VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican will shelter two families of refugees who are “fleeing death” from war or hunger, Pope Francis announced Sunday as he called on Catholic parishes, convents and monasteries across Europe to do the same.
Francis cited Mother Teresa, the European-born nun who cared for the poorest in India, in making his appeal in remarks to pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter’s Square.
“Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death by war and by hunger, and who are on a path toward a hope for life, the Gospel calls us to be neighbors to the smallest and most abandoned, to give them concrete hope,” Francis said.
It’s not enough to say “Have courage, hang in there,” he added.
It’s not enough to say “Have courage, hang in there,” he added.
In Pensacola, we have several top level Syrian doctors. Syria has been a crossroads of civilization for longer than the United States has been in existence. We can benefit by welcoming the Syrians and the Iraqis and the Afghanis into our own communities.
Islamic State fighters have seized the northern part of the ancient World Heritage-listed city of Palmyra in Syria, a monitoring group has said.
Militants seized part of the town of Tadmur located on a strategic east-west route next to Palmyra on Saturday but had been pushed back from the ruins.
Palmyra contains the ruins of one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, according to UNESCO.
It is feared IS fighters may now damage or destroy the site.
Syria’s antiquities chief said the insurgents would destroy the ancient ruins if they took control.
The group has demolished similar antiquities in Iraq, seeing them as symbols of idolatry.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said a third of Palmyra had been taken.
There is a lot to be said for advertising. As we watch the local news at night, we switch to Mobile after the Pensacola news is finished. Mobile has a town nearby called Pritchard, and we always love to hear what has happened in Pritchard – mysterious murders, drug overdoses, family incest – it’s all there, right in Pritchard.
Between stories are the Mobile ads, and some are hilarious. One, however, for 7 Spice Grocery and Grill caught my eye. They show shelves and shelves of Middle Eastern goods, and mention a restaurant, too.
This is what 7 Spice looks like from the roadside:
This is the interior. You walk all the way through the grocery, and at the back, it is like entering a Damascus restaurant. Indeed, one of the waiters was from Damascus, and the food is very Syrian
The smells are divine. The smells coming from the kitchen are fresh meat being grilled, lamb, chicken, beef.
And we know we are at home. If you have read Walking Old Damascus, you will know we have loved traveling in Syria, and have loved Damascus for 35 – almost 40 years. Near our table is a hanging of the Roman Arch on The Street Called Straight; the last time we stayed in Damascus, at The Talisman, we stayed near this landmark, near Bab Thoma.
With every meal comes a lovely serving of addas – lentil soup. It was silky and lemony, the croutons were thin and crisp, it was so simple, so deliciously prepared:
AdventureMan ordered the Shish Taouk, a chicken shish kabob. It came fresh and hot from the grill, crispy and irresistible:
I ordered the appetizer plate; hummous, felafel, tabouli, baba ghannoush, little meat pies, stuffed grape leaves, and olives. Also a wonderful garlic aioli to dip into. AdventureMan shared some chicken with me, and I shared all these delicious tastes with him. They use a really good olive oil; it makes all the difference.
As we roll ourselves out of the restaurant, carrying more than enough for our evening meal, we have to walk past all the shelves in the grocery to get to our car. The prices are very reasonable and there are things I really need, like a whole bag of dried mint (have you ever tried making Middle Eastern food without dried mint? you need a LOT!) and chana dal, wonderful legumes, fig preserves, all kinds of little charcoals for braziers and big bags of henna . . .
There are wonderful Middle East restaurants also in Pensacola, but none like this. Worth a drive to Mobile to find this truly excellent restaurant on Airport Boulevard in Mobile.
Even as I write those words, I smile. Our grandson inherited my cold genes through his father. By cold genes, I mean we are more comfortable being cool than hot. We sleep cool. We need less clothing to stay warm. He told his Baba, AdventureMan, that “chilly is not cold” because he didn’t want to wear long pants, he prefers shorts.
(There are a lot of images of John the Baptist, but this one made me grin; he looks a little Rastafarian, and I hadn’t thought of him as so long haired and skinny, but he was living in the wilderness and eating locusts and honey . . . )
Life is long, and full of surprises. I love it. I think the ability to be surprised, and to ponder those quick flickers of perspective keeps us young in heart, and young in spirit.
