Of Broken Promises and Barrel Bombs and Two Brave Syrian Boys

Kilis, Turkey

My afternoon was graced by 13-year-old Ahmed and ten-year-old Nizar, a pair of courageous Syrian boys, who were torn to pieces by barrel bombs dropped on Aleppo and Homs. Ahmed is now paralyzed from the chest down: he has only recently started to use his hands and arms, but the rest of his fractured body will be forever useless. When he arrived in Turkey he was angry and inconsolable but thanks to the compassion and expertise of Syrian refugee doctors, he is now engaging and plays games on a tablet. He flashed me a thumbs up. Nizar lost his right arm; his left is in poor shape with bright scarlet wounds and holes where you can see the tendons. He helps the adult patients in the field hospital where both boys are recuperating. He is bright and open and affectionate and does not complain, I was told. What is the future for these boys? I read today an article that mixes half-truths and nonsense by Robert Fisk, who distorts the war in Syria to bash America. He says there are no good guys in this conflict so best to leave alone and let Assad remain. I hear Donald Trump say send all Syrians back to Syria because they are jihadists. But Ahmed and Nizar are the good guys; the Syrian doctors trying to help them are the good guys, and the Syrians who four years ago protested repression and asked for a modicum of freedom are the good guys. What they have got in return for their request for dignity are barrel bombs and broken bodies, blasted fathers and mothers and daughters and sons, Daesh, Cruise missiles from Russia, and broken promises from the West.

Islamic State Poised to Benefit from Refugee Crisis

From my latest VOA report — you can find it here: “The refugee crisis roiling Europe presents a win-win opportunity for Islamic State (IS) extremists, says international terrorism research consultancy TRAC.

By hiding among thousands of asylum-seekers, the Islamist militants can expand their operational presence in Europe, the consortium of analysts warned in a briefing released Thursday.

And if any of their infiltrated members are caught, the backlash could help radicalize disaffected European Muslims.

Despite fears that IS is exploiting the refugee crisis to infiltrate Europe by disguising members as asylum-seekers, only six cases have so far been reported. Analysts, however, say the apparently meager numbers shouldn’t be a cause for relief or a source of complacency — a point echoed by European intelligence officials who VOA spoke to on condition of anonymity.

Europe’s Far Right Seek to Inflame Nativist Sentiments

Mustafa is not unusual among the refugee fathers, husbands and sons placing their lives in the hands of people smugglers and making the short, but dangerous, sea crossing alone from Turkey to Greece, and then enduring a long and uncertain slog on land up through the Balkans or Hungary via Austria to Germany.

He has been watching the television news showing Hungarian and Macedonian border guards beating refugees, and has heard stories from relatives who have made it to Europe of running the gauntlet of brutal traffickers and getting robbed on the road.
The images and stories have confirmed his view that the trip is not one his daughter should share.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, the majority of those from the Mideast streaming into Europe are men, prompting some anti-immigrant and anti-Islam campaigners to argue that the continent is not facing a simple refugee crisis, but a migration designed to Islamize Europe.

At far right rallies in Germany, that imbalance is highlighted by anti-immigrant speakers and protesters alike as clear evidence that the migration crisis in Europe is a jihadist plot that will end up changing the face of European culture.

For my full report on how Europe’s far right is inflaming nativist sentiments click here.


No End In Sight for Syria

In the immediate wake of the Iran nuclear deal there was a flurry of diplomacy involving Washington, Moscow and Tehran with talk that the time might be right to hammer out an agreement to end Syria’s four-year-long civil war. But with renewed commitments from Iran and Russia to shore up President Bashar al-Assad there seems no end in sight for the ruinous war of attrition that has left an estimated 240,000 people dead.

No one is budging their hard-held positions inside or outside Syria, despite the recognition by most parties involved that defeating the extremists of the Islamic State should be among the highest priorities — and that is unlikely to happen while the civil war rages.

For the West the mounting refugee crisis roiling Europe has added urgency to the search for some kind of resolution to the barbaric conflict.

Read my full VOA dispatch here.

The New Lords of Kobani

“For the 192,000 Kurds who fled either the town or the province lies with the military defenders themselves there are bureaucratic obstacles as well. Refugees require permission from Turkish authorities to cross back into Kobani and they also need the go-ahead from the Kurdish town administrators, all members of the autocratic Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian wing of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The administrators are sparing with permissions, arguing with some justification that the town is unsafe for civilians, but locals say there is favoritism in who gains permission and who is told they can’t return.

