Monday, 23 October 2017

Did the West 'give up' on the Syrian rebels?

Michael Neumann:

 'In “How Assad’s Enemies Gave Up on the Syrian Opposition”, Aron Lund follows many other analysts in his account of how the West 'gave up' on Syria’s rebels.  The implication is that the West tried to back them against Assad, but at long last found this well-meaning effort both futile and ill-advised. The project produced a big mess!

 That's at least highly misleading.  The following argues that West never seriously supported the rebels, so it can hardly be said that support should never have been extended in the first place.

 1.  Lund has a New York Times report stating that there were "flights shipping military equipment to Syria".  Here he misspoke:  without any sinister intent, he asserted what he knows is false.  Not one single flight went to Syria.  All flights went, as the article states, to Turkey or Jordan.

 2.  This is of the highest significance, because it means that only a still-unknown proportion of the 3500 tons shipped actually ended up in rebel hands. 

 3.  What we do know is that there were many complaints that only a trickle of those arms made it across the border: the deliveries were constantly and severely restricted to bend rebel groups to the wishes of Turkey, and - especially - Jordan and the US.  For example:  “We need between 500-600 tons of ammunition a week. We get between 30-40 tons. So you do the calculations.”

 4.  The overwhelming majority of the arms used are of Soviet design.  Even ammunition tracked to outside sources is not linked to identifiable US-backed shipments.  Some of this material certainly did come from the CIA operation, but there are no videos nor any first-hand testimony of large deliveries crossing the Syrian border.  In short there is no evidence that, contrary to repeated rebel claims, they received large amounts of CIA-supplied weaponry, as opposed to black-market purchases from numerous sources.

 5.  There is also no evidence, indeed no claim, that CIA training made a substantial difference.  The later Pentagon train-and-equip program leaked small quantities of arms; the trained units were consistently steered away from fighting Assad.

 6.   Even if large shipments actually ended up in rebel hands, these shipments did not afford the rebels air cover: there were no useful MANPADS or other anti-aircraft weapons.  And of course in contrast to the Western-backed Kurdish forces, no one gave the rebels air cover or close air support.  This, predictably, proved decisive.

 7.  Without such support, the claim that Western supplies ever played a pivotal role in the course of the war is implausible.  The rebels, in better days, obtained massive quantities of arms from the black market and captured régime depots.  These seem quite sufficient to account for the rebels' periods of success.

 8.   In short the whole idea that the US and the West made any serious effort to overthrow Assad is a non-starter.  Western backers may indeed have planned to overthrow him.  But between the plans and the implementation lay an almost impenetrable barrier of reluctance to support the rebels who might have brought him down.  This barrier proved much more consequential than the plans or even the arms delivery flights that supposedly exacerbated the conflict.

 9.  Where did this reluctance come from?  Lund rightly says:  "Though the Syrian president was now widely reviled as a war criminal and held responsible for tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the likely alternatives seemed to be either stateless, jihadi-infested chaos or some sort of Talibanesque theocracy. International enthusiasm for the opposition plummeted."

 Lund might have pointed out that, on all evidence, "the likely alternatives" would have been far better than Assad, particularly since the West had more than enough capacity to restrain any post-Assad 'chaos'. But this is the failure of every respectable, sober, well-informed Syria analyst. Should it have had any significant effect on Western policy, it is a lot to answer for.'

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Russians are chaining Syria and drowning it in debt


 'Russia has drawn up a map of military bases in Syria that is re-establishing its presence as a central force in the Middle East. However, there is an economic agenda that Moscow is hiding behind its military and political presence, the most important of which is obtaining long-term economic advantages through signing agreements with the Syrian regime, as a way to return its favour in contributing to keeping the Syrian regime and its president, Bashar al-Assad.

 The economic relations between Damascus and Moscow are not the result of military intervention, but they date back to the Soviet Union and the rule of former President Hafez al-Assad in the 1990s. In addition, the son Bashar al-Assad has worked on strengthening more trade and economic relations between the two countries. In 2005, he signed about 43 agreements, in the fields of industry, trade, defence, healthcare, energy, and irrigation.
According to analysts, the regime’s concessions and signing agreements with Moscow is not new. Russia has cancelled 73% of its debts from Syria ($ 9.8 billion of the total debt of $ 13.4 billion), during Assad’s visit to Moscow in 2005, in exchange for turning the Tartus Port into a permanent military base for Russian ships.

 However, the concessions have increased after the outbreak of the revolution, after Assad resorted to Putin to maintain his regime. By that time, Russia has started taking advantage of its position by signing the 2013 “Amrit contract which is an unprecedented huge agreement with a Russian company, for oil and gas exploration in the Syrian territorial waters.

 It is a 25-year contract which includes the exploration of 2190 square kilometres at a cost of $ 100 million, funded by Russia. If oil or gas is discovered in commercial quantities, Moscow will recover the costs from the production revenues, according to what the Director-General of the General Petroleum Corporation of the regime’s government, Ali Abbas, claimed to AFP.

 After the Russian military intervention, the two sides have signed agreements in various fields, including two agreements worth 600 and 250 million Euros, in 2016, in order to repair the infrastructure that has been destroyed by the “battle”, as well as the construction of power stations and grain silos. Thus “the Syrian market has become open to Russian companies which can be present, join, and play an important role in the reconstruction and investment in Syria,” according to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with Sputnik Russian news agency in April.

 On June 29, the Russian Fontanka Electronic Network published a memorandum of cooperation which Europolis Russian Company signed with the Syrian Ministry of Oil and Mineral Recourses earlier this year. The memorandum states that the company is committed to “liberate and protect areas that contain oil wells and facilities,” in return of getting one quarter of oil production.

 Since early June, a Russian company, owned by billionaire Gennady Timchenko, has been carrying out maintenance work for the largest phosphate mines in Syria, located in Khunayfis region near the city of Palmyra, according to a report published by Russia Today website on June 27.

 Russia Today article confirmed that al-Assad signed the agreement on April 23. The agreement was between the General Organization for Geology and Mineral Resources of Syria and STNG Logestic, a subsidiary of Story Trans Gas, which owns 31% of the company. This agreement was aimed at implementing the maintenance needed and providing protection, production, and transport services to Selaata port in Lebanon.
Moreover, Russia intervened in the field of Syrian food and became the country with the most exports of wheat, which is considered as a strategic product. Internal Trade and Consumer Protection Minister, Abdullah al-Gharbi, announced an agreement to buy three million tons of wheat from Russia in September.

