‘Say Hello to Zenobia’: A report from Palmyra rising from the ashes

Middle East
on 60 Comments

ISIS/Daesh is on the retreat in Syria, which is very good news for the people of that beleaguered country and for the world. However, the Syrian tragedy is far from over and rebuilding the country, even under the best circumstances of an end to the war, will take many years.

Our little international delegation — we were two Americans, a Canadian, two Norwegians, a Palestinian from Jordan and another Palestinian from Lebanon — got to see the evidence for this first-hand, along with the horrific devastation left in the wake of the ISIS occupation of the world-famous ancient city of Palmyra and the neighboring Syrian town of Tadmor.

The tour was arranged and led by a Palestinian organization based in Australia that is very supportive of the Syrian government and it was facilitated by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism and other government agencies.

It took some very intense negotiations with the Syrian authorities to secure visas, especially for the Americans, who are understandably viewed with some suspicion given the very hostile policies toward Syria by the US government.  Even more complicated efforts were necessary to get permission – from the Syrian security agencies, the Ministry of Defense and the Russian military mission in Syria – to visit Palmyra, which was only recaptured by the Syrian army on March 26.  We were the very first group of international civilians to view the site and the aftermath of the battle that took place there.

Some members of our delegation: Khaled, a Palestinian from Jordan, whose family is originally from Kufr Saba (now Kfar Saba) in central 1948 Israel, is in the white shirt; the author is second from the right.

Some members of our delegation: Khaled, a Palestinian from Jordan, whose family is originally from Kufr Saba (now Kfar Saba) in central 1948 Israel, is in the white shirt; the author is second from the right.

Even with permission, traveling to Palmyra was not easy.  Because the direct route northeast from Damascus was not yet safe, it was necessary to travel first due north to Homs and then east across the desert along a road only recently cleared of armed rebels.  Even exiting Damascus required a detour to the west in order to avoid a dangerous stretch of highway threatened by fighters in the rebel-controlled town of Douma, just north of the capital.

There were also frequent military checkpoints along the way, at each of which Qusay (everyone here is identified only by first name), our liaison with the government, had to negotiate passage and show various documents and permissions – along with our passports. The drive to Palmyra, which in peacetime would have taken maybe two hours on the direct route, took us six hours to complete.

Even in the tense security situation, though, at least one Syrian officer at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus had not lost his sense of humor. When told that we were an international group on the way to visit Palmyra, his parting words after checking our documents was “Say hello to Zenobia!” He was referring to Zenobia, the famous queen of Palmyra who led a doomed revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century AD and has been adopted – quite ahistorically — as a kind of early freedom fighter and  Syrian national heroine.

In Homs we picked up or military escort, Colonel Sameer, who packed a Makarev in a shoulder holster and carried a gym bag inside of which it wasn’t hard to make out the bulges of a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a bunch of grenades.  Comforting.

With Colonel Sameer riding shotgun, it was relatively simple to negotiate the frequent military stations and roadblocks along the rest of the way to Palmyra.  As we approached the city we observed increasing signs of war damage – bullet-pockmarked and partially destroyed buildings, down electrical transmission pylons, burned out vehicles – but nothing prepared us for the utter devastation of the town of Tadmor/Palmyra when we arrived.

The town of Tadmor/Palmyra when the delegation arrived.

The town of Tadmor/Palmyra when the delegation arrived.

The place had suffered both from the Daesh occupation and even more so from the fighting to retake it. There was hardly an undamaged building to be seen and although the rubble blocking the streets had largely been cleared, there were many areas where only the skeletons of destroyed buildings remained.  And the retreating Daesh fighters had left the town and the ruins riddled with mines and booby traps which took a huge effort, not yet completed, to disarm.  Most of the inhabitants had fled the Tadmor/Palmyra when it was taken over by Daesh last summer.

When we visited last Sunday, the town was crowded with busloads of former residents collecting their personal possessions and household furnishings to take away on buses and trucks. Only in the previous few days, weeks after retaking the town and extensive de-mining, was it possible for any of them to return safely in order to retrieve some of their surviving belongings.  But the town was still uninhabitable for civilians due to the severe damage and the lack of electricity or water.

The streets were guarded by soldiers and the somewhat more ragtag National Defense Forces militia fighters in various stage of partial uniform.

Tour guide “Tony” in front of the ruins of the Temple of Baal blown up by Daesh’ He’s holding a drawing of the temple as it used to appear.

Tour guide “Tony” in front of the ruins of the Temple of Baal blown up by Daesh’ He’s holding a drawing of the temple as it used to appear.

The systematic vandalism and destruction by Daesh at the historic archaeological site of Palmyra has been widely reported, but viewing the damage was still a shock. Our cultural guide Antoine (“Tony”), who had led countless groups to visit the Palmyra, was brought to tears.  Ya haram (“shameful”), he muttered repeatedly as we saw the remains of the formerly well-preserved monumental archway leading into the ancient city and the Temple of Baal which the Daesh fighters had blown up when they took the city last summer.

Only the remains of the theater had been left untouched, possibly as a monument to the brutal execution of 25 captive Syrian army prisoners that Daesh had carried out and filmed there.

We had to wait a while before entering the theater ourselves because there was a high-ranking group of Russian military officers visiting inside when we arrived.  Accompanying them was a contingent of very steely-eyed special forces soldiers, despite the heat, in full battle gear – body armor, helmets, boots and gloved hands with fingers poised close to the triggers of their automatic weapons.

There is a contingent of Russian military engineers and technicians engaged in the ongoing effort to disarm mines and booby traps it the city and among the ruins, with a large camp just outside the town.  Near the ruins is a former restaurant whose red sign announces, in Cyrillic and English, that it is the “Sappers Café.”  While we toured the site, explosions could be heard at regular intervals nearby and we could see the smoke of detonated mines.

