A wounded Syrian being treated at an Israeli army field hospital
* London Sunday Times: Assad said to be hoarding chemical weapons in Alawite areas.
* (Nobel-Prize winning) Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons: Assad has handed over less than five percent of the 700 tons of chemicals which he was meant to hand over by the end of last year, in his much heralded deal with Obama and others.
* The New York Times again reports on the story most other media ignore: “Two brothers, ages 10 and 8, were playing marbles outside their home in a town in Syria when a rocket decapitated the older one and critically wounded his sibling. Having rushed the surviving child to a local hospital, the mother recalled, medics told her: ‘If you want to save your son, you should take him to Israel.’”
“A few days later, the boy and his mother, 34, arrived at Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya [in Israel], on the Mediterranean coast. The traumatized boy told the staff how he had seen his brother’s head fly. “His mother broke down as she showed a visitor how he had hoarded the hospital’s packaged chocolate puddings in a bedside drawer, hoping to give them to a brother and sister still in Syria. She said she was convinced that the son who died had shielded his younger brother from the rocket explosion. ‘We buried him without a head,’ she said.”
* Another Syrian accompanying his critically wounded 5-year-old granddaughter into Israel told the New York Times: “When there is peace, I will raise an Israeli flag on the roof of my house.”
* A wounded mother of six, who had been at the hospital in Nahariya with two wounded daughters for nearly six weeks, said, “I grew up hearing that Israel was an enemy country and that if you met an Israeli he would kill you.” Her left leg was amputated below the knee. One daughter, 6, was recovering from shrapnel injuries. The other, 3, had lost an eye and suffered damaged lungs and a mangled arm. A son, 5, and the nephew, 12, were in the hospital in Safed, accompanied by their grandmother. The younger boy lost one leg; the nephew, both.
* Tom Gross: Lest anyone thinks the New York Times has suddenly decided to be kind to Israel, on the international edition of the paper on Friday, two pages before the story about Israeli help for Syrian civilians, the heading of another piece read “Israel needs to learn some manners”.
* Schoolchildren from across Israel collect tens of thousands of jackets, blankets and sleeping bags, often donated by their parents – to be transferred across the border and given to internally displaced Syrian refugees.
* You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.
1. London Sunday Times: Assad said to be hoarding chemical weapons
2. The Syrian regime’s take on Israeli medical help
3. Israel’s Channel 2 News shows first footage of fenced-off Golan field hospital
4. Syria’s heritage in ruins: before-and-after pictures
5. More than 1,000 killed in Iraq in January
6. Photo of police stopping Saudi women from using a playground swing goes viral
7. Mideast Tunes: Music for Social Change
8. “Despite decades of enmity, Israel quietly aids Syrian civilians” (By Isabel Kershner, New York Times, Jan. 31, 2014)
9. “Israel’s growing role in Southern Syria” (By Ehud Ya’ari, Washington Institute, Jan. 29, 2014)
10. “Syria Cheats” (By David Schenker, Weekly Standard, Jan. 31, 2014)
[Notes below by Tom Gross]
SUNDAY TIMES: ASSAD SAID TO BE HOARDING CHEMICAL WEAPONS
London’s Sunday Times reports today that Syrian President Bashar Assad has been stockpiling chemical, biological and other advanced weapons in Syria’s Alawite areas so that they will remain in his regime’s hands in the event that the country is partitioned. (Assad and most of his ruling junta are members of the minority Alawite sect.)
Last week, the international chemical watchdog said that Assad had handed over less than five percent of the 700 tons of chemicals that he was meant to hand over by the end of last year in his deal with the Obama administration and other world powers.
Assad still has at least 1,300 tons of lethal chemical weapons.
See also: “Syria Cheats” by David Schenker, at the end of this dispatch.
Schenker writes: “On Tuesday, during the State of the Union Address, President Obama boasted that ‘American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.’ That assertion was premature.