 Moreover, Russian company, SovEcon, will build four grain mills in Homs at a cost of 70 million Euros. The Syrian government will be the one covering the construction costs, according to what Ziad Balla, Director General of General Mills Company, said in April 2016. Ziad also talked about a cooperative work with the Iranian side is done in order to build and prepare five mills in many provinces.

 Economist Munaff Kuman asserted that the contracts and agreements between Russia and Syria will have devastating effects on the Syrian economy on the long run, as it will tie up the economy and the future Syrian government and will prevent it from taking any developmental steps that may lead to the autonomy of national decision and the ability to invest Syria’s natural resources.

 Kuman also asserted that “any development process will collide with Russia and Iran, which will prevent the whole process”. (Tehran also signed several agreements with the regime)

 The researcher stressed the seriousness of contracts relating to the exploitation of oil ports and the right to prospect for oil and gas and phosphate and extract it, because it will be stolen for the benefit of Russia and Iran. The two countries will work on “sucking the wealth” without taking into account any national interests of the Syrians. Russian companies may also sell oil, gas, and phosphate extracted from Syrian territory at high prices, and this will have negative effects on the government and the citizen in terms of costs and prices in the local market.'

The change in the field control map in Syria between 2016 and 2017 (Enab Baladi)

The Tragic Legacy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

 'Nearly two years ago, I met a group of young Syrian journalists at a dive bar around Times Square. We spoke for hours, and their stories of human cruelty were detailed and beyond appalling. These were all refugees from the city of Raqqa and, in concert with other young men and women who were still living in Syria, they formed the core of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a kind of underground reporting squadron, citizen journalists who, at tremendous risk to their lives, used every possible tool to smuggle out to the world words and images describing life under Isis rule. Foreign journalists found that their reports were as reliable as they were sickening. On their Web site, the R.B.S.S. journalists posted reports of mass shootings, crucifixions, beheadings, sexual abuse, and other crimes. These brave reporters, who have been honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists and portrayed in Matthew Heineman’s excellent documentary, “City of Ghosts,” worked under constant threat of death; ten of their colleagues, friends and family members, both inside Raqqa and in Turkey, were hunted down by Isis forces and executed for the crime of committing journalism.

 When news came this week that Isis had been flushed out of Raqqa by coalition air strikes, I called Abdalaziz Alhamza, perhaps the most eloquent of the young men and women I met that night in Times Square. He and I came to know each other at other events, and it was immediately clear to me that he was feeling no sense of relief, gratitude, or liberation.

 “How are you?”

 “Pretty terrible,” he said. “This is a liberation in the media. Not in Raqqa.” Alhamza felt no immediate sense of relief or happiness. His city was in ruins. He and everyone he knew had lost friends and family. After speaking on the phone, we decided to have a conversation by e-mail and what follows are his responses to my questions, edited for clarity and space, about his life and about Raqqa, its tragedy, and its future.

 Life in Raqqa before the war was as normal as any city in the world. We had schools, universities, parks, bars, and cafés, though, of course, Raqqa was not a big city like Aleppo or Damascus. Raqqa was a somewhat forgotten city even though it has oil and gas and an agricultural base. The Euphrates and the dams there provide the country with much of its electricity.

 “I was born in Raqqa and I came from a middle-class family. I didn’t really want for anything in my life at all. As a child and as a teen-ager, I had a good life. Before the revolution started, in 2011, I was a college student. I hung out with my friends, stole a little money from my dad. Basically, I wasn’t doing anything all that useful. But when the revolution began, my friends started telling me about politics in Syria, about the first demonstrations in the country. They talked about how the government denied us freedom of expression and civil rights, about how people who spoke out were killed or ‘disappeared.’ The Assad family had already been in power for more than forty years. They said we could be a great country, but we aren’t.

 “And so I joined early the many Syrians who began asking for basic freedoms. But the regime reacted to the demonstrations by killing civilians. We saw that the regime had to end. The international community reacted to all of this with little more than speeches. The Assad regime prevented most of media organizations from entering Syria and covering what was going on. Local television just showed banal programs, like documentaries about animals and things like that.

 “So I decided to go to the next demonstration and take video footage and upload it all on social media. That film was picked up by various media organizations. That’s really how I turned into an activist and a citizen journalist. My friends and I decided to get together and establish a Facebook page to report the news and provide what we call ‘local co-ordination.’ We organized and called on people to come to demonstrations, day after day.

 “Because of these activities, I was arrested three times and tortured. The methods of torture that I went through, and so many others went through, included electric shock; whippings; solitary confinement for five, six days at a time in a tiny, windowless toilet stall.

 “In March, 2013, troops from al-Nusra [an Al Qaeda-allied jihadist group] and the Free Syrian Army pushed out the Syrian-government loyalists. For the next half year or more, we enjoyed a period when we could work freely and walk in the streets carrying revolutionary flags. Raqqa had more than forty civil-society organizations. I was helping to run an organization that was involved in education, and, along with my friends and comrades, we were able to re-open universities and the schools.

 “Isis began to take control of the city in January, 2014. They closed Christian churches and Shia mosques. They committed countless human-rights violations, the first being a public execution that I witnessed with many others. The reaction of people in Raqqa at first was to demonstrate against Isis. Because I took part in that, I came under investigation. I was interrogated by Isis five times.

 “When Isis took over complete control of the city, in mid-January, 2014, they came to my house to arrest me because I was covering the clashes between them and the rebels. I was just incredibly lucky that I wasn’t home when they came. I realized that I could no longer stay in Raqqa. At first, I thought I could stay in the city and live underground, but I was facing the threat of execution and I fled across the border to Turkey.

“When I arrived in Turkey, I kept hearing how Isis’s human-rights violations were increasing by the day. And so, in April, 2014, my colleagues, inside of Raqqa and outside, decided to start R.B.S.S. in order to report on the realities of what was going on. We also supported awareness campaigns in the most dangerous Isis strongholds: we used graffiti campaigns, we distributed posters. Eventually, we turned out to be the main source of news that was coming from Isis-controlled areas.

