Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012
Ghaith Abdul Ahad is superb. This is a must see.
Syria Orders Schools to Open, but Classes Give Way to War
By an EMPLOYEE of THE NEW YORK TIMES in SYRIA and KAREEM FAHIM.
DAMASCUS, Syria — At one Syrian school, in the Damascus suburbs, students were so scarce this week that teachers spent most of the last few days sitting around and drinking tea.
On the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo, the teachers just stayed home. The schools had been transformed into shelters for residents displaced by fighting, and in any case, one teacher said, there were more “more pressing concerns” than school.
Other schools had been taken over by rebel fighters, and throughout Syria, more than 2,000 school buildings had been destroyed or damaged in the war.
In an attempt to project calm in the midst of relentless violence, Syria’s Education Ministry ordered schools to open this week. Instead of calm, however, the schools reflected what had happened in the rest of the country during the summer: the fighting had grown worse, the routines of daily life more dangerous and education had become one more casualty of the unrest.
On Sunday, the education minister said that more than five million Syrian students had returned so far. But certainly tens of thousands, if not more, stayed away. Teachers and parents said that educators and students were too scared to return, or unable to, since the schools themselves were occupied, destroyed or inaccessible.
“The Syrian government promised that everything would be O.K., that they will finish the ‘criminal gangs’ before the beginning of the educational year,” said a teacher at a school in a Damascus refugee camp, using a term the government uses to describe its opponents.
“What happened is the opposite,” she said. The fighting grew worse and rolled through the neighborhood and surrounding areas, sending more and more families to shelter in the schools.
Last week, Unicef, citing government estimates, said that of the country’s 22,000 schools, at least 10 percent were damaged, destroyed or occupied by displaced families. In Homs, parents said that classes had started in only a few schools; in one private school, the families living there simply moved to an upper floor. In the Damascus suburb of Barza, one or two schools took students in shifts, to make up for all the schools that were closed.
Different challenges faced Syrians who had fled the country, including to Lebanon, where officials are struggling with a vexing issue: how to teach Syrian students, accustomed to classes in Arabic, in Lebanese schools where science and math classes are taught in English or French.
“When you ask young people about school, they say they’re afraid of the language,” said Soha Boustani, a spokeswoman for Unicef. Last year, she said, the dropout rate for seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade Syrian students in Lebanese schools was 70 percent, with the language barriers being a major cause.
Syrian students also face discrimination, from Lebanese teachers and students, and resentment from local residents in impoverished parts of the country where the school system is already overburdened.
Syrian rebels reportedly defeated government troops in a battle at a post on the Turkish border. Opposition activists reported the Syrian military attacked several southwestern, northwestern, and southern suburbs of Damascus, forcing opposition forces to pull out of three southern districts. The Syrian army additionally bombarded many central areas around the Old City of Aleppo.
September 18, 2012
The battle in Syria is being fought by rebel fighters who lack many of the basics typically associated with warfare: helmets, a large supply of ammo, and military planning.
“I was with one fighter who had 11 bullets, and he was, like, roaming as a freelance fighter along the front line trying to pick up a fight somewhere,” journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad tells Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.
Abdul-Ahad describes the situation in Syria as fluid and complicated. A correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian, Abdul-Ahad reported for the PBS Frontline documentary The Battle for Syria, which airs Tuesday.
“There is chaos, there is no military planning, there is no organization,” he says. “Most of the skirmishes happen like a game of cat and mouse: The tank is the cat. When the tank moves down street, the rebels disperse, run away, try to ambush the tank, they go from a corner to a corner. Meantime, there is shelling [and] mortars raining on them.”
Abdul-Ahad has covered conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq for the past nine years — and he says he hasn’t seen such disorder and violence since reporting on Fallujah during the Iraq War in 2004.
“In other conflicts, you meet people and then you hear they died after a few weeks, months, years,” he says. “In Syria, you meet someone in the morning and they die at the end of the day. As one of the officers was saying: ‘The only thing we have plenty of to spend is men.’ ”
The Battle for Syria is an up-close look at insurgents fighting government forces in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city.
Abdul-Ahad says most of the fighters he has met — some of whom are jihadis, secularists or Salafists — are “just driven by the spirit of the Arab Spring, the spirit of the revolution … fighting to topple [Bashar] Assad because they wanted a form of dignity. They were tired of being ruled like sheep, enslaved by one family, one ruling party.”
Analysis: Donors not walking the talk on humanitarian aid to Syria
by Heba Aly [Heba@IRINnews.org] and /cb
….Why has the funding for the UN and others lagged? Few humanitarian crises receive the attention and engagement of the world that Syria has….
“Nobody wants to strengthen the Assad regime by sending aid,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and curator of a widely-read blog on Syrian affairs. “The Western strategy is to starve the regime and feed the opposition. That, of course, is impossible to do without starving all of Syria. Sanctions are a very blunt tool, and they are meant to weaken the regime to get Syrians to revolt against it.