Today, John speaks to us, each and every one. The true path is coming, the word of God embodied in a human being, born a tiny baby, a human baby, God come down into flesh. (My Muslim friends are quivering with fear at this point, waiting for me to be struck down for such blasphemy. They don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, but that he was a messenger, like Mohammed. They also believe Jesus will be the judge at the end of times.)
Life among the Moslems. Bible study with the Baptist. My very Mormon friends. My own very Episcopalian faith. All these influences – and my Alaskan heritage – mashed together with smatterings of others, have gone into making me a very odd sort of Christian.
I’m OK with that.
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
President Obama is laying out his strategy to counter the Islamic State, whose rampages across Iraq and Syria have riveted Americans’ attention on a zone of conflict that many had hoped to forget. Many are urging him to step up military action. But if Obama wants to defeat the jihadis, he will need more than airstrikes—he should follow the money.
For all that ideology, religious belief and perhaps a lust for violence and power might motivate those who fight for the Islamic State (known variously by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL), money is what keeps the group going. As with any state, ISIL has bills to pay and mouths to feed. Even for the world’s richest terrorist organization—which, by all available accounts, ISIL is—money doesn’t grow on trees, and nothing in the world comes for free.
So where does ISIL’s money come from? As part of my research at the RAND Corporation, since late 2006 I have been studying the finances, management and organization of the precursors to the Islamic State—Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq—using their own documents, manuals and ledgers. More recently, Rand has teamed up with scholars from Princeton and Emory universities, as well as analysts from other organizations, to study more than 150 documents produced between 2005 and 2010. Although our work is still not yet done, we can draw a number of conclusions.
The most important thing for U.S. policymakers to remember is that ISIL now possesses the financial means to support a long-term fight—some $2 billion, according to a recent report in the Guardian, citing a British intelligence official. At the same time, ISIL’s preferred fundraising methods and many financial commitments create vulnerabilities. The organization was badly damaged by late 2009, thanks to a combination of coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as intervention by the Iraqi government, and it can be badly damaged again. But without the establishment of a widely accepted, legitimate political order in Iraq, ISIL cannot be eradicated—and will continue to seek out and mete out cash.
ISIL raises most of its money domestically in Iraq and Syria. Its income streams include oil smuggled to other countries in the region, extortion, taxes—especially on non-Muslim minorities—and other essentially criminal activities.
Oil is ISIL’s biggest source of revenue but also presents the biggest problem. ISIL controls about a dozen fields in Syria and Iraq, in addition to a number of refineries, including mobile refineries. Based on media accounts, RAND has estimated the total production capacity of these fields to be more than 150,000 barrels per day, although actual production is estimated to be much lower: The website Iraq Oil Report has reported that exports for the month of August at about 2.4 million barrels per day, for instance.
ISIL smuggles this oil out in tanker trucks—clearly visible from the sky should any drone pass overhead, so the smuggling is not particularly furtive. The group then sells the oil to whoever will buy it—reported in the media to be buyers in Syria, Turkey, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and possibly in Iran and even Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, among other countries. Sales take place at rates deeply discounted from world prices. But even so, revenues have been estimated in the media at $1 million, $2 million or even $3 million per day.
We have seen this before. From 2006 to 2009, ISIL’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, raised perhaps $2 billion through smuggled oil originating in the Baiji refinery in northern Iraq. This ended as a result of a concerted effort by U.S. and Iraqi forces to destroy the group and create the conditions in which the Iraqi government could exercise its law-and-order responsibilities, as well as vastly improved management at Baiji, owned by the Iraqi government.
So where does all of ISIL’s money go?
ISIL historically has paid its members (yes, it maintains payroll sheets) based on a flat monthly rate per person and then additional fixed amounts for each wife, child and dependent unmarried adult woman in the household. In Anbar, Iraq, the rate was $491 per year in 2005 and 2006, and then about $245 per year per dependent; the rate was similar in Mosul in 2007 and 2008. These payments to family are meant to continue if the ISIL member is captured or killed—a primitive form of life insurance. If enough members are captured and killed, however, these costs start to mount.
