Saturday, 30 May 2020

Assad versus Makhlouf

 'The open rift between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf, who with his dubious business interests controls a considerable segment of the Syrian economy, gives some idea of the seriousness of the crisis currently facing the Syrian régime. And it also demonstrates the magnitude of government corruption.

 The signs of disintegration that have long since been evident in the military and security apparatus, as well as in the country's economic life are now beginning to show in the all-powerful ruling clan as well. Against the backdrop of the military and political presence of Russia and Iran and growing criticism of Assad's actions by the Russian media over the past few weeks, a few surprises are still to be expected.

 A power struggle amongst mafia-like players for economic resources and political supremacy, plus a reckoning for the enormous number of victims amongst the Syrian population since 2011 are some of the factors that will define how things play out.

 To begin, though, we have to ask how Syria got itself into this dismal situation in the first place. So let's take a look back. The revolution of 2011 only became radicalised when the Assad régime decided to embark on a strategy of repression and military force to suppress a rebellion that had started out peacefully.

 There can be no doubt that the military response to the uprisings and the resulting elimination of the civil and popular character of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and 2012 was what led the Syrian Free Army to splinter into many different militias.

 And yet the régime preferred to embrace a scorched earth policy rather than curtailing Syrian presidential powers, or even implementing a minimum of political reforms to ensure social participation and the accountability of those in office.

 This may not be anything unusual for dictatorships. But it makes a huge difference whether a régime comes to the realisation that all signs are pointing toward radical change (as in some other Arab countries, where a new president at least took office), or whether it holds fast to its leader until its dying breath, without caring in the least what price there is to pay.

 In the hope of circumventing a political solution and reforms, the Syrian régime first enlisted the help of the Hezbollah from Lebanon and then called in Iranian government militias.

 When these steps failed to give the régime the necessary clout to regain the upper hand against the insurgents, it appealed to Russia with its fighter planes and military bases. In September 2015, Russia thus arrived on the scene and put all its weight into crushing the revolution, at a time when the insurgents were just on the verge of tipping the scales against the régime.

 The cumulative result of all these developments was millions of displaced persons and hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed. The régime increasingly put itself in the hands of Iran and Russia. In the meantime, Turkey to the north had become another player in the Syrian game.

 The fanatical policy pursued by the Syrian régime with the aim of maintaining total power has ended up robbing the President and his government of every last shred of credibility and sovereignty. The bloody treatment chosen by Bashar al-Assad to treat the revolution that began in 2011 has proven a hundred times worse than insurgents and activists could ever have imagined in their talks at the beginning of the uprisings.

 One of the products of the violent suppression of the revolution and the ensuing chaos has been the terrorist organisation "Islamic State". ISIS would never have been able to take advantage of the turmoil had Assad's government made any attempt at the outset to reach a political understanding with the insurgents. The régime completely misjudged the events and the deep-seated anger among the Syrian population. It was a misstep that would culminate in serious crimes against humanity.

 The monstrous scale of the murder and destruction perpetrated against the Syrian people since then has prompted numerous efforts to initiate criminal proceedings against the régime. In Germany, for example, litigation began a few weeks ago against members of the Syrian secret service who are alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity on behalf of the government.

 Victims finally have an opportunity to testify as witnesses against their tormentors, who are accused of torture, murder and the execution of prisoners. The indictment makes it clear that such acts were part of a systematic policy against activists and non-violent freedom fighters. The courts will also seek to prosecute those who ordered the executions, murders, torture and kidnappings.

 There is also the prospect that the trials and indictments will lead to further legal action. European countries including the Netherlands have for example begun to process tens of thousands of cases of missing persons who disappeared in the régime's prisons. The régime will not succeed forever in hiding from millions of Syrians around the world.
The revolution broke out at a time when the Syrian people had had enough of the régime's repressive approach, its disregard for the dignity and freedom of its citizens, and its lacklustre economic and security policies. Having sold off the country's resources to a small and influential elite, the government managed to degrade Syria's economic standing to place it near the bottom of the international league table.

 While the régime had still shared its financial resources with various sectors of society under former President Hafiz al-Assad, when his son Bashar al-Assad took office everything changed. Corruption and special interests came to the fore, to the increasing detriment of the lower and middle classes. In 2011 the people of Syria, like those of other Arab countries, rose up to demand a decent living standard and a minimum of social justice.

 All the while, the régime failed to realise that its repressive measures and the war it had launched against certain parts of Syrian society would end up contributing to the downfall of the old political system. Or that its propaganda claim that it would emerge victorious from that war was but a figment of its imagination.

 For how can a country speak of victory while driving out its own people, destroying its own economy, its villages and cities, and killing hundreds of thousands of its native daughters and sons?

 After the massacre of Hama in 1982, the régime still managed to bridge the country's divides. But what has happened in the years since 2011 has taken on a whole new dimension. All of Syria has become one colossal crime against humanity.