“The trouble is if you help people inside Syria, you have to be in coordination with the Syrian government and that legitimizes the Syrian government. It is a matter of priorities. Do you want regime-change or to feed people?”…
“The problem is access,” one Western donor said. “[The UN’s] definition of access is different than the definition of the donors. We need more reporting: Not just, `We distributed aid here or there’, but: Are we sure the aid is really reaching the most vulnerable? Are we financing the government or the Free Syrian Army? … Where is the accountability? Where is the impartiality of aid?… Don’t give me lists of beneficiaries. Just give me details.”
Others have raised questions about the “local partners” that are cited but not identified by many aid agencies.
But for one Western aid worker, this is a front: “In my view, there is a total lack of political will on funding. They are just waiting for Assad to fall… Donors are using access as an excuse.”….
But for Peter Harling, analyst with the International Crisis Group, none of these explanations hold true.
“There is basically no explanation other than hypocrisy. The needs are huge in Syria and there is no doubt that a humanitarian crisis will provoke further radicalization and collapse of this fragile society. An expansive indigenous civil society has developed and matured, which there is every reason to support; and the outpouring of ostentatious sympathy for the Syrian people’s plight should prompt equally pressing action on the ground. But the fact is that our governments satisfy themselves with empty statements and insincere pledges.”
A panel of four or five journalists and experts will join Abeer in discussing the terrible humanitarian consequences of the conflict and complex relief operation underway to each them with assistance. The Google Hangout will take place Thursday at 12pm NY time and last approximately 45 minutes. We’ll be broadcasting the event live on our Google Plus page (http://plus.google.com/+worldfoodprogramme) as well as our Youtube Channel (http://youtube.com/worldfoodprogram).
Conflict in Syria: Regional Players’ Motives and Limits
September 19, 2012 | Stratfor
An Egyptian initiative to manage Syria’s post-al Assad transition launched Sept. 17 with a high-level meeting in Cairo. Foreign ministers from Egypt, Turkey and Iran held talks on a possible exit for Syrian President Bashar al Assad and, more important, what will come after him. Saudi Arabia, also part of the contact group, did not send an envoy and did not provide any explanation for its absence.
The four powers probably will not be able to reach a substantive deal on the Syrian transition. But the contact group provides a convenient prism through which to view the various motives and constraints of the four regional powers: Shiite Iran and Sunni actors Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Iran is facing a geopolitical setback in Syria with the loss of its close ally, the al Assad regime. It could be a while before the Alawite regime collapses; indeed, recent statements out of Tehran confirm suspicions that Iran has been sending Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to bolster Syrian forces. But critical pillars of the regime are weakening, and Damascus is essentially fighting a war of attrition against a fractured and disorganized but determined rebel force.
Tehran wants to salvage as much of the Alawite power as it can. It has tools at its disposal, including the threat of a post-transition Alawite-led insurgency similar to the post-Saddam Hussein insurgency in neighboring Iraq. None of Syria’s neighbors, the regional players or the foreign powers with an interest in Syria — including the United States — wants to see an insurgency develop. They would like to see some continuity of the state apparatus and security forces, which would require a power-sharing agreement and thus an opportunity for Iran.
At the same time, Syria is only one piece — albeit critical — in a larger chess game between Iran and the United States. Washington, along with local powers Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, wants to see Iranian influence in the Levant reduced, but it also wants to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and any threat to the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Egypt’s contact group provides access to something that Iran has so far been denied: a seat at the table. Egypt’s re-entry into regional geopolitics and its overtures to Iran are an opportunity for the Iranians, since Cairo is showing that the historic leader of the Arab world is willing to work with them and mediate with the rest of the Sunni states. The Egyptian contact group puts Syria’s closest ally, Iran, at the table with the Syrian rebels’ key backers, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Iran is not yet ready to commit to any substantive discussions. The first request Tehran made, even before the talks started, was for Iraq and Venezuela to be added to the group. The request, a nonstarter, likely contributed to Riyadh’s decision not to send an envoy to the contact group meeting, although Riyadh sent its deputy foreign minister to Cairo last week for the preparatory meeting. Tehran wants to demonstrate that it is not desperate and does not need the group, but it sent Iranian Foreign Minister Ali
Akbar Salehi to the meeting. Tehran needs some access to transition talks and so far, Egypt’s group is the only discussion to which Iran is invited.
Turkey also sent an envoy to Cairo, though Ankara’s position will be reduced, rather than strengthened, by the Egyptian intervention.
Turkey has taken the most risk in supporting the rebels. Turkey’s position is similar to Iraq’s or Lebanon’s. Ankara faces real consequences that threaten its own domestic security and stability — in Turkey’s case, the threat comes from the Kurdish separatist movements in Turkey, Iraq and northern Syria.
While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supplied weapons and financial support and the United States has deployed a few CIA operatives and offered intelligence and guidance, Turkey has housed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and provided sanctuary, arms, logistical support and likely training for Syrian rebels. Ankara has risked upsetting its delicate relations with Iran, a rival power but also a key supplier of energy.
Turkey has been the main contact point, along with Saudi Arabia, for the United States and has worked to bolster the cohesiveness and capabilities of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian National Council. Ankara also has built strong ties with the Free Syrian Army leadership.
If Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had not chosen to attend the Sept. 17 meeting in Cairo, the contact group would have effectively collapsed, becoming nothing more than a bilateral talk between Egypt and Iran. That Turkey showed up is an important indicator of the pressure it is under. It needs to maintain, at the very least, a working relationship with Iran, especially as domestic political pressure over Turkey’s role in Syria and the surge in Kurdistan Workers’ Party attacks grows and Ankara blames
Tehran for supporting the Kurdish militants. Turkey also does not want to alienate Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, especially with Syria and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood — the country’s largest and most organized Sunni group — still in play.
Egypt Reasserts its Power
The reasons for Egypt’s sudden interest in supporting the transition in Syria are many. First, the contact group is a small but important step in Egypt’s efforts to resume its regional role. Cairo hopes to position itself as a mediator between the mostly Sunni Arab world and Shiite Iran. This will help Egypt counterbalance the constraints placed on it by the overwhelming influence of Saudi Arabia.
Inserting itself in the Syrian transition talks also creates an opportunity for Egypt to build some influence in post-al Assad Syria. Cairo has already hosted meetings of opposition leaders, though various rebel factions walked out and the talks have nearly collapsed. Not since the creation of the United Arab Republic in 1958 has Egypt had an opportunity to directly shape the government in Damascus. But now, Morsi likely wants to work with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has retained much of its legitimacy in the eyes of Syria’s majority Sunni population.
Syria has long been a battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia and will remain so for some time. But in the longer term, Tehran and Riyadh’s roles will be reduced although they will maintain stakes in Damascus.
The competition in Syria will shift to one between Egypt and Turkey as they both vie to support their particular faction of the Sunni leadership. However, any Egyptian influence will be limited in the short term as Cairo focuses much of its energy on domestic issues.
The Saudi-Iranian Divide
Saudi Arabia’s objectives in Syria are focused on Iran. Riyadh sees the Syrian uprising as a historic opportunity to reverse Iranian gains in the region. Fearful of an Iranian crescent stretching from the Zagros Mountains to the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean along its northern border, Saudi has long encouraged — either directly or indirectly — Sunni insurgents in northern Iraq. It has also backed the rebels in Syria, reportedly providing weapons and funding and likely encouraging jihadists to fight alongside rebel forces.
Foreign Salafist fighters are still only a small, though growing, percentage of rebel forces. Even if they convert large segments of the Syrian Sunni population, it would take years before they would be able to challenge the entrenched Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Riyadh understands that a Salafist-led government is not likely to emerge in Damascus in the medium term and has cooperated with Ankara, largely bolstering Turkey’s bid to manage the transition.
Saudi Arabia can manage relations with Egypt, which is financially constrained, and with Turkey, which is not yet ready to assert itself aggressively in the region. What Riyadh wants are ways to curb Iranian influence in the longer term, and for Riyadh that means limiting Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq.
Any Saudi engagement with Iran over Syria will be limited, since Riyadh and Tehran’s geopolitical positions are at odds. Riyadh did participate in the working group a week prior to the foreign ministerial meeting and, according to Davutoglu, will be attending future talks. Saudi Arabia and Iran have already both signed a willingness to negotiate, with Riyadh inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the emergency Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Mecca in mid-August and Iran hosting Saudi Deputy
Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, the king’s son and likely successor to ailing Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
But like Iran, Saudi Arabia is far from committed and will be waiting to see some serious signs of commitment from Iran. If any regional effort to resolve the Syrian conflict and manage a transition is to take place, the key will be what happens between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Full attendance from all four players at the next meeting, scheduled to be held in New York City during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly meeting, or any bilateral talks between Riyadh and Tehran will be important indicators of progress in the negotiations. A lack of attendance will mean not only the death of Egypt’s initiative but also the failure of Saudi Arabia and Iran to reach any accommodation.
Human Rights Watch
…A pattern has emerged in recent weeks in areas where government forces, pushed into retreat by opposition forces, are now indiscriminately bombing and shelling lost territory – with disastrous consequences for the civilian population….what the residents of Idlib, Jabal al-Zawiya and north Hama endure every day is just as harrowing. Such indiscriminate attacks constitute war crimes.”….
Syrian rebel leader wants Libyan-style Arab initiative
Wed Sep 19, 2012
* Sieda calls for an Arab move to stop bloodshed in Syria
* Opposes Iran involvement in efforts to resolve crisis
(Reuters) – Syria’s main opposition bloc wants Arab states to work together to effect an international intervention in Syria similar to the joint initiative in Libya, Syrian National Council (SNC) head Abdulbaset Sieda said in an interview published on Wednesday.
The Syrian regime plans to deploy chemical weapons against its own people “as a last resort”, the former head of Syria’s chemical arsenal has said in an interview with a British newspaper. Major-General Adnan Sillu said he defected from the Syrian …
VOA is publishing “Syrian Stories,” mostly of activists. Here’s the latest: http://ow.ly/dPaOm The collection of about 40 stories written by Syrians is on Tumblr: syriawitness.middleeastvoices.com