Category Archives: Syria

The Tehran summit 7 September: Idlib

Sept 8: Assad drops barrel bombs on Khan Sheikhun, South Idlib Province, where he previously used chemical weapons

As Russia, Turkey and Iran sit down to discuss the future of Idlib today, there are a few facts to keep in mind which I have reiterated over and over.

Assad is an unreconstructed bloodthirsty and vengeful tyrant. He uses chemical weapons. The Russians rely on his régime to keep their military bases in Syria open. They spin and lie  (convincingly) through their media outlets (RT) about his use of chemical weapons.

Russia has in its sights thousands of Chechen, Dagestani, and Tatar jihadis of Russian origin who fight with HTS, who are hiding amongst the civilians population, and will not surrender. Russia is the prime mover in the prospective fight in Idlib.

Russia has already conducted airstrikes to pressure Turkey ahead of the summit, and Turkey has responded by blacklisting HTS to indicate its willingness to cooperate in rooting these elements out, and to differentiate them from the Free Syria Army (FSA) elements organised by the Turks under the umbrella Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).

Only the considerable diplomatic pressure by the Turks, given the important economic relationship it has with Russia, has so far kept the lid on the advance on Idlib. It is also clear that the only relatively free and prosperous areas in Syria today are those in the north under Turkish control.

There is no sense among Syrians that Turkey, whatever its national interests, will ever let up on its efforts to counter the destruction meted out by Assad on his own people. Only Turkey, it seems, is looking out for the future of Syria’s children.

 

The Idlib Showdown: five to midnight

The Russian are meeting with the Turks and Iranians in Tehran on Friday. The Russians have begun limited airstrikes to soften up Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS) positions (above picture). These have been pinpointed by Turkish Intelligence (MİT), with raids beginning after Turkey blacklisted the organisation, in a final move pressuring it to disband and surrender to them. The Russians are impatient because of the repeated drone attacks by HTS on the Khmeimim airbase, and are the prime movers of the new phase of military operations in Syria.

On the other hand, the Syrian régime forces backed by Iranian militias are so far holding off on a major attack and engaging only in limited shelling. They are awaiting, it seems, the outcome of the Tehran summit. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s interventions with the US to hold off an American response has resulted in rumblings and threats from Trump against the Syrian régime and a full UNSC meeting on the subject of Idlib. The French are also pressuring to stave off an attack by Assad.

The likely outcome is for limited strikes and advances and a slow strangulation of the HTS units that refuse to surrender. The Iranian economy is heavily dependent on Turkey and this is already showing in Iran sensitivity towards Turkish demands. With the Turks ensconced in their positions around Idlib, their vision of a province surviving the crisis to go on to prosper in the manner of the northern Syrian areas of Al-Bab, Jarablus and Afrin, and avoid an apocalyptic fate similar to that of Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul, is become more likely with every passing day.

What happened in those last three historic Arab cities – cities that will now limp into the future as a mere shadow of their former selves- has taught us that there is little difference between the scorched earth military tactics of the Americans and the Russians. The future of Syria will lie with the Syrians both in Turkey and in the Turkish controlled areas of northern Syria, who have been given an economic future by the Turkish nation. The power of the Syrian people must become an economic not a military one.

After struggling to bring it under control, Turkey blacklists Tahrir el-Sham (HTS)

After months of cajoling leaders of Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS), ex-al-Nusra Front, to disband in order to avoid a Russian/Syrian régime attack on Idlib Province, Turkey has listed HTS as a terrorist organisation, now paving the way for the advance. The long negotiations with HTS did see many of their fighters join the force organised by the Turks in the province, Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).

Now only hardcore elements remain in the rump ex-al-Qaeda organisation, who are sworn to fight to the bitter end. Unlike previous encounters between rebel fighters and the Russian/Syrian military in the Damascus and Aleppo environs, there is no longer anywhere for the HTS units to retreat. 