 The régime's ability to achieve reconciliation with its people and within the ruling elite has diminished under the presidency of Bashar al-Assad. Since the beginning of the uprising, the president has utterly squandered his moral and political capital.

 The fact that world and regional powers will now determine the fate of Syria is without doubt the natural consequence of the destruction of the country and its social structures by its own government and security apparatus.

 The coming events are still likely to throw up a few surprises. For Syria, the revolution of 2011 was the beginning of a new history. And thus, the ability of the Syrians to regain their honour will also be put to the test in the months and years to come.'

Friday, 22 May 2020

Assad regime threatens thousands of lives in Syria's Daraa, opposition says

Syrian children are seen play amidst the rubble of damaged buildings in Deraa, July 15, 2017. (Reuters)

 'The Syrian opposition expressed concern over the Syrian régime elements' escalation in the southern province of Daraa on Thursday, warning that the civilians in the region could face a "massacre."

 Abdurrahman Mustafa, head of the Syrian Interim Government, said despite being under régime control since 2018, the locals in Daraa continue to resist Bashar Assad rule and its supporters.

 "In order to oppress the rising opposing voices, the régime and its militia are deploying troops to Daraa," Mustafa said.

 Criticizing the régime's policy of intimidation against the civilians, Mustafa warned that the deployment of the military to the region would mean even greater risks for the locals.

 "We are concerned that the bloody-minded Syrian régime which has committed war crimes in Syria will cause a massacre in Daraa," Mustafa underlined.

 "Our people, who are against régime forces entering the region and kidnapping children, do not want to be under régime rule again. Our revolution will continue. The future belongs to our people," he said, emphasizing that Assad's rule is doomed to fail.

 He also called on the international community to take action against the régime's actions in southern Syria.

 "We need immediate precautions," he said.

 Back in 2011, upon the flow of the Arab Spring's spreading to Syria, a group of students in Daraa began the Syrian opposition movement by writing "Ejak el door ya Doctor," meaning "Your turn, doctor," on a school wall.

 After this initial move, Daraa was taken under opposition forces' control.

 However, in 2018, when Daraa was under heavy attack and blockade of régime forces, Russia became a mediator between the opposition and the régime. As a result of Russian mediation, the ones who wanted to stay in the region agreed to lay down their arms, while the groups that refused to reconcile were forced to migrate to the northern parts of the country.

 Currently, opposition groups who chose to stay continue their fight with light arms in regions that régime forces infiltrated.

 In accordance with the 2018 deal, public buildings display régime flags and have one régime security guard each.

 Although Assad régime forces claim that Daraa is completely under their control, in reality, there are constant attack attempts by unknown perpetrators. In these attacks, many régime figures, including high-ranking military officials, have been killed.

 Civilians in the region, on the other hand, warn régime forces to respect the boundaries of the deal while often staging protests for the release of the prisoners.'

Three former Syrian rebels killed in Daraa province | SYRIA NEWS ...

Thursday, 21 May 2020

The Gangs of Damascus

 'The hash came in milk cartons, four tons in total, carefully packed in 19,000 individual Tetra Paks. Customs officers discovered the goods on a ship in the Egyptian port of Port Said in mid-April. The cargo came from Syria and should probably be transported to Libya, the next civil war country.

 It is not the first time that drugs from Syrian production have appeared in a port in the region. Cases are piling up: Investigators confiscated several loads of amphetamine pills in Dubai, most recently in January; In Saudi Arabia, customs officers found 45 million Captagon tablets at the end of April, probably from Syrian laboratories. The goods were mostly hidden in packaging for mate tea from a Syrian company with connections to the Assad family.

 The ships always came from Latakia, the Syrian Mediterranean city whose port Iran leased last autumn. The drug finds show how desperate the Bashar al-Assad Syrian régime and its allies in Tehran are looking for sources of income. The country is almost broke. According to the United Nations, 80 percent of people live in poverty; the gross domestic product has dropped to a quarter of the pre-war level. The currency is falling faster and faster, prices are rising, but wages are hardly. Iran cannot help, Russia no longer wants to pay.

 The trade in drugs is one of the few remaining opportunities to come to foreign exchange. Hezbollah, Iran's bridgehead in Lebanon, conquered the Syrian city of Qusayr and the surrounding area as early as 2013 and declared the region a restricted area. The militia built dozens of small manufacturing facilities for an amphetamine known as Captagon. At the same time, the group pushed cannabis cultivation.

 According to several sources, Maher al-Assad, Bashar's younger brother and commander of the 4th division of the Syrian army, took over the security of Qusayr and the transport routes to the port in Latakia on the Mediterranean. Maher al-Assad's force is one of two still reasonably combat-ready units of the desolate Syrian army. And: It belongs to the Iranian faction within the armed forces.

 The corporate consortium of the Syrian entrepreneur and billionaire Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of the dictator, is responsible for camouflage and export. The four tons of hashish that appeared in Egypt were packaged in boxes from the Milkman company owned by Makhlouf. He denies the allegations.

