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Holocaust Museum Tries Again on Contentious Syria Study

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The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which is rereleasing a report about the Syrian civil war that drew a firestorm earlier this year. Credit Drew Angerer for The New York Times

One of the most ambitious studies conducted on Syria’s civil war and American options to mitigate it finally saw the light of day on Tuesday.

The study, which was commissioned by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, had been the subject of controversy this fall after the museum briefly published it online and then retracted it in the face of a political backlash. Some groups had balked at the conclusions, which expressed pessimism about American options. Then, after the retraction, academics accused the institution of allowing political pressure to suppress important research.

The controversies appear to have blown over. In a concession to the interventionist voices objecting to the findings, the study will be republished with two additions that support the case for American military action.

Groups initially critical of the study say they are satisfied, and museum officials hope that the research can now stand on its own. But others are at least somewhat dissatisfied.

“The way they are rereleasing seems designed to placate interventionists at the expense of the credibility of the research; that’s a pity,” said Marc Lynch, who directs a center of Middle East studies at George Washington University. He added, “My sense is that the reputational damage has been done.”

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Interviews with museum officials and outside critics reveal how this 200-page, dry and highly technical document became a political lightning rod for the museum, which has long acted as a moral force on issues of war and mass killings.

When the study first circulated, its executive summary included a sentence saying that no single policy would have definitively mitigated Syria’s violence. In academic parlance, this was meant to convey uncertainty. But to many nonacademics, that line read as an endorsement of President Barack Obama’s policies.

Members of Washington’s foreign policy community, as well as Syrian activist groups, contacted museum officials, including the director, Sara J. Bloomfield, to register disapproval. Many in both communities had long argued that Mr. Obama had missed crucial opportunities in Syria.

Jewish leaders also reached out to express concern that the report could undercut the museum’s mission of preventing or halting atrocities.

Mouaz Moustafa, who directs the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, said that many organizations involved in advocacy for Syria saw the study as “exonerating” Mr. Obama.

Photo
Sara J. Bloomfield, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum director. Credit Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Reading the report, he added, was “reminiscent to them of times when they went to the White House and had the door slammed in their faces while civilians were being slaughtered.”

Syrian groups that had worked with the museum on memorializing Syria’s dead viewed it as a betrayal. Others objected to its academic tone or its lack of policy suggestions. Though they mostly relayed their objections in private, they carried weight with museum officials. Ms. Bloomfield ordered that the study be retracted.

The study had been conducted by the Simon-Skjodt Center, the museum’s well-regarded research arm, which often commissions work on contemporary atrocities. Cameron Hudson, who leads the center, said that the mistake was framing the paper strictly for academics, without considering other audiences.

“We have to recognize that we also have a general audience for this work, and we also have an audience of victims and survivors,” he said. “I think we had missed how this could be perceived by some of those audiences.”

Though academics hailed the study, Mr. Hudson acknowledged a “tension” between the museum’s mission of “never again” and the study’s findings that “there are no silver bullets.”

In the weeks after the retraction, museum officials met with individuals and groups who had criticized the study. The consultations soothed enough of the anger that the museum is now releasing the study, this time without the four-page executive summary.

There are also two additions. An essay by Frederic C. Hof, an Obama administration official, advocates greater American involvement in Syria. And a second document announces a survey of Syrian groups to be conducted by FREE-Syria, an advocacy organization in Virginia. The survey will ask “Syrian organizations and individuals” about what American policies they’d like to have seen in Syria. Its author is a former spokeswoman for Syrian antigovernment groups, and the questions appear to nudge respondents toward endorsing United States military action in Syria.

“The museum took a lot of time to sit down with everyone,” Mr. Moustafa said, adding that the sentiment among Syrians is that “the voices of Syrians are being heard.”

In the months since the study’s retraction, Leon Wieseltier, a writer who was among its most visible critics, has left public view following sexual-assault allegations. Mr. Hudson denied that this influenced their decision.

Mr. Hudson said he hopes that with the controversy settled, the nearly two years of work will find an audience. The goal, he said, has always been to improve the world’s ability to head off atrocities like those in Syria.

Still, he acknowledged that Washington’s tendencies toward infighting had, at points, overshadowed the research.

“We heard from many, many people, ‘I didn’t actually read the research, but here’s what I thought about it,’” he said.

