Jan 3, 2015


A Surreal War Diary

لغز اختفاء خلدون

لغز اختفاء خلدون The Mysterious Disappearance of Khaldoun from abou naddara on Vimeo.



أية عدالة؟

أية عدالة ؟ What justice ? from abou naddara on Vimeo.



Sep 13, 2013

Why Putin Is Pushing Authoritarianism in Syria


Dictators have never looked so good.

Vladimir Putin is saving the United States from another Mideast military intervention. Bashar al-Assad promises to ‘thin the herd’ of jihadists and hold Syria together. And Egypt’s new strongman, General Abdal Fattah el Sisi, says he is sorting out the Muslim Brotherhood. With each passing month in the Middle East, it seems, authoritarianism grows more attractive.

Leaders described as “repressive” sound eminently reasonable. They promise to bring order to chaos without dirtying American hands. Putin’s op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday was the latest example.

Written with the help of the American public relations firm Ketchum, the piece provoked a dizzying array of reactions. Here’s one fact check by Max Fisher of the Washington Post. Here’s a take down from Human Rights Watch. And the New Yorker posted this hilarious Andy Borowitz mock Modern Love column by the macho former KGB officer.

The views Putin expresses are seductive. Some of his criticisms of American power are legitimate. American unilateralism — from Iraq to drone strikes to National Security Agency surveillance — undermines President Barack Obama’s credibility on striking Syria.

But in the end Putin’s opinion piece matches his Russia. It is appealing on the surface but hollow at its core. Throughout, Putin lies by omission. In other spots, he lies flat-out. Here are two examples that would make Orwell proud.

Putin presents himself as the pacifist and Obama as the militarist. He argues that American cruise missile strikes will “result in more innocent victims” and that the U.S. increasingly relies “solely on brute force.” He makes no mention of the vast amount of weaponry Russia has shipped to Assad over the last two years. Or the 2008 military incursion Russia carried out into Georgia without the approval of the UN Security Council.

The Russian president then portrays the entire Syrian opposition as jihadists. He says there are “few champions of democracy in Syria” and ”more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes fighting the government.”

No mention is made of Assad’s decision to fire on unarmed demonstrators when the uprising against him began. Nor does Putin say that government forces committed eight of the nine mass killings recently investigated by the United Nations. Finally, citing no evidence, he claims that “there is every reason to believe” that the rebels carried out the August 21st chemical attack outside Damascus.

The issue, though, is not a tendentious op-ed. It is the state of Putin’s Russia. While he declares himself a defender of “international law” in Syria, Putin’s government systematically violates international law at home  – from jailing political opponents, to imprisoning independent journalists to advocating laws that legalize homophobia.

I briefly visited Moscow in May, while covering Secretary of State John Kerry’s first trip to Russia. Western diplomats and Russian analysts painted a bleak portrait of Russia’s future. In a globalized economy where innovation, foreign investment and transparency are key to growth, Putin is suffocating all three.

Putin’s relentless centralization of economic and political power has created a one-dimensional economy dependent on oil revenues. The random court cases brought against Putin rivals have prompted Russian and foreign investors to flee. They pulled $1.2 billion from Russia-focused equity funds this spring, Reuters reported, citing Putin’s failure to enact long-promised economic reforms.

In Egypt, there are clear parallels. Gen. Sisi is promising stability, playing on nationalist sentiment and crushing all potential rivals, from Islamists to liberals to journalists. Ursula Lindsey reported in the New York Times Thursday that an ultra-nationalist “cult of Sisi” is emerging in the country.

“Of course, this obfuscates some uncomfortable facts,” Lindsey wrote. “Having shaped the country’s economy and politics for the last 60 years, [the Egyptian military] is one of the institutions most responsible for Egypt’s corruption and decline.”

Signs are emerging that the brutal crackdown Sisi launched two months ago that killed 1,300 Muslim Brotherhood members may backfire. Last week, the country’s pro-military interior minister narrowly survived a bomb attack. If elements of the group have radicalized, a full-scale insurgency could emerge in Egypt.

Yes, Obama has waffled on both Egypt and Syria. He has repeatedly contradicted himself on national security. And the concept of “American exceptionalism” is clearly repugnant to other nations.

But Putin’s defense of Assad – one of the most cynical exercises in statecraft in decades — does not make him a visionary. Nor does it make Russian-style authoritarianism a model for the Middle East.

There is nothing complicated or altruistic about Putin’s strategy in Syria. He is defending Assad in order to preserve his key ally in the Middle East and his own rule in Russia. Putin sees Syria as the latest in a long line of American interventions that has toppled rulers. Dismissing protests against himself and other autocrats as CIA plots, he probably fears he may be next.