“We lost our first colleague in Raqqa because we were communicating through Facebook. We decided to be far more careful and got training on the use of encryption methods. Nevertheless, we lost still more friends, colleagues, and family members. They were arrested, tortured, executed, sometimes beheaded, both in Syria and Turkey. Still, our only weapon to fight Isis was through information and the Internet.

“In July, 2014, I left for Germany. Turkey no longer felt safe. But life in Europe is not so easy, either, not when there are neo-Nazis accusing me and other Syrian refugees of being terrorists!

“We had all hoped to defeat Assad by now and have a free, democratic, and unified Syria. Now I only dream about returning home and rebuilding the country. This generation of Syrians has lost everything. We can only put our hopes in the next generation. We have the resources to be a great country, but it will take a long time.

“In the meantime, R.B.S.S. will keep working, reporting the news, organizing awareness campaigns and workshops, and trying to help rebuild Raqqa. So many children were killed in the fighting. One of the things that Isis did was to target them. They opened tents for children and gave them games and dollars and candy and phones––things that their parents could no longer provide. This is how they recruited children. Even now we have to be aware that Isis will remain a timebomb. They were able to spread their ideology to so many young people in Syria, the region, and throughout the world. It’s so important to fight against this ideology and prevent the new generation being radicalized. R.B.S.S. is out of money and if you go to our Web site and donate something, you will be helping.

“You have to realize this: I am not happy. How could I be? It is true that Isis is defeated now in Raqqa. But ninety per cent of the city is destroyed, there is rubble everywhere. Thousands have been killed. Hundreds of thousands are living in miserable conditions. People are sleeping outdoors in the desert heat. They are lucky if they have a tent.

“When I tell people that the media are celebrating the ‘liberation of Raqqa,’ they are upset. Some of them say, ‘Fuck the media. Fuck isis. And fuck everyone else.’ You have to understand, there is no one from Raqqa who didn’t lose a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a beloved person. I lost my uncle. Everywhere I’ve ever lived there is gone.

“Understand: my people have been living under the worst conditions in the world and under the most brutal group, Isis. We faced constant human-rights violations for years. We faced air strikes, shelling. Human beings deserve a better life.

“According to my sources in Raqqa, most Isis fighters left the city before the final battle started. Isis used civilians as human shields. People reported that as they were fleeing the city during the air strikes, they could hear children, women, and men shouting from under the rubble, but they couldn’t do anything to help them. People cannot quite believe that they are alive. And those that did get out left behind family members, friends, who were killed.

“People told me that when the international coalition started bombing Raqqa, in 2015, the air strikes were targeted at Isis fighters, at their headquarters and their vehicles. They knew that being home was not a problem, they would be safe. They did fear Russian air strikes and Assad’s forces. But then the strategy of the coalition seemed to change; the strikes seemed more random, less accurate. They felt that the main goal was only to get rid of Isis without caring enough about thousands of civilians who are living there.

“It’s been three and a half years since I have been back home. I hope I have a future in Syria. But the city is now facing new problems, more human-rights violations. And R.B.S.S. has to go on exposing these violations and help prevent the explosion of an ideological timebomb. We don’t know who will control the city in the end. Raqqa will be liberated only when its people will be able to go back to their houses and live their lives as free men and free women.” '

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Saturday, 21 October 2017

First the killing machine should be stopped.

 Yassin al-Haj Saleh:

 "I hope we can do something to repair the huge damage that afflicted Syria in the last few years. It is already longer than the Second World War, it is already six years and six months;but first of all the killing machine should be stopped, so that we can try to trigger different dynamics. The dynamics of reconciliation, of moderation, of positive efforts to fix the huge damage done by the régime to Syrian society, to the Syrian spirit, and to the very meaning of the country.

 So, the first thing is that the killing machine should be stopped. And I believe that so many Syrians are willing to come together and meet others from different backgrounds, from different ethnicities and different religious backgrounds, to repair the huge catastrophe.

 While this régime is staying, only bad consequences will come out of it. The matter of accountability is very important to us. If the régime stayed in power, this is a very bad message to Syrians, and to all the people in the region and the world; that you can still stay safe while you are killing so many people, using chemical weapons, barrel bombs, killing people under torture in your slaughterhouses like Sednaya and other places.

 So, the precondition is still the overthrow of the régime, and I don't think we'll see a new Syria, or any better future for Syrians, while the régime is here. It is easy for us to defeat Daesh, and it is already broken, and to defeat Nusra Front and any other extremist groups, but we first of all need to defeat the source of radicalisation, of militarisation, and of sectarianisation in the country, which is the Assad régime.

  There is no future if Assad wins actually, because structurally the régime is based on staying in power forever, which means a war against the future. Since the days of Hafez al-Assad there was a slogan, "Hafez al-Assad forever", and now it is for Bashar al-Assad. What does staying in power forever mean? It means a permanent war against the future, and that we are living in a permanent present. So I don't believe we will have any future - our only opportunity to have a better future - is to end forever this stay in power."

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Syria: The Myth of a Regime Victorious

Image result for gareth bayley

 Gareth Bayley:

 'Today, there is much talk and lazy analysis of Assad and his backers having ‘won the war’, through a combination of military advances, under cover of heavy air bombardment, and a series of many hundreds of so-called ‘reconciliation deals’ with besieged communities, faced with the choice of surrender or starvation and bombing.

 The propaganda machine screams reconciliation, while the military machine puts community leaders and civil society activists on green buses headed towards a dangerous and uncertain fate.

 For all the complexity this war presents, I am confident still in three facts.

 First, there is no such thing as a ‘win.’ There never will be a ‘military solution’ to this conflict. Assad’s forces stretch ever thinner and depend ever more on foreign militias and air power to prop them up. Behind the advancing front line, Syrian Arab Army and militias leave behind them a fractured landscape intimidated by local warlords seeking personal gain above all.

 Of course it can be argued that Assad doesn’t care, so long as he keeps a chunk of ‘useful Syria’ and Syria’s seat remains warm at the UN thanks to Russian protection. The regime’s mission, after all, has always been to survive and dominate the country, not bring it peace.

