Friday, 20 November 2020

The Liquidation of Rukban Camp


 ' “That’s the point, with Rukban. It’s a black hole. Nothing gets out of it. No info, no nothing.” - Simone Jeger, independent humanitarian adviser.

 By the middle of 2014, the Assad régime had displaced 6.5 million Syrians inside the country alone. 2.5 million more had registered as refugees in neighboring countries. A series of sweeping offensives and sieges in Homs suddenly threatened to displace hundreds of thousands more.

 And they did. Families ran in droves to the Jordanian border, fleeing an onslaught of warplanes, artillery shells, and marauding régime coalition forces.

 Today, the number of dead Syrians is nearly unfathomable and effectively uncountable: indeed, since 2014, even the United Nations (UN) has stopped trying. Those who have not succumbed to the horrors of war carry on, forced towards a life in the increasingly remote and inhospitable regions of the Syrian badiyat, or an existence marred by xenophobia and repression on the far shores of Europe.

 These stories serve as a testament, not to the horrors of war, but the Assad régime’s almost unimaginable brutality. International law has always been irrelevant to the equation of Syria, and indeed, all our commonly agreed upon norms have been set adrift by a tide of war intended to wrest control of the country by burning it to the ground.

 Faced with an overwhelming influx of Syrian refugees, Jordan’s already heavily subsidized economy abruptly reached a tipping point. For years, thousands of refugee children had been wandering the streets of Amman, peddling water bottles during school hours to support their families. Tens of thousands more were still trapped in Syria, making final decisions as to whether they should stay in Syria and face potential death or leave their homeland behind for Jordan’s uncertainty and the intensely inhospitable nature of the Jordanian mukhabarat, or intelligence services.

 During this period, most fled southward and eastward towards the Rukban border crossing — a sparsely manned outpost less than 10km from the Iraqi-Jordanian border. Then, in July of 2014, citing security concerns over recent SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) attacks on the border checkpoint by ISIS militants, Jordan formally closed the Rukban border crossing – leaving thousands stranded.

 The Islamic State did indeed maintain some presence in the far eastern expanse of what they had declared to be “Wilayat Homs,” using their foothold in the area to facilitate cross-border transfers of goods and forces from Iraq to Syria and vice versa. And by late 2015, a clearly US-funded force comprised of Southern Front rebels and operating with the name جيش مغاوير الثورة (transliterated as Jaysh Mughaweir at-Thawra, or the “Army of Revolutionary Commandos”) emerged in the area as an opposing element to regional ISIS militants. It would take two more years for a physical US Armed Forces garrison (near Jabal at-Tanaf, roughly 10km to the northeast) to establish its presence in the region, officially operating as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the Obama administration’s war on ISIS.

 Since Jordan shuttered the border, Rukban has swelled in size, eventually reaching a peak of around 75,000-100,000 residents* from roughly 2017 to 2018. But due to death, forcible displacement, and sporadic repatriation efforts spearheaded by the Assad régime’s mukhabarat, the camp population has dwindled slowly in the years since. Recent estimations from mainstream sources have placed the population of Rukban camp at around 10,000 people, but this appears to be an underestimation: at current, internal sources say, there are likely upwards of 20,000 people living in the camp, with around 3,500 families comprising between 5 and 10 members each.

 In the north, the threat of the Assad régime looms heavy over Rukban’s residents. The régime is logistically overstretched and prefers to invest money in various “reconstruction” projects appealing to foreign interest, so this territory sees few actual patrols by régime forces. Moreover, the US and US-backed forces’ physical presence at the Tanf base, less than 10km away from Rukban camp, serves as a further deterrent for régime patrols. The United States and Jaysh Mughaweir at-Thawra have positioned themselves as the de facto operating party within the 55km deconfliction zone established during the base’s inauguration in early 2016.

 While infrastructural support in the camp has been sporadic, the US Armed Forces garrison at Tanf base has been a crucial facilitating element in recent efforts to establish essential services in Rukban, including emergency provision cesarean sections to pregnant women in the camp. The goodwill of the US government is also still needed to move forward on critical projects, including efforts by the Chicago-based humanitarian NGO MedGlobal to staff a newly built health clinic that currently sits empty and unusable, without any doctors.

 In the center exists an effectively ungoverned territory, often referred to as a “no man’s land.” This area comprises the neigborhood for the bulk of Rukban’s inhabitants. Roughly as many Rukbanis live near the northern berm as the southern berm, and as the conflict has progressed, the UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) have utilized various pathways to distribute goods into Rukban camp. However, most goods today come from the north, either via piecemeal UN / SARC structures hubbed out of Damascus or via informal networks.

 To the south lies Jordan, A barren desert country with sparse natural resources and an economy heavily reliant on foreign aid. Initial surges of displacement sent a shockwave through the Jordanian economy and drove millions of Syrian refugees into Amman’s streets and the tents of Zaatari. This logic led to the country’s ostensibly pragmatic and apparently malicious decision in 2014 to shutter the southern berm, leaving Rukbanis trapped between two impossible circumstances: an impassable border and a labyrinth of dungeons leading only to torture and death.'

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Syrians scorn 'manipulative' Assad refugee conference that 'panders to Europe's far-right'


 'Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's régime alleged on Wednesday that Syrian refugees are being "pressured" to remain in their host countries during a Russia-backed conference that claimed to address Syrian refugees issue. 

 The Damascus conference, which took place on Wednesday, was rejected by most of the international community and was only attended by representatives from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and China, although a United Nations representative was expected to attend the conference as an observer.

 "Millions of Syrians want to return," Assad said.

 However, he claimed that Syrian refugees are being "pressured" and "intimidated" by their host countries to stay in order to obtain international aid.

 Mikhail Mezentsev, head of the Russian-Syrian Coordination Center for the Return of Refugees, pledged $1 billion for the reconstruction of electrical networks, industries and other civilian purposes at the conference.

 He said Russian ministries are pushing projects in a number of important fields, such as education and medicine, investment of natural resources and housing construction, trade, economy and scientific and technical cooperation.

 "The biggest detrimental factor to refugees' return is the rule of Assad régime that threatens all aspects of life," Syrian human rights activist Reem Assil said.

 "Syrian refugees around the world watch with horror how different crises in Syria are been dealt with by the régime, from the financial crisis and the currency collapse, to the health crisis and the response to Covid-19, to the environmental crisis and the Syrian forests burning, and the list goes on," she added. 

 Assil urged that as long as Syria remains in the state it currently is due to years of war, no refugee will feel safe enough to return.

 "No one will want to go back to a country with endless disasters caused by an inefficient régime that failed to offer any sound solutions to a growing list of pressing problems over the last decade."

 Syrian activists and lawyers deplored the conference and branded it hypocritical, manipulative and one that emboldens the racism of Europe's far-right anti-refugee sentiments.

 "Assad and Russia held today a conference in Damascus called 'The refugees' return', they still living in unbelievable denying they still not accepting that 10 million refugees left the country because of Assad. They still think someone will buy their lying and their propaganda," said Syrian human rights defender Asaad Hanna on Twitter. 

 Human rights lawyer Laila Alodaat slammed the refugee conference as an attempt to whitewash the systematic human rights abuses by the Assad régime and to manipulate vulnerable victims of war.

 "The arguments presented by the Syrian government in this conference are consistent with their ongoing standing and practices, including consistent human rights violations against civilians, the systematic use of detention and torture and the manipulation and the politicisation of international aid," she said.

 "This is one of many attempts to abuse and manipulate the ongoing suffering of the most vulnerable civilians to combat the few international measures put in place to hold the Syrian régime accountable for its abuses, for example, the sanctions."

