Confused about Syria? A recommended reading list, mostly from Syrians.

I re-read my own Medium article, ‘Doing nothing to protect Syrians and uphold IHL has consequences for everyone, not just for Syrians’, from a month ago, and realized one way to make it shorter would be to have made my recommended reading list at the end into a separate article, so here it is.

A previous version of this article, yesterday, was three times longer. I’ve now sub-divided it into three articles. The second part is Contradictory propaganda storylines for different audiences of Assad’s supporters; and the third part is Information warfare about Syria and its global effects.

If you’re unsure what to believe about Syria now and nervous about asking at this late stage because of the info/ disinfo battlefield and fear that some people might pounce on you too hard for honestly but mistakenly believing something which is actually false, I suggest start with reading this list.

This is not a comprehensive reading list about Syria back to 2011, because if I attempted that it would necessarily be far too long for an article and hardly anyone would read it then. So the two points of emphasis in this reading list are: i) the situation in Ghouta specifically, and especially recently, and ii) the global hybrid (kinetic x propaganda) warfare character of the mass atrocities in Syria and the global long-term consequences of doing nothing to stop it.

Just one brief FAQs about the whole situation back to 2011-

Speech of Abu Imad al-Minashed, a Ghouta resident, at a meeting with UN aid workers when they entered with the first delivery of food aid after five years of siege by the regime, transcribed and translated by Rami Jarrah, and now with subtitles on the video-

“We refuse any sort of displacement. The displacement policy is not welcome here. The Aleppo scenario will not happen in the Eastern Ghouta. Today, we call on the United Nations to execute Resolution 2401, and our message to Mr. Guterres, the children of Ghouta die by your silence, Mr. Guterres. And to UNICEF, who made a statement to the world, saying they couldn’t find words to describe what is happening in Eastern Ghouta. With all the alphabets in the world they were unable to describe. An empty statement, they were unable to describe Assad’s crimes.

Yesterday, I buried a child. His name was Qusay Shab. We are being shelled with chemical weapons, and today Russia. Mr. Alexander, I ask that you get this message to Mr. Guterres. Tell him we are being killed, with Russian missiles, with the policy to horrify, and with the policy of burning our land. Twenty times you have come here, running back and forth with “aid”. We do not want aid. Nor do we want bread. We were a people of freedom, and we are still determined to get our freedom from this tyrant, Bashar al-Assad. We will not retreat.

Assad excuses himself by accusing us of attacking Damascus. We attack Damascus? Our brothers and sisters and children are in Damascus. The UN knows very well whose planes are attacking in Damascus. We are against anyone being shelled. Not one shell on a civilian. Whether they are Alawites, or Sunnis, or Kurds.

Unlike the world that expressed outrage for the children of Kobani, the entire world, is the blood of the children of Ghouta, cheaper than the blood of the children of Kobani? Neither humans nor animals are treated like this. We just want to live normally for 24 hours.

You ask yourself why I am speaking this way. This is from my pain. I am a student of freedom, and we called for it peacefully. Assad the tyrant forced us to fight with such weapons [holds up missile]. These are not ours. Assad used these weapons on us. This is how they respond to those that want freedom. I ask that you stand with us. Mr. Alexander, please get our message out.” (translated transcript thanks to unknown translator and via Dick Gregory)

Muzna Duried of the Syrian Political Feminist Movement writes about her friend Bayan Rehan, head of the Women’s Office at the Douma Local Council in Ghouta-

Rukia Alshamy, 6 April, about living under Assad’s ‘Kneel or Starve’ policy (“al-Jou’ ‘au al-Rokou”, “الجوع أو الركوع”) (added to this list later):

Nur Alhuda Hijazi about her experience inside the Assad regime’s jails —

Bahira al-Zarier and Tariq Adely of Syria Direct interviews with some residents and former residents of East Ghouta now forcibly displaced:

Hashem Osseiran and Youmna al-Dimashqi in News Deeply —

Leila Sibai, Swiss-Syrian —

“The regime’s policy of systematic forced eviction from besieged areas raises two fundamental questions: what will happen to the people, and what will happen to the territory?

In the case of Ghouta both remain unclear. The people cannot stay, but have nowhere to go to. The fate of the territories regained by the regime is worth discussing in light of the regime’s underlying strategy of ethnic cleansing and demographic change under which forced eviction takes place.”

“I am now spending my last farewell moments with my city, Douma, and I am leaving it hoping to return one day,” said an activist who planned to leave on Tuesday aboard the buses. “The bombing and destruction that we lived through for seven years has been concluded. All the masks have fallen.

“I have no choice, and my heart is aching with sadness at leaving my city, my small home, my street and its kind people.”

“I’m packing my personal documents in case there is a chance for me to study again. I’m packing all the videos and photos I collected that we took of the city. These are the last memories that we have. There’s something we cannot take with us. We cannot take our families who are buried in the ground.”

Syrian civil society’s open letter ‘Stop Pretending You Can’t Do Anything to Save Syrians’, originally published in the New York Review of Books on 27 February 2018, republished on Pulse now with more subscribers —

214 chemical attacks in Syria since 2011 by the Assad regime

Map shows the distribution of 214 chemical attacks carried out by the #SyrianRegime across Syrian governorates from the use of #ChemicalWeapons in Dec 2012 until Mar 10, 2018

There Assad regime coalition (Dr Zaher Sahloul tweet) has used all kinds of chemical weapons against Syrians: choking (chlorine and mustard gas), nervous (sarin) and incendiary (white phosphorous and napalm), but only nerve gas agents seem to merit an international response.

