Baghdadi was born in the Samarra countryside in Iraq to a family of pastoral farmers who claimed they could trace their ancestry back to the prophet Muhammad. As a young man he had been an aloof theology student and football coach. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq he was imprisoned for ten months in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca. He emerged a fanatic of the jihadist insurgency. In 2006 the US assassinated the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s successor was assassinated by the US in April 2010. Baghdadi took control of the group a month later.
Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria has displaced tens of thousands of civilians, most of them Syrian Kurds. As with the Turkish army’s forays into Jarabulus in August 2016 and Afrin in March 2018, its reliance on Syrian Arab militias for the assault has not lessened the impression of vengeful marauding. (Many of the militias were once supported by the United States and Britain in their abortive attempt to bring down Bashar al-Assad.) As before, there are multiple accusations of war crimes. The difference this time is that the incursion and its consequences for the Syrian Kurds have clearly been tacitly authorised by the United States.
An enraged President Trump, surrounded by uniformed military leaders, used the same press conference last week to condemn a raid on the office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and announce that he was ‘making a decision as to what we do with respect to the horrible attack that was made near Damascus’. ‘In our world,’ Trump said, ‘we can’t let atrocities like we all witnessed’ happen, and ‘because of the power of our country – we’re able to stop it.’ That is the image, and the language, it will be necessary to keep in mind during the coming months if we are to understand the relationship between domestic crisis, foreign relations, the rule of law, military force, authoritarian populism and visual culture that is poised to reshape the international order.
Sean Spicer's take on the Final Solution has prompted much indignation (and a series of faltering apologies from the White House press secretary), but I doubt he's hiding any swastikas in his closet: the guy probably doesn't even know what a swastika is, any more than he knows what Zyklon B is.
Most international lawyers have said that the US missile strikes against the Shayrat airfield in Syria on Friday morning were unlawful. The UN Charter prohibits recourse to force except in self-defence or if authorised by the Security Council to maintain international peace and security. The airstrikes, undertaken unilaterally in response to a chemical weapons attack allegedly conducted by the Syrian government against Syrian civilians, do not appear to fall within the limited exceptions of collective security or self-defence. The US government has given no legal justification for its actions. Yet many US politicians, Western allies and liberal commentators have supported the airstrikes, seemingly untroubled by the implications of the Trump administration’s nonchalant disregard for international law.
At 7.05 p.m. Turkish time yesterday, the Russian ambassador, Andrei Karlov, was shot dead in an Ankara art gallery. The assassin, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, an off-duty Turkish police officer in a suit and tie, calmly shot Karlov in the back several times; spoke in Turkish about Aleppo, with his hand in the air, one finger pointed upward (a jihadi sign, symbolising ‘takbir’, the greatness and oneness of Allah); and then said, in accented Arabic, a few sentences associated with Jabhat al-Nusra. (We can be sure of all this because the shooting was captured by an Associated Press photographer.) Altıntaş was killed by security forces who stormed the building. Vladimir Putin was informed of the assassination while on his way to watch a play written by Alexander Griboyedov, Nicholas I’s ambassador to Persia, who was killed in 1829 when a mob stormed the Russian embassy in Tehran.
In August 2012, Fadi Mansour, a 28-year-old law student from Homs, left Syria to avoid conscription. ‘I had to do my military service before the war started; after the war they called me to fight in the reserve army, so I escaped,’ he wrote to me yesterday. He told Amnesty International that he went first to Lebanon, where he was kidnapped and held to ransom. After his release he felt unsafe; in early 2015 he came to Turkey. He flew to Malaysia but was denied entry and sent back to Istanbul. ‘They caught me in the airport,’ Mansour said. ‘I asked for asylum here. But they rejected my request.’ This was on 15 March 2015. Since then Mansour has been detained at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport. He is living in the ‘Problematic Passengers Room’. It has no natural light and no beds. The electric lights are kept on around the clock. ‘Sometimes they let me go outside the room for one or two hours,’ he told me. ‘But nothing is different between here and outside.’
Riad Sattouf’s father travelled from a small Syrian village to Paris in the 1970s. He met Sattouf’s French mother at university there. After they graduated and their son was born, the family went first to Libya under Gaddafi and then to Syria under Assad. L’Arabe du futur, Sattouf’s autobiographical graphic novel, tells of his strange childhood spent in the shadow of Arab dictators and his father’s delusions. Two more volumes are forthcoming, and an English translation is under way.