 "It is also, once more, trying to reason with populist right wing anti-immigrant voices in Europe to suggest that refugees are making the death trips for financial gains rather than to flee eminent threat to their lives and livelihood", Alodaat added.

 Assad's remarks that it is safe for refugees to return to war-torn Syria are often echoed by far-right politicians in Europe – many of whom have links to Russia, including top officials in the UK's anti-migrant Brexit Party also.

 Of Syria's 17 million population, 5.5 million are living as refugees in neighbouring countries, mostly in Turkey. A further six million are internally displaced and uprooted within Syria.'

Monday, 9 November 2020

  'A military source in Idlib governorate, northwest of Syria, said that Russia has refused a request by the Turkish side to stop the bombing of the southern countryside of Idlib.

 The source stated that Russia has refused a request from Turkey that included stopping the bombing of the towns of Jabal al-Zawiya in the southern countryside of Idlib. This coincided with Turkey’s evacuation of two military points in the areas controlled by the Assad régime forces, namely Sher Magha, west of Hama, and Maar Hatat in Southern Idlib.

According to the source, Russia’s rejection of Turkey’s request indicates that Moscow is not satisfied with the Turkish army’s redeployment of its forces withdrawing from the Assad régime’s control areas, in Jabal al-Zawiya.

During the past weeks, the Assad régime’s forces and their allies have bombed the cities and towns of Idlib Governorate, especially those south of the M4 highway. Most of the bombing operations focused on the city of Ariha and the villages of Jabal Al-Zawiya, including Kansafra, Kafr Awaid and al-Bara.

A report by the Response Coordinators team in Syria stated that the Assad régime forces and Russia violated the ceasefire in Idlib 314 times from the first of October until the eighth of this month.

It is noteworthy that the army sent huge military reinforcements to Jabal al-Zawiya, and established many new fortifications in the region, in conjunction with its withdrawal of a number of military bases from the areas controlled by the Assad régime forces, and their deployment again south of Idlib within the areas controlled by the revolutionary factions.'

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Assad's assault on Idlib's schools


 'Asked about her dreams for the future, nine-year-old Salam al-Munir responds solemnly: "For the war to end and to go back to the innocence of my childhood, like the rest of the world's children".

 Salam returned to her village of al-Nayrab in the eastern Idlib province last week for the first time in months, expecting to reunite with classmates from her old school.

 But nothing was left, just memories of smiles and laughter from the corridors and classrooms, now covered in rubble and debris.

 Russian warplanes destroyed her school earlier this year during a military operation with the Syrian régime in Idlib province. The bloody campaign in 2019 and early 2020 killed hundreds of people and displaced over a million, before a ceasefire deal was reached in March.

 At the beginning of 2020, Salam and nine family members were displaced from al-Nayrab to Salqin, next to the Turkish-Syrian border, during a campaign by Bashar al-Assad's forces to recapture Maarat al-Numan in January after two months of a punishing régime siege and daily bombings.

 Salam, like many Syrian children in Idlib, was forced to abandon her studies as the newly displaced struggled to find schools, which had either been destroyed or were at full capacity.

 The collapse of the Syrian pound and financial hardship meant that for many children, education was no longer an option. Salam's father Munir had lost his job during the military campaign after his supermarket in al-Nayrab was destroyed by artillery shells.

 Having returned to her village, life in al-Nayrab has been completely transformed. Most of her old friends were displaced by régime attacks, and her new classmates are unfamiliar faces. Her home now lies in ruins, with the family staying temporarily at her uncle's house, who is himself still displaced in al-Dana, near the Turkish border. Despite life's difficulties, Salam still dreams of becoming a dentist. "School is a mother," she says.

 Idlib has witnessed a tragic academic year in every sense of the word, said Mustafa Haj Ali, a media official in the province’s Education Directorate.

 Russian and régime forces deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure and schools during their military campaign earlier this year, he said, with tens of thousands displaced to refugee camps and border areas.

 The directorate has been working tirelessly to set up education facilities for students displaced to new areas, but dozens of schools were destroyed in fighting, including institutions in Khan Sheikhoun, Maarat al-Numan, Kafr Nabl and the directorate's headquarters in Saraqeb.

 The mass displacement of people to areas in northwestern Syria considered safer has made obtaining precise statistics about the number of students and teachers displaced, or killed, near impossible to quantify, Ali says. 

 Two further crises followed for education in Idlib. A European grant to support schools, which used to support nearly 65 percent of teachers and schools with a salary stipend, was stopped. Most teachers now work voluntarily without pay. The second, and most devastating, was the Covid-19 pandemic.

 A meeting was held at the beginning of this academic year between education directorates and civil society institutions, along with health and civil defence organisations, to stress the urgent need to reopen schools to compensate for the previous year.

 Precautionary measures will be applied, including social distancing and masks and gloves for teachers and students. Families will only have to pay 10 Turkish liras ($1.20) for the academic year. A contingency plan for an outbreak of infection has also been created, whereby students will be tested, and school suspended until the results are confirmed. 

 The number of students is estimated at 210,000 for the current academic year, half the number of 2019, prior to the régime's military campaign. There are around 600 schools in operation, less than half the number of 1,400 reported in 2011.

 UNICEF reports that after nearly ten years of war more than one in three schools are no longer operational. Many have been damaged, destroyed or are used to shelter displaced families. Some schools have also been turned into military headquarters by régime forces.

 New facilities, however, have been established by the Education Directorate in camps and areas hosting displaced persons, including in al-Dana, Sarmada, Maarat Misrin, Kelly and Hazano. Most of these areas have seen their population swell as new arrivals flee fighting in other areas. Al-Nayrab had five schools, of which three were destroyed and one is in need of restoration after being struck by a missile. 

 A number of volunteer teachers are also now working to implement distance learning in agreement with the Education Directorate to provide up to 40 percent of the curriculum on social media for all students, in case schools are closed again.

 Muhammad Hallaj, Director of the Syria Response Coordinators Team, says that nearly 80 schools in Idlib have become shelters for displaced families since 2015, with around 35 now providing education again. 

 In camps near the border sheltering displaced families there are around 45 schools with over 140,000 students, but children face multiple obstacles. Two out of every ten drop out for financial reasons, either to work or beg, while for many young girls marriages are arranged to provide support for their families.'

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Despite risks, Daraa youth flee to opposition-held areas in northern Syria


 'Southern Daraa province is witnessing the daily departure of dozens of young people towards the rebel-held areas in northern Syria to escape arbitrary arrests, physical liquidations, and security prosecutions that have hit most of Southern towns, targeting their youth, regardless of their affiliations and loyalties.

 Local activists pointed out that the people of the southern province strongly want again to flee from Daraa areas towards the "unknown", after the régime established its pillars in the various regions, and began to take revenge on the young people whom the Syrian régime still considers yesterday's enemies, despite their joining his auxiliary forces with all its names and directions.

 Well-informed sources said that dozens of young men leave the regions of Daraa towards Lebanon and the liberated north of Syria, daily, after the régime and some of its pro-parties began to encourage clandestine immigration of the youth group, with the aim of achieving material benefit through them on the one hand, and emptying the southern region of its youth to facilitate control over it on the other hand.

 Residents, after they felt let down by the major powers that are manipulating the fate of their province, and the whole region, according to their calculations and interests, became completely sure that their economic and living conditions will not change for the better.

 To clarify the size of the security disaster that the people of Daraa are experiencing under the Assad régime, the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office counted 17 people killed and 11 others injured in 31 operations and assassination attempts in Daraa last September.

 The report indicated that 14 former fighters died and they were among the opposition factions (Free Syrian Army), 8 of whom joined the régime forces after controlling Daraa and subject to a settlement agreement in August 2018.

