TIME Syria

Postcard From Damascus: Yoga Bags, Campaign Posters and Distant Booms

A family walks down a street in Damascus on May 14, 2014.
A family walks down a street in Damascus on May 14, 2014. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Some neighborhoods in Syria's capital feels strangely normal after more than three years of civil war, TIME's Middle East bureau chief Aryn Baker finds out

The luxury condominium compounds lining the highway that links Damascus to Syria’s border with Lebanon are frozen mid-development, their landscaped grounds well tended, but their interiors dark and unfurnished. Shopping malls and brightly colored children’s amusement parks are empty, awaiting tenants and visitors that never arrive. Billboards that might normally advertise consumer goods show images of Syrian President Bashar Assad instead. His image appears every 50 m or so, flashing past my car window in a bewildering array of costumes and facial expressions: Stern Assad in camouflage, smiling Assad in a suit, saluting Assad in formal military dress, waving Assad in a blazer with a grin and a twinkle in his eyes. But the Assad in these photos is different from the one who shows up in television appearances in Syria these days. While the Assad of the posters is beaming with strength and health, television Assad is pale. He has lost weight. Three and a half years of war have taken a toll, and it is reflected in Assad’s campaign for the upcoming presidential election.

“Together!” reads the slogan scrawled across billboards dotting the city. “Together we will make Syria safe.” “Together we will make Syria stronger.” “Together we will live.” Each is tagged with Assad’s signature. No one doubts that Assad will win the election, which the opposition is not taking part in, by a huge margin.

If Assad — and the road that links his capital to his most important trading partner — is showing the stresses of war, downtown Damascus is another story altogether. Graceful pedestrian arcades heave with shoppers trying out the latest smartphones and sampling the nut-filled pastries and chocolates for which Damascus is famous. Bareheaded women come out of private gyms toting yoga bags, while others, tightly swathed in colorful headscarves, wait for taxis on street corners. Bands of young men discreetly check out both groups. Yellow signs along the wide boulevards warn that speeding is monitored by radar, and traffic cops, clad in blinding white, guide motorists through rush-hour gridlock, caused, in part, by the ubiquitous military checkpoints. Those sandbagged bunkers are rare acknowledgements that war is not far away. But in quieter parts of the city, the attendant soldiers look more bored than alert to impending danger as they tap away on their mobile phones.

Assad lives with his family in one of those bougainvillea-bedecked neighborhoods, a wealthy and closely packed district of three-story townhouses. His decision to live in the house of his father, former President Hafez Assad, seems intended to promote a sense that he is a man of the people. According to official accounts, he commutes every day to the presidential palace, an imposing edifice on a hill on the edge of the capital. But few believe the script. Why should Assad take that risk, traveling an exposed highway to a lonely fort, distant from the people he claims to love? Many Syrians whisper that he actually works from home. Few know the truth.

The war may be psychologically distant to those in central Damascus, but it is being waged only a few miles away from Assad’s front door, along the edges of the city and in the suburbs. Fighter jets scream overhead, and the deep rumble of shelling in restive areas can be felt as well as heard. So regular are the blasts that no one even bothers to look up.

Just after sunset, patrons of the Abu Abdu juice shop in the downtown area line up eight deep for a glass of icy strawberry nectar in a spring tradition dating back to well before the war. Families perch on narrow benches to share plates of cream-covered fresh fruit, and couples lean against parked cars to sip the shop’s latest fruit-blend inventions. A group of English-language students on an excursion pounce on the opportunity to practice their English with two TIME journalists. Damascus used to be a major tourist destination, and chances to speak English were many. These days native English speakers are hard to find. “What is your name, please?” they ask. “What do you think of Syria?” “The Western TV makes Syria look like it is war all the time, are you worried about safety?” No, I answer, waving my strawberry juice around to indicate the crowd. Yes, they affirm, “life is normal here.” Just then the thunder of a not-so-distant bomb blast interrupts the conversation. No one in the crowd looks up, and the students, noting the alarm on my face, laugh and assure me that it is far away, “at least a few kilometers.”

