Monday, 17 September 2018

In the line of fire: Free Syria's police brace for regime's Idlib offensive

In the line of fire: Free Syria's police brace for regime's Idlib offensive

 'As Syrian regime forces mobilise for a new offensive on Idlib, a group of men and women continue to maintain safety and security in the opposition-held province, amid an atmosphere of panic, dread and terror.                                                       
 The Free Syrian Police (FSP) have been key to the establishment of law and order in Syria's north over the past six years, preventing outbreaks of looting and lawlessness in opposition territories.

 Their pursuit of thieves, as well as their work with the White Helmets, or more ordinary tasks such as directing traffic, have seen their roles as officers transformed since they defected from the regime.

 The trust the unarmed officers have earned from the community and ability to maintain order, without brutality, has made them among the most popular institutions operating in opposition areas.

 Their ability to halt the spread of extremist groups - such as Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - has also seen the Free Syrian Police become one of the Syrian opposition's great success stories.

 Many predict the whole revolutionary enterprise appears doomed with the police hit by US and UK funding cuts and soon to face the full wrath of the régime.

 When the bombs rain down, the officers expect to be among the first targets of Russian missiles, as has happened during other recent regime offensives on opposition areas.

 Operating since 2012, the police commanders said that they - and their officers - will continue their work amid the bombing.

 Plans have been made to help civilians access air raid shelters, aid in rescue operations, and clear roads for refugees uprooted from régime bombing.

 "There have been constant attacks and air raids [on FSP facilities] from the régime. Our headquarters, our centres, and all the FSP facilities have all been regularly targeted," said Brigadier Adeeb Sharraf, the founder of the FSP.

 The FSP command has given orders for officers to be on call 24/7, when Assad orders the assault on the people of Idlib.

 Their training and experience gained during the revolution will be put to the test, but Brigadier Adeeb is confident the officers will fulfill their duties.

 "The police's role is to help the medical teams and civil defence provide aid and save the people. There is a big fear that a mass offensive could lead to tens of thousands of casualties in the north," he added.

 If the regime takes Idlib, then officers will also have to think of their own safety.

 Along with the White Helmets, the police will likely be among the regime's most wanted, for daring to defy the brutal government and for their ability to run state-level institutions outside Assad's command.

 "The liberated areas have shown there is no need for the regime [to provide security], so this is why they have targeting the FSP more than [rebel] fighters," he added.

 Colonel Ali Alzzain helps operate the FSP in Idlib, and was one of the first commanders to defect from the regime to the new opposition police force.

 "The Syrian régime has always hated the revolutionary institutions, and the FSP are among the largest. We don't know what the fate will be for the officers if the regime takes Idlib, but we expect it to be torture and death," said Colonel Ali.

 "When the régime took Daraa this summer, the first thing they did was to photograph officers outside FSP centres."

 The message was clear. Not only did such tactics serve in intimidating supporters of the revolution, but also signify to the Syrians that the security of the FSP was over, and the brutality and murder of Assad had returned.

 The unarmed police force formed one year after the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, with armed uprisings breaking out across the country in the following months.

 At the time, Bashar al-Assad's gangs operated with impunity, breaking up pro-democracy demonstrations and rounding up opposition activists in their thousands.

 Recent reports suggest most have been murdered and tortured to death in the régime's prisons.

 When state violence against the demonstrations intensified in late 2011, many of the soldiers sent to quell the uprisings joined the protesters, taking up arms and becoming revolutionary fighters.

 Less well-known were the defectors from Syria's security forces, who had grown disgusted with the regime's barbarous methods of maintaining control and left.

 Hoping to serve the country in more dignified and honourable roles, they formed an unarmed volunteer security force, serving the people and ensuring their safety in liberated areas.

 "Before the establishment of the FSP, there was no security institutions in the north of Syria. We were established to help people, keep them safe and ensure security," Colonel Ali said, speaking from Idlib province.

 The FSP now operates 54 police stations - known as centres - in Idlib and 17 in Aleppo, with officers serving almost four million people.

 They have defied not only the regime but also the Islamic State group, as well as common criminals who are said to be prolific in regime and Islamist-controlled areas.

 The FSP's day-to-day work varies, from chasing down car thieves, to protecting women and children from kidnappers.

 It is dangerous work with at least 153 officers killed in the line of duty in Idlib and Aleppo, mostly from regime and Russian airstrikes, but also by armed groups or criminals.

 The FSP's ability to provide security in areas outside government control has brought them the ire of the regime, with FSP centres among the most heavily bombed targets of Russia and the regime.

 Colonel Ali said that although officers are committed to the ideals of the revolution, they maintain their independence from armed actors in the conflict.

 "We are civilian police that cooperate with local councils and civil communities only. We don't deal with armed groups and are neutral. We don't allow anyone to interfere in our work, and the people of Idlib want us here," he said.

 Idlib and Aleppo provinces are covered by two main security forces. One is the FSP, while an Islamic police force operate in areas under HTS control.

 The people - particularly in refugee camps - have made it clear which group they prefer to govern their communities.

 When HTS took over opposition territories run by revolutionary civil councils, protests broke out. A key demand from the people was the withdrawal of the fighters and the return of the FSP.

 The armed groups backed down and the areas were handed back to the civil police force and councils, and peace returned.

 "There are many more thefts, abductions and assassinations in HTS-controlled areas, while security more or less prevails in the FSP territories, and much fewer incidences of crime," said Colonel Ali.

 Kidnappings have become commonplace in HTS areas, but almost completely unheard of in places where the FSP has authority.

 Much of the FSP's success is down to officers' professionalism and ability to win the confidence and support of the people.

 "When you join the [regime] police force you swear an oath to serve your country and protect the people's rights, but it really became tools of torture and oppression," the colonel adds.

 "We work to change this mentality, but we cannot forget that huge numbers of officers defected because they refused to serve in the regime oppression and wanted to honour the code of ethics they swore to when they joined the police."