 Yasser. S, 31, a former FSA fighter, said that he cannot exercise his normal life since he settled with the régime and had to work on his agricultural land, noting that he lives in a state of constant concern and fear that his fate may be the fate of his companions, three of whom have been assassinated so far. Despite their settlement with the régime and their conversion to free civil work.

 He added that he is trying to secure a sum of money to escape from the region and exit to Lebanon or Turkey, despite the dangers of the road and the lack of safety, pointing out that the cost of travel to the liberated north or Lebanon ranges between $2000 and $3000.

 On the escape routes that are being taken out of Daraa, Ahmed.S, 28, familiar with smuggling methods, said most people flee through the so-called military routes of the régime.

 Pointing out that those who facilitate the passage of people through these roads and help secure those wishing to immigrate are officers from the "4th Armoured Division" or from the régime's intelligence services, or some taxi drivers associated with the régime's security.

 Activist Gamal Malek saied that most of the migrants who leave Daraa are between 18 and 40-year-old, and sometimes they include families and children.

 Malek pointed out that the military and reserve service in the régime forces, and the security pursuit, are among the most prominent reasons for expelling the people of the province and the strongest motives for emigration, in addition to many reasons for living and psychological pressure.'

Friday, 16 October 2020

How the Arab world turned against Hezbollah


 'For many people across the Middle East, Hezbollah fighting on the side of the Assad régime—which stands credibly charged with war crimes, including chemical weapons attacks—has disrupted its cultivated image as a “resistance” defying Israel.

 Before the war, many Syrians had accepted this portrayal. Some, who weren’t politically interested, did so passively. Others more positively embraced Hezbollah as an anti-Israel force. Thirty-five-year-old Ghaith al-Hallak, who spoke to me from northern Italy where he fled after being conscripted into the Syrian army, said he remembers how pictures of Hezbollah’s leaders were ubiquitous in Syria during his childhood. At times, images of the Assad family—the dictatorship-dynasty that has ruled Syria since Hafez al-Assad took control of the country in 1970—were varied by photos of his son Bashar alongside Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader. “I think the peak was in the year 2000 when the Israeli forces withdrew from the south of Lebanon, which gave Hezbollah great popularity,” Ghaith told me.

 Plenty of Palestinians also admired Hezbollah’s battles against Israel. “I remember we were glued to their TV station Al Manar 24/7,” explained Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian activist and researcher. With no state of their own, Palestinians “were so relieved and happy that finally there was that non-state actor able to stand up against Israel and protect its own land using armed resistance. There was actually action as opposed to empty rhetoric,” of the sort many Palestinians associated with their own leadership.

 But views about Hezbollah across the region soon began to change. In May 2008, its militants took over central Beirut by force, following a Lebanese government proposal to curb their private communications networks. At the time, Ghaith al-Hallak was watching events in the Lebanese capital from Aleppo in northern Syria, where he was studying IT at university. “They took control of streets, squares, and they prevented people from going out and protesting. It was bad behaviour,” he recalled. “For me, that was the turning point, where I started to see the other side of Hezbollah.”

 In Beirut a 14-year-old Shia girl, who I’ll call Lamia, from a Hezbollah-dominated southern suburb, met her older sister after school. “I remember my sister picking me up and she said, ‘They’re killing each other,’ and she was crying. I remember the whole way back home, masked people would stop us in the car to see if they wanted us to pass or not, and it was very scary,” she said. (Lamia, who is now 26, asked to remain anonymous because she is worried about criticising Hezbollah publicly.) “I think it’s then fully that they became an antagonist in Lebanon for me. They didn’t hurt me directly, but were a big threat to me.”

 Three years later, protests broke out across the Arab world, including in Syria. With the demonstrations came hopes of freedom, the rule of law and justice after years of rule by ageing dictators. But as Syria’s security forces quelled the popular uprisings across the country with violence, Hezbollah began to advise the Assad régime. It soon sent its own combatants in support—much fiercer fighters than the conscripted Syrian army—and in spring 2013 led operations to seize the rebel-held town of Al-Qusayr, on the Syria-Lebanon border. Despite its military prowess, some of its fighters, like Jawad’s brother, would be killed in battle. Hezbollah has not released any official casualty figures, but independent estimates put the number of men killed in action in Syria at over 1,100.

 Lamia began to see the results on home soil. Funerals for fighters killed across the border meant whole streets were cordoned off as processions weaved through the city. “Suddenly there were mass burials and no one knew publicly yet that they were fighting in Syria,” she explained. “I remember thinking, ‘Where are all these dead people coming from? I don’t understand.’” Those processions led to a Beirut graveyard designated for Hezbollah combatants known as the “Garden of Lady Zaynab,” after the sister of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shia Islam. Protecting Zaynab’s grand shrine in Damascus from Sunni rebels opposed to Assad was one of the main reasons Hezbollah gave for its Syria intervention, which it has described as al-difa’ al-muqaddas—a “holy defence.” Other rationales are protecting the Middle East and Islam from Israel, the US and the Sunni and politically conservative Gulf kingdoms, all of whom have anti-Assad connections. Hezbollah’s media arms have blamed these states for forming an “American-Saudi-takfiri project.” Takfiri is a pejorative term applied to Sunni rebels including IS, which at its height controlled swaths of Syria and Iraq. The sectarian with-us-or-against-us rhetoric obscured how a US-led coalition, with Iraqi and Syrian allies, was bombing IS.

 “We do not fight them because of who they are, but we are fighting their Israeli-American project,” said Husayn, a Hezbollah unit commander, referring to Sunni rebels. “They say that we are the ones who came to their lands, but we are actually fighting their project, not fighting them.”

 But not all Lebanese Shia are convinced by the religious reasons given for the conflict. Some see Hezbollah using sectarian branding to silence criticism. “They utilise this [the religious pretext] so aggressively,” said Lamia, who added that Hezbollah’s interpretations of Shiism do not represent her faith. “Now if you don’t approve of the fight of Hezbollah, you’re not approving of Imam Hussein and immediately you’re not a good believer, you’re not a good Shia, you’re not a good Muslim.”

 Over the border, Syrians who once admired Hezbollah have turned on them. Among them is Ahmed (not his real name), now 32. He lived under a siege imposed by Hezbollah and Syrian régime troops in the mountain town of Madaya for nearly two years. “Before the war, I was completely with them,” Ahmed told me from Turkey, where he fled after the siege was lifted in April 2017. “I thought: they are fighting against oppression and injustice, but they are not.” Hezbollah’s role in the siege of Madaya—once popular with tourists from nearby Damascus for its clean air and hills planted with fruit trees—has been extensively documented by human rights organisations. “Syrian government and allied Hezbollah forces tightened the siege around the town, displacing residents to an ever-smaller geographic area,” said a 2016 report co-authored by the organisations Physicians for Human Rights and the Syrian American Medical Society.

 The disillusion does not stop in Lebanon and Syria. “Many Palestinians stopped supporting Hezbollah,” said Omar Shaban, the Gaza-based director of the Pal-Think for Strategic Studies think tank: “It’s not about Shia or Sunni—it’s that Hezbollah was helping a régime that many Palestinians don’t like.”

 Marwa Fatafta said that Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria made many people question who the group was really representing: “[The Syrian war] was a true test to understand whether that solidarity with the Palestinians—is it a genuine act, is it a genuine solidarity with a just social and political cause?” she asked rhetorically. “Or was it some sort of rhetoric that helps advance certain actors’ political agenda, and serves their own propaganda, and to legitimise them further in the eyes of their people and in the eyes of others, such as Palestinians?”

 Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has not only muddied its reputation, but revealed the depth of its ties with the highest levels of IRGC leadership. Senior Hezbollah commanders would go back and forth to Damascus alongside the powerful Iranian commander Qasim Soleimani, who was assassinated by the US in January. They would share meals and relax with Soleimani, who ran the Quds Force, which is responsible for the IRGC’s external operations.

 Hezbollah members remember Soleimani fondly, and do not disguise the extent to which he was calling the shots. “He was flexible. He was able to simplify any problem for the young guys, so they could understand it and then solve it step by step,” said a senior Hezbollah official who met Soleimani in Syria, who spoke to me from a driveway at the end of a mud track in the Bekaa Valley. “He was evidently intellectually and analytically mature.” The official went on to deny that the general had harmed the Syrian people: “Syrians oppressed themselves with this war,” he insisted. His expression was unfeeling.

 By contrast with these warm words about the Iranian commander, Hezbollah fighters sometimes speak with disdain about the Assad régime’s army. “We respect their leaders,” Husayn, the Hezbollah unit commander, said of Assad and his associates, but about the Syrian rank and file he was much less kind: “They are not human and they seem to be from another world,” he said. “There are traitors among them. Some of them have killed many of us. They shot us from the back several times while we were attacking. A number of our fighters were martyred because of them.” Another Hezbollah fighter interviewed for this piece vented similar feelings about the Syrian army.

 The mistrust is mutual. Even Syrians who support the Assad régime aren’t too happy about Hezbollah sticking around, now that the bulk of the country has been retaken from the rebels. “There are a certain number of forces in Syria that are not doing anything—a lot of fighters from Hezbollah. These fighters are creating some problems in the areas they are present in, and aren’t welcomed,” said Nawar Shaban, an analyst based in Turkey. “Now pro-régime Syrians don’t see that Hezbollah is a must in their area—they see that Hezbollah doesn’t have to stay there in Syria because there is no actual role for them.” '

Friday, 9 October 2020

Syria’s security services flourish while people starve; what sort of ‘president’ is Assad?


 'It is no surprise that the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre has released documents revealing that Syrian Embassies around the world spy on their own citizens on behalf of the Assad régime. Every Syrian who has travelled abroad for any reason knows that the régime’s embassies and consulates are nothing but branches of the security services, and that intelligence gathering is their main task. Commercial, economic and consular services are mere accompaniments to the security mission. Syrian diplomats, meanwhile, know that the top official in their embassies is the “security attaché” not the ambassador.

 However, what is striking in these documents is that such surveillance has continued throughout the crisis affecting the régime and, indeed, the whole country. It is logical that the régime’s interest in exiled dissidents should take second place behind the major revolution in which hundreds of thousands of Syrians have played a direct role. The Syrian security services have never faced such a challenge before and do not have enough trained staff to deal with it. If they don’t have the tools to control events on the ground in Syria, how can they hope to monitor people overseas who are not that important in the great scheme of things when compared with revolutionaries on the doorstep of the presidential palace and the headquarters of the same government agencies?

 In less than three months after the start of the revolution, security officials issued lists of hundreds of thousands of wanted people who participated, one way or another, in the revolution. It is known that between 2011 and 2013 the Syrian security services arrested hundreds of thousands of people and put the names of more than a million people on the “wanted” list. This reveals the extent to which the agents penetrated Syrian society, with large networks across the country through which they were able to collect a huge amount of information about the régime’s opponents.

 In information leaked later, it became clear that Iran had provided Bashar al-Assad’s security services with modern cameras to photograph demonstrations to pinpoint key people. Many protesters who were arrested in the first few months mentioned that interrogators showed them their photos taken during the demonstrations. Nevertheless, the bulk of arrests were made apparently at random, sometimes without suspicion, when régime forces were combing villages, streets and areas in the cities. Some of the régime’s informants and militiamen were also arrested, and some of them were killed under torture by mistake.

 It is no secret that the Syrian intelligence services do not use modern methods in their work, such as analysis of data and real information. Instead, most of their work is based on written reports prepared by officials with very little education and inappropriate training. Confessions are always obtained through torture and are also forged, with detainees then forced to sign them. Signatures are not always obtained, because the detainees are most likely going to be killed in any case.

 From the beginning of 2013 until 2017, the Assad régime’s control declined to less than 20 per cent of Syria, and its security networks were dismantled across the country. Protecting the head of the régime and his cronies in Damascus became the main priority of the Syrian security services. Despite this, the security machine continued to operate with incomprehensible intensity and efficiency, following exiles, planting spies and informants, and openly moving its people around in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and even Turkey to boost demonstrations in support of the régime. Some even dared to threaten refugees that their families and friends in Syria would be punished if they didn’t collaborate. Organisations and clubs were set up for refugees so that the security services could monitor their movements and activities.

It is worth noting that in France there are large numbers of Syrian doctors, university professors, merchants and currency exchange workers, most of whom studied in France before the revolution. French universities offered “scholarships” which were allocated to those close to and trusted by the régime in Damascus. We do not know whether these people returned to France by order of the régime to perform a specific task, or if they fled from the war, but it is certain that they support the régime enthusiastically.

 Assad and his régime are unable to provide any solution to the economic crisis affecting Syria, which has reached the point where famine is very likely, and yet they still have the time and resources — human and financial — to spy on ordinary citizens through a so-called “electronic army”. This demonstrates that the “Syrian republic” of Assad is nothing but a police state, with all government institutions subject to the diktats of the security services. At a time when all aspects of normal life in Syria are disrupted to the point of disintegration, the security services continue to flourish. What sort of “president” does that make Bashar Al-Assad?'

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Assad’s future could hinge on the US presidential election


 'President Trump and former Vice President Biden are likely to approach Syria and Assad’s future in dramatically different ways – with Iranian relations at the centerpiece.

 And that could ultimately determine Syria’s outcome.

 “Many Syrians feel reliant on the Republicans’ victory in the upcoming presidential elections because that will mean more siege on Iran, the primary and most dangerous supporter of the Assad régime, with the blockade on Iran being reflected in the effect on its expansion in Syria,” surmised Fadel Abdulghany, CEO of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. “Without a doubt, we would have noticed a far broader proliferation than the current one without the current US leadership; this was also reflected in Iran’s financial and military support for the Syrian régime.”

 On the flipside, Biden has signaled that he would restore the 2014 Iran deal, of which he played a pivotal role in its development as the vice president.

 In September, the Democratic nominee said he would seek to reengage with Tehran, warning that the country was ever closer to a nuclear bomb under Trump. However, the Islamic Republic’s net of neighborhood proxy wars was not explicitly discussed.

 “The Iran issue could have a major impact in a scenario where Biden makes a full-throttle effort to revive the 2015 nuclear deal and decides to accommodate Iran by easing pressure on Assad, but that is hardly a given,” said David Adesnik, a senior fellow and the director of research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “On the other hand, Biden may push back harder against Russia in cases like the vehicle ramming incident last month, which injured seven US soldiers.”

 But according to Ayman Abdel Nour — a Syrian reformist, defected government adviser and the president of the nonprofit Syrian Christians for Peace — the Syrian diaspora in the US has mixed support for both Trump and Biden. A number of Muslim community leaders held foreign policy Zoom meetings with the Democratic presidential contender in late July and then in August, he said and several got behind a Syrian Americans for Biden campaign.

 “At first, many Syrians felt optimistic. But in the first paper on his American-Arab agenda, there was no mention of Syria, so then (the campaign) went back and added a Syria paragraph to the bottom. But for many, it wasn’t enough. We need more clarification,” Nour said. “And some are worried that there are still a lot of people around Biden who support Iran and restoring ties to Iran.”

