Wednesday, 28 June 2017

On the Situation of Detainees in Hama Central Prison

 'The Syrian Coalition reaffirms that it stands in full solidarity with the detainees in Hama Central Prison and their demands, including most importantly their immediate release as well as the release of all detainees in all the Assad regime public and secret prisons and detention centers. The Coalition also supports the detainees’ demands for the abolition of the so-called Court of Terrorism and the Field Court as well repealing all verdicts issued by these courts.

 The Coalition stresses the need for the UN Security Council to adopt a binding resolution in support of the implementation of these demands in accordance with UNSC resolution 2254 (2015), to give international observers unrestricted, immediate access to detention centers and to take every possible action to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of detainees languishing in terrible conditions in the dungeons and detention centers of the Assad regime.

 In this context, the Coalition recalls the damning report Amnesty International released last February, which shed light on some of the regime's terrible crimes against detainees in Sednaya Prison. The report spoke of mass executions and systematic extermination of detainees inside the prison, crimes that are often invoked when considering the case of detainees in the prisons of the Assad regime.

 The Coalition reiterates that the issue of detainees and missing persons will remain a top priority and will not be subject for negotiations under any circumstances.

 May our wounded recover, our detainees be free, and our fallen heroes rest in peace.

 Long live Syria and the Syrian people, free and with honor.'

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Avoiding Obama’s Mistakes in Syria


 'With all of Washington consumed by the effort to craft and pass health-care legislation, the Trump White House appeared to catch the country’s political establishment off guard when it announced that the crisis in Syria was again reaching a crescendo.

 In a prepared statement, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer revealed that the Bashar al-Assad regime was engaged in “potential preparations” to execute “another chemical attack” on civilians. “[If] Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price,” the statement read.

 Hours later, the Pentagon expounded upon the nature of the threat. “We have seen activity at Shayrat Airfield,” said Captain Jeff Davis, “associated with chemical weapons.” The Shayrat Air Base outside the city of Homs is the same airfield that was targeted in April with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

 For all the frustration over the Trump administration’s failure to craft a coherent strategy to guide American engagement in the Syrian theater, the White House has communicated to the Assad regime a set of clear parameters in which it is expected to operate. That is a marked improvement over the approach taken by Barack Obama’s administration.

 When American forces in Syria or those under the American defense umbrella are threatened by the Assad regime or its proxies, American forces will take action. On several occasions, U.S. forces have made kinetic defensive strikes on pro-government militias, and that policy recently expanded to include Syrian regular forces. On June 18, a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber was destroyed when it struck American-backed fighters laying siege to the ISIS-held city of Raqqa.

 The Trump administration has also telegraphed to Damascus the limited conditions that would lead to offensive operations against regime targets. At the risk of contradicting his campaign-trail promise to scale back American commitments abroad, President Trump was convinced at the urging of his closest advisors and family members following the April 4 chemical attacks to execute strikes on the Assad regime. His administration was quick to communicate that this was a one-time punitive measure, not a campaign. There would be no follow-on action.

 That directive may no longer be operative. With the release of this latest statement warning Damascus against renewed chemical strikes on rebel targets, the triggers that led to strikes on regime targets in April are hardening into a doctrine. The United States will act aggressively to maintain a global prohibition on the use of weapons of mass destruction. There is enough consistency and clarity to Trump’s approach that it might amount to deterrence. Even if the Assad regime is not deterred, onlookers may yet be.

 This is a doctrine that Barack Obama flirted with, but declined only at the last minute to adopt. “As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them,” Obama explained to the nation in a primetime address on September 10, 2013. “Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.”

 This was and remains a prophetic warning. ISIS militants have already deployed chemical munitions against Iraqi troops and their American and Australian advisors. An inauspicious future typified by despots unafraid to unleash indiscriminate and unconventional weapons on the battlefield would surely have come to fruition had the West not eventually made good on Obama’s threats.

 Obama framed his about-face as an odd species of consistency. He deferred to Congress in a way he hadn’t before and wouldn’t after while simultaneously empowering Moscow to mediate the conflict. This laid the groundwork for Russian armed intervention in Syria just two years later. In contrast, Donald Trump eschewed the rote dance of coalition-building and public diplomacy. Instead, he ordered the unilateral, punitive strike on a rogue for behaving roguishly. And he’s willing to do it again if need be.

 That approach will prove refreshing to America’s Sunni allies who, by the end of the last administration, were entirely disillusioned with the Obama presidency. Obama’s waltz back from his red line undermined the Gulf States and shattered hopes in Syria that the West was prepared to enforce the proscription on mass civilian slaughter. In the week of war drums leading up to the anti-climax of September 10, 2013, a wave of defections from the Syrian Army suggested that a post-Assad future was possible. Today, few think such a prospect is conceivable. And because the insurgency against Assad’s regime will not end with Assad in power, an equal number cannot foresee a stop to the Syrian civil war anytime soon.

 These circumstances have led some to criticize the Trump administration. Perhaps the behaviors they’ve resolved to punish are too narrowly defined. Maybe the White House should rethink regime change? It is, after all, not so much a civil war anymore but a great power conflict. American troops—to say nothing of Russian, Turkish, British, French, and a host of others—are already on the ground in Syria in numbers and at cross purposes. Still others contend that even this level of engagement in the Levant is irresponsible. They argue the Syrian quagmire is to be avoided at all costs.

 These are all legitimate criticisms, but only now can there be a rational debate over a concrete Syria policy.

 For more than three years, Barack Obama tried to have his cake and eat it, too. He presented himself as sagaciously unmoved by the political pressuring of Washington’s pro-war establishment, which salivates over the prospect of lucrative strikes on an alien nation. At the same time, the Obama White House cast itself as a reluctant defender of civilization in the Middle East and elsewhere—perhaps even too quick to deploy men and ordnance. This was only nonsense retrofitted onto Barack Obama’s pursuit of a face-saving way to retreat from his self-set “red line.”

 The Trump administration’s policy in Syria is an improvement over Obama’s if only because it deserves to be called a policy. Love it or don’t, at least Americans are no longer being gaslighted into debating the merits of phantasms invented by political strategists in Washington talk shops.'

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

They are the puppet masters behind Bashar al-Assad

Image result for mark kimmitt 100+ days

 Talk of a post-Assad Syria, of Russia having to make a choice about whether to keep a murderous dictator in power, cut across the idea that all establishment politicians are as determined to keep Assad in power as those who complain that there is a rĂ©gime-change war to get rid of him. And other correctives are there, nobody is sleepwalking into world war three (I give elsewhere* plenty of reasons why nobody is going to start WW3 to keep Assad in power, essentially he's not worth it), and nobody in the US wants to fight a war in Syria. There still seems no strategy other than a diplomatic push to convince Russia to abandon Assad, but it is wrong to take from that implied support for his continued misrule. I am aware that the signs from Macron on accepting Assad are not good, and as Channel 4 reported this evening, Assad used chlorine in an attack on Jobar in the Damascus suburbs last week, and babies were being pulled out of the rubble from one of his airforce's attacks today.

 It is also interesting that Assad needs to use chemical weapons again. He has no other way to expand his control over Syria than to force people to flee in terror.

 Katty Kay: "Do you think there is a more comprehensive strategy, beyond taking action against one airforce base?"

 Mark Kimmitt: "Well, frankly, I don't think there has been an overall strategy for Syria that has come from either of the two main parties..."

 Katty Kay: "For six years."

 Mark Kimmitt: "That's right, from either the United States, or its coalition partners, such as the United Kingdom. That has to be part of any solution. But the solution can't simply be military, it has to be diplomatic, and I'm glad to see that the French have started pushing very hard to put this back on the table.

 Christian Fraser: "General Kimmitt, President Trump obviously wants to look like he is the strong man on the world stage, and I suppose the upside from this is that you perhaps can head it off; the flipside though, is that if they were to use these weapons, you have to follow through."

 Mark Kimmitt: "Well, we've already demonstrated that we'll follow through, and I think the most encouraging news today is that President Assad denied that he was preparing for a chemical attack. That demonstrates to me that President Trump's words have had a deterrent effect, not only for Bashar al-Assad, but for his supporters in Russia and Iran."

 Christian Fraser: "The problem is of course, that if there were a second attack, the Russians might not be as tolerant as they were last time."

 Mark Kimmitt: "Well, that's a choice the Russians have to make. Clearly, they are the puppet masters behind Bashar al-Assad, as are the Iranians; the only reason Bashar al-Assad is in power today is because of the support he's had from those two countries. So they've got to make a decision, keep a corrupt murderer in power, or move towards a diplomatic solution.

 Katty Kay: "The military situation has been getting more tense, we've seen Russian and American jets flying very close to each other. The Americans have downed a Syrian plane. The Russians didn't like that. What are the risks at the moment of some kind of miscalculation in Syria?"

 Mark Kimmitt: "Well, that's my greatest worry as well, because the Russians have turned off the deconfliction channel. We've had a strong communications channel between ourselves - the coalition nations - and the Russians, to make sure there wasn't any kind of accidental shootdown, any accidental problem in [Syrian airspace]. That can only be done if this deconfliction channel remains open, so it up to the Russians, in my mind, to re-open this deconfliction channel so we don't have that miscalculation that you're suggesting."

 Katty Kay: "There isn't a political strategy, here in the United States anyway, nor is there amongst the coalition, for what happens post-Assad, if there is going to be a post-Assad. We seem to be in some kind of a holding pattern, to some extent that reflects American public opinion, and an incredible reluctance; I was speaking to a top Democrat just this morning who was saying there is no appetite in the United States, either among Republicans, or amongst Democrats, even amongst president Trump's most ardent supporters, for the United States to get more militarily involved in Syria, and the President, while issuing this threat on the chemical weapons issue, is very well aware of that lack of support for more engagement."


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The Battle for Deraa and Iran's Plans in the South

 Ahmad Abazeid:

 'On February 12, 2017, the opposition operations center known as al-Bunyan al-Marsous announced the beginning of the battle for the regime-controlled district of Manshiya, dubbed al-Mawt wa-la al-Madhalla. The operation hoped to push the regime away from the border crossing with Jordan following a series of regime attempts to advance in that direction. The Manshiya district is the only remaining regime-controlled section of “Deraa al-Balad” (the southern half of Deraa city), where the Syrian popular uprising first erupted on March 18, 2011.
 In Deraa, the opposition controls “Deraa al-Balad” and Deraa Camp (which was mostly inhabited by Palestinians and IDPs from the Golan Heights), while the regime is concentrated in “Deraa al-Mahatta,” the city’s modern commercial center connected to the capital via the M-5 Highway. Deraa is considered the cradle of the revolution, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and anti-Regime sentiment. An analysis of recent battles sheds light on the tactics of the two warring parties as well as Iran’s strategy in the south and Syria as a whole.

 Al-Bunyan al-Marsous is predominantly made up of local fighters from the city of Deraa who fall under the umbrella of the FSA, as well as local fighters from Islamist factions and those from rural Deraa. Over time, it has become the model for organized and successful military operations for the rest of the formations in the province, while also breaking the deadlock of factional rivalries and military stagnation that had been looming in the south.