The Russian regime has also used fuel-air-mixture munitions in Syria for killing people hiding underground, which cause a vacuum effect that rips people’s lungs out. People hiding underground during bombings are very unlikely to be active combatants. The use of such weapons therefore implies the intention to target civilians, or at least indiscriminate targeting.

reported 161 chemical attacks up to February 2016 —

“International efforts to deter chemical attacks in Syria in the year since the devastating sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017, have been ineffective, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch has collated and analyzed evidence of chemical weapons attacks in Syria between August 21, 2013, the day of the deadliest chemical weapon attack in Syria to date, and February 25, 2018, when the Syrian government used chlorine in the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta.”

In October 2017, the Russian regime representative in the UNSC vetoed extending the funding for the UN commission to continue investigating chemical weapons uses in Syria —

If the Assad regime coalition were really not responsible for the latest chemical attack in Douma and wanted to prove it credibly to the world, there is a really simple solution available — allow the UN and OPCW inspectors in immediately to observe and record the evidence. Of course they will not do that, because the regime is existentially dependent on performative lying.

I really don’t know why chemical weapons are treated in international politics as if they are categorically worse than conventional weapons used to commit atrocity crimes. Presumably it’s something about their potential to be exported and used internationally and affect the countries owned by the P5?

Chemical attack in Douma on 7 April

Dr Zaher Sahloul of Syrian American Medical Society who are supporting local medics working in Douma —

Video by Bilal Abdul Salah of the impact site and remains of the bomb which carried the chemical substance used in yesterday’s attack, via Elliot Higgins —

Firas estimates that there are about 170,000 civilians remaining trapped in Douma still —

Doing nothing to protect Syrians and to uphold international humanitarian law has serious global and long-term consequences.

The whole situation now is very dangerous, not just for Syrians but for all of us, because long-term really our security and their security cannot be separated. Allowing actions such as the Assad regime coalition in Syria have demonstrated to continue becoming the new normal will necessarily spread. Norms are inherently systematic and know no national borders.

Sorting facts from propaganda is genuinely hard when the public sphere is so structurally distorted and heavily polluted as it is now. ‘Distorted’ means social media personalisation algorithms treat ‘truth’ as if it was a private consumer good that could emerge from a ‘free market of ideas’ (merely ‘free’ from external constraints), ranked according to the aggregate of individual consumers’ subjective preferences and beliefs, with the only objectivity being the individual consumer’s sentiments. There is no value of the objectivity of others represented in the personalisation algorithms which curate our news. Most propaganda sites are covertly associated with the regimes they support and pretend to be ‘independent’ in order to fake independent corroboration. Most people fall for such simple tricks, repeatedly, even after it’s pointed out.

Senior (typically, mostly elderly) ‘experts’ (e.g. Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh) have repeatedly shown themselves to be biased by Orientalist and Islamophobic racist assumptions, which were normal in their generation, and many people, particularly of the baby-boomer generation, are predisposed to believe the Russian propaganda about Syria because of that.

People naturally over-estimate unfamiliar risks compared to familiar risks, and that includes an irrational bias that discounts the risks of inaction. Simply put — appeasement has consequences too, continuing to not react adequately has serious risks. When you compare risks and costs of options, don’t weigh the risks of acting against nothing, as if doing nothing meant no risks.

We face serious long-term global consequences from our inaction on two fronts:

  1. Continuing revanchist aggressive military (kinetic) and information-psychological attacks on Western (‘Atlanticist’) societies and States, which undermine democratic values and norms, inspiring support from populist and nationalist movements, which too many ‘Liberal’ politicians and governments have compromised with in misguided attempts to appease;
  2. Increasing recruitment to extremist and terrorist groups, because people who have been forced beyond desperation for years, who are deeply traumatised and left abandoned indefinitely in often degrading and re-traumatising displaced people’s camps are more susceptible to extremist narratives, and we are effectively providing material for propaganda to aid the enemy whenever our governments have failed to target as convincingly carefully as possible avoiding civilians and civilian vital infrastructure.

Point 1 and 2 are also connected: Western publics and most politicians seriously underestimate the extent that seemingly ‘Islamist extremist’ groups committing terrorist crimes in Europe, are infiltrated and sometimes directed by Assadi, Iranian and Russian intelligence agencies (see references here).

Syrian-led civil news sources

جريدة عنب بلدي Enab Baladi​ (women-led media cooperative) 
الجمهورية al-Jumhuriya​ (typically the most intellectual) 
Syria Direct سوريا على طول​
Orient News English
Rising For Freedom Magazine 
الرقة تذبح بصمت Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently​

Syrian Revolution Arts | فنون الثورة السورية
The Creative Memory — الذاكرة الإبداعية​
Abounaddara Films​

Syria Deeply (part of News Deeply)
Hummus For Thought — Syria and the Left series
EA Worldview
Global Voices
SyriaSources.org — a more complete list than this one.

I can no longer recommend the Guardian in this list since they persist in publishing a mixture of excellent news reporting from Syria, and ‘Opinion’ pieces from ignorant arrogant pompous, mostly old, white men, who know nothing about what they’re talking about but presume they are entitled to opine about subjects on which their ignorant opinions if followed would cause thousands of deaths, and indefinite misery and despair for millions of people.

Recommended books, films and audio

Syria — The Impossible Revolution 2017 (film) (on Amazon)

Short free podcast interview with the Irrelevant Arabs about his book —

“drawing on hundreds of hours of war footage from Syrian activists and citizen journalists, as well as testimony from child protestors, leaders of the revolution, human rights defenders, ordinary citizens, and high-ranking army generals who defected from the government, their collective stories are a cry for attention and help from a world that little understands their reality or agrees on what to do about it.”

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