CAIRO - In a town that lies less than eight miles from the center of Damascus, Syrians are starving to death. Some children in Muadamiyah have resorted to eating leaves to survive, while a group of Muslim clerics also issued a fatwa that the consumption of dogs and cats was permissible for the area's residents. Meanwhile, videos showing emaciated children's corpses continue to filter out -- victims of a siege by the Syrian regime that prevents the entry of either food or medical care.
In an article for Foreign Policy on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the Syrian security forces' denial of humanitarian aid to places like Muadamiyah, calling on the world to "act quickly and decisively" to pressure the Assad regime to allow assistance to reach civilians. For some of the aid workers on the conflict's front lines, however, the United States and its allies have been all talk and no action.
"Secretary Kerry and others give support in a gray, non-focused way," said Khaled Erkoussi, the head of emergency operations at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). "It's not enough now to say, ‘we support you, Syrian Red Crescent.' What we want you to say is, ‘You must get your hands off the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, stop shooting at them, let them go to the areas [in need] with the support with the U.N.'"
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CAIRO -- In a supposedly "liberated" area of Syria, a group of opposition journalists is still being forced to operate in secret. They learned to sneak into their offices in the northern city of Raqqa after midnight, and conceal their activities from their landlord. But it's not Bashar al-Assad's regime that they're worried about.
The citizen journalists of the ANA New Media Association were hiding from al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, who have become a powerful force in the area. Their precautions were not enough: On Oct. 1, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) kidnapped one of ANA's employees at a checkpoint and subsequently raided their office. They returned on Oct. 15, breaking into the office to seize the equipment the journalists had used to broadcast a radio program to the area's residents.
The crackdown is just the latest example of the growing tension within the anti-Assad cause between Islamist radicals and more mainstream rebel groups. Last month, ISIS fighters seized the town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, from a rival militia. Sporadic clashes have broken out elsewhere across north and eastern Syria. The hostilities could deal a blow to the jihadi groups, which are gaining strength across north and east Syria -- but they could also fracture the anti-Assad cause.
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Sure, some have spent the past few days lamenting that Pakistani girls' education advocate Malala Yousafzai didn't receive the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. But several Russian news outlets and politicians have been grousing about a separate slight: the Hague-based watchdog Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) wresting the prize from their own human rights crusader and international peacekeeper: Vladimir Putin.
"This is absolutely unfair that the OPCW was given this title," State Duma deputy Iosif Kobzon, a member of Putin's United Russia party, told the state-owned news service Itar-Tass, according to Pravda.Ru. "Who forced Syria to destroy chemical weapons, if not Putin? Who made Assad sign all agreements of the UN Security Council for the destruction of chemical weapons? They should have given the prize to two nominees then. This is unfair, because Putin is making every effort."
The Russian federal news agency Regnum, meanwhile, reported on OPCW's win briefly before reminding readers that it is "noteworthy" that the "process of destroying chemical weapons in war-torn Syria" was initiated by Russia and its president. Not noteworthy, apparently, are Putin's aggression in Georgia and campaigns against homosexuals and immigrants in his own country -- recent actions that might, one would speculate, undermine his shot at a Nobel Peace Price.
Technically speaking, Putin is not eligible to receive the prize until next year, as nominations for this year's award had to be in by February 2013, and the Russian advovacy group that nominated him, the International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of Peoples of the World, only submitted theirs in September. The group's nomination cited Putin's efforts to "maintain peace and tranquility" not only in Russia, but also in "all conflicts arising on the planet" -- a sweeping appraisal encompassing Russia's plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control in an effort to avoid U.S. military strikes.
But that technicality hasn't stopped Russian lawmakers from interpreting the Nobel Peace Prize committee's choice as a snub. Alexey Pushkov, the head of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, called it a "politically sophisticated choice" and a "cunning move" designed to withhold the prize from those who "truly prevented" the war in Syria.
Others have characterized the OPCW's prize as, at its core, an award to Putin. An article in Russia's English-language Moscow Times called the OPCW's win a "nod to Putin" since the organization was granted such a crucial role in the conflict as a result of negotiations brokered by Moscow. Federation Council member Valery Ryazansky was especially optimistic, telling Russia's state-owned news agency RIA-Novosti: "I believe that this is a recognition of the fact that the Russian government invited the international community to the decision on the Syrian issue, which was found to be most effective."
