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By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

TAL KHALAKH, Syria — For more than a year, Ghassan Eid didn’t speak to his son, Khaled, who abandoned his job as a policeman and joined the armed rebels.

“I was ashamed,” recalled the father, a shop owner in Tal Khalakh, long renowned as a smuggling hub with nearby Lebanon — and more recently as a cross-border terminus for arms and rebel fighters. “He was not my son anymore.”

All that has changed. Khaled has renounced the uprising to oust President Bashar Assad and is studying to become a lawyer.

“I was wrong; some people deceived us,” Khaled, 31, dressed in a track suit, said as he and other young men hung out on the eerily becalmed streets of Tal Khalakh, where bullet- and shell-pocked buildings attest to months of conflict. “I’m back to myself now.”

He is among hundreds of ex-rebels in the Tal Khalakh area who, according to the mayor here, have joined what the Syrian government calls the “reconciliation” process.

Participants agree to turn in their arms and sign a pledge of loyalty to Assad’s government. In return, officials say, they are allowed to return to civilian life or to army units if they were deserters.

Reconciliation, in varied forms, is slowly gaining momentum in some areas of Syria and has taken off lately in a number of former battleground districts outside Damascus, the capital.

Although the process is tenuous, and some truces have broken down amid mutual allegations of violations, Syrian government officials hail the developments as a home-grown alternative to stalled peace talks in Geneva, where each side has accused the other of intransigence.

To segments of the armed opposition and its international allies, however, such truces are a case of capitulation forced through bombardment, starvation, mass detentions and siege. The military has been accused of reneging on promises, detaining participants and withholding aid to some besieged districts after truce deals were hammered out.

Without question, the embryonic reconciliation process could easily falter.

“This is a very fragile situation,” said Elia Samman, an aide to Ali Hayder, appointed by Assad as the national minister of reconciliation. “There is no trust between both sides. We need to build trust.”

Many opposition advocates see reconciliation as a cynical strategy aimed at gaining a military advantage by neutralizing rebel fighters who, in many cases, rejoin the military or sign up for pro-government militias.

“What happened in Tal Khalakh is not a truce, it’s a military occupation,” said Aboud Dandachi, an exiled antigovernment activist who comes from a prominent family in the town.

“I don’t blame people who have been shelled and starved for agreeing to live under a military occupation,” Dandachi, 37, said in a Skype interview from Istanbul, Turkey. “But it’s not some kind of template for peace in Syria.”

Still, many Syrians agree that the deeply polarized country must somehow pull back from the dark abyss it has tumbled into.

As the Syrian civil war nears the three-year mark, Tal Khalakh stands as a kind of microcosm of the conflict, which has evolved from peaceful protests to a military crackdown to prolonged armed clashes, and, in Tal Khalakh and elsewhere, to uneasy truces in war-ravaged, depopulated towns and cities.

“People are tired of the war,” Yacoub El Hillo, the chief U.N. representative in Syria, said last month while helping to oversee a series of temporary truces in the rebel-held Old City of Homs. “People want peace again.”

An unexpected outcome of the Homs cease-fires was the decision of more than 500 males between the ages of 15 and 55 to evacuate the Old City voluntarily and submit to the reconciliation procedure.

Many were aware that by doing so, they could face prison for acts of “terrorism” committed as rebel fighters. Those interviewed said they were just fed up with the battle, lack of food and other hardships.

“We couldn’t stand it in there any more,” said one evacuee, Bilal, 18, a gray blanket hanging over his shoulder, his baggy clothes evidence of 30 pounds lost during the almost two-year government siege. “There was no point in continuing. I’d rather take my chances and hope I can get back some kind of regular life. This is over for me.”

In Tal Khalakh, just off the strategic highway connecting Homs province to the Mediterranean, the truce has held for eight months, authorities say. Military checkpoints are found at all entrances to Tal Khalakh, which had a prewar population of about 40,000; it appears more than half the residents have fled. The rebels who once held sway have either left or agreed to truce terms, residents say.

“Everything is back to normal here now,” said Aksam Jazzar, 54, a barber, who nonetheless had no customers in his shop.

Tal Khalakh retains a ghostly, half-abandoned feel. On a recent weekday, more than 80 percent of the shops appeared shuttered; few structures did not have bullet holes or deep gouges from shell impacts. Months of fighting drove much of the population to Lebanon, just two miles away, through a picturesque, pine-studded gorge and across the Nahr el Kabir River.

Simmering discontent with the government erupted into peaceful street protests in April 2011, and grew into sectarian-fueled violence. Each side blamed the other for the escalation.

A year of intermittent conflict pummeled Tal Khalakh, as rebel fighters slipped back and forth across the border.

Although Sunni Muslims are a majority in Tal Khalakh, surrounding villages are home to a significant population of Alawites, the fiercely loyalist and secular-leaning Shiite Muslim offshoot sect whose most prominent member is Assad. A sizable Christian minority is also largely pro-government. People here say Syria’s conflict belies a long history of peaceful coexistence and socializing over coffee, tea and glasses of arak, an anise-flavored, conversation-inducing liquor that turns cloudy white when water is added.

“We have lived here together for generations, regardless of sect,” said Tal Khalakh’s mayor, Akram Rashid Kalish, 49, an Alawite and former state railway employee whose office sports various images of Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, including a brass bust of the late president.

Others, however, say resentment was just below the surface, especially among Sunnis bitter about perceived neglect from Damascus and a sense that Alawites were favored for the few government jobs.

Finally, local elders of various sects pushed the idea of reconciliation.

“We didn’t want to see our home destroyed,” said Walid Zoubi, who helped craft the peace along with other Sunni elders, including Ghassan Eid. “We faced losing everything.”

An uneasy truce took hold in June. According to opposition activists, about 30 rebels who voluntarily gave themselves up at the time have not been heard from since.

By then, the mayor said, about 100 people had been killed in the fighting, a significant toll, but moderate by Syrian standards. Tal Khalakh avoided the fate of nearby Qusair, reduced to rubble during a yearlong rebel occupation and successful government campaign to retake it.

Many ex-fighters, including a former Free Syrian Army commander known by his nickname, Abu Uday, appear to have made their peace with the process.

“They say I was given 5 million Syrian pounds to sign the (reconciliation) papers,” Abu Uday said during an interview at his home, citing an amount equivalent to about $35,000. “I wish it were the case.”

He and others face threats from their former colleagues-in-arms, never far from Tal Khalakh.

“They call me a traitor,” said Khaled Eid, who is again on speaking terms with his father and is studying law and helping out at the family’s fragrance shop in town. “I don’t care about it. I did what I did.”

AFP Photo/Ahmad Aboud


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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Tina Peters

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A right-wing conspiracy theorist who was indicted in March on criminal charges of tampering with voting machines to try to prove former President Donald Trump's lies of a stolen 2020 presidential election on Tuesday lost the Republican primary to run for secretary of state of Colorado, the person who oversees its elections.

With 95 percent of the vote counted, Tina Peters, the clerk and recorder of Mesa County, Colorado, was in third place, trailing the winner, fellow Republican Pam Anderson, 43.2 percent to 28.3 percent.

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