“Like North Korea and Libya -- which famously violated international obligations on weapons of mass destruction -- there is good reason to believe that Syria will cheat on its own agreement with the United Nations to fully dispose of its chemical weapons arsenal.”
THE SYRIAN REGIME’S TAKE ON ISRAELI MEDICAL HELP
Further down this dispatch, I attach an article, by the New York Times’ Isabel Kershner on Israel’s help for Syrian civilians. (To her credit this is the second time she has reported on this. I carried her piece “Across forbidden border, doctors in Israel quietly tend to Syria’s wounded” on this website last August. (Fourth item here.)
Supporters of the Assad regime have also taken note of the Israeli help for Syrian civilians. Here is their take on it:
Their readers’ comments are also quite amusing.
Among previous dispatches on this subject, including one of my own articles, please see:
ISRAEL’S CHANNEL 2 NEWS SHOWS FIRST FOOTAGE OF FENCED OFF GOLAN FIELD HOSPITAL
On Friday evening, Israel’s Channel 2 News aired the first footage of the fenced-off Israeli army Golan Heights field hospital, which has treated over 700 severely-wounded Syrians in the last few months. (This is in addition to the civilian hospitals in Israel that have treated over 1000 very badly wounded civilians.)
You can watch the Channel 2 News report here (in Hebrew only):
The hospital is staffed by Israeli soldiers, doctors and nurses in uniform. It includes an emergency room, an intensive care unit, an operating theater, and an x-ray facility.
Channel 2 reports that about one hundred Syrians per month are being treated there. It treats wounded Syrians who cross the border regardless of their ethnicity or political beliefs -- both supporters and opponents of the Assad regime have been given medical assistance.
Maj. Itay Zoarets, a senior surgeon, told Channel 2 that while soldiers in the IDF’s medical corps have undergone thorough training to learn how to treat battle wounds, they have rarely seen such horrific injuries before.
Leading Israeli commentator Ehud Ya’ari told Channel 2 that the Golan hospital is just “the tip of the iceberg” – and he suggested that Israel was working across the border in Syria with more moderate rebels in an effort to prevent the al-Qaeda-aligned forces from reaching Israel’s borders. (For more, see Ya’ari’s piece at the end of this dispatch.)
Tom Gross adds: This short report from Thursday on IDF co-ordination with Gazans and the PA is also quite interesting, especially the comments from the Gazan merchants at the end:
SYRIA’S HERITAGE IN RUINS: BEFORE-AND-AFTER PICTURES
The Guardian’s Martin Chulov has been doing some important reporting from Syria.
In this photo-essay he shows that beyond the human toll, there is the environmental and architectural cost:
MORE THAN 1,000 KILLED IN IRAQ IN JANUARY
A total of 1,013 people were killed in Iraq in January, according to official Iraqi data released on Friday.
They included 795 civilians, 122 soldiers and 96 policemen. 2,024 people were wounded, including 1,633 civilians.
January’s overall death toll is the highest released by the Iraqi government since April 2008, when 1,073 people were killed.
PHOTO OF POLICE STOPPING SAUDI WOMEN FROM USING A PLAYGROUND SWING GOES VIRAL
A photo showing members of Saudi Arabia’s religious police stopping women from using a playground swing has gone viral online. Only men and boys are allowed to use the swing.
Arabic-speaking Twitter users have both praised and condemned the police’s actions, and the story has now been reported in news sites in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.
You can see the photo here:
MIDEAST TUNES: MUSIC FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
Leaving war and politics aside, there is always music... this site has a variety of bands from across the Middle East, and might be of interest to some people:
As the site says: “Mideast Tunes is a multifaceted platform for underground musicians in the Middle East and North Africa who use music as a tool for social change. Our mission is to bridge barriers of faith and geography to unite young…”
I attach three articles below. All three authors -- Isabel Kershner, Ehud Ya’ari, and David Schenker -- are subscribers to this list.