 Serving in the FSP has seen the officers' roles transformed. They have adopted the concept of community policing - a common concept among European police forces - and work with locals to solve crimes.

 They are also more focused on conflict resolution, rather than using intimidation and cajoling to get results, as is common in regime areas.

 Their hard-won successes are not only threatened by the regime but also the UK and US' announcement that they have pulled funding from the force.

 "The impact will be a weakening of security in opposition areas. Police officers and generals will face cuts to their wages, forcing them to find other sources of income to support their families."

 Yet with régime forces building-up around Idlib and Aleppo, their attention is directed at ensuring the safety of people, as rebel fighters dig-in to protect the opposition territories.

 "We have offered a lot of martyrs, and many FSP officers have become paralysed and lost limbs, but this is all part of the bigger purpose and pursuit of protecting the people and their property," Colonel Ali added.

 Regardless of the outcome of the battle, they have shown the world that law-and-order can be achieved without the regime's brutality.'

Doctors, nurses rally against Syrian régime in Idlib

 'More than 300 doctors and nurses rallied Sunday in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, urging the international community to protect them against an expected offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

 Brandishing roses and wearing white coats and blue surgical uniforms, the demonstrators gathered in front of the hospital in Atme, near the border with Turkey.

 Backed by its ally Russia, the Syrian regime has targeted several areas of Idlib with artillery and air strikes, sometimes hitting hospitals and rescue centres in the country’s last major opposition stronghold.

 The protesters in Atme, both men and women, waved the flag of the Syrian revolution as well as placards in English that read “UN, protecting us is your responsibility”.

 Another directly addressed UN Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura, telling him that “protecting health worker in Idlib is part of your mission”.

 “We call for an end to the strikes against hospitals and our protection by the United Nations,” said nurse Fadi Al Amur.

 “Medical staff are neutral. We treat civilians affected by the Russian and Syrian air strikes,” he said.

 An air strike on September 6 struck an NGO-backed hospital in Kafr Zita, a town in the neighbouring province of Hama, putting it out of service.

 The UN said information on the location of the hospital had been provided to parties whose aircraft are involved in the conflict in order to avoid such incidents.

 Two days after the attack on the hospital in Hama, a strike hit and damaged an underground hospital on the outskirts of Hass in Idlib.'

Saturday, 15 September 2018

One Syrian's Harrowing Journey to Freedom

 'One warm night in July, a young Syrian ventured into the darkness in hopes of escaping what he once called home. He plodded across valleys and fields, atop mountains and walls, all the while carrying his younger brother in his arms. From documenting the horrors of the war to traveling through tenebrous fields as hyenas howled in the distance, this is the story of Firas al-Abdullah.

 Firas hails from Douma, a Syrian city in the region of Ghouta, located northeast of the capital. The region has witnessed some of the most inconceivable atrocities throughout the course of the war that has now spanned seven years.

 After two rebel offensives that drove out régime forces, the Assad régime, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, counterattacked and laid a siege around Eastern Ghouta in 2013.

 Among the besieged cities was Firas’ hometown of Douma. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria described the siege as ‘barbaric and medieval’. Numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed during the 5-year long siege, ranging from the use of prohibited weapons to deploying starvation as a method of warfare.

 The deadliest single incident against civilians in the area was the chemical attack of August 21, 2013. This attack also constituted the deadliest use of chemical weapons in 25 years.

 A UN report confirmed that the attack was carried out using rockets filled with up to 60 litres of the nerve agent sarin. According to a preliminary U.S. government assessment, the attack claimed the lives of over 1,400 people including at least 426 children.

 While the UN report failed to assign blame for the attack, several independent sources reported it was executed by the Syrian régime. Peter Bouckaert, a weapons specialist at Human Rights Watch, explained that the rocket systems identified in the UN report are known to be within the arsenal of the Syrian armed forces.

 In early 2018, the persistent attacks on Eastern Ghouta intensified. A publication from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) described the situation as “an outrageous, relentless mass-casualty disaster.”

 The report released medical data from facilities that the organisation supports gathered during the first two week period of the military offensive. It revealed that from 18 February to 3 March, an average of 71 people were killed per day.

 By the end of March, Douma remained the last rebel enclave in the Eastern Ghouta.

 The following month, a barrel bomb carrying sarin was dropped over the city, killing at least 70 people. Medics on the ground reported that the symptoms of those being treated were consistent with that of nerve agent exposure.

 The attack was attributed to the Syrian régime by local activists, aid workers, and a number of nations. Russia, a key ally of the régime, claimed no attack took place and that video evidence of it was staged and directed by British intelligence.

 For all five years of the siege, Firas and his companions would traverse the rubbled streets making video reports of the many massacres committed, which he would then post on his social media accounts.

 After a ruthless military campaign, Firas and his family were forcibly displaced to northern Syria as part of an evacuation deal on April 1.

 “Life in the north was very difficult. We’d hear of assassinations and kidnappings regularly, especially of activists. So it was very hard for me there.” Consequently, his family made the decision to move to Turkey. He explains, “We wanted to go on with our lives but of course, that doesn’t mean we wanted to forget. One cannot forget the revolution…to do that would be to let down all the people that have been martyred, all the people still detained, everyone.”

 Firas and his family had made a deal with a smuggler to reach Turkey. Their perilous journey had begun late at night on July 21 as they walked through the groves of Deir Sawwan. The sound of hyenas howling loudly did not weaken their resolve. They rested under an olive tree as they waited for the smuggler's signal that the coast was clear.

 Later into the night, they finally reached the border wall that was perched on a mountain. Firas, along with his parents and siblings, walked in a straight line on top of the wall, which was a mere 15 centimetres (approximately 6 inches) in width. There was no room to put one foot to the left. The further they walked along this narrow edge, the higher they got off the ground. Firas looked below only to find himself above a 30-metre deep valley.