 Al-Mawt wa-la al-Madhalla went through several phases during the four months leading up to the latest campaign. It managed to advance into and control almost all of the al-Manshiya district during months of fierce urban combat through the extensive use of underground tunnels, remote controlled VBIEDs, and locally manufactured surface-to-surface rockets. It prevented the regime, supported by Russian air cover, from recapturing the areas it lost as the various regime units were unable to withstand the attacks of Deraa rebels.

 In early June, Iran and Russia, exploiting the calm of Syria’s northern fronts that had provided them with a greater number of fighters, arrived on the frontlines with a plan to invade the city, reach the border crossing with Jordan, and separate the eastern countryside of Deraa from the west. Iran sent huge numbers of multiethnic Shia militiamen to the battlefront, led by Lebanese Hezbollah, while the regime deployed special storm troopers from the 4th Division, a battle-hardened outfit from their time in Zabadani and Daraya, led by Colonel Ghayath Dallah. Russian and regime warplanes also began to intensify their aerial bombardment of the city’s neighborhoods with various weapons types, including napalm, barrel bombs, and artillery, using the same scorched earth tactics that were used in the besieged districts of east Aleppo before the departure of opposition forces.

 Due to the concentration of al-Bunyan al-Marsous forces on the al-Manshiya front, as well as its fortification, the Iranian military campaign has tried to penetrate opposition held areas via Deraa Camp’s flank. Iran launched several attacks in which a number of 4th Division and Hezbollah commanders were killed, as well as a number of FSA commanders. Yet the campaign failed to shift the balance of power due to tribal and regional cohesion within the formations of the south and the fact that many former Syrian army military officers now lead the opposition.

 On June 17, a 48-hour ceasefire started under a US-Russian-Jordanian agreement, which was then extended 24 hours. After this period, the regime campaign, with heavy Russian air support, returned even more violently. The fact that the renewed attack came right after the United States down a regime warplane near al-Tabqa gave the impression that this was the Russians taking revenge and annulling the ceasefire agreement. In a surprise move, regime forces seized the aerial defense brigade base near the road that connects east and west Deraa Countryside. However, al-Bunyan al-Marsus quickly retrieved it, inflicting significant losses on the regime, and has managed to maintain control as of the writing of this article.

 Even though Deraa is included in the May 2017 agreement establishing de-escalation zones, and despite official Arab and US focus on curbing Iranian influence in Syria, neither has prevented the joint Russian-Iranian campaign against the city of Deraa. The campaign aims to see Iranian-backed militias reach the Jordanian border, just as they reached the Syrian-Iraqi border from both sides by way of the Syrian Desert. Having already imposed their control over the western Qalamoun along the Lebanese border after a long series of battles and forced-displacement agreements, Iran is looking to make a similar strategic move to block the idea of safe zones proposed by the Trump administration, secure a supply route stretching from Tehran to Syria’s south, and curtail American plans in Syria.

 As for Deraa, which was also discussed in the context of safe zones, Tehran aims to impose its presence there as a fait accompli to Jordanian and US plans (if any exist) in Syria. Iran considers this an opportunity to isolate Deraa, gradually take control of the most important and symbolic remaining FSA stronghold, restore Assad’s legitimacy, and get closer to the Golan Heights.

 As for Jordan, the arrival of Shia militias on the battlefront and the extent of bombing has raised many fears, from a security, economic, and political perspective. With an eye on Iran, Amman has already rejected the presence of sectarian militias on its borders. Jordan is also afraid of a large wave of displacement in its direction. That fear has already driven Jordan to increase support for the Deraa rebels, which has not produced any qualitative shift in policy, and to push for a ceasefire agreement and a stop to the military campaign on Deraa. Instead, it has eliminated the possibility of its own ground intervention along the lines of Euphrates Shield in the north, without alleviating fears of a possible Iranian advance towards its borders. It has also eliminated the possibility of any alternatives that might include accepting Assad’s presence at the Deraa or Nasib border crossings in exchange for keeping Iran at bay – a decision that would cost Jordan allies, as well as its only sphere of influence in southern Syria should.

 The battle of Deraa poses the most dangerous threat to the continuity of the political process, in Geneva and Astana, due to the opposition forces’ perception that these processes are useless, and that agreements with Russia cannot be trusted. It also threatens the opposition’s future chances in the south. Since Astana I, rebels have witnessed the loss and evacuation of many areas in Damascus and Homs countrysides, continued attempts to break into Eastern Ghouta, and now the great battle for Deraa. All of these have been carried out with Russian and Iranian complicity, coupled with the latest expansion in the Syrian Desert and attempts to block any contact between FSA forces and ISIS in order to monopolize “the fight against terrorism” and prevent opposition forces from advancing towards Deir Ez-Zour.

 The the political and military revolutionary forces feel they are losing at every turn of these processes in the face of the continued expansion of Iranian plans and the absence of any definitive or serious American or Arab strategy to confront them. And while the de-escalation agreement has neutralized military forces in the north pending the completion of this undertaking in the south, popular pressure is mounting. Rebel forces will soon face a threat to their legitimacy should they continue the political process while also retreating on the battlefield.

 The results of the current battle for Deraa will be a turning point in the course of the Syrian question and the regional map, where Iran aims, largely through Hezbollah, to impose its presence as a fait accompli via a triangle of control and supply routes stretching between the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Jordanian borders. Iran, along with Russia and the Assad regime, also aims to take control of the most important strongholds of the Free Syrian Army, with Deraa being the first and most symbolic among them. By doing so, it believes it will be able to impose its vision for a solution in Syria in favor of the regime, put an end to any plans for safe zones, and curtail American influence.

 Meanwhile, the rebels of Deraa believe they are facing a threat to their existence due to the symbolic nature of their city and the nature of the local community that so profoundly rejects the regime and Iranian presence, raising fears of massacres in the event Shia militias and regime forces enter Deraa. Being this important, the battle can change the opposition’s options. With the right kind of international support, the battle can also bring about their acceptance of the political process and convince them that their regional and international allies are serious. However, the continued expansion of and regime and its allies’ forces on the ground, though, threaten the opposition’s belief that any of its backers are serious in their support.'

Scavenging for Books Beneath the Rubble in Daraa

Inkhil library

 'The sight of people sifting through rubble – searching for survivors of an attack or rummaging for belongings – is not uncommon in rebel-held parts of Daraa province. But in the southern Syrian town of Inkhel, roughly 34 miles (55km) north of Daraa city, a group of volunteers is scavenging for something else entirely.

 Since the start of this year, teachers and volunteers have collected roughly 7,000 books from houses and libraries destroyed by Syrian government attacks in the rural town in Daraa. Rather than letting them wither away in moldy cellars or stuffy storage rooms, the rescued volumes are being used to stock the newly founded Ajyal Public Library.

 “The main goals of the library are to fight the regime with education … and serve college students in opposition-controlled areas,” said Loai Abu Abdou, a 34-year-old math teacher and one of the founders of Ajyal (Generations).

 Rebel-held parts of Daraa, once the seat of 2011 protests against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, have been the target of an intense government campaign over the past two months. Roughly 600 barrel bombs, 200 airstrikes and 91 napalm bombs have been dropped on the province in the first two weeks of June alone, according to estimates by Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets.

 Inkhil, classified by archaeologists as one of the most important ancient towns in the Houran Plain and one of it oldest inhabited cities, has been hit hard by the government’s aerial campaign. But enthusiasts in the town cling to life as they dodge shells and bullets to preserve what remains of the town’s cultural legacy.

 Qassem al-Jabawi, a 40-year-old judge, was aong the dozens of volunteers who helped collect books in Inkhil. He said that the books were collected from dangerous areas “where the bombing rarely stops,” and that the volunteers’ goal was to preserve the books and protect them from damage.

 According to Jabawi, most of the books currently in the library were rescued from the Inkhil Cultural Center, which he said had been devastated by years of war.

 Syrian troops used the center in 2012 as a base for operations against Inkhil’s rebel groups. Videos posted on social media networks in 2012 showed sniper positions set up on its roof and along its walls. Another video published in 2013 by a rebel-run media outfit showed the center in tatters after it was captured by opposition groups, who went on to use it as a military base.

 By March of this year – just three months after collection efforts began – volunteers from the Dawn of Syrian Women Association and the Ajyal Educational Foundation had managed to collect 7,000 books from the center and other damaged areas. The Ajyal Library was opened that same month, carrying books on just about every subject imaginable. And volunteers continue to dig through the rubble to salvage yet more texts.

 The library helps students navigate the maddening maze of finding books in war-torn Syria, particularly in Daraa’s countryside, where libraries are scarce. The reality of the conflict means that it is not easy for students to travel between different parts of the province to get the resources they need for their studies. This pressing need for reading material among students in Daraa’s countryside was the main impetus behind the initiative.

 “The project began when a college student was looking for sources to write a paper for a class, but could not find what he needed,” said Hayat al-Abd, director of the Dawn of Syrian Women Association and another of the library’s cofounders.

 “People can now borrow books for free. An identification card is deposited until the book is returned to the library. The center relies solely on volunteers, and is open from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.,” she explained.

 While students may be the primary target of this initiative, teachers and instructors in rural Daraa have also gained from the project.

 “In light of the scarcity of libraries in the liberated areas in rural Daraa, and because it is very hard to download books online due to poor internet connections, this library is a gem for me,” said Abdul Rahman al-Naser, a 31-year-old Arabic teacher.

 Naser added that the library attracts a plethora of people from other villages in the area, especially students from the nearby city of Nawa, roughly 12 miles (20km) south of Inkhil. Though the library stocks books on Arabic grammar and syntax as well as classical Arabic literature, Naser has opted instead for books on Roman, Greek and Islamic civilizations. “I am interested in the history and traditions of old civilizations,” he said.

 As well as providing access to books, the library also organizes workshops and seminars for students in rural Daraa province.

 Earlier in June, the library’s Facebook page announced a number of summer classes and seminars for high-school students in the area, covering topics such as chemistry, math, English, communications and Arabic, among others. The seminars and courses were slated to start on June 18 and will run for most of the summer.

 The founders now hope to further develop the library by securing missing volumes and equipping the center with additional tables and storage, making it easier and faster for visitors to find the books they need.'
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At 15 I was tortured in Assad’s prisons. I escaped, but thousands still suffer

Saydnaya military prison.

 'For the 10 months I spent as a detainee in the prisons of Bashar al-Assad, I only saw my family in my dreams. At night, the screams would stop for an hour or two, and I could close my eyes and remember what it was like to be human. When I slept, I would return to my life.

 Today is the UN’s International Day for Support of Victims of Torture. Unfortunately in Syria, there is no shortage of victims of torture. Tens of thousands of us have been thrown in Assad’s prisons and tortured beyond what our bodies and minds can take. Many of us die there. Those of us who have survived will spend the rest of our lives being reminded of just how evil humanity is capable of being.

 I was only 15 when I was arrested and subjected to months of physical and psychological torture.

 I am lucky to have survived. There were times I wished for death. As happy as I am to return to life again, I am equally gripped by sadness and pain knowing more than 200,000 prisoners are still there. My freedom feels incomplete as long as my Syrian brothers and sisters suffer behind those high walls. I am a hostage of my memory.

