a false king
on a crimson throne.
a false king
on a crimson throne.
Last week an estimate came out; with over 1,700 dead, the third week in July may have been the deadliest in the Syrian conflict to date. This combines with a press conference held by a regime defector who has tens of thousands of pictures of dead Syrians, who had been brutally tortured. This man surfaced back in January, which led to a post I made located here, which links to a gallery of photos, most not for the faint of heart.
In the international community, a cadre has long hoped that the Syrian conflict would reach a stalemate. The parties would then be open to a negotiated settlement, and large-scale violence would cease.
There has been no slowing down. Syria’s army, the Free Syrian Army, the fundamentalists, the Kurds, and all the other groups trying to survive are not out of will and fight.
Assad’s regime continues to get heavy weapons from Russia, while the Islamic State is now making huge sums from the oil fields it has captured. As long as the various factions have the money and arms to sustain a struggle, the idea of a lasting peace seems absurd.
Disturbing news -there is a serious power struggle in eastern Libya– not just between secular and Islamist groups, but between government armed forces and renegade paramilitaries.
This is the lesson of 21st century Western-backed regime change in the Middle East. When a dictator is toppled, so goes the one institution that can use sanction and force to establish order. One may remember the order in 2003 that dissolved Iraq’s Republican Guard and other police and military forces as a more formal way to create a situation like 2014 Libya. True, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were using their armed forces for terrible things – both warfare against their own people and bloody wars like Hussein’s slugfest with Iran in the 1980’s. When they are gone, however, it becomes a free-for-all, and any democratic successor relies on the military foundation to enact political policy. If the rebel victory in Libya could be considered a potential revolution, though if it is it’s a complicated one, the reaction is when civil conflict attacks the ideals of the original movement.
In Iraq, looking solely at the development of democratic institution, the new regime had the assistance of a large Coalition force that, struggles with insurgents notwithstanding, had a lot of firepower to back a new government. Libya has none of that. It’s the remnants of Gaddafi’s power bloc and the shattered pieces of the rebels, plus any foreign Islamist force that wishes to creep in from neighboring countries. The country becomes a set of fiefdoms, just how the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds had their own districts in Iraq. It shouldn’t be some great surprise when this is where the Libyan Civil War ends up. Military intervention only becomes justifiable if it’s a benefit in both the short and long-term. Personally, I opposed any kind of bombing campaign against Syria, as proponents (who had the burden of proof) couldn’t show how it would save lives and improve a future resolution of the conflict. You don’t throw missiles into a situation without a clear of idea of why their damage is important. Or to be more realistic, you shouldn’t.
It was clear that a massive humanitarian response was both urgently needed and ultimately defensible. Libya is much the same- if not now then soon.
The ledger of the Arab Spring, about three and a half years later, is complex and still shifting. As Jeffrey Laurenti writes that elections “have been unfolding this spring in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as well as Egypt. Not all of them are a sham. But even the genuinely free elections are often associated with dysfunctional governments and deeply divided societies.” Egypt is going back to a military autocrat, with much of the electorate happy with the change, even among widespread violence against the Muslim Brotherhood. One may think of this as mere window dressing. Was Egypt really anything but a military junta going through a bit of an experiment? Laurenti points out that even Lebanon, which scores the highest in terms of political freedom in Middle East states if you disqualify Israel, is charitably a complete mess – though some of this is a war in Syria that they cannot separate themselves from.
This is the 21st century. Movements can be worldwide, countries influence each other on so many levels. And political revolution and crisis are harder and harder to ignore. From this comes the question – what can I do to make other societies fairer, safer, more egalitarian? What can my country do? Everyone is finding their limits. Clearly Western powers often get involved in cultural and societal conflicts that they don’t understand. But then other times they sit by and do nothing – as I write this, two decades ago Hutu extremists were massacring Tutsis in the streets with machetes. The balance of doing something and letting things play out on their own is always there, and everyone has their own take on where their country and the world should stand.
The year in which we live is unusual, in that it is an important anniversary of two separate wars beginning a long phase which is more like a meat grinder than a human endeavor. In 1864 U.S Grant did what no previous Union general did- get beat by Lee yet keep moving forward. Eventually he trapped Lee at Petersburg, south of Richmond, Virginia. The subsequent trench warfare would be repeated on a much larger scale starting in 1914. Both, to different groups of people, dispelled the idea of military glory and honor. War was dehumanizing, dirty, and the causalities were mostly pointless. Never had so many young men in their prime been sent to their deaths so casually, and without effect.
