TIME Syria

Syria Looks Across The Border As Violence Engulfs Iraq

Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16.
AP Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16.

The common belief among Syrian government figures and rebels is that the rise of ISIS stems from America’s inability to react decisively to its civil war

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the ultra-extremist Sunni group with a firmly entrenched presence on either side of the Syrian-Iraqi border, demonstrated a sobering military prowess over the past week. Their battle-hardened forces swept into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and proceeded to capture a number of key cities as they made the trek south toward the capital Baghdad.

But to Syrians engulfed in their own bloody struggle next door, with a mostly Sunni insurgency battling government forces backed by Shiite militants, the surprise offensive revealed less about the extraordinary power of ISIS and more about the inconstancy of the U.S. Though Syria may be a deeply polarized country, there is a common thread that runs through the divergent narratives of the regime and its opposition; that America’s wavering stance toward recent events in Syria has catalyzed extremism and propelled ISIS to prominence.

Maria Saadeh, a member of the Syrian parliament, told TIME in a phone interview that recent events in Iraq speak to the failures of American policy in the region, illustrating that the West needs to collaborate with President Bashar Assad to check the influence of extremists. If the U.S. really cared about stemming the tide of Sunni extremists into Iraq, she said, then now would be the time to prove it by joining forces with Assad and his allies. Otherwise, the U.S. will have revealed its nefarious scheme to intentionally plunge the region into a senseless cycle of violence.

“The Americans have been hesitating for a long time. Obama has done more harm than good by announcing he would intervene against ISIS then backpedalling,” she said.

The Syrian opposition, however, claimed they have been warning its friends in Washington about this moment for three years. This is a day of reckoning for Americans, says Ahmad Ramadan, a senior member of the National Coalition. The United States could have contained the terrorist threat early on when the Syrian opposition offered to fight ISIS on its behalf.

Yet the U.S. consistently refused to funnel military aid to moderate rebels under the pretext that it could fall into the wrong hands, he said. As a result, moderate fighters were left unequipped and the extremist group, dominated by foreigners, acquired swathes of territory in northern Syria, dealt a severe blow to rival rebel factions and overshadowed the uprising against president Assad’s rule.

“I told Hillary Clinton in 2011 that if they don’t help us fill the void in Syria, al-Qaeda will step in,” he said.

To the Syrian fighters, ISIS’s grandiose dream of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the Levant has sabotaged their humble goal of overthrowing Assad. They had to divert their scarce resources and manpower to neutralize ISIS fighters, paving the way for government forces to recapture lost territory. “When the rebels attempted to stem ISIS advances, the U.S. failed to provide the weaponry needed for an operation of this magnitude,” said Ramadan.

The possibility that President Obama will order military strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq has rebel forces in Syria wondering just how friendly the U.S. really is to their cause. “If the U.S. intervenes now to strike ISIS while leaving the regime unscathed, it will convey to Syrians that it’s not the killed who matter, but rather one brand of killers,” said Omar Abu Layla, an 25-year-old activist who recently fled Deir Ezzor.

No one in Syria feels the wrath of ISIS more than the inhabitants of the Eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which borders Iraq. Residents in the provincial capital are trapped between Assad’s forces who hold the south and the west of the suburbs, and ISIS which controls the oil-rich north and east. Local women are reportedly selling their jewelry to buy ammunition for the fighters, and activists constantly worry about hearing the blood-curdling ISIS slogan “It is staying and it will expand”.

“All they need is to take all of Deir Ezzor to connect the supply lines from Mosul to Raqqa,” said al-Furat a 26-year-old activist in Deir Ezzor. “If that happens, good luck to God trying to dislodge them.”

For their Iraqi brethren, Syrian rebels have one word of advice. In Iraq, widespread Sunni discontent with Prime Minister Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government has catapulted ISIS to the forefront of the rebellion, but embittered Syrian rebels who sympathize with their co-religionists’ plight in Iraq warn them not to succumb to a marriage of convenience with ISIS.