 Aleppo is my home. I was forced to leave there in 2013 to try to escape the barrel bombs and besiegement of the city by Assad and his allies. My mother, siblings and I fled to Lebanon. At the age of 14, I had to leave school and begin working to try to sustain our family. At the end of 2014, we were forced to return to Syria because we could not afford Lebanese residence and working permits.

 On the way home, I was arrested by members of a political security branch in Damascus. They accused me of taking part in the peaceful demonstrations at the beginning of the popular Syrian revolution against Assad.

 This is a regime known for its oppression, its tyranny, and its corruption. But it is also a regime that stands against humanity. It is a regime that could arrest a 15-year-old, a kid, and subject him to months of torture and starvation and psychological trauma. And I am not by any means a unique story in Syria.

 When I was first arrested, I was taken to security branch headquarters near Damascus, where I was tortured during sessions of interrogation for 58 days straight. After 58 days of this treatment, I had no choice but to sign false confessions that the interrogator himself wrote. I put my name to offences I had never committed, and confessions about people I had never met. I was even forced to sign a document that accused my brother of being an armed rebel.

 I was held in that branch for four-and-a-half months, then moved to the political security administration at Fayha’ in Damascus. Here I was tortured in even more ways. I was given electric shocks on sensitive parts of my body; suspended from the ceiling; tortured using brutal methods known as “wind carpet”, “the wheel”, and “the bed”. This went on for another three months.

 This is when I was transferred to Saydnaya military prison. The Living Persons’ Graveyard. The Human Slaughterhouse. These are names that describe Saydnaya.

 I spent a month there. The mornings for detainees in this place starts with death. Before sunrise, the guards would yell with hate and scorn to wake us up, and we were ripped out of the dreams where we sought sweet refuge. “You, bastards of the cell, who has a corpse?” they would yell. And we would fetch the corpses of our brothers who had left our living hell.

 We survived on scraps of rubbish for food. We became so starved that our bodies stopped looking human. We were whipped, beaten, starved, given electric shocks. We saw people taken to be hanged en masse. There are stories of prisoners being forced to rape each other, or of guards raping prisoners. There are stories of guards forcing prisoners to kill their own friends and family, or be tortured and executed. Saydnaya is hell on Earth.

 Every day, we waited for punishment. You don’t know anything, and you don’t know when you’re going to be tortured or killed. Saydnaya is not where you go to be tortured for information. Saydnaya is where you go to die.

 After a month of that living hell, I was transferred to Tishreen military hospital. Don’t be fooled by the word “hospital”. It was not a place of healing and care. There is a reason detainees in Saydnaya do not ask to see the doctor, and refuse to answer when nurses ask who has injuries.

 While in my months as a detainee I was tortured physically, the psychological torture at the military hospital was unparalleled. I was only there for two days, but that was long enough to witness the worst of humanity. I wasn’t fed for two days. I was put in a tiny room just 3 metres by 3 metres, where dead bodies were piled over one another; one was rotting. My room had three tuberculosis patients. We had to carry corpses around.

 I saw many executions. A guard held his foot on the neck of a detainee to suffocate him to death. Another was given an “air injection” of poison. The smell of death surrounds you.

 I then returned to Saydnaya, where I stayed for one final, brutal month. One day I was beaten so harshly I passed out – simply because I happened to be born on a street under opposition control.

 In October 2015, after 10 months of detention, I won my freedom. But my mind will never be free. I am free, but I’ve been taken hostage by the cries of my fellow prisoners, the groans of their wounds, the screams of their torture, their secret prayers, their emaciated bodies and their deaths once they could bear life no more.

 My story is like hundreds of thousands of other stories, but I ask you to look past the numbers and think: what if this happened to you? Or to your brother, or sister, or father, or mother, or child, or friend? Would you support the continued leadership in Syria of the man responsible?

 I have escaped the prisons, and escaped Syria’s borders, but I have no future. I have no signs of hope. Assad has ruined the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. If our children and our children’s children have any hope in Syria, Assad cannot remain. As long as he is in power, his forces will continue to crush the spirit of anyone who dares to want freedom.'

Monday, 26 June 2017

Why Macron is wrong about Assad

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy greets Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at the Elysee Palace in Paris, November 13, 2009 [Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes]

 Muhammad Idrees Ahmad:

 'There is much to celebrate in Emmanuel Macron's ascent to the French presidency. The election was a resounding defeat for the forces of reaction. Macron conducted himself with decency and intelligence and achieved his victory without submitting to the prevailing xenophobic impulse. In acknowledging France's imperial excesses, in standing up to Vladimir Putin, and in resisting Donald Trump's provocations, he seemed to herald a bold new politics that would align power with principle.

 Since assuming power, however, Macron's statements have been more equivocal. His recent comments on Syria suggest that in the balance between ideals and pragmatism, the president is leaning heavier on the latter. Speaking to the European press, Macron announced his break with past policy. "I haven't said the deposing of Bashar al-Assad is a prerequisite for everything," he said. "Because no one has introduced me to his legitimate successor!" Instead, he emphasised the need for "a political and diplomatic roadmap"; because, "We won't solve the question only with military force."

 The cliche about military force would be meaningful, if it came from the party that is committed to military victory. But the monopoly on violence in Syria is held by the regime and its allies, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Together, they are responsible for over 90 percent of all civilian deaths. The West has deployed its military force primarily against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and al-Qaeda, and, occasionally, also against anti-Assad fighters (often indiscriminately). France has never confronted Assad; and only under Trump has the US tackled the regime in five rare instances, the most significant being the cruise missile strike on the Shayrat airbase after the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

 For the leader of France to foreswear military force in Syria is quite meaningless. The real question is if Assad, Russia and Iran accept that there is no military solution. They don't.

 It is also not necessary for Syrians to produce a legitimate leader before they can rid themselves of a decidedly illegitimate one. The very cause of the conflict in Syria is that citizens were denied the right to elect legitimate leaders. Which is what makes Macron's next statement puzzling. "Democracy isn't built from the outside without the people," he says. But in Syria, people inside were trying to build democracy. The only assistance they asked for was not to be gassed, starved, tortured or disappeared in the process.

 To avoid having to address the present, Macron reverts to the past and refers to the debacles in Iraq and Libya. "What was the result of those interventions?" he asks. "Failed states where terrorist groups prospered."

 But the Iraq war had nothing in common with Libya, let alone with Syria. There was no popular uprising in 2003 and nor was there an imminent humanitarian crisis. Saddam had committed his worst crimes in the 1980s and 90s. In Libya, France intervened, with UN support, to prevent an imminent slaughter and 75 percent of the Libyan population approved. The subsequent disaster had less to do with Muammar Gaddafi's removal than with the failure to help consolidate Libya's nascent democracy, leaving it vulnerable to domestic and foreign subversion - France's included. If Iraq and Libya have turned into "failed states where terrorist groups prospered", it's mainly because the logic of the "war on terror" has trumped the logic of democracy and human rights.

 It is in Syria, however, that Macron's argument really founders. If Iraq shows that unprovoked action has consequences, Syria proves that inaction in the face of provocation, too, can lead to disaster. The war Syrian has killed over a half-million people, over five million have fled and 6.3 million are internally displaced.

 The root of the Syrian crisis is the Syrian regime; ISIL is its mere symptom. Committing to fight the latter while ignoring the former is not "realism", it is wishful thinking. Macron has been at his most effective when he speaks from principle. His reiteration of his red line - which he has now expanded to also include humanitarian corridors - is a welcome development. But if he believes that Assad is merely an enemy of the Syrian people, then he needs to be reacquainted with John Donne's admonition: no man is an island.

 In 2013, Barack Obama also thought Assad was someone else's problem and walked away from his redline. With this residual constraint lifted, the regime escalated its violence and killed nearly four times as many people in the two years after the chemical attack as it had in the two years before. This was the turning point that discredited Assad's democratic opposition, empowered the Islamists, and led to the rise of ISIL. It was also the moment when the refugees' flight spiked. The overflow from this deluge trickling into Europe sparked the xenophobic backlash that the far right has exploited across the West; and, while the brunt of ISIL terror is born by Syrians and Iraqis, Europe, too, became a target of its indiscriminate fury.

 Macron should know, because in the same interview he criticised Obama for failing to enforce his redline, creating a vacuum that was filled by the forces of reaction. But that abdication is not a historical detail: Its effects continue to fester.

 Syria will never be at peace as long as Assad remains in power. Over half of Syria's population will be unable to return home for fear of reprisal (and why wouldn't Assad seek and destroy his enemies, since he has learned that there is literally no crime that he cannot get away with). ISIL will be defeated, but the morbid symptoms it embodies may take even more grotesque form unless the underlying cause is addressed.

 In the interview, Macron spoke eloquently of Europe's love of justice; he also spoke of democracy, individual freedoms and social justice; and he warned of the threat of authoritarian regimes. The Syrians who rose up against Syria's authoritarian regime share these principles. Macron's words will ring hollow if he allows these people to be crushed and authoritarians everywhere will be emboldened, taking this as license to ruthlessly quash dissent.

 What Assad has done in Syria is not a crime against Syrians alone, it is a crime against humanity. It is not for Syria alone that the bell tolls, it tolls for all of us. Macron says he rejects neoconservative interventionism; but he needs to be just as leery of "realist" lack of imagination. It was the pursuit of "stability" after all that gave us the Mubaraks, Saddams and Assads. The aggravating dissonance will persist until the West learns to side with citizens instead of their oppressors.'

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Rebels defeated ISIS-linked Jaish Khalid assault on Hayt

 'Map shows the direction of ISIS attacks on Hayt that met with stiff resistance from FSA units.'

 Update 27/6/17:

 'Assad choppers bombed several Rebel locations close to front w/ #ISIS-linked Jaish Khalid (who failed to take Hayt 2 days ago).'

To Help Daraa... The Syrian Opposition Launches A New Battle South Of Syria

To Help Daraa... The Syrian Opposition Launches A New Battle South Of Syria

 'The faction of the 46th Infantry battalion of the Syrian opposition announced yesterday evening about a military battle under the name of "the road to Damascus" in the northern Quneitra countryside.

 A statement issued by the faction said the operation was aimed at "easing the pressure by the regime and the sectarian militias on the city of Daraa, and the liberation of several military positions from the grip of the regime and Hezbollah in the northern countryside of Quneitra."

 The opposition factions recently took control of positions of the regime forces in the city of al-Baath, north of the city of Quneitra after launching a battle to control the city.

 It is worth mentioning that the regime forces supported by foreign militias have failed to advance on the neighborhoods of Daraa al-Balad after several violent military attempts, and heavy bombing campaign on the neighborhoods of Daraa al-Balad.'

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Macron's statements on Syria "discredited him in the eyes of many who believed in his role"

 Ziad Majed:

 'Macron says that "Bashar is not the enemy of France, but the enemy of the Syrian people." How do we first explain this dichotomy?
 This statement echoes the positions already expressed last year by the current Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian when he was Minister of Defense. It justifies military intervention against Daesh (Arab acronym of the Islamic State) and inaction against Bashar al-Assad, even though he is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity of Daesh.
 The declaration excludes the Syrians from the international community and humanity, for even if they die under torture in Assad's jails and under the aerial bombardments of his army, This does not make their mass murderer an enemy of France. It is the contempt displayed towards a whole people and an approach that divests France of the universal values ​​and the international law that it often claims to defend.
 Worse still, this message will be interpreted by the Syrian dictator as a license to kill, as a total immunity, as long as the tens of thousands of victims are only children, Syrian women and men (and Palestinians from Syria).

