On a scorching August day in 2011, in the city of Homs, the Syrian conflict nearly swallowed Monzer Darwish. The 23-year-old graphic designer, who grew up in nearby Hama, had stopped at a cafe with his fiancée, only to take cover in the establishment at the sound of screaming outside. When they finally ventured into the street, they heard a pop—pop, pop, and someone fell. Then everyone ran. “The whole street was literally on fire,” he recalled.
Fleeing the violence, Darwish wrestled with the kinds of questions many face during war. What do you do if you don’t want to take a side? If you don’t want to take up arms? If you want to keep your community from being torn apart? If you can’t escape? Many of his friends found themselves in a similar situation, and they sought emotional refuge through music, even live heavy-metal concerts near the frontlines. Reconnecting with these peers, Darwish decided to film how this alternative community—musicians and fans alike—was surviving amid the country’s three-year civil war.
Heavy metal, with its macabre poetry, thundering elegies, and violent moshing, has often resonated with young people and helped them express solidarity with one another during periods of political and social tension. But Darwish wanted to show how Syria’s “metal heads” and alternative youth, like their peers in Iraq and Afghanistan, are turning to the music not only as a way to cope with mass trauma, but also as a means of conducting a brutally honest dialogue about how to survive war and reform society.
The result: a rockumentary called Syrian Metal Is War. For much of the last year, Darwish has crisscrossed the country to film every metal musician he can find. He’s uploaded a trailer to YouTube, and he hopes to screen a rough cut of the full film in Beirut by late spring.
Read more. [Image: Daniel J. Gerstle]
Last weekend marked the third anniversary of Syria’s civil war, a conflict that has, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, claimed the lives of more than 146,000 people, at least a third of them civilians. As forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appear to be making slow progress against rebel forces, the humanitarian crisis has grown astronomically — as many as 2.5 million Syrians have now fled the country. Fractured rebel groups continue to fight each other, as well as Assad’s troops, with civilians bearing the brunt of attack and counterattack, their neighborhoods reduced to rubble by mortar shells and barrel bombs. Gathered here are images from Syria over the past few months.
My father, Omar Rabbat, passed away in November 2013, before the revolution that became a civil war in Syria had completed its third year. He died outside his beloved country and was buried in a small village in Lebanon, less than 20 miles from the Syrian border. Toward the end of his life, his anguish had become more poignant, and he expressed it in ever more desperate ways. The stroke that finally killed him paralyzed half his body and slurred his speech. “What is hurting you most?” a visiting cardiologist asked him at one point. “The crisis in Syria,” he replied, in a faint voice.
My father, who was almost 90 years old, was one of the last survivors of a Syrian generation that witnessed independence but never managed to complete the project of state-building. He was born to a mercantile family in Damascus in 1924, four years after the French occupied the country, and grew up under colonial rule.
Read more. [Image: Nasser Rabbat]
Yarmouk residents gather to await a food distribution from UNRWA in Damascus, Syria.
UNRWA’s Commissioner General, Filippo Grandi entered Yarmouk camp during the resumption of UNRWA’s humanitarian aid distribution this morning. He was shocked by the condition of the Palestine refugees he spoke to and the extent of war damage done to homes. - UNRWA
SYRIA, ALEPPO : A Syrian fruit vendor waits for customers next to a damaged building on February 24, 2014 in the Shaar neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo. More than 140,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Syria’s nearly three-year war, and millions more have been forced to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED AL-KHATIEB
Even the most brutal wars feature flickers of common humanity. Late last year, I wrote about World War I’s famous “Christmas Truce,” when tens of thousands of soldiers on the Western Front marked the holiday by ditching their weapons, emerging from the trenches, and fraternizing in No Man’s Land. On Monday, Syria may have had its own Christmas Truce moment—with the emphasis on may.
Reuters has released photos from the bombed-out, long-besieged, rebel-held town of Babila, just six miles south of Damascus, where a local ceasefire came into effect this week. The striking pictures show pro-government and opposition forces, who are currently locked in a three-year-old conflict that has left more than 130,000 people dead, mingling, embracing, and laughing together.
But even here, the bitter civil war has intruded on the heartwarming scene. The images were taken during a guided tour for journalists by the Syrian military. And Reuters reports that pro- and anti-government figures have expressed outrage about the show of goodwill, with some opposition fighters in the Damascus suburbs arguing that the pictures were staged and that the rebels depicted “were actually pro-Assad militias dressed to look like opposition fighters. Others claim the interactions were authentic. “[T]here was no way to confirm the identity of those photographed,” the news agency notes.
Read more. [Image: Khaled al-Hariri]
This weekend, on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, John McCain reacted to the failure of the latest round of Syrian peace talks by declaring that the Obama administration’s “policy towards Syria has been an abysmal failure and a disgraceful one.”
It’s a common refrain for the Republican senator, one often accompanied by praise for the Gulf states’ comparatively greater and less cautious support of the Syrian rebels. “Thank God for the Saudis. Thank God for the Qataris,” he said at the Munich Security Conference this year. This time around, McCain said that there are viable options other than U.S. military intervention that Washington is not pursuing in Syria. But he failed to articulate them, with the exception of further boosting the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Notwithstanding the question of how the Saudis and Qataris feel about McCain thanking his God for their work, the senator is mistaken in thinking that the core interests of the Gulf states align with America’s. In Syria, as in Iraq, the Saudis see the conflict as a case in which fellow Sunnis have come under siege, which explains the kingdom’s support for hardcore Sunni Islamist fighters throughout the region. Saudi Arabia just announced that it will supply Syrian rebels with mobile anti-aircraft missiles, something that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey has strongly resisted.
Read more. [Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic]
Social media was one of the first refuges for Syria’s non-violent activists. Now they’re getting kicked off.
Read more. [Image: Hamid Khatib/Reuters]
As Syrian peace talks continue, women in refugee camps face a lack of basic resources and the loss of a structured community.
Read more. [Image: Muhammed Hamed/Reuters]
With the rise of al-Qaeda, increasingly repressive regimes, and weak, even collapsing states, the Arab Spring is looking more and more like a nightmare for U.S. security interests. Perhaps, then, it makes some sense that the Obama administration would increase security assistance to the Middle East, from 69 percent of the total budget request for 2014 to 80 percent. However, this also entails a significant reduction in democracy assistance to the region, which will drop from $459.2 million to $298.3 million. Congress might further deepen these cuts.
But to look at this as a security problem risks conflating cause and effect. Today’s Middle East is a product, at least in part, of failed democratization, and one of the reasons it failed was the timid, half-hearted support of the Obama administration.
Read more. [Image: Reuters/Louafi Larbi]