 To the outside world, Assad almost won the nine-year campaign against his people, albeit at the cost of the extensive destruction of Syria. On the inside, however, the continued terror and the economic crash of the country are undermining his rule - the struggle for money and power escalates in the close circle of Assad's family.

 In the center of the two clans are Bashar al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf, of the dictator and the entrepreneur. The argument is so heated because the groups are related but don't particularly like each other. They complemented each other as long as there was enough to loot. That is over now.

 Now the richest man in Syria is publicly attacking the most powerful. On April 30, and again days later, Rami Makhlouf published two videos on Facebook, in which the tycoon complained bitterly: Claims by the tax authorities that he was supposed to pay the equivalent of around $ 100 million had been "manipulated" by sinister ranks. He was also outraged that his employees would now be arrested by intelligence officers. This was "a violation of laws and the constitution", and that, which was "the biggest sponsor of the security apparatus during the war": "Mr. President, do not allow it!"

 Rami Makhlouf, of all people, ridiculed Syrians, "Rami, al-Harami", the criminal, his nickname for years. At the start of the uprising, he was the richest man in Syria, estimated at $ 5 billion, who booted out all his competitors or had him jailed. He controlled the highly profitable mobile phone company SyriaTel. He owns construction and oil companies, and shares in almost everything that is worthwhile.

  Assad's problem is that his family's rule has been based on the Alawite religious minority for five decades, although around three quarters of the population were Sunnis before the war. Bashar al-Assad's mother Anisa, who married Hafis al-Assad, the founder of the dynasty in 1957, also came from the powerful Alawite family of Makhloufs. She and her family saw with disapproval that Bashar al-Assad married the Sunni banker Asma al-Akhras in 2000, whom he had met in London. In the Alawite homeland around the city of Latakia, many people wore black that day.

 Bashar's mother Anisa thought that a presidential wife should remain a housewife - but Asma is a glamorous lady who also speaks English better than her husband. Asma's feud with Rami Makhlouf, however, has primarily economic reasons. Both founded charities that have become one of the last ways to get UN aid since the beginning of international sanctions.

 From 2011, Makhlouf had supplemented his charitable “Bustan” foundation with an armed arm, whose up to 20,000 militia officers mowed down their own countrymen. Until Assad took action against the private army last fall. After an assassination attempt on the Bustan commander, arson attacks on their vehicle fleet and dozens of arrests, the Foundation fell silent.

 Now Asma is reportedly preparing to take over Makhlouf's crown jewel: As early as autumn, the telecom authority announced that a new mobile phone company would soon take over existing networks. The company, according to an unnamed source, should be called "Ematel" and belong to Asma al-Assad.

 Rami Makhlouf videos are dangerous , no mortal would survive something like that Assad's kingdom. But it could show that the majesty insults via Facebook prove to be a life-supporting measure in the end. For Makhlouf, the usual departure from disgraced grandees in Assad's empire is now ruled out: official suicide with several bullets in the back of the head. Nobody would believe in suicide after these videos.

 In any case, Makhlouf continues to reside in his property in Jaafur near Damascus. However, his videos have not led to an uprising by Alawi loyalists or the thousands that have been on Makhlouf's payroll so far.

 A member of one of the most powerful oligarch families in Damascus, who uses encrypted communication channels every few weeks, sees the drama of the two cousins as a secondary scene: What are they supposed to do? If Rami lets his followers march against Damascus, everyone will perish. Apart from that, someone whose sons present themselves on Instagram with the Villa and Ferrari collection is not too popular with impoverished Alawites who might be happy if they were fed up.

 The decisive factor, the man from Damascus continues, is another drama. Rami Makhlouf also plays a key role in this, only in a different family constellation. This is about the gigantic drug business, where deliveries have blown up so suspiciously lately. Makhlouf is not the goal, but his Iranian partner.

The whole thing is a clever castling: Moscow has had enough of the Syrian régime and its insubordination. Russia wants to consolidate, finally wants a peace agreement so that the billions flow from abroad for reconstruction. But the Iranians have to get out of it. Because they wanted to continue using Syria as a threat against Israel.

Moscow would not attack the Iranian-controlled units militarily, but would seek a more elegant way. It wants to deprive its Tehran allies tumbling on the verge of ruin from Syrian sources of income - including large-scale drug production.

 For a long time the Russians apparently had nothing against the export of illegal goods. But that changed last year when they instructed Syrian investigators to investigate Maher al-Assad's right-hand man for drug dealing. A brigadier general and a mafioso were removed from circulation. It was, as Maher himself pointed out, his most important men. The president's brother was so angry that, in the middle of the Idlib offensive, he pulled out all the units under his command.

 That was not well received in Moscow. Then Maher also stated that he no longer wanted to transfer foreign currency from the business of his 4th division to the central bank. This illustrates his lack of understanding of Russia's sudden entry. Why should the army suddenly no longer be part of a drug cartel?