A pincer movement against its fighters by the Assad régime, from the west and the south of Idlib, with Russian air support is planned. HTS is held up in Khan Sheikun, Jisr al-Shughur, Kafr Nabal, Idlib, and parts of Jabal al-Zawiya, Salqeen, Darkush, Harem, Sarmada, Sarmin and Ma’ra Misrin. However,  the Turks have given clearance for an advance in only three areas:

  1. Jisr al-Shughur to secure the approach to the Russian airbase at Kmeimim
  2. Southern Idlib countryside to secure Hama airport
  3. The Hama-Aleppo main Road 

The scenario that is unfolding has been planned by the Russians in agreement with the Turks, who are ensconced in 12 heavily fortified positions around Idlib. It is cautiously envisaged as unfolding in stages in order to minimise civilian casualties. Turkey is conducting joint intelligence work to identify the positions of the blacklisted organizations. Turkish intelligence (MİT) is crucial to this operation, which is why its head, Hakan Fidan, has been to Moscow so many times recently. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that he has asked the US to share their intelligence over the jihadist groups in Idlib to help the pinpoint operation. This might, however, be optimistic, given that the move against HTS will reduce the US footprint in the Idlib area. Still, not all US agencies are involved there, and some may help.

So now that Turkey has thrown its hat in the ring formally and agreed the terms of any advance, should it happen, there is little doubt that HTS’ days are numbered. Intermittent negotiations are likely to continue between Turkey and the HTS leadership for the group’s disbandment and surrender. Meanwhile, Russian naval exercises off the Syrian coast are intended to ward off any unexpected succour for the beleaguered HTS units that might prolong the conflict.

 

 

Showdown in Idlib: the Media War

RT is conducting a sustained campaign to pre-empt a chemical attack supposedly being organised by Western-backed forces in Idlib Province by elements within the rebel fighting force, Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS).

However, Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF), reported a convoy of vehicles carrying barrels containing chemical materials being transferred by the Syrian régime from Damascus to the countryside of Hama. A statement issued today by its spokesman, Naji al-Mustafa specified that 10 barrels left the “155th Brigade” barracks near Damascus last night, unloaded in warehouses in the town of Kitlun, and then transferred to another unknown place. NLF is the Turkish-backed umbrella group that merged  Ahrar al-Sham, the Syrian Hawks and the Free Syrian Army amongst others.

This statement comes after persistent Russian warnings of impending chemical attacks in the province of Idlib by rebel factions together with elements from the “Civil Defense” (White Helmet) units. The head of the Russian-Syrian Reconciliation Center, Alexei Siganakov, claimed that members of the White Helmets had transported a large load of toxic substances to a store in the town of Sarqab, under the control of Ahrar al-Sham. Earlier the White Helmets had also been identified by the Russians as associated with planned chemical attacks on Kafrzita and Jisr al-Shughur.

Al-Mustapha maintained that Russian announcements were fabrications that boded ill for local populations. Russia was thus fronting the Assad régime’s preparations for a chemical attack against civilians, as it had already done in previously documented events in Idlib Province and eastern Ghouta, with a sustained media campaign through RT news to soften up international opinion ahead of any atrocities. In an interview with Einab Baladi (The Grapes of my Country news site) yesterday, the director of the Civil Defense units, Raed al-Saleh, echoed al-Mustapha’s warnings about these Russian tactics, and rued the fact that they were not in a position to counter the media dominance of RT’s campaign.  

However, looking more closely at events, it looks like Russia rather than the Assad régime is the prime mover in the Idlib showdown. In of themselves, the latter’s threats against an area increasingly controlled by Turkey are empty without -that is -Russian agreement with Turkey on the diplomatic front. The Russian media campaign is also warning US/UK/French operatives working with and in HTS, of its planned eradication, as part of the same deconfliction protocol that the US/UK/France used during the last rocket attack. HTS has consistently opposed integration into the NFL, and poses a threat to nearby Russian bases because of itslinks with US, British and French intelligence. 

In fact, Russia is currently negotiating with the Turks about the best way to go about ending what Lavrov is now calling an “abscess“. The Turks have made their point that, in the case of Idlib Province, there cannot be the same kind of dumb scorched earth approach used so far in Syria. Their talks with Iran are reinforcing the point. But Russia is putting pressure on Turkey about HTS, and certain limited areas have been cleared by the Turks for an advance by Assad régime forces, one of which is al-Shughour bridge (Jisr al-Sughur), to allow the securing of the approach to the Khmeimim airbase on behalf of the Russians. In today’s world of sanctions, however, both Russian and Iranian geoeconomics depend crucially on Turkey, and weight will continue to be given to Turkish strategic concerns. The final picture will not emerge until the Russia-Turkey-Iran summit in Tehran on Sept 7th.