Another article at Russia's Mail.ru site reported that Syrian opposition leaders were angry at the Nobel committee for, as they saw it, implicitly praising Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in giving the award to the OPCW, reminding readers that Russia was "the author of the idea of destroying chemical weapons stockpiles in the country."
Assad, it seems, wouldn't mind the recognition. In an interview with the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, the Syrian leader reportedly joked that the Nobel Peace Prize "should have been mine."
Maybe next year, guys.
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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Just a few months ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) didn't officially exist. Now, the al Qaeda affiliate known colloquially as al-Dawla -- simply "the state" -- has emerged as a clear and present danger to Syria's mainstream armed opposition.
The jihadist organization seized the northern Syrian town of Azaz on Thursday, driving out Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated rebel groups. The clashes were reportedly sparked after ISIS fighters grew suspicious of German doctors working at a field hospital in the area, and the FSA brigades protected the physicians from potential retribution. The town is now reportedly quiet, as mediators attempt to negotiate a ceasefire deal that would see ISIS withdraw from its positions. For the moment, however, ISIS's presence in Azaz gives al Qaeda a presence on the border with Turkey, a NATO ally. However the conflict plays out, it will represent the most serious confrontation yet between jihadists and non-Islamist rebels fighting the Syrian regime.
Some of the FSA's advocates in Washington, however, see a silver lining to the rebel infighting. The United States has hesitated to provide military aid to Syria's armed opposition out of fear that such assistance could find its way into the hands of extremist groups -- a possibility that would presumably be eliminated if the FSA and jihadi groups are in open conflict.
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It's been just under a month since Al Jazeera America first hit the airwaves, and what a month it's been -- with the Syria story lurching from seemingly imminent U.S. strikes to a looming congressional vote to this weekend's chemical weapons deal. The fast-churning news cycle has provided plenty of fodder for media watchers who wondered before the launch whether Al Jazeera America would distinguish itself from its competitors. Would the network reflect its Qatari heritage, and if so, how? Would American viewers encounter a familiar cable news format or, say, more non-American voices on the air and more stories from far-flung bureaus and the Arab world?
This morning, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new report that addresses these questions through the lens of Al Jazeera's handling of its first big story: Syria. And after viewing 21 hours of cable news on Syria across five networks, measuring coverage using five metrics, the researchers have arrived at an answer: So far, anyway, Al Jazeera America is more or less CNN -- minus Wolf Blitzer, and with a snazzier logo.
"The content that Al Jazeera America provided in many ways resembled the coverage on the three major cable competitors" -- that is, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, told Foreign Policy. "Typical American cable viewers … would get a perspective that I think would seem familiar to them."
Pew studied the network's coverage of the Syria crisis over the span of six days: from Aug. 26, when Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the State Department, said chemical weapons were used in Syria and accused Bashar al-Assad's regime of destroying the evidence, to Aug. 31, when President Barack Obama told the nation of his plans to bring a vote on the Syria intervention before Congress. The report applied metrics ranging from the framing of a story (Is it, say, about whether the U.S. should intervene, or the humanitarian crisis in the region?) to the sources consulted (Are they members of the Obama administration? Members of Congress? Syrians?) to the locations from which stories are filed (Damascus or Washington, D.C.?).
Here are some of Pew's key findings:
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — At the end of the press conference unveiling their deal over Syria's chemical weapons program, a smiling Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to exchange a joke before walking offstage. Some of America's allies in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad, however, weren't laughing.
Even as a Syrian official hailed the Sept. 14 plan as a "victory" for the Assad regime, the reaction from U.S. partners in the Middle East ranged from skepticism to outright hostility. Turkey, which has been at the forefront of the anti-Assad cause, said it welcomed the initiative -- but expressed doubts that the Syrian regime would comply with its terms. Officials in Ankara warned that the deal does nothing to resolve the Syrian crisis and said that more must be done to pressure Assad to relinquish power.
"The Syrian crisis is not only about use of chemical weapons -- up until now, more than 100,000 people have died, not because of the chemical weapons, but because of increasing and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by the regime," said a Turkish official. "This is the root problem in Syria. This is what constitutes a clear and present danger to the region and international security."