 "I did not state that the removal of Bashar was a prerequisite for everything. For no one has presented me with his legitimate successor, "he adds. Is this to say that the current opposition is not legitimate?
 Mr. Macron himself declared in reply to Franco-Syrian associations who had questioned him about his position with respect to Syria during his presidential campaign that "Bashar al-Assad committed war crimes against his people. His retention in power can in no way be a solution for Syria. Nor will there be peace without justice and therefore those responsible for the crimes committed, including chemical attacks, will have to respond. France will continue to act in the Security Council in this regard, despite the systematic obstruction of "one of the permanent members ".
 Today, Mr. Macron seems to be reversing his position. Moreover, to consider that the alleged absence of alternatives is a sufficient reason for maintaining a mass killer in place is in itself an insult to the intelligence of the Syrian people. Mr. Macron denies the potential of thousands of Syrians, intellectuals, technocrats, jurists, civil society activists who resemble those he is so proud of in his "En Marche" movement. In any event, after the massive destruction of Syria by Bashar al-Assad and his allies, it is impossible to be reborn without collective political management. The alternative is not a single leader,

 "The absolute struggle against all terrorist groups. They are our enemies. We need the cooperation of all to eradicate them, especially from Russia. Is this the new realpolitik of France?
 The declaration can be a form of repositioning in relation to dialogue with Russia in a moment of uncertainty and unpredictability. Mr. Macron believes he can play a more important role by turning over his jacket and abandoning the principled positions of his predecessor, Mr. Hollande.
 He is mistaken because his position denotes a naivety and a lack of strategy. All past experiences show that the war against terrorism is not won by mere military cooperation with the Americans or the Russians, which also have hundreds of civilian casualties in both Syria and Iraq.
 Terrorism is developing in a context of humiliation, lack of prospects and occupation. Warrior nihilism thrives on the ruins of the political field that Assad, father and son, have destroyed in Syria through repression, massacres, arrests, impunity and sometimes the complicity of international actors ... Everyone pays The price today. We will pay more for it in a few years by repeating the same policies. Another form of daeshism might emerge.
 Mr. Macron is well aware that "Assad continues today thanks to the Russian and Iranian military occupation of part of Syria. He is also aware that this occupation is in itself a reason enough to fuel frustrations and anger, even resistance, which are far from leading to any stability.
 The more Assad stays in power, the more Daesh, al-Nusra (Fateh al-Sham, ex Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), or other successors will increase their recruitment capacity. Of course, a departure from Assad would not immediately solve all the problems. It must not be forgotten that we are in the sixth year of a conflict preceded by 41 years of a barbaric dictatorship. Without a political solution ensuring a transition, without justice and respect for human rights,

 Macron repeats his "red lines": "chemical weapons and humanitarian access," which he says will be "intractable." What is his room for manoeuvre? And what do these red lines mean after all he has just said?
 Macron reiterates the words of Barack Obama, whose unfortunate consequences we are unfortunately aware of. The red line on chemical weapons was nothing more than a green light for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity with all kinds of weapons except chemical weapons. Macron promised to play a role of political and ethical leadership at European and international level. This statement immediately discredited him in the eyes of a large part of those who believed in him.'

Rock In A Hard Place: Music & Mayhem In The Middle East

 'There was a point, adrift in the open sea, the engine gone, the rubber boat half deflated, the screams of men and women all around him, when Adel Saflou found himself singing. They were lost in the Mediterranean and the 50 men, women and children who clung to the rails of the dinghy were hysterical. Adel had managed to get his phone working and dialled the number the people smugglers in Izmir had given him for the Greek coastguard. Now he was on hold and there was music was playing over the line as he waited to be connected and then he released what he was listening to: it was Somewhere Over the Rainbow. “I was thinking: Oh my god, am I really listening to this? And everyone else is screaming, everyone is screaming and crying and I am looking at them I am humming along,” he said.

 Eight hours earlier Adel had been packed into a van with two of his cousins, their children and some neighbours from his home city of Idlib, close to the Syrian border, as well as dozens of strangers. The Turkish-Syrian smuggling gang had promised the family that their boat would have 25 to 30 people but it was clear when they arrived that they had been lying. Adel and his cousins had paid $1,200 per person to cross from Izmir, in Turkey, to Samos, in Greece. He had toyed with the idea of buying his own boat - which went for around $3,000 in Turkey - and crossing himself, but considered it too dangerous. He had heard that the smugglers would often pursue boats that tried to cross alone and puncture them when they were at sea. They were offered a speed-boat crossing for $3,000 each but had been told that often those who paid more would end up in the same boats anyway. In the summer of 2015, Izmir was full of Syrians waiting to make the crossing and word travelled fast between friends and family about the ruthless tactics of the smuggling gangs. “They are smugglers - they’re criminals - in the end. They don’t want you to be happy, they just want money,” he said.

 On the beach, Adel helped some of the younger kids put on their life jackets. It was a warm night but the water was cold as they waded to the boats. Adel had all of his cash wrapped in plastic and taped to his chest. They packed onto the boats, families sitting as close together as possible but children and heavier passengers shifted around to maintain the weight. The last person to board looked bemused as one of the smugglers handed him the tiller to the small outboard and then pointed out to sea, towards a twinkling crescent of lights in the distance. It was Greece: yallah: go - that way, he said, and pushed the craft into the swell. “No one knew what they were doing,” Adel recalled. And why would they? Like Adel, many of the refugees packed into the boat were middle class Syrians from metropolitan cities like Idlib, hundreds of miles from the coast. An experienced skipper would struggle to pilot a heavily overloaded dinghy with no lights, no radio and no navigation system across 50 miles of open sea. Prior to the outbreak of Syria’s bloody civil war, many of Adel’s fellow passengers had regular lives - jobs, homes, families and friends - and yet they had found themselves chased out of their cities into refugee camps in countries that didn’t want them. In Istanbul and Izmir they had had to negotiate safe passage for a fair price from criminal gangs. Now here they were, together, on the open sea in a final bid for sanctuary in Europe.

 The sea was manageable in the first half an hour of the crossing but as they left the safety of the Turkish coast for deeper waters, the current and wind whipped up huge waves all around them. As water sloshed over the edges of the dinghy - already low in the water - people jammed themselves together to get away from it. Panic came quickly: “People were standing up. A lot of people were screaming, others were telling them to calm down. Then people started getting agitated and more water started coming in the boat,” he said. Adel quickly released that they were sinking and he and his cousins considered diving into the water and swimming, but the huge peaks and troughs of the swell made it impossible. At one point, a man leapt into the water but quickly faltered in the cold water and the others were able to drag him back over to safety. In the centre of the boat, where families were now crammed together, people were already screaming at each other: “People were shouting: ‘Don’t touch my sister!’ and ‘I’m going to kill you’ and ‘I’m going to slice your throat’,” Adel said. Then the make-shift pilot lost his temper and began wrenching at the tiller furiously. The engine came loose dropped into the ink-black water. The boat was adrift. Their only hope now was rescue.

 Adel had already left Syria when the rebels stormed his home city of Idlib in 2015 and converted the house he grew up in into a makeshift military base. His family had fled hours earlier after three years of living on the front line between the forces of Bashar al-Assad and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabat al-Nusra rebels and eventually made it to refugee camp in southern Turkey. Adel was in Beirut, where he had moved to in the early days of the war, and heard the story later from neighbours. “The rebels went into my room and it was painted dark red, all over. I had a big sword and two guitars and a painting of a pentagram. It looked really ritualistic,” Adel said. On his shelves were books about heavy metal and CDs of bands from Europe and the US, while his walls were covered in pictures of shows he had attended in Syria and further afield. His pentagram, which he had drawn on the wall in black candle wax, must have been a shock to the Sunni rebels: “They saw my picture and they said: ‘We want this guy he’s a devil worshipper.’ And now they have my name I guess,” he said. “I don’t care. I am never going back there.”

 Growing up in Idlib it was difficult not to be swept up in the tide of anger towards Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime, which had long marginalised Syria’s Sunni majority. Sunni Syrians like Adel had grown up in households that had witnessed Assad’s father, Hafez, brutally repress a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the 1980s, culminating in his razing of the city of Hama and killing over 20,000 people. While Assad’s Baathist movement was ostensibly secular, in reality Hafez and Assad’s Alawite sect dominated positions of power and influence in pre-war Syria while his secret police kept a restive Sunni population in check. Even if Adel was not overtly political - let alone sectarian - growing up, a hatred of the Syrian government was in his blood: he remembered clearly when he was eight or nine that he and his friends would go down to the main square in Idlib and spit at the statue of Hafez.

 Adel grew up religious. He prayed often and his mother and father were devout Muslims. He also loved video games. In his early teens he bought the The Need For Speed, the soundtrack to which included music by Avenged Sevenfold and Bullet For My Valentine, and as he raced cars through digital renderings of American cities or lush mountains he would look forward to the songs by these popular mid-2000s bands, then at the forefront of a popular genre known as ‘metal-core’. On Syrian TV he first heard the Foo Fighters, the Gorrillaz and Avril Lavigne, who were then topping the international charts, and after school he would go home, turn on the television and jump on his bed to the music. Then in his early teens he was hanging out at his cousin's’ house in the nearby town of Mera’a when he first heard Opeth, and his life changed forever: “I got hooked,” he said. “It put a spell on me.”

 Adel managed to get hold of a classical guitar and began practicing playing heavy metal songs at home. He migrated from Avril Lavigne to Metallica and Godsmack, and gradually got hold of heavy metal garb: spiked and studded bracelets, black band t-shirts - from the very few shops that sold them. He began going out with ‘666’ and pentagrams drawn on felt tip pen on his hands. He got his first piercing. But his new passion for heavy music, alternative fashion and the symbols of the occult did not go down well in conservative Sunni Idlib: “Metal was still really frowned on then. My family said it was devil worshipping. They all made a big deal out of it. It gave me a headache,” he said. Then in 2010, Adel moved to Aleppo with his mother, who took a teaching job in the city. Aleppo may now be a byword for destruction and death after years of bitter conflict, but it was once a relatively liberal financial hub of around two million people. It was also, alongside Damascus and Homs, one of three hubs for the Syrian metal scene. Adel quickly fell in with the crowd there and formed a band with scene stalwart, Bashar Haroun, who ran U-Ground Studios, then the main hangout for Aleppo’s metallers. “It was easy to form bands in the studio. You were just sitting there and people would be like: ‘hey you want to join a band?’ Everyone played something and the best players always knew who to pick,” he said. His band, Orchid, only rehearsed three times before their first gig in 2010 and Adel only remembers now that it was at a bar called Cheers in Aleppo and that only 70 people turned up. After that, they continued to organise shows and the crowds grew: “For two years it was amazing and the studio was like a home. I spent most of my time there playing music. We’d smoke and talk and laugh and we’d get drunk,” he said.