-- Tom Gross
“WE BURIED HIM WITHOUT A HEAD”
Despite Decades of Enmity, Israel Quietly Aids Syrian Civilians
By Isabel Kershner
New York Times
January 30, 2014
NAHARIYA, Israel — Two brothers, ages 10 and 8, were playing marbles outside their home in a town in Syria when a rocket decapitated the older one and critically wounded his sibling. Having rushed the surviving child to a local hospital, the mother recalled, medics told her: “If you want to save your son, you should take him to Israel.”
A few days later, the boy and his mother, 34, arrived at Western Galilee Hospital here in Nahariya, on the Mediterranean coast. The traumatized boy told the staff how he had seen his brother’s head fly.
His mother broke down as she showed a visitor how he had hoarded the hospital’s packaged chocolate puddings in a bedside drawer, hoping to give them to a brother and sister still in Syria. She said she was convinced that the son who died had shielded his younger brother from the rocket explosion. “We buried him without a head,” she said.
As opposing Syrian delegations convened face to face this week in Switzerland, the tragedies of the Syrian civil war were reverberating here, the emotions sharpened by the decades of enmity between Israel and Syria, still technically in a state of war.
After nearly three years of internal conflict that has killed an estimated 130,000 and displaced millions, some Syrians say they now fear President Bashar al-Assad’s forces more than the Israeli soldiers at the frontier, who transfer wounded patients and their relatives to the hospital via military ambulance.
Israel guards their identities to avoid exposing them to additional danger when they return home. “Assad calls those who come here collaborators with Israel,” said a Syrian accompanying his critically wounded 5-year-old granddaughter, who arrived last month.
Nearly 200 Syrians, about a third of them women and children, have been treated at this hospital since March 2013. More than 230 have been taken to Rebecca Sieff Hospital in the Galilee town of Safed. A third of the cost is covered by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, a third by the Ministry of Health and the rest by the hospitals. Dr. Masad Barhoum, the director general of the hospital in Nahariya, said that so far the treatment his hospital had provided had cost it about $2.6 million.
Israel made it clear that it would not tolerate refugees amassing along the decades-old Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line. But Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, said this week that Israel “cannot remain indifferent” and had been providing food and winter clothing to Syrian villages across the border fence as well as tending to some of the wounded.
A small, low-profile humanitarian effort, it is politically risky for patients and their relatives. Some said they had been afraid to come here and now fear going back.
For some, the journey begins with help from the Free Syrian Army, a Western-aligned loose coalition of rebels who are fighting Mr. Assad’s government, and from international coordinating bodies in the area. Spirited across the frontier into the Israeli-held Golan Heights, the patients and their relatives pass into the hands of the Israeli military.
The 5-year-old’s grandfather, a farmer, said life in wartime was like “living in a whirlpool.” When the rebellion against Mr. Assad first started, he said, “It was us against Bashar, and we had a chance of winning.” Now, he said, “the whole world is involved,” but he asked why America was not coming to the rescue.
About five weeks ago, he recalled, he had been working his land when he learned that his grandchildren had been hurt in a rocket attack. He had heard about the Israeli medical care and, ignoring the political risks, worked to bring his granddaughter here.
“When there is peace, I will raise an Israeli flag on the roof of my house,” he said.
The war has eroded once-impervious psychological barriers on both sides. This month, an Israeli aid drive led by volunteers from the Working and Studying Youth movement, Israeli Flying Aid and other local organizations collected about 20,000 items — mainly jackets, blankets and sleeping bags — to be transferred to Syrian refugees. Donors were asked to remove all Israeli labels. Barak Sella of Working and Studying Youth said there were plans to establish a website for dialogue between Israeli and Syrian youths.
A wounded mother of six, who had been at the hospital in Nahariya with two wounded daughters for nearly six weeks, said, “I grew up hearing that Israel was an enemy country and that if you met an Israeli he would kill you.”
The mother, 31, said she had been on the roof of her home with her children and a nephew as snow began when a rocket struck. She said she did not remember what happened afterward. When she awoke in the hospital, she said, “I was very, very afraid, but I tried not to show that to the staff.”