By car, the brutal legacy of the war is just minutes away. Our driver makes his way through empty highways to Barze, once one of the bloodiest neighborhoods in Syria, and since February the site of an experimental cease-fire that many are hoping could be a model for the rest of the country. The radio blasts a fusion of rap, reggae and Arab rock praising Assad. Our driver knows every word. As we enter Barze the signs of war are, at first, barely noticeable: a few bullet-pocked concrete barriers and broken windows. Here the buildings are aging, the population notably poorer. But suddenly the horizon unreels in a scene of total devastation. Blasted-out high-rises loom over the remains of barricaded bunkers. Anti-Assad graffiti has been scrubbed off the walls. Pro-regime slogans have yet to be painted in their place. Twisted rebar and electrical wires snake out of the skeletal remains of eight-story apartment buildings. Some life has returned to the less damaged buildings in the form of drying laundry, but the pancaked residential buildings will never again host their former residents. Barze is peaceful now — but it is ruined.

We cross back into the parts of the city that Assad has always held and that have seen almost no violence during the war. The President appears in another poster. In this one, smiling Assad declares, “With you, we will rebuild it, and take care of it.”

TIME Syria

Stunned Residents Return to Ruins in Homs

Residents return to devastated Homs to salvage what remains from their homes, May 12, 2014.
Residents return to devastated Homs to salvage what remains from their homes, May 12, 2014. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Residents have begun returning to the once bustling but now devastated Syrian city of Homs, as the terms of a ceasefire have relinquished nearly all of its control to the government in exchange for rebels' safe passage out

The former residents of the Qarabis neighborhood in the Old City of Homs in Syria ought to be forgiven if they start questioning the value of peace. Three days after the successful conclusion of a ceasefire between the government of President Bashar Assad and the rebels who had holed up in the neighborhood for nearly two years, residents were allowed back into the sealed off enclave to salvage what they could from their former homes. It’s miraculous that there was anything left to reclaim. Hospitals and mid-rise apartment buildings in the city had pancaked under the barrage of the bombs dropped during the siege, spewing their contents into the streets below with the force of their fall. Their tar-lined roofs have become the city’s new sidewalks. A trickle of dazed residents walked over the street-level rooftops trying to make sense of their former homes, trailing baby strollers and bicycles packed with their rescued belongings. What was left standing had been chewed by mortar fire. The facades of some buildings had been sheared off, exposing dining rooms complete with wall paintings, chandeliers and mahogany tables.

Homs was once a bustling city, home to over a million Syrians. It is now in ruins, and hundreds of thousands of its residents have fled. A hundred miles north of Damascus, Homs has seen perhaps more violence in an extraordinarily violent war than any other part of Syria. Some of the earliest fighting of the war was here. Under the terms of the ceasefire it is now almost completely under government control. The rebels who once considered it a stronghold have left all but one neighborhood of Homs.

“Take a picture, take a picture!” a woman named Umm Hamed, 65, shouted at a pair of TIME journalists roaming the ruins. “See what this war has brought us.” She opened a tattered shopping bag stuffed with a red velvet cushion and brightly patterned curtains she had ripped from the windows of her old kitchen. Her daughter in-law clutched a blue vacuum cleaner. It was all that was left of a house that had been in her husband’s family for generations. Umm Hamed, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her family’s identity, had returned hoping to find at least a mattress or a sofa, as some of the other returning families had, but everything was either crushed under the weight of collapsed walls, or looted. Rebuilding, she said, was out of the question. “With what money?” She was wrapped in the black headscarf and loose cloak of conservative Sunni Muslims who tend to support the opposition, but said she wanted nothing to do with the rebels who claimed to fight for her freedoms. She was angry, she said, with those who launched the uprising, and the government that shelled her town in retaliation. “They were asking for freedom, and now we are asking for food,” she said.

What was once a vibrant middle class boulevard of dress shops, cafes and ice cream parlors has been reduced to dusty rubble. Even the Syrian flag draping listlessly from a military checkpoint is coated in dust. TIME’s photographer, Yuri Kozyrev, has covered wars for decades, including the brutal wars in Chechnya. He was amazed at the extent of the level of destruction he witnessed on Monday in Homs. “It’s worse than Grozny,” he said, as we walked through a post-apocalyptic landscape, broken teacups and eyeglasses crunching under our feet. Former residents trickled out of the side streets onto what was left of the boulevard to make their way home to whatever temporary accommodations they had arranged during the worst of the fighting. Mustapha, an engineer who would only give his first name, pushed an old bicycle laden with books in French, English and Arabic. His house, he said, had been looted. All that remained were his books, he said with scorn, as if he would have had more respect for the looters had they taken his treasured philosophy tracts and engineering tomes. Asked if he ever planned to return to the Old City to regain his life, he just shrugged at the destruction around him. “I am an old man, and an engineer. Return to what? I will be dead before this city can be rebuilt. This is the end of our history here.”