In a long view of history, it was imperial powers being unable to live with great colonial wealth in peace. The conflict was sparked due to Austro-Hungary’s attempt to keep firm control of the Balkans, and the reason Germany and other powers were so well-prepared to kill one another was the decades of geopolitical chess. Germany wanted to exploit more people abroad but showed up to the world stage with all the choices cuts picked.
To inaugurate the centennial, The Atlantic has posted a whole slew of World War I photos. The one that struck me the most was this one, showing Western Front trench network:
Overall, the Western Front was fought in very nice country. In peacetime this was mostly productive farmland and small towns. People go there for natural beauty, yet by 1918 a vast swath of it looked like a dead moon. What this long-distance shot doesn’t show is that the no man’s land stopped anyone from burying bodies, so instead they just rotted, half buried by shrapnel and shell holes.
Dan Carlin, who did a similar series of podcasts about the Eastern Front of World War II, is presently doing a series about the Great War- Blueprint for Armageddon. Using a lot of diaries from regular soldiers, he captures how much optimism there was in the early going- adventure! Glory! Fun! That turned to terror, fear, and then a dull nihilism, where the threat of execution kept the frontlines from depleting completely. It’s recommended.
UNICEF has announced their photo of the year, part of a set by Niclas Hammarström about Syrian children caught in a warzone. Hammarström quit news photography for a decade- his return as a freelancer matched the breakout of civil war in Syria. It is good to have him be able to bring such haunting portraits to us.
Not that long ago I made a post- “Regarding Syria: Be horrified, continue to be horrified“. I wrote:
All aspects of the Syrian conflict are terrible- the shooting of unarmed protestors, the shelling of civilian centers, the millions of refugees fleeing to countries that want nothing to do with them, the civil wars among the “rebels” themselves, the use of violence to make religious and political statements.
It makes sense to become acclimated, to see this as just more torture, more murder, more war. But that is an injustice to those that suffer and die. Be horrified, be disgusted. It’s how things get changed.
Few Americans have to directly confront the horrors of war. Soldiers, charity workers, contractors. The scars follow these people back, as we see so many soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and commit suicide at an alarming rate. Most of us have the luxury, the fantasy of detachment. How many people have truly thought about and comprehended the civilian death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many treat that number as an essential concern?
This is what a photographer helps. They photograph people, and through them their stories. The first photo in this story- that girl has a name. Dania Kilsi. People love her. Or they once did- before they died. Her injuries were not severe but they were preventable. And for every Dania Kilsi that lived there are those that died- and they had names and lives too. The hospital she and hundreds of others were treated at that day was later destroyed. This picture cannot be replicated, because the reality now is even worse.
I am not a pie-in-the-sky pacifist. And I know that this civil war- this senseless, stagnant butchery- is not just about the factions of the Levant and the innocent people who were dragged into slaughter by their hatred. It’s about all of us. The reason Bashar al-Assad gained power, stayed in power, was able to use heavy arms and chemical weapons- this comes back to countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. There is seldom a conflict that does not at some point lead up to the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Part of the same international organization as UNICEF, who selected these pictures to show to the world. “It’s not my fight” is just wishful thinking. That doesn’t mean arming the various rebel groups to the teeth. But if war came to where we live, the places we travel, where friends we keep from all over the world live- we’d be appalled if those with the power to help said it wasn’t their fight.
Syria and similar conflicts should rip out a piece of our soul and make us hurt. Because that kind of hurt can only be stopped by getting that piece back- by regaining the empathy and compassion we need.
Today is the release of the first episode of Unspoken Politics Radio. It’s very much an alpha, I don’t have any prior experience and the sound quality is difficult to get. I hope to have other people on in the future so I have someone to talk to.
Episode is half about the ending of fighting in Homs, Syria, the other half is about flaws in the death penalty and justice system.
