Heart of Syria


In the constant argument that is Middle East politics it is very rare to achieve anything like universal agreement, but no one can begrudge what Hazem Chehabi did.

He quit. 

Since Chehabi resigned last week as honorary consul general of Syria in Southern California, he has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls.

All positive.

For 18 years, Chehabi, an oncological radiologist in Newport Beach, has volunteered to act as Syria’s consul general here. His office handled travel documents and birth, marriage and death certificates for the thousands of expatriate Syrians living in the Western states.

When the Arab Spring started to rain down on the regime of Bashar Assad, activists in Orange County began to call on Chehabi to resign. They lodged complaints with the University of California, Irvine, whose UC Irvine Foundation board of trustees Chehabi chairs.

Chehabi, on principle, refused to step down. He believed he was serving the community he cared about — not the Assad regime — providing help that people needed to get on with their lives.

Then came Houla. On May 25, government-backed militiamen attacked the Syrian village and killed 108 people, of whom 49 were children. The victims were shot at close range, beaten or stabbed. Assad has denied his regime’s involvement, but no one, least of all the honorary consul general to Southern California, believes him.

I’ve known Hazem Chehabi for years. He is a soft-spoken, private man, not given to dramatics or bluster. As the situation in Syria deteriorated, he wrestled with — agonized over — how to continue to serve the local Syrian community without appearing to support the Assad regime. 

One of Chehabi’s major concerns, which he kept out of the public debate, was for his extended family and friends in Syria; he was deeply worried about what might happen to them if he stepped down.

But after Houla, there was no more doubt.

“I never thought of myself as a Syrian official,” he told me by phone on Monday. “There was always a distinction in my mind. I was a physician first, volunteering to perform a service for my fellow Syrians. But it got to the point that if there were any hint that what I did had anything to do with this regime, I couldn’t perform these duties.”

Chehabi doesn’t believe for a second Assad’s denial of involvement or responsibility for what happened in Houla.

“Everything I’ve heard suggests these people had ties to the government,” he said. “The government will say otherwise, and I expect them to say otherwise. There’s a pattern to terrorize the civilian population. It’s nothing less than ethnic cleansing.”

Chehabi’s father knew Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, and Chehabi himself has known the son for years; they’ve met on several occasions. The last time Chehabi was in Syria, at the start of the protests and crackdown there, he tried to meet with Bashir Assad, but, for the first time, his request was denied.

“At the time he took power, we had high hopes,” Chehabi said of Assad. “He was young, Western-educated, open-minded. I am very disappointed by how things turned out.”

I asked Chehabi if he still wasn’t concerned about how his resigning in protest would endanger his friends and family in Syria.

“I’ve thought about this for a long time,” he said. “I decided these people are not going to be any more precious to me than the average citizen who is suffering day in and day out. I had to do what I felt was moral. I’m concerned about my family, of course, but I’m also concerned about the average citizen suffering at the hands of this killing machine.”

When I asked whether Chehabi has heard a reaction to his resignation from his family in Syria, he was circumspect. “I have to be careful,” he said. “I’ve heard indirectly. The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

Now, Chehabi’s foremost concern is for Syria’s future.

He remains opposed to military intervention.

“It will make things worse,” he said. “It will lead to more bloodshed and flat-out civil war.”

Writing in this month’s Foreign Policy, the analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests the United States take the lead in creating “No Kill Zones” where Syrian citizens can live free of government shelling and attacks and even opposition violence. U.S. and other troops would enforce these NKZs with armed drones and aircraft. 

“I would like to think there’s a way to create these without weapons,” Chehabi said. “I’d like to think we can appeal to the conscience of the regime that at stake is the future of the country. If this continues, the Syria we know will cease to exist,  and what will emerge are mini states along sectarian lines.”

Chehabi now tells people requesting official documents to turn to the Syrian embassy in Washington, D.C., or the consulate in Detroit — a major inconvenience. 

“It’s too bad,” he said. “The country is bigger than the regime; it’s bigger than the government. You should be able to criticize the leader without being seen as criticizing the country.”

That freedom, of course, is what much of the struggle of the Arab Spring is about. And in Syria, it is far from over.

After Houla, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued yet more rote, ineffective condemnations.

Some people wonder what took Chehabi so long to act. I don’t. I wonder what’s taking our leaders so long.

Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter at @Foodaism.

Assad says Houla killings monstrous, crisis will end


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad condemned on Sunday the “abominable” massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, saying even monsters could not carry out such acts, and promised a 15-month-old crisis would end soon if Syrians pulled together.

Assad repeated earlier pledges to enforce a crackdown on opponents he says are terrorists carrying out a foreign conspiracy, while offering dialogue with opposition figures who had avoided armed conflict or outside backing.

His remarks were at odds with those of U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous – that army shelling killed many Houla victims and that pro-Assad militiamen probably killed the others, many of them women and children.

Assad made his comments in a speech to parliament, a rare public appearance one day after international envoy Kofi Annan said the specter of all-out civil war was growing in Syria and the world needed to see action, not words, from Syria’s leader.

In his hour-long address, Assad made no specific response to Annan’s plea for bold steps to end the conflict, and regional power Saudi Arabia accused him of using Annan’s peace plan to buy time for his military offensive against the rebels.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had urged Russia to push harder for “political transition” in Syria, language which Washington uses to mean ending Assad’s rule.

Thousands of people have been killed in a crackdown on protests which erupted in March last year and have become increasingly militarized, destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and raising fears of regional turmoil.

“This crisis is not an internal crisis. It is an external war carried out by internal elements,” said a relaxed-looking Assad. “If we work together, I confirm that the end to this situation is near.”

Dismissing worldwide criticism, which includes accusations from U.N. investigators that both government and rebel forces have committed gross human rights violations, the 46-year-old former eye surgeon drew parallels with his earlier profession.

When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound “do we say to him: ‘Your hands are covered in blood’?” Assad asked. “Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”

Last month’s massacre in Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, triggered global outrage and warnings that Syria’s relentless bloodshed – undimmed by Annan’s April 12 ceasefire deal – could engulf the Middle East.

Sunni Muslim powers, particularly wealthy Gulf Arab states, have strongly supported the uprising against Assad, an Alawite closely allied with Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah.

Western states accused Syrian armed forces and pro-Assad militia of responsibility for the May 25 Houla killings, a charge Damascus has denied.

Assad said the Houla killings and other bloody incidents were “ugly and abominable” massacres. “In truth even monsters do not perpetrate what we have seen, especially the Houla massacre,” he said.

SYRIA FACES “REAL WAR”

He said his country was facing a war waged from outside and that terrorism was escalating despite political steps including last month’s election for parliament, whose new members Assad was addressing.

“We are not facing a political problem because if we were this party would put forth a political program. What we are facing is (an attempt) to sow sectarian strife and the tool of this is terrorism,” Assad said. “The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside.”

Clinton, who held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, said she told Lavrov there was a need to “focus on a path forward for a political transition.”

“Assad’s departure does not have to be a precondition but it should be an outcome,” she told a news conference in Stockholm.

Russia has twice vetoed Security Council resolutions which could have led to U.N. action against Assad, and has backed his assertion that militants are to blame for Syria’s bloodshed.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has called for international efforts to arm Syrian rebels, said Assad was using Annan’s peace plan to buy time to crush rebels.

“We notice that each initiative presented…has been accepted by Syria but has not been implemented,” Prince Saud said. “I do not think that he will deal any differently with Annan’s initiative.”

He also accused Damascus of stoking sectarian tensions which recently spilled over into Lebanon, where Syria maintained a military presence for nearly three decades until it withdrew in 2005 under international pressure.

Fifteen people were killed in clashes on Saturday in the Mediterranean city of Tripoli, the worst violence to shake Lebanon since the start of Syria’s uprising.

“What happened in Tripoli is without doubt a continuation of what is happening in Syria,” Prince Saud said. “We have noticed for some time that the regime in Syria is trying to turn this into a sectarian struggle”.

In Syria itself nine civilians were killed on Sunday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. That followed the killings on Saturday of 33 civilians and 61 soldiers, the Observatory said, one of the highest death tolls for security forces since the unrest broke out.

Half the soldiers and security forces were killed in attacks on military armored vehicles in the northern town of Ariha in Idlib province, and in clashes near the central town of Rastan, the Observatory said.

Assad said authorities would maintain their crackdown on the armed opposition but were still ready for dialogue with political opponents.