 Moscow basically has no objection to its vassals torturing, murdering or doing obscure business at home as long as they remain loyal. But if a dictator by Russia's grace is always ungrateful and obstructs the Kremlin's plans, that is different.

 Russia is evidently in the process of showing the torture instruments to the drug trio from Rami Makhlouf, Maher al-Assad and Hezbollah. The blown-up deliveries are an indication of this, and that is also seen in Damascus, the oligarch relative continues: "The Russians want to shoot the Iranians business." it’s hardly a coincidence.

 The subcontractors of the Kremlin, like the Stroitransgas group with contracts for phosphate mines, fertilizer production, the port of Tartus, gas and oil exploitation, have already put themselves in a perfect position to benefit from the reconstruction. But he would have to start soon: "The Russians are running out of time." What he heard at the dinners of the minions and generals was the fear of an end to Russian patience on the big question of who should rule in the future: "You are there to give up Assad. You just don't know how. ”

 In any case, that would make sense of the drastic criticism of the régime that has recently come from various Moscow sources. It started in April with articles in Russian media about rampant corruption and an alleged poll among Syrians that only 32 percent would vote for Assad in the next election. Then the state news agency Tass commented that Assad was "not only unable to govern", but would "plunge Moscow into an Afghan scenario."

 The newspaper "Gosnovosti" wrote that Assad had David Hockney's pop art painting "The Splash" auctioned at Sotheby's for the equivalent of more than 26 million euros - to give it to Asma. While his people are starving and Russia is to wage war for Assad.

 The fact that the painting history was probably a fake makes things even more interesting: even Moscow's troll apparatus is directed against Assad, who was otherwise always labeled as a "legitimate president". One can interpret the criticism as a warning - or as preparation for the Russian and Syrian public that the "legitimate president" might not be president one morning.

 Something is shifting in the international fabric on which Assad's fate depends. Israel has carried out six airstrikes against Iranian positions in Syria since April, apparently with the green light from Moscow. The S-300 and S-400 batteries operated by Russian military, Syria's most modern air defense, have not fired a single missile at the jets that are coming in more and more often. Washington's Syrian commissioner, James Jeffrey, said in a U.S. State Department briefing: "Getting Russia out of Syria has never been our goal."

 In Damascus, the rows are closed. The palace released an apparatchik from the chain that was allowed to speak out publicly against the allies: if Moscow put further pressure on Assad, it could unleash a war against the "Russian occupiers", which "will forever remove Putin's name from Russian history" will.

 In the family circle, Maher al-Assad also hurries to distance himself from his cousin and smuggling partner Rami. But how close the two were, at least temporarily, was revealed by the history of the Facebook account in which Rami launched his campaign: he had taken over the account from Maher.'

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Online English classes revive ties severed by war in Syria

In this April 13, 2020 photo, Tariq al-Obeid, displaced from the eastern countryside of Idlib, Syria, shows a lesson for his children on a mobile phone in Kelly, a town in northern Idlib. Al-Obeid received the education material from a teacher on a private WhatsApp group. As the world moves online, the Syrians in opposition-held areas are too. In the time of coronavirus, the internet is becoming an educational tool, and one to salvage bonds essential for surviving the brutal conflict.

 'Who got married? Who had a baby? Have we lost anyone?

 Through crackling internet lines and jumpy connections, a group of Syrian students recently reunited after nearly two years, recreating their English language classes and their small community online from pockets of opposition-held areas.

 In the age of the coronavirus, schools and universities across the world have rushed to switch to education online. In this corner of Syria, the move also brings together students separated by war, distance and technological hurdles.

 The students spent much of the first lessons catching up, at times extending their Zoom call twice. One student said her brother was released after three years in régime jails — rare good news in a civil war where tens of thousands are unaccounted for.

 Some had babies, others got married or changed jobs. Many lost their homes or were displaced in Assad régime military offensives.

 In one class, eight students reunited halfway into the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. They talked over internet connections that often broke mid-sentence. Walls visible in some screen backgrounds bore what appeared to be cracks from past bombings.

 “This is the worst Ramadan,” said one of the students, Fatima Darwish, displaced in a régime offensive on Aleppo province and forced to spend the holy month huddled in a strange new place, a village where she knows no one.

 Her teachers offered sympathy, then reminded Darwish that countless others in the shrinking rebel-held enclave share her fate.

 In another class last month, 19 students discussed coronavirus restrictions. One said people were not taking the pandemic seriously, seeing it just as “another wave of killing.” Another said it has not changed daily life because in rebel-held areas, people still feel as isolated from the world as before.

 Before the pandemic, the general perception here was that online education was an expensive and impersonal experience. Now, that view is changing.

 “Everyone is online. The idea of online courses changed in people’s minds,” said Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a co-founder of the Institute of Language Studies, himself displaced in Idlib. “That is why we had the courage to do it.”

 It’s a family of sorts — especially for those who lost their own, he added.

 Founded in the eastern, rebel-held half of the city of Aleppo in 2015, the institute relocated to Idlib the following year, after Assad régime forces recaptured all of Aleppo.

