moscow to help him ease Assad into exile. Meantime, the regime’s planes bomb cities and towns into rubble, and the Syrian state rapidly collapses. The longer this goes on, the worse the outcome will be.

“To my knowledge no options have been entirely taken off the table,” Dempsey told journalists on the plane. However, there are no signs that Obama will reconsider the option of breaking the Syrian military stalemate. This means Assad will hunker down as Syria implodes.

In a small corner of Syria, rebels attempt to reconcile
Rebels and pro-government militias have agreed to stop shooting in Talkalakh, thanks to the efforts of Sheikh Habib
Jonathan Steele in Talkalakh – Guardian

…”I am religious and I have an idea – perhaps it’s crazy – of leadership via love”, said Habib….

“I used to work in real estate in Saudi Arabia, but came back here when the revolution started,” Abu Oday said. Anticipating my question, he went on: “I’m not religious. I only have a beard because we have no time to shave. There are no foreign fighters with us. We are all local, 100%. This is a Sunni part of town and we are all Sunnis.

“We started here with peaceful demonstrations for justice. It was only when the regime responded with force that we started to call for freedom and the end of the regime. That’s what we still want. When they attacked us and made arrests we had to defend ourselves”, he went on. The regime’s claims that there were hardline Islamists in rebel ranks were only a ploy to blacken the rebels’ image, he said.

In spite of the ceasefire the sheikh had organised, – here Abu Odeh nodded appreciatively at the sheikh who nodded back – people on this side of town were afraid to cross the railway line to the other side in case they were detained.

And the ceasefire was being violated, he said. “We only control about three streets. Up there” – he pointed over the ruined petrol pumps to the mouth of a side-street – “there are snipers. The day before yesterday, in broad daylight, a lawyer was up on his roof feeding his pigeons. He was shot in the neck. The sheikh helped to get him safe passage to hospital.

“We have agreed a ceasefire, but we’re still not ready to trust the government,” he said.

He could not say when they would move to the next stage of the agreement and was not yet convinced the government did not want to drive Sunnis out of the town. His views made it clear that confidence-building in Talkalakh still has a long way to go.

Kurdish refugees have mixed feelings about Syria
By KARIN LAUB | Associated Press

DOMIZ REFUGEE CAMP, Iraq (AP) — Syrian Kurds who fled their country’s civil war have mixed feelings about a future without Bashar Assad: They hope to win a measure of autonomy after the fall of the regime, but fear chaos and the rise of Islamists could instead make their lives worse.

More than 81,000 Syrian Kurds have found refuge in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region in recent months and hundreds more arrive every day. Few seem in a rush to go home.

The Kurdistan Regional Government allows fellow Kurds from Syria to work and move freely in the three provinces of northern Iraq it controls. Some 30,000 refugees still live in a camp of tents and cinderblock shacks near the Syrian border, while the rest have found jobs and homes in towns across the autonomous region, some staying with relatives.

Even those struggling with the hardships of camp life say they prefer to stay in Iraq after the fall of the regime, until they have a better idea how Islamists and other groups in the Sunni Arab-dominated Syrian opposition will deal with Kurds, Syria’s largest ethnic minority.

“If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over and there are problems in the future, we want to stay here,” said Faroush Fattah, a 28-year-old laborer from the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli who arrived in the Domiz camp three months ago.

The refugees’ ambivalence about the upheaval in Syria is shared by Iraqi Kurdish leaders, who have carved out an increasingly prosperous quasi-state in the autonomous region, aided by an oil-fueled economic boom.

Kurdish autonomy in post-Assad Syria, similar to the Iraqi model, could strengthen long-standing Kurdish demands for an independent homeland for the more than 25 million Kurds in parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

But the emergence of yet another autonomous Kurdish region would likely spook Turkey, a regional power that is key to plans by Iraq’s Kurds to export their oil riches directly, if necessary without permission from the central Iraqi government.

Turkey is home to an estimated 15 million Kurds, some with self-rule aspirations, and has been battling Kurdish insurgents for nearly three decades. Adding to Turkey’s concerns, the dominant Kurdish faction in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is seen as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the leader of the armed rebellion in Turkey.

The president of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, has tried to exert influence over Syrian Kurdish groups, presumably in part to protect his strategic relationship with Turkey. Last year, he helped form an umbrella group of Syrian Kurdish groups that includes the PYD and smaller factions loyal to him.

“Barzani has some sway over Syrian Kurds,” said Washington-based Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay. “He has been reaching out to a spectrum of Syrian Kurds, including the PYD, to stop the hostile rhetoric and attitude toward Turkey.”