 But this should give us no comfort. The toll that the regime and its backers have exacted is staggering: well over 400,000 dead; over 13 million in need; over half the pre-war population displaced within Syria or forced to flee; an economy shrunk by over 60%; a people traumatised; a generation of kids with no education or hope.

 Assad’s regime bears overwhelming responsibility for the suffering of the Syrian people, fuelled extremism and terrorism, and created the space for ISIS. The United Nations has before now called attention to the ‘devastation of the Syrian mosaic’ of the country’s diverse communities. Assad and his regime are largely responsible for this, while claiming to defend it.

 This brings me to my second point: Syria can only find true peace with transition away from Assad to a government that can protect the rights of all Syrians, unite the country and end the conflict. As Ibrahim al-Assil has written so eloquently in the Washington Post only days ago, Syria cannot be stabilised under Assad’s leadership: Syria’s institutions are broken and near destroyed; those in charge of them think only of enriching themselves; a regime which has perfected state sponsorship of terrorism and so-called ‘weaponisation’ of refugees will only go on to do so again.

 Finally, the hatred of the regime and desire for a better future that propelled millions of Syrians into the streets in 2011 perseveres to this day – young Syrians from all walks of life tell me it is only a matter of time before the revolution will come again.

 I am often challenged on my country’s focus on Assad’s wrongs. Why do we not shine a light on abuses by others?

 First, I do not presume to ignore any and all abuses conducted in the name of this war. But second, Assad’s self-described ‘government’ has the primary responsibility to protect its population. And third, it is Assad’s war machine that has killed, maimed or forced to flee the vast majority of Syrian victims of this conflict.

 My third fact concerns what’s happening now: de-escalation. The international community has a moral obligation to reduce and calm violence across the country.

 Critics will say that de-escalation is a step by the international community towards normalisation with the regime, or, indeed, the exact opposite: that calming different parts of Syria in different ways is a step towards breaking up the country or at least freezing the conflict in perpetuity.

 Yet others will question whether Western countries can meaningfully use reconstruction as leverage to force transition. After all, Assad – not the Russians – has made clear that he won’t let his enemies ‘accomplish through politics what they failed to accomplish on the battlefield and through terrorism’.

 The regime, it is argued, will survive on what limited help it can gain from something generally described as the East. Assad, then, will wait us out until we give in.

 These are hard challenges to contemplate, but contemplate them we must. It means very clearly that any work on de-escalation has to preserve the Syrian identity of de-escalated areas. And it means that the West needs to hold firm to the position that it will only help with Syria’s reconstruction when comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition is ‘firmly under way’.

 These last words are critical: reconstruction at transition, and not before. To engage early is to bet that we can reform Syria from within, as Assad and his regime remain in power. That is naive and ignores the regime’s singular focus on itself, rather than on Syria and Syrians.

 This leads me to a fourth fact where, unlike the previous three, I am not confident on how it plays out: that transition must proceed and that Syrians will decide how this happens.

 The easy and lazy way to look at this is that Syrians will decide transition, and leave it there. After all, there is the Geneva Communiqué and UNSCR2254. Both are clear enough.

 The harder way to look at this is to recognise first that negotiations in Geneva have not made progress in 18 months, notwithstanding the sustained and patient work by UN Special Envoy de Mistura. For all the criticisms made of the Opposition, again it is the regime that bears overwhelming responsibility; it has never shown it is prepared to negotiate, but rather has played for time while attacking Syrians back home.

 What to do about this is no clearer to me than when these Geneva talks started in January 2016. I can only recall that if the Geneva talks had not been invented, they would have to be, that there are a number of firm principles which de Mistura has already reached, and that the onus for advancing a peace process lies firmly with those who back Assad to win, even if that victory looks pyrrhic. Meanwhile, we should ensure that Geneva understands and reflects the views of millions of Syrians out there without a real voice.

 One thing that is clear is that Syrians must see accountability for human rights violations and abuses conducted throughout this war, again if there is to be enduring peace.

 It pains me that the Geneva process has been unable to make progress on the critical issue of detainees and the disappeared. The pressing challenge is to discover where people are and ensure their welfare and that they are released. The longer-term task is to ensure accountability for the suffering inflicted on them.

Moving to peace — and a just peace at that — in Syria matters, for Syria, for the region, and for the world. Absent movement forward, Syria’s tragedy will continue, a stain on the world’s conscience.'

Friday, 20 October 2017

Journalist who risks life in Syrian war shares her story

The people of Syria of inspired Reem al-Halabi to document the abuses of her government. (Reuters)

 Reem al-Halabi:

 "I was a university student in Aleppo, but there was civil unrest in my city. The Syrian government was responding to that violently. At the time, the Syrian government had no trouble with Western and Arab reporters report on these events. At the time, I was working with a few Arabic channels, giving them the news, and telling them what was happening in my city. I was broadcasting live to the news channel Al Arabiya, covering the funeral of someone who'd' been killed the day before by the Syrian government. There was extreme anger on the streets and at the funeral that day. My goal was to document and film for people outside and inside Syria to see what was happening in my city and how the Syrian government was responding to the protests with violence. People were chanting for democracy and freedom and denouncing the violence that the Syrian government was using. I was carrying a cellphone to film and I stood up on a car to get a higher view to what was happening and to show how the security forces were targeting protesters. But unfortunately, I was the one who was targeted because it was very clear that I was filming. And the Syrian regime has always been afraid of journalists, of the cell phone, the camera, because that's the eye through which the world can see what was really happening in Syria.

 There was a lot of civil unrest and protesting. My job as a citizen journalist was to show people what was happening. I had to be there to show people the reality of the crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad's regime. I had to be there. The Syrian government targeted me directly and on purpose because I was carrying the cell phone.

 Because they were watching us, and Syrian security forces were targeting the protesters. And I was filming that, live. So as I was filming, that's exactly when they hit me - and others - who were filming. They're so afraid of any pictures or videos being transmitted live to news stations, or any involvement at all of citizen journalists because that would prove their crimes.