Clip #1: The Wrong Carlos: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?, posted by ABC News, July 23rd 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gx-OtTL23fQ>
Clip #2: Fighting in Homs, posted by Associated Press, April 25th 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJCbKEBMMnI>
Ending music is “Gone Cold” by Clutch (2013)
A UN-brokered truce in Homs is near (or past) its original end time, though evacuations have continued. I wrote about the situation as it existed last week. Over 1,000 civilians have moved out of the last rebel-head pockets of central Homs. Tuesday the flow of aid and refugees stopped entirely, and men near fighting age have been detained and their ultimate fate is unknown- whether a brief interrogation or an accusation of being a rebel fighter. International groups have reason to be concerned, given abundant evidence that civilians and fighters alike have suffered state-sanctioned torture and execution.
With the last remnants starving and vastly outnumbered, the bloody government victory in Homs could have larger implications. With Homs ‘pacified’ and depopulated, resources could be used to retake other cities that have split control. Whether the various anti-government factions can prevent Assad regime gains remains to be seen.
One of the big recent stories about the Syrian conflict is new primary evidence of mass detention, torture, and killing of people by the Assad regime. A formal report by war crimes prosecutors with graphic pictures is available here (PDF). Regarding a defector who had been tasked with documentation of it all (alias “Caesar”) Der Spiegel reported:
Caesar provided his testimony and photographic evidence to lawyers and forensic experts at a British law firm. Together, says Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, the defector’s evidence shows the “industrial scale” of the killing perpetrated by the Syrian regime. In addition, the photos provide a horrifying explanation for what might have happened to the 50,000 or more missing people in Syria — those who were abducted by the regime of the course of the past two years. They are not included in the casualty figures, which assume a total of some 130,000 killed in the civil war. But prior to last week, there had been no clear indication as to where they might be.
Later discussing a campaign in early 2012 in Homs:
Beginning in February 2012, thousands of Homs residents disappeared in the wake of the 4th Division’s attack on the rebellious quarters of the city. Whether the victims belonged to the opposition or not was irrelevant for the subsequent death sentences — the wrong address was often enough. But the men whose corpses the soldier and the military doctor later saw in the inner courtyard of the Homs military hospital did not yet show indications of systemic starvation, as is evident in many of the images provided by Caesar.
Of course, there is an obvious question- if you’re doing barbaric, illegal killing campaigns on your own people, why leave a trail of evidence? One person defects and they have tens of thousands of photos indicting the regime. The defector has a chilling answer:
Why would a regime, which kills thousands of its own citizens, collects them in a discrete location and buries them in hidden mass graves, photograph and number the dead?
Caesar says that one reason is so that death certificates could be issued. But why document bullet holes and signs of strangulation given the interest in concealing the true cause of death? The second reason mentioned by Caesar seems more important. The regime wanted to make a record of which security service was responsible for what death, he said according to the report. A kind of performance report for brutality.
All of this is horrifying- and a key thing that third parties have to do in these cases is to continue to be horrified. All aspects of the Syrian conflict are terrible- the shooting of unarmed protestors, the shelling of civilian centers, the millions of refugees fleeing to countries that want nothing to do with them, the civil wars among the “rebels” themselves, the use of violence to make religious and political statements.
It makes sense to become acclimated, to see this as just more torture, more murder, more war. But that is an injustice to those that suffer and die. Be horrified, be disgusted. It’s how things get changed. Why do politicians get nudged towards action? How do groups like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross get the funding they need? People are disgusted. They spend time and money to react to that. And it can do a great deal of good.
This is one of several pictures posted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of a convoy of theirs in eastern Aleppo.
The al-Qaeda-linked militia groups have had great success in the past several months- large defections from the internationally-recognized Syria opposition, territorial gains, and a large amount of notoriety for the same amount of brutality that Americans would (hopefully) remember from Iraq.
The situation has been a mess since the conflict’s inception in 2011. It’s important to realize that whoever gains and loses power will dictate present or future conflicts in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq at the least. Even with a bunch of lousy options, the Western powers have to recognize that large and dangerous fundamentalist militias did not exist at the start of the conflict. They do now. And if they get a lot more tanks like the one pictured, the fallout will be everyone’s problem.
The ruins of Homs, Syria in the winter snow. Courtesy of CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward.
There are no words. Tonight, hundreds of thousands of refugees will sleep in freezing temperatures, with makeshift housing and very little support- as the countries hosting them would rather they not exist.