 Most of those who lived through the protests that began in Syria during 2011 describe it as an overwhelmingly positive movement, an observation that is perhaps hard to fathom given the patchwork of bloody violence the country’s revolution has become. It was also a movement that crossed the sectarian divide, bringing Sunni and Shia Syrians onto the streets to protest against a shared enemy - the Alawite clan of Bashar al-Assad. But it wasn’t even sectarian in its opposition to the Alawites, a Shia sect that originated in Iraq in the 10th century and venerate the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Alawites made up 12% of Syria’s population prior to the conflict in 2011 and until very recently had been seen as staunch backers of Assad, with members of the sect and in particular those related to either the Assads or the Makhlouf, Assad’s mother’s family, dominating positions in the army, the security services and the country’s business elite. Assad’s brother, Maher, controlled the country’s Republican Guard. His cousin, Rami Makhlouf, is Syria’s richest man and perhaps the most reviled man in the country after Bashar and his late father. Syria was a brutal police state where endemic corruption enriched a small elite close to the ruling family. Assad deliberately exploited sectarian dimensions in the country in order to divide and rule Syria, which is 74% Sunni, but although the revolution began in Sunni-majority cities such as Homs and Hama, it was broad coalition of Shia, Christians, Kurds and Sunnis and its target was - above all else - rampant corruption and the violence of the security services.

 When Assad assumed power in 2000, observers had been positive that the London-educated ophthalmologist would bring Syria in from the cold. Assad had only returned to Syria after his brother and Hafez al-Assad’s heir-apparent, Bassel, was killed in a car crash, and one of his first moves on taking office was to release hundreds of political prisoners. In Assad’s first speech to the nation on July 17, 2000, he spoke of democracy, transparency and creative thinking but in a damning report in 2010 - a decade after he took power - Human Rights Watch ruled out any indication that he would atone for the sins of his father. It documented how Syria’s mukhabarat - or secret police - detained Syrians without warrants and how prisoners were routinely ‘disappeared’ by the security services. Meanwhile minorities such as the Kurds - which make up 10% of the population - were still forbidden from celebrating Kurdish festivals or learning the Kurdish language. Between 2007 and 2009, prominent writers, bloggers and human rights lawyers would be jailed in most cases simply for speaking out against the Syrian regime. By 2010 the arrests and disappearances were continuing with abandon.

 When the Arab revolutions began in Tunisia 2010 and in Egypt and Libya at the beginning of 2011, there was immediate speculation that Syria would be next. It had been decades of corruption and violence of dictatorial Arab states that fuelled the mass protests that would eventually oust leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and the conflict that would unseat Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Syria’s Baathist state was no less violent or corrupt. But towards the end of January 2011, Assad told the Wall Street Journal that Syria would be unlikely to see protests such as those that were already raging in Tunisia and Egypt because he understood the needs of his people, unlike Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abidine Ben Ali. On 15 March, Syria defied him and crowds took to the streets of southern city of Dera’a to call for the release of political prisoners and an end to corruption. The protests were sparked by the arrest and torture of 15 children for spraying anti-government graffiti. Assad made limited concessions as the protests grew to other Syrian cities including Hama and Homs, including lifting a 48-year-old state of emergency and releasing dozens of political prisoners. He also made concessions to Syria’s Sunni community by lifting the country’s ban on women wearing the full face veil - the niqab - and closing the country’s only casino.

 But from the earliest days of the conflict, Assad also responded to the protests with violence, with soldiers opening fire on crowds and tanks surrounding restive cities. Tens of thousands of opposition activists were rounded up in door to door searches in cities such as Idlib, and both Deraa and Hama came under siege as government tanks surrounded the city. Despite the violence, 400,000 gathered in Hama at the end of June. At the end of July 2011, a group of Syrian defectors founded the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with the express intention of forcing Assad from power and by December Damascus had seen its first suicide bombing, with 44 people killed. The Syrian regime began the bombardment of Homs and Hama that continued into 2012, and with every report of mass civilian casualties, the protest movement grew. In Aleppo, Adel, who finished school in the summer of 2012, saw the escalation first hand when he returned to Idlib, which had been an early conquest of anti-Assad rebels before being seized by the government in April. The city was a battleground. Syrian regime thugs were going door to door seeking out rebel sympathisers, which often simply translated as young Sunni men, with rebels camped on the outskirts. “It was terrible there,” he said. Even from a practical perspective, Adel wanted to study English and even in peacetime the universities in Idlib did not offer it. Likewise his musical ambitions were hardly going to be satisfied in a city already torn by a spiralling conlift.

 But there was also a religious dimension: Syria’s conflict had not yet taken on the horrific sectarian dimension that it had by 2013. Syria-sponsored Shia millitant group Hezbollah had not yet entered the war on the side of Assad and Islamic State (ISIS) were still a ragtag group of Sunni militants hiding out in Syria’s eastern deserts. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had not yet started funding Sunni groups such as Jabat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army was still a credible - and cross-denominational - political force. But it was still clear to Adel that the conflict was going that way. It was not safe for a Sunni - not least one who walks around with piercings and ‘666’ written on his hands - to remain in Syria. “For me as a musician and a guy who is 18 or 19 years old with a [Sunni] Muslim name: It is not a good idea for me to stay in Syria - anything could happen. I don’t want to waste my life or test my luck.” Like an increasing number of refugees from Syria, Adel packed his bags and headed for Beirut.

 Yasser Jamous got hold of his first hip hop album in 2001 by accident. His uncle, a passionate break dancer, had sent him to a music shop near his home in Yarmouk, outside Damascus, to pick up a mix tape. Yasser headed to his local music store with a blank cassette and a list of the tracks that his uncle wanted, but when the owner had finished copying the songs he said there was still 30 minutes space. The owner started talking about an American rapper who had just released a new album, and said he’d put as much as he could of it on the end of the tape. That was how a teenage Palestinian refugee in the Middle East’s biggest refugee camp discovered Eminem: “I liked his music,” Yasser said. “It was commercial but it was my doorway into hip hop.” From there Yasser began looking into the roots of Eminem’s music: Tupac, Biggie Smalls and NWA. “It was crazy. It just had this amazing energy,” he said. Yasser began writing out the lyrics to his favourite songs and looking into the meanings, and found that the life that rappers like Eminem, Tupac, Biggie and Ice Cube were describing in Detroit, Brooklyn and Los Angeles had parallels with his own as a refugee, growing up in a large and impoverished area of Syria where violence was never far away. “I started to feel the lyrics and the idea of resisting. I felt that there was real issues inside this music,” he said.

 Prior to the war, Yarmouk was home to around 160,000 people, most of them Palestinian refugees that were forced from or fled their homes after the foundation of Israel in 1948. Unlike the refugee camps of Turkey or Jordan today, Yarmouk was not a sprawling tent city but a shabby suburb of Damascus that had been developed over 60 years, with shops, restaurants, roads and businesses. Like the camps of the Palestinian West Bank, Yarmouk was a functioning city-within-a-city - unlike the West Bank, Palestinians living there were free to travel into Damascus or elsewhere in the country relatively freely. Like Palestinian camps in Jordan and Lebanon, various districts of Yarmouk were operated by factions of Palestinian militias including some that no longer existed anywhere else in the Middle East. These included the PFLP-GC (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command), a breakaway of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Marxist militia that made its name with a spate of plane hijackings in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, while many Yarmouk residents were born in Syria, Palestinian identity was strong in the camp and it was Palestinian flags and the colours of the militias - red for the PFLP, green for Hamas - that flew on the houses.

 Palestinian Yarmouk residents were not Syrian citizens - they were guests - and infrastructure, sanitation and resources in the camp were far inferior to Damascus or other Syrian cities. Just as the music of Eminem documented the US rapper’s experience of growing up on the wrong side of Detroit’s Eight Mile Road - where poverty was rife and prospects for young people slim - so Yasser and Mohammed’s early lyrics documented not only their identity as Palestinians but the day-to-day lives of young people in the camp. The pair began to write in English before shifting to Arabic and until 2006 kept themselves to themselves, recording a couple of songs through a microphone attached to their family computer. They were convinced that they were the only people in the Middle East rapping in Arabic. But one day they headed to an internet cafe and Googled ‘Arabic hip hop’ and came across a Palestinian site with some songs by DAM. But they were shocked to also find another site dedicated to Syrian hip hop and featuring bands from Homs, Aleppo and at least two from Damascus. “It was a shock,” Yasser recalled. “My brother messaged one of the guys and said we liked his song and if he was in Damascus we should meet. He replied: ‘OK, where do you live?’ and we said Yarmouk and he said: ‘What the fuck? I am in Yarmouk too’.” Muhammed Jawad introduced Yasser and Mohammed to a fourth rapper, Ahmad Razouk, an Algerian. At a meeting, the group decided to work together on a song but couldn’t decide on a name: two of them were Palestinians, one was Syrian and the other was Algerian so at least three quarters of the band were refugees: that was when they decided on Refugees of Rap. The name was to take on a new meaning a decade later when the group were forced to flee Syria, but even at a relatively peaceful time they thought that the word refugee was fitting: “We thought all of us were refugees to rap music. We take rap music as a place to be free and write our lyrics, to find asylum. It was not political, it was more for us as teenagers to be released,” Yasser said.

 The first songs the brothers recorded on their computer was a love song and their second was about hanging out in their neighbourhood. But the first song as a band was different: “It was about us and rap and what it meant to us. It said: ‘Forget the TV, we are the new TV. We will tell you the truth. It was a teenage rebel song,” he said. As Facebook and YouTube were blocked in Syria, the only way to publish songs was on the music sharing site MySpace and the Syrian hip hop site, which was administered by another Syrian rapper called Mohammed Abu Hajjar. They contacted Abu Hajjar and when he put it up positive comments quickly began to pour in. They also had more elaborate ways of sharing music, such as with bluetooth between mobile phones in the streets of Yarmouk. At a time when very few computers in the refugee camp were connected to wifi, bluetooth sharing made Refugees of Rap go viral in the camp long before going viral itself went viral. “The way was to send it to a friend who sent it to a friend and so on. But after a week we started to hear our song in the street. We’d be walking along and we’d hear our song being played in a car and I was like - this is me! But nobody knew who we were.”

 The song grew in popularity with young Palestinians and Syrians in Yarmouk but the older generation were less receptive. Palestinians had long valued their traditional music and in particular songs that spoke of their exile and their dream of return to Palestine, but rap was seen as an alien genre - particularly if it didn’t have an outright political message. But the group’s next song: 'Palestine and the Decision' ticked those boxes. It was a direct attack on Arab states that had failed to support the Palestinian people and push their homeland. It accused Arab nations including Syria for abandoning millions of Palestinians to a life of exile. It was an angry, upbeat and aggressive anthem that was far from the maudlinism of traditional Palestinian music. “It was a hit,” said Yasser. “We counted and between MySpace and Reverbnation it had around 200,000 downloads in the first two months and then hit 500,000.” They were contacted by rappers from Palestine who wanted to upload their song to a new hip hop site, Palrap. This allowed the band to contact other rappers from across the Middle East and put their first album together, the self-titled Refugees of Rap. They recorded one song at home and four more in a local studio, which was a huge expense. “We didn’t have any income and our parents were not good situation financially. We suffered to get the money to go and record - sometimes we would have everything prepared but we didn’t have the money for transport. We had the money to record but not to get to the studio,” he said. The band also began performing at local clubs between DJ sets. But by 2008 Refugees of Rap were doing so well that they would be asked to go on Syrian TV channels and perform concerts in Damascus.

