‘Shocking’ scenes in besieged Syrian refugee camp

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees spoke Tuesday of the “shocking” conditions he had seen inside a Syrian Yarmouk camp which has been under siege and bombardment for months.

For more on Yarmouk see All That Was Left of Yarmouk: Notes to an Accomplice by Talal Alyan.

The Syria Test

Residents wait to receive food aid distributed at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014. (UNRWA)
Residents wait to receive food aid distributed at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014. (UNRWA)

Tonight I’ll be joining Stephen Walt on the wonderful Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon to debate the crisis in Syria. I rarely disagree with Steve on anything but on Syria our views diverge. Steve is a formidable interlocutor and Chris is a radio legend who knows how to cut to the heart of a subject. I am hoping that today’s debate leads to greater clarity. Here’s from Chris’s introduction:

The nightmare in Syria has slipped off the front page. Yet civilians are still dying by the hundreds every day. Thousands are dead and millions more displaced across Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. Petroleum “barrel bombs” have replaced sarin gas and the specter of al-Qaeda seems to hover over it all.

We’ve been there before, debating how to respond to a humanitarian crisis halfway across the world. Vietnam in the ’70s, Beirut in the ’80s, Kuwait and Bosnia in the ’90s, and of course Iraq and Afghanistan. Four months ago, Syria looked like the next in that series, with destroyers sailing to the Gulf and Tomahawk missiles armed and ready to fire. Were we right to breathe a sigh of relief, or was non-intervention a worse course than risking another quagmire?

What should we have done, what can we still do, and is it too late to pass the test in Syria?

Something Worse?

Down with ISIS, from Kafranbel
Down with ISIS, from Kafranbel

In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.

Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.

Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.

Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.) Continue reading “Something Worse?”