August 22, 2012

Assault helicopters over Al-Mizzih - I lived there....

This video clip is labeled "Helicopters attack Kafr Susah from the skies over al-Mizzih."

I used to live in al-Mizzih. Kafr Susah is the next section of Damascus to the east, both on the south side of the city. It is a neighborhood of small shops owned by relatively prosperous merchants, artist's studios, nice shops, good restaurants and fashionable apartment buildings. Along with al-Mizzih, it was considered one of the preferable residential areas of Damascus.

It is disheartening for me to watch these Mi-8 (NATO: HIP) assault helicopters flying over al-Mizzih. When I lived there in the 1990s, it was extremely rare to see these aircraft over al-Mizzih and Kafr Susah. There were the occasional flights as part of organized air shows, but for the most part, aircraft were prohibited from overflying the city - the regime was wary of any type of military aircraft near the center of power.

On one occasion, I remember driving home from the embassy and seeing these Mi-8 helicopters over 'Umayad Square - actually a traffic circle that we nicknamed "Oh My God circle" for the Syrian drivers careening through the intersection. I noted that the helicopters were flying low and dropping something in the circle - I was a bit perplexed. What was it? Chaff? An aircraft in trouble? A revolution in progress? A chemical warfare exercise?

I was immediately on alert. There are two airfields just outside the city that house Mi-8 helicopters, both to the southeast - Qabr as-Sitt and Marj as-Sultan. I used to watch the helicopters fly their routine training flights, but never over the city itself. What were they up to?

As the U.S. Air Attache to the American Embassy, it was my job to know what was going on in the Syrian Air Force - these aircraft were obviously military and performing some sort of operation. Using all of my training, I cleverly maneuvered my car into the circle and scooped up some of the material falling from the sky. Aha - an intelligence coup by the dashing Air Force major!

The material turned out to be paper leaflets advertising the Syrian national flower show.

Okay - not the intelligence coup of the century, but at least I could read the Arabic....

On a serious note, the sight of these armed assault helicopters over where I lived is saddening to me. I enjoyed living in Syria, in Damascus - the longest inhabited city in the world. It was my honor to serve at the American Embassy, despite the poor relations between Syria and the United States. I never in my wildest imaginings thought that at some point these assault helicopters would turn their weapons on the people who were my neighbors, and in some cases, my friends.

It is difficult to watch what is happening to Syria. I listen to the calls for a no-fly zone, and the opposing views that we should let the Syrians fight this without outside - or American - intervention.

I am torn between the two. I am aware of the "unintended consequences" that might arise from assisting the opposition with an Islamist adherence, but am deeply saddened at the unimaginable suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of their own government.

Does the humanity outweigh the political considerations? If you do a search of YouTube, there are hundreds of videos of the barbaric bloodletting that has become a civil war. It is unfathomable to me that the world stands by while thousands of people are slaughtered, yet we need to wait for the use of chemical weapons as our "red line." Did we learn nothing from Rwanda or the Balkans?

I don't have an unbiased answer to the question of a no-fly zone. Those assault helicopters are over my former house.