ISIL also pays rent for its members in some cases—payments that might be bonuses to high-performing members, although we cannot be sure—and medical expenses for some members and their families. In the past, the group has sometimes hired lawyers to help get captured members out of jail. And it runs safe-houses and has to buy equipment. Guidelines published by a predecessor of the group say that expense reimbursements should be filled out in triplicate and explain where each copy goes within the organization. We don’t know for sure whether ISIL today is making money or even breaking even, but at least in Anbar from 2005 to 2006, the money was being spent as fast as it came in.
As a cash-based organization, ISIL relies on couriers not only to deliver messages among its dispersed leadership but also to move money—follow the right courier and you get to the leadership. Because it deals only in cash, ISIL also needs to worry about the honesty of its members. We have seen instances of skimming for personal enrichment, as you might see in any cash-based criminal network.
As a state, albeit a twisted version of one, ISIL also has administrative expenses. It is responsible for making sure electricity and water flow and the roads stay repaired in the regions of Iraq it now controls—including parts of the Anbar, Ninewa Salah-al-Din, Kirkuk and Diyala governorates. Whether the group chooses to or is able to fulfill those responsibilities creates a vulnerability: A discontented population is unlikely to remain passive under ISIL’s leadership.
Even if ISIL is making $3 million per day—at the higher end of the various estimates out there—then it makes slightly more than $1 billion per year. Just to be conservative, in case ISIL is doing more business than we’re aware of, let’s double that to $2 billion per year. Although exact totals are difficult to find, in 2013, before ISIL’s advance, the Iraqi government spent far more than $2 billion per year running the governorates ISIL now controls, including salaries to civil servants, other costs of service provision and investment spending. That means ISIL likely isn’t keeping up the same level of service that the Iraqi government once did. True, ISIL need not maintain that level—it hardly rules with the consent of the governed. But it’s not only a problem that those under its rule can rebel, as happened in 2007 and 2008; with the exception of oil, the group’s continued revenue-raising also depends on there being enough money to skim and extort from the economy, and this requires some minimum level of services and economic activity.
There is little that outside forces can do to halt the extortion and skimming that take place within ISIL territory. Oil smuggling, though, can be disrupted, at least to an extent. Intelligence resources from the United States, Iraq and any other country that takes on ISIL should be focused on identifying middlemen and buyers for the smuggled fuel and using any means necessary to halt those purchases.
It would be counterproductive to destroy oil field infrastructure, since repairs would be expensive and legitimate governments will need those oil revenues when they reestablish control. But mobile refineries should be targeted, and roads and other pathways that tanker trucks use to transport oil to and from oil fields should be made impassable by military means. The refineries and roads can be easily repaired when the time comes, but for now, ISIL should find it very difficult to move oil from fields.
Stopping ISIL will of course require much more than disrupting its funding. It will have to be defeated militarily, and legitimate, trusted governments will have to be established in Iraq and Syria to defeat the group over time. There’s no simple path to achieving this, but as long as ISIL’s coffers remain full, the task will not get any easier.
The New Yorker is an expensive subscription and worth every penny. This article takes an enormously complex situation, breaks it down into components and summarizes the options and their drawbacks. No wonder President Obama is having a problem finding a strategy – there aren’t a lot of winning options out there, and we don’t need to get stuck with another tar baby.
Wars cost money. There is an election coming up. The economy is just now moving past the downswing, and we still have wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan to take care of. Can anything we do make a difference? Will that difference be appreciated or will it add to our reputation as a world bully? All these are factors when formulating a strategy.
At the end of the eighth century, Harun al-Rashid, a caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, built a palace in Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, in what is now Syria. His empire stretched from modern Tunisia to Pakistan. It was an age of Islamic discovery in science, music, and art; Rashid’s court of viziers inspired stories in “One Thousand and One Nights.”
In June, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) declared Raqqa the seat of a new caliphate, presided over by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a fierce preacher who was once an American prisoner in Iraq, and is now in hiding. The city has lost its splendor. Public executions are “a common spectacle” on Fridays in El Naim Square or at the Al Sa’a roundabout, a United Nations human-rights commission reported last month. ISIS fighters mount the dead on crucifixes, “as a warning to local residents.”
