Tag Archives: Syria

Will “Protected Cultural Zones” Save Heritage Sites in Syria?

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Gates of Nineveh: An Experiment in Blogging Assyriology

Earlier this month UNESCO held a major conference in Paris on cultural heritage destruction in Iraq and Syria. Headlining remarks by UNESCO director Irina Bokova emphasized that there is “no purely military solution” to the conflict and that bringing about peace will involve promoting ideological change. “To fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defence against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.”

To accomplish these ends, four ideas seem to have received prominent discussion:

1) Again emphasize the need to implement the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict, which has been raised by UNESCO before. The trouble is, there is pretty much zero motivation for any of the major actors on the ground in Syria to observe its stipulations.

2) Collect evidence for possible prosecution of people who intentionally destroy heritage sites as war…

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Some Arguments Against War in Iraq & Syria:

Tim Holmes

1. It won’t work – and is likely to backfire.

iraq-quagmire

“What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?” muses neoconservative William Kristol. The media debate follows similar lines. Yet in Libya, former MI6 head of counterterrorism Richard Barrett points out, “military intervention without a proper plan to follow up had all sorts of unintended consequences and led to chaos and instability.” “It’s just reaching for a hammer because it is a hammer and it’s to hand,” he adds. Airstrikes “have to have a very clear purpose and objective … I’m not sure we have that”. Instead, we seem to be engaging in “gesture politics”.

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What to Do About Syria

a paper bird

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

You would think that, having stayed in Cairo for much of the last year, I would feel closer than in New York or Boston to the Syrian catastrophe taking place only a few borders away. But it doesn’t work that way. Egypt has enough of its own problems: massacres, mass arrests, one dictator on trial, another one running for president; these aren’t as replete with murder but they fill the mind as blood fills the brain after a hemorrhage, and expunge thought. You imagine Aleppo for a second and flinch: There’s enough not to think about without not thinking about that. 

To be sure, Syria is here, in the form of thousands of refugees who have fled the killing. (The UN says there are almost 150,000 in Egypt; some estimates run double; in any case, Lebanon hosts many times…

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The Great Syrian Civil War Debacle: 2013

this article comes courtesy of the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Short on support at home and allies abroad, President Barack Obama unexpectedly stepped back from a missile attack against Syria on Saturday and instead asked Congress to support a strike punishing Bashar Assad’s regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons.

President Obama & Vice President Biden

President Barack Obama + Vice President Joe Biden

With Navy ships on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their cruise missiles, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action and that he believes that as commander in chief, he has “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.”

At the same time, he said, “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective.” His remarks were televised live in the United States as well as on Syrian state television with translation.

Congress is scheduled to return from a summer vacation on Sept. 9, and in anticipation of the coming debate, Obama challenged lawmakers to consider “what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price.”

Map of Syria

Map of Syria

The president didn’t say so, but his strategy carries enormous risks to his and the nation’s credibility, which the administration has argued forcefully is on the line in Syria. Obama long ago said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that Assad would not be allowed to cross with impunity.

Nor would the White House say what options would still be open to the president if he fails to win the backing of the House and Senate for the military measures he has threatened.

Only this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat when the House of Commons refused to support his call for military action against Syria.

Halfway around the world, Syrians awoke Saturday to state television broadcasts of tanks, planes and other weapons of war, and troops training, all to a soundtrack of martial music. Assad’s government blames rebels in the Aug. 21 attack, and has threatened retaliation if it is attacked.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he was appealing to a Nobel Peace laureate rather than to a president, urged Obama to reconsider. A group that monitors casualties in the long Syrian civil war challenged the United States to substantiate its claim that 1,429 died in a chemical weapons attack, including more than 400 children.

By accident or design, the new timetable gives time for U.N. inspectors to receive lab results from the samples they took during four days in Damascus, and to compile a final report. After leaving Syria overnight, the inspection team arrived in Rotterdam a few hours before Obama spoke.

The group’s leader was expected to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday.

Administration officials said Obama appeared set on ordering a strike until Friday evening. After a long walk in near 90-degree temperatures around the White House grounds with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, the president told his aide he had changed his mind.

These officials said Obama initially drew pushback in a two-hour session attended by Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Klapper, CIA Director John Brennan, national security adviser Susan Rice and homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco. They declined to say which of the participants had argued against Obama’s proposal.

Whatever Congress ultimately decides, the developments marked a stunning turn.

France is Obama’s only major foreign ally to date for a strike, public polling shows support is lukewarm in the United States, and dozens of lawmakers in both parties have signed a letter urging Obama not to act without their backing. Outside the gates of the White House, the chants of protesters could be heard as the president stepped to a podium set up in the Rose Garden.

Had he gone ahead with a military strike, Obama would have become the first U.S. leader in three decades to attack a foreign nation without mustering broad international support or acting in direct defense of Americans. Not since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, has the U.S. been so alone in pursuing major lethal military action beyond a few attacks responding to strikes or threats against its citizens.

By day’s end Saturday, the White House had sent Congress a draft of a resolution, crafted by the White House, to authorize Obama to use military force.

The draft does not lay out a specific timeline or course of military action, instead giving Obama approval to use the military as he determines “necessary and appropriate” to meet the objective of preventing future chemical weapons use. But in an overture to the limited scope of the strike Obama has said he’s considering, the draft affirms the administration’s view that ultimately, only a political solution can resolve the crisis in Syria.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expected the House to consider the measure the week of Sept. 9. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he, too, will hold a vote no later than the week of Sept. 9. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will conduct a hearing on the authorization on Tuesday, said its chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

Republicans generally expressed satisfaction at Obama’s decision to seek congressional support, and challenged him to make his case to the public and lawmakers alike that American power should be used to punish Assad.

