Gunning for Damascus

When no one was watching, the Syrian rebels started winning.

Mideast conflicts have a nasty habit of occurring all at once. And while all eyes have been on Gaza and Israel this past week, several major diplomatic and military developments have occurred on the Syrian front -- some of which may prove decisive to the end game of a 20-month old crisis.

The rebels are winning.  The insurgents on the ground in Syria appear to be winning more and more territory and confiscating more and more high-grade materiel from President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Just as Operation Pillar of Defense was kicking off over Gaza on Nov. 14, the Free Syrian Army took the entire city of al-Bukamal along the Iraqi border, where they also sacked two major airbases, giving the opposition a strong military foothold in Syria's easternmost province, a vital smuggling route for weapons.

The rebels then claimed a massive victory on the night of Nov. 18, sacking the Syrian Army's 46th Regiment, 15 miles west of Aleppo, after a 50 day-long siege. The real score, though, was in confiscated materiel: Rebels made off with tanks, armored vehicles, Type-63 multiple rocket launchers, artillery shells, howitzers, mortars, and even SA-16 surface-to-air missiles. Gen. Ahmed al-Faj of the Joint Command, a consortium of different rebel battalions, told the Associated Press: "There has never been a battle before with this much booty." (For a seemingly comprehensive video accounting of the rebel haul, check out Brown Moses's blog.)

The gains have only continued in the past week. On Nov. 20, rebels hit the Syrian Information Ministry in Damascus with two mortar rounds and stormed an air defense base at Sheikh Suleiman, about 11 miles from the Turkish border, where they seized stocks of explosives before withdrawing to elude retaliatory air strikes. "Assad's forces use the base to shell many villages and towns in the countryside," one rebel said. "It is now neutralized."

There are also signs that bigger gains are on the way. It's "March to Damascus Week" for the revolutionaries, as a multi-pronged offensive has taken shape in and around the capital. On Nov. 19, Ansar al-Islam and Jund Allah Brigades, two Islamist rebel groups, seized the Syrian Air Defense Battalion headquarters near Hajar al-Aswad, just south of Damascus. Another base in Ghouta, a region in the Damascus countryside, was also sacked. Opposition forces are also holding Daraya, a southwest suburb of the capital, despite days of intense aerial bombardment from Assad's Republican Guard.

This map, courtesy of the wonderfully obsessive EA Worldview website, shows how rebel operations have arrived right at Assad's doorstep the last 48 hours. Meanwhile, as EA Worldview's Jim Miller points out, the Syrian north is now effectively anti-Assad country: "The regime has not won a noteworthy military victory in this territory in over two months."

Syria's political opposition is getting its act together. The six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, France, Libya, Turkey and Britain have now all recognized the Syrian National Coalition, which was formed in Doha on Nov. 11, as "the" (not "a," an important distinction in diplomatese) legitimate representative of the Syrian people, in effect making it the new government-in-exile for all those countries. The anti-Assad opposition group has even appointed its own ambassador to France, Munzer Makhous, an Alawite with a background in academia, no doubt selected to signpost its minority-friendly inclusiveness. These moves have led to intense speculation about whether Western countries are prepared to supply the rebels with military assistance, or even the possibility of an Anglo-French-led effort at intervention.

Yet that all still hangs on the United States, which stopped short of fully recognizing the coalition. State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the newborn body, which Foggy Bottom helped midwife, simply "a legitimate representative of the Syrian people" -- the same language Washington used with the Syrian National Council. The EU foreign ministers' statement was even more wishy-washy, recognizing the coalition merely as "legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people."

This fudge is deliberate, and there are at least two reasons behind it. First, Washington and Brussels understand that while the coalition's optics and rhetoric might be encouraging (President Moaz al-Khatib's alarming website notwithstanding), it still has much work to do in expanding its ranks, building a viable transitional government, and -- most important -- proving rather than simply asserting that it controls the bulk of the armed rebels.

Its control over the men who are waging the insurgency against Assad's military was cast in doubt last week, when members of the Islamist Tawhid Brigade, the largest rebel faction in Aleppo, rejected the new coalition as a "conspiracy" against the uprising. The group quickly reversed course: On Tuesday, a new YouTube video showed Tawhid Brigade spokesman Abdel-Qader Saleh affirming the group's support for the coalition, "as long as it adheres to the objectives of and aspirations of the revolution" and characterizing the earlier statement as a rogue demarche based on the "marginalization of revolutionary groups with an actual presence on the ground, which are leading the liberation of Aleppo."