Her left leg was amputated below the knee. One daughter, 6, was recovering from shrapnel injuries. The other, 3, had lost an eye and suffered damaged lungs and a mangled arm.
A son, 5, and the nephew, 12, were in the hospital in Safed, accompanied by their grandmother. The younger boy lost one leg; the nephew, both.
Having barely taken her first steps with a day-old prosthesis, the mother was about to return to Syria with her two daughters and a large suitcase packed with donated clothes and toys. They were to be picked up by an army ambulance in the afternoon to begin the six-hour journey to the border and home.
She expressed fear over what might await her. She did not know if the children she had left behind in Syria had survived the rocket attack.
Asked to draw a house in a hospital classroom, the 6-year-old girl drew rubble. Most of the mother’s neighbors and many relatives had already left for refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Once back, she said, she would confide only to those closest to her where she had been.
ISRAEL’S GROWING ROLE IN SOUTHERN SYRIA
Israel’s growing role in Southern Syria
By Ehud Ya’ari
January 29, 2014
* Concerned about the possible drift of al-Qaeda affiliates to areas adjacent to the Golan Heights border, Israel finds itself obliged to increase its assistance to local rebel militias in southern Syria.
As the fighting in Syria rages, Israel has been moving cautiously and often reluctantly toward assuming a modest role in the civil war, restricted to areas along the Golan Heights frontier line. What began as a purely humanitarian step -- extending emergency medical aid to injured and sick Syrians from neighboring villages -- has by now reportedly expanded into a well-developed mechanism for providing a whole range of items, from medications to food, fuel, clothes, heaters, and more. One should assume that the same understandings which allowed over 600 wounded Syrians to be evacuated for treatment in Israeli hospitals -- including a special military field hospital on the Golan -- are facilitating other forms of assistance as well. A significant operation of this type indicates that a system of communications and frequent contacts have been established with the local rebel militias, since the evacuation of the injured and their return to Syria seem to function flawlessly.
These developments bring to mind the establishment of “The Good Fence” along the Israel-Lebanon border when civil war erupted there in the mid-1970s. Yet unlike in Lebanon, the Israeli forces involved in the current Golan-based assistance effort have been very careful not to operate inside Syrian territory or assume responsibility for the villages in question, most of which are populated by a mixture of Sunnis, Druze, and Circassians, along with various armed factions.
Israel initially opted to remove itself from the bloody quagmire in Syria. It even accepted without protest its exclusion from the latest Geneva II peace conference, despite Israel’s major stake in how the conflict is settled and its longstanding bilateral accord with Syria -- the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement, which is still in effect. Yet Israeli concerns about the war’s consequences have been aggravated by the emergence of al-Qaeda affiliates and other radical Islamist militias, which have gained preeminence among rebel units in many parts of central and northern Syria. Israel apparently may feel obliged to take unpublicized measures aimed at preventing or at least slowing the movement of such fighters to territory south of Damascus, particularly those representing the al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
The area in question stretches from the Golan frontier up to Mount Druze in the east, and between the southern suburbs of Damascus and the city of Deraa, where the Syrian uprising was first ignited in 2011. The local militias formed in this region’s villages are recognized as a potentially effective barrier to a takeover by al-Qaeda disciples. Although Jabhat al-Nusra has established a presence in the vicinity of Deraa and close to the meeting point of the Rukkad and Yarmouk Rivers, the overall situation in the south does not follow the pattern witnessed in other parts of Syria, where radicals have asserted themselves at the forefront of the rebellion.
For example, military commanders have the last word in other parts of the country, but southern militias are often directed by civilian elders. Many of them have come to view Israel as a temporary ally under the present circumstances. Emboldened by their belief that the Israel Defense Forces will indirectly protect their back, these militias have battled troops from the Assad regime’s 90th and 61st Brigades, which are based in the area. When regime artillery units fire on rebel formations along the Golan frontier and an occasional stray shell lands on the Israeli side of the border fence, the IDF is indeed quick to retaliate with a single Tammuz missile directed at the position from where the shells were fired. Otherwise, however, the IDF refrains from any intervention, even when clashes occur very close to Israeli positions, sometimes with regime tanks driving within meters of the border.