Falah Mustafa, in charge of the Barzani government’s foreign relations, said Iraqi Kurds want to make sure their Syrian counterparts are united when negotiating their role in a post-Assad Syria with the Sunni Arab-led opposition.

He said it’s up to all Syrians to shape their future, but that Kurdish rights have to be protected — an outcome he suggested is not assured. Asked in an interview if Syrian territory should remain intact at all costs, he said, “I do not believe that these borders have to be sacred, because these were artificial.”

Syria’s Kurds, who make up more than 10 percent of a population of 23 million, initially remained largely on the sidelines after the uprising against Assad erupted almost two years ago. They had been marginalized by the regime, but were also weary of the Syrian rebels, many of them Sunnis. Some prominent Kurds joined the Syrian political opposition in exile, while some younger Kurds joined street protests against Assad.

Kurds were pulled into the conflict on a larger scale when Assad’s forces unexpectedly withdrew from predominantly Kurdish areas in the northeast of the country last summer, enabling the PYD to take control there.

The pullback appeared to serve two objectives at the time — giving the PYD a higher profile to pressure Turkey, one of the most vocal backers of the Syrian opposition, and allowing thinly stretched government troops to move to hotspots elsewhere.

The PYD denies it is affiliated with the PKK or coordinates with the Syrian regime, even though in some areas, such as Qamishli, residents say both the regime and PYD forces maintain military posts. At the same time, the PYD has clashed with rebel fighters, particularly those from the al-Qaida-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra.

Some in the Domiz camp said the PYD protects Kurds against both rebel fighters and regime soldiers, while others described the PYD militiamen as regime sub-contractors terrorizing residents.

“The regime and the PYD work together,” said Abdel Khader Taha, a 37-year-old laborer from Qamishli who sported a colorful tattoo of Barzani on his chest. Taha said he fears all Kurds will one day be targeted by Syrian rebels because of the PYD’s perceived collusion with the regime.

Taha and others in the camp seemed ambivalent about Syria’s future.

While favoring Kurdish autonomy, they acknowledge that carving out a self-rule zone, like in Iraq, is difficult because Kurds are dispersed across the country. Refugees say they fear the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab Sunni movement driving the anti-Assad rebellion, will disregard Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities once Assad falls.

“We fear a big ethnic war in Syria,” said Ali Kalash, 57, a former Syrian civil servant, standing with a group of men in one of the tent-lined alleys of the camp.

On Patrol in Syria with Assad’s Most Disciplined Enemies
By Rania Abouzeid / Marshamsheh | Time

…There are 23 men in his Farouq unit stationed along the eastern flank of the Wadi Deif military base, one of the few remaining loyalist outposts in the northern Syrian province of Idlib in late January. His men are all from this front-line town of Marshamsheh, a desolate, devastated area that was once home to some 4,000 people but is now populated almost solely by a handful of diverse rebel groups. There’s nothing between it and Wadi Deif except an olive grove….

The forces ranged against the regime of President Bashar Assad are a varied crew: there are foreign fighters; Islamic extremists, both Syrian and from other countries; as well as criminal elements who kidnap for ransom or loot homes, exploiting the general lawlessness of war. There is a kinetic nature to the rebellion — of multiple pieces moving at once. In Aleppo further north, many of the rebels fighting there don’t know their way around the metropolis. They’re from the towns and villages around it.

But in many smaller places like Marshamsheh, it is still mainly local men like Hajji Zaki who are fighting in their hometowns. It is their homes that are being destroyed, their families displaced or killed. On the other side of this conflict’s increasingly intractable divide, there are also men loyal to Assad who are just as grounded in their local communities, fighting for what they believe is right and just, and also losing their lives and livelihoods. This is the nature of civil war.

It’s easy to get caught up in talk of weapons, of geostrategic interests and diplomatic maneuvers, but war, at its most basic level, is more intimate than that. It’s about people, mainly the terrible things they see and do or have done to them, but also the bonds they forge, the attempts to cling to the normalcy of their old lives and what they think about their new ones.

…The Farouq is among the largest, best organized and most well-known of Syria’s many military units. They take the name Farouq from Omar bin al-Khatab al-Farouq, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, political architect of the caliphate and, historically, the second Caliph…..

The talk turns to several key commanders in the area, how the men believe they are more interested in making quick trips to a battlefield to upload a few photo-ops to YouTube rather than staying and fighting. “The revolution was better before. Some commanders have forgotten the early days when we had nothing,” Abu Sami says. “Now they have money, cars, they have forgotten when they only had a motorbike. They are more interested in their five- or six-car entourage. After the regime falls, will they keep their tanks? What will they do with their 14.5-mm [antiaircraft guns]?”

“Why do men join him?” one of the men says of one of these commanders.