 The school survived régime offensives and rebel infighting but it was the distance that finally forced the shutdown. Alhamdo lived a two-hour drive from the school, a deadly trek in the war zone. The institute’s co-founder, Wissam Zarqa, moved to Turkey to join his family and start graduate studies.

 A recent Russian-backed military campaign against the last rebel enclave displaced nearly a million people inside the territory, and also targeted schools and hospitals. Shortly after a cease-fire took effect in March, coronavirus restrictions began, further upending life.

 Resilient Syrians in rebel-held territory have overcome many obstacles in the country’s civil war, pulling together to hold classes in underground shelters or moving schoolrooms between displacement camps.

 The war-battered region has sporadic electricity and relies on satellite internet for communication.

 Now, nearly 60% of the 500,000 enrolled students in northwestern Syria are estimated to have joined online education programs, said Layla Hasso of Hurras Network, a group facilitating virtual education in the region.

 For Darwish’s English-language-for-adults classes, Zoom sessions take place late at night, hosted from neighboring Turkey by Zarqa.

 Last week, students lamented how the virus restrictions have dampened the Ramadan spirit — gone are the large family meals with many visiting relatives and friends, and the late-night communal prayers, so characteristic of the holy month.

 They all agreed they miss one thing online classes can’t replace: the handing out of sweets among themselves to celebrate marriages, newborns and other happy news.'

The war in Syria, the most violent conflict, and the conflict in ...

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Assad becoming an expensive client for Moscow

 'In several media interviews last week, James Jeffrey, the US special envoy to Syria, signaled that Washington had taken part in talks with the Russians. Whereas in the past such talks were mostly about the deconfliction of military operations, they now seem to be aimed at finding an end to the conflict through diplomatic channels.

 On Thursday, Jeffrey made a reserved statement about Russia cooperating to end the crisis in Syria. And he said in another interview that the Russians know “what kind of ally” they have in Syria. Jeffrey also pointed out the media campaign launched against Bashar Assad by Russia, while the majority of the Syrian people are lingering in poverty. There is no clear indication that Russia is yet willing to let go of Assad, but the facts nonetheless signal an important issue: Assad is becoming too expensive a client for Moscow.

 Despite a generally inconsistent US foreign policy, there has been a consistent attitude regarding the Russian intervention in Syria. Barack Obama, as well as Donald Trump, wanted the intervention to become too costly for Moscow to handle. This is why the Americans have been reluctant to put any serious offer on the table for Russia regarding letting Assad go.

 When Russia first intervened in 2015, Obama told Vladimir Putin that he was going to sink in a “quagmire,” the same way the US sank in Iraq. Putin banked on his intervention bolstering Russia’s position as a superpower and being able to use it to leverage business deals with countries in the Middle East, as well as to present himself as a key powerbroker in Syria and the region. Because of their positions on Syria, the Gulf countries, Turkey and Israel want to court the Russians, but the US is trying to limit those relations.

 After Turkey bought the S-400 missile defense system from Moscow, America pressured Ankara to keep the Russian missiles in their boxes and not deploy them. In return, it offered Turkey US-made Patriot missiles to protect its borders. Therefore, the US policy has been to limit the influence Russia can garner regionally from its position in Syria. Meanwhile, the US is watching Russia incur very high costs, knowing that it cannot support such an expensive venture for too long and that it needs to start recouping the costs, especially now the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices are taking their toll on the Russian economy. As for keeping the Iranians in check, Israel is doing that job by bombing Iranian targets in Syria with Russian acquiescence.

 The US is not in a rush, as long as Assad is contained as a regional problem. It is happy to see Russia bleeding cash and scrambling for a way out. Washington wants to negotiate with Russia, but from a position of power and not a position of weakness, while ensuring minimum military involvement, which is in line with Trump’s isolationist foreign policy.

 Syria is not a country with important natural resources. The lease of the port of Tartus for 49 years and contracts to exploit Syrian phosphate resources are not enough to pay for Moscow’s expenses in Syria. Unlike Iraq, which has the potential to pay for its own reconstruction, Syria needs international donors to start the process. Russia is hoping to get an important chunk of those contracts. Nevertheless, the West is firm in its position on the conflict: There will be no reconstruction until there is a clear political transition, which is not very likely with Assad in power.

 Meanwhile, Russia has reached a cap on the deals it can close in the region, or at least on the deals the US will allow. And every day in Syria means additional staggering expenses for the Russian military. Needless to say, the Russian intervention has also been costly in terms of lives. It has lost at least 19 manned aircraft.

 On the other hand, Assad has not changed his behavior in a manner that would allow Syrians to accept his rule. His brutality is unaltered. He does not commit to any settlements brokered by the Russians with the opposition, nor has he been able to provide any basic services. According to a Russian source of mine, Moscow is fed up with Assad’s free rider attitude. Obsessed with victory and with reconquering all territories, he is totally divorced from reality. The Russians are realizing that Assad is becoming increasingly expensive and that he is putting them in an unsustainable situation. Despite media campaigns and cracks in the house of Assad — with Bashar’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, denouncing in a YouTube video what he described as being wrongly targeted by the régime — Russia is not yet ready to let Assad go.

