The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.


Wikimedia Commons


The Suffering Refugees Who Can’t Go Home

What do you say to a mother with tears streaming down her face who says her daughter is in the hands of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and that she wishes she were there, too? Even if she had to be raped and tortured, she says, it would be better than not being with her daughter.

What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men? When her brother found out, he killed himself.

How can you speak when a woman your own age looks you in the eye and tells you that her whole family was killed in front of her, and that she now lives alone in a tent and has minimal food rations?

— Angelina Jolie, A New Level of Refugee SufferingNew York Times

That is just a taste of the awful conditions and circumstances faced by the millions of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing some of the most savage and chaotic conflict in generations — not including the millions more displaced within their respective countries, and the hundred of thousands killed, maimed, or missing.

There can be no doubt that the Syrian Civil War, and the subsequent emergence of IS from the chaos, is one of the greatest humanitarian and moral calamities in decades. It is hard to imagine that this horror is being played out in such a large scale in other crises across the world, from Central African Republic to Burma.

I have no idea how to even conceive of this suffering, let alone face it in person.

Jolie, who has a notable track record as a humanitarian, strikes me as sincere in her observations and humanism. One particular point that was salient to me as an International Relations major:

At stake are not only the lives of millions of people and the future of the Middle East, but also the credibility of the international system. What does it say about our commitment to human rights and accountability that we seem to tolerate crimes against humanity happening in Syria and Iraq on a daily basis?

When the United Nations refugee agency was created after World War II, it was intended to help people return to their homes after conflict. It wasn’t created to feed, year after year, people who may never go home, whose children will be born stateless, and whose countries may never see peace. But that is the situation today, with 51 million refugees, asylum-seekers or displaced people worldwide, more than at any time in the organization’s history.

There is little more to add: after seventy years, it appears little has changed with respect to the plight of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. While conflicts on the scale of the Second World War have thankfully been absent — and still unlikely, if not ruled out entirely — large international wars have given way to chronic civil strife in certain countries that extend suffering and crisis across generations. It is awful how familiar and intractable this problem remains. I hope that changes in my lifetime.

Slideshow: Cherry Season in Aleppo — The Struggle For Normalcy Amid Civil War

Foreign Policy has another great but sobering slideshow, this time showcasing the plight of Syria’s beleaguered civilians, namely those in its largest and most contested cities, Aleppo. While we’ve heard much about the back-and-forth between the various warring factions, as usual, the fate of those in the middle is somewhat understated (which in some sense is to be expected, given that they’re passive elements in the grand scheme of the war, at least for the time being).

The article’s introduction puts it pretty well:

Aleppo has been under siege for over nine months — ever since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) stormed the city limits in mid-July. More than 94,000have died throughout Syria, and close to 11,000 have died in Aleppo alone. While the international community dawdles and deliberates, while each side fights for the survival of its reality, civilians here must grapple with the fact that their old lives are gone and their future lives are unknown, and that life must somehow go on between now and then.

So people adapt and cope. The blasts of mortars and artillery fire blend into the background, the threat of snipers becomes a reality to grit your teeth through as you walk home, and dark humor seeps into the daily milieu, calming nerves with a white-knuckled laughter that holds tears at bay. Groceries must be bought, money must be made, bellies must be filled, and days must have some sort of meaning.

The reality of a civilian in war is that life must be risked in order to live. Day-to-day acts can become small feats of rebellion. Risking sniper fire on the walk to work becomes not only a testament to human resilience and our ability to adapt, but sometimes a statement: You can take my life, but you can’t take my choice to live it.

I hope this vicious bloodletting ends soon, and to the benefit of the Syrian people. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely for now: the intractable nature of this grinding war of attrition, as well as the growing sectarianism, makes it difficult to imagine that even a relatively pacified Syria will be stable for long.

The Houla Massacre

It’s hard to believe that people are still being slaughtered like cattle in Syria, with full impunity on the part of the government. The video below is just a sample of that brutality. Fair warning, it’s extremely graphic. I’m not trying to shock or disgust anyone. This is something that I think people need to see and realize.