 Firas’ younger brother Muhammed is as old as the war. He had told him before leaving, “you'll be happy in Turkey. You'll be able to leave the house and play in nice, clean streets.” As they continued to tread the edge of the 1km-long wall, Muhammed's foot suddenly slipped off to the left and just as he was about to fall, Firas grabbed his wrist in mid-air.

 Among the items in the 20 kg backpack Firas carried were the keys to his house, which was heavily damaged by airstrikes.

 In the early hours of the morning the al-Abdullahs had finally reached the end of the wall, whose construction was not completed. By stepping off its edge, they had taken their first steps on Turkish soil.

 Their strenuous journey continued as they walked for another three hours between mountains and through rock valleys. At one point, Firas had to carry Muhammed as he jumped over a river. His mother too grew tired, so he alternated between carrying her and his brother. “It was an extremely tiring course, and it was all so dark. The moonlight wasn't enough,” he says.

 After walking over 5 kilometres since stepping off the border wall, they reached the Turkish city of Kilis. Parched and weary, a taxi with whom the smuggler had a deal took them to a flat to rest. Shortly after, another taxi picked them up for a 16-hour drive to Istanbul where their relatives awaited them. They reached Istanbul at 10:30 PM on July 22.

 When asked to express his thoughts upon reaching Istanbul, he explained, “I was feeling quite shocked for about a week and in disbelief that I left [Syria] and am now in a place where people live normally. I had reached the ‘real world’ – that’s what I call it – the real world that everyone was living in but we were excluded from on account of the brutal oppression we had to endure under the Syrian régime. [The régime] made us live in a sort of regressive, barbaric age within this larger ‘real world’.”

 He expressed his delight at the sight of streetlights for the first time in seven years. “For the first time in years we saw streets undamaged by missiles, sidewalks unmarred by shrapnel, and walls unblemished by war,” he said.

 The terrors Firas experienced in Syria, however, followed him to his new home.

 “The second a commercial airplane or helicopter flies over us, we automatically bury our heads between our shoulders and are overcome with fear. It instantly occurs to me to warn the others that the warplanes are above us, as if I was still in Ghouta,” Firas explained. “It may sound crazy,” he chuckled, “but we need some time to forget the horror we lived.”

 He concluded, “things are, of course, better here, especially for my family. And my family is all that matters to me.” '

Friday, 14 September 2018

The rebels are our hope; Turks are our brothers; the terrorists are Bashar, Hezbollah and Russia

 'In cities and towns across Syria's last opposition-held province, Idlib, residents poured into the streets on Friday to demonstrate against Bashar al-Assad's régime in defiance of an expected offensive to retake the territory.

 In the provincial capital, Idlib city, and in towns including Kafranbel, Dana, Azaz, Maaret al-Numan and al-Bab, demonstrators filled the streets after noon prayers and chanted against Assad, raising the tricolor green, white and black flag that has become the banner of Syria's 2011 uprising.

 "The rebels are our hope; Turks are our brothers; the terrorists are Bashar, Hezbollah and Russia," read a banner carried by residents in the village of Kneiset Bani Omar, referring to Turkey which backs the opposition, and Lebanon's Hezbollah and Russia that have joined the war along with Assad's forces.

 "There will be no solution in Syria without Assad's fall," read another banner carried in the northern village of Mhambel.

 Fridays have become the customary day for protests throughout the Arab world since the 2011 uprisings that swept through the region.

 Assad's government and its backers, Russia and Iran, say Idlib is ruled by terrorists, and have threatened to seize it by force.

 Wissam Zarqa, a university teacher in Idlib, said demonstrators were flying the tricolor flag to rebut the government line that Idlib is dominated by terrorists.

 The province, population 3 million, is now the final shelter for close to 1.5 million displaced Syrians that fled fighting in other parts of Syria. Many say they will not return to régime-controlled areas.

 Régime and Russian forces bombed towns and villages in the province earlier this week, killing more than a dozen civilians and damaging two hospitals. But the strikes eased on Wednesday amid talks between the opposition's main regional sponsor Turkey, and Russia.
The Associated Press

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Turkey boosts arms to Syrian rebels as Idlib attack looms

Image result for Turkey boosts arms to Syrian rebels as Idlib attack looms

 'Turkey has stepped up arms supplies to Syrian rebels to help them stave off an expected offensive by the Syrian army and its Russian and Iran-backed allies in the northwest near the Turkish frontier.

 Senior rebel officials said Turkey had sent more military aid to rebels in and around the Idlib region since a summit meeting with Iran and Russia last week failed to agree a deal to avert a government offensive into the area.

 Turkey, which is already hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees, is warning against such an attack, fearing it could force more Syrians over the border. President Tayyip Erdogan has warned of a humanitarian disaster and security risks for Turkey.

 “They pledged complete Turkish military support for a long, protracted battle,” a senior FSA commander who was privy to talks in recent days with senior Turkish officials said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly.

 The weapons, which have entered Syria in large quantities in recent days, include ammunition and GRAD rockets.

 “These arms supplies and munitions will allow the battle to extend and ensure our supplies are not drained in a war of attrition,” the commander added.
 A second rebel commander said: “They are getting new shipments of munitions — they don’t need more than munitions. The Turks are making sure they have enough munitions that keep them going for a long while,” he added.

 The Idlib area forms part of an arc of territory in the northwest representing the last big area held by the opposition.

 Some three million people are living in Idlib, half of them Syrians who have fled from other parts of the country.

 Russian and Syrian warplanes have stepped up air strikes on southern Idlib and adjacent areas of Hama province in an apparent prelude to a ground offensive. The Syrian army is building up troops near frontlines.

 Turkey has backed an array of Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels during the war that spiraled out of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. With decisive Iranian and Russian help, Assad has now recovered most of Syria.

 Idlib’s main towns and cities are under the control of jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), though they are outnumbered by Turkey-backed FSA fighters grouped under “The National Front for Liberation”.