The ceasefire, like those conducted elsewhere in Syria, follows the government’s template for a possible way to conclude the war, which Assad says will happen by the end of the year. This is the government strategy, as it was used in Homs: a rebel-held area is encircled by government troops and bombed and starved into capitulation. Sometimes civilians are allowed to leave, but usually they are forced to suffer alongside the fighters. The Homs ceasefire, brokered by the U.N. and Iranian diplomats, came at the end of a nearly two-year siege. Fighters were allowed to leave with their weapons for rebel-held areas in the north, in exchange for the release of hostages and access to two pro-government towns near Aleppo that had been under siege by the rebels. The government controls all of Homs now, except for Waer, another rebel-held enclave about three miles from the Old City. On Monday, negotiations for a Waer ceasefire were underway, but seem to have broken down; we could hear mortar attacks and explosions coming from that direction throughout the afternoon.

Two middle age women, walking arm and arm for stability as much as for comfort down the Old City’s main street, had trouble holding back tears. They gave only their ages, 40 and 50, for fear of a government backlash for speaking their minds. The ceasefire in Homs was meaningless, the 40-year-old said. “This is not a peace. It is not even the beginning of peace, only the beginning of more destruction.” As she spoke, another explosion in Waer could be heard. “The rebels may have left Homs, but still the shelling goes on, and the bombing goes on.” Her companion, looking around her former neighborhood, sighed. “It’s sad to say that this is what Assad calls a victory, when the bombings were against his own people.”

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the name of a neighborhood in Homs. The correct spelling is Qarabis.

TIME Syria

Meet The Two Candidates Taking on Assad For Syria’s Presidency

Two rival candidates are vying for Bashar Assad's job in Syria's upcoming elections. Are they defying the odds, foolish, or just patsies put in place to make the polls look more legitimate?

It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to campaign against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Yet when the 2014 presidential election was thrown open to outside entrants for the first time in Syria’s history late last month, 24 would-be candidates nominated themselves to the post. Until now, the vote for Syria’s president has always been a yes or no referendum, first for Assad’s father Hafez, and then for Assad himself. That all changed earlier this year when Syria’s parliament decided to let in some competition for the presidential elections set to take place on June 3. By the time Syria’s judiciary vetted the nominees according to stringent criteria—candidates must be Muslim, must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years (conveniently disqualifying exiled opposition figures) and must have the support of at least 35 members of the 250-strong parliament—only two remained.

The revelation that candidates Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, 46, and Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, 54—little-known lawmakers whose names drew much head-scratching inside Syria—made the cut elicited guffaws from members of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition. They believe the candidates are patsies and proof that this election, like all those before it, will be a “farce.” In a May 7 address to the Unites States Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., Ahmad Jarba, leader of the SNC, said the election was taking place “on the dead bodies of Syrians,” and would give Assad “license to kill for many years to come.”

With less than a month to go, campaigning isn’t exactly in full swing—the streets of Syria’s main cities are adorned with posters praising Assad, and little else—but speculation is fevered. There is no question Assad will win, say Syrians, but by how much? In 2007, he got 97.6 percent of the ballots (2.2 percent of the votes cast were considered invalid). With two other candidates in the running, the vote will likely be divided in a way that casts some legitimacy on the process.

On May 6, one of the unsuccessful candidates was kidnapped by anti-government rebels and paraded in a video posted to opposition social media sites. Clearly under stress, and flanked by two armed men, army colonel Mohammad Hassan Kanaan said that he had been coerced into nominating himself for the presidency by his commanding officer under threat of death. In further questioning by his captors, he said that other nominees had been similarly pressured to run. “It’s a political game and media fabrication,” he said.

It is impossible to know if Kanaan was speaking the truth or succumbing to pressure on the part of his captors, as government officials assert, but his statement further confirms some Syrians’ suspicions that Assad’s rivals have no real aims for the presidency but are there only to plump up an anemic field to legitimize the race. The elections may yet reveal interesting results, especially considering that nearly half the population has been displaced, and voting will not take place in opposition controlled areas. In the meantime, a look at the two men brave enough, or foolish enough, to take on Syria’s president:

Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, a former communist parliamentarian from Aleppo, was the first to nominate himself for the presidential post, and seems to take the campaigning seriously. Sort of. On his official Facebook campaign page he takes on calls from Syria’s minority Christian population to boycott the vote given that Christian candidates are excluded from running according to the country’s constitution. “Let’s speak frankly,” he admonishes his audience. “Christians in Syria have been neutral and they have not offered anything to this country in its struggle against the conspiracy… Thus, they can’t ask for a Christian president.” Calling Christian demands for the right to run “illogical,” he goes on to promise that if elected, he will guarantee all Christians “more rights.” He concludes with an exhortation to “Vote for #Maher_president_for_Syria so all sects and factions can enjoy religious freedoms.”

Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, a former member of Parliament from Damascus, is significantly more obscure. Like Hajjar, he is a member of Syria’s officially tolerated opposition. Educated in the United States, he has two masters degrees—one in management from the University of Wisconsin and another in human resources development from John F. Kennedy University in California, according to state television. He was the second candidate to post his nomination, yet he doesn’t appear to have any campaign platform at this time.

–With reporting from Hania Mourtada/ Beirut

TIME Syria

U.N. Security Council Gets Serious on Syria Aid to Limited Effect

Syria has failed to comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding access for humanitarian aid to besieged civilians, and more than 9 million people there overall are thought to need assistance, but real repercussions are unlikely unless Russia gets on board

It didn’t take long. Just two months after world powers celebrated the unanimous adoption of a groundbreaking resolution by the United Nations Security Council calling for the delivery of aid to millions of desperate Syrians, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos all but admitted defeat. “Far from getting better, the situation is getting worse. Violence has intensified over the last month, taking an horrific toll on ordinary civilians,” Amos told reporters after a closed-door Security Council briefing at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday. “I’ve told the Council that Resolution 2139 is not working,” she said, referring to the measure that even staunch Syria ally Russia had supported.

The resolution specifically demanded that the regime of President Bashar Assad cease its use of indiscriminate barrel bombs dropped on civilian areas, and threatened “further steps” if its calls to open the way for the delivery of essential humanitarian aid went unheeded. Yet just hours before the Council met, the government unleashed a barrage of barrel bombs on a school in the northern city of Aleppo, killing 20 and further underscoring the resolution’s failure to improve the situation. While some anti-government militias have prevented humanitarian access in the areas they control, the resolution was largely directed at the Syrian government, which the Council singled out for continuing to use siege tactics on civilian populations, preventing humanitarian assistance and denying medical aid—actions the council has described in the past as violations of international humanitarian law. In a 60-day assessment of the resolution’s implementation, released last week, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted, “People are dying needlessly every day,” and demanded that the Security Council “take action.”

Ban’s report, as well as assessments by a wide array of UN agencies, international aid organizations and human rights groups, shows that Syrians are still besieged, still starving, and still being denied medical assistance. “We have seen no significant change on the ground [since the resolution was implemented,]” says Vanessa Parra, Humanitarian Press Officer for Oxfam America, an international aid organization operating in Syria. “There have been some piecemeal instances of assistance getting through, which is welcome of course, but not with any predictability, and not in any way that fundamentally alters the dire humanitarian situation.”

In her remarks following the Security Council meeting, Amos called for a robust response to the Syrian regime’s intransigence. “I think the onus rests on the Council to not only recognize that reality, but to act on it,” she said. But the threat of “further steps” is increasingly looking meaningless. Any decisive action by the Security Council, such as sanctions or military action, would require another resolution, one that most certainly would invite a Russian veto.

For 27-year old Samer, an anti-regime activist from Homs who asked to go by only one name to protect his family, it is incomprehensible that any nation would hold back humanitarian access for political gain. Especially, he points out, when civilians caught in the middle of the warring sides are the starving victims. “I wish Russia would take part in constructive dialogue instead of preventing humanitarian organizations from doing their job,” he says.

According to the U.N., more than nine million Syrians — nearly half the population — are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Many are in hard to access areas or in territory held by the opposition. Yet in defiance of the U.N. resolution, the Syrian government has strictly limited access to areas outside government control, meaning that the U.N. and other international aid agencies cannot reach the populations most in need. Furthermore, the Syrian government, citing a legal justification of sovereignty, will not allow humanitarian aid to come across any rebel-held border. With all but one border post on the northern frontier with Turkey in rebel hands, and access to Jordan’s border crossings in the south similarly limited, the Syrian regime is essentially funneling all international aid deliveries through the few remaining corridors that lead to the capital Damascus, while depriving large swaths of the country of essential assistance.