Amid little anticipation and less expectation, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Tuesday, 17 February, briefed the Security Council on the progress of the initiative he unveiled last year to ‘freeze’ the conflict that has destroyed the country, extinguished perhaps 1 per cent of its population and displaced more than a quarter of the remainder. It would be an exaggeration to say that hubris has given way to humility, but his performance this week was considerably more subdued than four months ago, shortly before I resigned from his office within weeks of arriving.
A few days before Isis fighters captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, Saqi Books released an anthology called Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, a thoughtful collection of work by Syrian writers, activists, visual artists and anonymous collectives who were at the vanguard of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.
The killing of James Foley by Isis caused an upsurge of international revulsion and condemnation with harsh words from the US defence secretary and others. But the Obama administration is trying hard not to be sucked into a war that could be more serious than the US invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011. What Isis showed by Foley's very public murder is that it will always raise the stakes in any confrontation with the US and anybody else. It trumped America's reassuring portrayal of the recapture of Mosul Dam by the Kurds aided by US air strikes as a sign that Isis could be defeated.
The Iraq war is not over; it never really ended. It just spilled into a new war, the war in Syria. We may one day speak of Iraq-Syria the way that we speak now of 'Af-Pak'.
In response to a wave of attacks by the al-Qaida group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the United States is supplying Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's embattled government with Hellfire missiles and drones. The Obama administration also wants congressional approval to lease (and eventually sell) six Apache helicopter gunships to the Iraqis, a plan held up by lawmakers who fear they will be used against Maliki's political opponents.
As reported by the New York Times, the arming of the Iraqi government is a story about instability inside Iraq, counter-terrorism and the effectiveness of drones. But the regional implications are much larger.
The way into the Montaza II police station in Alexandria is along a narrow ridge of broken concrete tiles and wet sand. A pool of black and green water with soft grey matter floating in it covers what must once have been a parking lot. There are more than 60 people detained inside, most of them Palestinian Syrians, half of them children under ten, their faces spotted with mosquito bites. On the third floor there's a pile of sand with parts of a broken toilet sticking out of it. A dirty blanket folded over a string separates the women and children’s quarters from the men’s. The detainees were all arrested for trying to get to Europe by boat.
A couple of weeks ago, on the eve of the vote in the House of Commons on military action against Syria, I happened to be passing through Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, on my way from Odessa to Bucharest. I was on holiday. I went for a walk and, out of carelessness, lost my passport. Although the roads and pavements of Chișinău, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, have potholes big enough to lose a child in, the internet’s a glideway; even the roadside sausage shacks have wifi. My phone told me that if I took €114, two photos and a police report to the British embassy, they’d give me a temporary passport.
The aim of the ‘limited war’ as set out by the United States and its European vassals is simple. The Syrian regime was slowly re-establishing its control over the country against the opposition armed by the West and its tributary states in the region (Saudi Arabia and Qatar). This situation required correction. The opposition in this depressing civil war needed to be strengthened militarily and psychologically. Since Obama had said chemical weapons were the ‘red line’, the weapons were bound to come into play. Cui prodest? as the Romans used to inquire. Who profits? Clearly, not the Syrian regime.
Raqqa, a predominantly Sunni city in northern Syria, has been under the control of rebels, mostly Salafists, since March. Black jihadist flags fly from the main city buildings, but there's also fresh graffiti in the red, green and white of the Syrian revolutionary pennant. Most of the small Alawite population, who worked mainly in government or the security forces, left when the city exchanged hands. Roula Dayoub, a young nurse at one of the hospitals, did not. ‘I am the only Alawite here now,’ she says.
According to the UN watchdog, Paulo Pinheiro, speaking in the General Assembly on 29 July, Syria is in free fall: 100,000 dead; refugees and displaced persons in the millions; atrocities of every kind; no end to the fighting in sight. Both Barack Obama and David Cameron have been under pressure to ‘do something’, and most media attention has focused on arming the rebels – as if they were short of arms. Both leaders were initially tempted but seem to have come off the boil.
'I saw and I heard. And I wish I hadn’t.'