 In an Aug. 24 meeting held between the Syrian Americans for Biden group and Biden’s senior foreign policy adviser and former deputy secretary of state, Antony Blinken, the Syrian Americans highlight that the biggest cause of concern in their community was Iran. When questioned as to whether a Biden-Harris administration would recommit to the Iran deal without addressing Iranian proxies in Syria and elsewhere, Blinken emphasized that the money given back to Iran in the Obama-era deal was “its own money, frozen in banks and given back to settle the historic debt as well as various infrastructure projects.”

 “A small proportion was spent by the IRGC and to be clear: any dollar was a dollar too many,” Blinken continued, as per the transcript. “The region has changed since 2016, but a Biden-Harris administration would attempt to pursue another nuclear deal with the framework that engagement with Iran opens channels to address broader regional issues, including Syria.”

 He insisted that the Biden-Harris duo would “use the robust sanctions tools at our disposal to target Iran’s human rights abuses, support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.”

 “Leverage over Iran we believe will be best when the US is at the table and leading with our allies. The Trump administration is attempting to use the ‘snapback’ provision in the UN, which would snapback a historic arms embargo on Iran should any participant renege or be dissatisfied with Iran’s adherence to the deal,” he said. “The US gave up that leverage when it ceased to be a participant in that deal.”

 The full reinstatement of sanctions was rejected by the UN, but the Trump team has vowed to keep pushing.

 In 2012, Obama cautioned that the use of chemical weapons would be a blatant “red line,” but a year later – when such an attack did happen and no follow-up military response was taken – Assad’s resolve to wage war was only invigorated. Nour noted that most Syrians don’t hold Biden responsible for that, stressing that the controversial inaction was initiated by the commander-in-chief and not his number two.

 But he also highlighted that the Syrian previously pushing for a Biden win also expressed concern that his added “Syria policy paragraph,” which stated that “the Trump administration has repeatedly fallen short on US policy in Syria,” vowed to “help mobilize other countries to support Syria’s reconstruction.”

 “This is very dangerous,” Nour said. “We can’t be talking about construction without a political solution to end this crisis.”

 Years on, Assad remains in the grand and imposing Presidential Palace – but staring out at a country that has largely crumbled. Assad can no longer turn to military allies Russia and Iran to boost the rebuilding bank account. According to estimates by The World Bank, the reconstruction endeavor in still-smoldering Syria will require some $400 billion.

 International donors across the board have proven hesitant to put forth funding that would ultimately boost the existing régime and Moscow and Tehran are in the throes of their own economic spirals, largely due to US-imposed sanctions, collapsing oil and gas prices and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

 Washington and Brussels have, in addition, upheld a united front mandating that allies do not issue Damascus rebuilding loans until it concedes to a fair and inclusive political transition.

 At least for now.

 Added to the equation, depending on November’s outcome, is Assad’s very literal fate.

 When questioned about passages of Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage,” Trump affirmed that he had a “shot” to take out Assad in 2017 in the wake of a yet another chemical attack on his own people inside a rebel stronghold, but he didn’t take it because then-Defense Secretary James Mattis opposed the proposal in favor of a more “measured” approach.

 Since then, the Syrian leader has gone on to maim and massacre many hundreds of thousands more and regain control of almost 90 percent of the blood-spattered state. Assad’s forces are at the cusp of retaking the remaining Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold peppered by the complicated presence of both well-intentioned freedom fighters and US-designated terrorist outfits.

 In a bid focused on keeping ISIS at bay, American troops still do have a small footprint in the country under Trump and Biden has pledged to maintain a Special Operations presence. Yet the US envoy for Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, earlier this year pledged to “double efforts” to bolster a draft constitution that would pave the path for United Nations-endorsed government elections.

 “This depends on the international powers, who can come together for a new Syria. If not, this situation will continue,” noted Loqman Ehme, spokesperson of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. “The regions not under Assad will never accept to return to live under the Assad régime and live like before because what there was before was not really life.”

 Indeed, the sentiment among many Syrians is that something has to give — regardless of who holds the White House.

 Life on the inside has been reduced to a state of perpetual anxiety over when the next rocket will crack, or if an intel officer will knock at the door. And for those on the outside, thrust into exile, it comes down to clawing through papers and posts trying to find news about missing loved ones.

 It is that ongoing and heavily reported rash of human rights perpetrated by the Assad leadership that has them exasperated and confused as to how and why he has remained. Since the start of the crackdown against protesters in 2011, which was met with a hail of government bullets, the documentation pointing to crimes against humanity has been ceaseless.

 The 9th Annual Report on Enforced Disappearance in Syria, released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) in late August, underscored that more than 100,000 have fallen into the void since the start of the civil war nine and a half years ago, with some 85 percent attributable to the Assad régime.

 SNHR data shows that more than 12,325 were documented as having died under torture in Syrian government prisons and that some 13,000 are still imprisoned or missing, their fates unknown.

 United Nations investigators continue to condemn the abysmal levels of abuse. A September report from the Commission of Inquiry on Syria – its 21st – yet again illuminated that “Syria’s government continues to perpetuate rape, torture and murder,” while also acknowledging possible war crimes committed Turkey-backed coalition of rebel groups in northern Syria.

 A UN Security Council resolution backed by more than 60 countries to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court was vetoed by Russia and China in May 2014.

 In his meeting with Syrians, Blinken pledged that a Biden-Harris administration will need to “balance against China and Russia in the UN,” and the US “cannot walk away from it.”

 Meanwhile, the Trump White House has continued to level hefty sanctions on Assad, on Wednesday issuing a dozen more on government and military officials and businesses tied to the Syrian President for grave abuses committed throughout the conflict.

 Nonetheless, most of the people in Syria continue to suffer in one way or another — faces everywhere are etched with exhaustion. If Assad won’t go willfully if more bodies pile up, could a second Trump term prompt him to make good on the “take him out” plan?

 “We see Assad as régime – an institution, an army and an intelligence apparatus committing massive crimes against humanity,” conjectured Nour. “And when that person goes, the full régime will collapse.”

 Others have a different perspective.

 “We do not want Assad to be killed, that would be not fair for millions of Syrians who suffered from him,” added Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat and the co-founder and director of external relations of People Demand Change. “He should go to the International Criminal Court with all his family and all his inner circle.” '

Monday, 21 September 2020

German court hears harrowing testimony of Syria torture


  Mansour Omari:

 'On 9 and 10 September, a former cemetery worker testified to gruesome details of the Syrian régime's torture programme in the so-called al-Khatib trial, which is taking place in Koblenz, Germany.

 It was the world's first trial of torture in Syria.

 It falls under Germany's universal jurisdiction law on crimes against humanity and it comes after Germany arrested two Syrian intelligence officers on its territory in February 2019.

 But the Koblenz court is not keeping full and complete transcripts of the proceedings, undermining the initiative in the eyes of some victims.

 The question of what happened to the bodies of their loved ones has haunted many Syrian families for years, and was finally answered, in horrendous detail, by one of those who participated in burying the dead.

 The witness testimony revealed the technical details of what is still, today, an ongoing Syrian torture and extermination machine.

 Since 2011, the Syrian régime has unleashed a systemic campaign of extermination against citizens who demanded their basic rights.

 Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been arrested by the Syrian government, killed under torture, died in detention, or were executed.

 The witness, who was code-named "Z 30/07/19", said in his testimony that at the end of 2011 intelligence officers asked him and several of his colleagues to work with them in transporting and burying the corpses of victims.

 The officers provided the cemetery worker with a minibus without license plates, but plastered with images of president Bashar al-Assad.