The streets were guarded by soldiers and the somewhat more ragtag National Defense Forces militia fighters in various stage of partial uniform.

The streets were guarded by soldiers and the somewhat more ragtag National Defense Forces militia fighters in various stage of partial uniform.

When the officers and their guards exited the theater, our group leader Khaled, who like many Palestinians of his generation had received scholarships to study in the old Soviet Union (Leningrad, in his case), enthusiastically greeted the soldiers in fluent Russian, somewhat to their surprise.  Colonel Sameer had earlier told us that we could photograph anything we wanted – except the publicity-shy Russians.  Given the cordial chitchat with Khaled, I thought I might ask if I could take a picture.  The Russian translator answered, to everyone’s amusement, with an emphatic monosyllable — NYET.

What does the future hold for Syria?

Nearly everyone we met – and they were by no means all uncritical supporters of the Assad regime – told us that they believed any hope required, first of all, the defeat of the armed rebels and an end to foreign intervention in their country.  This was especially the sentiment of Christian and Druze religious representatives, along with ethnic minorities and secular people of any faith background, who together undoubtedly comprise a majority of the Syrian population.

Regardless of the legitimate grievances at the root of the crisis which began in 2011, and even if the opposition may not all be “terrorists,” as the Assad regime charges, the armed rebels now overwhelmingly represent Sunni fundamentalists of various stripes, whose vision for Syria is a religiously exclusive Islamic state, not a secular democracy.  This is true of the so-called “moderate” opposition which the US and its allies are arming and financing, not only the recognized extremists and foreign fighters in ISIS/Daesh and the Nusra front.

Amid the destruction and despair of the current situation in Syria, there are also signs of hope and resilience.  In central Damascus the shops and restaurants are open, even if the hotels remain nearly empty.  In the Old City Bab Touma neighborhood where we stayed – especially since the partial cease-fire agreement that was established earlier this year has minimized the rebel mortar and rocket attacks – the streets were crowded with students and shoppers, even if there were also military checkpoints along the major streets and at the gates to the town. There was a vibrant nightlife at many cafes and eating places, often with live music and diners who took to enthusiastic and spontaneous dancing and singing along to the musicians.

In the midst of the near total destruction in the old city of Homs, which was under rebel control and the scene of intense fighting until 2014, the historic Khaled Ibn Walid mosque, heavily damaged in the fighting,  is now the site of a major restoration project.  But a hundred thousand new housing units will also be required to replace what was destroyed.

In another part of the city, not far from where the courageous Dutch Jesuit Frank van der Lugt was murdered by the retreating rebels, the vandalized Syrian Orthodox Notre Dame de la Ceinture de Marie is also undergoing restoration.  Across the street, one of the few re-opened shops is a café filled with young men and women – a circumstance unthinkable in zones under rebel control.  On the wall is a statement of hope, along translation of some famous lines by the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who is also revered by Syrians:

A Mahmoud Darwish quote

A Mahmoud Darwish quote

About Jeff Klein

Jeff Klein, is a retired local union president, a long-time Palestine solidarity activist and a board member of Mass Peace Action. He has a blog: http://atmyangle.blogspot.com/

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60 Responses

  1. MaxNarr
    April 20, 2016, 11:46 am

    Let’s see you try to blame Israel for this one

    • Antidote
      April 21, 2016, 10:35 pm

      Not that difficult. Google: Israel Syria Golan Heights. Also the alliance trying to destabilize Syria in the late 70s/early 80s. A familiar line-up including Israel. Do some research on the history of Syria, and the Six-Day War.

      Attention here and elsewhere tends to be on the Palestinians. Why? The Golan Heights Syrians were also subjected to massive expulsions in 1967, with 2/3 of the Golan subjected to Israeli occupation and Jewish colonization, and, in 1981, actual annexation. The difference: The remaining Syrian minority – Alawites and Druze – were offered Israeli citizenship, and, like Palestinians in Israel, posed no ‘demographic problem’.

      The annexation, however, was only recognized by Micronesia, not the US or anyone else. The violation of international law, however, is exactly the same as in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

      Difference: the expelled were not stateless but fled, like Palestinians and many others since, to Syria, were they were, unlike Palestinian refugees in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, or Lebanon, still Syrian citizens. The Israelis then made the usual land for peace offer to Syria etc etc

      The collapse of Syria means: to which state should Israel eve return the Golan Heights? Syria? Islamic State? The “International Community” is obviously in a pickle here: If Assad falls – as has long been the objective of the US, the Saudis, and Israel, it would be insane to return the Golan Heights to a failed state torn up in civil war. Hence, Netanyahu just announced, over the protests of the US and Germany, that the Golan Heights will be part of Israel forever.

      And the Golan Heights are prime territory for Israel, from all perspectives, including climate change and rising sea levels: way above sea level, with fertile agricultural l land suitable for crops, cattle and vineyards, plenty of fresh water, oil, and a booming tourist industry. 100 000 new houses for Jewish settlers are in the works.

      For Syria, the loss of the Golan heights, for the same reasons, are pretty much a death sentence. The Alawites, a heretical sect from the point of Muslims (not unlike Jews from the point of view of Christianity) are concentrated on the coast and pretty much marked for genocide if Assad falls, or pushed into the sea when sea levels rise

      Now what?

      • gamal
        April 22, 2016, 2:18 pm

        “The Alawites, a heretical sect from the point of Muslims (not unlike Jews from the point of view of Christianity) are concentrated on the coast and pretty much marked for genocide if Assad falls, or pushed into the sea when sea levels rise”

        Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was the Sunni Muslim Scholar in charge of Jerusalem’s Islamic holy places from 1921 to 1938 and known as a leading Arab nationalist, issued a fatwa declaring Syrian Alawites to be Muslim, but what would he know, what does it say about them in the Quran?

        there is an edition of Race and Class, volume XXIV, Spring 1983, edited by Ibrahim Abu Lughod and Eqbal Ahmed, if you dont read Arabic its a very good source especially the articles that deal inter alia with “sectarianism” and the defense of Beirut.