 The Turkish army has also deployed in the last week more troops and heavy weaponary to 12 positions in the Idlib region that observe a “de-escalation zone” agreed with Iran and Russia. The Turkish army has also sent troops into Syrian rebel-held territory further east, in an area north of Aleppo city.

 With extensive Turkish support, efforts have been underway to organize FSA groups north of Aleppo into a unified force known as the “Syrian National Army” numbering some 30,000 fighters.

 Two rebel commanders said Turkey had ordered the bulk of this force to move toward the Idlib frontlines.

 At the summit in Tehran, Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani agreed in a statement that there could be no military solution to the conflict and it could only end through a negotiated political process.

 But while Erdogan had also called for a truce, Putin said this would be pointless as it would not involve the Islamist militant groups that Russia deems terrorists, and Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.

 Russia has said Turkey has the job of separating Islamist militants from the moderate opposition in Idlib.

 Rebel sources said Turkey had pledged to take strong measures against the jihadists once Russia holds back the Syrian army from waging a major assault.'

Israel’s Failure to Support Syrian Rebels

 'The worst injuries Raed sustained during his six years fighting the Assad regime were in late 2014. The car he was driving was hit by a mortar shell, leaving him with two broken legs and severe burns to the face and arms.

 “I found myself in a field on the Israeli side, a few feet from the border fence. Injured people were all around me,” Raed recalled. “I woke up in pain, screaming for anesthetics. An Israeli officer approached me and asked why I was screaming. I said: ‘Send me in [to Israel]! Why have you left me here?’ The soldier pointed to a woman next to me whose leg had been amputated and said: ‘This women isn’t screaming. You’re a man, why are you?’”

 An argument ensued, ending with Raed being sent back to Syria for treatment. It was his fourth time entering Israel after being injured on the battlefield. “He was making fun of me,” Raed explained. “I never returned to Israel for treatment after that.”

 In the grand scheme of things, this anecdote may seem trivial. But in the aftermath of rebel capitulation to the Assad forces along the Israeli border in early August, it resonates with the bitterness of humiliation and betrayal.

 “Many people relied on Israel. In my unit, people believed the Assad regime wouldn’t dare enter the buffer zone, that it would be a red line for Israel. I told them that’s a lie. No way. There are agreements between the countries, and [Israel] will allow the regime to return to Israeli-Jordanian border. I would jokingly add that the regime will take the last spoonful of Syrian land.”

 Sitting at a café in the Aksaray neighborhood of Istanbul, where Syrian refugees gravitate to buy shawarma sandwiches at Anas Restaurant and get a taste of home, Raed and his friend Jalal relived the dashed hopes of their failed revolution. It took Jalal three crossing attempts before he managed to enter Turkey. Two weeks earlier, he fled Quneitra on the first bus for the rebel stronghold of Idlib in northern Syria. The bus was commissioned for the rebels as part of a surrender agreement with the regime. On his first attempt to smuggle his way across the border—for which he paid a local smuggler $1,300—his group of 20 refugees climbed a steep mountain until he could proceed no more. The second time, the smuggler turned them back due to increased policing on the Turkish side. Finally, Jalal paid the smuggler an additional $1,200 for an easier route across. He and 25 others climbed a concrete border wall on ladders, then scurried to the Turkish town of Reyhanli. From there, they fled by bus to Istanbul through country roads.

 “I should forget Syria. I can’t return,” he said. “Only Idlib is left [in rebel hands], and the regime could retake it. We don’t have anywhere to return to. I will start a new life far away from Syria.”

 Seven years after their families first took to the streets of south Damascus demanding better wages and human rights, they are now defeated men, partisans of a lost cause that was once full of hope for a better future for Syria—and perhaps better relations between the Syrian people and Israel. Rebel groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army captured the Quneitra province along the border with Israel from the Assad army in February 2013, and quickly started to work with the Israelis. Jubatha al-Khashab, just across the border from the Golan Druze villages of Mas’ada and Buq’ata, was the first village in the province to fall to the opposition.

 Jalal, a 23-year-old opposition activist and citizen journalist, arrived at Jubatha in early 2013 from the battlefields south of Damascus. In the village, he worked with a small group of journalists that called themselves Al-Quneitra Voice, distributing their footage to Arab satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Jalal said the townspeople had high hopes from Israel, which sent them fuel for their generators and distributed drinking water. In 2016, the IDF’s newly established Good Neighborhood Directorate began sending tons of dry food and medical supplies.

 “Jubatha really collaborated with Israel,” Jalal said. “People in the village believed it was impossible for Israel to forsake them, but that was an illusion. Israel disappointed us a lot.”

 Jalal’s family originates from a village in the central Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Today, Moshav Yonatan, population 662, sits on its ruins. In the early days of the revolution, Jalal attended a meeting between his clan elders and a delegation of Assad’s Baath Party which came to absorb their anger. His family members accused the regime of handing over the Golan Heights to Israel and demanded compensation for property lost in the war. No reply ever came, and the impoverished tribe was soon on the streets, shouting “the son of a bitch sold the Golan.” “Our morale was very high,” he recalled. “We’d broken the fear barrier.”

 Ever since he was young, Jalal loved cameras. But it was on an old Nokia cellphone that he used to record the first anti-government demonstrations in April 2011, when he was just 17. Soon, he would split his time between videography and the battlefield, where he delivered ammunition to fighters in the trenches.

 The Palestinian group Hamas, its headquarters in Damascus, sent fighters to join the rebels too, Jalal recalled. “They were fierce fighters,” he said, noting one man in particular, Abu-Ahmad Mushir—believed to be the personal bodyguard of Political Bureau chief Khaled Mashal. Once, Jalal saw Mushir fire an outdated anti-aircraft missile at a regime helicopter and miss. Mashal abandoned Damascus and his patron Assad in January 2012.

