BEIRUT, Lebanon — As the Iraqi government struggles to contain a Sunni militant advance on Baghdad and hold the country together, more and more Iraqis are blaming Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for their country’s increasing resemblance to neighboring Syria.
Maliki isn’t just responsible for the Iraqi army’s poor showing against the Islamic State, critics say: Like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, he’s responsible for the violence itself, for having ordered a military crackdown on a public demonstration, triggering the recent wave of unrest. And now, he’s relying on a military strategy that guarantees high civilian casualties.
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TURKEY, Istanbul : A Syrian refugee man gestures as he begs in the street with a baby lying on his lap in Istanbul on June 19, 2014. Syria’s army on June 15 said it had recaptured the strategic town of Kasab and the only border crossing with Turkey in Latakia province, after it fell to rebels almost three months ago. Nearly half of Syria’s population has fled their homes since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011. More than three million have found refuge abroad,but around six million more are displaced inside Syria, with many living in terrible conditions in camps along the borders. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC
After months of violence, unrest and a rising death toll, Iraq is now disintegrating.
Within a matter of days, the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its allies have overrun the second largest city in Iraq — Mosul — and several other towns. They now have their sights set on Baghdad.
Several reports suggested Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces discarded their uniforms and weapons, fleeing cities without even engaging ISIL, despite the fact that they far outnumber the militants.
Where ISIL, the jihadist group that is seizing Iraq, came from and what it wants
The militant group taking over Iraq and Syria right now is seriously scary
How the US helped turn Iraq into an Al Qaeda haven in just 53 steps
What the Iraq mess means for oil
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Over a week after Lebanon announced radical changes in its approach to the Syrian refugee crisis, questions about the policy remain: Is the government about to enact a policy, in compliance with international law, that helps it to identify and better assist the most needy among the displaced?
Or has the ground been laid for legitimate refugees — people fleeing falling bombs, summary killings, torture, and more — to be forcibly returned to the very dangers they fled?
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Though there are certainly moderate groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it’s the jihadists recruiting abroad who worry Western governments: recruits may then be radicalized in Syria — or, if they were pretty extreme to begin with, receive practical training — and then return as terror threats to their home countries.
Syria Is Obama’s Rwanda
Twenty-seven-year-old Qusai Zakarya woke up at about 4:30 AM on August 21, 2013. He rolled out his prayer rug inside his family’s two-bedroom apartment in the small town of Moadamiya, Syria, and started his morning prayers.
Alarms coming from nearby Damascus interrupted his daily ritual. After two years of revolution, Qusai had gotten used to the near constant shelling and bombings, but something was different this summer morning. The alarms were the kind “you usually hear in movies about World War II when there is a big air raid,” he told me.
“Within seconds, I started hearing rockets flying into the ground,” Qusai recounted. They hit the rebel-held town about 500 feet away from him.
“Before I realized what was going on, I lost my ability to breathe. I felt like my chest was set on fire. My eyes were burning like hell, and I wasn’t even able to scream to alert my friends,” he said. “So I started beating my chest over and over until I managed to get my first breath.”
As Qusai recovered inside his home, he heard people screaming on the streets. A neighbor pounded on his door and asked for help. Her two kids were suffocating and vomiting “weird white stuff,” Qusai said.
They rushed onto the street to seek help and found a “terrifying” scene. Men, women, children, elderly people were “running and falling on the ground, suffocating, without seeing a single drop of blood or knowing what was really going on,” Qusai told me.
Qusai spotted a 13-year-old boy left all alone, suffocating and vomiting. Qusai ran to him and gave him CPR. “He had big wide blue eyes and was almost staring into another dimension. He was suffocating, and he seemed to me very innocent to die this way or any other way,” Qusai said.
The most wanted man in Aleppo is feeling satisfied. Less than a week before, he had helped pack the last of 25 tonnes of explosives into a tunnel dug under a hotel and filled with Syrian troops.
"I was sitting in this room," said Abu Assad, the rebel commander of Aleppo’s tunnel forces at another of the city’s frontlines. Smiling, he cupped his ear and added: "We heard the blast from here. It made us very happy."
Pictured: Abu Assad, rebel commander of Aleppo’s tunnel forces. Photograph: Zac Baillie for the Guardian
It’s pretty damning.
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The United States and the international community have spent the better part of the last year backing peace talks in Geneva to bring about a “political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” and ultimately end the war between the Alawite-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Sunni and Kurdish-dominated opposition. But Assad has his own transition in mind: running for a third seven-year term as president. On April 28, the Syrian president nominated himself as a candidate in Syria’s June 3 presidential poll, “hoping the parliament would endorse it.”