 As soon as I was shot, I hoped that I died. In that moment I really wished I was dead. I was so afraid of being injured and falling into the hands of the Syrian government and being tortured. I have a lot of friends who have died while being tortured by the Syrian government. So I was terrified of that. My friends took care of me, they gave me first aid, and then took me to a private hospital. Of course, the security forces found out where I was being treated, they came to my room, and they put me in handcuffs and shackled my feet until I told them what they wanted to hear. I basically said that I didn't see who hit me, that I had no idea who it was, and that I happened to be at that funeral by pure coincidence. They told me I had to go to court, and then told me I couldn't travel. That's when I left Aleppo and snuck out of the country, and towards Turkey.

 The Syrian security forces are known, they're the ones that are there, with weapons. At the time in Aleppo, there were no other factions or militias, or anyone else who would have had weapons except the Syrian regime. I saw them with my own eyes, firing from their cars, wearing their uniforms. It was clear, and I was filming that, but unfortunately that's when I got hit. Even international observers came to Aleppo, the month after I was injured, they came to Aleppo and saw with their own eyes too how the Syrian regime was targeting protesters, and how protests at the university in Aleppo were dispersed, and how people were injured, and started to leave the city in droves.

 I was shot in the back, in my back, and it came out through my arm. So it went through my back, and came out through my arm. I'm very lucky. I see that incident as a huge push for me. I could've died because of the work I was doing, but I'm going to live so that I can keep going and encourage and tell people that we can make our voices heard and that journalism can be strong in our country.

 It wasn't just that I got shot, it was because security forces were after me too. I used to use pseudonyms to report for different channels, I used the name Noor, or Reem, or Abeer, or Lana. But once I got shot, a lot of people found out my true identity and name. So there was a lot of fear. There were security raids, looking for me, at my house, luckily I wasn't home. I was in training with Al Jazeera in Gaziantep, Turkey. I learned that security was after me at my house. My family told me never to come back to Aleppo. And from there, I thought: how can I keep going with my journalism work if I can't go back? And I came up with the idea to start the radio station.

 My focus was on local residents. When I started this work, I wanted to know how I could get our voice out to the world, to say, listen world, and look what's happening to us in Syria. Look at the violations taking place, look at the demands that we're making. When things started to get worse and the world wasn't paying attention, the Syrian government began to punish residents. They cut off electricity and the internet in Aleppo, and all people could hear was the sound of shelling and attacks. And through it all, residents couldn't even communicate with each other, even if they were in the same city. That's when I thought FM radio can help. It can be broadcast over wide areas, and you don't need special equipment to use it. That's when I thought we could do a local broadcast to help Syrian citizens figure out what was going on in their neighbourhoods in case of emergencies, when the shelling started, the security situation, the living situation.

 I saw the radio as a platform for people to tell their stories. Official media channels were under Syrian government control. But Nasaem Radio gave people the chance to express their opinions, to send text messages, to speak their minds without phone lines disconnecting. So for people, this was a space for expression. And we were trying to provide them with information, news, with hope, with music, songs.

 When someone has a will to do something, that's something that keeps you going. The people around me also really encouraged me. My family, the people who wanted to help me work on it. It was like a dream for Syrians to have radio that's different from what they'd been hearing every day, the same old speeches, the same agendas. They wanted to hear the truth, to look for the truth. To go after the truth whether you're the person behind this idea or part of the public, that's something that really helps. I got so much support from our local listeners in the beginning. At first we would only broadcast for a few hours a day and our listeners would say, we want to hear more, we want to hear you longer, we get so bored after you go off the air. So that reaction really gave us courage to keep going.

 We talked about everything. Sports, art, lifestyle, emergencies, sewage problems in the city, the intensity of the shelling, the lack of hospitals available, the school situation, whether they were closed or open because of the attacks. We talked about how children in the city were doing, how they needed vaccines. All the things you need to live, from education to women, to work, that's what we talked about. We saw our job as radio people as connectors between all these subjects we were talking, and our listeners, and organizations doing aid and relief work. For example, an issue we're facing is the landmines that have been left behind by Daesh, or ISIS, after they leave the areas they had taken a hold of. So we go to organizations that remove landmines and ask when can they remove them? How safe are the fields and the farms now? So it becomes a source of connection between average people who need help and organizations that can help these very people through radio and our programming.

 We’re getting a lot of threats. These are hard to face for our reporters, our journalists inside Syria and outside in Turkey. But journalism is a line of work that's rife with danger. Whether they're from the Syrian government, or Daesh, or ISIS or corrupt groups who don't want our attention on them, it's dangerous work. So if you're a journalist, you have to live with the risks and be up to it, you can lose your family, your friends, and it'll change your life but it's a choice. I chose this line of work, and I know it's a job that's full of risks.

 Of course. Our news, our radio, covers Northern Syria, in cities like Azaz, Jarablos, Kafranbel, we're doing a lot of work in these areas. Because this is where Daesh was in control, and now they're gone. So these areas need a lot of media attention and work because people were so scared to talk or express their opinions for so long. These people there were under the very strict control of extremists, so as a media organization we are trying to help them get back to living normal lives.

 As a media organization, we want to help Syrians live their lives, democratically, where they have freedom of expression. We want to support Syrian women to get to decision-making positions, helping children with their education, to fight extremism and terrorism. So we have so much work to do.

 It's important to me that people know that to this day in Syria, people are dying, through shelling, arrests, drowning at sea, at the borders, people are still dying. And as Syrians, we need a lot of support. From Canadians, from the people, governments, from the Americans. These people are all far from us, but it's important that our voices get to them so that they know what's really happening. It's not just about refugees and helping them settle. Let's also ask how we can help them and support them, and find out what organizations can do to help them. For example, I'm here with Journalists for Human Rights, and they've really helped us with how to think about our news, our stories, and our storytelling, and our strategies, so that we can get the voices of Syrians out to the world. If people can't support us, they can at least listen to us. Listen to our stories, and find out what's happening in this world that's so far away from them.

 We're after the truth, and credibility. All we do is relay the realities of what's happening, convey what's being said and talked about, and give it to people. And it's the people that can decide and say what's right and what's wrong. We're trying as much as possible to speak out, and shine a light on things that governments, and other groups don't want people to know. We're just a light that's highlighting these problems."


Wednesday, 18 October 2017

From Syria to Porirua

Sharif King outside his home in Porirua.

 'Sharif King has been shot at, punched so hard his teeth have shattered and had an iron bar forced all the way through his leg.