 Removing Assad prior to stabilizing the country might lead to a total collapse of the régime, with Russia left to bring order to an even more chaotic situation. So the Kremlin is trying hard to restrain him and pressure him in order to minimize its costs. Few expected the most recent cease-fire in Idlib to hold. Nevertheless, it is holding and Jeffrey said he is expecting it to hold for a few more months. It is probably because of Russian pressure that Assad is refraining from a full-fledged assault on the province.

 The months to come will be even more difficult for Russia. America’s Caesar Act will come into effect on June 17, inflicting biting sanctions on Russian companies that deal with Assad. In addition to finding a proper alternative that can keep most of the régime together, Putin does not want to be seen as giving up on his ally. More importantly, he does not want to look as though he is bowing to Western pressure. Putin’s central narrative is anti-Western; hyping up the breakup of the Soviet Union and the way the West reneged on its promises, leaving Russia to linger in dire economic conditions.'


Sunday, 10 May 2020

Iftar amid the rubble serves as a symbol of Syria's revolution

 'Nearly 100 people attended an iftar, the meal breaking the daytime fast observed by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, set up in the town of Atarib in the western Aleppo countryside that was devastated by the Russian-backed régime offensive earlier this year. A 3 March ceasefire reached between Turkey and Russia has allowed those displaced by the fighting to return home. Régime forces control territory just four kilometres away.

 The preparation for the banquet was carried out by volunteers from the civil defence, who also sterilised the area.

 The iftar organisers said they wanted to show the continuance of the Syrian revolution. "We chose the town of Atarib for its revolutionary symbolism after the regime tried to advance on it recently," said Abdullah Tuimi, director of the community association which ran the iftar.

 Seventy-three thousand people have returned to the city and have started repairing their homes and shops while trying to rebuild their lives.

 "We returned after fleeing the bombing to find our homes flattened and destroyed. We wanted to attend this iftar because it would allow us all to meet again after our displacement," said Mustafa al-Shun, a resident of the town who attended the banquet.'

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Syria's long road to justice and the man hoping to walk it there

Anwar al-Bunni on the train from Berlin to attend the historic trial in Koblenz, Germany [Hannah el-Hitami/Al Jazeera]

 'It is 10:30am on April 22; a sunny Wednesday morning.

 Anwar al-Bunni, a 61-year-old with small dark eyes beneath bushy brows, is standing outside Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the German city's main train station, in a light grey jacket and dark pants. Where travellers and commuters usually hurry in and out of the large glass and steel building, all is quiet today. Whoever can, is staying at home because of the coronavirus.

 The renowned Syrian human rights lawyer is making his way to Koblenz's Higher Regional Court, where he will testify in a case due to begin the next day. But al-Bunni is more than just a witness at the trial. He is, many of those connected to the trial agree, one of the people who made it possible.

 In the landmark trial, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib - alleged members of Branch 251 of the Syrian military intelligence service in Damascus - stand accused of committing crimes against humanity.
 The accusations against al-Gharib relate to the brutal assault and torture of 30 anti-government demonstrators he allegedly rounded up in the autumn of 2011.

 But it is Raslan's case that is seen as the most significant. The former senior military official stands accused of being the head of Branch 251's investigations and thereby responsible for at least 4,000 cases of torture, 58 deaths and two cases of rape or sexual assault between April 2011 and September 2012. If found guilty, he could receive a life sentence.

 Both men ultimately defected - Raslan in 2012 and al-Gharib in 2014. They fled Syria and started new lives in Germany - where they were arrested in 2019.

 Since 2011, when protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government broke out, the German Federal Prosecutor has been collecting evidence about crimes committed in Syria.

 Now, it is using the principle of universal jurisdiction to hold the world's first criminal trial on torture in Syria.

 The German Code of Crimes against International Law, implemented in 2002, allows the German authorities to prosecute anyone who commits crimes against humanity, even if they have no direct connection to Germany.

 The train carriage is almost empty as al-Bunni takes his seat in it. Travelling with him is a Syrian survivor of torture, her mother and a Syrian journalist.

 Concealed behind sunglasses, the young woman, who asked to remain anonymous, is on the verge of tears.

 "This man has been looking after me like a father," she says. "He is the only one who is really on our side."

 Like tens of thousands of Syrians, she was tortured in al-Assad's notorious prisons, where she was detained for about a year in 2012.

 Now a refugee in Germany, she has not recovered from the physical and psychological damage done to her. Despite several operations, her kidneys are still seriously damaged and she needs psychotherapy. "I really want to support the trial by testifying," she says. "But I cannot speak about the details of what they did to me."