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President Vladimir Putin's direct appeal to the American people in the pages of the New York Times is just one part of his government's messaging strategy on Syria. Russia's English-language media outlets are busy blasting out the Kremlin line on the conflict as well.
A few articles have focused on the American reaction to Putin's editorial on Thursday (see, for example, "White House Pokes Russia over Putin's Syria Op-Ed"), but many outlets have drawn attention to other criticisms of President Obama's stance on Syria. RT, the flashy Kremlin-financed news channel, is covering a range of critiques -- from former President Jimmy Carter to Madonna. The Russian media has also tried to gauge the American mood through polling: RT notes that a recent survey by the libertarian magazine Reason found that two-thirds of Americans feel that Obama's handling of foreign policy has been as bad or worse than President George W. Bush's. But that doesn't mean Americans are thrilled with the Russian disarmament plan; the state-owned RIA Novosti pointed to a Pew poll showing that the majority of Americans distrust Russia.
The Russian press is most interested in discrediting the story that the Assad regime used chemical weapons -- an allegation that has been supported by evidence collected by the Obama administration, the French government, the United Nations, and Human Rights Watch, among others. These efforts to present a counternarrative -- in which the rebels gassed themselves and civilians -- range from the credible but circumstantial to the just plain silly. On the more intriguing side, there's the account given by two kidnapped Europeans, who traveled to Syria as supporters of the rebels but wound up being held hostage until last week. They claim to have overheard a conversation with a rebel commander suggesting that the rebels were involved in the attack, but have not discussed details of what they heard. Less compelling is the idle speculation of Ray McGovern -- a former CIA analyst, 9/11 conspiracy theorist, and RT favorite, that the CIA fabricated evidence implicating the Assad regime in the chemical weapons attacks, and the video analysis of a Syrian nun. Across the Russian media, there's consensus on at least one thing: the rebels are "terrorists."
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Fars News Agency, the state-run Iranian news outlet famous for picking up an Onion story and presenting it as news, has apparently decided that plagiarizing satirical articles isn't brazen enough. On Thursday, the news agency's editors reprinted a Foreign Policy article on the debate over chemical weapons in Syria. And by "reprinted" we mean they lopped off entire paragraphs, changed key words, and added others to turn the argument into a case for why the U.S. shouldn't take military action in Syria -- and why the rebels, not Syrian President and Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad, have committed unspeakable atrocities (oh, and Iran comes off looking pretty good too). "This article originally appeared on the US Foreign Policy magazine," the Fars article notes at the end of the story. We beg to differ.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a direct appeal to the American public in an editorial in Thursday morning's New York Times. "The potential strike by the United States against Syria," he writes, "despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.... It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
But Putin seemed notably less concerned about civilian deaths and the second-order effects of military intervention when he took to the same opinion page in 1999 to make the case for intervention -- in Chechnya. In an editorial titled "Why We Must Act," he defended Russian military action, writing that "in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that." Despite international concerns, though, he assured readers that the Russian counterinsurgency operation would not cause widespread harm to civilians. "American officials tell us that ordinary citizens are suffering, that our military tactics may increase that suffering," he wrote then. "The very opposite is true. Our commanders have clear instructions to avoid casualties among the general population. We have nothing to gain by doing otherwise." Because when the Russians stage a military intervention, it's different.
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Secretary of State John Kerry is discussing a possible U.S. intervention in Syria with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and journalist Lara Setrakian this afternoon. With diplomatic wrangling over Syria's chemical weapons now coming to a head, today marks a key moment in the showdown with Damascus. Watch the Google+ Hangout live below.
Even before President Barack Obama put his plans to strike the Syrian regime on hold, he was losing the battle of public opinion about military intervention. Part of the credit, no doubt, goes to a successful media blitz by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its supporters. In an interview aired on Monday night, Assad himself advanced his government's case to Charlie Rose, saying that the United States had not presented "a single shred of evidence" proving the Syrian military had used chemical weapons.
Assad has always been able to skillfully parry Western journalists' criticisms of his regime -- and, at times, it has won him positive international coverage. Before the uprising, the U.S. media often described the Assad family as Westernized leaders who were trying to bring their country into the 21st century. The most infamous example was Vogue's profile of Asma al-Assad, which described Syria's first lady as "a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind ... [with] a killer IQ." But even experts in the field went along: Middle East historian David Lesch wrote a biography of Bashar describing the president as a modernizer, before changing his mind during the uprising.
