Opinion

The Great Debate

Finding hell in Syria’s Qusayr

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Click picture for a gallery of James Palmer’s photographs

In the summer of 2012, I spent three weeks in the besieged Syrian town of Qusayr working as a freelance photographer and writer with a group of young anti-Assad activists in a second-floor apartment next door to a field hospital. Regardless of whether I was working or sleeping, I raced downstairs to shoot photos whenever I thought heard casualties arrive.

The shelling victims often arrived from the countryside plastered in earth and crumpled along the backs of pickup trucks. They were often working in a field when the shell hit and the layers of dirt on them were often so thick you could barely see their faces. One day I saw a small girl who appeared less than 10 draped with soil and speckled with blood. She refused the nurses’ pleas to lie down and kept sitting upright to view the grey, motionless body of the man on the table next to her who appeared drained of his last drop of blood. After every glance she cast upon the corpse, she turned back toward me and screamed louder.

Despite such cries, the most haunting sound in Qusayr was the chopping whirl of the propellers atop a Syrian military helicopter gunship. They echoed over the town nearly every morning after sunrise during my stay.

But this was just surveillance. The bombs didn’t drop until later in the day.

When the helicopters returned in the afternoon, I positioned myself in the doorway leading to the roof of my apartment building. The pilot seemed to taunt those of us below as he menacingly steered the machine lower toward the ground. I sometimes wondered in these moments what would happen if he dropped candy rather than a bomb. But that reverie was shattered as the soaring pitch of a whistle knifed through the air. The sound turned into a crackling sizzle as it finished its plunging descent. At that point there was no use in ducking. I could only hope that I moved fast enough to capture the impact with my lens.

One morning, I was caught outside when a helicopter started firing on the town. Within moments I was in the bedroom of a private house standing next to an elderly woman with a deeply lined face. As the sound of lead crashed outside in the streets, she held a baby up to my face, presumably to kiss. So I did. I figured it couldn’t do any harm.

Obama’s options for Syria

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council demanded that Syria’s government and its armed opponents end attacks on civilians, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and battle lines, and protect minorities. The Security Council also called for the lifting of sieges against civilians and said that it would take additional measures if the two parties did not comply.

Even if fully implemented, this welcome push on humanitarian issues will not end the violence in Syria, or resolve a conflict that has left over 120,000 people dead and one-third of the population displaced. More action is needed if a political solution is to be found and a serious peace process initiated. The American people won’t support deployment of U.S. troops. Russia will veto any new U.N. Security Council resolution with teeth. But Washington should consider other diplomatic, assistance, financial and military options.

Diplomatic options now include formally terminating the U.N. negotiating effort, which has so far failed to reach any kind of agreement, even on an agenda. The U.S., a prime mover behind the talks, could announce that it would reopen them only if President Assad agrees to discuss concrete steps towards a democratic transition, which he has so far failed to do.

Sarin: The lethal fog of war

The Syrian government’s reported use of sarin in its war against rebel forces is ominous. It suggests dissemination of the nerve agent could become more frequent there — whether by the Syrian military or by opposition forces in possession of captured stockpiles. If this happens, many more people will likely suffer the tortured effects of the chemical.

This could weaken the international taboo against such weaponry. No wonder President Barack Obama has warned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of sarin would be a “game changer.”

For sarin is considered a weapon of mass destruction. As with all chemical agents, effectiveness depends on the purity, the means of dissemination and vulnerability of the exposed population. At worst, chemicals can be devastating agents of death, even if less expansive in their effect than a biological release or a nuclear detonation.

Weighing U.S.intervention: Syria v. Congo

President Barack Obama, in a January New Republic interview, was asked bluntly if the United States should actively intervene in Syria’s civil war. He thoughtfully explained his reservations. Several concerned Syria, but the last one pointed to larger ethical issues. “And how do I weigh,” Obama asked, “tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

With this comment, Obama cut to the heart of an age-old dilemma about humanitarian military intervention — whether it is worth addressing some conflicts when you know that others continue to simmer, or boil over, at the same time?

This was the case in the 1970s when wars in the Horn of Africa, Uganda, Cambodia and elsewhere killed many hundreds of thousands. It was true in the 1980s when conflict intensified in places like Afghanistan, Angola and Central America. And in the 1990s when the Balkans and Rwanda and parts of West Africa blew up, while Sudan, Somalia and other wars continued.

Has Obama administration gone wobbly on Syria?’

Syria, chemical weapons and the United States. If nothing else, President Barack Obama last month was emphatic. “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad,” Obama declared at the National Defense University in early December, “….The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is…totally unacceptable….[T]here will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

But what a difference a New Year makes. At a January 10 news conference, the administration’s senior security officials, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff head Martin E. Dempsey, recoiled: Consequences won’t involve the Pentagon. Better wait to secure the arsenal after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, Panetta said. Dempsey stated: “Preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable.” The result, as Panetta explained: “We’re not working on options that involve boots on the ground.”

Assad must have smiled. Washington had gone wobbly on chemical weapons. With the deterrent value of the president’s remarks in question – and one unconfirmed report that Syria used a chemical agent in Homs on December 23 – the chemical specter remains. This raises the key question: Would Obama really stand by if the Syrian government gassed thousands of its citizens?

Romney’s big chance with Jewish voters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Monday foreign policy debate, should play to the Jewish TV audience like he was the star of a Borscht Belt revue.

Romney has a tempting assortment of issues he can tap to frame President Barack Obama as a leader whose policies are perilous for Israel. He can use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Egypt and even Syria to make a case that Obama’s policies are wrong for the Jewish state.

Given the tenuous state of relations between Israel and the United States, it’s surprising that, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish opinion, 61 percent approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, while 39 percent disapprove. Those are numbers Romney needs to change Monday night.

Syrian dissidents unite to oust Assad

By Ahed Alhendi
The opinions expressed are his own.

Twenty years ago, I was a school kid chanting with my peers, “Our leader forever, the father, Hafez Assad!” Back then, I could not have imagined that one day I would see his statues destroyed all over Syria by the people — a sight now common within the country.

Most of those demonstrating in Syria are young people who were taught to love and adore our only president, and later his son, Bashar. As young Syrians, we have always treated the Assads as something of a holy family. We all were forced to join the Baath Party Pioneer Organization at the age of six and we grew up soaking in the Assads’ propaganda — the school system, the single TV station, the official newspaper; they all had a picture of Assad as their logos.

Now, the voices of freedom are sounding louder than the engines of armored vehicles and the whistling of tanks shells. Bashar Assad thought that the military would intimidate and quiet the protesters, but the shout “Bashar must go!” is only getting louder.

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