      • Antidote
        April 23, 2016, 6:27 pm

        thsnks, gamal, very interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t read Arabic. Yet:)

      • gamal
        April 23, 2016, 7:23 pm

        “thsnks”

        no problem I am only semi literate in anything, it neednt hold you back big boy.

      • Antidote
        April 24, 2016, 11:17 am

        “big boy”

        girl, actually ;)

      • oldgeezer
        April 24, 2016, 12:35 pm

        @Antidote

        Are you a doting aunty?

        Ok… I will not take up comedy but it was too apparent.

      • Antidote
        April 24, 2016, 1:02 pm

        Ok… I will not take up comedy but it was too apparent.

        – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2016/04/say-hello-to-zenobia-a-report-from-palmyra-rising-from-the-ashes/#comment-836306

        good decision, geezer, keep your day job. Canadian humour pains me, I know it all too well.

        antidote

        edit NATO?

        NATO diet?

        NATO tied?

    • Pippilin
      April 24, 2016, 10:57 am

      My reply may seem simplistic, but it’s how I most easily recognize Israel’s interest in Syria and it makes sense. Go to http://www.jewsnews.co.il/2013/10/22/what-israels-future-borders-will-look-like/ to see a commonly found map of Israel’s projected borders. The map includes much more than Syria.
      Sad day for history and those of us who visit places like Palmyra to get in touch with spirits of
      the past and their culture. Palmyra and Leptis Magna (Libya) have been on my ‘bucket’ list for years, but wars and political problems have erased those plans.
      I’m not minimizing the horrors/murders taking place today in the Middle East. I am ashamed of my country’s participation there in this century. I just wanted to point out that ancient places have more than textbook value; they put our hearts in touch with those long gone.

    • Atlantaiconoclast
      April 26, 2016, 1:49 pm

      Are you serious? The Israel lobby has vigorously pushed for arming Syrian rebels and for the US intervening in Syria. Even Israeli leaders have said they preferred Al Qaeda to Assad. Israel’s long term goal is simple, the utter destabilization of the Middle East, per the Oded Yinon Plan. It is not some rumor, it is a fact. So yes, I do blame Israel and SA, and Turkey, the US, Britain, France, and others who have supported Islamic extremists against a secular leader.

  2. Boris
    April 20, 2016, 1:04 pm

    How is it different from Muslim Waqf’s destruction of Jewish artifacts on the Temple Mount?

    • MHughes976
      April 24, 2016, 4:21 pm

      Well, it was on a different plane when one considers consent. The Waqf claimed to be acting responsibly by replacing electric cables and the Israeli government did not put a stop to it – at least tacitly consented. The Israel Antiquities Authority did not lend official support, as far as I can see, to the claims of some archaeologists that significant damage was being done to the site.
      There was then the Sifting Project, whose results have been meagre enough to suggest that there has not actually been wholesale destruction. I agree that a regrettable risk was taken. What is needed is an agreement about who is responsible for the antiquities of the place, an agreement which would have to involve international participation if the results are to be credible.

  3. merlot
    April 21, 2016, 12:02 pm

    How does this tour differ from a tour of Gaza taken with Israeli soldiers where you hear from them and others about how the key to peace is defeating Hamas and Palestinian armed factions?

    The idea that a tour with the backing of the Syrian regime and accompanied by the Syrian military can be called a peace delegation is really problematic. The idea that the government, which is responsible for more deaths than any other party in Syria, is an acceptable interlocutor for “leftists” is really problematic. The idea that you can call for liberation and peace in Syria by calling for the defeat of all groups opposed to the regime is really problematic.

    I’m no supporter of Western intervention and am not uncritical of opposition groups in Syria. However, Syrian regime led a brutal police state before all of this started and the government was the initiator of violence when it brutally cracked down on protesters calling for their rights. It is the government of Syria which has dropped barrel bombs on its population, starved civilians, tortured people, executed people, etc. It has not carried out brutality in a way that is publicized like the violence of ISIS, but really it doesn’t make a lot of difference. If you cut off five people’s heads on camera like ISIS or shoot ten people in the head off of camera like the regime the result is the same. Dead people and terrified populations.

    Again, I’m no supporter of US policy in the Middle East and am not saying this to support another faction of US action. I certainly don’t support US intervention. However, apologies for brutal regimes do not belong on a website that is supposedly dedicated to rights and liberation.

    • Jeff Klein
      April 21, 2016, 2:30 pm

      It seems that you may be replying to a different article than the one I wrote. I made it clear who sponsored the group in the interest of full disclosure, but I am not a member or organizer of their. It was the only way, simply, for a US citizen to get into Syria and see for oneself.

      That said, we met a very wide range of people of varied background and those are the views that I quoted. My opinions are my own.

      You regurgitate the mainstream, even “liberal” view in the US. I am no apologist for Assad, but in my opinion the main threat is now foreign intervention and the possibility of an Islamist regime imposed on Syria. “Democratic forces,” which certainly exist, are divided and insignificant on the battlefields, where the future of Syria is being decided.

      Maybe you are indifferent as to whether you prefer to live under a secular authoritarian regime or a radical Salafist state where secular people and religious or ethnic minorities have no place, but most Syrians are not. Neither am I. If there is no other real option for now — and there appears not to be, practically speaking — I would prefer the Assad regime, which may hopefully evolve, to a Saudi-Wahhabi religious state any day.