This was hardly a surprise. Assad has hinted at his candidacy for months, and “spontaneous rallies” calling for him to run—many complete with images of Assad beside Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah—have sprung up across regime-controlled areas of the country, while shopkeepers have been encouraged to paint their storefronts with Syrian flags and slogans supporting the leader.
What’s Assad’s concession to his opponents after attempting to shoot his way out of the country’s largest uprising, with 150,000-plus killed, 680,000 injured, and up to half of the country’s 23 million people displaced? The Syrian president has made the next poll the first contested presidential election in the nation’s modern history.
Read more. [Image: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri]
LONDON, UK — The man in the video squats in the dirt of a Syrian field, a rifle clenched in his hands, a balaclava obscuring his features.
He cautions aspiring Islamic fighters that they may not be strong enough for the perils of the frontlines. His words, delivered in a tough London accent, sound like a challenge.
“It’s not as easy as pulling out your 9-millimeter on a back road of the streets of London and blasting a guy with it,” he says in English. “It’s not as easy as putting up your feet on the couch after a hard day’s work on the corner.”
He’s speaking to boys in east London projects and fathers in Birmingham suburbs — men who see in the grainy video a vision of the type of man and the type of Muslim they would like to be.
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On a scorching August day in 2011, in the city of Homs, the Syrian conflict nearly swallowed Monzer Darwish. The 23-year-old graphic designer, who grew up in nearby Hama, had stopped at a cafe with his fiancée, only to take cover in the establishment at the sound of screaming outside. When they finally ventured into the street, they heard a pop—pop, pop, and someone fell. Then everyone ran. “The whole street was literally on fire,” he recalled.
Fleeing the violence, Darwish wrestled with the kinds of questions many face during war. What do you do if you don’t want to take a side? If you don’t want to take up arms? If you want to keep your community from being torn apart? If you can’t escape? Many of his friends found themselves in a similar situation, and they sought emotional refuge through music, even live heavy-metal concerts near the frontlines. Reconnecting with these peers, Darwish decided to film how this alternative community—musicians and fans alike—was surviving amid the country’s three-year civil war.
Heavy metal, with its macabre poetry, thundering elegies, and violent moshing, has often resonated with young people and helped them express solidarity with one another during periods of political and social tension. But Darwish wanted to show how Syria’s “metal heads” and alternative youth, like their peers in Iraq and Afghanistan, are turning to the music not only as a way to cope with mass trauma, but also as a means of conducting a brutally honest dialogue about how to survive war and reform society.
The result: a rockumentary called Syrian Metal Is War. For much of the last year, Darwish has crisscrossed the country to film every metal musician he can find. He’s uploaded a trailer to YouTube, and he hopes to screen a rough cut of the full film in Beirut by late spring.
Read more. [Image: Daniel J. Gerstle]
Syrian Children Are Drawing to Heal the Trauma from War
In an upscale district of Downtown Beirut, two pre-teen boys rapped in Arabic during an exhibit showcasing the artwork of Syrian refugee children. Ramzi, a 12-year-old originally from Daraa, Syria, beatboxed as his friend Ayham, who is also from Daraa, spit rhymes. Guests watched quietly, impressed, as the two boys recalled life before the uprising-turned-civil war wreaked havoc on their country.
This was part of an exhibit, called “Light Against Darkness,” the result of a three month art workshop that focused on helping children overcome the trauma of war through creative expression. Forty-three children produced about 166 works of drawings and clay sculptures, many of which depicted colorful renditions of schools, kids playing together, and families bonding.
Others, however, were not so cheery. Suha Wanous, a young girl originally from Latakia but who arrived to Lebanon from Damascus, the Syrian capital, drew a daughter holding her mother’s hand while a gun is pressed to her head point-blank. In the background of the picture, it’s raining and a helicopter is opening fire on a home while two small children lay on the grass bleeding, presumably dead. The organizers of the exhibit explained how Suha used to pass an army checkpoint daily before going to school back in Syria. She used to greet the soldiers Assalamu Alaykum (meaning “peace be upon you” in Arabic.)
Today is Day 1,104 of the Syria conflict.
The members of the Arab League can’t agree which group should be representing Syria at the summit in Kuwait, which opened today. Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria don’t want to give the role to the Syrian opposition (for reasons why, check out this interview with an Iraqi politician).
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman, on the other hand, insisted that, despite the increasing presence of terrorist groups in the Syrian opposition, “there is a legitimate resistance in Syria that was betrayed by the international community and left as a prey in the face of an oppression force.” He also called on the international community to combat the terrorist presence on the ground in Syria.
The international community’s “betrayal” of the Syrian opposition appears to be the theme of the day.