As 100,000 people have died, Putin has used obstruction at the United Nations — not deft diplomacy — to elevate his standing in the world. He has spread false conspiracy theories and glossed over Syrian government war crimes to again make Russia a player on the global stage.

Difficult questions need to be asked about U.S. interests in the Middle East.  Fostering thriving, stable democracies should be our objective. But quickly achieving that ideal is not possible. In each nation, different approaches are needed.

The Arab Spring has shown that rushed transitions to democracy can devolve into chaos, where jihadists can thrive. But we should not be fooled into thinking that authoritarianism is a long-term answer to the complex dynamics roiling the Middle East. It creates stability in the short-term — and stagnation and decay over time.

The path to democracy in the region is long, complicated and deeply unnerving. But it should remain our ultimate goal.

Dispatches: What Putin didn't tell the American people

Anna Neistat

It’s not what Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed says that’s so worrisome; it’s what it doesn’t say. As a Russian and as someone who has been to Syria multiple times since the beginning of the conflict to investigate war crimes and other violations, I would like to mention a few things Putin overlooked...

There is not a single mention in Putin’s article, addressed to the American people, of  the egregious crimes committed by the Syrian government and extensively documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry, local and international human rights groups, and numerous journalists: deliberate and indiscriminate killings of tens of thousands of civilians, executions, torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests. His op-ed also makes no mention of Russia’s ongoing transfer of arms to Assad throughout the past two and a half years.

The Russian president strategically emphasizes the role of Islamic extremists in the Syrian conflict. Yes, many rebel groups have committed abuses and atrocities. Yet Putin fails to mention that it is the Syrian government that is responsible for shooting peaceful protesters (before the conflict even started) and detaining and torturing their leaders – many of whom remain detained – and that the continued failure of the international community to respond to atrocities in Syria allows crimes on all sides to continue unaddressed.

Putin’s plea to use the United Nations Security Council to resolve the conflict sounds great, until you remember that, from the very start of this conflict, Russia has vetoed or blocked any Security Council action that may bring relief to Syria’s civilians or bring perpetrators of abuses in Syria to account.

While Russia’s proposal for international monitoring of Syria’s chemical weapons is a welcome step, it will do nothing to bring justice to hundreds of victims of the latest attack, let alone to thousands of others, killed by conventional weapons. And when Putin squarely blames the opposition for the August 21 chemical attack – against all available evidence and without presenting a shred of his own evidence – one can only wonder why Russia remains so vehemently opposed to referring Syria to the International Criminal Court, an action that would be fully in line with international law, which Putin seems so keen to uphold in his op-ed, and would enable an investigation into abuses by both sides of the conflict.

Finally, the sincerity of Putin’s talk about democratic values and international law is hard to take seriously when back home his own government continues to throw activists in jail, threatens to close NGOs, and rubber-stamps draconian and discriminatory laws.

President Putin should give more credit to his audience: Russia will be judged by its actions, both on the international arena and domestically. So far, Russia has been a key obstacle to ending the suffering in Syria. A change towards a more constructive role would be welcome. But a compilation of half-truths and accusations is not the right way to signal such a change.

A 'new poetry' emerges from Syria's civil war

Yet in all her years of work, she says she has never encountered works of poetry such as the ones emerging today from the depths of a Syria in the throes of an increasingly deadly civil war.

"Today there is literature coming out of Syria that we could have never even dreamed of just a few years ago," Atrash says.

Rather than relying on metaphors and allegorical images, these new poems rely on literal, visceral descriptions, with a newfound emphasis on a united Syrian identity instead of religious symbols. For instance, a poem she translated by Najat Abdul Samad, called "When I am overcome by weakness", reads:

"I bandage my heart with the determination of that boy / they hit with an electric stick on his only kidney until he urinated blood. / Yet he returned and walked in the next demonstration… / I bandage it with the outcry: 'Death and not humiliation.'"

Another by Youssef Bou Yihea titled "I am a Syrian", declares: "My sect is the scent of my homeland, the soil after the rain, and my Syria is my only religion."

"A lot of poetry and beautiful lyrics are rising up from the ashes in Syria," says expatriate Syrian writer Ghias al-Jundi, who is responsible for PEN International's research on attacks against free expression in the Middle East.

"There is a cultural side to the revolution, and it's brilliant."

New literary tradition

It's not just the content that is new. Syrian poetry is also being spread through different channels. Instead of being introduced at formal gatherings or readings, Syrian poets often debut their work at public demonstrations, or on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Mohja Kahf, an award-winning Syrian-American writer and associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas, wrote an article in 2001 titled "The Silence of Contemporary Syrian Literature", in which she argued that fear, government censorship, and repression were the defining characteristics of Syrian writing.