      • merlot
        April 21, 2016, 3:23 pm

        I have not been in Syria during the conflict, few people have, but I have spent years living in the Middle East, spent much of last year assessing responses to the Syrian refugee crisis in the Middle East, spent that time listening to people impacted by the war, have worked in areas of conflict for years, etc. I’m not just parroting Western liberal opinion but basing my opinion on long experience in the Middle East and addressing conflict. I find your statement that you were able to talk with a wide range of people while under the sponsorship of the regime laughable. Do you really think that in a police state where the regime is leading a brutal war against all people opposed to its power you will hear diverse opinions and open opposition to the regime while in a group coordinated by people aligned with the regime? Do you really think that I have to buy into a dichotomy that simplistically sees the options as either supporting a brutal regime or “extremism”? Hope for evolution of the Assad regime is not hope for change. I’m not calling for the exclusion of the regime from the table as efforts are made to secure peace. I recognize that peace must be achieved through an open table to includes even actors we don’t like. However, I can’t accept that sleeping with the devil to gain access to see, and thinking that access given by the regime will open you to seeing reality as lived by most Syrians is to be deluded to the reality of propaganda and messaging as necessarily shaped on any trip like this. Coziness with the regime is coziness with brutality.

      • gamal
        April 21, 2016, 4:52 pm

        ” I am no apologist for Assad”

        what is the reason for American, Saudi and Israeli opposition to the Syrian Ba’athist Government? and their desire to topple it?

        what are the specific crimes and acts which to your mind render the sovereignty of the Syrian people null and void and allow anyone to support the illegal removal of the Syrian government by foreign intervention?

        What is Syria’s record in relation to international law and the bi-lateral agreements she has signed, including those with Israel? Is there anything in the Ba’aths record that equates to the destruction of South East Asia last century or Israels collusion with US inspired slaughter in South America and Africa,

        and why all this infantile crap about loving, apologising for or support for “Assad”? rather than any cogent understanding and contextualising of things in such a way that we do not have to rely on some nebulous notions of pervasive Arab barbarity and political pathology.

        In the raw moralsitic and legalistic terms the Syrian Ba’athist State is vastly less criminal, destructive and “rogue” than the US.

        But if “leftism” and progressivism teaches us one thing at all it is that we are most certainly superior to any Arabs, even those we are slaughtering, chorus of the internationale anyone, the Schactman version?

      • ritzl
        April 21, 2016, 6:28 pm

        Thank you gamal. Sense!

      • merlot
        April 21, 2016, 8:59 pm

        Gamal, it is entirely possible to be opposed to the Assad regime and its actions and also to oppose outside intervention by the US, Israel, Russia or any other player. It is entirely possible to see the Assad regime as criminal and brutal and to also recognize the decades long history or US extreme violence in the Middle East which has obviously killed more people than have died in Syria. It is possible to recognize the fact that the U.S. has played a key role in destabilizing the Middle East, has contributed to the rise of ISIS, has propped up despotic regimes, serves its own interests, etc. and at the same time also recognize that the Assad regime is criminal.

        I have never excused U.S. policy or supported intervention. But lets recognize that the conflict started when the Syrian people stood up in protest against their government which had systematically denied their rights for decades. Syria wasn’t a free and open state prior to this conflict and the conflict didn’t start with outside intervention.

        Saying that isn’t covering up U.S crimes or saying that Arabs are inferior to the West. The Syrian regime responded to protests with violence and the conflict has grown from there. The Syrian regime continues to use great violence against its own population. A government loses legitimacy when it turns on its population. A government never has legitimacy when it maintains power through repression and force.

        If your comment was directed at me, I never compared the Assad regime to the U.S. I merely said that if we really are for justice consistently then I can’t see how you can support the Assad regime. I stand by that position.

      • oldgeezer
        April 21, 2016, 10:17 pm

        @merlot

        How big is the rock you’ve been living under and does it have a backyard pool?

        “A government loses legitimacy when it turns on its population. A government never has legitimacy when it maintains power through repression and force. – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2016/04/say-hello-to-zenobia-a-report-from-palmyra-rising-from-the-ashes/#comment-165508

        This would describe the governments of the US, UK, Canada, Israel and Egypt. Let alone states like Saudi Arabia.

        Where the heck did that principle of yours come from? It’s clearly out of the blue and ignorant of any history outside of a one page propaganda sheet.

        It’s not a matter of supporting Assad. If you think Assad is somehow unique in the use of force and that peaceful people are supporting him then it’s clearly over your head and I won’t waste my time any further

      • Sibiriak
        April 22, 2016, 9:54 am

        merlot: The Syrian regime responded to protests with violence and the conflict has grown from there. [emphasis added]
        ————

        Grown from there “? Could you possibly be more deliberately vague? You give zero account of the role outside intervention played in “growing” the conflict. Why is that?

      • Antidote
        April 22, 2016, 11:49 am

        From the horse’s mouth:

        https://syria360.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/president-assads-interview-with-ard-german-tv-march-1-2016/

        Try to disagree with the “butcher” without sounding like a hypocrite

    • Austin Branion
      April 23, 2016, 1:15 am

      merlot, thank you so much for your comments. I used to be a regular reader, and occasional contributor, to this site, but found myself visiting less and less as the Assad apologists started getting published and, even worse, receiving support from a broad swathe of the Palestinian solidarity community. It makes me beyond sad to see that so many people here so willingly employ the same hasbara techniques in defense, or moral obfuscation, of the Syrian regime that they would find deplorable or risible if employed for the sake of the Zionist regime.

      But I’m glad to see that at least one person here has taken the time and energy to spell things out in a way that is ethically consistent with the best values of the Palestinian solidarity community, values that prize dignity and freedom for ALL people from ALL forces that would rob them of their rights, not just the ones that are in the US imperial orbit.

      As an aside, I used to live in Syria myself. I was a graduate fellow at the University of Damascus studying Arabic in 2008-2009. But I hate that this sort of “I’ve been there I’ve seen it” one-upmanship is being used here. Thank you for breaking down why that’s so problematic.