*N.B.: update in post: Sadr wins the recount: nothing changes but the mood sours (update)

 

The Syrian War: Showdown in Idlib

While a semblance of peace reigns over Idlib’s marketplace, Syrian government forces are striking the Turkmen Mountains in northwestern Syria’s Latakia province, with Assad himself threatening a major offensive to retake Idlib Province, at least rhetorically. Not long ago on July 31, the Russian president’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, had made it clear on the sidelines of the Astana 10 conference that ‘Any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question.’ However, Sergey Lavrov, in a visit to Turkey yesterday said, despite warnings by the Turkish government that an uncontrolled offensive would be catastrophic, that ‘Syria has a right to defend itself against militant groups’.

Despite the apparent disagreement, things are not what they seem. Turkey, with Russian and Iranian consent, has set up “observation posts” around Idlib’s conurbation of some 3 million people, most of whom are displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria, now threatened once again by Assad’s army. Apart from the observation posts dividing Afrin from Idlib to the north, a front has been established facing Syrian government forces from El-Eis south of Aleppo to Kafr Sijnah and Qalaat al Madiq to the south of Idlib (north of Hama), and back up on the western side up to Jisr al-Shoughour. Furthermore, these positions have been heavily fortified with massive prefabricated concrete (being delivered below), and it doesn’t look as if  the Turks intend to move anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Turkish security officials have been negotiating for some months now to integrate the various fighting groups spread across Idlib Province into an organized defence force under their control. But Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS or the Institution for the Liberation of the Levant), previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) when it was still a declared al-Qaeda affiliate, has, typically, been refusing to cooperate.

Furthermore, elements from within HTS have been making and sending armed drones to cause damage at the Russian airbase at Khmeimim, which has made the subject of HTS’ dissolution a matter of heated debate between Russia and Turkey. While Turkey has recently been having more success at reducing the numbers of HTS’ followers, hardcore elements have broken away to form a new group called Tanzim Horass el-Din which, in virtue of its name (Organisation for the Protectors of the Religion) seems to be declaring an inflexible conservative stance. The al-Jazeera video below summarises these and other related events.

So while Russia is expressing its impatience with the situation in Idlib in its support for the threatened advance by Assad’s forces, the Turks continue to insist that the campaign be stopped. Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın told reporters at a press conference today: ‘We are calling for the immediate termination of the operation into Idlib. Referring to Turkey’s role in the Astana  process, he said: ‘ As a guarantor country, we are working to avoid the mistakes carried out by the [Assad] régime in other parts of Syria, like Deraa and Homs, in Idlib.’ This is a diplomatic way for the Turks to say that they are not moving, and that the Russians have to give them more time to get the situation in Idlib under control. It is understood, however, that Russia’s change of tone conveyed in Lavrov’s statement yesterday is a necessary threat in the interests of speeding things up with recalcitrant fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, it is the next round of the Astana process in Tehran that will be decisive in all these respects (including Assad’s advance) since, undoubtedly, the Iranians will be bringing into the mix the question of trade with Turkey, in trying to overcome the difficult new sanctions environment .

Despite the liberal whitewashing of Assad: the evidence is overwhelming that the unreconstructed Arab tyrant is true to type

As the Russians spin Assad’s way out of blame for the chemical atrocities he is responsible for, his régime continues to dodge the real questions the chemical weapons watchdog (OPCW) want answered. Assad’s denials over chemical attacks, are no different to his denials over the systematic torture and destruction of the Syrian people in his prisons.

Liberal arguments just as those after Ghouta and Khan Sheikhun (to the effect that Assad ‘had no reason to commit such an atrocity’ because he was winning the war), fail to understand the mentality of Arab tyrants, who scheme to use plausible deniability of daylight murder as a policy intended for the promulgation of the fear their rule depends on. The RT media machine, usually a valuable counterweight to such as the BBC and CNN, is nevertheless a boon to the Syrian despot in that particular respect.