“We will continue firmly confronting terrorism, leaving the door open for those who want to return. I urge those who are still hesitant to do so, to take this step. The state will not take revenge.”

His speech failed to win over sceptics. Abdelbaset Sida of the opposition Syrian National Council dismissed it as rhetoric.

“Assad wants to remain the head of a repressive system at all costs. He does not want to admit that his time his over and that the Syrian people do not want him,” he told Reuters by telephone from Istanbul.

Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, told an Arab League meeting in Qatar on Saturday that Assad must take “bold and visible” steps immediately to change his military stance and honor his commitment to cease violence.

Annan criticized Assad for failing to comply with a peace plan to end the conflict and said his forces were carrying out atrocities, arbitrary arrests and other abuses.

The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the crackdown. Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed Islamist militants it says have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security force members.

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut, Arshad Mohammed and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm, Asma Alsharif in Jeddah; writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Tim Pearce

United Nations: Syrian forces face prosecution for Houla


Syrian forces and pro-government militia accused of committing a massacre in Houla could face prosecution for crimes against humanity, the United Nations said on Friday and rights experts said Syrian authorities had directly ordered torture.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called again for the Security Council to refer Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and for world powers to help implement Kofi Annan’s peace plan to end the violence.

In a speech read out on her behalf to an emergency session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, she cited allegations that the Syrian military unleashed a barrage of heavy weapons on the town of Houla a week ago and that shabbiha groups killed dozens of the 106 victims, including women and children.

“These acts may amount to crimes against humanity and other international crimes and may be indicative of a pattern of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations that have been perpetrated with impunity,” she said.

Pillay, a former war crimes judge, added: “I reiterate that those who order, assist or fail to stop attacks on civilians are individually criminally liable for their actions.”

The Human Rights Council was set to call on Friday for a full U.N. inquiry into the massacre after putting initial blame on government bombardment and gunmen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, diplomats said.

It is the 47-member forum’s fourth special session on Syria in a year, raising pressure on his increasingly isolated government.

But Syria’s ambassador, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, accused 600-800 “terrorists” using Israel-made weapons of carrying out the slaughter in Houla so as to “ignite sectarian strife”.

A Syrian investigation was underway to identify the perpetrators and instigators of the killings, he said, adding: “We will submit their confessions to the whole world.”

Qatar, Turkey and the United States have submitted a draft resolution for adoption at the session. But the European Union has yet to endorse the text as it wants stronger wording, including a call to refer the case to the ICC, diplomats said.

The text condemns “the wanton killings of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse by pro-regime elements and a series of government artillery and tank shellings of a residential neighborhood”.

The Council, which has repeatedly condemned Syria for its crackdown, is likely to adopt the resolution by a wide margin, even if countries including China, Cuba and Russia may vote against it, as in the past, Arab and Western diplomats said.

“We hold the Syrian government fully responsible for the slaughter of innocent civilians in Houla,” U.S. ambassador Eileen Donahoe told the talks. “Those who committed these atrocities must be identified and held accountable.”

Separately, the U.N. Committee against Torture, in findings issued on Friday, said that Syrian forces and allied militias had tortured and mutilated civilians including children under “direct order” from Syrian authorities.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jon Boyle

U.N.’s Ban Ki-moon says bold steps needed to stop Syrian violence


The escalating violence in Syria shows the urgent need for the international community to take bolder steps, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference in Istanbul on Friday.

Ban voiced fears a day earlier that any repeat of the massacre of civilians a week ago in Houla could tip Syria into a civil war, and drag neighboring countries into a bloody sectarian conflict.

“If the escalating violence shows anything, it is that we urgently need bolder steps,” Ban told a news conference at the end of an international meeting on aid for Somalia.

Created by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Timeline: Violence in Syria


Following is a timeline of events in Syria since protests began.

2011

March 15 – About 40 people join a protest in Old Damascus, chanting political slogans in a brief first challenge to the ruling Baath Party before dispersing into side streets.

March 18 – Security forces kill three protesters in southern Deraa, residents say. The demonstrators were demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption.

March 22 – Hundreds of people march in Deraa and Nawa demanding freedom in the fifth straight day of demonstrations challenging the government.