      • Sibiriak
        April 23, 2016, 2:35 am

        Austin Branion: found myself visiting less and less as the Assad apologists started getting published
        —————–

        The moment you use the insulting, demonizing, slanderous pet epithet of neo-con propagandists– “Assad apologist”— you make it clear that your aim is to attack and defame rather than inform or persuade. Fact: the author of this article is not “apologizing” for the Assad regime.

        Jeff Klein writes:

        I am no apologist for Assad, but in my opinion the main threat is now foreign intervention and the possibility of an Islamist regime imposed on Syria.

        I think all of us here would be open to a substantial, fact-based counter-argument. Why don’t you drop the name-calling and give it a shot?

      • Keith
        April 23, 2016, 11:35 am

        AUSTIN BRANION- “…found myself visiting less and less as the Assad apologists started getting published and….so many people here so willingly employ the same hasbara techniques in defense, or moral obfuscation, of the Syrian regime….”

        So, Assad must go? Gee, where have we heard that before? From the human rights activists in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the GCC, Israel and US/NATO? This has been an extraordinarily bloody imperial intervention, long in the planning, and has nothing to do with human rights. When has the empire ever been concerned about human rights except as a pretext? But joining in the demonization of the target of an imperial destabilization may prove rewarding for you. Who knows? Anyone who is really concerned with human rights is painfully aware that the Middle East is a mess precisely because of imperial interventions. And when highlighting the consequences of ISIS/Daesh terror is equated with pro-Assad hasbara, we know exactly where you stand. Another liberal interventionist for empire. Shameful. By the way, you are aware, I hope, that ISIS/Daesh is a creation of empire, the current iteration of the Mujahideen employed in Afghanistan? Al Qaeda in Iraq re-branded? Terrorists in tanks supplied by US/NATO/Turkey, et al, who would fall apart without massive imperial support? This is what you are supporting? Syria turned into Libya, or worse?

      • gamal
        April 23, 2016, 8:00 pm

        yes Austin, wow you are a performer I paraphrase “I know Syria, Love it, it should be destroyed in Arabic”, no oneupmanship man you couldnt get any lower.

      • Atlantaiconoclast
        April 26, 2016, 1:59 pm

        I wonder if you think what Lincoln did to the South was acceptable? Even though he used far less deadly weapons, he killed hundreds of thousands of Southerners and terrorized them by burning down homes, villages, and college campuses. And unlike ISIS, the South was not trying to take over the part of the land that had not seceded. And before you say, but slavery!, remember that five Union states had slaves. And Lincoln did not attack the South over slavery, but over secession. Even he said so. It wasn’t till later that Lincoln used the slavery issue.

        So why are you implying that Assad is wrong to have used brutal force to protect his nation from being ripped apart by violent savages? Be consistent. I don’t support or oppose Assad. The US should be neutral. It is no one’s business, but the Syrian people’s.

      • Austin Branion
        May 8, 2016, 5:16 pm

        Sibriak: “Fact: the author of this article is not ‘apologizing’ for the Assad regime.”

        Ok. I thought about it a bit and, I have to admit, you might have a point here. My diagnosis is slightly inaccurate: what he, and so many others here are doing, is more akin to normalization than apology. It’s the normalization of an authoritarian police state turned rapacious, murderous war machine that boggles my mind coming from people who are against normalizing the discursive framework of a rapacious and colonial ethnocratic regime in occupied Palestine. As though states outside of the US imperial orbit, or that are even hostile to it, are uniformly incapable of doing any wrong worth condemning at the top of our lungs.

        That the savagery and agendas of some of the Assad regime’s internal and external enemies concern us should not blind us to the 40 years of tyranny, and five years of war crimes, that the same regime has wrought. It’s a weird false dichotomy, and one that utterly baffles me coming from this community.

      • oldgeezer
        May 8, 2016, 5:48 pm

        @Austin

        I don’t think you will even find anyone normalizing it. At the moment it is the lesser of potential evils but hopefully at the end of the day Assad will at least be gone and preferably locked up for the rest of his life. A brutal tyrant indeed. No question about it.

        When it is used as a deflection by criminal zionists to justify the rapacious expansionist war machine called Israel, risibly referred to as a beacon of light to all nations, then the response can be different for sure. That’s because Israel’s crimes are no less vile than Assad’s. Crimes against humanity ate crimes against humanity. There are no ok crimes.

      • gamal
        May 9, 2016, 8:44 am

        “is more akin to normalization”

        joker! “normalization” says the ally of Jabhat al Nusra and Da’esh (condemned for extremism by Zawahiri himself), Saudi Arabia, Turkey (democratic but with an astonishing toll of Kurds and other dissidents) and American Imperialism, pull the other one.

        here is the backdash, Syrian communists many of whom are Alawi and many of whom suffered ferocious repression by the Ba’ath. Can you name any untranslated political texts that you have read from the vibrant political literature of Syrian dissent? you know Arabic right?

        https://youtu.be/Jew1K-to5rU

    • Atlantaiconoclast
      April 26, 2016, 1:53 pm

      So I guess the deaths in the Civil War, which were largely due to Lincoln’s Union forces were ok? Be consistent now ! You are asking a secular leader to fight back gently against savages who cut off heads. As far as I know, no Palestinian has ever cut off an Israeli head or crucified one.

      • Mooser
        April 27, 2016, 12:41 am

        ” You are asking a secular leader to fight back gently against savages who cut off heads”

        Or savages who had a slavery-based economy.

      • Atlantaiconoclast
        April 27, 2016, 10:38 am

        Mooser, as I said before, there were five Union states with slaves. The war was NOT fought over slavery. If so, Lincoln would not have supported the Corwin Amendment, which would have kept slavery forever legal in the South.

      • Mooser
        April 27, 2016, 11:03 am

        “Mooser, as I said before, there were five Union states with slaves.”

        Ah, the old ‘border state’ schtik.

        Do you call yourself an “iconoclast” because all your idols are unreconstructed?