 The 21-year-old now studies IT programming at Whitireia, a few minutes north of Wellington.

 Sharif was 16 when civil war broke out in Syria. He and his mother were living in Moadamiyah, a rebellious suburb of the capital, Damascus.

 Moadamiyah was gassed with toxic sarin in 2013, according to the UN, and was subject to a three-year Government siege that destroyed much of its infrastructure and caused its population to dwindle.

 The gas attack killed anywhere between 281 and 1729 people. As it overcame its victims, they suffered from convulsions, coughed up blood and foamed at the mouth. Images of the dead wrapped in white sheets in the street provoked international outrage towards President Bashar al-Assad.

 “I remember I was walking with some friends and we were shot at by soldiers. Some of my friends were hit. I only avoided being hit because I hid behind a car,” he recalls.

 Sharif doesn’t know why he and his friends were targeted: “Maybe it was because we were a group of people together?”

 A short time later he was arrested by government soldiers on a bus. Again, he doesn’t know why.

 “When you travel on the bus, you are stopped at many checkpoints and the army checks your ID. If they have any doubts about you, they will arrest you,” he says.

 “Maybe it’s because I was from Moadamiyah. If there is fighting or explosions in an area, they try to check everyone from this area. They persecute the people from this area in order to keep them silent.”

 While in custody, he was beaten and tortured for any information he might have - information he didn’t have.

 He was kept in the dark for three days until suddenly being released. Friends of his weren’t so lucky. His mother didn’t expect to see him again.

 “It was very hard - if a criminal commits a crime, that person knows how long they might have to stay in prison. But if you are arrested for no reason and it is a political issue, you don’t know what will happen. I thought I might die in the prison. I had no idea,” he says.

 “We knew people who had been kept in there and they were never seen again. My mum was so happy and she said we had to pack up our important things straight away and leave to Lebanon.”

 And so a teenage Sharif and his mother headed to the border, hoping for the best.

 In Syria, men must serve in the military from 18. Those caught trying to evade can be imprisoned and tortured.

 Sharif was yet to serve and his identification papers showed as much. Yet, another stroke of luck fell his way.

 “I was so lucky the soldiers at the checkpoint didn’t fully check my papers.”

 And so he and his mother moved to Lebanon.

 “Lebanon was difficult. There was no war, no shooting, no explosions, but the Lebanese army persecuted us. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees aren’t respected and [are] looked at as dirty people. If you go to work, they don’t pay you what they should. If you are walking in the street and someone knows you’re from Syria, they come up and hit you,” he says.

 “Sometimes I wish I had died in Syria. Better than being persecuted in Lebanon.”

 Sharif turned to writing rap music as a vessel for his pain: “It was the only way I could express my feelings because I didn’t have anyone to complain to. I wanted to explain the way I was feeling through music.”

 The first verse he wrote was about Syria and wanting to unite the country.

 Sharif still writes whenever he feels low, but admits that’s not so often anymore. The inspiration doesn’t flow as quickly in New Zealand.

 “Recently I felt lonely and started to write about that, but I can write about Syria easily. It has to be a very strong feeling for me to be able to write the words,” he says.

 He is also waiting until his English improves so he can begin mixing the language with Arabic.

 He thinks he’s adapting well to life in a new country, although some things take time. He’s been able to buy a car and loves working on it while he’s not studying.

 “I have met some friends at Whitireia and they help me with my English. I also already know every Syrian around here,” he says.

 “I like it here because people respect everyone.”

 He still misses his home, though: “I miss playing in the streets in Syria and my family. I want to go back one day, but only if things went back to the way they were before.” '
Smoke billows following an air strike in Damascus.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

In Tartous, Syria, Women Wear Black, Youth Are in Hiding, and Bitterness Grows

Tartus, Syria

 'When Syria’s national uprising began six years ago, and young people everywhere else in the country were calling for the overthrow of the regime, up to a thousand loyalists would march in the streets of Tartous in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

 “Al-Assad! Or we burn the down the country,” chanted the regime elements among them.

 Tartous has the biggest concentration of Syria’s Alawite minority and is the heartland for Assad’s Alawite-dominated government. So when the regime summoned the sons of our sect as backup forces against what it called a terrorist threat, Alawite families willingly sent their men and boys.

 Today Tartous is in mourning, with as many as 100,000 dead from the fighting and well over 50,000 wounded, out of a population of 2 million in the province. Women in black fill the streets of this city of 800,000, grieving for their sons and husbands, and a dozen or more coffins arrive every day from the front. Many of the young men of Tartous are now in hiding—by some estimate 50,000 of them—and the government has to conduct house-to-house raids to find recruits.

 This is no longer a city of fools. A small minority still believe that Assad is fighting terrorism, but most people I know think Assad has cheated his own people by sending them into an endless, pointless war.

 Tartous today is a city of the poor. The province is packed with 1.2 million displaced civilians fleeing active war zones, but with the exception of one camp for 20,000 internally displaced people, or IDPs, they’ve been left to fend for themselves, driving up the cost of housing.

 The Syrian pound has collapsed, and costs for staples have doubled, while salaries have gone up just a fraction. The only meat most families consume is chicken, and that’s once a month. Even heating fuel for the winter is a dream for most—it will cost half your salary. Utilities are the worst ever; we have electricity six hours a day.

 Tartous is also a city of the intimidated. The security forces, always heavy-handed since Assad’s father took power in 1970, spun off the National Defense Force, widely known as the Shabiha, and together they have arrested most of the political opposition as well as civil-society activists—anyone opposing them. Regime intelligence circulated “black lists” of those supporting the revolution, and most were beaten up, expelled, or killed. Today no one can voice his thoughts, even to a family member, even less to a neighbor.

 The exception is at funerals, where families of the dead often curse Assad and the regime. When a cousin of mine died in the summer of 2014, the family was in a state of rage. His mother collapsed, his father seemed bewildered. An honor guard brought the coffin but wouldn’t allow the family to open it and see the body. His mother started cursing Bashar al-Assad and “his damned war.”

 Almost every family has a tale of losses. Rihab, a 40-year-old widow I know, is typical. Her husband, an elementary-school teacher, volunteered for the National Defense Force militia in late 2011. “He wanted to write his own story of patriotism. He thought it would be an easy task, and the terrorists were weak foes that he and his comrades could crush without difficulty,” said Rihab, which is not her real name.