This was going on around the same time that I was out partying with friends. This is just a sliver of the cruelty and horror that goes on throughout the world at any given time. Years of studying this has not dented the psychological impact – while I’m numb to it for the most part, it saddens me tremendously deep down.

As I lie in my warm bed tonight, I’ll be unable to stop thinking about how something like this is playing out at that very moment, and I’m powerless to stop it.

The Massacre at Homs

As I write this, the Syrian city of Homs is being brutally assaulted by government forces, which are reportedly repressing more demonstrations in at least a dozen cities throughout the country. The regime’s cruelty is boundless, as even young children are targeted. The following slideshow gives just a small, mostly atmospheric glimpse into this bloody crackdown.

Incredibly, the beleaguered citizens are still unrelenting in their protests. Were I in their position, I honestly don’t know if I would have ever kept it going at this point. Human will is a remarkable thing.

If you so choose, you can read more about my reflections on this conflict herePlease feel free to weigh in.

Syria’s Struggle and the Question of Intervention

A member of the Free Syrian Army stands guard as anti-Syrian regime protesters hold a demonstration in Idlib, Syria, Feb. 6. The US closed its Syrian embassy Monday and Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a dramatic escalation of Western pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to give up power, just days after diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to end the crisis collapsed. AP Photo

After nearly a year of civil strife and mass protest, the Syrian regime has still managed to cling to power, killing over 5,000 people in the process. Its brutality and cunning have so far assured its survival, at a great cost to innocent lives, and though violence is nonetheless escalating to a near-civil war, there seems to be no foreseeable end to the bloodshed.

The courage and tenacity of the Syrian people astounds me. Their efforts have been periodically written off every time the army unleashes its artillery, tanks, and snipers to obliterate any demonstration. Yet they’ve continued to reemerge against all odds, no matter how much the regime ratchets up its barbarity. It’s become a battle of willpower, a game of chicken – who will give in first?

I can’t imagine what it would be like to face such overwhelming odds without ever backing down. The choice between your life and oppression is not an easy one to make, and I’m eternally grateful I don’t have to worry about it. It seems that they have so little to lose after decades of despotism, that the risks are inconsequential. How else can we explain this so-far unconquerable urge for freedom no matter the cost?

It saddens me to see a people strive to better their conditions, only to be put down like cattle. So many innocent people have died, and continue to die even as we speak. I’m typing away about their fate, powerless to do anything about it. While I go about my daily routine in my comfortable life, their being starved, tortured, terrorized and massacred, all for the heinous crime of demanding a say in their own future.

This recent video from CNN was particularly heartbreaking. The country looks increasingly like a war zone, and neither side seems to be prevailing with any certain. I fear this conflict will continue to drag on, bleeding the country dry for some time. You can hear the deep sadness and hopelessness of the activist being interview, and most palpably the sense of frustration: while the Syrians get butchered for their efforts, the world is impotent to do anything about it (Russ and China recently vetoed a UN resolution that would have condemned the atrocities).

But what can the world do? Syria is a populous country with a far stronger state and security apparatus. It’s religious and ethnic diversity may give way to Iraq-style sectarian violence once the regime were to be toppled. Getting involved may cause more problems than anything.
Besides, no country is in the position to intervene, even if it were sure to work. Aside from the considerable lack of public support for any overseas venture, any operation effective enough to dislodge the regime would require boots on the ground, and an expensive and long-term commitment that most currently cash-strapped nations can’t afford. Furthermore, many people, me included, would doubt the humanitarian sincerity of any intervention, given the long precedent of strategic selectiveness.
So all we can do is watch and hope? Provide moral support and solidarity, but nothing more practical? Economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may work, including freezing the bank accounts of state officials and banning them from travel. But will that really bring down a government fighting for its life and privilege? Who’s to say it won’t hurt ordinary Syrians more, given that they’re already enduring food and water shortages due to both government action and economic turmoil.
Its times like this that I wish we had superheroes, someone who could fly in like Superman and pummel those tanks and artillery units. I wish there was a standing UN army that could rapidly deploy to defend besieged citizens from their malicious rulers. Even in an era of increasing globalization and interconnectedness, we’re still unable and unwilling to address the periodic violence that is exercised with impunity. Some would argue that it’s for the better, given the capacity for abuse and mishandling. I sometimes wonder if someday that won’t be the case, and the world as a whole will be a better governed place.
I know that’s just the nature of this complex and disunited world; I know that there are too many dynamics and factors involved, across economic, social, political, diplomatic, and military spectrums. But that doesn’t make me any less saddened, no matter how many times I’ve had to see and study it over the years. All I can do is watch, wait, and hope. My heart goes out to the people of Syria. I think the regime is weakening, and that its fall will be inevitable. But it’ll come at a heavy cost, and there’s no telling what will come after. Syrians will have no choice but to press on. They’re fighting for their own fate after all, so perhaps it’s ultimately fitting that they do so on their terms.
Be grateful for your freedoms and comforts. Never take any of it for granted. I should be so lucky to be sitting here, in comfort and stability, upset about the fate of others fighting for what I was so fortunate to have, by mere accident of birth.