 For many rebels, the revolutionary dynamic bred an understanding that Assad’s belligerent stance against Israel was nothing but a charade. “Forty years of so-called resistance have given us nothing,” he said. “On the contrary, everything moved backwards. The Syrian army was weak. In 2014 and 2015 Israeli aircraft would fly over Syrian army units with impunity. At some point the army started firing at them with machine guns. Seriously, can a machine gun down a plane?”

 Assad’s inability to challenge Israeli incursions should have given Jalal and his friends pause to realistically evaluate the Israeli stance vis-a-vis the rebels. They also knew, or should have known, that Israel was unsentimental in leaving behind many of its former allies from the South Lebanon Army (SLA) when they withdrew from Southern Lebanon in May 2000. But Syrian contact men, the so-called collaborators tasked with coordinating the transfer of injured fighters and civilians to Israeli hospitals, painted a rosy picture of life in Israel that for some oppositionists was too alluring to ignore.

 “The patient coordinators would travel to Israel and return with news of how good life is there,” Jalal said. “We asked them why Israel won’t open its borders to us. I thought I could go study in Palestinian universities. Many people hoped to export goods to Israel.”

 But others, like former combatant Raed, were more skeptical. “A verse in the Quran says: ‘Never will the Jews or the Christians approve of you until you follow their creed.’” he said. “Most people here didn’t count on Israel for help. We knew Israel considered us terrorists. The [Assad] regime defended Israel for 40 years, and Israel believes we just came to disrupt things on the border.” When Israeli food products began entering Syrian villages, he burned them, encouraging others to do the same.

 “If Israel wanted to help us, it would have offered weapons,” he told me. “What did it offer? Sugar, rice, tea. Do the Syrian people really need tea and sugar? I need something I can use to fight the Iranian expansion.”

 Ahead of battles with the regime, Raed’s rebel group would send Israel detailed requests for ammunition through the Syrian coordinators. Israel would habitually reply with offers of money for rebels to purchase arms in the free market, where very little ammunition existed. The assistance Israel did offer was nothing but an attempt to hedge its bets in case the opposition somehow prevailed over Assad, Raed now realized. “We the rebels could have won, and Israel wanted to have a stake in that.”

 Nevertheless, Raed did not refuse medical treatment in Israel when offered to him throughout the war, understanding full well, he says, that Israel was doing so for its own reasons. “We were treated in Israel because we had to be,” he says. “Jordan didn’t help us. During the early stages of fighting, we implored Israel to send us bandages and medication, but they gave us nothing. Later, we in the various fighting units designated a representative from the Al-Furqan Brigades named Abu-Diaa and he coordinated the transfer of wounded men.”

 Raed said Israel did not ask questions about the identity of the wounded fighters it admitted. But in hospital, he was asked more than once “what Israel meant to him.” He assumed his questioners belonged to Israeli intelligence. “I would tell them Israel doesn’t mean anything to me,” he recalled. “Assad is my main enemy, then Iran, and we’ll see about the rest later. In the future, there may be battles with the Jews, but at the moment, the fight against Shia expansion is the most important thing. Shia expansion is the most dangerous thing for us in Syria.”

 Jalal and Raed point to regime attempts to establish Husseiniyat, Shiite learning centers, in their province—attempts they say have been thwarted by the local population. Jalal said he expected the menace of Iranian influence to spur Israel into action.

 “I’d hoped Israel would defend the area, intervene, stop the war,” he said. “But as soon as the battle for Quneitra began, our hopes were dashed and the cards were exposed: Israel was in coordination with the regime against the people. In the final battles, regime and Russian aircraft struck villages like Quseiba and Nasiriyah situated no more than 1-1.5 miles from the armistice line with Israel. It became clear to me that Israel prefers Iran on its borders, because as soon as we leave, Iran will enter.”

 Confident that “no dictator lasts forever” and that Assad’s rule will come to an end only in the distant future, Jalal nevertheless insists that Israel has committed a grave mistake by siding with the strongman.

 “There could have been better relations between us,” he said. “In 50 or 60 years Assad will be gone, but the Syrian people will remain. Israel bet on Assad, but it will be a losing bet.” '

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

They are targeting innocent civilians and trying to kill as many of us as possible

Anas al-Diab, a 22-year-old citizen journalist and rescuer with the White Helmets volunteer group in Syria.

 'As he had done dozens of times before, Anas al-Diab rushed to film the aftermath of an airstrike in Syria's Idlib province. The 22-year-old citizen journalist and rescuer with the White Helmets volunteer group snapped photographs of a leveled potato chip factory in Khan Sheikhoun on Friday as his friends and colleagues hosed down the flames.
Suddenly, another explosion hit. This time Diab became a victim, but he kept his camera rolling.

 The dramatic footage shows Diab bleeding heavily from the legs, unable to stand, as he cries out for help.

 "Guys, guys, please come carry me," he shouts to his fellow rescue workers, the video shows. "I can't move."

 Several other men try to get him to safety, but without a stretcher, they are forced to drag him out, his bloody legs trailing through the dusty debris.

 "I know you, I know you! My dear Anas!" one of Diab's friends says as he rushes to help him.

 Then comes the whoosh of a plane, another bomb lands and the men are pinned to the ground. One grabs his radio and calls for backup. Airstrikes are nothing new to Khan Sheikhoun, the town in Idlib province where more than 80 people were killed in a Sarin gas attack last year. Russia, the Syrian regime's most muscular ally, has provided much of the air power behind Assad's territorial gains in recent years. Russia and Syria say they only target terrorists, an assertion contradicted by accounts on the ground.

 Amateur video shows scenes of chaos and carnage playing out across the province: families with children run through the shell of their homes; a woman pancaked under the rubble except for a protruding hand, still moving; and bombings, one after another turning the skyline dark gray. Diab is one of the luckier ones; he survived and continues to recover in a hospital.

 "They are targeting innocent civilians and trying to kill as many of us as possible," he said from his bed. "As I was being rescued I told the guys to hold onto the camera because it has the material that can incriminate this criminal and send him to an international court."