The U.N. operates in Syria only with government permission, and has, until now, been beholden to regime dictates that it not access populations in need except via regime-sanctioned corridors. International humanitarian law experts challenged that practice in an open letter to the UN on April 28, saying that current conditions trump traditional practice. Kristyan Benedict, the Syria campaign manager for London-based Amnesty International, says that the humanitarian imperative is paramount. “The UN needs to reconsider its adherence to these rules. Topline, we want unfettered cross border humanitarian access. I don’t think anyone can justifiably say that the concept of state sovereignty is more important than saving lives, especially when the state claiming sovereignty continues to commit war crimes.”

Samer, the activist from Homs, says that it is time to focus on saving lives, even if that means breaking international law by going against regime wishes. “There should be an international committee to protect UN workers and they should deliver aid under international protection, no matter what the regime says,” he tells TIME via Skype. The risk is that the government can kick out the U.N. entirely if it defies regime directives, as officials have already threatened to do to international aid organizations registered in Damascus that have been caught conducting cross border operations elsewhere in the country. Aid agencies, as with the U.N., are forced to weigh the costs and benefits of defying the rules. It’s a complex calculation, says Benedict, one made more difficult by the U.N.’s political role in the country, and continuing hopes for a lasting political solution. Breaking the rules, says Benedict, “does not mean we are going to reach everyone, but the question is, could we be reaching more people than what is currently allowed by government permission?”

And if the regime does decide to retaliate by kicking out the U.N., he adds, it may make for more clarity on future Security Council decisions. “Sure, the regime authorities may tell the U.N. to get out. But if they do, it would further make the case that the government is using civilians as pawns in a political game. Totally denying access to humanitarian aid would be a clear sign that the leadership has lost all legitimacy.” And Russia, he says, at that point, may be forced to reconsider its unquestioning support for Syria.

With reporting by Hania Mourtada/ Beirut

TIME Syria

Assad Claims a ‘Turning Point’ in Syria As Military Makes Gains

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad gesture from their tank, as they pass Mar Bacchus Sarkis monastery, in Maloula village, northeast of Damascus, after taking control of the village from rebel fighters April 14, 2014.
Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad gesture from their tank, as they pass Mar Bacchus Sarkis monastery, in Maaloula village, northeast of Damascus, after taking control of the village from rebel fighters, April 14, 2014. Khaled al-Hariri—Reuters

The Syrian president claimed the military's capture of three rebel-held towns is a "turning point" in the bloody conflict. But an all-out victory for the regime is still far from guaranteed, as rebels make gains in other parts of the war-torn country

Syrian troops reclaimed the ancient Christian town of Maaloula on Monday, the crowning jewel in a series of significant military gains that had the regime of President Bashar al-Assad crowing over its pending triumph even before the smoke cleared.

The army’s swift capture of Maaloula came less than 24 hours after an Assad speech in which he claimed that the war, now in its fourth year, was going in the regime’s favor. “This is a turning point in the crisis,” President Assad told crowds gathered at Damascus University Sunday afternoon, lauding the “army’s achievements in the war against terror.”

Not long after the conclusion of his speech, Syrian government troops, accompanied by fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hizballah, moved into the few remaining towns along the Lebanese border still in rebel hands. The towns fell like dominoes, depriving opposition fighters of vital supply lines and cutting off access to the rebel-dominated suburbs around the capital, Damascus. The rebel defeat was undeniable.

Still, state TV overstepped in its enthusiasm, claiming military victory over neighboring towns like Jibbeh and Jbaadin that had never been in rebel hands in the first place, according to volunteer observers for the UK-based, anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. It appears that regime forces may have taken them pre-emptively, concerned that they might provide refuge for rebels fleeing other areas.

The town of Maaloula, which has changed hands three times since the start of the war, is an important symbol for a regime that has attempted to gain legitimacy by claiming to protect the country’s Christian minority from the threat of radical jihadists. Residents still speak Aramaic, a language dating back to the time of Jesus Christ, and the town was known for its stunning church and monastery carved out of cracks in the surrounding cliff face.

In December, rebel groups affiliated with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front kidnapped 12 nuns from the monastery. In March, the nuns were released unharmed in exchange for scores of government detainees. As they left the nuns praised their former captors, and blessed them in their endeavors in TV appearances — an indication, perhaps, that the rebels were not quite the devils that the regime made them out to be.

Maaloula may have fallen, but all-out victory for the regime is still not guaranteed. Government forces have all but secured a vital corridor linking Damascus to Latakia province on the coast, a stronghold of the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs, but rebel brigades have made inroads in the province’s north, threatening a refuge once thought impregnable. Last month rebels captured the sole remaining government-controlled border post with Turkey, cementing their control of Syria’s entire northern border.