“I support the uprising of our Sunni brothers in Iraq against Maliki,” said Abu Thabet a 31-year-old fighter in Aleppo suburbs. “But beware of today’s allies, for they are tomorrow’s enemies.”

TIME Syria

Assad Poised to Take Over Former Rebel Stronghold

Syrian opposition fighters have begun to evacuate the old city center of Homs, under siege for two years, back into the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, in return for safe passage out for 2,200 rebel fighters and their families

Nearly two years into a choking siege, weakened rebel fighters in the central Syrian city of Homs have capitulated to regime forces, delivering the last remaining rebel enclaves of the old city center into the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in exchange for the safe passage out of the city of some 2,200 rebel fighters and their families. Preparations for the the United Nations-brokered agreement went into effect Wednesday morning, a day after government forces had started the process of clearing opposition-planted landmines to prepare for the fighters’ evacuation to rebel-controlled areas in Syria’s north, according to the Lebanon-based, pro Syrian government news channel Al-Mayadeen.

As part of the deal, an opposition brigade in the northern city of Aleppo has reportedly agreed to release dozens of pro-regime Iranian hostages and to allow aid convoys to reach two Shiite villages that have been under siege by rebel forces for a little over a year. Control of Homs does not portend an immediate government victory in the brutal civil war, but may be a harbinger of things to come for a deeply divided opposition that does not appear to have a broader military strategy in place.

Rebels are attempting to portray the deal less as a military defeat and more as a strategic compromise. Anti-regime activists say that besieged residents have been so weakened by the siege, which has caused chronic shortages of food there. “Revolutionaries inside have nothing at all. You would think it’s impossible for them to survive, but they did for two years,” says Samer al-Homsi, a 27-year-old activist in Homs who goes by a pseudonym to protect his identity. “At this point, they are facing sure death so it’s best for them to leave and maybe resume the fight later. For them it does feel like a victory that they’ve managed to survive.”

In practical terms, the deal appears to offer the best possible outcome for the rebels considering their position, says Syria analyst Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group. “Given that rebels lacked the means to gain ground within the city or to secure their exit militarily, this safe passage holds clear value.” Still, says al-Homsi, the capitulation will be a permanent “lump lodged in the rebels’ throats. Homs was known as the capital of the revolution.”

For Assad, just a month away from a presidential election he is expected to win, Homs’ defeat has great symbolic value, says Bonsey. “Homs was central to the growth and spread of the uprising in 2011, and the regime’s return to the old quarter will surely feature prominently in its propaganda as Assad’s ‘reelection’ approaches.” Even Syria’s Ministry of Tourism is getting ahead of itself. The state news agency quoted minister Bashir Yazigi as he discussed plans to revive the tourism sector in Homs and predicted “a prosperous tourist season.”

Twenty-one-year-old Homs activist Bebars al-Talawy says residents are devastated that they have been forced to cede to an army that has destroyed their neighborhoods. Many, he says, feel the international community is largely to blame. “The U.N. delegation has turned from a defender of human rights to a tool used to cover up the ethnic cleansing being carried out by the regime,” he says, speaking via Skype. “Their complicity is what led us to give up.”

Most civilians left three months ago under an earlier U.N.-brokered truce. The few who chose to stay behind describe an emaciated and demoralized populace subsisting on little more than seeds, spices and herbs. Their daily struggle has even inspired a humorous Facebook page called “Siege Recipes”, which chronicles the starving residents’ culinary adventures and experimentation with unlikely ingredients. Insects, grilled to perfection, and broiled turtle meat are a mainstay of several dishes that are photographed and uploaded to the page.

The truce, which was expected to go into effect at the weekend, had been repeatedly postponed until today’s breakthrough. Complications are rife; armed hardline regime supporters might shoot at the buses transporting rebels to the countryside, worries one activist. Al-Homsi has another concern. “Yes, rebels have been granted safe passage to the countryside, but they are simply going from one area of death to another. The regime will just finish them off with airstrikes,” he says.