Putin Trump Summit (2)

What does the Putin-Trump summit come down to? Trump’s pro-Israeli policy is essential to the domestic survival in US politics of a politician with a multitude of enemies, not least within the ranks of his own security bureaucracy. At a time when Israel and Iran are facing off in South-West Syria, his anti-Iranian rhetoric is a vital part of this (singularly narrow) survival strategy. What Trump has to trade with Putin are the new type of sanctions on Russia oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska in particular, concocted by US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin.

Trump is meeting Putin to ask him to push Iran out of Syria, in exchange for which he will relax sanctions against Deripaska. As an aside, despite the fact that Trump will want to make this trade anyway, it looks like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in their stunning stupidity, seem to want to give Trump generous (and unnecessary) inducements to make this anti-Iranian policy happen.

Putin’s desperation to rescue Deripaska, on the other hand, is absolutely clear. Despite the latter’s catastrophic mismanagement of the Russian aluminium industry so far, Putin seems willing to endanger the ecology of Lake Baikal (above), the largest freshwater lake on the planet, to save Rusal (the aluminium company). Nationalization is not an option due to the dependence of the Russian state, and Putin’s personal power, on the web that the oligarchs have created between the homeland and their offshore colony, woven as it is into the economies of the colonial powers – US, UK, and France.

So far Russia has succeeded in imposing its will on South-Eastern Syria on behalf of Assad, but severing Iran’s establishment of its strategic base in South-West Syria, territorially contiguous with Southern Lebanon and the territory of (Nasrallah’s) Hezbollah, is quite another matter. Russia’s leverage on Iran does not quite go that far.

However, could Russia solve this by getting Trump to give Turkey a waiver on trading with Iran? On the one hand, a reduction in the presence of Iranian military hardware in South Syria wouldn’t be that problematic for an Iranian régime that has already “demographically reconfigured” Damascus and its suburbs with new loyal (paramilitary) populations ready to do Iranian bidding at any time in the future, should the need for a military build-up arise. On the other hand, ensuring a continuing trade with Turkey is vital for Iran. Although this is in Turkish interests as well, nevertheless, at a time when Turkish bankers are paying a heavy price in US courts for breaking previous US sanctions on Iran, Iran cannot absolutely guarantee this lifeline without Russian pressure on Trump.

Neither would Russia mind consolidating control over Assad, whose régime they helped Iran rescue from annihilation, by fielding a greater Russian military police presence in the Damascus area, and ensuring no further chemical attacks that Russia would then have to spend time and effort spinning as fake news/red flags in the media. In fact, Russia would consolidate its role by acting as a policeman to keep Israel and Iran “apart” in Syria, and give Israel the guarantees it needs. If Russia removes Iran from the Syrian theatre entirely, it would undermine its own status and power in that respect.

Looking generally at the Syrian situation, it then becomes clear that the trumpeted resurgence of Assad and the idea of a unified Syria under his rule is a total mirage. For a start, Trump is concerned only with South-West Syria and Israel. He won’t withdraw US troops from North-East Syria. Despite his statements to that effect, he doesn’t have the power to convince the Pentagon and the CIA to make any move in that regard.

The US security state clearly failed to dislodge Erdoğan in the July 2016 attempted coup, and it watches with dismay as the Turkish military establishment built links with Russia by buying the S-400 air defense systems. So, it will continue to want a permanent point of pressure on Turkey in Syrian Kurdistan to guarantee that its interests in general, and the facilities open to it on Turkish soil (at İncirlik [airbase near Adana] and Kürecik [X-band early warning radar near Malatya]) in particular, are maintained. The Turks are obdurate, and US forces have already previously experienced periods of expulsion (as after the Cyprus invasion), despite Turkish membership of NATO.

The deal with Turkey that Russia will, therefore, broker after this summit, would also consolidate the Turkish position in Idlib, which the Turks are adamant to defend against any incursion by Assad anyway, to prevent a further displacement of refugees towards its borders. Syria, despite the rhetoric, will remain divided. On the house of cards that have been stacked up in the benighted country by foreign powers, today’s geopolitics depend.

Russia continues to spin Assad’s way out of any blame for chemical attacks

Further evidence of Russia’s continued cover-up of Assad’s atrocities emerges as France’s broadcasting regulator warns the French arm of Russia Today (RT) over a news report that dubbed over the voices of Syrian civilians with words they had not said. It noted that the testimony of a Syrian witness had been dubbed with a voice saying “words that bore no resemblance with what he had said”.