Continue reading the main story

One of the most ambitious studies conducted on Syria’s civil war and American options to mitigate it finally saw the light of day on Tuesday.

The study, which was commissioned by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, had been the subject of controversy this fall after the museum briefly published it online and then retracted it in the face of a political backlash. Some groups had balked at the conclusions, which expressed pessimism about American options. Then, after the retraction, academics accused the institution of allowing political pressure to suppress important research.

The controversies appear to have blown over. In a concession to the interventionist voices objecting to the findings, the study will be republished with two additions that support the case for American military action.

Groups initially critical of the study say they are satisfied, and museum officials hope that the research can now stand on its own. But others are at least somewhat dissatisfied.

“The way they are rereleasing seems designed to placate interventionists at the expense of the credibility of the research; that’s a pity,” said Marc Lynch, who directs a center of Middle East studies at George Washington University. He added, “My sense is that the reputational damage has been done.”

Interviews with museum officials and outside critics reveal how this 200-page, dry and highly technical document became a political lightning rod for the museum, which has long acted as a moral force on issues of war and mass killings.

When the study first circulated, its executive summary included a sentence saying that no single policy would have definitively mitigated Syria’s violence. In academic parlance, this was meant to convey uncertainty. But to many nonacademics, that line read as an endorsement of President Barack Obama’s policies.

Members of Washington’s foreign policy community, as well as Syrian activist groups, contacted museum officials, including the director, Sara J. Bloomfield, to register disapproval. Many in both communities had long argued that Mr. Obama had missed crucial opportunities in Syria.

Jewish leaders also reached out to express concern that the report could undercut the museum’s mission of preventing or halting atrocities.

Mouaz Moustafa, who directs the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, said that many organizations involved in advocacy for Syria saw the study as “exonerating” Mr. Obama.

Reading the report, he added, was “reminiscent to them of times when they went to the White House and had the door slammed in their faces while civilians were being slaughtered.”

Syrian groups that had worked with the museum on memorializing Syria’s dead viewed it as a betrayal. Others objected to its academic tone or its lack of policy suggestions. Though they mostly relayed their objections in private, they carried weight with museum officials. Ms. Bloomfield ordered that the study be retracted.

The study had been conducted by the Simon-Skjodt Center, the museum’s well-regarded research arm, which often commissions work on contemporary atrocities. Cameron Hudson, who leads the center, said that the mistake was framing the paper strictly for academics, without considering other audiences.

“We have to recognize that we also have a general audience for this work, and we also have an audience of victims and survivors,” he said. “I think we had missed how this could be perceived by some of those audiences.”

Though academics hailed the study, Mr. Hudson acknowledged a “tension” between the museum’s mission of “never again” and the study’s findings that “there are no silver bullets.”

In the weeks after the retraction, museum officials met with individuals and groups who had criticized the study. The consultations soothed enough of the anger that the museum is now releasing the study, this time without the four-page executive summary.

There are also two additions. An essay by Frederic C. Hof, an Obama administration official, advocates greater American involvement in Syria. And a second document announces a survey of Syrian groups to be conducted by FREE-Syria, an advocacy organization in Virginia. The survey will ask “Syrian organizations and individuals” about what American policies they’d like to have seen in Syria. Its author is a former spokeswoman for Syrian antigovernment groups, and the questions appear to nudge respondents toward endorsing United States military action in Syria.

“The museum took a lot of time to sit down with everyone,” Mr. Moustafa said, adding that the sentiment among Syrians is that “the voices of Syrians are being heard.”

In the months since the study’s retraction, Leon Wieseltier, a writer who was among its most visible critics, has left public view following sexual-assault allegations. Mr. Hudson denied that this influenced their decision.

Mr. Hudson said he hopes that with the controversy settled, the nearly two years of work will find an audience. The goal, he said, has always been to improve the world’s ability to head off atrocities like those in Syria.

Still, he acknowledged that Washington’s tendencies toward infighting had, at points, overshadowed the research.

“We heard from many, many people, ‘I didn’t actually read the research, but here’s what I thought about it,’” he said.