The carnage over the past two and a half years put an end to much of this praise -- but now pro-Assad media outlets have found a new way to influence the American debate. Assad supporters' claims have repeatedly been republished unquestioningly by right-wing commentators in the United States, who share their hostility toward both Sunni Islamists and the Obama administration. It's a strange alliance between American conservatives and a regime that was one of America's first designated state sponsors of terror, and continues to work closely with Iran and Hezbollah.
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This is what desperation looks like.
With the White House selling an increasingly skeptical Congress and public on airstrikes in Syria, President Obama and his lieutenants have rolled out just about every possible argument to marshal support on the Hill ahead of Obama's big Syria speech on Tuesday evening. It's akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Is Syria's use of chemical weapons a threat to U.S. national security? You bet, says National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Does the United States have a moral obligation to enforce international norms against chemical weapons use? It certainly does, says White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Does the current crisis bear a frightening resemblance to Munich circa 1938? Most certainly, says Secretary of State John Kerry. And is there a need to send a strong message to the mullahs in Tehran about their nuclear ambitions? Damn straight, says U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.
Welcome to the spaghettification of U.S. foreign policy.
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As of Monday morning, the majority of U.S. legislators still have yet to announce their position on whether they'll vote to authorize the use of military force against Syria. They're running out of time to come to a decision, though; the resolution passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Wednesday and a vote by the full Senate is expected this week, with the House likely to follow soon after.
Some members of Congress may just be keeping their opinions to themselves. Congressional offices have reported a sharp uptick in phone calls from constituents, almost all of them critical of a strike against Syria. The incentive to voice opposition to the resolution is stronger at this point -- both because it resonates with popular opinion and because it serves as a counterpoint to the Obama administration's campaign for strikes, which has included congressional hearings featuring Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey; public speeches (U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power spoke last week, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak today, and President Obama will deliver a speech tomorrow); private meetings; and appearances on the Sunday talk shows.
As both sides vie to sway the undecideds, here are the key congressional players to watch this week:
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Who the Syrian rebels are depends on whom you ask. Experts on the civil war -- not just politicians like Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- disagree vehemently over whether the rebellion has been subsumed by jihadi elements. No one is entirely sure of how many rebels are fighting within Syria's borders, and few are willing to even venture an estimate. Then there's the convoluted alphabet soup of overlapping rebel groups to sort through.
A brief guide of all the relevant information is useful. So here are the things we know -- or think we know -- about the Syrian rebels.
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TOKYO -- On Sept. 5, President Barack Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Obama wants Japanese support for his decision to strike the Assad regime, but Abe has only publicly offered comments on how he's looking forward to further discussing Syria. The foreign policy community here is debating whether Japan should provide support to the United States; to communicate approval; or to merely offer "understanding."
While this may seem like an almost absurd display of hairsplitting, Japan's opinion, and the nuanced way it decides to present it, matters. The United Kingdom withdrew its support in late August, leaving France alone among the traditional major powers willing to join the United States -- and French opposition leaders are criticizing President François Hollande for planning to act unilaterally.
Tokyo could provide some of the most significant diplomatic cover for the United States. The world's third largest economy and the U.S.'s most important ally in Asia, Japan is also the only developed country to have suffered a nerve gas attack over the last several decades: in 1995, the cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 people. The diplomatic signals Abe decides to send to Obama, both publically and behind closed doors, will carry a lot of weight, as the world debates how to deal with Syria's chemical attacks.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution this afternoon to authorize the use of U.S. military force against Syria. The resolution will be voted on by the full Senate next week, but since before this afternoon's committee decision, politicians and commentators have been trying to read the tea leaves on how the vote will go. And unlike on so many other issues, this vote probably will not follow party lines.
Whip counts by the Washington Post, Think Progress, CNN, and others have been shifting over the past day or so. The Post, for instance, moved Sen. John McCain from their "Against military action" column (he'd been placed there for saying earlier in the week that he didn't support the president's plan as proposed) to "For military action" after his SFRC vote this afternoon. Still, all the tallies so far leave about 300 of the House's 435 members unaccounted for, making them only modestly instructive.