But Assad remains defiant. His comments at Damascus University on Sunday, combined with the regime’s assertions that presidential elections will be announced shortly, make it clear that he will not budge, despite repeated international calls to stand down and reconcile with his opposition. Even if the regime does manage to reclaim significant parts of the country, victory will be hollow. According to a UN report, the Syrian economy is likely to take 30 years to recover to pre-war levels, and that is only if the war ends now. The country’s health system has collapsed, according to Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, and a looming drought threatens to deprive a further 2 million Syrians of food this year, according to the World Food Program.

With more than 150,000 dead, thousands missing, nine million displaced and al Qaeda digging deep roots in the country’s northeast, staying in power may take a worse toll on Assad’s government than letting go.

TIME Syria

The World Shrugs at Alleged Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

A man, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, breathes through an oxygen mask inside a field hospital in Kfar Zeita village in the central province of Hama, April 12, 2014.
A man, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, breathes through an oxygen mask inside a field hospital in Kfar Zeita village in the central province of Hama, April 12, 2014. Reuters

The Syrian regime and the opposition agree that an attack took place in Kfar Zeita, but they each blame each other. Given the political situation, the truth may never be known.

It’s not often that the Syrian regime and opposition groups fighting for its downfall can agree on something. But when it comes to the alleged April 11 chemical attack on the rebel-held village of Kfar Zeita, neither side has any doubt it happened. What they can’t agree upon is who is to blame. Video footage taken from a local field hospital and published online by anti-regime activists shows scenes of chaos and terror, as harried medical workers pass oxygen masks around a crowded room and struggle to revive pale, listless patients lying on the floor between hospital gurneys. Toddlers, stacked four to a bed, cough and scream in fear if they aren’t laying unnaturally still. It is impossible to tell for certain what happened, but existing footage indicates some sort of chemical agent may have been involved. “A helicopter came and dropped a container,” says anti-regime activist Abdallah Abu Raed via Skype from Kfar Zeita, describing the scene on Friday. “A sort of yellow dust spread in the sky and coated everything. You can’t really distinguish the smell because as soon as you inhale it you pass out.” The noxious substance affected some 150 people, he says, and by Monday afternoon, several victims had been transferred to neighboring Turkey for treatment. Two children and an old man had died, he says.

Within hours of the alleged attack, opposition leaders were blaming the Syrian government, saying the military had added chlorine gas to its by now habitual deployment of improvised barrel bombs full of explosives and shrapnel dropped from aircraft flying over rebellious civilian areas. The next day state-run television responded with reports that the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front had orchestrated the attacks, and that the rebel group was planning further attacks on other towns. The state-owned news agency did not say from where it had obtained the information, but on April 1 – ten days before the attack – Syria’s representative to the United Nations in New York, Bashar al-Jaafari, claimed that Syrian government authorities had intercepted phone calls between militant groups planning to launch chemical attacks in order to frame the government.

Taleb Abu al-Hasan, commander of the local 111 rebel regiment in Kfar Zeita, tells TIME via Skype that such pre-emptive accusations are standard government propaganda. “Whenever the regime is about to do this, they blame someone else ahead of time to deflect blame before the attack takes place.” The rebels, he adds, are bracing for a similar attack in the nearby town of Morek, “because the regime is saying that their intelligence has gathered evidence that al-Nusra is planning to use [chemical weapons] there.” The towns of Kfar Zeita and Morek have been thorns in the side of regime forces since the rebels seized them several months ago. They threaten a key supply line to military units vital for maintaining government control over the northern town of Aleppo, says al-Hasan, and that’s why he believes they are likely to be next of the regime’s hit-list. It’s simply too convenient, he suggests, that Morek, which is already under rebel control, is threatened by another chemical attack by the al-Nusra Front.

If past cases of alleged chemical attacks are anything to go by, there may never be definitive proof of culpability for the Kfar Zeita attack, or any subsequent attacks, for that matter. It may impossible to prove that any chemical agents were used it all. It took months for U.N. investigators to determine that a chemical weapons attack had actually taken place on Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburbs, even after hundreds had died from apparent symptoms of exposure to toxic substances. Even then investigators were not able to assign blame. Figuring out what happened in Kfar Zeita, about 200 km north of Damascus in contested territory, will be even more difficult given ongoing war, the region’s inaccessibility and the unwillingness of either side to let go of the propaganda opportunities presented by continued ambiguity.