Influx of Refugees Fans Xenophobia Among Some Lebanese

Bilal Hussein—AP Syrian refugee Yahya, speaks to journalists at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registration center in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, April 3, 2014. The teenager from central Syria became the one millionth Syrian refugee to register in Lebanon.

With the conflict in Syria now in its fourth year, some Lebanese are growing increasingly hostile to the million Syrians taking refuge in their country

When Dima Wannous, a 32-year-old Syrian novelist and daughter of the renowned Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, hailed a taxi in Beirut on April 15 she did not expect her ride would end with the Lebanese driver assaulting her. Everything was going fine until a radio news bulletin mentioned that three journalists, working for Al-Manar, a TV station operated by the Shia militant group Hizballah, had been killed while covering the war in neighboring Syria. Wannous made a casual comment on the harrowing political conflict linking the two countries.

“The Sayed should not interfere in Syria,” said the driver, referring to Hasan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s secretary-general, by his honorific title. “He should let the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [an al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group] grind you and your children to little pieces. Get out of here and go back to Syria, you dogs.” The driver then turned around and punched her in the face, according to her account, which she later posted on Facebook and confirmed in an email.

Such incidents are becoming increasingly common in Lebanon with the rise of the Syrian refugee population, which many Lebanese blame for a recent rise in crime.

“The increase in numbers has increased xenophobia,” says Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We have definitely seen an increase in things like locally-imposed curfews.” He cautions that much of what is pinned on Syrians is based on unfounded rumors, and that local politicians had been blaming Syrians for the country’s problems long before the arrival of large numbers of refugees. “To date, I have yet to see any statistical evidence that the dramatic increase in numbers has had a large impact on crime. There are anecdotes and plenty of fear spreading, but little hard data,” says Houry.

Still, obscene graffiti exhorting Syrians to go home is a common sight. At least four mayors have imposed strict curfews on Syrian workers residing in small towns. Anecdotes abound of altercations between Syrians and Lebanese ranging from snide remarks to outright physical assault. The driver who lashed out at Wannous was pro-Hizballah, she claims. Passersby stood by watching in silence as Wannous was unceremoniously thrown out of the car marking a grim end to her brief visit to Beirut from Istanbul, where she lives.

Hizballah has sustained considerable losses in Syria while fighting alongside the Syrian government and against a largely Sunni insurgency. As a result, many in Hizballah’s mostly Shiite constituency in Lebanon harbor deep resentment toward Sunni Syrians, whom they have come to view as a dangerous threat to their very existence. A recent spate of car bombings targeting majority Shiite neighborhoods in Lebanon has further exacerbated existing schisms.

Some in Lebanon fear that Syrians will permanently implant themselves and compound economic woes. The constant trickle of refugees is putting a strain on a war-damaged infrastructure, stretching the country’s scarce resources and worsening its ailing economy. And as Lebanon struggles to cope, some prominent public figures have suggested that refugees be forcibly relocated back to “safe” areas in war-torn Syria.

“Why not install some camps for them in Syrian territory where there is security? The area of Syria is 20 times greater than that of Lebanon,” said Cardinal Beshara al-Rai, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian Church, earlier this month at a press conference. “They take all the work from the Lebanese people.”

Some Lebanese politicians have expressed the same sentiment. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has argued against allowing Syrians to stay in Lebanon in the longterm, and has also proposed resettling them outside Lebanese territory.

But some Lebanese, more sympathetic to the plight of their neighbors, have accused corrupt politicians of fostering apprehension about Syrians in order to deflect attention from their own failures to remedy the country’s social, economic and political problems. Syrian refugees have become convenient scapegoats, they say.

The discrimination has become so pervasive of late that it has prompted sympathetic Lebanese citizens to rephrase offensive graffiti, create educational videos and launch a social media campaign to counteract the prevailing discourse that underpins negative perceptions of Syrians among some Lebanese.