March 24 – President Bashar al-Assad orders the formation of a committee to raise living standards and study scrapping the emergency law in place in Syria for the last 48 years.

March 25 – At least 200 people march in Damascus and there are reports of at least 23 dead around the country including, for the first time, in Damascus.

March 29 – Government resigns. Assad appoints Naji al-Otari, head of the government that stepped down, as caretaker prime minister. Thousands of Syrians hold pro-government rallies.

April 19 – Government passes bill lifting emergency rule.

July 31 – Syrian tanks storm Hama, residents say, after a month-long siege. At least 80 people are killed.

Demonstrators protest against Syria’s President Bashar Assad on Nov. 18, 2011. Photo by REUTERS

Sept. 15 – Syrian opposition activists announce a Syrian National Council to provide an alternative to government.

Nov. 12 – Arab League suspends Syria.

Dec. 7 – Assad denies ordering troops to kill peaceful demonstrators, telling U.S. television channel ABC only a “crazy” leader kills his own people.

Dec. 19 – Syria signs Arab League peace plan and agrees to let observers into the country to monitor the deal.

Dec. 23 – Twin suicide bombs target two security buildings in Damascus, killing 44 people. Syria blames al Qaeda while the opposition blames the government.

2012

Feb. 4 – Russia and China veto a resolution in U.N. Security Council, backed by Arab League, calling for Assad to step down. The General Assembly approves a resolution on Feb. 16 endorsing the Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside.

Feb. 22 – More than 80 people are killed in Homs including two foreign journalists. Hundreds of people have now been killed in daily bombardments of the city by Assad’s besieging forces.

Feb. 23 – Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is appointed U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria.

Feb. 24 – Foreign ministers from more than 50 countries meet in Tunis for the inaugural “Friends of Syria” meeting. Russia and China, allies of Syria, do not attend.

Feb. 28 – Assad decrees that a new constitution is in force after officials say nearly 90 percent of voters endorsed it in a Feb. 26 referendum. Opponents and the West dismiss it as a sham.

Syrian and Lebanese protesters in Wadi Khaled village, north Lebanon on April 1. Photo by REUTERS/Roula Naeimeh

March 1 – Syrian rebels pull out of the besieged Baba Amr district of Homs after more than three weeks of bombardment.

March 11 – Annan ends talks with Assad and leaves Syria with little sign of progress.

March 27 – Syria accepts the U.N.-sponsored peace plan.

April 1 – At second “Friends of Syria” meeting, Western and Arab nations warn Assad not to delay adopting the peace plan.

April 12 – U.N.-backed ceasefire comes into effect. Four days later monitors start their mission in Syria to oversee the ceasefire which is undermined by persistent violence.

May 7 – Syria says voters turned out in large numbers for a parliamentary election it sees as central to a reform program. Opposition supporters denounce the exercise as a sham.

May 10 – Annan condemns attacks in Damascus in which two bomb explosions kill 55 people and wound 372, damaging an intelligence complex involved in Assad’s crackdown. A week later U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he believes al Qaeda was responsible. He also says 10,000 people have now been killed.

May 25 – At least 108 people are killed, including many children, in attacks in the region of Houla in one of the bloodiest days of the conflict.

People gather at a mass burial for the victims purportedly killed during an artillery barrage from Syrian forces in Houla on May 26. Photo by REUTERS/Shaam News Network

May 27 – Security Council unanimously condemns the killings in Houla, confirmed by U.N. observers. Syria denies carrying out the massacre.

May 28 – Activists say Assad’s forces killed 41 people, including eight children, in an assault on Hama. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow is alarmed by the deaths but it is clear both Assad’s government and rebels are to blame.

May 29 – Annan says Syria is at a “tipping point” and appeals to Assad to act immediately to halt the violence.

May 30 – Rebels give Assad a 48-hour deadline to abide by the international peace plan or face consequences.

May 31 – Twelve workers are killed near the western town of al-Qusair when gunmen loyal to Assad ordered them off a bus and killed them, activists say. Syrian media blames “terrorists”.

June 1 – Annan says he is “frustrated and impatient” over the continuing killings and wants faster progress in resolving the crisis. On the same day, the U.N. Committee against Torture condemns the widespread use of torture and cruel treatment of detainees in Syria.

For an Interactive look at Syria click here.

Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit; Editing by Andrew Heavens