Rebels Take Tripoli: Libya Nearly Free

The latest news concerning the Battle for Libya confirms that rebel forces have controlled nearly the entire capital city of Tripoli, Qaddafi’s stronghold and central command center. After six months of vicious fighting, in which the rebels were often stalemated and routed, they managed an incredible reversal: not only did the rag-tag group of irregulars manage to overrun the tyrant’s presumably strong defenses and troops, but they did so with considerable speed and coordination. They also managed to capture two of the colonel’s sons, including Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the government’s number two leader.

Obviously, Qaddafi hasn’t given up the fight just yet, even given the grim prospects (including three high-profile defections among senior officials this past week alone). His main compound in the city remains out of rebel control, and some fighting between government forces and rebel troops has continued since Tripoli was taken. Despite reports of declining moral, the loyalist forces still seem to be keeping up the fight, and the irreverent despot continues to call on his people to resist the traitors and their Western imperialist allies in NATO. But all this is to be expected from a man sooner willing to slaughter his people like rats than to relinquish power.

In my humble opinion, I believe this marks the beginning of the end for Qaddafi, even if it is precariously too soon to tell. I can barely contain my excitement at the prospect that one of the world’s most vile and oppressive regimes may soon be overthrown through a popular uprising – a very difficult feat given the overwhelming odds face (and rare if the subsequent government that follows manages to last and prove itself to be better). I cannot wait to see a Libya that is finally free after decades of brutal and often bizarre rule, a society that was once under more  surveillance than almost any other, and in which films, public gatherings and festivals, and any modicum of free expression were forbidden.

Of course, I have no delusions about the grim reality of all this: that the rebels, who’ve shown signs of fraying, may break into infighting; that their hold over the capital and the rest of the country (much of which is still out of their hands) may end up being tenuous; that their victory does not guarantee a safe and free Libya; and that there will be a very long road ahead before the nation becomes a truly stable and democratic state – if that ever even comes. We’re still waiting for relatively docile Tunisia and Egypt to progress more definitively, as the excitement over their historic revolutions has been tempered into very cautious optimism.

But my hope remains, as I’m sure it does among millions of Libyans that can already feel and enjoy the taste of freedom. They stood up to a terrifying and murderous state and refused to back down even at it’s greatest displays of brutality. What began as a medium-sized protest that was horribly suppressed turned into a sweeping movement of national liberation that transcended – albeit imperfectly – tribal, religious, and political differences. I, like many others, would’ve never thought that movement would keep it’s momentum for this long. To see people who have never known freedom be willing to die for it is a sobering and inspiring experience. I can’t imagine what it must be like, but I’m sure many Syrians are currently enduring the same reflections as they no doubt look to Libya’s progress as a sign of hope.

This recent success also raises some interesting questions: the rebels and analysts alike have attributed much of this success to  NATO’s operation. Indeed, rebel forces were saved from a potentially devastating flank attack due to NATO intervention, and the intelligence and direction provided by Western nations seems to have paid off (despite several mishaps, such as friendly fire or lack of strategic cohesion). Does this legitimize the concept of  military intervention for humanitarian purposed, which has been viewed cynically and skeptically these past few years? Will this make future Western involvement in such matters more acceptable or favorable? What are the implications for Syria, Yemen, or any other future scenario concerning a cause for involvement (although note that the Libyans actually requested such assistance, whereas no other dissidents have done so yet).