Nytimes

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Last thing Syria needs after beating ISIS is another conflict – German FM on Turkish op

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Investigate chemical incidents in Syria instead of blaming Damascus & distorting our views – Moscow

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72 Turkish Jets Bomb U.S.-Backed Kurdish Militias in Syria

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Plumes of smoke rise after airstrikes in northwest Syria on Saturday, as seen from the the border town of Kilis, Turkey. Credit Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

ISTANBUL — Turkish jets bombed the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Saturday as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey vowed to crush Kurdish militant forces across northern Syria to remove what he said was a terrorist threat.

The Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that jets bombed more than 100 targets, including an air base, in the first day of air operations against Kurdish militias. Fighters of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army also crossed the border into the enclave and engaged Kurdish militants, the agency reported.

Mr. Erdogan has pressed ahead with the offensive despite warnings from the United States that it would further destabilize war-torn Syria. Syria and Russia expressed milder objections.

The Turkish president said “no one can say a word” about the operation.

“Beginning from the west, step by step, we will annihilate the terror corridor up to the Iraqi border,” Mr. Erdogan told a local congress of his Justice and Development Party in the city of Kutahya on Saturday.

“No one can say a word,” he went on. “Whatever happens, we do not care anymore at all. Now we only care about what happens on the ground.”

Photo
Syrian rebel fighters near the Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Saturday. Credit Omar Haj Kadour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Soon after the president spoke, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that the offensive had started, at 5 p.m. Saturday. The operation, named “Olive Branch,” aims to eliminate terrorists and establish security along Turkey’s border with Syria and to save “friends and brothers” from the terrorists’ oppression, the ministry said in a statement.

Continue reading the main story

Bekir Bozdag, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, said on Twitter that Turkey would respect Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and would pull out of the region once the target was achieved.

He added that the military campaign was not against the Syrian government or its people but against terrorist organizations. He named the Kurdish Y.P.G. and P.K.K. groups, as well as the Islamic State, as the targeted organizations.

“The only target of the operation is the terrorist groups and the terrorists as well as their barracks, shelters, positions, weapons, vehicles and equipment,” he said. “Civilians are never targeted. Every kind of planning has been done to avoid any damage to civilians.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern at the assault and called for restraint. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that it was withdrawing its troops and military police from the enclave to avoid any conflict.

Photo
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey addressed supporters in Usak, Turkey, on Saturday. Credit Pool photo by Kayhan Ozer

In a later statement Russia blamed the United States for the clashes.

“Provocative actions by the U.S., aimed at isolating regions with predominantly Kurdish population, were the main factors that contributed to the development of a crisis in this part of Syria,” the statement read.

Yet despite Russian reservations, it appears there was high level communication between Turkey and Russia on the operation. The chief of staff of Turkey’s army, Hulusi Akar, who is commanding the operation, visited Moscow on Thursday with the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan.

And despite its expression of concern, Russia cooperated on deconfliction efforts by allowing Turkish jets into Syrian airspace and by removing its troops form Afrin, Turkish analysts said.

The Turkish Army announced Saturday evening that 72 fighter jets had returned safely to their bases.

The general command of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mainly Syrian Kurdish rebel force that has led the United States-backed fight against the Islamic State, appealed to Turkey to cease its operation in Afrin, calling it an unjustifiable aggression against the Syrian people that would undermine the fight against the Islamic State.

“If attacked, we will have no choice but to defend ourselves and our people,” the command said in a statement, “but we state in front of the world that we harbor no hostile intent towards Turkey.”

Photo
A Syrian rebel fighter watches as smoke billows from a Kurdish People’s Protection Units position in Afrin, Syria, on Saturday. Credit Nazeer Al-Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Syrians in the region expressed alarm, as the aerial bombardment hit outlying villages along the Turkish border.

Civilians were fearful and were leaving Afrin and the villages along the border, a resident of Afrin said. He asked that his name be withheld from publication out of concern for his safety.

A lawmaker in Syria’s Parliament expressed concern that Turkey was looking to create strife among Syrians by using Arab members of the rebel Free Syrian Army to fight Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian government and some Kurdish militias were negotiating to raise Syrian government flags over public buildings in Afrin to try to avert the Turkish bombing, the lawmaker said. The lawmaker added there was a split among Kurds about whether to accept the Syrian government’s retaking of Afrin, in a bid to end the Turkish offensive, or whether Kurds should maintain control and resist the offensive.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who defected during the early days of the crisis, sent out a forlorn appeal to all parties to abide by an agreement forged in March between American-backed Kurdish rebels and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters on the control of villages around Afrin.