“We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised,” Boehner and other House Republican leaders said in a joint statement.

New York Republican Rep. Peter King was among the dissenters, strongly so. “President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander in chief and undermining the authority of future presidents,” he said. “The president doesn’t need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line.”

For now, it appeared that the administration’s effort at persuasion was already well underway.

The administration plunged into a series of weekend briefings for lawmakers, both classified and unclassified, and Obama challenged lawmakers to consider “what message will we send to a dictator” if he is allowed to kill hundreds of children with chemical weapons without suffering any retaliation.

At the same time, a senior State Department official said Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Syrian Opposition Coalition President Ahmed Assi al-Jarba to underscore Obama’s commitment to holding the Assad government accountable for the Aug. 21 attack.

Obama said Friday he was considering “limited and narrow” steps to punish Assad, adding that U.S. national security interests were at stake. He pledged no U.S. combat troops on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.

syrianrebs

syrianrebs2

In Syria, some rebels expressed unhappiness with the president, one rebel commander said he did not consider Obama’s decision to be a retreat. “On the contrary, he will get the approval for congress and then the military action will have additional credibility,” said Qassem Saadeddine.

“Just because the strike was delayed by few days doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen,” he said.

With Obama struggling to gain international backing for a strike, Putin urged him to reconsider his plans. “We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world, said Putin, a strong Assad ally. “Did this resolve even one problem?”

Even the administration’s casualty estimate was grist for controversy.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organization, said he was not contacted by U.S. officials about his efforts to collect information about the death toll in the Aug. 21 attacks.

“America works only with one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda,” he said, and urged the Obama administration to release the information its estimate is based on.

Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Josh Lederman, Matthew Lee and Kimberly Dozier in Washington; Zeina Karam, Yasmine Saker and Karin Laub in Beirut; and Geir Mouslon in Berlin contributed to this report.

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Jackson Williams.

Arming Syria’s Rebels

this article comes courtesy of the Associated Press:

syrianrebs

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels who have been locked in a civil war with the Syrian regime for more than two years, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday, becoming the first top U.S. official to publicly acknowledge the reassessment.

During a Pentagon news conference with British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, Hagel said arming the rebels was one option that the administration was considering in consultation with its allies. But he said he personally had not decided whether it would be a wise or appropriate move.

“Arming the rebels – that’s an option,” he said. “You look at and rethink all options. It doesn’t mean you do or you will. … It doesn’t mean that the president has decided on anything.”

Hammond said his country was still bound by a European Union arms embargo on Syria, but he said Britain would look at the issue again in a few weeks when the ban expires and make a decision based on the evolving situation on the ground.

Hagel’s comments affirmed what had been a quiet but emerging dialogue within the Obama administration: That arming the rebels might be preferable amid growing indications that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people, an action President Barack Obama characterized as a “game-changer” that would have “enormous consequences.”

Asked for his thoughts on the evolving issue, Obama said Thursday that the U.S. will continue to evaluate its options.

“We want to make sure that we look before we leap and that what we’re doing is actually helpful to the situation as opposed to making it more deadly or more complex,” Obama said at a news conference in Mexico.

Both Hagel and Hammond also indicated that strong evidence still was needed to provide a solid legal basis for any military action the U.S. or its allies might take. While neither would detail the evidence already collected from several reported incidents of chemical weapons use by the Bashar Assad regime, Hammond said the public still remembers that claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 turned out to be untrue.

“There is a very strong view that we have to have very clear, very high-quality evidence before we make plans and act on that evidence,” Hammond said. “If there were future use of chemical agents, that would generate new opportunities for us to establish a clear evidence of use to a legal standard of evidence.”

syrianrebs2

Officials have said that intelligence assessments of the use of sarin gas in Syria are based in part on “physiological samples,” which could include human tissue, blood or other body materials, in addition to soil samples. Asked whether the U.S. and Britain have separate samples or are examining the same material, Hammond declined to specify, but said the two countries were working closely on the analysis.

Hagel said each country uses its own intelligence agencies but works to share information with allies.

Administration officials said Wednesday that arming the opposition forces was seen as more likely than any other military option. They cited U.S. intelligence beliefs that the rebels may be distancing themselves from the al-Qaida-linked group there. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss publicly the options under consideration.

Some senior leaders, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been publicly skeptical about the wisdom of arming the rebels because of concerns that U.S. weapons could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked groups helping the Syrian opposition or other extremists, such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

But officials say there is a growing realization that, under increasing pressure from Congress and other allied nations, the U.S. might soon have to do more for the Free Syrian Army.

The administration announced last week that it believed Assad has used chemical weapons but said the intelligence wasn’t definitive.

Damascus has denied it has used chemical weapons, saying the Syrian rebels were trying to frame the regime.

Asked about Syria’s chemical weapons caches, Hammond said Britain believes the Assad regime remains in control of its principal weapons sites.

“I think we have a great deal of knowledge of location of chemical weapons,” Hammond said. “That is not the same as saying that I can put my hand on my heart and say we know where every last item is.”

Other military options under discussion include creating a no-fly zone over the country or a limited safe zone where Syrians could be free from violence. There has been little appetite for putting U.S. military boots on the ground in Syria.

Syria’s two-year civil war has left an estimated 70,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Jackson Williams.