 In spite of the risks, some civilians are taking to the streets again in demonstrations reminiscent of the early days of the revolution against Assad. Thousands packed squares across Idlib on Friday, calling not for lofty ideals but for the right to survive.

"Idlib, we are with you until death," they chanted.'

The aftermath of airstrikes on Friday in Khan Sheikhoun.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

After escape to Halifax from Syria, brothers work to reunite their family

Mohammad al-Masalma is a recent immigrant from Syria. (ERIC WYNNE / STaff)

 'Mohammad and Mihyar al-Masalma were crammed into a van with the rest of their family. They were approaching an intersection where people had been getting shot during the week. This was the last intersection before leaving the city. After that, it was clear sailing to the Syria-Jordan border.

 “Everybody duck your heads, and cross your fingers,” says Mihyar, recalling the last minute advice their driver gave before crossing.

 The sniper didn’t shoot them in the slow city traffic. Maybe he was eating lunch or taking the day off. Either way, the al-Masalmas had passed where others had not and started their long journey, which ended in Halifax.

 That was on April 25, 2013. Their home was in the city of Daraa, which has also been called The Cradle of Rebellion after deadly clashes between protesters and Syrian security forces effectively ignited the country’s ongoing civil war. At the time, Mohammad was studying English literature.

 “He was having fun all the time,” says Mihyar who was completing his bachelor’s degree in computer science. “He would be watching Othello while I was going through hundreds of pages of code to get my degree.”

 “It was the perfect student life,” says Mohammad. “I had great friends. We’d hang out during the day, and then at night we would go dancing, smoke shisha, play cards or soccer.”

 During Mohammad’s fourth year of university he was becoming more politically active. He joined protests which often took place less than a block from home.

 One night before joining his friends on the street he stopped to talk to his father.

 “We had a balcony that went all around the house and I was looking for my dad. That’s when everything happened. Suddenly there were security forces and military coming from every angle. Two seconds ago there was no one, but they were hiding behind the buildings. They stormed in with their cars, jumped down and started shooting,” says Mohammad. “I see my dad running around the corner shouting ‘Get down! Get down!’”

 The shooting stopped as quickly as it started. Unlike many of the earlier protests nobody had been killed, but there had been arrests.

 Today, their oldest brother Nassim is living with the rest of the family in Jordan. He has a wife and daughter. Mohammad and Mihyar send him money. Up until 2016 refugees in Jordan could not get work and the family still relies on the brothers in Halifax and their two other siblings in Saudi Arabia to help.

 Nassim used to be an investment banker, and in 2013 he was handcuffed, blindfolded while facing the living room wall next to Mohammad and Mihayar. Soldiers were pointing guns at them. Their parents were crying and a soldier was yelling.

 “‘You have to tell us about your guns, and who you deal with. Where are the terrorists?’” says Mohammad recalling the day that he and his brothers were arrested. They were jailed and tortured for one month before being released.

 Not long after, another neighbourhood sweep landed Mohammad in jail again. This time with 50 others from his street.

 “’Where are the guns? Who do you deal with? Where are the terrorists?’” repeats Mohammad. “Sometimes they would take three or four of us for questioning at once. It hurts more than when they hit you because you can hear it happening to the ones beside you. Mostly they would hit your body, they don’t want people to see marks on the face.”

 “Finally, one reasonable guy in the room asked, ‘why are you here?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, there was a sweep and they took me.’ I could hear him turn to his buddy and say ‘oh yeah, these are the random people.’”

 Again, a month later, Mohammad was released.

 “After the second time my mom said, ‘That’s it. There’s no third time.’”

 The van dropped the al-Masalmas at the border. They got on a bus that them all to Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. When they arrived, they were all grouped together under a large tent.

 Since 2011 Canada has welcomed 40,081 Syrian refugees through government assistance, private sponsorship or a blended program where UNHCR identifies refugees for resettlement and then pairs them a private sponsors in Canada. That total is slightly over half the population of Zaatari refugee camp. The al-Masalmas were able to leave Zaatari for Jordan’s capital city, Amman.

 Their father, who passed away last December, was a doctor in Syria. Nassim lives in an apartment with his wife and daughter, his mother, and the al-Masalmas’ youngest sibling, Lubna. Mohammad and Mihyar came to Halifax on scholarships from the World University Service of Canada in 2016. Mihyar completed his master’s degree in computer science at Dalhousie University, and Mohammad has completed his Nova Scotia Community College diploma in tourism management.

 Mihyar is continuing with PhD studies while Mohammad works part-time for Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) translation services. He also owns a photography business he started in July.

 They work to bring their family together once again.

 “To give them all a chance to live normal lives, like human beings.” '

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Still recording: Syrian revolution documentary wins top Venice prizes

 'A film that follows two friends through four nightmarish years of the Syrian revolution and genocide has lifted some of the top prizes at the Venice film festival, which ends today.

 Still Recording, a documentary by Ghiath Ayoub and Saeed al-Batal, records what happened to two idealistic art students after they were swept up in the fervour of the Syrian revolution.

 It picked up two awards at Venice Critics’ Week.

 Friends Saeed and Milad leave Damascus and go to Douma in 2011, a suburb under rebel control, to set up a radio station and recording studio.

 There they struggle to keep a flicker of hope and creativity alive as they endure fighting, siege and famine.

 Ayoub and al-Batal, who shot 500 hours of footage, said that with so little reporting coming out of Syria it was important to bear witness.

 “We started doing this because there wasn’t, and still isn’t, an efficient working media in Syria because it’s not allowed to enter and if it is, it’s under the control of the regime,” said al-Batal. “Art is nothing if it is not resistance, even if there isn’t revolution... it is resistance against a huge amount of emotions you have got inside you. Emotions need to come out and expressing them through art can do that.”

 The win comes as the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are preparing to launch an assault on Idlib, the northern province that is the last major stronghold of the rebel and jihadist groups which have been trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad for the past seven years.