President Bashar al-Assad’s main interest in the south is to ensure the safety of the main highway between Damascus and Deraa and maintain a hold over parts of the latter city. He has also ordered his generals to retain Quneitra, the capital of the district bordering Israel, as well as the stretch of Druze villages to the north along the eastern slopes of Mount Hermon. So far, the regime has managed to achieve these goals and does not seem worried about losing its grip on the rest of the region, which has little strategic significance for the outcome of the current struggle.
The regime is also keen on keeping the southern Druze community out of the fight. Based mainly on Mount Druze east of Deraa, this community could play a major role in shaping realities on the ground in the south. For now, it prefers to sit on the fence until Assad’s prospects of survival are clarified. Traditionally, though, Syrian Druze have special ties to the Hashemite court in Jordan and were once considered by Israeli strategist Gen. Yigal Allon as natural future allies of the Jewish state.
For their part, Israel and Jordan share similar interests in southern Syria. King Abdullah II is no less worried about the possible appearance of numerous al-Qaeda militants along his border. Accordingly, Amman is cultivating an array of local militias close to the long frontier with Syria, taking advantage of the fact that many inhabitants of southern Syria and northern Jordan belong to the same tribes. There are also many reports -- repeatedly dismissed by Jordanian authorities -- of a clandestine “operations room” in Amman where Jordanian military and intelligence officers coordinate military assistance to local rebel groups alongside Saudi and Western advisors. If such reports are correct, the Israeli part of the effort should be viewed as complementing but not necessarily coordinated with the Jordanian endeavor.
In all likelihood, the inability of al-Qaeda affiliates to seize the leading role in the south is due not only to alleged Israeli or Jordanian involvement, but also to the jihadists’ preoccupation with the war in the north, where ISIS has been battling with the Islamic Front and rival group Jabhat al-Nusra (backed by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri) in recent weeks in addition to fighting the regime. Yet ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have dramatically increased their strength -- according to Israeli intelligence estimates, they now total 40,000 men. If they launched a concerted effort to extend their foothold to the south, they would pose a major test to local militias that have yet to be seriously challenged. In that scenario, Israel and Jordan would have to decide whether to sit idly while al-Qaeda becomes entrenched along their borders.
In light of these concerns, preventing the southward expansion of extremist Islamist groups is becoming a larger priority in tackling the overall Syrian problem. If al-Qaeda affiliates take charge of the regions bordering Israel and Jordan, new terrorist threats would arise, potentially exporting Syria’s bloodshed to its neighbors. Such a development would give al-Qaeda freedom of action over a vast area stretching from west of Baghdad to southern Syria. Put another way, the organization would have achieved its long-sought objective: a front with Israel.
By David Schenker
January 30, 2014
Tuesday, during the State of the Union Address, President Obama boasted that “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” The assertion was premature. In early January, Syria’s Bashar Assad regime indeed started the process of transferring its chemical weapons arsenal abroad. To date it’s destroyed only 5 percent of its unconventional arsenal and it’s unlikely Damascus will finish the job. Despite international commitments to the contrary, precedent suggests that Assad will retain a residual supply for future contingencies.
Like North Korea and Libya -- which famously violated international obligations on weapons of mass destruction -- there is good reason to believe that Syria will cheat on its own agreement with the United Nations to fully dispose of its chemical weapons arsenal.
Three years into a popular uprising that has left 130,000 dead, in August Assad gassed nearly 1,500 men, women, and children with Sarin. Facing international pressure, in September Damascus signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and allowed the U.N. to start a process of cataloguing, removing, and destroying CW facilities, weapons, and precursor chemicals.
A month later, Secretary Kerry praised Syrian “compliance” and called the disarmament a “credit to the Assad regime.” But the honeymoon won’t last. In just 13 years in power, Syria under Bashar Assad has established a prodigious track record of reneging on promises and violating international agreements.