In a video widely circulated by activists, young Lebanese people appear in succession, against a plain background, as they utter simple statements explaining why the country’s ills cannot be blamed on Syrians. “If my country can’t be self-sufficient, the fault lies with the authorities. It shouldn’t blame its failures on the refugees,” says one young woman in the video.

On a Facebook page called The Campaign in Support of Syrians Facing Racism, created earlier this month, a Lebanese man has posted a photograph of himself in which he’s holding a banner that reads: “I once met a Syrian who made us both proud.”

Houry thinks such campaigns send a strong message to both refugees and their host communities and should be amplified. “But, ultimately, Lebanon’s decision-makers need to develop a real policy towards refugees which would promote their rights while also objectively assessing the impact of the refugee crisis on host communities,” he said.

But not all of the anti-Syrian animosity can be solely attributed to economic and security concerns, sectarian tension or even politicians’ cunning statements. It is also deeply rooted in old grievances. Many Lebanese citizens have not forgotten the Syrian security apparatus’ violent interference in their political affairs, a meddling that lasted for nearly three decades following the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Damascus would often empower favored Lebanese politicians who in return facilitated Syria’s infringement on Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Violence periodically erupts in some overburdened areas. Last December, residents of Qsarnaba, a village in eastern Lebanon, set a tent encampment on fire after accusing Syrians of raping a mentally-disabled Lebanese man. The allegations turned out to be false. A doctor who examined the mentally-disabled man saw no evidence of rape, and a Lebanese local resident later told the press that the perpetrators had cooked up this pretext to chase out the refugees from their town.

With the Syrian conflict now in its fourth year, the situation could worsen as the influx of refugees continues. “There is not a single country in the world today that is shouldering as much in proportion to its size as Lebanon,” said Ninette Kelley, the regional representative for Lebanon for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, during a recent visit to Washington. “If this country is not bolstered, then the very real prospect of it collapsing and the conflict of Syria spreading full force to Lebanon becomes much more likely.”

TIME Syria

Rebels Reassure Christians After Capturing Key Syrian Border Town

A rebel fighter checks a launcher near the village of Kessab and the border crossing with Turkey, in the northwestern province of Latakia, on March 23, 2014. Rebels seized Kessab a day later.
Amr Radwan al-Homsi—AFP/Getty Images A rebel fighter checks a launcher near the village of Kessab and the border crossing with Turkey, in the northwestern province of Latakia, on March 23, 2014. Rebels seized Kessab a day later.

Kessab, the latest Christian-majority town to fall to rebels, has become the newest focal point of a media war pitting the Assad regime against a splintered opposition, as rebels seek to dispel the perception that they are intolerant of Syria's religious minorities

It wasn’t long after several Syrian rebel battalions overran the Armenian-Christian town of Kessab, on the border between Syria and Turkey, that apocalyptic reports of looting, abduction and mass murder started appearing in news accounts around the world. “Reports Cite 80 Dead in Kessab; Churches Desecrated,” read one headline in the diasporic Los Angeles-based Asbarez newspaper. Christian residents who had fled to nearby towns told reporters they later called home only to have rebels pick up to tauntingly tell them they had nice furniture and tasty food.

It has become a familiar trope in the Syrian conflict. Islamist rebels launch a string of military offensives against a Christian-majority town to root out government forces there, the latter respond by indiscriminately bombarding the town, residents run for their lives, and the government is quick to portray it as another incident of ethnic cleansing carried out by foreign-sponsored fundamentalists. Lately, however, rebels have been making a concerted effort to counter such claims, in online published statements, and, more often, on YouTube. “[This is] the church of the Armenians in Kessab after its liberation,” one rebel videographer narrated as he took viewers on a video tour of one of the city’s perfectly intact churches a day after rebels took the town. Islam, he declared proudly, teaches respect for all religions, including Christianity. “The jihadist brothers do not harm anyone. This is our religion and this is our Islam.”