 Al-Batal said the situation in Syria “is more dangerous than ever now” because the Russian military are more ruthless than Assad’s badly trained soldiers.

 “They know where to hit, and how to hit hard,” said al-Batal, who said the “media army behind them” was the same.'

Our pain has made us one family

Around 1 million people have fled to Idlib from other parts of Syria

 'When ISIS fighters began to murder opposition activists in Aleppo, Mostafa and his family fled south towards Raqqa.

 When Raqqa fell to the jihadists, they fled again, this time to the northern countryside of Aleppo near the border with Turkey.

 And when Assad’s forces took control of the countryside in 2015, they fled to Idlib, now the last-remaining rebel stronghold in Syria.

 “We’ve been here about three years. Idlib has been a safe place for us,” Mostafa said. “But we always know this day would come. Everyone in Syria knows you can go to another place but the war will follow you.”

 For Mostafa and around one million other displaced Syrians, Idlib has been a place of relative safety after being forced to flee their homes.

 Families from all over Syria - Aleppo, Ghouta, Daraa, and a dozen other bombed-out cities - converged on the rural northwestern province after their own hometowns were overrun by ISIS or the régime.

 Around half of the 2.5 million civilians in Idlib arrived there recently from somewhere else.

 But Idlib’s time as a sanctuary looks to be coming to an end. Syrian régime forces are massing on the borders of the province and appear to be preparing for a final assault under the cover of Russian airpower.

 “Sometimes I tell people what happened in Ghouta and they shake their heads. I don’t think they believe me,” said Muhammad, a 27-year-old who arrived in Idlib in March after surviving the régime’s five-year siege of Ghouta, a Damascus suburb.

 “People don’t know the threat waiting for them because they don’t have the experience I have.”

 At the end of previous sieges, the régime would often give rebel fighters and the civilians who support them the option of going to Idlib in return for surrendering. Green buses would ferry the defeated to Idlib, which is largely under the control of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group once linked to al-Qaeda.

 Now there is nowhere left to run. All other rebel-held areas have fallen to Assad’s forces and Turkey has closed its border, saying it cannot take another influx of Syrian refugees. Smugglers can still get people across the border but at a cost of $3,000 (£2,321), far beyond the means of most people.

 “Everyone is asking the same hard question: what will you do if the régime comes?” said Ahmad, who came to Idlib after Assad’s forces overran Aleppo in late 2016. “Many people will fight to the death.”

 One small source of comfort is the Turkish military presence in Idlib. Turkey’s forces have set up around a dozen military posts and civilians hope they may be able to shelter near them during an attack, believing Assad’s troops won’t risk bombing Turkish soldiers.

 Others talk of trying to get out of Idlib to the area around Afrin, which is controlled by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces. The route would be perilous, especially during an assault.

 Although few people moved to Idlib by choice, many of its new residents speak happily of their time in the province, living alongside fellow Syrians who cling to the ideals of their almost-defeated revolution.

 “I have never been to London but I heard that one street you can hear 100 languages. Here in Idlib, on one street you have people from all 14 governates in Syria,” said Mostafa.

 “When you meet somebody from Homs or Deir Ezzor you don’t ask him what happened, you know that he is like you and he lost brothers or children. You don’t ask where they were before because you know it will open old wounds.”

 Mostafa said he had lost two brothers during the war, one killed by ISIS and the other by the régime. “We have a saying in Arabic: ‘our pain has made us one family’. It’s true in Idlib.” '

Friday, 7 September 2018

Resistance is our choice

 'Residents in Syria's northwestern Idlib province are holding mass rallies in the rebels' last bastion, under the title "Resistance is our choice", protesting aginst an imminent government offensive there and chanting against Bashar al-Assad.

 The Friday rallies came as the Presidents of Iran, Turkey and Russia are meeting in Tehran to discuss the war in Syria. The summit may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action in Idlib and its surrounding areas, home to more than 3 million people. Nearly half of the area's residents are already displaced from other parts of Syria and have refused to reconcile with the Syrian government. .

 "Come on, leave Bashar!" hundreds of protesters chanted in Saraqeb, a town in eastern Idlib. "We will defend our revolution." '


Syria: Is Idlib really the last battle?

Training of Syrian rebels in the province of Idlib, September 1st.

 'In Idlib, it is not the last act of the Syrian crisis that is about to be played out but only the last act of the first part of this tragedy. As the "liberation" of Aleppo foreshadowed, on the model of that of Mosul, the "victories", Raqqa first, Ghouta and Deraa afterwards, were effectively imprisoned. Althoug some eager observers want to read the "end" of the Syrian crisis. Idlib remained unresolved, partly protected by the proximity of Turkey. Enclosed in the eyes of Westerners between the amalgam of sectarian thought, right and left ("they are too Muslim to be honest"), and those of "melenchonist" intellectual laziness (the Syrian revolution is "only one war for resources "), the Syrian opposition was to varying degrees disavowed by the entire planet.

 Since Aleppo, however, many masks have fallen. Behind the scenes and hence the exact scope of the régime's "victory" are beginning to be known. To accelerate the process of confiscation of their property, the ruling Syrian clan has begun to publish the names of those thousands of citizens who have died in its jails of identical "cardiac arrests". And he boasts very openly lately of having managed to manipulate ISIS. For their part, the Russians today recognize with confidence that, to accompany their formidable air commitment (39 000 sorties having killed 86 000 "combatants"), they have had up to 63 000 men engaged on the ground (including "434 generals").

 Let us take the time today to understand that these "victories" were not those of one part of the Syrian society on another. They were only made possible the powerful external lever that has artificially perpetuated a State repression of an infinite bestiality. This lever was driven by Iran and the Shiite world first, then more decisively, by Russia, in incomparably larger proportions than the support, Western or Arab, received by the opposition. Imported from Tehran and Moscow, the ultimate "victory" of Bashar al-Assad is more than ever that of a minority artificially infused from abroad - the majority ... abandoned by all.