Personally, I lean to accepting a military intervention of some kind if it is requested of us and if the circumstances are dire enough to warrant it – such as government troops about to brutally put down a peaceful protest. I believe such involvement should be limited in scope, multilateral, legitimized (relatively speaking) through UN resolutions, and clearly outlined in their purpose and parameters. I know that even such a cautious and well-planned approach will still produce problems, and may even be open for self-interested abuse. I’m sure many of my readers will disagree with my stance as well. Though note, in my own defense, that I am not strongly for such a move, nor do I see it is a favorable norm; I am only inclined to accept it as a last resort and under very strict circumstances. Of course, as always, I welcome dissenting views and opinions so long as they are sincere and civil. I can be persuaded by a good argument.

In any case, putting some sort of squeeze on noxious regimes seems uncontroversial and effective enough: travel bans, well-targeted sanctions, and freezing the assets of offending officials are all ways to help out. Even diplomatic peer pressure could do it’s part, embarrassing and isolating despots while emboldening their dissenters. Currently, this approach is being applied to Syria,  whose situation is not unlike Libya: a decades-old and brutal authoritarian police state facing a belated but stubborn uprising. It remains to be seen if any of this will do much good, or if the Syrian people could endure the horrific toll of their courageous aims long enough to overthrow their oppressors. In either case, there may be a turning point not only for more freedom-fighting Arab citizens, but for foreign policy as well.

On that note, I’ll leave you all with some interesting sideshows, courtesy of the New York Times.

Once Upon a Time in Damascus

I figured that since I made a post about Syria earlier today, I might as well keep on topic, since I have little time to write or pontificate as much as I’d like to (stay tuned tomorrow though – I hope to get into some meaty topics).

Once again, Foreign Policy offers a beautiful photo essay of one of the most beautiful and ancient cities in human history. Aside for my obvious love of history and other cultures (especially a combination of the two), I’m drawn to old and grainy photographs that I feel add a nice aesthetic dimension in addition to providing sense of context. As the introduction nicely notes:

“No recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive the news of it,” wrote Mark Twain after visiting Syria’s capital — known colloquially as al-Sham — in the 1860s. “She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”

Over the centuries, Damascus has been conquered by a string of foreign invaders that extends from King David of Israel — chronicled in the Old Testament — straight through to the French, who occupied the city until 1945. In between, Damascus fell to a list of conquerors that includes the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Umayyads, Egyptian Mamluks, and Ottoman Turks. But now, roiled by the Arab Spring, the invasions are internal, with Syrian tanks and troops rolling into restive cities.

Indeed, Damascus, has survived and experienced quite a lot in its peerless history, spanning an almost unprecedented 4,000 years. Imagine what it must be like to walk through, let alone live in, a place steeped in so many events, changes, civilizations, and lives. Perhaps I’m making it out to be more transcendental and spiritual than it otherwise would be – especially as a lot of the folks living there would likely shrug and take it as a given for where they live. But I think it’d be awe inspiring to tour a place with the full awareness of the extent of it’s existence.

This in particular is one of my favorite photographs, and a testament to the great contributions of Islamic civilization during it’s golden age.

The Umayyad Mosque, once the site of united prayers between Muslims and Christians.

Even with my qualms and criticism with respect to religion, I could appreciate the beauty and aesthetics of Islamic artistic and intellectual pursuits.

I think it’s unsurprising that regions with such a vast scope of history, which have survived the test of time and tribulation, are often so proud and conservative. A glorious past – and all the traditions and values that stem from it – could be a difficult thing to let go of, especially as the present-day seems so degraded and uncertain. As Syria finds itself in the midst of potentially unprecedented change (even despite it’s numerous ocurrences), I hope Damascus could add the liberation and freedom of it’s people to it’s long and rich list of events.

The Syrian Uprising

In some of the latest news regarding the bloodiest episode of the so-called “Arab Spring,” (also known as the Arab Awakening) the Syrian government begins yet another of it’s characteristically brutal operations against dissidents, sending a full fledged military force, including tanks, into the eastern city of Deir al-Zour. This follows another military invasion that commenced just a few days ago, into the city of Hama, a historically restless place that was the site of several vicious massacres from past insurrections (the most recent, which occurred in 1982, came under dictator Hafez al-Assad, the father of the country’s current noxious autocrat, Bashar; it left tens of thousands of people dead, and it is believed that every family in Hama lost someone in the carnage, fueling their present rebellion decades later).