"That has all changed now," Kahf says, thanks in part to the Internet and social media platforms. "A new Syrian identity and literary tradition are being formed around the events of the last few years."

Poetry is "playing a huge role in Syria right now because the lyrics are part of demonstrations," says Jundi.  "People are singing these verses together in the streets."

Peaceful demonstrations have reduced in number and size as the violence has intensified, but they have not stopped altogether.

Facebook is one of the main channels that Atrash uses to connect with her partners in Syria. She says she discovered two poets from the city of Sweida - Youssef Bou Yihea and Najat Abdul Samad, whose work is quoted above - through the social networking site.

Atrash contacted these writers and was granted permission to translate their works into English.

"I take their poems fresh, translate them, and share them through social media," she says. "It's not just me. Today there are a lot of people translating and spreading Syrian poems from the ground."

Civilians in Syria and around the world are using social networks to share these new poems without censorship. Kahf herself has served as the leader of about 20 Facebook pages focusing on nonviolent components of the revolution.

"The young people in Syria today grew up as part of a global conversation," says Kahf.

Although Atrash believes the revolution is rejuvenating Syrian poetry, both in the Middle East and around the world, she says language barriers between global readers and Syrian writers on the ground keep international audiences from accessing many of these new works.

And it's not just language barriers hindering accessibility. The Internet is not accessible for large swaths of the Syrian population, especially as the UN estimates between a quarter and a third of the country's people have been displaced. Nevertheless, social media tools are among the only platforms for new Syrian writers to connect with each other, whether at home or in exile.

While these past two years have seen a flood of new Syrian writers, not all of Syria's prominent poets participate in this digital sphere.

"People are waiting for opposition poems from Adunis," says Maram al-Masri, a Syrian poet based in Paris, referring to Ali Ahmad Said Esber, one of Syria's greatest living poets.

"He does a little, but for me and for a lot of people, we feel disappointed. It's not enough. We need the fathers of modern Syrian poetry to speak out."

Dangerous profession

Yet with the country in the grips of a two-year-long civil war that shows no sign of abating, Syrian poets - and writers more generally - are in more danger today than ever before.

"Poets and writers are disappearing across the country," says Jundi. "Syrian writers are caught between a double danger: the regime and the Islamists. It is a risk to write or utter a word."

Poet Ibrahim Qashoush was kidnapped and killed in July 2011. Two writers - Dia'a al-Abdulla and Tal al-Mallouhi - are still believed to be in prison without access to a lawyer. Writer Khaled Khalifa was attacked in Damascus in May 2012 and his left hand was broken.

"Most of the poets I talk to knew there was a risk of death, imprisonment or exile if you write the truth," says Jundi. "And even if they flee, they can also be killed abroad."

Expatriate Syrian poets have been intimidated: Masri, who recently published a book of poems titled Freedom, she comes naked, inspired by social media images and posts from Syria, says she has received death threats and had loved ones in Syria forced into hiding.

"It's not easy to enter a Syrian jail," says Masri. "You don't know if you will ever come out."

Some writers take precautions, saving lyrics under different names in case police search them or their homes, or propagating their poems anonymously. In such an atmosphere, few individual poets of this new style have risen to fame.

But although Syrian writers are still in grave danger, fear no longer controls their work. Violence is so pervasive in Syria that silence is no longer seen as a road to safety.

Before 2011, even the popular tradition of public poetry readings were controlled by government censorship. Now Syrian writers are defying these restrictions. Newly empowered by their passionate audiences, some Syrian poets are holding nothing back.

"We have broken the old phantom of fear," Masri says.

Listing Demands, Assad Uses Crisis to His Advantage


WASHINGTON — Not long ago, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria seemed a remote and embattled figure, with the United States threatening airstrikes and other Arab leaders denouncing him for having used chemical weapons against his own people.

Yet in recent days, he appears, paradoxically, to have turned the crisis to his advantage, making clear to a global television audience that he aims to use President Obama’s own “red line” against him.

In exchange for relinquishing his chemical arsenal, Mr. Assad said Thursday, he will require that the United States stop arming the Syrian opposition — a demand that might seem wishful from the leader of a devastated country where civil war has left 100,000 dead, two million living as refugees and large swaths of territory beyond his control.

Mr. Assad outlined his demands on Thursday, telling a Russian TV interviewer that the arms-control proposal floated by his patron in Moscow would not be finalized until “we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists.”

Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a blunt response to Mr. Assad’s comments after meeting Thursday with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, saying the standard procedures for identifying and securing the weapons were too slow in Syria’s case. “There is nothing standard about this process,” Mr. Kerry said. “The words of the Syrian regime, in our judgment, are simply not enough.”