 As important as this trial is, according to al-Bunni, it is just the beginning of Syria's long road to justice, at the end of which may stand the prosecution of al-Assad himself.

 "We already submitted a lawsuit against him to the German Federal Prosecutor in 2018," he explains. "The evidence heard at the trial in Koblenz will support our case against al-Assad by exposing the whole Syrian régime."

 It has been a long time coming for al-Bunni, who began defending political prisoners in Syria in 1986.

 He was born and raised in Hama in a family that gave him every reason to become a lawyer.

 "All together, my siblings and their spouses have spent almost 70 years in Syria's prisons," he laughs.

 But, al-Bunni actually started his working life doing something entirely different. In the early 1980s, he was an assistant engineer on the construction of Saydnaya Prison, a place Amnesty International labelled a "human slaughterhouse" in 2017 because of the mass executions of prisoners that have taken place there.

 But at the age of 21, after three of his siblings were arrested, he decided to return to university to study law.

 His oldest brother was the first to be detained in 1977; others followed.

 "My brothers and sisters as well as many of my friends were political activists. I was not, so I decided to become a lawyer: at least I would be able to contribute by defending them," he explains.

 Arbitrary arrests of political activists and opposition members, like torture, was commonplace under the rule of Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad.

 Al-Bunni spent almost 20 years defending Syrian inmates: political prisoners pro bono, criminals to make a living.

 Finally, in 2006, he, too, was arrested. He was sentenced to five years in prison for spreading seditious false news.

 "The prison guards tried to kill me twice, but I survived with the help of other inmates," he recalls. "I tried to make the best of my time there. I started working out and devised plans for Syria's political future that I later wrote down and published."

 In 2011 he was released, just in time to see the first months of Syria’s uprising. In 2014, however, he fled from Syria to Lebanon, where he and his family received humanitarian visas from the German embassy.

 "I wanted to stay in Syria as long as possible to defend the increasing number of political prisoners," he says. "But at some point it became clear that being arrested was tantamount to death. Not just one's own death, but the death of the whole family. So we left."

 In Germany, al-Bunni founded the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, where he and his colleagues collect information about Syrian régime members and build cases around them.

 Even though he is not licensed to work as a lawyer in Germany, he has cooperated with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) to prepare lawsuits and put the German prosecution in touch with many witnesses.

 Their statements give detailed accounts of Syria's detention centres and what happens inside them. They are among the most important pieces of evidence in this groundbreaking case.

 Many of the witnesses knew al-Bunni from Syria, where he had already defended them during their detention. Others have met him in Germany, where a large Syrian exile community has formed since around one million refugees arrived in 2015.

 Because al-Bunni is well known and trusted within the community, he and his fellow activists were able to locate former inmates and torture survivors in Germany and encourage them to testify with the Federal Prosecution.

 "He is of great value to our work," explains Patrick Kroker, one of the lawyers at ECCHR who are representing the Syrian plaintiffs at the trial.

 "He has an incredibly large network and standing among the Syrian community. He and other Syrian lawyers such as Mazen Darwish and Jumana Saif have been the link between the Syrian witnesses and the German judiciary."

 As the high-speed train rushes past green meadows, wheat fields and forests, al-Bunni gives one media interview after another. He says he does not mind; on the contrary, he is delighted by all the media attention the trial has received across the world.

 "The media is our strongest weapon," he says. "The whole world needs to understand that these people can never play a part in Syria's future."

 In English and Arabic, he patiently answers the same questions over and over again: Yes, it is true that he ran into the accused Anwar Raslan a few years ago at the refugee accommodation centre in Berlin Marienfelde. Yes, he did recognise him as the man who had arrested him in 2006. No, this trial is not his own personal vendetta against him. It is much bigger than that.

 "He arrested them, tortured them, killed them under torture," al-Bunni almost shouts into his phone during one interview about Raslan.

 After hanging up, he smiles apologetically, and looks around to see whether he has bothered other passengers. Then he explains: "Our goal is not to convict a small cog of the infernal machinery that continues to murder people. Instead, we want to use this small cog to prove the existence of the machinery and to show the extent of its infernality."

 Al-Bunni has had to explain many times why he is backing the trial. He has been criticised for it, even by friends and colleagues who believe that putting two defectors on trial, while high-ranking Syrian officials are still free, is the wrong approach.

 For al-Bunni, however, it makes no difference, whether or not they defected.

 "In Islam we have this principle that whoever becomes a Muslim is absolved of any sins he may have committed before," he explains. "But justice does not work like that outside of religion. Just because they defected, they cannot be considered innocent. Justice must always be served in accordance with the needs of the victims, not the perpetrators."

 Several victims will participate as joint plaintiffs in the trial against Raslan. This allows them to play a more active role in shaping the trial instead of just testifying once in front of the court. They can attend every hearing, summon witnesses and file motions.

 Others who were incarcerated and tortured in Syria will testify like al-Bunni or attend the hearings as spectators.

 Al-Bunni hopes the trial will be the first step towards change.