 As their profile grew the band struggled to get their increasingly political message across without falling foul of the authorities. Lyrically, Yasser and Mohammed began relying on metaphors and allusions to their politics rather than outright criticisms of the government. They also benefitted from the fact that hip hop lyrics are spoken so quickly that many of the secret police officers at their gigs simply didn’t have time to make them out. The band played in Cairo and in Beirut and at bigger and bigger shows in Damascus. When they would do TV interviews they would be asked to submit lyrics beforehand, but often because they were seen to be Palestinians talking about the Palestinian struggle rather than Syrians criticising the Syrian regime, they got away with more than a Syrian outfit would. The authorities were less tolerant of songs criticising the regime in Algeria, and were at least once banned from performing those songs on TV. “When we went to Syrian TV they introduced us as Syrian and on Arab TV as Palestinian. But we preferred not to be identified as a nationality. We were refugees and we wanted to be introduced as that, to not have this idea of nationality,” Yasser said. They recorded another album, Face to Face in 2010 which included their first anti-regime song, 'Age of Silence'. They debated whether to release the song once the revolution began in 2011 but opted not to (it would not be made public until 2013). “We didn’t release it fast enough, It was negative I think but we had been in danger - sharing the song in Syria was a crime,” he said. The band concluded that with checkpoints throughout Damascus and with their families still living in Syria, they could not in good faith release a song that would endanger the lives of those they loved. “We decided we would find a way to get out and after we can do this,” he said. In 2011, Refugees of Rap set up their own studio, Voice of the People, allowing them to work - albeit briefly - in relative freedom but in 2010 they had to rely on other studios in Yarmouk. Yasser remembers that the engineer recording the song was so nervous about its content that they had to attend session in the middle of the night. The revolution was building in Syria, but so was the government’s response to it.

 While Homs and Hama were quickly captivated by the protests that began in 2011 in Deraa and spread to the major cities, including Damascus, the revolution was less well received by many in Yarmouk. Many of the Palestinian factions that controlled the camp were loyal to Assad before the rebel movement and those that had TVs had seen the chaos that was unfurling in Libya and Egypt. Yarmouk was poverty stricken and heavily reliant on aid, but unlike in other Middle East countries, the Syrian regime permitted Palestinians to own property and to work. In the same way that many Palestinians had supported Saddam Hussein because of his ongoing belligerence towards Israel (compared to Egypt and Jordan, who both signed peace deals with the Jewish state), many Yarmouk residents saw Assad as an ally in their struggle for a Palestinian state - not least given his open hostility towards Tel Aviv over Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. “People were angry because of the actions of the regime but they were afraid have the scenario of Libya. People were confused. In Yarmouk there was not really one opinion, there were many - even in one family. My uncle said this would take Syria to the shit, his brother said this will make Syria better,” Yasser said.

 But what turned opinion in Yarmouk was the brutality with which Assad dealt with the early protests in Deraa, which was besieged by the Syrian army. Yarmouk residents watched the footage of death and destruction with horror on YouTube and protests grew. As the rebels made inroads into the camp - which is a crucial frontline for advances on Damascus - life became more and more dangerous. Government air strikes began in 2012 and Yarmouk residents took to the streets on 14 July in a mass protest: “I remember more than 80% of the camp was in the street the rest were on their balconies, throwing water to help people cool down. It was very hot but the whole camp was there,” he said. As the army responded and three Palestinians were killed. The Free Syrian Army entered Yarmouk in 2012 and Yasser and Mohammed decided that enough was enough. Daily air strikes had destroyed swathes of the neighbourhood On the day they were due to leave, in December 2012, Yasser made a decision - he had to go to the studio, which was on the frontline between Assad’s forces and the Free Syrian Army. “It was ten minutes from home but it was in a place where there were no civilians. I didn’t tell my parents. I took my bicycle and I rode there,” he said. As he walked in the door he saw all of the equipment that the band had saved for months to buy and spent years accumulating. He knew he couldn’t carry the speakers, mixing desks and mics - they were too heavy - so he opened the monitors and removed the hard drives: “I would not let all that be lost. I took the disks and went back home. Six weeks later it was destroyed,” he said.

 Mohammed and Yasser called in a few favours and managed to secure French visas through a series of contacts including an Italian rapper, a refugee charity, an injured journalist and finally the French Consul in Lebanon. The pair made the two hour drive from Damascus and rocked up at the embassy with nothing more than back-packs and the Palestinian refugee IDs that they were given in Syria. “I remember in embassy I asked the guy: ‘How long will this take?’ and he said sorry and that it would take a little more time. I said: ‘Like how many days?’ and he said: ‘Like 30 minutes’.” He laughed. “We were like fuck, what? I thought it would take two months.” Most of Yasser and Mohammed’s family had already managed to gain asylum in Sweden by this point but pair remain in France as, by law, refugees have to claim asylum in the country that they first arrive in.

 When I met Yasser in Paris in the summer of 2016, he already spoke fluent French and the band were touring Europe with a growing profile. As we walked the streets of Montparnasse, Syrians less fortunate than Yasser and Mohammed were camped out on patches of dry grass in car parks, or slumped in doorways with suitcases and hungry-looking children. Elsewhere in Paris, dotted on the grassy banks in the parks that line the Seine, were men and women with carrier bags and holdalls, sleeping in the shade as a steady stream of tourists pass by oblivious. France was by then home to tens of thousands of Syrians, and many of them were on the streets begging. In early 2015 the country had basked in warmth and welcome for refugees from that shattered nation, times are changing. The brutal Paris attacks of November 2015 were ruthlessly exploited by those on the right, including Marie Le Pen’s National Front, as evidence as to why the country should start turning away those fleeing Syria. Yasser, who arrived in Paris in 2013 - during a different era - has been shocked at how attitudes have changed: “It is like we have gone back 50 years,” he said, drawing parallels with the anti-immigrant racism of the 1960s.

 He admitted that he is lucky, to have got out when he did. Muhammed, their Syrian bandmate, is back in Yarmouk having failed to secure asylum while their Algerian bandmate Ahmad Razouk made it to Europe only to be deported back to Algeria with his wife and child, a country he had left when he was two years old. In April 2015, extremist rebel factions including Jabat al-Nusra and ISIS seized 60% of the camp and then in July typhoid broke out and spread among the 18,000 residents that remained. When the UN released an image of tens of thousands of residents squeezed between rows of shattered buildings, queuing for food, Yarmouk became yet another icon of the unparalleled death and destruction of Syria’s civil war. As well as the regular outbreaks of violence between rebel groups and Palestinian factions that still remain, Assad has relentlessly bombed the camp as he tries to decimate any rebels that stand a chance of pushing onwards to Damascus. Even if the war was to end tomorrow, Yarmouk will never be the same again. But although Yasser grew up in the camp, he chooses to look forward rather than back. Syria was his home, now France is, but he is Palestinian and until there is a Palestinian homeland, he will always be a refugee: “I was born as a refugee. Syria was a refugee camp for me. It was my country, but the feeling is difficult to describe. I didn’t have nationality there. I had a permit,” he said. “Coming to France has taught me that my soul is my country. The rest is just memories. The place where I am, this is my country for the moment until I go back to Palestine, Maybe not me, maybe my children, my children’s children. But Palestine is what I feel.”

 Naarden is the kind of place where people go to die, Monzer Darwish said, peering through the net curtains at the silent street from the first floor window of his flat. The tiny town is a prime destination for Dutch retirees and set in the low, green fields north of Amsterdam, just outside the tourist town of Edam - famous for its cheese. Monzer and his wife, Lyn, crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 and then walked across Europe, buying fake passports in Greece and then flying to the Netherlands, where they claimed asylum. As is the policy in Holland, they were housed first in refugee centres and then allocated a flat in Naarden. Here they spend their days watching TV and learning Dutch while Monzer, a filmmaker, works on a documentary - Syrian Metal is War - that he wrote and filmed in Syria between 2011 and 2013. Other than the TV, a couple of guitars and their cat, Monzer and Lyn’s flat is bare. When they crossed the Mediterranean they brought almost nothing with them.

 Monzer grew up in Masyaf, near Hama, and remembers that it was Syria’s conservatism that brought him to metal. He was in the seventh grade and was attending a computer competition. It was hot and Monzer was wearing shorts but when he arrived at the venue a security guard told him he would have to go home and change because there were young women also competing. He refused. “I was really young and I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I said I wouldn’t change and I was kicked out of the competition,” he said. Monzer went back to his room in tears and found a friend, who was also attending the event, listening to music through headphones. “He put the headphones on me and said: ‘This will make you feel better. And it did.” The song was 'Battery' by Metallica and the album, Master of Puppets, was Monzer’s first heavy metal record. When he returned to Masyaf, he told his 70-year-old piano teacher what he had heard and was surprised when he dug out a cassette of Metallica’s Load and gave it to him. It turned out that the old man was also a fan and provided Monzer with three metal albums in all.

 In the early 2000s, Syria’s metal scene had a large and passionate following but just as in Egypt and Lebanon was subject to regular crackdowns from the authorities. Although officially a secular state, the country is deeply religious within both Sunni and Shia communities and local bands would rarely announced that they were metal when arranging shows. There were established scenes in Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo, as well as smaller scenes in Homs and Hama, and as internet use became more widespread it was easier for bands to communicate and organise gigs. But they regularly encountered hostility: “It wasn’t the authorities it was the people: they see the word metal and think something bad is going to happen. Like there would be satanic people who are going to rape or kill cats or drink blood or take drugs,” he said. It was public outrage that was behind the government crackdown in 2006, during which Monzer was arrested. “There is no law that says metal music is not allowed or it is prohibited in Syria, but because of the people, the authorities began to arrest metalheads. And then it became a thing: automatically when someone from the government met a metalhead, they would be questioned or held.”

 The crackdown was provoked by events in Lebanon and soon the pattern kicked off: articles about Syrian satanists began appearing in local newspapers, many of them featured pictures from the alternative website Deviant Art, including lurid images of young women with crosses in their mouths as well as pictures of tattoos and piercings. “They used them to say this is how metal people look and this is how they will make your children look. They attack religion, and they meant physically - they said we were going to physically attack people,” he said. The crackdown began in Homs and spread to Monzer’s hometown, Masyaf, where a popular record store was raided and dozens of CDs and t-shirts burned in the street outside. The store was then shuttered by the authorities. Then in Hama, Monzer was detained: “I was arrested for Satanism. They said: ‘You are listening to Satanic music. You are worshipping the devil. You are involved in dirty sexual acts.’ They tried to think of every bad thing they could imagine and attach it to metal. There were waves of arrests. It got really bad for metalheads,” he said.

 The first time Monzer was arrested the police found a notebook in which he had written lyrics by Norwegian black metal band Dimmu Borgir. He was 15 and found himself having to explain to his interrogators that the irreligious lyrics were not meant to be taken literally: “I tried to explain but they wouldn’t listen. I had to wait for eight hours in a small room with my father waiting outside.” But the treatment only made him more determined, more passionate. “I was really extreme about it because all of that happened and I knew I wasn’t doing anything bad against anyone. I was just listening to my music. I just wanted to be in a band and make music and that’s it,” he recalled. In the end Monzer had to leave his home town of Masyaf and move to another city, Salamiyah, far from his friends and family. “I had to live alone just because everybody thought I was a satanist. I spent three years completely alone, in my house. And during those years I was just practising and writing articles, getting more music and metal bands,” he said. While he was in internal exile in his house in Salamiya, Monzer became black metal editor of a Syrian online website - which is how he met Lyn, a fellow metal fan and tattooist in Homs. He wanted her to be an administrator on the site and eventually they met and fell in love.