The 10-7 committee vote this afternoon, however, may be a preview of next week's vote. Interventionism makes for strange bedfellows: McCain and fellow Republicans Bob Corker and Jeff Flake joined seven Democrats in support of the resolution, while Democrats Tom Udall and Christopher Murphy voted against it along with Republicans Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts voted "present."
The latest -- but still early -- forecasts for the full Senate show signs of a similar split. This was the Post's count as of this afternoon:
The coalition between the interventionist wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties stands in sharp contrast with what occurred in the British Parliament's vote last week. On August 29, the House of Commons split nearly along party lines: The entire Labour Party stuck together, as did much of the governing coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties. But a handful of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted against the motion -- and the efforts of their prime minister -- sinking David Cameron's proposal for a British role in a Syrian intervention, 272-285.
The vote next week will likely involve a greater commingling of political parties than in Britain. But, in keeping with the parliamentary outcome, whether or not President Obama's proposed strikes move forward will probably be decided by a very narrow margin.
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With the Obama administration in an all-out blitz to gain congressional authorization for a strike On Syria, the debate over chemical weapons and a potential U.S. military retaliation has taken an inevitable turn: The conspiracy theories have arrived.
Perhaps President Obama planned the chemical weapons attack to create an excuse to intervene? Or maybe he just framed the Syrians? Or perhaps it was in fact a "false flag" attack carried out at Israel's behest? Or maybe the intelligence has just been wildly distorted? Or maybe the attack was in fact no attack at all but an accidental release of chemical weapons provided to the rebels by Saudi Arabian intelligence officials?
One theory is crazier than the next, but for these modern conspiracy theorists, no conjecture seems out of bounds. Here's your guide to the ugly turn the Syria debate has now taken.
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As Congress debates whether to authorize a military strike on Syria, the French government has released its declassified intelligence report on the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburbs.
France, the United States' only remaining potential partner for military intervention in Syria, agrees in broad strokes with the White House's view of the attack. Both governments present evidence that the Syrian regime launched chemical weapons on rebel-held neighborhoods, likely killing over 1,000 people. But in terms of its level of detail, the French report puts the U.S. intelligence assessment to shame.
While the American report focuses solely on the most recent attack, the French provide a comprehensive look at the nature of the Syrian chemical weapons program. The report includes a breakdown of the toxic agents that President Bashar al-Assad's regime is believed to have obtained: hundreds of tons of mustard gas, tens of tons of VX gas, and several hundred tons of sarin gas.
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"I just want them to attack sooo much, because I want them to make this huge mistake of beginning something that they don't know the end of it."
Those just may be the words of Bashar al-Assad's 11-year-old son, Hafez. A Facebook account claiming to belong to Hafez posted a rambling, defiant message about what appears to be an imminent U.S. strike on Syria. The Syrian president has three children -- Hafez, Zein, and Karim -- of which Hafez is the oldest.
First, some serious caveats are in order. It is impossible to confirm with any certainty that Hafez wrote these words. There is nothing official about the Facebook page -- and indeed, the owner of the account claims to be a soccer player for FC Barcelona and to have graduated from the University of Oxford. But such fantasies would, of course, not be out of place on the Facebook page of any 11-year-old.
In January of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., en route to Jamaica for a vacation, picked up a copy of Ramparts magazine and sat down to read a story about the plight of Vietnam's children. According to his assistant, Bernard Lee, King froze as he saw the photos -- including one of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead child -- that accompanied the story. It was then, Lee claims, that King made up his mind to forcefully oppose the war in Vietnam.
The story of King's conversion into an anti-war activist is one worth considering today, amid war rumblings over Syria and commemorations in Washington of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Had he not been assassinated, King may well have woken up one day last week and been equally horrified at the images of dead Syrian children in the arms of their mothers.
With the United States moving closer to military strikes in Syria, the Syrian Electronic Army, a pro-Assad hacking collective, isn't content on the sidelines. On Tuesday, the group appeared to hit the New York Times' website and managed to redirect some visitors to SEA-owned servers.
For most Times readers, the outage, which began at about 3 p.m. and looks to be ongoing, came in the form of a fairly standard error message. But some users experienced something more sinister:
If the bombs start falling on Damascus, Monday afternoon will be cited as the moment when the Obama administration laid out the moral case for military action in Syria.