On 1 January, Yassin al-Haj Saleh posted these words on his Facebook page. Al-Haj Saleh spent 16 years in Assad's prisons after being arrested as a student in the 1980s for being a member of a communist group. He is now a prominent dissident known for his sharp analysis of the Syrian conflict. I check his page every day.
The words were accompanied by a video. Clearly, one of the great many videos circulating showing the cruelty of the regime's militias, the widely feared shabiha. I hesitated before opening it. These videos are evidence. But it's always the same question: how badly will I regret seeing it?
Shabiha wearing military uniforms hold several young men hostage, somewhere on a staircase. The hostages face the wall, blindfolded, their hands cuffed behind them, their bent shoulders facing the camera. The uniformed men rip their shirts off and thrust long, thin knives into their backs and necks: as if they were slaughtering sheep. Slowly and artfully they stab, chopping flesh out until the men lie on the ground, bleeding, their screams muffled by the cloth around their faces. The shabiha pick up concrete blocks and smash them on the bodies on the ground, breaking their bones and skulls. White dust fills the frame. The shabiha shake it off their hands. It looks almost as though they are clapping, congratulating themselves. Not the slightest sign of discomfort: they are chatting and laughing. Their intent wasn't only to kill: carrying guns, they could have shot their adversaries. They wanted to inflict pain, to demonstrate power, to show that the enemy is subhuman. Five minutes so unbearable that one commenter on the post writes: 'That's the first time in my life watching something has made me dizzy. I'm still trying to catch my breath, to remember I'm human.'
‘What do you want to do after the war?’ I ask Adnan, an amiable 18-year-old I meet in north-west Syria, in an area controlled by opposition fighters. ‘I want to continue my studies. If, well…’ He glances up at the sky. ‘If I don't die.’ Several months ago he was studying for the baccalaureate. Now he is at a training camp for new fighters preparing to join the battle against the Assad regime.
One evening on a recent trip to rural Idlib, in north-western Syria, where the opposition controls many of the villages, I sat up with Um Ali, a 32-year-old woman with four children. Her husband, a fighter in the local rebel group, comes home only to change his clothes; in his place on the bed there was a large gun with a string of bullets.
Almost all western media reports of the massacre at Houla on 25 May said that it was carried out by members of the Shabiha militia, irregular forces loyal to the Assad regime. But in two articles for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Rainer Hermann has raised doubts about the reliability of the accepted version of events and offered evidence that rebel forces were responsible.
The double veto cast by Russia and China blocking the draft Security Council resolution on Syria provoked a chorus of international outrage. William Hague called it ‘cold-blooded cynicism’. Hillary Clinton said: To block this resolution is to bear responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria. The US, the UK and France may be lamenting the use of the veto this month, but they have never shown any interest in scrapping or even amending it. Though occasionally inconvenient, it gives the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) privileges too great to rescind, regardless of its detrimental effect on the UN's efficiency or the consequences for victims of atrocities.
Jadaliyya last week published an English translation of Elias Khoury’s piece for al-Quds al-Arabi on the Syrian uprising, opposing the regime's conspiracy theories with 'the facts that produced the beginnings of the Syrian popular revolution'. Read it here.
The regime in Syria, eight months into the uprising, is making a show of playing nice. It has said it will accept an Arab League plan to end the bloodshed – but no one’s holding their breath. Last week it invited a number of foreign journalists into the country. President Bashar Assad gave his first interview to the international media, with Andrew Gilligan in the Sunday Telegraph. For an outsider arriving in Damascus, having seen the TV footage of the violence in Homs, the city must seem surprisingly calm – one of the reasons, presumably, that the regime asked the press in. But calm isn’t quite the word.
More than five months into Syria's uprising, at least 2200 people have been killed and thousands more detained. The activists involved in the protest movement have insisted on non-violence and non-sectarianism but it’s not clear how much longer that can last. I recently accompanied a doctor and an activist as they made their rounds of Harasta, a small town on the northern outskirts of Damascus.
On Jadaliyya, an anonymous eyewitness account of the violent dispersal of a protest outside the Syrian Embassy in Beirut on Tuesday night: The Lebanese security detail disappeared, and the now larger group of counter-protestors began to push towards us, clearly trying to intimidate us into leaving.