Assad’s subterfuge started three years after coming to power, when in February 2003 then Secretary of State Colin Powell travelled to Damascus and secured a commitment from Assad to stop smuggling some 150,000 barrels of oil per day from Saddam’s Iraq. Syria never halted the imports, a violation of trust that later prompted Secretary Powell to say, “I will always have that lying in my background software and on my hard drive.”
Undeterred, months later Secretary Powell returned to Syria and cajoled Assad to shutter the offices and restrict the communications of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Powell reportedly called President Bush, awakening him in the middle of the night to inform him of his diplomatic achievement. Alas, as with the earlier oil pipeline promise, this Assad undertaking also proved insincere and the terrorist headquarters remained open for business.
Later that year following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Assad regime moved thousands of al Qaeda insurgents bent on killing American soldiers and Iraqi civilians across the border. During bilateral security talks with the U.S., Damascus vowed to secure the frontier but the jihadi pipeline never dried up.
To be sure, these deceptions complicated Washington’s Middle East policy. But while Syria’s misdeeds and Assad’s lies were annoying, they didn’t rise to the level of strategic concern -- until 2007. That year, Israel launched an airstrike against a target in northwestern Syria that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) later confirmed was a nuclear weapons facility.
The facility at Al Kibar had been built in contravention not only of Syria’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, but also in violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Safeguards Agreement to which Damascus is a signatory.
Syria’s egregious breach of its nuclear commitments and the regime’s subsequent obstruction of the IAEA investigation do not bode well for the international effort to denude Syria of its chemical weapons capabilities.
Not surprisingly, the accuracy of Syria’s inventory declaration to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is already in question. According to the OPCW, for example, the Assad regime declared “approximately 1,000 metric tons” of binary chemical weapons precursors, a number that seems too oddly coincident with Secretary Kerry’s earlier formulation that that Syria “has “about a thousand metric tons” of these agents. (Is it possible that U.S. intelligence assessments are so precise?) Likewise, according to non-proliferation experts, given the size and scope of the CW program, the fact that the Assad regime declared absolutely no filled chemical munitions is a glaring red flag.
At present, it is too soon to tell whether the Assad regime is violating its chemical weapons commitments. After having killed so many Syrians with conventional armaments, it’s difficult to see why the Assad regime would see a need to retain a residual chemical arsenal. Perhaps over the past 13 years, Bashar has come to understand that there is no cost associated with cheating.
Indeed, objectively speaking, the use of chemical weapons has changed the dynamic on the ground in Syria and in the international community, effectively strengthening the Assad regime. Not only did the regime avoid a promised U.S. military strike, as UN Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi noted in October, the chemical weapons deal transformed Assad from a “pariah” into a “partner.”
In the coming months -- even as Damascus continues its genocidal war against its political opponents -- more blandishments are sure to be lavished on Assad. The regime will be praised for fulfilling its commitments, and the rebels may even be condemned for undermining security and delaying the disarmament process. And eventually, the U.N. -- and the Obama administration -- will pronounce Syria free of chemical weapons.
Shortly after the agreement was reached to steal Assad’s chemical arsenal out of Syria, Secretary of State Kerry sought to preempt critics of the deal. “We’re not just going to trust and verify,” he assured, “We’re going to verify, and verify, and verify.” Alas, because the Chemical Weapons Convention provides signatories the right to manage access to facilities and does not mandate intrusive inspections, verification is at best a relative term. And then, of course, there is the matter of Assad’s penchant for lying.
At the kickoff of the Geneva II peace conference on January 22, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moualem told U.N. secretary general Ban Ki Moon, “Syria always keeps its promises.” Western governments should know better. When it comes to keeping international obligations, Syria’s Bashar Assad regime seldom keeps its promises. Given the absence of consequences for pursuing nuclear and deploying chemical weapons, the inescapable takeaway for Assad is that when it comes to dictators and WMD, the old aphorism that “winners never cheat and cheaters never win” doesn’t apply.