In a stern statement, Secretary of State John Kerry presented the White House's case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pledged that the United States will hold him accountable for turning his chemical weapons on his own people. Against the background of White House leaks that President Obama has been presented with updated target lists and is mulling military intervention in Syria, Kerry's remarks had the unmistakable feel of a prelude to war.
"Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people," Kerry said. "Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."
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CAIRO -- This morning, a U.N. chemical weapons inspection team woke up in the five-star Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Damascus. No more than a 15-minute drive away, in the capital's eastern suburbs, there were rumblings that the worst chemical weapons attack in decades was underway.
The information coming out of the Ghouta region, where the rebels enjoy significant support, is still unconfirmed by independent observers. But videos allegedly taken Wednesday in the area showed Syrians lying on the floor gasping for breath, medics struggling to save infants, and rows of bodies of those who had reportedly died in the attack (warning: the footage above is graphic). Syrian state media denied that chemical weapons had been used, attributing such stories to media channels that "are involved in the shedding of the Syrians' blood and supporting terrorism." But a preliminary examination of the footage by American intelligence officials and outside experts leads them to believe that chemical weapons were involved in the attack.
The opposition Local Coordination Committee reported that at least 755 people had been killed in the attack. If that figure is true, what is happening on the outskirts of Damascus today is the worst chemical weapons attack since then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unleashed poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people.
A huge fireball rises above the jagged, shelled-out skyline of Homs. The explosion looks almost too large to be real -- and when it began circulating across social media this morning, it drew skepticism -- but now, multiple videos are emerging and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has confirmed the blast.
According to Al Jazeera, Syrian rebels were shelling a military weapons depot in the government-controlled Wadi al-Dhahab neighborhood and set off a stockpile of stored munitions. The huge fireball can be seen from multiple angles above and in these next two videos (the first from Al Jazeera). The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that the attack killed 40, both soldiers and civilians, and wounded an additional 16 people.
Update: Commissioner Georgieva's comments about cases of polio reappearing in Syria have been refuted by the World Health Organization, which has no confirmed cases of polio in Syria or the Syrian refugee diaspora. FP has learned that the European Commission has followed up with its source for the information in the Lebanese government and now believes detected symptoms of acute flaccid paralysis are being caused by diseases other than polio. The post's headline has been revised to reflect this.
Original Post: The lawless conflict in Syria is rekindling dangers -- from disease to forms of political violence -- that have been dormant for decades, Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union's Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid, and Crisis Response, told FP on Monday. "We have spent, as humanity, decades to eradicate polio," she said in a conversation at FP's office, "only to see it again now because of this negligence to simple, basic rules of war -- even in a war there are rules to be followed."
According to the World Health Organization, polio was eradicated in Syria in 1995. But the disease has returned during the country's civil war. "To get polio, that was eradicated, to return," Georgieva said, "this is not only a danger for the Syrians, and it is criminal for the children of this country, but it is a danger for Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey and Egypt and the rest of the world because the refugees will bring it out. We have already gotten reports that cases of polio are being registered among the refugee population." Other diseases -- including measles, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, and leishmaniasis, informally called the "Aleppo boil" -- have also proliferated in the absence of professional medical care.
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In the annals of jihadi groups, the story is an old one: A disaffected Muslim youth returns to Islam, reconnects with his faith, finds himself outraged at the injustices done to his brothers abroad, and travels to a conflict zone to wage jihad. Think Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 2000s, Iraq under American occupation, and Syria today.
But when it comes to the propaganda campaigns that have drawn Muslim youths to these conflicts, here's something we haven't seen before: a graphic novel encouraging young Muslims in the West to take up jihad.
A video released by the online jihadi "Mustafa Hamdi" depicting one young man's journey to Syria does just that, serving up a mix of aspirational thinking and sense of belonging to entice Muslims to join with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria against the Syrian regime.
With the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland concluded, Vladimir Putin -- one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's few remaining allies, and the main obstacle to achieving international consensus on a way out of the Syrian civil war -- appeared before the media Tuesday to take some questions. A reporter asked the Russian president whether he felt "lonely" among other world leaders at the gathering.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
If the country's future is its children, Syria's reconciliation and reconstruction will fall to a group of young people forced from schools -- a "lost generation."