The CSA added that another witness had been dubbed with a voiceover saying that local residents had been ordered by militant group Jaysh al-Islam to simulate the effects of a chemical attack, “but the testimony did not mention any particular group”. France’s Audiovisual Council (CSA) accused the state-backed broadcaster with “failures of honesty, rigour of information and diversity of viewpoints”.

The news report, aired on 13 April, “contested the reality of chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian region of Eastern Ghouta.” The CSA further said the report demonstrated “an imbalance in analysis” of the situation in Syria and that “on a subject this sensitive, the different points of view should have been expressed”.

As client of the régime, Russia is compelled to cover up Assad’s atrocities

I have consistently maintained that Assad is an unreconstructed tyrant in the traditional Arab mould whose mentality Westerners, especially those well-intentioned souls on the left supporting him, are completely unable to fathom.

Assad’s theatricals, staged with the help of the Russians and involving the apparent disposition of a stock of chemical weapons in 2013, were intentionally planned as cover for subsequent gassing campaigns which could then be blamed on rebel forces.

As Gilles Dorronsoro writes in Lobelog: “Why does the régime resort to gassing? The question matters because it conditions the response due the Syrian régime in the longer term. One argument frequently heard for holding the régime blameless is the lack of a military rationale for attacking with gas, because the insurgent pocket was destined to fall in any case.

In fact, the attacks with gas above all send a political message to Syria’s own society and to Westerners. If the latter look the other way, they discredit themselves: recall how the Obama administration’s refusal to intervene changed the dynamics of the war and helped pull a régime on the verge of collapse back from the brink. If they act, they polarize the situation, solidify the regime’s alliance with Russia and Iran, and, come the next chemical attack, will only confront their own impotence.

Hence, the bombings ordered by Donald Trump in 2017 after the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack obviously did nothing to deter the régime. In addition, Bashar al-Assad sends a message to his population. You are alone, there is no limit to what we can do: gas attacks on civilians, rape on a massive scale, torture (with hundreds of thousands of victims, and tens of thousands of them killed), systematic bombing of hospitals, and the list goes on.”

Gilles Dorronsoro has just published an in-depth sociological survey of the Syrian Civil War with Adam Baczko and Arthur Quesnay, with Cambridge University Press.

We also find Robert Mackey writing for The Intercept on recent events at Douma that it was very odd that the Russians were propagandising at the Hague, using 11-year old Hassan Diab, before the OPCW had finished the investigation, which had been inexplicably delayed by the Russians, ostensibly while preparing the ground for the new set of theatricals.

“When Hassan told Russian state television last week that he had been given sweets in return for taking part in the filming of the video in the hospital, and his father said that the boy had been doused in water for no reason, since there was no sign of any chemical attack, Russia’s United Nations ambassador announced plans to screen the interview for the Security Council.

However, Russia has failed to acknowledge concerns that the boy and his father might not have felt free to accurately describe what happened, given that the interview was filmed at a Syrian army facility used by Russian military advisers. Former colleagues of the Douma hospital workers told The Guardian that Syrian officials had subjected the medics to “extreme intimidation,” threatening to harm their families if they made any mention of chemical weapons.

When they arrived in the Netherlands on Thursday, Hassan and the medical workers were first taken to the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for a presentation of Russia’s case that the attack was a hoax.

During the presentation, text on a screen behind Russia’s ambassador to the OPCW, Alexsander Shulgin, described the footage shot in Douma’s hospital on April 7 as “Fake Video” produced by the volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets.

Since the video was in fact shot by another group, the activists who run the Douma.Revolution Facebook page — and the images used by Russia include their logo — it is unclear why Russian officials insist on attributing the footage to the White Helmets. One possible explanation is a pre-existing campaign to demonize that group, which receives funding from Western governments and has documented the aftermath of Russian air strikes on rebel-held areas.

Russia had ignored a request from the OPCW to allow its inspectors in Syria to interview the witnesses first, and wait until after the investigators had filed their report to present its theory of the case. When the Russian briefing went ahead, it was denounced as “a crude propaganda exercise” by 17 nations that boycotted it, including the United States, Britain and France. Those three countries are convinced the Syrian government did use chemical weapons, and carried out retaliatory airstrikes two weeks ago, before the OPCW inspectors had even begun their work.