The U.S., for the moment, has been cautious in assigning blame. “We are trying to run this down,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on the U.S. weekly television news program ‘This Week.’ “So far, it’s unsubstantiated, but we’ve seen, I think, in the past that we will do everything in our power to establish what has happened and then consider possible steps in response.”

Of course, “possible steps” are likely to be limited. Under a deal brokered by ally Russia, President Bashar Assad agreed to give up Syria’s substantial chemical arsenal by June 30 in order to avert a U.S. military response in the wake of the August attack. (The Syrian regime blamed the rebels for that attack as well). And the U.S. and its Western allies may not want to issue fresh threats against the Assad regime now that Syria is on the brink of reaching the goal of relinquishing its chemical weapons — today the organization overseeing Syria’s compliance, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, announced that 65 percent of Syria’s chemical stockpiles had been removed from the country. “All of these countries have a vested interest in seeing Syria disarmed,” says chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders. “Right now that is the biggest priority, which is why I am thinking no one will want to rock the boat over this issue right now.”

With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

TIME Syria

Syrian Rebels Appear to Have a New Type of U.S.-made Anti-Tank Weapon

The recent appearance of an American anti-tank missile on the social media of a Syrian rebel group fighting the government of President Bashar Assad raises questions about U.S. assistance in the war, and its effectiveness

For all the weapons currently in use in the Syrian war, few are American made. It’s emblematic of strict U.S. control over the manufacture and distribution of weapons of war. But the recent appearance on YouTube of a uniquely American anti-tank missile being launched by a moderate rebel group fighting the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria has fostered speculation that the U.S. or its allies may have finally started arming the rebels. For months, U.S. security officials have leaked information to journalists about the supply of light arms to moderate rebels in Syria’s southern areas, and congressional approval for further deliveries through September. This is possibly the first evidence of the American armaments in use in Syria, though their appearance in the northern province of Idlib, far from the U.S. approved rebel group’s area of operations is a disconcerting development. So far only three instances of the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missile in rebel use have appeared on social media sites coming out of Syria, so it’s impossible to know how widespread the weapon’s distribution is, or if its just a one-off. Still, it raises questions about whether or not such weapons would even make a difference in a war that is nearing unshakable stalemate.

“It’s potentially a very significant development. These missiles have not been seen before in Syria,” says Charles Lister, a specialist on the Syrian conflict and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center think tank, who first wrote about the missiles in IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. Even if the weapons were passed to the rebels from a government that bought them legitimately from the U.S., strict regulations apply to their transfer. “Even if country like Saudi had decided to send these to the rebels, technically the U.S., and [President] Obama would have known about it and given its blessing,” says Lister. It is of course possible that the missiles in question were bought on the black market, and as long as the number of star turns on social media sites run by rebels stay low, that is the most likely scenario. Even if the U.S. or its allies didn’t want to advertise the fact that they were supplying weapons to the rebels, the ubiquity of social media on the Syrian battlefield would mean that their distribution wouldn’t stay secret for long.

Either way, the missiles will not turn the war, says Lister. Anti-tank missiles are a formidable weapon, to be sure, but they can’t take down the aircraft or helicopters that give the Syrian military its superiority. A missile may be able to take out a tank five kilometers away, “but in terms of the entire conflict, even in large numbers they will not be a game changer,” says Lister. More reassuringly, should they fall into the wrong hands, they are unlikely to be useful for terror groups in Syria bent on attacking Western targets.

If anything, says Lister, the appearance of these particular weapons in the Syrian battle space only serves to underscore the futility of arming rebels this late in the conflict. Now that the Syrian military has regained control of most of the southwestern parts of the country, linking the capital, Damascus, to the coastal enclave of Latakia that is home to Assad’s Alawite sect, the government is feeling much more secure. Meanwhile, the opposition has cemented control in the east of the country, and it is unlikely that the government will ever be able to take it back. “We are now at the stage where the stalemate is well consolidated,” says Lister. “Should the U.S. or its allies want to change that dynamic, it would be an inherently complex and mammoth effort, and I am not sure the United States wants the opposition to win militarily anymore.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that the U.S. will cut off supplies. More likely, it will only keep the tap open enough to allow the rebels some maneuvering room for future negotiations.