“Given previous discussions about this settlement to reduce further bloodshed and lives lost on both sides,” he wrote in an email, “it is important to consider a return to this agreement to reduce tensions.”

Continue reading the main story

ISTANBUL — Turkish jets bombed the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Saturday as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey vowed to crush Kurdish militant forces across northern Syria to remove what he said was a terrorist threat.

The Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that jets bombed more than 100 targets, including an air base, in the first day of air operations against Kurdish militias. Fighters of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army also crossed the border into the enclave and engaged Kurdish militants, the agency reported.

Mr. Erdogan has pressed ahead with the offensive despite warnings from the United States that it would further destabilize war-torn Syria. Syria and Russia expressed milder objections.

The Turkish president said “no one can say a word” about the operation.

“Beginning from the west, step by step, we will annihilate the terror corridor up to the Iraqi border,” Mr. Erdogan told a local congress of his Justice and Development Party in the city of Kutahya on Saturday.

“No one can say a word,” he went on. “Whatever happens, we do not care anymore at all. Now we only care about what happens on the ground.”

Soon after the president spoke, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that the offensive had started, at 5 p.m. Saturday. The operation, named “Olive Branch,” aims to eliminate terrorists and establish security along Turkey’s border with Syria and to save “friends and brothers” from the terrorists’ oppression, the ministry said in a statement.

Bekir Bozdag, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, said on Twitter that Turkey would respect Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and would pull out of the region once the target was achieved.

He added that the military campaign was not against the Syrian government or its people but against terrorist organizations. He named the Kurdish Y.P.G. and P.K.K. groups, as well as the Islamic State, as the targeted organizations.

“The only target of the operation is the terrorist groups and the terrorists as well as their barracks, shelters, positions, weapons, vehicles and equipment,” he said. “Civilians are never targeted. Every kind of planning has been done to avoid any damage to civilians.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern at the assault and called for restraint. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that it was withdrawing its troops and military police from the enclave to avoid any conflict.

In a later statement Russia blamed the United States for the clashes.

“Provocative actions by the U.S., aimed at isolating regions with predominantly Kurdish population, were the main factors that contributed to the development of a crisis in this part of Syria,” the statement read.

Yet despite Russian reservations, it appears there was high level communication between Turkey and Russia on the operation. The chief of staff of Turkey’s army, Hulusi Akar, who is commanding the operation, visited Moscow on Thursday with the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan.

And despite its expression of concern, Russia cooperated on deconfliction efforts by allowing Turkish jets into Syrian airspace and by removing its troops form Afrin, Turkish analysts said.

The Turkish Army announced Saturday evening that 72 fighter jets had returned safely to their bases.

The general command of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mainly Syrian Kurdish rebel force that has led the United States-backed fight against the Islamic State, appealed to Turkey to cease its operation in Afrin, calling it an unjustifiable aggression against the Syrian people that would undermine the fight against the Islamic State.

“If attacked, we will have no choice but to defend ourselves and our people,” the command said in a statement, “but we state in front of the world that we harbor no hostile intent towards Turkey.”

Syrians in the region expressed alarm, as the aerial bombardment hit outlying villages along the Turkish border.

Civilians were fearful and were leaving Afrin and the villages along the border, a resident of Afrin said. He asked that his name be withheld from publication out of concern for his safety.

A lawmaker in Syria’s Parliament expressed concern that Turkey was looking to create strife among Syrians by using Arab members of the rebel Free Syrian Army to fight Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian government and some Kurdish militias were negotiating to raise Syrian government flags over public buildings in Afrin to try to avert the Turkish bombing, the lawmaker said. The lawmaker added there was a split among Kurds about whether to accept the Syrian government’s retaking of Afrin, in a bid to end the Turkish offensive, or whether Kurds should maintain control and resist the offensive.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who defected during the early days of the crisis, sent out a forlorn appeal to all parties to abide by an agreement forged in March between American-backed Kurdish rebels and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters on the control of villages around Afrin.

“Given previous discussions about this settlement to reduce further bloodshed and lives lost on both sides,” he wrote in an email, “it is important to consider a return to this agreement to reduce tensions.”

Nytimes

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