 Several times a week from 2011 to 2017, the worker drove his colleagues from military hospitals to the al-Quteifa and Najha cemeteries to unload and bury corpses from large refrigerated trucks, usually accompanied by intelligence officers.

 Up to three trucks were used to carry 300 to 700 corpses each, four times a week.

 He estimated to the court the total number of the corpses as being high as 1.5 million and maybe more.

 The government cemetery worker said the bodies were naked and covered in red and blue marks.

 Some of them had had their fingernails, toenails, or both pulled out and some were missing internal organs.

 When the trucks were opened, the witness recalled, it sounded like a gas bottle being unsealed, sending out horrible smells followed by streams of blood and worms.

 He spoke of corpses marked with numbers and symbols on their foreheads or chests.

 Some of the bodies' hands were still fastened behind their backs with handcuffs or zip ties.

 Some of their faces were unrecognisable from acid burns.

 Once a man who had supposedly been executed was still breathing, until an officer ordered an excavator driver to run over him.

 Another time, the witness discovered the body of a woman who was holding a dead child in her arms. He almost broke down when he saw this.

 The cemetery worker provided detailed information on the Syrian government's systematic process of eradicating the corpses of its victims and concealing the evidence.

 But his information about the locations of the mass graves was not new.

 Several human rights groups have documented mass graves to bury detainees in Syria since 2012, and repeatedly after that, including in the al-Quteifa and Najha mass graves, in which the cemetery worker described his activities.

 In 2013, field activists in the al-Quteifa area reported that they saw, on the morning of 12 June 2013, members of the Military Third Division burying dozens of bodies in a mass grave in al-Quteifa - the same grave the cemetery worker mentioned.

 In 2013, when I was working with the Violation Documentation Centre-VDC, an NGO, the centre also published an investigation together with Human Rights Watch, showing satellite images of mass graves and their locations in Najha and Al Bahdaliyah near Damascus.

 But amid the new revelations in the Koblenz trial, there is one unhelpful aspect: the German court is not keeping a full transcript of testimonies and proceedings.

 The result is to leave no official documentation of the crimes the witness spoke of. The corpses of Syria's state torture victims faded into limbo, and now, to add salt to the wound, their families are being deprived of their right to official records of how it took place.'

Monday, 14 September 2020

Assad turns 54, the throne he sits on has turned thornier

 Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria

 'Bashar al-Assad said on Monday he wanted to expand business ties with Russia to help his country cope with new US sanctions on its already crippled economy that threaten to undermine military gains Damascus achieved with Moscow’s help, Reuters reported.

 Assad met the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Syrian capital Damascus. Lavrov told a news conference Syria needed international help to rebuild its economy.

 Russia is helping Syria to fix its power plants but the oil output cannot resume as the fields were in areas outside government control.

 Syria and Russia, whose military support since 2015 helped Damascus reverse gains by militants in an almost decade-long war, had said the two sides planned to boost trade ties and would review energy, mining and power projects.

 Assad believes that with Moscow's help, Damascus can hope to break the blockade of US sanctions. He has pinned hopes on Russia while Western diplomats say Russia’s military involvement in Syria has secured Moscow major regional influence.

 “Russia turned the tide for Assad and with the régime now facing its gravest challenges, Moscow is in a better position than any other time to further squeeze Assad,” said one Western diplomat who follows Syria.

 Although Assad has now regained most of the territory he had lost in the war, the economy is in tatters, leaving many Syrians in poverty as the currency has lost 80 per cent of its value.

 Russia has criticized the new US sanctions that took effect in June under the so-called Caesar Act.

 Washington says the sanctions, which penalize foreign firms dealing with Syrian régime entities, aim to cut revenue for Assad’s government and push him back into UN-led talks to end the conflict.

 Last Sunday Assad met with members of the Makhlouf family in al Qardaha, his ancestral village.

 This comes a day after the régime formally transferred the license to operate the country’s duty-free shops from the family’s most notorious tycoon, Rami, to his malleable brother, Ihab. Bashar inherited the reins of Syria from his father, Hafez. Bu times have now changed.

 Nine years of gruelling war have fundamentally transformed Syrian society, and publicly appeasing the country’s richest dynasty is bound to agitate its citizens - over 85 per cent of whom now live in poverty.

 Syria’s Alawite community - which has been appeased with power as a policy by Assad's family - is likely to perceive these moves as yet another betrayal by the Syrian president.

 Syria’s economy has collapsed. Internal conflict, endemic corruption, and now Lebanon’s financial crisis – its currency is now worth a fraction of its pre-war value. Food shortages abound and state-subsidised bakeries, one of the last remaining safety nets, are thronged by crowds of starving people.

 Fuel for the common man is in short supply. Unemployment stands at 50 per cent according to the United Nations' study. Syrian society battles the menace of drug abuse, alcoholism, and psychological trauma. Meat and vegetables are virtually unaffordable. A single egg can be bought at the cost of 200 Syrian Pounds. Many families eat a mean of plain bread and chase it down with tea.

 Syrians, now more than ever, now face a genuine risk of starvation. Meanwhile, severe power outages and water shortages have become the norm.

 In contrast, the Syrian elite retains its lavish lifestyle and ask the common Syrians to "remain steadfast in the face of an "international conspiracy."

 Facebook pages are flooded with indictments of the ruling class, posted by the angry and wronged commoners. References to the “thieves” that run the country – once a critique voiced cautiously at home – represents the new discursive norm.

 High-profile Alawites, including individuals running pro-Assad sites, are often arrested for calling out corruption – especially when their comments go viral.

 Syrian soldiers demand discharge and public decries Assad's moves where while he secures his throne, their sons return in coffins.

 Add to this Syria's widely underreported Covid-19 catastrophe. Doctors are forced to hide the real figures.

 Should conditions persist, the Alawites - who have thrown their weight behind Assad and lost thousands of young men to the fight against rebels - may conclude that the possibility of slaughter by the rebels is as likely as the prospect of starvation and disease at the hands of the régime. This could cause a tectonic shift in their calculus and provoke an eruption.'

Friday, 11 September 2020

They risked their lives to show the horrors of war. Where are Syria’s journalists now?

 Dergham Hammadi visiting a refugee camp in Syria

 'As one of six brothers living in Damascus, Tim Seofi’s family were constantly hassled by the security services, even before the demonstrations broke out.

 When the revolution reached Damascus, Tim was in ninth grade and his father had been arrested four years earlier. He joined the peaceful marches and as the régime opened fire on its own people, he felt the only way to protect himself was to record what was happening.

 “My options were to carry a gun or to carry a camera and document the voices of these people… all we wanted was freedom and not to be harassed and hurt. We just wanted our very basic rights.”

 Tim was 19-years-old when he bought his first camera. As the official journalists turned their lenses on the violence and blood, Tim wanted to capture everyday life. He set up a Facebook page with his friends, an outlet for all of their work. He was contacted by a German publishing company who used his photographs of Idlib and Ghouta in a book, “Salamat from Idlib.”

 As he became more serious about his profession, Tim began working for several local and international news agencies; he recorded the sounds of the city, especially the bombs, and his work was picked up across the world.

 When he was injured covering one story, he was given just $100 compensation. “That was a time when a bag of flour or sugar was $300,” he recalls. “So it was basically nothing.” He didn’t have high expectations from them anyway, he says. The most important thing for him was that the world saw what was happening in Syria.

 Some years later Tim found himself in Douma, a city some 10 kilometres northeast of Damascus. It was 2018 and the Syrian and Russian government’s last campaign on the city.

 At the time, Douma was the last of the eastern suburbs to fall, and the most dangerous place in the world to be. By then, Tim was 24. He captured hundreds of hours of footage in the shelters.