 "Usually, when violent conflicts end the winner sets the framework for transitional justice," he says, after the first two trial days have ended and he is again on the train, back to Berlin for the weekend.

 "But in this case, justice is served while the crimes continue to be committed. Justice will set the framework for how the conflict in Syria will develop."

 This trial is just one element of that. Syrian activists and NGOs across Europe have prompted their federal prosecutors to issue international arrest warrants against the highest-ranking members of the Syrian régime.

 It will take patience to see the results, but right now Anwar al-Bunni is optimistic.

 "I had no doubts that this moment would come," he says. "But this trial is not our final goal. It is just one step on the way to bringing all criminals to justice." '

Syria court case

Saturday, 25 April 2020

'Assad wants them to die of coronavirus,' say families of Syria's missing

A satellite image shows Syria's military-run Saidnaya prison, located 30 kilometres north of Damascus. CNES and ASTRIUM / Amnesty International via AFP

 'The families of people missing in Syria’s notorious prison system say they fear they will never see their loved ones again due to the spread of coronavirus, as a landmark trial over state-sponsored torture gets under way.

 It is estimated that anywhere between 75,000 and over 200,000 people are missing in Syria, with many thought to be either dead or forcibly detained.

 Families say little is being done to hold the regime to account and that the international community has failed to protect the Syrian people.

 It comes as two alleged former Syrian intelligence officers appeared in a German court on Thursday, charged with crimes against humanity for the treatment of detainees in their care in the first court case over state-sponsored torture by Bashar al-Assad's regime.

 While the case offers some hope, it is being held on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity, as the International Criminal Court is hamstrung by vetoes from Russia and China. Defendants Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib are accused of multiple counts of murder, rape and torture.

 “It is not just [our family members] who are being tortured, we are being tortured, too,” said Garam Zarim, whose four uncles have been missing since they were detained by the regime in 2013.

 “Where are my loved ones? Just give us information, you don’t even need to let them go.”

 The project manager, 30, originally from the north-eastern city of Latakia but now living in southern Turkey, said that with no news of her uncles’ whereabouts and unable to confirm their deaths to hold a funeral, the lack of closure casts a long shadow over everyone in the family.

 The wife of one uncle attempted to sell her home for the US$2,000 needed to bribe prison guards for information. Paying for news of a friend or relative is a common occurrence among those who can scrape together the cash, said Ms Zarim, but that is not easy in a country stricken by almost a decade of war and the economic problems that go with it.

 “I have now heard rumours that coronavirus is in Daraa jail. There are as many as 50 people per cell there and he (Assad) wants them to die.”

 Umm Muhammad, 45, a farmer who now also lives in Turkey’s Hatay province, was detained for six months in 2013 alongside two of her sons, and has not seen or heard news from them since.

 “I underwent the most severe torture, causing anxiety and extreme fear. I was subjected to beatings that led to a severe nervous breakdown and was locked up in a prison cell with 60 other women,” she said.

 “We shared one bathroom in the cell and drank polluted water from the toilet. The food they gave us was rotten and spoiled. There was no soap in the bathroom. Cleansing hygiene was very poor. It was indescribable.”

 She said she is now especially worried about her sons and other detainees because not only is coronavirus highly contagious and conditions in prison dire, the measures in place to combat the spread of the disease means that it is almost impossible to continue her search for them.

 “Prisoners where I was held had head lice. No medication was available and people suffered from diarrhoea until they died,” she said.

 “If one inmate gets infected, it will be passed on to all the others and cause a humanitarian disaster.”

 For some families, the pain of not knowing is worsened by inaccurate information. Ms Zarim said that although the Syrian government has pronounced one of her uncle’s dead, the family do not believe it was true.

 “Parents do not trust the information handed to them by civil departments, which should be a trustworthy source. Some people are being released alive when their civil documents say they are dead,” said Amal al-Nassim, chief executive of Amal’s Healing and Advocacy Centre, which represents the families of Syria’s missing people.

 Ms al-Nassim said that one family found their son to be alive two years after they were told he was dead, had been presented with a death certificate and held a funeral for him.

 “Survivors of torture have spoken about the lack of health and food care and the most important life necessities in prison, and now families have to add to that the threat that their relatives may die from coronavirus.”

 Several Syrians said that the recorded number of deaths from heart attacks, even in teenagers, and pneumonia has grown at an unusually high rate in the last few months, while the official number of deaths and cases of Covid-19 in the country remain relatively low.

 Families say they not only worry the regime will not protect their loved ones – who are mostly held under loosely defined and politically motivated charges – from the pandemic, but that it is a convenient ‘get out of jail free’ card for a regime with many unexplained deaths to account for.

 “Our objective is that it is important the regime reveal the state of our missing persons and allow international commissions and medical commissions to offer health care in detention centres, that families be allowed to see their children, and that dead bodies are surrendered,” said Ms al-Nassim.

 “The mothers of the martyrs can sleep while the mothers of the detained and the missing cannot.” '