A junkyard brawl, a retreat and a calamity

Three scenes, on three continents on the same day; a junkyard brawl in America, a retreat in Geneva and a calamity in Syria

Hisham Melhem
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On Friday August 26, 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump continued their junkyard brawl, exchanging barbs and insults, with the Democratic nominee all but saying that her opponent is cavorting and sleeping with racists and therefore he is infested with racism, and the Republican nominee, an obtuse man who has never experienced or tried a moment of nuance, calling his opponent a “bigot.” Americans were watching a new low in the ugliest presidential campaign in memory. A few thousand miles away, across the Atlantic, through bucolic Switzerland and to a posh hotel in graceful Geneva, an obscene scene was being repeated for the duo John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov have just brought their traveling show to town to add a new act to their never ending monologues and soliloquies on Syria. The Russian foreign minister gave his usual snake oilman’s pitch, demanding more concessions and giving promises he never intends to keep, as he has been doing for five years. The American secretary of state, an eternal believer in turning words into miracles, spoke about achieving incremental progress and more “clarity” toward the last act in the play when peace is achieved in Syria, before the fall of the final curtain. It was classic Kerry in denial. It was another classic retreat, for a diminishing administration intent on marking time until the end of its term, oblivious to the desolation brought about by the pulverizing death machines of Assad’s regime and his Russian and Iranian accomplices and their proxy marauders to Syrian cities and almost to every Syrian heart and soul.

Moving eastward, we find Darayya, a suburb of Damascus that has been ravaged systematically and brutally by the Assad regime for five years. Here, a few thousand civilians and hundreds of fighters, after enduring a medieval style siege, decided to accept exile, or more accurately were ethnically cleansed. Women and children stood in the rubble strewn streets crying and hugging each other, wondering what will become of them, or what the fate of their fathers, brothers and sons will be. In previous such evacuations, many men disappeared. The calamity happening in Darayya was a universe away from the theatre of the absurd in Geneva, and the ugly American presidential junkyard brawl where those exchanging poisonous stabs never mentioned Darayya.

A Syrian Dresden

It was emblematic of the war in Syria that the cleansing of Darayya was taking place without the presence or supervision of international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross and without written and binding agreement. Valerie Szybala, a researcher working for a non-profit group, captured the chilling reality of those leaving Darayya when she told Roy Gutman, the intrepid reporter of the Daily Beast, “you know the situation is bad when you hope that it is ethnic cleansing, and that the population will be safely moved elsewhere instead of killed, arrested, and abused, as we have seen in past forcible surrender situations.” One hopes that her guarded observation - that those being evacuated from Darayya will indeed escape collective punishment or worse – comes true.

It was ironic that the Assad regime achieved a tactical victory in Darraya mere days after a yearlong investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons accused Syrian government troops of carrying out bombing raids using toxic gas

Hisham Melhem

The battle for Darayya was both epic and savage. The fighters defending the sprawling suburbs that were once home to more than 200,000 inhabitants belonged to the Free Syrian Army and their resistance was fierce against the relentless land and aerial assaults. The Syrian regime’s barrel bombs and artillery turned Darayya into a Syrian Dresden, with row after row of demolished buildings and dwellings, schools and hospitals ruined as testimony to a despot’s cruelty. But unlike Dresden and other German cities firebombed and eviscerated by the allies in the Second World War, which were relatively quickly rebuilt, it is unlikely that Darayya, and its pulverized sister cities like Aleppo and Homs, will be rebuilt and resettled any time soon.

It was ironic that the Assad regime achieved a tactical victory in Darraya mere days after a yearlong investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons accused Syrian government troops of carrying out bombing raids using toxic gas. Once again, Assad has crossed Obama’s mythical “Red Line” with impunity.

The father of the roses

Twenty-one years ago, during the Balkan war, Serb forces stormed the Bosnian city of Srebrenica and massacred 8,000 Muslim men. The massacre, the largest in Europe since the Holocaust, horrified the world and led an embarrassed Clinton administration to intervene militarily and lead a NATO aerial campaign against Serbia. The Syrian despot was careful not to commit a single large massacre on the scale of Srebrenica, but many a times the harvest of bloodshed in a month would be equal to one Srebrenica or more. Assad has committed many small-scale Srebrenicas in Syria in the last five years. There was a cunningly rational method to Assad’s mass murders. He began to militarize the response to the peaceful demonstrations through the gradual escalation of brutality while initially keeping a wary eye on the American president. Assad took measure of President Obama and immediately realized that Washington will only throw sharp words at him. The machine guns gave way to heavy artillery and the use of Scud missiles gave way to the use of fixed wing bombers until the regime settled on its preferred military grinder; barrel bombs unleashed from high flying Russian made helicopters.

Despite all the savagery of the war, the mass killings of the regime, the depredations and the brutality of ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front against civilians, one can always find a rose in the desolation, affirming life and love, passion and compassion. In besieged cities and small hamlets, local Coordination Committees thrived and were very creative during the first phase of the uprising, stressing peaceful ways of resistance and organizing the local communities to cope with the social, economic and political imperatives of the struggle. Artists, musicians, cartoonists and journalists became an integral part of an active civil society fighting on multiple fronts. Some of Syria’s best and brightest belonged to these groups, which explains the regime’s harsh repression. The regime’s henchmen kidnapped, killed and tortured these symbols of resistance.

There were also plenty of ordinary individual warriors who fought the good fight in their own way. The always eloquent columnist Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote a moving column on August 25th titled “America’s retreat and the agony of Aleppo.” He covered the same terrain that some of us cover regularly, albeit he did it more lyrically and more effectively. Who talks about Aleppo at dinner parties in London, Paris, Berlin or even in Washington he asks? He lamented the short attention span of the world which is usually moved when it is forced to see Syria’s children drowning in the Mediterranean Sea when they leave, or dying by barrel bombs if they stay.

Towards the end of his column, Cohen introduces us to the last florist in Aleppo and his teenage son, interviewed in a moving television report by Britain’s Channel 4. The florist is nicknamed Abu al-Ward the father of the roses who runs the last garden center in Aleppo with his 13-year-old son Ibrahim. Abu al-Ward plants and sells roses as a way of affirming life in the middle of devastation. Even the ugly sounds of bombing raids are transformed by Abu al-Ward into music. He points to a sapling that was cut by a shrapnel but survived saying that it “will live, and we will live despite everything.” Last May, the barrel bombs claimed the father of the roses and the garden is no more. Ibrahim is lost not knowing what to do other than visit his father’s grave to pray. Desolation claimed the last rose in Aleppo.

Three scenes, on three continents on the same day; a junkyard brawl in America, a retreat in Geneva and a calamity in Syria. It all unfolded simultaneously and tells us in a variety of ways that the arc of death and dying in Syria has a long way to go before bending towards life, peace and the return of roses.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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