The fact that any sort of protests have happened at all is rather miraculous to begin with. The popular protests that swept through the most of the region came later and unexpectedly, which isn’t surprising: Syria has long been one of the most oppressive and rigidly controlled regimes in the world, with a complex and obscure network made up of various security, intelligence, and military agencies all keeping the populace – and one another – in check. Aside from being horrifically effective at suppressing dissent at every turn, this also diminishes the likelihood that the country will encounter the military defections and acts of insubordination that have been crucial to the success of other revolutions in the region (though it’s not to be ruled out completely, as there have been some unconfirmed reports of troops refusing to fire on protesters).

Furthermore, the country is so tightly controlled that news of what’s happening there is difficult to come by, even between citizens within. The regime hasn’t just kept a lid on dissent with pure brute force either. Aside from making some hollow promises for reform (which didn’t convince anyone), Assad and his inner circle have long co-opted businessmen some religious elites in order to keep every facet of society under control (the Syrian government is a secular one-party state loosely modeled on socialism, giving the state consider sway in economic and social matters). While the government did loosen things a bit – allowing the proliferation of cell phones and internet connections for example – it made sure to keep political repression firmly in place. (If you want to read a brief profile of the country, click here).

The Syrian state has also done a good job of playing on sectarian fears to it’s benefit. The country is quite multicultural by Mideast standards, with a large Kurdish minority in addition to several different religious groups, including the majority Sunni Muslims, and minority Christians, Druze, and Alawite Muslims (the last of which Bashar and much of the ruling class comes from). The regime legitimizes it’s iron rule by trumping up the threat of ethnic and religious violence were it’s heavy hand to be overthrown. Indeed, being Iraq’s neighbor – and receiving many of its refugees  – has drilled in the very real fear for most people about the horrors of a revolution given way to chaos and civil war. Needless to say, Bashar has been keen to manipulate this concern even more as of late, and a good number of Syrians, particularly in the middle-class, seem to be conceding to the lesser of two evils as far as they see it.

But it’s clear that even with all these obstacles to revolution, the Syrian people have remained steadfast in their demands against the bloated and vicious police state apparatus. The tenacity, courage, and resourcefulness of Syrians remarkable. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the state has not held back: they’ve dispatched snipers, tanks, and machine guns; they’ve tortured, kidnapped, and imprisoned; goons have cut power to cities, dragged people out of their homes at night, and infiltrated communities with informants. Yet despite all this, the people press on. The government shows little sign of fracturing and relenting, and yet the momentum for these protests continues unabated, even though, for all intents and purposes, hope should’ve been lost.

As with my previous reflections on Libya, I am left sincerely dumbfounded at the stubborn willpower that humans exercise in their yearn for  freedom. I can never imagine what it must be link to face such overwhelming odds, to face certain pain and death, in the name of an ideal I’ve long taken at a given. What is it like to fight such an uphill battle for something? What’s it like to want something so bad as to risk everything and anything, including you own life?

As always, I resign myself to the fact that I have the luxury of finding all this to be very alien to me. I’ve never had to fight for anything this badly. I’ve never had to worry about the threat of torture or death against me or my loved ones. I’ve never known what it’s like to be so desperate, so smothered by injustice and oppression, that I’d be willing to break free to die trying. Hopefully, I’ll never have to find out, and that’s thanks to generations of courageous people that came before me and made that sacrifice on my behalf.

Needless to say, I’ll be keeping a close watch on events in the region as they unfold, and keep you all updated. Aside from my fascination with the human capacity to affect change even in the most dire of circumstances, I feel the least I could do, given my fortunate circumstances,  is to acknowledge and record the bravery and solidarity that is driving their efforts. So many people fight and die for their rights, very basic ones we take for granted, without ever being known for it or ever reaching their goals. I want to see this through the end and hope that they manage to as well. Though I remain cautiously optimistic, it’s a very tough call.