TIME Syria

Syrians, In Their Own Words

A Damascus-based documentary film collective combats the clichés of war with intimate portraits of anonymous Syrians who bare their souls to camera

When the short film “Of God and Dogs” took the Short Film Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January, no one should have been surprised. A powerful piece that explores murder, guilt and an unusual quest for redemption, it was the kind of film that that seemed destined for critical acclaim. But the filmmakers weren’t some budding auteurs fresh out of film school. “Of God and Dogs” was produced by the Abounaddara Collective, a group of Syrian social activists and documentary makers based in Damascus who decided to combat the standard media narratives about the conflict in the country with intimate portraits of anonymous citizens—both inside Syria and in exile. The short films, ranging in length from 26 seconds to 12 minutes, address themes as varied as a woman’s reasons for taking off the veil to the confession of a young Free Syrian Army soldier who killed a man he knew to be innocent—the subject of “Of Gods and Dogs.” New videos are posted every Friday on Vimeo.

Abounaddara is the Arabic nickname for a man with glasses, a reference that reflects the peculiar take on the world when it is seen through the eyes of filmmakers more interested, according to the collective’s manifesto, in “stories of everyday life [rather] than in grand narratives.” Though the content isn’t overtly political, members of the collective prefer to remain anonymous, a stance that has its roots in the pre-war days when the artistic freedom of Abounaddara’s filmmakers was at risk of being curtailed by government censorship. Founded four years ago, most of the collective’s pieces are posted online only. The subjects are unnamed, as is the location of filming. Most take place in Syria, or among Syrian refugees in neighboring countries.

Some of the collective’s early, pre-war pieces are elegantly produced portraits of Damascus’ artisans and laborers, a celebration of an art and culture that is likely to be forever stolen by a conflict that has seen so much destroyed. Each is cleverly titled. The “Smiters For Damascus,” about the ancient craft of brass hammering, warns in a subtitle, “Enemies, take flight! The Damasceneurs are striking back.”

The Smiters for Damascus from abounaddara on Vimeo.

Another piece, ostensibly about a traditional fabric painter in an old Syrian souk, captures a spirited exchange in which a potential client asks for a widows’ discount. The fabric painter tartly responds that he is a widower too, at which point the widow’s daughter weighs in with the offer of her mother in marriage, as a way to score a cheaper price. Like all the other pieces by the collective, there is no narration. The subjects reveal their characters through their own voices, and invite the viewer to join in their laughter as the mix of commerce and marriage proposals takes an uproarious turn.

The Stamp Man’s Last Stand from abounaddara on Vimeo.

But art, no matter how much it attempts to eschew politics, cannot stand apart from the kind of violence and destruction that has rocked Syria over the past three years. More recent pieces reflect the country’s new reality, even as the short films attempt to break free from the shadow of the war. In “Snapshots From History In the Making,” a Syrian protestor is caught in the middle of an existential crisis by an aerial bomb attack in his neighborhood. He doesn’t even flinch as a round of detonations shake the pink walls of his room. “It won’t be long,” he says matter-of-factly. “The plane will pause, then it will come back for a second raid.”

The short films are by turns poetic, poignant, inspiring or, in the case of a 26-second video in which the camera hovers over the shrouded corpse of a child who starved to death in a besieged part of Yarmouk, depressing. Some are all of those things at once. “Death is so ubiquitous that we cling to life even more,” says a middle-age exile in the 3-minute soliloquy that makes up “Confessions of a Woman.” She admits to the shame of living in a borrowed apartment even as she speaks of recently falling in love—for the first time. “Now I tell myself, I’m sorry that I didn’t do it sooner.”

Even though the collective’s work shies away from overtly partisan statements, a theme of fierce independence and a love for Syria’s multi-sectarian fabric shines through, particularly in pieces poking fun at Islamist rebels who would remake Syria in their own image. “The Islamic State for Dummies” allows one such fundamentalist to hang by his own noose as he struggles to explain why establishing an Islamic state in Syria does not mean taking the country back 1,400 years. “Whoever opposes cutting a thief’s hand,” he says, defending Islamic law, “It means that you are a thief or want to steal without accountability.”

Another thought-provoking piece, titled “Marcell,” allows the pro-rebel female protagonist to justify her decision to stop wearing a veil the moment Islamist rebels in her town started demanding it. “I will not yield,” she declares, her thick hair tumbling in curls around her shoulders. “Do we want to leave the fate of our children up to the military?” she asks, referring to Islamist militants. “If so, we might as well do it now, by reconciling with the regime.”

While some of the documentaries are clearly well produced affairs complete with music and deft editing, most are uncut and unrehearsed. They are delivered straight to camera, visible evidence of the preoccupations of a people determined not to be defined by war, but to live in spite of it. “War or no war, we’re still hip, right?” a beautician and teacher asks her class as she demonstrates how to craft an elegant wedding updo in a darkened bunker.

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