President Barack Obama's administration may also be wary of going all in with the coalition because it realizes that it could increase the pressure to intervene in Syria, which it is loathe to do. If the coalition is described as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, then a credible case can be made to designate Assad's forces an "invading" presence in Syria -- making it all the more urgent to expel them by force.

Turkey gets its Patriots. For the last fortnight, Turkey had been playing its usual will-we-or-won't-we games with the media over whether it would move for NATO to position Patriot missile systems on its border with Syria. It ended the suspense on Nov. 20, when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that a deal had indeed been struck to better fortify Turkey's 560-mile border with Syria with the kind of surface-to-air batteries that made Saddam Hussein's life very unpleasant in two Gulf wars. Though NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has claimed that the Patriots would exclusively be used to counter cross-border Syrian mortar rounds, there's always the chance they could be used to shoot down Syrian aircraft that fly too close to the border, thus creating a no-fly zone.

Creating a no-fly zone might not require too much heavy lifting for the United States. Lt. Col. Eddie Boxx and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace have argued that if Patriot systems were stationed on the Turkish and Jordanian borders and were used in conjunction with three types of U.S. aircraft -- the E-3 AWACS, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and E-8 JSTARS -- they could "give the FSA a protected arc some 40-50 miles from the borders."

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Thanksgiving is Un-American

Seriously. What you need to know about the international origins of the most American of holidays.

Few U.S. folk customs are as popular and as quintessentially American as Thanksgiving. A rich thread of tradition connects the First Feast, famously celebrated almost four centuries ago by Pilgrims and native Americans at Plymouth Plantation, with the modern president's annual pardon of a turkey, officially the Luckiest Bird in America.

But not only is the annual turkey-fest wholly American in origin, it is also -- like American football and the Fahrenheit scale -- as ubiquitous at home as it is rare overseas. Compare that to, say, Halloween or Santa Claus, two holiday phenomena that have struck deep roots in global culture in a still-recognizable American format.

Perhaps why Thanksgiving hasn't become globalized is because it is the festive celebration of American exceptionalism -- a marker of the country's unique position in the world. How much, really, can other nations have to be thankful for, compared to the country that put men on the moon, won two World Wars and one Cold War, and with might and right on its side appropriated +1 as its telephone country code?

But hold on a moment: Thanksgiving isn't all that typically American. That rich thread that connects past Thanksgivings to the present one branches out to alternate histories, different traditions, and other cultures. And the clues are in the name of that bird, cooked specimens of which form the centerpiece of millions of dinner tables. But before we talk turkey, let's look at Thanksgiving's geographical range.

Turns out Thanksgiving isn't just American, it's also Canadian and Liberian, Grenadan and Norfolkian.

In Canada, Thanksgiving (or Action de grâce, if you're French-Canadian) is an annual holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October. There is some discussion on whether Canadian Thanksgiving has its origins in a sermon of thankfulness pronounced on Baffin Island during Martin Frobisher's disastrous 1578 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Opposed to this neat underpinning of Canadian exceptionalism is the theory that the holiday was transported north with American Loyalists fleeing the patently disloyal outcome of the American Revolution from the 1780s onwards.

Either way, for a time, Canadian Thanksgiving was a very movable feast, only proclaimed if and when there was a particular occasion to give thanks for. In 1816, Thanksgiving was held in summer to commemorate the end of the Napoleonic wars. In 1872, it fell on April 5, celebrating the Prince of Wales' recovery from a grave illness.

Liberia, founded in 1820 by Americans as an African destination for freed black slaves, also imported a number of American customs, Thanksgiving among them. Liberian Thanksgiving, however, is celebrated on the first Thursday of November, and involves not turkey but roasted chicken, accompanied by mashed cassavas and green bean casserole.

On the tiny Pacific island of Norfolk, an Australian dependency halfway between New Zealand and New Caledonia (France), and populated in part by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, Thanksgiving has been celebrated ever since American whalers brought the custom ashore in the 19th century. Norfolk's Thanksgiving falls on the last Wednesday in November.

Grenada's association with Thanksgiving is of much more recent origin. Who'd have thought that a U.S. invasion, instigated by Ronald Reagan, would ever be celebrated as a national holiday? And yet, the 1983 removal of a Cuban-supported socialist regime by Operation Urgent Fury is celebrated every year with a Thanksgiving Day on 25 October, the start date of the invasion.