“Ammunition is low. People want a leader who can supply them. What matters to a fighter is that his ammunition vest is full,” Abu Sami says. “But after the fall of the regime, I tell you, even his cousins will leave him, they won’t stay with him.”

Abu Ibrahim, who served his military conscription in 1987 and ’88 with Division 11, the same unit he says is now stationed in Wadi Deif, says the fight among rebels after the fall of the regime will likely be harder than this one. That struggle would be to unseat the warlords who are now setting up minifiefdoms as well as against religious extremists. Those fledgling tyrants — whether local or national — will not be tolerated. “They won’t have as many men or weapons as Bashar, and we are going to remove him, so we will also be able to remove a small group that thinks of these things,” he said.

“We know that this is a long fight, a difficult fight,” Abu Sami says, “but I am fighting for my son. We are all fighting for our sons. God willing, our children will live good lives.” Mortar strikes and other explosions continued outside, some so close that the doors and windows shook….

From the Guardian Blog

• Russia has rejected a call by UN investigators for Syrian leaders identified as suspected war criminals to face the international criminal court. Deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov told a news conference that this was “not the path we should follow … at this stage it would be untimely and unconstructive”.

The FSA has given Hezbollah 48 hours to cease attacks in Syria or face retaliation in Lebanon. The Lebanese Shia group has been accused of attacking Syrian villages near the border with Lebanon but has consistently denied involvement in the Syrian conflict. Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon also denied that Hezbollah was supporting the Assad government with attacks.

Barack Obama could reconsider his decision not to arm Syrian rebels, the New York Times reports. The report, citing a senior administration official, suggested that, surrounded by a new national security team, the US president might come to a different decision.

Washington invites Syrian opposition leader
18 February 2013

Al-Khatib might possibly visit Washington, date not set

via Jadaliyya

A New Levant: A Possible Way Through the Syrian Crisis Giandomenico Picco argues that “the war in Syria is not a national civil war but rather another manifestation of the changing  architecture of the region. Attempts at mediation which do not recognize this reality are unlikely to have sustainable results.”

The Gulf States and Syria’ Kristian Coates Ulrichsen on the role of the Gulf in a future agreement on Syria

ماذا لو هزم السوريون؟
Michel Kilo predicts what would happen if Al-Assad were to stay in power.

لعنة العلويّين في سوريا: “ذنبنا أننا أبناء طائفة الرئيس”
Raheel Ibrahim on the “Alawite curse.”

James Miller in EA Worldview writes

Yesterday’s dramatic news was the insurgency[‘s capture of an airbase, complete with working fighter jets, in Aleppo Province and the assault against the largest Assad base in the north, near Aleppo International Airport.

This surge is at least partially the result of new weapons and new organisation of insurgency groups in Daraa and Damascus, with ample evidence that the boost in arms is courtesy of foreign powers.

Now a new piece of evidence bolsters the assessment that these weapons are coming from outside Syria, and also gives insight into the modified organisation of insurgent groups. Eliot Higgins presents this video:

manpads sighted but these said to be chinese in origin.

1208 GMT: Weapons. Bjørn H Jespersen ‏and Mads Dahl have pointed to videos indicating the first appearance among insurgents of foreign-made MANPADS (man-portable air-defence systems).

Blogger Brown Moses evaluates that the MANPADS are Chinese-made, and “the nearest country to Syria that uses this weapon is Sudan, with Malaysia, Cambodia, Peru, and Pakistan being other users”. Given this, there are “some big questions with regards to [the] source”.

video shows rebels posing with the weapon. how long does it take to train how to properly use it?

@brown_moses : A classroom of opposition fighters get a lesson on the new weapons flooding Syria, very unusual.

According to Higgins’ conversations with activists and Arabic speakers on Twitter, the video shows a group of secular Free Syrian Army troops being trained by the Al Farouq brigade, in an effort organised by the Kataeb al-Fajr faction.

This group appears to be called the “Dawn of Islam” Brigade, a coalition founded in late December.

This group in turn appears to be part of a larger effort to unify the Islamic brigades in the south and ally them with the Free Syrian Army — with the exclusion of the most extreme groups like Jabhat al Nusra. Zilal, an activist associated with the CFDPC, offers insight:….

On Monday, United Nations investigators called for Syria to be referred the International Criminal Court (ICC). The panel released a 131-page report which finds that the two year conflict in Syria has become “increasingly sectarian,” militarized, and radicalized by the growing presence of foreign fighters. Human rights investigator Carla del Ponte said, “We are pressuring the international community to act because it’s time to act.” Although all sides in the conflict are accused of committing war crimes, the report lays heavy blame on the Assad regime for perpetrating war crimes.