ISIS emerged a decade ago as a small Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda, one that specialized in suicide bombings and inciting Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority against the country’s Shiite majority. The network regenerated after 2011 amidst Iraq’s growing violence and the depravities of Syria’s civil war. This year,ISIS has conquered cities, oil fields, and swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. The movement draws its strength from Sunni Arab communities bitterly opposed to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus, led by Bashar al-Assad.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called ISIS “as sophisticated and well funded as any group that we have seen . . . beyond anything we have seen.” The group has former military officers who can fly helicopters, spot artillery, and maneuver in battle. ISIS is increasingly a hybrid organization, on the model of Hezbollah—part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state.
President Obama has decided that the United States must now attack ISIS, if only from the air. The President vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, and golfed conspicuously, as his initial aerial campaign in Iraq unfolded. He has been less than forthright about why, after pledging to end America’s costly war in Iraq, he believed a return to battle there was necessary. But in interviews and other forums Obama has offered a casus belli, in three parts.
ISIS has massacred religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, and American air strikes can prevent more wanton killing, the President has said. A second imperative is the defense of the Kurdistan Regional Government, a semi-autonomous, oil-endowed American ally in northern Iraq, which a few weeks ago was teetering under pressure from ISIS but has since recovered, with the aid of American air power. The third, and most resonant, reason that the President has given is self-defense: to disrupt ISIS before it tries to attack Americans in the region or inside the United States.
ISIS has beheaded one American journalist, James Foley, and threatened to execute a second. Yet some terrorism specialists point out that ISIS is consumed by the sectarian wars in Syria and Iraq, and has shown no intent to launch attacks in the West, or any ability to do so. Still, ISIS has attracted five hundred British volunteers, many scores of other European passport holders, and even some Americans to its fight; they might eventually turn toward London, Berlin, or New York. Last week, British authorities announced that the threat of a terrorist attack on its home soil was “severe,” given the rising number of British jihadis now among the militants in Iraq and Syria.
The question about President Obama’s resumption of war in Iraq is not whether it can be justified but where it will lead. Air strikes against a well-resourced guerrilla army will do little if they are not accompanied by action on the ground. It would be a catastrophic error for the United States to take on that role. But what other professional force will dislodge the self-proclaimedISIS caliphate and then control the population? American policy assumes that Iraq’s squabbling politicians will rally a Shiite-led army to fight ISIS in the country’s Sunni heartland. On recent evidence, this assessment looks unrealistic.
In Syria, the options are worse. Obama has said repeatedly that he does not believe that Syria’s moderate rebels have the capacity to overthrow Assad or defeat jihadists. Yet the alternatives would allow Syria’s violence to fester at the cost of tens of thousands more civilian lives or would tacitly condone an alliance with the brutal Assad, who has been implicated in war crimes.
Obama and his advisers have at times taken refuge in a self-absolving logic: We can’t force people in other countries to unite around our agenda, so, if they don’t, whatever calamity unfolds is their responsibility. As a retreat from American hubris, this form of realism has appeal. As a contribution to a stable Middle East, it has failed utterly.
It is not yet clear that ISIS will endure as a menace. Fast-moving extremist conquerors sometimes have trouble holding their ground. ISIS has promised to govern as effectively as it intimidates, but its talent lies in extortion and ethnic cleansing, not in sanitation and job creation. It is vulnerable to revolt from within.
The group’s lightning rise is a symptom, however, of deeper instability; a cause of that instability is failed international policy in Iraq and Syria. If the United States is returning to war in the region, one might wish for a more considered vision than Whack-a-Mole against jihadists.
The restoration of human rights in the region first requires a renewed search for a tolerable—and, where possible, tolerant—path to stability. ISIS feasts above all on the suffering of Syria, and that appears to be unending. The war is in its fourth year, with almost two hundred thousand dead and nine million displaced, inside the country and out. The caliphate now seated in Raqqa is the sort of dark fantasy that can spring to life when people feel they are bereft of other plausible sources of security and justice.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” the President remarked last week, infelicitously, about Syria. He does have a coalition of allies in the region that are willing to challenge ISIS’s ambition, including Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries patronize disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, and some of their support certainly reaches jihadists, includingISIS. Yet they share an interest in reducing Syria’s violence and in promoting regional and local Sunni self-governance that is less threatening and more sustainable than what ISIS has created. Ultimately, Sunnis will need the kind of autonomy that Kurds presently enjoy.