And what holds for Thanksgiving's range also goes for its roots: closer inspection reveals that it's less American than at first glance.

Ground Zero for the current tradition is the three-day feast held in 1621 at Plymouth, Massachusetts, involving 90 natives and 53 Pilgrims. But the tradition didn't spring up ex nihilo: Thanksgivings were being celebrated in Virginia's Jamestown settlement as early as 1610. And both the Plymouth and Jamestown celebrations echoed traditions brought over from Protestant England.

The English Reformation, concerned with returning Christianity to its essential core, didn't just shut down the monasteries; it also abolished the Catholic calendar, which cluttered up the year with almost 100 special Saint's days and other religious holidays -- this on top of the 52 church-going Sundays. The Puritans refused even to recognize Easter and Christmas, limiting themselves to an austere and variable regimen of Days of Fasting, whenever disasters befell the faithful (such as an outbreak of the plague in 1604), or Days of Thanksgiving, when Providence showered them with blessings (the timely discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, for example).

One theory even conjures up Dutch roots for the all-American feast. In the decade prior to their migration to New England, many Pilgrims had found refuge in Leyden, between Rotterdam and Amsterdam. In 1575, the city was relieved of a Spanish siege. This was one of the turning points in Netherlands' 80 Years' War of independence from Spain. An annual celebration of Thanksgiving, each year on October 3, may have stuck in the minds of the Pilgrims. The city of Leyden still celebrates the victory over the Spanish on that day, and free herring is festively distributed among the populace. But to commemorate the city's link with the Pilgrims, the Pieterskerk holds a separate Thanksgiving service -- moved to the fourth Thursday in November, to coincide with the American holiday.

But Thanksgiving doesn't merely have Protestant roots; it's obviously also a celebration of the Pilgrim's first successful harvest in the New World. In that sense, it figures in a much older, much broader, and much more global tradition of harvest festivals.

In Russia, Poland, and other Slavic countries, Dozhinki is a festival of song and dance at the end of the harvest. The French-Swiss Bénichon, a seven-course meal, celebrates both the harvest and the return of cattle from pasture high in the Alps. In Iceland, Freyfaxi, on August 1, celebrates the beginning of the harvest with sports matches, often dedicated to the god Freyr. Also on August 1, Celtic (and pagan) Europe celebrates Lughnasadh, the first grain harvest. At Samhain, on October 31, they celebrate the last one.

The Dutch celebrate a Dankdag on the first Wednesday of November, and the Germans and Austrians an Erntedank on the first Sunday of October. This coincides with the end of the Oktoberfest, with its carnivalesque cornucopia of food and drink itself a celebration of plentiful harvests.

Harvest festivals abound on all continents, but different climes obviously impose different times for celebration. The Bhogali Bihu, celebrating the end of harvest in the Indian state of Assam, is held in January. The Flores de Mayo on the Philippines are celebrated in May. And one of the oldest recorded harvest festivals is the Jewish weeklong festival of sukkot, which follows the Jewish lunar calendar, swaggering back and forth between late September and late October.

But let's get back to that turkey: Why is the staple ingredient of most American of holidays named after a Eurasian country? After all, the species Meleagris is native to the Americas. But like so many of the endemic species of the Old and the New World, America's Big Bird got mixed up in the so-called Columbian Exchange that saw cats, carrots, and cholera go west, and syphilis, tomatoes, and rubber go east.

To Europeans, used to puny chickens, the American bird looked so exotic that it was endowed with all kinds of faraway origins. Hence the English reference to Turkey. Other languages place the bird's origins even further east. French dinde refers to India ("d'Inde"), and the Danish and Norwegian Kalkun name-checks Calcutta.

The Greek, however, call it gallopoula, literally "French chicken." In Bulgarian dialect, a misirka refers to a supposedly Egyptian origin of the bird (Misr is Arabic for Egypt), while in Arabic itself, the bird is thrown back across the Mediterranean as dik rumi, or "Greek chicken." In Croatia, they provide the bird with Peruvian ancestry (puran), while Malays may refer to the feathered beast as an ayam Belanda (Dutch chicken).

So, what do they call a turkey in Turkey? A hindi, as in "from India."

So, when you're celebrating that most American of holidays this year, remember that it's far more international than you might have thought. And yes, that too is something to be thankful for.

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