      • Mooser
        April 27, 2016, 11:07 am

        ” If so, Lincoln would not have supported the Corwin Amendment…”

        Oh yeah, the “Corwin Amendment “ Isn’t that a lot like the UN Resolution 80 and the San Remo treaty?

        Why, just think, if more people knew about Lincoln and the Corwin Amendment, the US could still have slavery today!

  4. rws450
    April 21, 2016, 12:59 pm

    excellent report …thank you jeff!

    as to role of israel (see other comment) ….
    there is some faulty analysis which claims israel is not involved. baloney.

    the role is largely hidden but huge.
    hillary clinton as secy of state issued her ultimatums to assad in 2010.
    her demands all pertained to zionist israel goals and interests (NOT us).
    it is well documented that zionism seeks to destabilize and divide arab states.

    i look forward to seeing more reports from on the ground in syria by jeff.

  5. StanleyHeller
    April 22, 2016, 6:48 am

    This article is awful

    That someone would go on an Assad tour of Syria after the release years ago of the “Hannibal” photos showing industrial scale regime murder or the chemical gassing of 1300 in Ghouta is behind belief.

    This was no “peace” tour. See the group cheerfully with their arms around Assad soldiers and extending V signs on the tour’s Facebook page. They were embracing his forces.

    https://www.facebook.com/International-Tours-of-Peace-to-Syria-454873351281581

    Klein write, “Nearly everyone we met – and they were by no means all uncritical supporters of the Assad regime – told us that they believed any hope required, first of all, the defeat of the armed rebels and an end to foreign intervention in their country.”

    –Who do you think you met except hand picked people? Ever go to the Soviet Union and meet all those people in love with Stalin or Brezhnev government?

    “In the midst of the near total destruction in the old city of Homs, which was under rebel control and the scene of intense fighting until 2014 …”

    –And it was blown up by the Assad-Russian airforce. Even Patrick Cockburn who supports Assad as a lesser evil admits Assad’s troops blow up everything they can’t control. Take a look at the utter destruction in the video shot by the Russian drone.

    “the armed rebels now overwhelmingly represent Sunni fundamentalists of various stripes”

    –I don’t think you have a clue here. The “rebels” are mainly 1,000 different local militias without any ideology, just trying to save themselves from mass rape, torture and murder from Assad, from ISIS.

    I’m surprised Mondoweiss would print this piece. Why not a piece on the extermination of Palestinians and Syrians in Yarmouk? ISIS appears to be finishing off the Palestinians with cooperation of Assad forces according to Nidal Bitari.

    • Sibiriak
      April 22, 2016, 7:38 am

      stanleyheller: The “rebels” are mainly 1,000 different local militias without any ideology…
      ————

      No ideology whatsoever? That’s not credible.

    • Jeff Klein
      April 22, 2016, 9:11 am

      Too many US “leftists” and others seem to be playing out their own one-dimensional sectarian fantasies with the blood of the Syrians. Heller claims to know all about the situation there from his perch in the US, while dismissing what we saw and heard from actual Syrians.

      This was no “Assad tour” of the country and the participants had varied views on Syria and its government. There were arranged meetings on the trip, but we were also free to walk around, eat in restaurants and talk with whomever we pleased.

      I think it’s Stanley Heller who has no clue — and apparently he doesn’t want to have any information that might conflict with his preconceived notions.

    • Keith
      April 22, 2016, 2:52 pm

      STANLEYHELLER- “The “rebels” are mainly 1,000 different local militias without any ideology, just trying to save themselves from mass rape, torture and murder from Assad, from ISIS.”

      Oh, Lord, yet another liberal interventionist come pay us a visit. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to defend an imperial destabilization campaign as a peasant uprising. In case you haven’t noticed, Stanley, the empire is on a rampage smashing any and all countries that dare to resist imperial control. The carnage in Syria is a consequence of a US (and cohorts) initiated hybrid war against Syria, the primary purpose was simply to destroy Syria. They have succeeded, just as they succeeded in Libya and elsewhere. There are no moderate rebels, only well paid Islamist mercenaries. And the plans to destabilize Syria go back a long way (see Wesley Clark, et al). And this remaking of the map of the Middle East is part of the overall scheme to eliminate any potential rivals to the American led empire during a window of opportunity prior to the restructuring of the global political economy into a form of neofeudalism, the end game of neoliberal globalization.

    • ToivoS
      April 22, 2016, 5:22 pm

      Oh Stanley, so you bring up the Ghouta gas attack as an act carried out by Assad. You seem totally unaware that the attack was most likely carried out by those Islamist rebels you seem to love. Classic false flag.

      It was clear within two weeks after the outbreak of the Syrian Spring in 2011 that the so-called spontaneous “peoples” rebellion was being led by well funded and well armed Islamic forces. In those days they were called the Muslim Brotherhood but have evolved in a variety of al Qaida inspired groups as well as the foreign mercenaries that make up the active fighters of ISIS. It is amazing at the stupidity of some you Western leftists that have joined the American, Saudi and Qatari backed movement to destroy and fragment Syria.

    • Atlantaiconoclast
      April 26, 2016, 2:00 pm

      There is zero evidence implicating Assad in the gassing of his own people. Don’t just cite some western media source, provide objective proof. Till then, stop making claims you can’t back up.

  6. Theo
    April 22, 2016, 11:33 am

    Should the title not read Xenobia, instead of Zenobia, a greek word for fear of strangers.

  7. gamal
    April 22, 2016, 9:27 pm
  8. gamal
    April 23, 2016, 1:23 pm

    Nusayri’s

    just a few unconnected thoughts,

    According to the majority of “Sunni” Ulema, the Nusayri’s are not heretics and are infact Muslims.

    The error for which they are criticized is very generally leveled by “Sunni” Alim against the general “Sunni’s”, I am willing to bet that if you google Nusayri one of the little thumbnails will have this word, its Arabic, describing the doctrinal error ascribed to Nusayri’s.