 During an attempt to storm the Waer neighborhood in Homs early the following February, he was felled by a mortar. “All I got from the regime was some empty words and a small sum of money,” she said. (Families of fallen soldiers receive a lump sump equal to $1,000, and half-salary, which amounts to about $30 a month.)

 The bigger calamity occurred the following September, when her eldest son began his compulsory military service. “We let him join his friends, thinking they would not put him in a dangerous place because his father was a martyr,” she said. But he was sent to Tabqa air base near Raqqa, in northeastern Syria, which the Islamic State extremists captured in August 2014. Two days before the base fell, most of the officers were airlifted to safety, leaving behind hundreds of common soldiers and a few officers who were captured and beheaded by ISIS.

 “The image of my son never leaves my mind, except when I remember my husband dying of a mortar shell, his limbs flying in the air,” she said. “I envy those who lost a loved one in this war, for I lost two, my husband and my son.”

 The call to patriotism lost its impact years ago, so the regime tried to replace it by putting the economic squeeze on Alawites. Economic pressures were easily brought to bear, because a great many Alawites are on the state payroll, either in the security forces or as government employees. I know many who enlisted in the military reserves only after they were threatened with the loss of their jobs and income.

 The privileges that Alawites enjoy are deceptive, for the regime’s motivation in granting them is to secure control. Even the Alawite faith, a Shiite offshoot that borrows from other religions, has been corrupted by regime appointments of retired army officers as sheikhs in the faith. Of the five clerical sheikhs in my village, three are former army sergeants. This has added to the loss of a moral compass among so many Alawites.

 The drive to stir sectarian hatred is a different story. The stereotype is that Alawites have a great animosity toward Sunnis and vice-versa, but from my perspective, that of an Alawite dissident, that is not the case. When the revolution began, Alawite opponents of the regime took to the streets in Baniyas, a predominantly Sunni town just north of Tartous, and formed a Sunni-Alawite Local Coordination Committee. During the height of the revolution, there were never any hostile communal acts against Sunnis. We’ve received Sunni IDPs by the hundreds of thousands without problems.

 It was the regime that stirred sectarian hatred. Its propaganda machine constantly told Alawites that the Sunni majority wanted to topple the regime and take out revenge against them, and the Baath party apparatus constantly referred to “Sunni terrorist jihadis.” The rhetoric began in June 2011, when Sunni rebels attacked offices of the Alawite-dominated security headquarters in Jisr al-Shughur; the government circulated videos showing the violence. This sowed anger among young Alawites and helped the regime in its recruitment.

 With Iran’s backing, the regime gave the Shabiha a green light to attack Sunnis, leading to a massacre in Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. The regime ignited the killing spree when it turned over the body of a young Sunni man who died in prison to his family. When they saw the body and all the signs of torture, they got out weapons and fired in the air. This was the pretext for the regime’s order to Alawite militias to kill the Sunnis of Bayda and Baniyas and to burn down their houses. Regime intelligence members penetrated the militias and egged them on. Hundreds of Sunnis were summarily executed. But Sunnis did not exact revenge, and the sectarian propaganda slowly lost its effect. Still, the regime continued to demonize “Sunni jihadis.”

 This reached a high point in May 2016 with a wave of explosions that killed about 180 civilians. Four were in Tartous and five in Jabla, a city in the Latakia mountains—all occurring within a 15-minute time span. ISIS claimed responsibility on its website, but the regime blamed the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham rebel force. Many analysts suspect the regime sponsored the bombings in order to intimidate the population.

 Checkpoints surround both cities, and police patrol them day and night and raid suspected houses, so it would seem nearly impossible for anyone to carry out the attacks simultaneously and precisely unless it was the regime itself. And we all know the regime had staged incidents before this that it blamed on terrorists [high-level security officials who defected to the opposition say the regime staged a series of bombings of security installations from late 2011 to mid-2012 and blamed them on Al Qaeda, before the militants had set up a presence in Syria].

 Today the regime cannot make its case for Alawites to risk their lives, and all that’s left to it is forced recruitment. Early in March, security forces conducted raids in Tartous, gong door-to-door to seize youths for the military service. More than 600 were arrested and taken to join the fighting in the northeast.

 Alawite society, which once bought into the regime’s sectarian propaganda, now protects young men trying to evade military service. An acquaintance of mine named Ammar from the Qadmous area northeast of Tartous was arrested at a checkpoint in Damascus in May 2014. After his deployment to the frontline in Zabadani, a mountain town near Damascus, where he saw half his comrades die, he deserted his unit and is now hiding in a small village in the Tartous mountains.

 “I can’t work or travel. I can’t leave my village. But this is better than being in the army,” he told me. “I cannot choose death. For whom shall I die? And for what?”

 Today the anger is spreading even though it is largely muted and expressed in private. When Syria’s prime minister, Imad Khamis, visited Tartous last month, Ahmad K, a farmer, was entertaining guests at his home in the village of Himmin. For years Ahmad had tuned into state television for the news, but in the past year he’s switched to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network, and Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel.

 As they watched Khamis speaking on TV about the regime’s new projects for the region, as well as its drive against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate (which changed its name last year to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), and other groups, the guests started mocking the projects.

 Suddenly, Ahmad exclaimed: “There can’t be any terrorism worse than that. They kill the sons of the poor to keep the corrupt in their posts, at the top of which is Bashar al-Assad.” His guests, embarrassed, laughed into their jackets.

 But no one is ready to challenge the regime in the open.'

'Raped below a picture of Assad': Women describe abuse at hands of Syrian forces

 'Ayda was first arrested by Syria’s elite Republic Guards at a check-point in Aleppo. She was taken to their local headquarters where, under a picture of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, she was beaten, tied, and then raped.

 She was taken to a hospital to treat the bleeding stemming from the rape, but after seven days and against the better advice of doctors, security forces brought her to a prison where she was locked in a cell with 20 other women.

 Ayda endured three months of repeated rapes and a month of solitary confinement, where she shared a cell with a rotting corpse. She found a razor in the cell and tried to take her own life.

 She was twice put onto the notorious "flying carpet" (a wooden plank to which the detainee is attached and then bent backwards) and was made to watch a group of young male detainees sexually abused with bottles.