 “So many people died,” he recalls, his voice breaking up. “People who I didn’t expect to die, died. I lost all of my neighbours who I filmed. About 23 people, one of them a child. And people that I expected to die, didn’t die.”

 He tried again to focus on what the mainstream news wasn’t seeing – where people were sleeping during the bombings, capturing shots of people gathered around a television set, waiting for a ceasefire announcement.

 Because of the siege he struggled to buy hard drives to save the footage he had. It was difficult to charge his equipment because of the frequent power cuts.

 Tim eventually left Douma on one of the buses that followed negotiations between Russia and the opposition. As they passed through régime held areas, supporters of the Syrian government threw rocks and dirty water at them. At the checkpoints the convoys were searched and he feared they would find the material he filmed.

 What followed was a devastating chain of events. His last $800 was stolen from his bag; his brother was held ransom by militants; his wife had a miscarriage and he was threatened with arrest for being an atheist.

 The final time he tried to escape his country, Tim made it to Turkey. The bathroom in the apartment he was staying in had a window that overlooked the street and he spent a lot of time looking out of it, in disbelief that such a normal life existed – “there were traffic lights and cars and it was just so normal,” he says.

 Tim lives near an airport and every time he hears a plane, he gets scared, because the sound reminds him of the bombing. He thinks a lot about his family and his siblings that are still in Afrin. As for the country he left behind – “I just dream of a free and democratic Syria where everyone lives peacefully.”

 Tim eventually gathered the courage to look through his reels of film from Douma. “For a long time, I just couldn’t go back and look at the footage but then I felt there was nothing else I could do… when I finally had the courage to go through everything, I made a short film out of it.”

 Douma Underground was shown in festivals across the world. “I felt pressured because thousands of people had gone in front of my lens and I felt the responsibility and pressure that they are holding me accountable and I needed to get their stories out.”


 In 2018 Dergham Hammadi was working as a correspondent for Focus Aleppo, an electronic website which published news and features about the city where he was born.

 By then militants were entering the country from all over the world, and the men used kunya – pseudonyms – on their marriage licences to Syrian women. It was a long way from the watercolour landscapes he painted during peacetime.

 Since the start of the Syrian war, thousands of women have been forced to marry Daesh fighters, with devastating consequences. Many committed suicide – the ‘lucky’ ones managed to escape to Turkey. “Some women have told me outright that they were victims of sadism,” says Dergham.

 Without knowing the real name of their husband, the women can’t register their marriage or their children. Dergham wanted to research the 16,000-17,000 unregistered children living in camps, effectively under house arrest, who had no access to aid.

 He approached the Syrian Salvation Government, associated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and spoke to the justice minister and other departments to present the idea of helping the women register their marriage.

 He was told about a camp in Kherbet Eljoz, Idlib, where some of these women lived and asked if he could visit. They agreed, so the following Monday a friend gave him a lift.

 “I was surprised when I arrived and asked to go to the legal office, the person at the door asked if I was Dergham and I found seven or eight armed men and they put me in a van. They asked how I came, I said by car, and they also took the man who dropped me off. They held me for four days.”

 Dergham was taken to Harem Prison where he was charged with working with the US, but they misjudged the amount of support he had.

 Focus Aleppo stood by him in his absence, for example helping with his expenses, and drumming up support for him. Outside, whilst his supporters were demanding his release, inside the prison authorities were becoming flustered. Why was he the centre of so many Facebook campaigns? They asked.

 “They fear the media,” Dergham explains. “The Aleppo Revolutionary Council organised the campaign, since I am from Aleppo, and they had a legal team and whenever they asked about me, the prison would say I wasn’t there and I was beaten.”

 As media coverage grew, so did Dergham’s indifference: “I said if you kill me, my wife and children would be okay. Any organisation helping orphans would help them. They would get more money than what I can provide.”

 Dergham slept on the dirty prison floor for 28 days. “This was all fine,” he says. “I only cared about the issue of Syrian women. In prison, I was at peace because I knew I was trying to fix a problem and find a solution.”

 Around the same time he was inside, Judge Mohammad Nour Hamidi, his friend, was also kidnapped. “They pulled out seven of his fingernails and asked for a ransom of 35 million Syrian lira and released him after it was paid. But I was released without paying because they saw I had nothing. What were they going to take? My phone? My legs that I use to walk?”

 The prison administration finally buckled under the media pressure, released him and then, in a bizarre turn of events, invited him to a restaurant.

 “I refused to go, I had just been with prisoners who were starving, fed as much as a young child would eat. I just asked to be dropped off at the nearest [café] for coffee and smokes.”


 As a teenager, Yarub al-Dali undertook a number of highly dangerous assignments a seasoned reporter may never embark on throughout their whole career.

 When he was just 19-years-old he says he went undercover to watch an oil-money exchange between Daesh and the régime. In 2015 he wrote a report criticising a battle waged against a Christian village by al-Nusra Front: “This offended the revolution,” he says.

 He has lived with the consequences ever since – when they read the piece, the militant group captured and punished him. “During the torture I was tied up and this caused my sciatic nerve to become blocked. I am receiving treatment now. I took many doses of cortisone to be able to move due to the absence of a doctor while I was in the besieged Homs,” he recalls.

 Yarub didn’t receive any compensation and until now suffers from this back injury.

 One of the stories he covered, about people who had become handicapped by war in the city of Rastan in Homs, was picked up by several newspapers across the Middle East. The Goodwill Ambassador in Qatar, Princess Aisha Abdul Ghani, was among the readers and she sent aid for the handicapped people.

 “Among the cases was a handicapped [person] who might lose his life but thanks to the aid he survived. My pen was saving a person’s life.”

 Yarub hadn’t always dreamed of working in the media. When he was a student he wanted to benefit from the close relations between Syria and Iran and work in an embassy so he studied Farsi. Then came the revolution and everything changed: Yarub wanted to draw attention to the régime’s crimes, so he became a print journalist.

 “I was focusing on humanitarian stories and success stories during the war, of people who challenged the conditions of war,” he explains.

 He started to post his work on his personal Facebook page to train and develop his writing skills. Before long an editor from the Syrian Net website contacted him and asked him to work for them as a correspondent.

 However, working as a freelancer amid war was not always easy Yarub admits: “I was without rights. If I don’t send [good reports] easily, they will contact other people.”

 With help from local activists and Reporters Without Borders, Yarub eventually left Syria and went to France, where he now lives. But he has regular nightmares about his life in Syria. “When I remember Syria, I feel that I have been uprooted and that it is a long road to freedom, and I must return there.” '

Tim Seofi, DamascusDergham Hammadi, journalistYarub Al-Dali in the neighbourhood he grew up in just before he left. It was completely destroyed by bombing

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Idlib, Syrian capital of despair


 'At the foot of the concrete gray wall that rises along the Turkish border, Ahlam Rashid walks around the tents in the camp for displaced people of Atmeh. Every day, this Syrian humanitarian walks the aisles and tries to bring some comfort to the families she has been working with for several years. “I don't even have words to describe the difficulty in which these millions of people survive. There is no hospital, no school, no solid house. In fact, there is no future for all these families, for all these children. ” The young woman sketches a forced smile, but her lips curl, her anger mingles with the pain of helplessness.

 According to the UN, the situation in Syria constitutes "the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world today". The number of people living in the Idlib region, which the Syrian reégime wants to regain control of, is estimated at more than 4 million people, including one million children. The majority of these people are displaced, living in tents among the rocks or sheltered under a rickety olive tree. Each month, the humanitarian situation worsens a little more, food aid is not sufficient to cover the needs of all the displaced people.