 Bashar Haroun was flicking through the channels on TV at home in Aleppo when he came across a video of Metallica’s 'The Memory Remains', which had been released in 1997. He had been a fan of Michael Jackson since his early teens, but this was something completely different. Bashar remembered that the band’s style, their black clothes and their dark personas was so different from the pop music that tended to dominate the airwaves. It was serious. “It was the image of band. The type of music, the power and the energy. The anger. The ideas they had. This wasn’t 'Kiss Me Baby One More Time', it was deeper,” he said. “From this moment I knew that this would be part of my future. I went to the music store and bought the cassette and then started the chase: one band after another, one genre after another, but Metallica’s album, Reload, it was my first.” Being young and wanting to rebel had a lot to do with it, but as he grew up Metallica and the other bands that he sought out never lost their importance. “I needed to be different when I was a teenager but that didn't mean when I grew up I didn't need it anymore - it was the opposite. It is part of my personality and I live it in every moment of my life,” he said.

 By 1998 the scene in Aleppo was growing. Damascus was the bigger city and Homs also had an established scene but Aleppo was its heart. “In Damascus there were a lot of people who believe in metal but in Aleppo there were a lot of people who played metal - real musicians were from Aleppo, and real metalheads were from Damascus. That was how it was,” he said. Aside from sporadic harassment from the police, the biggest problems for bands in Aleppo was making live shows break even. Typically bands would need to hire the venue and then all the equipment separately, meaning that shows were extremely expensive to put on. “On 90% of rock and metal concerts you would make a loss,” he said. Then there was the fact that Syrian metal fans tended to want to hear covers rather than original material, and as a result few Syrian bands played their own material. Bashar formed his first band in 1998 with some friends and played twice in Damascus and at least ten times in Aleppo. “We were all beginners before. We loved music but we weren't professional in any way,” he said. And then in 2003 he formed his first serious band, Orion, and began writing his own material. In 2004, he opened U-Ground Studios, the recording venue and hangout that Adel Saflou would attend six years later and form his first band. For Bashar, U-Ground was not only a focal point for the Aleppo scene, but the result of years of frustration with producers in the city being unable to understand how to record heavy metal: “There was no-one who knew how to mix metal, with the double bass drums and the growling vocals,” he said.

 The crackdown that began in 2006 and forced Monzer Darwish to leave his hometown migrated to Aleppo in 2008, and inevitably came to Bashar’s door at U-Ground. The studio was raided, their equipment and merchandise confiscated and Bashar was thrown in jail. He was moved around five of Aleppo’s nastiest prisons before being released a month later. “The charge they were looking for was something satanic or something political - and I am neither,” he said. Eventually Bashar appeared in court and was released by the judge, but the damage was done. U-Ground was re-opened but the semi-regular shows that Bashar had organised in Aleppo ceased - the city would not see another live metal show until 2010. More generally, the arrests and harassment of metallers across Syria took an axe to what was a burgeoning scene, Bashar said: “They made metalheads look ugly in front of society and everybody was scared to be with them - metalheads were scared to be metalheads. They made it look like it was something really dangerous. You might waste your life, you waste your money. They just put us in the darkest place.” Orion also went inactive, and the songs that they had written before 2008 were not recorded until two years later. Their best known song, 'Of Freedom and Moor', had originally been written about the situation in Palestine, Bashar said, but the crackdown and its aftermath meant that by the time it was recorded in 2010 it was about problems closer to home. It was about Syria.

 It is hard to believe today but Aleppo largely sat out the Syrian revolution until May 2012. It wasn’t oblivious to the mass protests and brutal government reaction to them, but it never saw the kind of popular uprising seen in Homs and Hama. An ethnically diverse and commercial hub of some 2.5 million people, Aleppo had even witnessed government-backed pro-Assad rallies as other cities across Syria were ablaze. But by 2012 things were changing fast. On July 22, Syrian rebels invaded the city headed by the Free Syrian Army and later Jabat al-Nusra, which had been formed in January 2012 and brought battle-hardened Sunni jihadis from previous conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq into Syria’s war. In a city that had for centuries been home to Christians, Kurds, Shia, Sunni and Alawites, the sectarian narrative of al-Nusra forced residents to take sides along religious grounds. This was only compounded by Hezbollah’s entry into the conflict in Aleppo in 2013. Funded by external actors such as the Sunni states of the Gulf and Turkey on one side and Iran on the other, the sectarian narrative grew across Syria. Once Syria’s melting pot, Aleppo became synonymous with the country’s shattered heart.

 For Bashar, the sectarian narrative was difficult to bear. In 2010, as the authorities turned their attention to quelling the growing protest movement that was spreading across Syria, Bashar had begun organising shows. Many Syrians were already leaving the country, heading for Lebanon, Turkey or, for those who could afford it, the Gulf. But as the violence increased around Aleppo, Bashar became more and more determined that he would not abandon either Aleppo or the metal scene. He believed that his scene had always transcended the sectarian divide and could continue to do so. “We made one every one or two months. It was to encourage people not to fall into violence and just play music and just stay in the spirit of metal and rock music,” he said. During 2010, 2011 and early 2012, the concerts continued and the crowds turned out. Monzer recalled that if anything the metal scene grew alongside the violence. It was ironic that the bands actually had more freedom to perform once the conflict began in 2011. “We had the chance to do it without any distractions from the people who used to bother us,’ he said. Like Bashar, Monzer sensed that what was happening in the Syrian metal scene was important. It showed a different narrative, one of young people from cities and communities across a torn country, united by their black t-shirts and their passion for extreme music - united by the arrests, the beatings, the isolation that predated Syria’s war and will outlast it. “I wanted to document not just people doing concerts and all that but the passion that Syrian metalheads had for this type of music, because whenever something is really hard to do you develop this great passion. It wasn’t just concerts, it was something spiritual for me. When you wore a metal t-shirt back then and saw someone else wearing another band t-shirt in the street you would literally become friends - the next day you would be drinking beer together,” he said.

 As Aleppo became increasingly uninhabitable, Bashar moved to Latakia, the port city on Syria’s western coast that has even today been spared much of the devastation of the rest of the country. He opened a new incarnation of U-Ground and immediately began organising gigs. Then, in 2013, at the worst of the fighting in his home city, he and Monzer returned to Aleppo to organise a live show, Life Under Siege, on the front-line between the Syrian army and the rebels. It would eventually form the basis for Monzer’s documentary although at the time Bashar had his own reasons for returning to Aleppo and putting on a gig as if the war wasn’t raging around them. He was proud then - as he is now - that during a war that has pitted Syrian against each other, not a single member of Syria’s heavy metal community ever picked up a gun. Syrians metallers were from across its religious and cultural divide - Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and Christian - and they remained so, even as Aleppo crumbled around them. “I don't know anyone from all people around me in the music scene - musicians or just metalheads, rockers and music lovers - who has been involved in any action during this war, until this day,” said Bashar when we spoke in 2016. “I think the message was clear from the beginning, that we were away from all this. We are still living our own lives that are different from war. We didn’t care about the problem of ethnic religion or politics. We didn't talk politics. It was just about metal. We were just one happy family,” he said.

 The gig was held at a small venue near the frontline between the rebels at the Syrian national army and yet just under 100 people showed up and stayed until close to midnight watching the bands, Bashar recalled. His own band, Orion, performed their song Of Freedom and the Moor, as well as a cover of Sepultura’s Refuse/ Resist. Just outside the cafe was an abandoned, pock-marked car and four blocks away was the frontline. Even between the venue and the neighbourhoods where many of the fans still lived were dozens of checkpoints and the risk of sniper fire from the derelict high rise towers that once dominated what was Aleppo’s financial district was ever-present. Like everywhere else in Aleppo the venue itself, a former cafe, had no electricity or running water and the bands had to rely on generators to get the amplifiers and lights working. It regularly packed in, interrupting the music. “We had to run the whole gig on a small generator and there was no fuel,” Monzer recalled. “All of that, besides the war. Three of four sides are fighting in that area,” he said. The concert was held during the worst bombardment of Aleppo since the beginning of the war, on Christmas Eve 2013. Mere weeks earlier Assad had dropped barrel-bombs, improvised bombs created by cramming barrels full of explosives, on the east of the city and the rebels had promised ‘revenge’ on the regime held areas of Aleppo. In Monzer’s footage, the remaining metal fans in Aleppo are seen hunkered down in bedrooms, playing and recording music even as the shelling can be heard from nearby. In one poignant scene, Bashar guides Monzer round his house in Aleppo and the pair look in disbelief at the remnants of missiles that are scattered across his garden. Outside his front door, residents had hung bed-sheets between the trees to stop snipers taking pot shots at the few residents that remain. The footage cuts to Monzer and three other Syrian metallers walking through the shattered streets of what was once a thriving, liberal and developed city home to over 2,5 million people. There is an eerie silence as the pick their way through rubble as high as houses, with the spires of mosques and the metal pylons of high rise buildings protruding from beneath mountains of concrete. “Two years,” says one long-haired metaller, looking at the camera and holding up his index and middle finger to the camera: “All this in just two years.”

 Monzer began documenting daily life for Syrian musicians in 2011 including his friends who were caught up in the fighting. He was on the way to interview a black metal musician from a village close to Hama when a suicide bomber struck the marketplace in the centre of town. “He ended up looking for his siblings amongst bodies. I was almost there. I was five minutes away,” Monzer said. His friend and others from the village armed themselves and have been protecting it ever since. It is not something that Monzer can fathom doing, but he understands his friend’s decision. “I cannot agree with any sort of fighting for anything. Or even the concept of guns. The idea is unpleasant for me just to think about,” he said. At one point during the film, he asks his friend whether he will ever put down his gun and pick up a guitar: “I don’t think it is time for guitars,” he says. But neither Monzer or Bashar agreed - for them, the shows were essential. “During these hard times you will die on the inside if you stop doing what you love. We lost our country but to preserve our souls we had to do what we loved,” Monzer said. “It is important during these hard times because this is what keeps you alive. This is how you can dream and be positive. How you can wake up in the morning and say we have something, we have this concert. I think it is hard for other people to see it like this but for people who were in the middle of it, during the worst times it was something that kept us alive.” But it was equally important to Monzer and Bashar to challenge the assumption that everyone in Syria is killing each other, he said. “I just wanted to document what was happening. That people during these hard times did not get violent, did not start to fight each other. At least my community - the metal community - was good” he said.