 In fact, in December 2016, it was not the Chechen jihadists who left Aleppo (nor the Iranians nor the Russians who entered it en masse) but its most legitimate inhabitants. The goal that the Russians and Iranians are reaching is the destruction of any resistance to the longevity of their Syrian counterpart other than the jihadist bogeyman. They let him prosper all the more willingly because they knew that the Western world was stuck in the short-term electoralism of its policies. And that, as it confused the causes (Assad) and the consequences (ISIS) of violence, it was ready to postpone indefinitely any pressure on them.

 The "victory" promised in Idlib is therefore that of a minority driven by foreign authoritarianism over a majority abandoned by the most arrogant "defenders of democracy." This victory of the weapons of the authoritarian winter over the hopes of the democratic spring obviously can't be an exit from the crisis but only its reconfiguration. The triumph of force leaves no glimpse of "reconciliation at the center" which would be the sine qua non of a re-institutionalization of power. Such a solution would have required that those of the vanquished who had managed to survive the destruction of Aleppo, Raqqa or Daraa, to join the millions of these refugees who preceded them, enabling them to feel a common identity. It was absolutely nothing. Redeployed territorially, the immense camp of the excluded retains indeed the most legitimate reasons to remain mobilized. At all levels of Syrian society, the explicitly confessional tone of the Iranian - military but also economic and entrepreneurial - presence augurs badly for going beyond the sectarian divide.

 Irresistibly, this "triumph of injustice", which radiates in the world of the vanquished, will therefore maintain the dynamic of rising to extremes. It complete discredits not only those Westerners who have stepped back but also those of Syrian elites who, believing in their promises, have provided them the pledges of the "moderation" they demanded. It will give de facto reason to the most radical, that is to say to the jihadists. Despite the brutality of their military defeat (at the end of a resistance that no other component of the political landscape of the contemporary Middle East has ever been able to produce), they are today the only opponents in Bashar to be able to claim not to have been betrayed.

 Let us dream that we will not have to measure tomorrow what short-term and electoralist policies will cost their authors. And their fellow citizens of the international community.'

Image result for Syrie : Idlib, vraiment la dernière bataille ?

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Turkey strives to unite rebel factions in Syria against Assad

Image result for Turkey strives to unite rebel factions in Syria against Assad

 'Even as Ankara warns that a military confrontation in northern Syria would be a disaster, Turkey is preparing for just that scenario by working to unite rebel forces at Idlib against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has Russia's support.

 Turkey is encouraging leaders of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Syrian National Army (SNA) to join forces. Both groups are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Turkey offers support to the SNA — which was formed Dec. 30, 2017, and is also affiliated with the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government in the Euphrates Shieldarea, east of the river. Turkey also supports the NLF in Idlib. Thus, it would serve Ankara for both groups to unite under a single military command, as Turkey doesn't want to give up the area it occupies in northern Syria.

 After 11 years of civil war, the regime has cleared rebel groups from most of Syria, and those left are concentrated in Idlib. There are also terrorist forces there, and many civilians. The people there are living in fear, as the Syrian regime is threatening to invade Idlib, disregarding all Russian-Turkish de-escalation understandings reached during numerous peace negotiations. Turkey hopes unifying the factions will ward off possible attacks by the regime.

 The factions began meeting Aug. 10 in opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria, under Turkey’s sponsorship.

 On Aug. 12, the SNA commander, Col. Haitham al-Afisi, expressed the readiness of the army stationed in the Euphrates Shield area to merge with the FSA factions in Idlib. Those factions joined the NLF as it was being launched in May.

 When it was first formed, the NLF included 11 FSA factions from opposition-controlled areas, namely Idlib and the northern countrysides of Hama and Latakia provinces. On Aug. 1, four other FSA factions from Idlib and northern Syria joined the NLF, including the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) and Jaish al-Ahrar.

 The SNA deputy commander, Col. Ahmed Al-Othman, said “SNA and NLF leaders have been meeting in Idlib and the countryside of Aleppo to reach an understanding on the unification of the two military blocs under one command.” He added, “We are making great efforts to achieve this crucial unity at this critical stage in the Syrian revolution. If we succeed, the Syrian opposition would have an undeniably strong military force in the Syrian north, with over 100,000 fighters.”

 Othman said, “After the FSA took control of the area of Afrin, northwest of Aleppo, the coast became clear between the Euphrates Shield area in Aleppo’s countryside and Idlib; the areas are now geographically linked and the FSA factions can easily unite.”

 NLF spokesman Capt. Naji Mustafa also said his group is ready to unite with the others, though he added "The developments around Idlib and the invasion threats the regime is making are forcing us to shift our attention toward fighting off possible attacks, instead of focusing on our unity.”

 He added “There is no difference between the FSA factions affiliated with the SNA and those affiliated with the NLF. It is quite easy; we can reach an understanding over unifying ranks as soon as consultations are over.”

 Meanwhile, NLF leader Capt. Abdel Salam Abdel Razzaq said “I believe this step will be a success because it is based on sound foundations and takes into account the military standards in force in these armies. For the first time ever, the FSA will [become] an organized entity that relies on professional officers and academics who defected from the regime’s army years ago.”

 He continued, “The people here in the north wish that all FSA factions would unite under one military entity and have unitary decision-making, after all these years in which the opposition suffered from division and chaos. If we succeed in uniting the SNA and the NLF, our army would be the strongest and the scales would tip in our favor.”

 Abdel Razzaq said, “Turkey wants all FSA factions to unite. It would bode well for the Turkish side and would strengthen its position against other regional powers that are interested in the Syrian issue, such as Russia and Iran.”

 One can’t help but wonder whether such a unification could indeed help the Syrian opposition in the north in its fight against the Syrian regime. It all seems to depend on Turkey's role in supporting all the factions and accelerating the process of uniting under one entity.'