 Since July, the situation has been even more alarming after the closure of one of these sites, that of Bab al-Salamah, north of the city of Aleppo, following the Russian and Chinese veto at the United Nations Security Council. Today, the only trucks that can still access this rebel enclave must pass through Bab al-Hawa, north of Idlib. Since the start of 2020, their number has been divided by four. According to UN figures, last May 9.3 million people were food insecure in Syria, some 56% of the population.

 For now, the ceasefire signed between the Turks and the Russians, staunch allies of the Damascus régime, has withstood a few strikes and violations. Ahlam Rashid remains on the alert. “If the bombardments were to resume, we wouldn't have enough to help the population. Landlocked, the Syrians lack everything, medical facilities are too rare and in any case, they have nothing left. "

 For three years, the Idlib region has had a so-called “salvation” government. Officially, this local administration is separated from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), heir to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. This group, which dominates the region, is included in the list of terrorist groups by the UN, a blacklist which limits the support of international organizations to the Syrian population.

 In his office, Ali Keda, the prime minister of the local government, appealed to the West: “The European Union must recognize the reality of the situation in Syria. The Syrian people want peace, but the régime at the head of the country is terrorist. We need to establish international relations with other countries in order to fight against it. We need everything, water, electricity, food, jobs for the Syrians who have nothing left… For that, the international organizations must coordinate with our government.”

 Like him, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman Atoun, head of the Sharia Council at HTS, underlines the need for the local population to obtain more support. “We are currently trying to present our true image. The point is not to make a darker or more beautiful portrait, just to show reality. The people here are not like those in Raqqa during the days of the IS caliphate. ” And to add: “Our group is not a threat to the West. The region needs international help to rebuild itself. We are the last to fight against the régime and its allies, but we will not be able to eliminate it without help.”

 At the end of August, the first inhabitant of Idlib died of the coronavirus. Currently, around sixty residents are believed to be infected. If ever the pandemic were to spread in the region, the situation could very quickly become catastrophic. As Ahlam Rashid underlines again, in the middle of the tents of displaced people: “How do you want to set up a containment? The population already struggles to survive.” '


Sunday, 30 August 2020

"Assad has ruined everything'" Inside the buffer zone keeping a tenuous hold on stability in northern Syria

 Commander Saif Abu Baker of Al Hamza Divison

 'If there are symbols of just how indebted the Syrian opposition forces are to Turkey, then the new army base in Aleppo Province for its elite al-Hamza division is evidence of this.

 The Turkish red crescent flag is given as much prominence as the Syrian opposition one.

 In the grand greeting rooms where commanders and visiting dignitaries will meet to discuss tactics, it is the Turkish flag which is placed side-by-side with that of the opposition's.

 The commander is a defector from the start of the civil war in 2011, who used to work in Bashar al-Assad's intelligence unit.

 He is anxious to press home time and again the same twin messages.

 "We are not extremists," Commander Saif Abu Baker of al-Hamza Divison says repeatedly.

 "ISIS has not gone. There are 3,000 ISIS fighters in the desert of east Syria being supported by Assad's régime and the separatist PKK (Kurds). They will only go if we, the opposition, are supported and the régime is finished."

 The Syrian National Army, as it is now called, was born out of the Free Syrian Army and is largely backed by Turkish funds and Turkish weaponry.

 Without Turkish support, it's unlikely the opposition would be able to hold the so-called buffer zone.

 It's an area where Turkish troops have moved 30km inside Syria and stretch nearly 100km along the border - pushing out ISIS fighters but also the Kurdish-dominated SDF and keeping Assad's régime troops at bay.

 "We have no choice," Commander Moatasm Abbas of the Al Moatasm Division said. "We either fight with what weapons we've got or we die. Withdrawing is not an option. It does not exist in our dictionary. Our dictionary is revolution. We are continuing with what weapons we have, whatever happens, and Turkey is the only one who is with us on the ground, with its weapons and military equipment."

 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always insisted he does not want to remain inside Syria indefinitely and his troops respect the sovereignty of their neighbour.

 But withdrawal is unlikely to come anytime in the near future - and those we spoke to in the buffer zone know only too well that the tenuous hold on the stability that they have in the area, is dependant right now on the Turkish military presence.

 When we visit Al Bab, in the centre of the town square, once an ISIS stronghold where they planned attacks on Aleppo, there's now a huge red Turkish crescent.

 The shops and stalls are bustling with business and packed with people.

 But whilst we are there, there's a vehicle explosion.

 A car parked outside a mosque has been rigged with a small amount of explosives.

 Not enough to kill, although four people were injured, but enough to scare and frustrate the people of Al Bab who are weary of constant instability and desperate for change.

 One man standing over the mangled wreckage of the car tells us: "We have terrorists here... they're ISIS terrorists and the are the separatist parties, the Kurds. They are doing this... causing all these attacks... it's the PKK and ISIS and we have suffered from this for a long time. Since we were liberated until now, we're suffering from this. We are sending a message to the world to please find a solution."

 In the new 200-bed hospital built by the Turkish authorities in Al Bab, we find the battered and mutilated war wounded.

 Abdul Rahman, 9, has not known anything but war his entire life.

 His leg was blown off by a régime bomb, but for the first time he's been fitted with a prosthetic limb courtesy of the Turkish-run health facility which has seven operating rooms.

 Prosthetics which would cost between $5,000 to $10,000 are being provided free by the hospital.

 Turkey seems to be the country which is metaphorically and physically holding out its hand to help the battered people opposed to Bashar al Assad and who've been running from his régime - many since 2011.

 "I don't want war," says nine-year-old Abdul Rahman.

 "I can't take it. Assad has ruined everything." '

Abdul Rahman, nine, has a prosthetic leg

Monday, 17 August 2020

Fears of new bloodbath in Idlib as Assad troops go on the offensive


 'Bashar al-Assad has re-mobilized his forces in northwest Syria, raising fears of a new bloodbath in militant-controlled Idlib province.

 The move follows Russia’s suspension of joint military patrols with Turkish armed forces along the M4 highway in what is supposed to be a de-escalation zone.

 The patrols began in March, along the Aleppo-Latakia road. The last one took place on Aug. 12 and Moscow suspended them two days later.

 Since then, Assad régime forces have launched rocket attacks against Al-Fterah, Sfuhen and Kansafra in Jabal Al-Zawiyah in the southern countryside of Idlib.

 The stage may be set for a new “battle of Idlib”. 

 Navar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said the combatants were treading a thin line.

 “Hezbollah moved some of its forces in a bid to launch an attack to the area in the south of the M4 highway. This zone where the joint patrols are suspended is elevated, and whoever controls this region can control the whole of Idlib. So, it is a very strategic area where sooner or later some skirmish will happen. There is a high percentage chance of an operation by the régime. It will be a narrow-scale battle. The Turks are not ready to withdraw from this strategic area or allow the opposition to withdraw either. Sooner or later, the Russians will control this area. Moscow initially planned to monitor the area with no opposition forces present, but that did not happen because Turkey, unwilling to concede to Russia, mobilized some of its forces and opposition forces there, triggering another source of tension between Moscow and Ankara.”

 Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst, said Russia’s suspension of joint patrols in Idlib may be a temporary security matter as they consider their options.

 “The patrols have been coming under attack, from peaceful protesters at first, but increasingly militarily, especially since last month. Moscow’s intentions are obviously always suspect in Syria and there have been signs of a renewed régime coalition offensive against Idlib in recent days, so Russia’s suspension of the patrols could be a tactical issue related to that. Turkey, likewise, continues to have the same policy of preserving at least northern Idlib as a buffer zone to avoid a destabilizing wave of refugees laced with terrorists being pushed into Turkish territory.”