Mr. Assad, sounding relaxed and confident, hinted in his interview that the Russian proposal — which requires Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention — could become a lever for endless negotiations and delays, much as Saddam Hussein delayed arms control inspectors during the 1990s. “It doesn’t mean that Syria will sign the documents, fulfill the obligations, and that’s it,” Mr. Assad said.

The state-owned Syrian newspaper Al Watan put it bluntly in a headline on Thursday: “Moscow and Damascus pull the rug out from under the feet of Obama.”

Mr. Assad’s comments on Thursday were the latest chapter in a rhetorical offensive by the Syrian president and his surrogates, who seem to feel that global perceptions of the Syrian opposition — with its strong component of Islamic radicalism — have shifted in their direction. Mr. Assad has granted interviews to American and French reporters in recent weeks, and has brought back the media adviser who had largely disappeared from public view for the past two years, a Western-educated interpreter and author named Bouthaina Shaaban.

Ms. Shaaban is a skilled interlocutor who helped Mr. Assad shape his image in the West as a reform-minded leader during the years before the uprising in 2011. Her re-emergence has “signaled a coherent determination to launch a media blitz,” said Jon Snow, a veteran anchor for Britain’s Channel 4 news.

In recent weeks, thousands of Syrians have recorded personal appeals to members of Congress and the American public urging them to oppose an airstrike, though it is not clear whether those efforts are coordinated with their government.

For the rebels, who could often use a tip or two in the area of public relations, all of this is unqualified bad news. “It is disappointing,” said Najib Ghadbian, the main Syrian opposition group’s special representative to the United States. “If the regime wants to play with this, it could take months or years. This is why we need accountability.”

A rebel brigade commander named Moaz al-Yousef, reached by telephone, spoke bitterly of Mr. Obama’s interest in the Russian proposal — and the delay of the Congressional votes — as a betrayal.

“We had hopes, it was a dream, and now it’s gone and we feel disappointed,” he said. “We should completely cut off our relationship with him — Obama has completely lost his credibility.”

The rebels’ foreign backers were almost equally derisive. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, dismissed the Russian proposal in a speech in Istanbul on Thursday, saying that Mr. Assad was merely buying time for “new massacres.”

In his interview with Russian television, Mr. Assad hinted at another possible stumbling block in the prospective chemical weapons agreement by saying Israel should ratify it first. Israel has signed the accord but not ratified it, and is extremely unlikely to do so in light of the difficulty of verifying Syrian compliance in the midst of a civil war.

For Mr. Assad, the Russian proposal comes as a welcome reprieve. Even before the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, his military was effectively locked in a stalemate with the opposition, despite the intervention of militia fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement, in recent months. Although Mr. Assad won a few important victories, he has still not pushed the rebels from the Damascus suburbs. That, many analysts say, was the goal of the chemical weapons attack, in a rebel-held part of the eastern suburb of Ghouta.

After the attack, Mr. Assad was clearly bracing for an American strike, with the military moving key units and the capital largely emptied out. But the Congressional debate over military intervention suggested — to the Syrians — a lack of American resolve, and the Russian proposal bolstered Mr. Assad’s confidence, even at the cost of admitting for the first time the existence of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

“Assad appears to have the impression that the Americans may want him to go, but not now,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So you can now expect him to go on the offensive.”

Some analysts cautioned that Mr. Assad could be overplaying his hand.

“The Syrian regime swings between nihilism and triumphalism; there’s nothing in between,” said one Damascus-based analyst who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “The chemical weapons deal — there is no deal, it’s very impractical, and if that becomes clear, it could put Obama in a stronger position vis-à-vis airstrikes.”

The analyst added that Mr. Assad’s comments on Thursday could be less a reflection of his own thinking than of what the Russian leadership wants him to say. “Syrian foreign policy has been contracted out to Russia, and Assad was speaking to Russian talking points,” the analyst said. “That is troubling in itself.”

Sep 10, 2013

Six Million Displaced by War in Syria

While the West debates airstrikes on Damascus and the Syrian government battles a wide array of rebel forces, the Syrian people are enduring what the World Health Organization now calls the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis on earth. Four million Syrians are internally displaced; with homes either destroyed or unsafe, they have moved to temporary housing within Syria's borders. Another two million have now fled the country, pouring into neighboring countries at a rate of nearly 6,000 every day. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt are taking in the vast majority of these refugees, working with the United Nations, Red Crescent, and many other charitable groups to provide shelter, security, food, and water. The resources are being stretched thin, after years of a growing crisis, and the approach of winter and threat of escalating violence have many aid organizations fearful about what's to come. Gathered below are some images of these millions of refugees, who now find themselves trapped in desperate situations -- vulnerable, poor, homeless, jobless, and without much hope for their near future.