It's a dramatic change for a country with a relatively high standard of education. A new Human Rights Watch report notes that "In 2010, about 93 percent of all eligible children were enrolled in primary education, and 67 percent in secondary education. Before the war, literacy rates among young people were high: approximately 95 percent of the population between ages 15 and 24 could read and write." Early in his presidency, Bashar al-Assad initiated a series of education reforms, increasing the quality of instruction and expanding opportunities for collegiate education.
It's difficult to separate higher education from Ba'ath Party privilege, but it also "was linked to social mobility and the attainment of middle-class status," according to a recent study of refugee students and academics conducted by the University of California, Davis Human Rights Initiative and the Institute for International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund. "Syria's university campuses were the domain of both its established middle class and its aspiring lower middle class," Keith Watenpaugh, director of the UC Davis-HRI, told Foreign Policy by email. "They were one of the few social spaces in Syria, outside of the military, where Sunnis, Alawites and Christians mixed with any frequency."
The war has changed that. "UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations have made it very clear that the entire education sector in Syria is collapsing," Watenpaugh tells FP -- a fact also demonstrated by the new HRW report, "Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria," about primary and secondary education. "As anti-regime higher education professionals and students have fled the country or stopped attending the universities, the remaining faculty are mostly regime loyalists. For decades Syria has been hemorrhaging its best and brightest -- tired of the party, but also the loss of opportunity. The war has accelerated that process."
As schools are closed by the violence and university students flee the country, those opportunities are slipping away. When Watenpaugh and his co-authors visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in April, relief workers told him that there were no university students among the camp's 140,000 residents, "only poor and uneducated villagers," he wrote in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That simply wasn't true. In their conversations with overlooked refugee students at the camp, they found them eager "to renew their studies, even if it meant leaving their families and traveling farther abroad," but they also found that their efforts to continue their education have been stifled by a lack of money, studying opportunities, and paperwork (like transcripts and standardized test results left behind).
Watenpaugh hopes that special arrangements can be made for visiting students in the region, especially in Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey, where there are many universities and, in many cases, lower tuition costs than in Jordan. Otherwise, post-conflict Syria could face an even steeper class divide. "Often when we focus on the elite," he tells FP, "we end up enabling emigration and not empowering large numbers of mid-range students to go home and rebuild their societies." It's a bleak prospect that could leave students who thought they were rising in society "at the bottom end of the economic ladder -- either in Syria or on the margins of Jordanian, Lebanese, and Turkish society."
That disappointment will exacerbate the prospects for peace in the long-term, he writes by email: "That loss of status is a sure path to anomie and radicalization. Angry, resentful, and left-out, those students who fall off the edge, as it were, will be a burden on any peace and reconciliation process."
The fight for Syria seems as intractable as ever, but the struggle for what comes next is already well underway.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
On Wednesday, Syrian rebels in the northeast outskirts of the flashpoint city of Aleppo made an ambitious attempt to storm the city's main prison, setting off two car bombs near the jail's entrance at dawn, according to the Associated Press. The AP, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reports that Syrian warplanes prevented the opposition fighters from breaking though the prison's inner walls.
The rebels were driven back even though they appear to have been observing the neighborhood for days, according to videos uploaded to YouTube. One, posted last week, shows a rebel pointing out a "counterterrorism building" down the street from the prison, while another, filmed as the attack began, shows a truck-mounted machine gun tucked away in a shelter overlooking the prison. A third appears to have been filmed from the opposite side of the prison complex, looking back toward the village where the machine gun was located.
At some point in the fighting, the rebels appear to have breached a wall near the prison. Below watchtowers, fighters take turns shooting AK-47s through holes in the plaster. One rebel, in the video below, tells the camera, "We have assembled more than 5,000 mujahideen ready to liberate the prison and to help the brothers and fight for the brothers.... We are mujahideen and we will liberate the prisoners in the central prison!" When he calls on his comrades to chant "God is great!" though, they sound disheartened.
According to the AP, the rebels have since withdrawn from the vicinity of the prison.
UPDATE: The Telegraph reports rebels have said they withdrew from the area of the prison to prevent more casualties after government forces began executing prisoners and throwing the bodies from windows.
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