Leading a coalition of this character is hard, uncertain work. George H. W. Bush, the President whose foreign policy Obama seems to admire most, did it successfully in the runup to the Gulf War of 1991, by intensive personal engagement. Obama has more than two years left in the White House. To defeat ISIS, but also to reduce its source of strength, will require the President to risk his credibility on more than just air strikes.
Steve Coll, a staff writer, is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and reports on issues of intelligence and national security in the United States and abroad.
As you pray for the well-being of Enugu, would you also pray for all those places where religion is a cause for strife? Syria, northern Nigeria, the newest country in the world, South Sudan? To me, it is just heartbreaking that those who should be living in peace, working together, are in armed bloody conflict against one another.
Today the church remembers John of Damascus, our good friend who once was the American Consul in Damascus is visiting with us, and we mourn the loss of peace and security in Damascus, and Syria, and the heartless loss of so many lives, the destruction of beautiful Homs, and so many other villages, named and unnamed, and the use of nerve gas on Syrian people.
I love it that he is most often shown wearing a keffiye
The Liturgical Calendar: The Church Remembers
Today the church remembers John of Damascus, Priest, c. 760.
The son of an important official in the court of the Muslim Caliph of Damascus, John had an easy rapport with the Muslims among whom he was reared, and readily succeeded to his father’s office in the Caliph’s court. Later, he abandoned the wealth and comfort of the fashionable life of Damascus and joined a religious community in Palestine.
As he lived the rigorous life of a monk in the stark wilderness near the Dead Sea, his own strong personality began to emerge. He soon distinguished himself as a theologian and scholar. His chief published work extant is The Fount of Knowledge. He is recognized as a “Doctor of the Universal Church.”
However, John of Damascus is most widely remembered for his contributions to Christian worship. He wrote many fine hymns, including two Easter ones that are still popular today: “Come ye faithful raise the strain…” and “The Day of Resurrection, earth tell it out abroad!” He effectively defended the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the veneration of the Lord’s Mother, and use of icons. He became involved in an international religio-political struggle called the “Icononclastic Controversy” which reached violent proportions and shook the Byzantine world. His life was saved in this controversy by his powerful Muslim friends.
We give thanks for John and for all those who have upheld the truth of our faith and the glory of our worship. Amen.
From the Kuwait Times, a fascinating comparative analysis of the influence of Saudi Arabia and Qatar on Islamic countries in transitions:
Qatar losing ground to Saudi diplomacy
DUBAI: Qatar, a key supporter of Islamists who rose to power in Arab Spring countries, is losing ground in regional politics to Saudi Arabia which appears to have seized the reins on key issues, notably Egypt and Syria. The decline in Qatar’s regional diplomacy comes as its powerful emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani unexpectedly abdicated in favor of his son Tamim last month.
The wealthy Gulf state had transformed itself into a key regional player but began to retreat as heavyweight Saudi Arabia re-entered the political arena after lagging behind in the immediate period following the eruption of the Arab Spring uprisings in December 2010. The ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last week by the army and the election by the Syrian opposition of Saudi-linked Ahmad Assi Jarba as new leader stripped Qatar of strong influence in both countries.
“Qatar had tried to take a leading role in the region but overstepped its limits by openly backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, and other Arab Spring states,” said Kuwaiti political analyst Ayed Al-Manna. Jonathan Eyal, head of international relations at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, argued that Qatar’s regional politics have failed.
“Qatar’s Middle Eastern diplomacy now lies in ruins: it failed to produce dividends in Libya, backfired in Syria and has now collapsed in Egypt,” local Emirati daily The National quoted him on Tuesday as saying. Realizing the damaging effects of their policies, Manna noted, “the Qataris sought to cut down on their commitments” which were already affected by the emir’s abdication and the sidelining of the influential prime minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jabr Al-Thani.
As a result, “Saudi Arabia, a historical regional US ally, regained its role” in coordination with other oil-rich Gulf monarchies, said Manna. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was the first foreign head of state to congratulate Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour, hours after he was named to replace Morsi. And on Tuesday, the kingdom pledged $5 billion in assistance to Egypt. The United Arab Emirates, which has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the past few months, offered Egypt an aid package of $3 billion.