Coastal Kessab, the northernmost town in the government stronghold of Latakia province, has become the latest flashpoint in a battle between regime forces and rebels determined to secure Syria’s entire northern border. It has also become the war’s latest ideological battleground, as both sides attempt to craft competing narratives in a race to come out on top, not just militarily but also morally. For all the anguished reports of persecuted Armenian Christians trumpeted by Syrian and international media outlets, few concrete details have emerged. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-government monitoring organization that has tracked casualties throughout the conflict, makes no note of dead civilians. Nor is there any photographic or video proof of destroyed churches in Kessab to date. Most Christians, according to activists and residents, fled long before the fighting started, leaving behind a deserted town.

“Contrary to what the flashy Asbarez headlines will have you believe, the rebels didn’t come in to slaughter Armenians and destroy their churches,” writes Filor Nigo, an Iraqi-Armenian activist based in the U.S, on Facebook. “Kessab is a strategically important point in this military conflict…Syria is engulfed in war and Armenians in Syria cannot honestly believe that these events would not affect them.”

Increasingly aware of their unflattering image in the media, moderate rebels are beginning to realize the necessity of deflecting regime propaganda. They are circulating a message which, whether genuine or not, borrows from the language of international human rights law to reassure observers. They insist they are waging their warfare according to universal principles even as the government portrays a different reality.

“Considering the interests and well-being of the Syrian population are our most important priorities, we confirm our commitment to international human fights law by focusing on military targets and protecting all civil institutions including schools, hospitals, places of worship, and houses,” read a recently-circulated social media statement, signed by three major rebel factions including the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. The statement has since been removed from its original source, with no explanation, but various clips, with a similar message, are still available on YouTube.

One such clip shows a stilted exchange between Islamist fighters and three elderly Christian people as they venture out of a building. The rebels shout reassurances at them while the activist behind the camera keeps reiterating that this shows how the rebels are keeping Kessab residents safe. The latter however are visibly perturbed, if not frightened, and the exchange appears somewhat forced as if playing out solely for the screen.

Of course, attempts to reassure minorities by the mostly Sunni opposition are far from new, writes Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in a recent blog post. “Opposition leaders have spoken publicly and eloquently about their vision of a Syria where citizenship will trump all other forms of political identification, and where Syria’s ethnic and sectarian diversity will be protected and celebrated.” It’s a comforting vision, but members of Syria’s minority groups still fear that it will never make the leap from policy statement to real-world implementation. The insurgency, plagued by deep schisms, has yet to demonstrate a unified coherent message. “There is a large disparity in how different rebel groups envision treating minorities,” says Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia which promotes American interests in the Middle East. “For the jihadi groups, for example, Alawites are branded as apostates and Christians are definitely second-class citizens. Other rebel coalitions speak of protecting minorities within the framework of Islamic law, but that hardly reassures those minorities.” More generally, he concludes, “anti-Alawite and anti-Shi’a sentiment has become mainstream within the insurgency.”

That breakdown in messaging is readily apparent in Kessab. Even as some rebel groups refute regime propaganda with media-savvy and conciliatory takes, others have no qualms describing their mission in overtly sectarian terms. In one clip, a Saudi rebel commander in the Nusra Front, standing near a sign that reads “Welcome to Kessab,” promises that the Nusayris, a derogatory term for Assad’s Alawite minority sect, shall be defeated at the hands of the Sunni Muslims. “You have your planes, but we have God with us.”

The dizzying array of contradictory clips and statements which have emerged in the wake of the Kessab takeover reveal two conflicting currents within the insurgency: defiant ideologically-driven fighters whose declared mission is a struggle against “apostates” rather than democracy are sabotaging the images of coexistence that moderate leaders are putting forward. The question is whether enough factions will ever rally behind one straightforward message.

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