    I am not googling to confirm but I seem to recall that the word “Alawite” was promoted by the French to stress the similarity of Nusayri ideas to some aspects of Shi’ism. I dont know about this off-shoot of shi’ism, looking at the Kitab al Majmu, I dont know, seems to have some pretty old stuff Hellenistic and pre-Helenistic,

    Nusayri’s were employed by the Ottomans as senior tax collectors in Syria, and were not denounced as heretics by the official Ulema, Ibni taymiyyeh did so denounce them in the medieval period however there is more general problem with all this “Sunni” talk.

    when you look with sufficient resolution at any “Sunni” community you will note, all the Scholars disagree but they are united in pointing out that yer common “Sunni” is an ignorant cuss who spends most of their religious life engaging in un-Islamic folk practices ad tedium.

    I speak as the veteran of numerous magical rites conducted by my Gidda, with my Azharite father laughing in the corner, especially if anything involved me drinking anything,

    Islam man we are all fucking heretics.

    • echinococcus
      April 23, 2016, 2:07 pm

      Gamal,

      I am not googling to confirm but I seem to recall that the word “Alawite” was promoted by the French to stress the similarity of Nusayri ideas to some aspects of Shi’ism

      In Turkey, where they make up a significant portion of the population, and of course across the Empire before that, they have been called “Alevi” or Alawites, since at least the 13th century –before any French influence worth mentioning. Probably because of the heavy presence of Ali in all their ritual iconography. Thank you for the valuable info otherwise.

      • gamal
        April 23, 2016, 2:43 pm

        yes you are right I know about the Alevi’s, but they are not Alawite are they? but I dont really remember why I thought the French preferred Alawite to Nusayri, may be no more than the term Nusayri follows Arab usage like Ibadi for kharijites, the founding sheikh names the tendency and Alawite is more in keeping with naming the tendency after its main characteristic.

        Alawi’s are an Arab minority in Turkey, Alevi’s are either Kurdish or Turkish aren’t they? and this Alevism is strongly nationalistic and ethnic in outlook. This doesnt mean that they are not Alawi categorically just like everything else in Islam it depends who you ask and in what degree you mean the same or different, I think that in the medieval lit they are never referred to as Alawi, but i could well be wrong.

        ayman tamimi wrote a long piece in levant review a while back about them

        you could well be right its just vague impressions i had.

        looking at Alawites

        http://www.aymennjawad.org/12686/looking-at-alawites

      • echinococcus
        April 23, 2016, 4:49 pm

        Thanks for the paper, looks interesting –and by a Tamimi, no less.
        Fact is, it’s all impressions as long as one doesn’t take the time to plunge into the detail. My Alawite-Alevi friends in Turkey all seem to be under the impression that the Syrian branch are correligionists. As for the strongly “nationalistic and ethnic in outlook” there is no ethnicity aspect to it –being approximately equally distributed between Turkish and Kurdish. As for nationalism, you may be referring to the (dominant-nation) Turkish nationalism that Kemal Pasha’s CHP, Republican Party of Turkey, has been trying to elicit in recruiting most of them based on the reaction to the religious discrimination, non-recognition and persecution they have been subjected to with the Republic. Plus the somewhat treasured memory of the epic peasant massacres in medieval times. It seems that the roots of the cult have not only “Hellenistic” (ie Mithraic and such) but also Jacquerie-style peasant revolt origins, irrespective of Kurdish or Turkish ethnicity. Gives a very tolerant, rather non-nationalistic outlook.
        Again, all floating on impressions and awaiting some radically different “impression” refuting the identity of the Syrian and Anatolian branches.

  9. lproyect
    April 25, 2016, 8:30 pm

    Sad to see Jeff Klein writing this kind of garbage. I knew him back in the late 80s when he was involved with Tecnica and when both of us had high hopes that the FSLN could have succeeded in building an alternative to neoliberalism. But writing this kind of pap for a blood-drenched tyranny whose top capitalist crony of Bashar al-Assad was revealed to be hiding billions in Panama banks really makes me want to throw up.

    • echinococcus
      April 27, 2016, 1:47 am

      Keith,

      Counterpunch and Mondoweiss seem to be copying each other in this. Louis is CP’s Hophmi.

      • Keith
        April 27, 2016, 10:47 am

        ECHINOCOCCUS- “Counterpunch and Mondoweiss seem to be copying each other in this. Louis is CP’s Hophmi.”

        Now if Mondoweiss would restrict Hophmi to film criticism then, perhaps, Hophmi would be Mondoweiss’ Louis Proyect? Lord knows, there are more than enough new Holocaust movies to keep Hophmi busy fixating on anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred (his favorite topics).

  10. lproyect
    April 26, 2016, 7:01 am

    Isn’t this site pro-Palestinian? This is a reminder of what the most militant group said about Bashar al-Assad until it was coerced into softening/reversing its position. Btw, for your information, the group was part of the Muslim Brotherhood that someone was so ready to demonize above.

    REUTERS
    World | Fri Feb 24, 2012 12:56pm EST Related: WORLD, SYRIA
    Hamas ditches Assad, backs Syrian revolt
    CAIRO/GAZA | BY OMAR FAHMY AND NIDAL AL-MUGHRABI

    Leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas turned publicly against their long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Friday, endorsing the revolt aimed at overthrowing his dynastic rule.

    The policy shift deprives Assad of one of his few remaining Sunni Muslim supporters in the Arab world and deepens his international isolation. It was announced in Hamas speeches at Friday prayers in Cairo and a rally in the Gaza Strip.

    Hamas went public after nearly a year of equivocating as Assad’s army, largely led by fellow members of the president’s Alawite sect, has crushed mainly Sunni protesters and rebels.

    In a Middle East split along sectarian lines between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, the public abandonment of Assad casts immediate questions over Hamas’s future ties with its principal backer Iran, which has stuck by its ally Assad, as well as with Iran’s fellow Shi’ite allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

    “I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, visiting Egypt from the Gaza Strip, told thousands of Friday worshippers at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque.