 By the time she was released, her husband had left her and married someone else. Authorities then forced her to sign an undertaking to leave Syria and never return.

 Ayda is one of eight women who have spoken about their treatment at the hands of Syrian authorities for the first time.

 Their stories were included in a new report by the NGO Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) and include horrific details of repeated rapes, extreme sexual violence and torture.

 Their names have been changed to protect their and their family’s identities.

 Commenting on the case, Toby Cadman, head of chambers at Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, which is offering legal support to LDHR on the cases, told Middle East Eye: "It is regrettable that there is presently no international accountability mechanism; that will come.

 “Everyone is working together towards justice - and we know from history, justice and accountability comes, even if it takes time. Pushing for accountability and ending impunity is absolutely essential for a future democratic Syria based on the rule of law.”

 The experiences - which have all taken place during the country’s civil war - have left the women with indelible psychological and physical scars and made them outcasts in their own communities.

 “Without exception, these women are still haunted by the terror of detention. They have become withdrawn, fearful and anxious,” the report said.

 Each of the women were medically evaluated by LDHR trained doctors. Medical experts then determined whether the findings were consistent with international standards of sexual violence and torture so that they could serve as evidence in court.

 While in detention, the women “in some cases were treated no differently from men”, the report said but there was “no regards to their differing health and personal needs.”

 “Against a background of forced nudity on arrival and the spectre of sexual harassment and insults in their cells, in bathrooms and in corridors, the women’s bodies were not their own,” it said.

 “There are many cultural, societal barriers to discussing detention and what happens there, particularly for women. Unfortunately, instead of care and support, women who have been detained face stigma and shame in their communities.”
 The report is the latest in a string of revelations about the inner workings of Syria’s depraved prisons to emerge in recent years.

 Earlier this year, Amnesty International said that as many as 13,000 people had died from torture and starvation at Saydanya prison near Damascus which it described as a “human slaughterhouse”.

 The US administration has claimed that the dead bodies at the prison have then been incinerated in a giant crematorium to hide the scale of the mass killing and abuse.

 The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimated that as many as 45,000 opponents of the Assad government have been killed inside prisons alone.

 However, justice for victims and their families remains elusive, human rights activists said.

 Russia - Assad’s key backer - has vetoed proposals at the UN Security Council to set up a court similar to those for the Rwanda and Yugoslavian conflicts.

 And Syria has yet to ratify the Rome Statute which allows for the International Criminal Court to prosecute core international crimes should the state not do so.

 In February, lawyers for Madrid-based Guernica 37, representing the sister of a Syrian man alleged to have been tortured to death in a Damascus prison in 2013, launched a criminal complaint against nine members of the Syrian security forces in Spain’s national court.

 The case was brought to light after a defector known as “Caesar” escaped from Syria in September 2013 with more than 50,000 photos documenting the deaths of more than 6,000 people.

 The case is thought to be the first in a western court brought against Syrian authorities.

 The case was made possible because the man’s sister is a Spanish citizen, and under international law, relatives of victims of crimes against humanity committed elsewhere are also considered victims.

 Last month Spanish courts reversed an earlier decision to hear the case. Guernica 37 have appealed.

 Cadman said that Guernica 37 was working on a number of investigations related to Syria and described the LDHR report as “highly credible and focuses on an issue of very real concern”.

 “We will continue to work with Syrian civil society and human rights organisations to document these crimes and bring cases before national courts and to work with Syrian civil society to develop the institutional framework for Syria that will one day bear the greatest burden of holding the perpetrators accountable.” '

Friday, 13 October 2017

Relatives admit existence of Russia’s ‘Wagner mercenary army’ in Syria

Image of Russian soldiers [file photo]

 'As Russia counts the cost of victories in Syria two years after the start of its overt military intervention, there is apparent surprise at the news that two fighters from a Russian mercenary unit have been killed by Daesh. The Defence Ministry in Moscow immediately denied the news, stressing that there are no Russian prisoners of war in Syria.

 The Kremlin promised to look into the identity of the men who are said to be Russians. Just as it has done in east Ukraine, Russia has denied the presence of any of its mercenaries fighting in Syria.

 However, a brother of one of the killed fighters from the Moscow suburbs told Al-Hurra radio that his brother did belong to a mercenary unit. “The fighters are lured by money and are sent to be slaughtered, and then the authorities deny this. The state established a private army under the name ‘Wagner’, and my brother was part of it.”

 He added that his brother also fought in east Ukraine in 2014 as part of the Slavonic Corps, which later became the “Wagner mercenary army”. Thousands of young Russians are said to have fought with the unit and been killed.

 “Why doesn’t Russia establish an official Special Forces unit with these fighters rather than use them as bait?” asked the anonymous relative. “Their existence is then denied when they are killed. President Putin himself has granted Wagner officials awards in the Kremlin. Why are official awards granted to the leaders of this private military company, while the fighters are denied when they are injured or killed?”

 He added his belief that an official announcement of the Wagner private army would force the Russian leadership to announce the real number of its losses in Syria, which are “much higher” than has been admitted.

 According to the girlfriend of the other fighter killed by Daesh, “Wagner” trains its fighters at an official military base in Krasnodar and promises to pay them well, about $4,000 a month. However, she said that they are only paid about half of that, while they pay the families of fighters killed between $22,500 and $52,000 depending on their rank and mission. She also said that the contract that the fighters sign with Wagner “would make anyone’s hair stand on end.” It apparently prohibits family members from contacting the fighters and prohibits them from opening the coffin and identifying them when they are killed. She claimed to have been informed of the death of her boyfriend on 26 September by “sources” in Syria, but has not still received his body. Although she knows that Rostov Airport received 12 coffins on the 28 September and that they were met by a Wagner representative, friends and relatives were not informed of anything officially.

 The last letter the fighter’s family received was on 13 September, in which he wrote, “I am still alive, but we cannot leave. Everything around us is mined.”

 Responding to the question of why fighters would join a mercenary unit to fight in Syria, she said, “President Putin has declared that the minimum cost of living for Rostov is 33,000 Rubles; I am a state employee and I make 13,000 Rubles. How can I live on this?” It is, she concluded, only natural for these men to want to make more money.'