“Saudi Arabia wants to ensure stability in Arab Spring countries, regardless of its ideological interests,” said analyst Abdel Aziz Al-Sagr, head of the Gulf Research Centre. “It had supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt but reconsidered this support after the Brotherhood failed to run the country wisely,” he argued. But the Saudi researcher downplayed the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of which have been looking to expand their influence during the Arab Spring uprisings and prevent any potential revolt against their own autocratic regimes.
“The Saudi-Qatari harmony still exists and there is no battle for influence between the two countries,” said Sager. And as proof, “Riyadh was the first to be informed of the political change in Qatar, six months before it took place. And it welcomed it.” But the two countries, whose relations have been historically tense or at least marked by mistrust, support two different approaches of political Islam that emerged strongly in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Qatar sides with political parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose experience was cut short despite the strong media support they enjoyed from the influential Doha-based Al-Jazeera news channel. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia promotes Salafist groups that focus less on politics and more on implementing Shariah Islamic law on daily life matters such as forcing women to wear a veil and prohibiting the mixing between sexes. Saudi King Abdullah has reiterated his country’s stance against using Islam for political purposes.
“Islam rejects divisions in the name of one party or another,” he said in a statement marking the start Wednesday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The kingdom will never accept” the presence of political parties, that “only lead to conflict and failure.” But regardless of the political agendas of Saudi Arabia or Qatar, the people who rose up during the Arab Spring revolts will have the final word on their own political futures, argued former Bahraini cabinet minister Ali Fakhro. “It is the Arab people, not Qatar nor Saudi Arabia, who will determine the political future of the region.” – AFP
BEIRUT: The minaret of Aleppo’s ancient Umayyad mosque was destroyed on Wednesday, Syrian state media and a watchdog reported, with the regime and the opposition blaming each other.
An archaeological treasure in Aleppo’s Unesco-listed Old City, the mosque has been the centre of fighting for months and had already suffered extensive damage.
With insurgents and the regime caught in a stalemate in the key northern city, the ancient mosque has fallen in and out of rebel hands several times.
The Umayyad mosque was originally built in the 8th century but was apparently destroyed and then rebuilt in the 13th century.
It has recently fallen back into rebel hands, but has been left pockmarked by bullets and stained with soot.
Antique furnishings and intricately sculpted colonnades have been charred, valuable Islamic relics ransacked and ancient artefacts, including a box purported to contain a strand of the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) hair, looted.
Rebels say they have managed to salvage ancient handwritten Quranic manuscripts and have hidden them.
On Wednesday, as reports broke of the minaret’s destruction, activists uploaded video shot at the scene, but there was no video immediately available showing the moment of the blast that caused the collapse.
As with multiple other attacks in Syria’s spiralling conflict, which the UN says has left more than 70,000 people dead, the regime and the opposition blamed each other for the damage.
State media said jihadist Al-Nusra Front fighters blew up the minaret, and accused the group classed by the United States as a “terrorist” organisation of seeking to blame loyalist forces.
But rebels, the opposition and activists all said the army was responsible.
“Tanks began firing in the direction of the minaret until it was destroyed,” one rebel said in a video posted on YouTube, insisting rebel snipers were not stationed inside the minaret.
“We were afraid that it would be targeted,” he said.
“The Assad regime has done everything it can to destroy Syria’s social fabric. Today, by killing people and destroying culture, it is sowing a bitterness in people’s hearts that will be difficult to erase for a very long time,” the video added.
Meanwhile, an activist who identified himself as Zain al-Rifai said he saw an army tank “fire several shells directly at the Umayyad mosque, including at the minaret”.
He also claimed the force of the explosion was magnified because of landmines planted by the army in the mosque complex before the rebel takeover.
“When the army was in control of the mosque, it planted mines across the complex. When the rebels took over, they demined the area, but couldn’t come near the minaret for fear of snipers.
“When the tank shell hit the minaret, it must have caused the mine to explode,” said Rifai, who works with the Aleppo Media Centre, a network of citizen journalists on the ground.
Responding to regime claims that the jihadi-Al-Nusra Front had blown up the minaret, Rifai asked: “Why would an Islamic group blow up a minaret?”
The main opposition National Coalition, recognised by dozens of states and organisations as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, mourned the ancient minaret’s destruction.
“The deliberate destruction of this minaret, under whose shadow Saladin… and (10th century Iraqi poet) Al-Mutanabbi rested, is a crime against human civilisation,” said the Coalition.