    “We are marching towards Syria, with millions of martyrs,” chanted worshippers at al-Azhar, home to one of the Sunni world’s highest seats of learning. “No Hezbollah and no Iran.

    “The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”

    full: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-palestinians-idUSTRE81N1CC20120224

    • Atlantaiconoclast
      April 26, 2016, 2:04 pm

      I could care less what any Palestinian group thinks about Assad. It is none of their business who runs Syria. It is up to the Syrians, and the majority there support Assad, at least for now. I am consistent. I support the right of Syrians to resist Assad, but when they use violence, and commit savagery, I can’t believe that you and others expect Assad to fight with softness. He is in a life and death struggle with savages who will kill anyone who does not submit to their particular version of Islam. Not even Hamas is that extreme.

      • lproyect
        April 26, 2016, 4:55 pm

        “I support the right of Syrians to resist Assad, but when they use violence, and commit savagery, I can’t believe that you and others expect Assad to fight with softness.”

        I take it that you believe in the efficacy of dropping barrel bombs on open-air markets, a measure necessary to take out the jihadi cucumbers even if three-year olds get their arms and legs blown off.

      • Keith
        April 26, 2016, 9:19 pm

        LPROYECT- “I take it that you believe in the efficacy of dropping barrel bombs on open-air markets….”

        Well, if it isn’t the rancid Marxist for empire come pay us another visit to advocate for a humanitarian destabilization campaign. Standing shoulder to shoulder with US/Israel, NATO, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the GCC in support of those “moderate” Islamic fundamentalists. Doesn’t it bother you to be so out of sync with the rest of the CounterPunch contributors?

      • Sibiriak
        April 27, 2016, 11:09 am

        lproyect: I take it that you believe in the efficacy of dropping barrel bombs…
        —————————

        And predictably, when the going get rough, even the feeblest pretense of critical thinking is tossed aside and out come the the imperialist think-tank-manufactured talking points.
        —————————-

        Propaganda Buzz Phrase

        But it’s really all par for the course. Whenever propagandists develop their “themes” for a conflict, they look for certain “hot button” phrases that make the behavior of a “black-hatted enemy” appear particularly venal. “Barrel bomb” has become the propaganda buzz phrase of choice associated with the Syrian conflict.

        Yet, it seems likely this clumsy, improvised weapon supposedly dropped from helicopters would be far less lethal than rocket-propelled bombs delivered from afar by jet planes or drones, the approach favored by the U.S. government and its “allies.”

        Civilians would have a much better chance to seek safety in a bomb shelter before some “barrel bomb” is shoved out the door of a helicopter than when a sophisticated U.S.-made bomb arrives with little or no warning, as apparently happened to the victims of that wedding in Yemen.

        And that is not to mention the U.S. bombs that involve depleted uranium, napalm, phosphorous and cluster munitions, which present other humanitarian concerns. However, while U.S.-assisted or U.S.-directed slaughters of civilians attract little attention in the mainstream U.S. media, there are endless denunciations of the Syrian government’s “barrel bombs.”

        The propaganda drumbeat is such that the American people are told that they must support “regime change” in Syria even if it risks opening the gates of Damascus to a victory by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda terrorists.

        This odd “humanitarian” equation, tallied up by the State Department and “human-rights” NGOs, holds that to secure revenge for Syria’s alleged use of “barrel bombs,” the world must accept the possibility of the black flag of Sunni terrorism flying over a major Mideast capital while its streets would run red with the blood of Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other “heretics.”

        Then, apparently, the United States would have little choice but to lead a massive expeditionary force into Syria to oust the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, ensuring the deaths of hundreds of thousands more innocents and sending millions more fleeing into a destabilized Europe.

        But such is the power of propaganda in managing public perceptions. Use a phrase like “barrel bomb” over and over again as if it is a uniquely evil weapon when, in fact, it is far less lethal and destructive than the ordnance that the United States routinely deploys or hands out to its “allies” like candy on Halloween. Soon the people lose all perspective and are open to manipulation. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Power of False Narrative.”]

        Once the U.S. public is softened up with the propaganda and psy-ops also known as “strategic communications” or Stratcom the only acceptable option is “regime change” in Syria even if that prospect holds the likelihood of a far worse human catastrophe.

        By hearing “barrel bomb” enough times, the judgment of American citizens is clouded and any practical suggestion for a realistic political settlement of Syria’s conflict is deemed “appeasement” of a tyrant , which was the clear message of President Obama’s UN tirade.

        And, thus, the killing continues; the chaos grows worse. [emphasis added]

        ——————————-
        Excerpt from Robert Parry’s “Obama’s Ludicrous ‘Barrel Bomb’ Theme”

        https://consortiumnews.com/2015/09/30/obamas-ludicrous-barrel-bomb-theme/

    • Mooser
      April 26, 2016, 3:35 pm

      “Isn’t this site pro-Palestinian? “

      Well, you could look at the “About” page. If you think it’s to be trusted, of course.

  11. Atlantaiconoclast
    April 26, 2016, 2:05 pm

    I find it very telling that the mainstream media has been so quiet about the fact that Syria’s regime forces, along with Russia, retook Palmyra from ISIS.

  12. lproyect
    April 28, 2016, 1:03 pm

    Use a phrase like “barrel bomb” over and over again as if it is a uniquely evil weapon when, in fact, it is far less lethal and destructive than the ordnance that the United States routinely deploys or hands out to its “allies” like candy on Halloween.

    Well, the issue is not whether it more or less lethal than, for example, the payload of a B-52. It is instead about dropping a 50 gallon barrel filled with explosives, steel ball bearings, 6 inch spike nails, etc on an open-air market. If you want to justify this kind of war crime, I have pity on your miserable soul.

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