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.

Crossing paths with James Foley in Syria’s desperate war

PzxkuFKh30zIFwrseFS7uQ-ljcnLRdu59URJQOlVX94.jpg Click the image for a full gallery of James Palmer’s photographs from Syria. I prefer to work alone because I’ve found from past experience it’s just easier.

Still, it was hard not to cross paths with other journalists in Syria in the late summer and fall of 2012, where you were free to roam without government restrictions.

I first saw James Foley – whom the Islamic State executed last week — at a demonstration in Aleppo, a rebel stronghold. He was standing perfectly straight and steadily holding his camera as he filmed a handful of men dancing while drums were pounded and scores of people sang.

He arrived at the ad hoc police station another day seeking an interview with one of the leaders there while I was shooting photos. We shook hands and introduced ourselves then returned to our work. Apparently, neither of us could afford the time to chat.

from Jim Gaines:

Waiting for the cold light of day in Missouri and the Middle East

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Aside from the strange fact that both the Ferguson Police Department and the barbarians of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are using U.S. armor and weaponry, the shooting death of Michael Brown and the murder of James Foley would seem to have little in common, about as little as the Midwest and the Middle East.

Yet the similarities are evocative. Both frame enormously complex problems in the context of a single, riveting incident. Both were deaths in the American family, calling every parent to feel something of the Brown and Foley parents’ bottomless grief and to think, if only for an instant, “there but for the grace of God….”

Both events draw attention to life-and-death issues that call on every resource of our minds and hearts: What to do about racial divisions at home and the horrific outbreak of lethal sectarianism abroad.

For once, the situation in Iraq wasn’t caused by an intelligence failure

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate

President Barack Obama, in an interview earlier this year with New Yorker editor David Remnick, offered an unfortunate comparison. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate,” the president said, “is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The president’s jayvee jihadists were the Islamic State militants.

Remnick called the analogy “uncharacteristically flip.” After all, the group’s flag then flew over Fallujah.

Today, the Islamic State boasts a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a cadre of battle-hardened fighters that dwarfs the membership of core al Qaeda and an international following large enough to support a brick-and-mortar gift shop in Turkey.

Is this Obama’s ‘malaise’ moment?

Obama addresses the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington

Malaise is back.

President Barack Obama’s situation is getting perilously close to President Jimmy Carter’s in 1979.

Americans see little evidence of an economic recovery, more and more workers are giving up hope of ever finding a job, the burden of student loan debt — now larger than credit-card debt — is crushing the hopes of young people, the president’s signature achievement, healthcare reform, is broadly unpopular, our borders are overrun by migrant children, Iraq is falling apart, Syria and Ukraine are in turmoil and the president seems hapless and ineffectual.

“Malaise” was the term used in 1979 to describe the deep pessimism Americans felt about the way things were going in the country.  That year, inflation was soaring, unemployment was rising, the United States faced a debilitating energy crisis, a tax revolt had broken out, Americans were waiting in long gas lines, and Iran had a revolution, further roiling the Middle East.

Obama’s impossible choices on Iraq

Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants, chant slogans in Baghdad

Iraq was a bold U.S. experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

That’s what we’re learning as we watch what the United States achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer money spent.

When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. “I’m worried about the fact I’m running against a man,” Bush said, “who uses ‘military’ and ‘nation-building’ in the same sentence.”

What’s happening in Iraq? Some smart takes to help figure it out.

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The Iraq created in large part by the United States after the 2003 invasion appears to be collapsing.

The U.S. military disabled Saddam Hussein’s forces in short order. Then the straightforward part of the war ended. The American-led Coalition Provisional Authority made some fateful choices soon after Saddam’s government collapsed: to disband the Iraqi Army — one of Saddam’s main methods of keeping the nation together — and remove all Baathists from the government. Since the Baathists previously had a monopoly on power, they were the only ones who knew how to keep the country running.

Those factors, among many others — the withdrawal of the restraining hand of the U.S. military, a Shi’ite-dominated central government that has squeezed out the minority Sunni, and a largely sectarian Syrian civil war across an undefended border — are now playing out as Islamist insurgents sweep across the country in a massive offensive that has encountered minimal resistance from the reincarnation of the Iraqi Army.

How — and why — the U.S. must support Iraq

Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf A disaster is unfolding in Iraq. It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years.

Insurgents reportedly led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also known as “ISIS”) have occupied Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and may be planning to push further south to the capital, Baghdad. ISIL, a largely Sunni jihadist group more radical than al Qaeda, seeks to establish an independent caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he doesn’t “rule out anything” when it comes to U.S. involvement in the region, and some political analysts are already predicting possible U.S.-led drone strikes or even air strikes.

America’s nonintervention is a vote for Syria’s Assad

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Many Syrians who voted for Bashar al-Assad in today’s presidential elections did so in the belief that the alternative to the current regime is a takeover by Islamist radicals.

Increasingly, Western leaders agree. As Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said recently, “As bad as the regime is, there is something worse — which is extreme elements of the opposition.”

This is a cruel irony. It ignores how the United States’ lack of involvement in Syria allowed extremists to flourish in the first place. The question is not whether the Syrian regime is better than Islamist extremism, but how the world can forsake Syrians to suffer oppression by both.

Obama: Ineffectually Challenged

President Barack Obama is in a funk. Americans are coming to see the president as ineffectual. That is a dangerous perception.

Obama’s job approval rating is at risk of dropping below 40 percent. Democrats may lose their majority in the Senate this fall. It may be difficult for the president to accomplish anything during his last two years.

In the March NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 42 of registered voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Obama. Only 22 percent say they would be more likely to vote for Obama’s candidate.

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