The Syrian entourage was then presented to the media at a bizarre press conference in which the opposition activist’s video of each of them in the hospital on the night of the attack was projected onto a big screen behind them as they delivered prepared remarks to reporters.

Many reporters in the room expressed disquiet at the spectacle of the young boy, who addressed them for all of 40 seconds, speaking in defense of the government that has been shelling his hometown for half his life.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the event, though, was how deeply beside the point it seemed. Witness after witness swore that there had been no sign of chemical exposure and no deaths among the patients they treated in the hospital, and Hassan’s father insisted that no one in his family had been sickened by gas, but there was no testimony at all related to what took place that same night in a nearby residential building — where activists had filmed piles of dead bodies, some with foam on their lips, and a large yellow canister identical to those used in previous chlorine gas attacks.

The exclusive focus on what took place in the hospital that night, in nearly two hours of testimony, was particularly bizarre because two different witnesses told reporters in Douma last week, on a government-led press tour, that their families had been killed by gas in that residential building.

One witness, Nasser Amer Hanen, told Stefan Borg of TV4 Sweden that he had survived the attack but lost his wife, mother and brothers to gas. When the same man spoke to Seth Doane of CBS News inside his ruined home in the building, he led the reporter to an upper floor, where the large yellow gas canister was still resting.

Another witness in Douma, Kahled Mahmoud Nuseir, told Bassem Mroue of the Associated Press that his wife and two daughters had been killed by gas in a basement shelter that still had a peculiar smell 10 days later. Speaking to AP outside Douma’s hospital, Nuseir blamed the gas attack not on the Syrian government but on the Islamist rebels who held the town until April 8. He also faulted the White Helmets for failing to save his family. Although it contradicts the Russian claim that no gas was used anywhere in Douma, and the images from the hospital were fabricated by the White Helmets at the direction of British intelligence**, video of Nuseir’s AP interview was obtained and posted online by Press TV, an English-language channel owned by Syria’s ally Iran.”

However, given that scepticism about the Douma justification for the launch of missiles by the US-UK-French trio would reach Tucker Carlson and would become a major talking point of his on FOX NEWS, of all TV stationsRussian information warfare seems to be succeeding in spades in undermining the credibility of Western intelligence services. If the Iraq War hadn’t done the job of burying that forever, the inexplicable lies of the UK government over the Skripal case should have hammered a final nail into this particular coffin. The Russians are driving their advantage home. They are possibly better liars than the Americans and the British.

** N.B. The White Helmets are an operation funded by the UK and US governments, and directed by their intelligence services, although acknowledging this does not absolve Assad of his crimes nor Russia of the crime of covering up his crimes.

Syria: Not a Civil War but a War on Civilians

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: The regime’s crimes are colossal, sustained, and deliberate; they are an expression of policy. The opposition is disorganised, anarchic and diffuse. Its crimes are impulsive, contained and chaotic: They reflect only on the group or individual committing the crime. Russian vetoes to protect specific regime violations have created a general climate of impunity where criminality thrives. This has to be reversed.

Yet the language of “both sides” and “no good guys” has created an artificial levelling where a largely peaceful uprising is placed on the same moral plane as the murderous regime that forced it to militarise.

To be sure, the regime’s ruthless campaign against the civil uprising has left a vacuum filled by many unsavoury groups. But the people who remain unvanquished in the face of a genocidal regime aided by two major powers is unlikely to be cowed by Al-Qaeda.

Indeed, since 2016, Syrian towns like Ma’arat al-Nu’man, Saraqeb, and Kafranbal have seen regular protests against both the regime and Al-Qaeda. Some towns have successfully expelled the jihadis and protests against Al-Qaeda are happening in Sarmada even as I write.

What we see in Syria is not a “civil war”, but a war on civilians. The label “civil war” suggests a kind of parity in a contest that is anything but equal. In Syria the battle has often been waged between high-altitude bombers and hospitals; between barrel bombs and playgrounds.

“To confuse [perpetrators] with their victims”, said the great Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, “is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.”

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