Many returnees chafe at the high-handedness of PYD bosses and the fighters of the self-defense force, the YPG, essentially the PYD’s armed wing, which they complain is on open display on the streets of the ruined town. “The fighters do what they like and no one can say anything to them, if they order you to do something or not to do something, you can’t say no or argue that it isn’t right,” says Ali, a mustached retiree.”

Read my full Daily Beast report here on what is happening now in Kobani.

ISIS Threatens Syrian Rebel Supply Lines From Turkey

Islamic extremists overran three towns in northern Syria this weekend, capturing them from Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels and Islamist brigades as Syrian warplanes struck widely across the north of the country, dropping barrel bombs on towns controlled by both competing insurgent groups.

Despite FSA claims that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, were coordinating their attacks, two of the biggest barrel bombs were dropped on the town of Al Bab, controlled by Islamic State.

Read my full VOA dispatch here

A Jihadist Hug Before Being Stoned to Death

“First there were embraces and then the barbaric execution by stoning. Photographs of hugs that jihadists gave a condemned gay couple before killing them in north Syria have gone viral, prompting outrage in the West. For Islamic State sympathizers and members tweeting their responses, the hugs of death are a meant as an expression of compassion, a gesture of forgiveness—before the gruesome reality of their murder.”

From my latest piece for the Daily Beast chronicling the twisted minds of Islamic State enforcers. Read it here.

Hello Washington Post

So nice to see the Washington Post catching up.

This was my dispatch for the Daily Beast posted February 6 on signs of internal fraying within ISIS.

“The propagandists of the putative Islamic State would have you believe it is just one big happy family, righteously slaughtering apostates, enslaving women (literally), beheading and burning alive its prisoners, all in the name of God. But quarrels over a range of issues—from divvying up of the spoils of war to competition over women and, yes, the handling of foreign hostages—point to a lot of trouble beneath the surface of this terror army…

Punitive killings, the flight of some senior ISIS commanders, and the execution of more than 60 foreign fighters who wanted to leave in recent days risk provoking more flare-ups, say residents who recently escaped Raqqa.”

Today — a month later — the Post today reports:

“The Islamic State ­appears to be starting to fray from within, as dissent, defections and setbacks on the battlefield sap the group’s strength and erode its aura of invincibility among those living under its despotic rule.

Reports of rising tensions between foreign and local fighters, aggressive and increasingly unsuccessful attempts to recruit local citizens for the front lines, and a growing incidence of guerrilla attacks against Islamic State targets suggest the militants are struggling to sustain their carefully cultivated image as a fearsome fighting force drawing Muslims together under the umbrella of a utopian Islamic state.”

Qatar: Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds

Qatar’s authorities were quick to condemn earlier this month the burning alive of captured Jordanian pilot Muadh al Kasasbeh. One would expect that from a country that is a member of the international coalition arrayed against the Jordanian’s murderers — militants from the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

What one wouldn’t expect is that on the Friday before ISIS posted the horrific footage of the burning pilot a preacher sermonizing in Doha’s state-controlled Grand Mosque called for the destruction of the faithful of other religions. “Allah, strengthen Islam and the Muslims, and destroy your enemies, the enemies of the religion,” intoned invited preacher Saudi cleric Sa’ad Ateeq al Ateeq. “Allah destroy the Jews and whoever made them Jews, and destroy the Christians and Alawites and the Shiites.”

His comments wouldn’t have been out of place in ISIS-controlled Mosul or Raqqa.

Read here in my latest Daily Beast article about how there is no persuading Qatar to stop running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.


Italy to Return to Libya?


From my latest dispatch for VOA:

“The beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians by Islamic militants on the Libyan shore of the Mediterranean Sea, a short boat ride from Italy, has shaken Italians and is prompting a fierce debate here in Rome about what Italy can do to quell the anarchy engulfing its former colony.

Italians have watched with growing alarm for months the raging conflict in Libya between competing militias backing rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk. The main consequence for Italy has been a rising flow of illegal immigrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, attempting to cross the Mediterranean from the coast of Libya in rickety boats.

But now Italy worries that the rapid emergence of a jihadist group loyal to the so-called Islamic State spells new dangers – specifically, that jihadists might gain access to Italy by posing as illegal immigrants. The black-clad, masked executioners in the video posted Sunday on the Internet, which authorities here say is authentic, appeared to take pains to emphasize that Rome is indeed a target.”

Read full report here.