 The last of Aleppo’s metal community scattered by the beginning of 2014. Bashar relocated to Latakia, where he opened the latest franchise of U-Ground Studios and tried to keep whatever was left of the scene alive in one of the few peaceful enclaves of Syria that was left. He never tried to get to Europe, or even to Beirut or Turkey, and when we spoke in 2016 was actually looking at the possibility of getting back to Aleppo rather than joining the 4.5 million Syrians that have fled the country. “I have plans here. I have already paid 15 years of my life I can’t just give it up and travel and start again - in somewhere I don't know what will happen. I don’t want to leave my country in such a way,” he said. But even in Latakia, Bashar was finding organising gigs harder and harder, especially for extreme bands. He had started organising shows instead with rock and jazz cover bands, anyone who could play. Bashar was left rueing how different life could have been if the Syrian authorities had not carried out the crackdown in the late 2000s, if Syrian conservatives had realised that a bunch of guys making music and head-banging was no threat to their faith or their customs. He is tortured - even now - about what the Aleppo scene could have become: “The scene in Aleppo was big and it was growing. The only stopping us was the political and the police problem. We couldn’t just do what we want. But if we could have we would have been the number one genre of music in Syria. I assure you. The only problem that stopped the scene was the refusal, the denial of society and later from the police. If they had just said: go on, show us your best, we would have had great bands,” he said.

 As for the war, Bashar saw parallels in how his community was treated by the authorities and the orgy of sectarian violence that the country has become. Syria turned on young men and women like Bashar, Monzer, Adel and Lyn. It excluded them, humiliated them, cast them out, called them satanists and devil worshippers, maligned their music and their passion. Bashar said that Syria was a divided nation long before 2011 and it was that refusal to accept people’s differences that resulted in the conflict today. Sunni versus Shia, Christians vs Kurds, what is that if not the hideously extreme logical extension of the repression that young metallers suffered at the hand of their neighbours and the authorities. “It had been growing for years, for decades, this hatred of the other,” he said. “And we musicians suffered from this hatred. So what about people who belongs to the different religions or places or ideologies? It had to happen because this society has to learn. They have to choose between living and killing each other.” When we met in Holland in 2016, I asked Adel Saflou when he became an atheist and he told me that it was when he was in exile in Beirut, near his university, when he heard the imam of a Sunni mosque giving a Friday sermon about the Christian festival of Easter. “He was saying not to congratulate Christians on Easter because it was against Islam. He said they were kuffars [unbelievers],” he recalled. The sermon not only disgusted Adel because it was hateful, but because it was just kind of language that had been used to justify the years of hate and repression, the beatings and the arrests, that had been meted out if not to him, then to his friends. “I thought: this is where the hate starts,” he said. “This is where all the terrible shit in my life starts.”

 For Monzer, that hatred did not stop when they left Syria. He moved to Algeria first, where he worked for six months for a graphic design company. When his contract ended his boss refused to pay him and so he returned to Beirut with nothing. He went to Turkey but in Istanbul found that Turkish landlords would refuse to rent to Syrians and even when Monzer managed to get a friend to help him negotiate he was only allowed to stay for three months at a time. Given that he had no rental contract, he could not get connected to utilities and had to live without water. He noticed a change in attitudes in Turkey towards Syrians as right wing anti-Syrian parties grew in popularity. In his neighbourhood in Istanbul he would see racist graffiti every day. “It wasn’t the perfect environment to think about starting again - this is when I decided to go to Europe,” he said. Lyn, who had been living in Latakia, met Monzer in Turkey and they began preparing to make the crossing to Greece through the people smuggling gangs who openly ply their trade on the streets of Istanbul. Monzer and Lyn, who had little exposure to the world of organised crime during their lives in Syria, were suddenly thrust into a world of shady characters and dodgy dealings, but it was their only hope of starting again. “You’re in survivor mode. You have this huge dream in your head. I think this is what moved me. I thought that when I finally arrive in Europe things would be positive again That life would be fair with me for once,” said Monzer.

A few weeks later they packed into a flimsy rubber boat with four dozen other desperate Syrians and crossed the Mediterranean on a flimsy rubber boat. On the beach, the smugglers ordered the couple to sit on opposite sides of the boat, so as they were thrown around in the open sea they could not even see each other. When the boat finally reached Greece, they remained on the beach helping the other refugees register with the Greek authorities. They were still dressed in their waterproof clothes and coats and looked like any other Syrian that had made the perilous crossing. They walked with the families and others that they had helped to the camp, where they changed into their regular clothes. It was then that the friendliness of their fellow refugees evaporated. “When they saw Lyn wearing shorts they said we were infidels, and they stopped talking to us,” Monzer said: “This is the first thing that happened to me in Europe.” The discrimination that he and Lyn had faced in Syria had followed him to Greece - they were refugees not just in Europe but amongst their own people. It followed them again to Holland, where they flew after buying fake Spanish passports in Athens. As part of their asylum process, they were expected to attend classes to help the adjust to life in Europe. When they went to the university they found themselves surrounded by conservative families similar to those they had met on the beach in Greece. Monzer almost came to blows with a man in one session who argued that it wasn’t right for women to be educated, as Lyn sat a few desks away. In other classes, Monzer said that Dutch tutors would caution him that in Holland it was not acceptable to beat your wife - as if he ever had, or would. “You ask yourself: ‘Why have we risked our lives?’ Because we almost drowned in the Mediterranean. It was terrifying. And after all that when you end up in the place you have always dreamed about, everyone thinks that you’re violent or that you are not tolerant or that you beat your wife. That you’re a radical, or your ignorant or you have never seen the TV or the internet. All of that combined: it doesn’t help you stay the happy person you were once. In the middle of the war I was more positive than I am today,” Monzer said.

 Holed up in their flat in Naarden, Monzer and Lyn seem almost nostalgic for Syria even in the early days of the war. Monzer speaks of his hometown - of the restaurants and the bars on the three mountains that surround it, of the cafes that are always open and the shops that never close, of the warmth and the friendliness of the people there. He and Lyn are so grateful for the sanctuary that Europe has given them, but Syria burns brightly in their hearts despite everything: “We dream of going back. We talk about going back everyday if things get better. Whenever we call someone and tell them they are like, no you’re crazy, why would you leave safety and all of that to get back? But I think it is about the small details: it is about your neighbours, and your friends. It’s about being in a friendly environment. Everything else you can get used to: new places, new views, new streets - these are objects. But when it comes to actions, the way people see you. You start thinking have I done the right thing, have I risked my life for the right thing,” he said.

 When he thinks about returning, the one thing that crosses his mind is: would things be different. In the early days of the war, Bashar and Monzer could arrange shows in Latakia and Aleppo and nobody seemed to care. Would the arrests and the accusations be a thing of the past in New Syria? The thought is a tantalising one for Monzer and Lyn, holed up on their battered couch in an empty room watching footage from Syria and another lifetime. “One day, can we get back - all of us - and do our thing. Will they accept us? Because here we can do whatever the hell we want. If we get back and wanted to do something, a concert, and we weren’t accepted, that would be a huge disappointment,” he said.

 As Adel sat amidst the chaos of the boat listening to Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the thought crossed his mind that this was how it would end. During 2015, 3,771 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean and there was no good reason why he wasn’t 3,772. It was dark, around 2 am, when he managed to get hold of the coastguard and they said help was on its way but it was another six hours before they heard the whirring of the helicopter above their heads. They were rescued in small groups before being taken to Samors and then to Athens, where Adel and his cousins walked to Austria via Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. By the time we met in Almelo, Holland, in the summer of 2016, Adel was living in a single room in an asylum centre on the outskirts of the town, surrounded by green fields and cows and quaint little Dutch houses. The centre was a shabby selection of pre-fabricated two-storey buildings and Adel’s neighbours, mostly Syrian families, eyed him curiously with his piercings and tattoos - but it was safe and warm and he could come and go as he pleased. Since first arriving in Holland he had seen the inside of nine different asylum centres, one which was actually a maximum security prison. His cousins have been housed elsewhere in Holland and he sees them from time to time. When he looks at them sitting around with their kids running around oblivious, he remembers how he strapped on their life jackets on the beach in Izmir and wondered whether they would survive the night. “I don’t know how we made it. I look at my cousins now, and think: how can we do that? How can we joke about it now?” he said. “I don’t believe in miracles but it was. It was a miracle of human deed.”

 Adel had spent the first two years of his life as a refugee in Lebanon, first near Tripoli, north of Beirut, where he studied mass communication at university before being kicked out for possession of cannabis. He was jailed for a month and the government took away his student residents permit and, like many Syrians who had crossed the border to Lebanon, he melted into the huge refugee population in Beirut. It is often forgotten in the media scare stories about refugee ‘swarms in Europe’ but Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon combined were hosting 4.5 million displaced Syrians by 2016 - 1.7 million of them in Lebanon alone. When I visited Beirut in the summer of 2016, the city was packed with refugees, many of which would beg for change with the expatriates and wealthy Lebanese that frequent the bars and cafes of Germaze, in the city’s Christian east. Adel was sent money regularly by his father, who lives in the UK, and relied on a support network of friends and musicians from Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria: “I laid low for like a year and a half. My dad was sending me money and I just sat there and recorded an album,” he said.

 The album was recorded under the name of Adel’s solo project, Ambrotype, and was a concept album based on the tyrannical rule of an immortal despot (a thinly-veiled attack on Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime). It dealt with Syria, his home, and drew on his proximity to Syrian musicians and bands that he still hung out with Beirut. By the time we meet in Holland in 2016, only a year has passed and already the album feels outdated, he said. His voyage from Izmir to Samos, from Athens through Macedonia to Austria and now to Holland, has changed him as a person and as a musician. Adel’s music is no longer about Syria - about his old life, a world that no longer exists and maybe never will again - it is about exile.“my journey has made me a different person. I am not what I was a year ago, not even close. I have a different view on life. I don’t know what I am. I am lost. Having to be here. Having to be in extreme exodus. It is terrible,” he said. “I think: why am I like this? Why am I not a rich guy who plays golf and claps like this,” he said, clapping his hands together in an effete gesture of applause.

 I asked him what he would do if the conflict was solved, if there was peace and the cities that he grew up were restored. “Solved?,” he asked, incredulous. “If the war was solved? Everyone that I know is fucked up, everyone I knew, every person I loved is really deeply scared. If all of them - all of these people - were healed and they went back to Syria and we got back to the old days when we just finished a concert and we went to my friends house and we got drunk until the morning and we pissed on his mother’s plants - of course I would go, I would love to. It was the best time of my life. There’s nothing more I look back to than this. The life with friends. Such a life such a normal life with people who actually accept you. People who actually think this is home,” he said. He, like Monzer and Lyn, has found Europe a disappointment. He had long worshipped the bands that came from Europe and had idealistic views of the scene here, but when he attended a concert and saw big name international bands play one after another on huge stages in front of tens of thousands of people it wasn’t that he was underwhelmed with the music - quite the opposite - but that the crowd wasn’t overwhelmed. He had sat at home in Idlib and learned everything he could about bands like Opeth - he worshipped them - but in Europe, metal fans took the access they had to this music for granted. He resented it. But it wasn’t just that - he thought it would be easy to make friends in the metal scene in Europe, even in his isolation in Almelo, but it has been far more difficult than he expected. “European people are colder. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but everything is different from what I am used to. The friendship bonds are culturally different. It is a subconscious barrier. I find a lot of nice people here but it is never the same as your old buddies getting together and everyone really knows who you are - really knows who you are,” he said. “Like here, no-one knows who you are and no-one cares. Here you are just a number: a refugee.” '