Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Syria puppeteer offers Idlib children breathing space

 'Walid Abu Rashed walks past bombed-out buildings in war-torn northwest Syria, carrying a large wooden board and a plastic bag filled with puppets while dozens of children trail behind him.

 The 26 year-old's mobile puppet theatre has become a small respite from war for the children of Saraqib, a town in the opposition-held province of Idlib.

 After school, they gather amidst the rubble, clapping their hands, as the theatre actor puts on a show from behind his makeshift puppet stand, a flashy yellow wig covering his black hair.

 The war-weary children sing along to a tune blasting from a speaker as hand puppets of a lion and a mouse pop up from a square hole carved at the centre of the wooden board.

 "How sweet it is to live well and in peace," they chant in unison.

 Packing up his kit after the show, Abu Rashed says theatre is a form of resistance.

 "Theatre is an integral part of the culture and civilisation of Idlib," he said, as the children around him clamoured for pictures.

 "I will fight tyrants through art."

 Nearby, 10-year-old Mina Malak said the show had offered her much-needed relief.

 "His shows make us laugh," she said. "It helps us forget the bombardment."

 Years of fighting and displacement in Idlib province have wrought chaos for children, destroying schools and scattering destitute families across the countryside.

 Hundreds of people have been displaced since April alone, when the government and its Russian backer upped their deadly bombardment of the enclave.

 According to Save The Children, the bombing since late April has damaged or otherwise impacted around 90 educational facilities, while dozens more are being used as shelters for those displaced by the violence.

 Before the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, Abu Rashed wanted to attend the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus -- the country's most prominent theatre school.

 "I won the award for best theatre actor in Idlib in 2011 and the horizons of my future in the arts started to take shape," he said, lighting a cigarette.

 "But I chose to stand with the revolution and join the protesters, because theatre can deliver a message under oppressive rule."

 Instead of attending university, he joined a troupe of theatre actors by the name of the Magic Caravan.

 They performed plays for out-of-school children living in displacement camps near the border with Turkey, before disbanding in 2014 after their founder was killed by a régime barrel bomb that fell near Abu Rashed's home.

 A few months later, Abu Rashed organised his first solo puppet show in a camp for the displaced in the countryside of neighbouring Latakia province.

 "I couldn't hold back my tears when I heard the long applause after the show ended," he said.

 "At that moment, I decided to continue performing in every spot in Syria I could reach."

 He has since become a mainstay in Saraqib, where frequent power cuts have left children with few sources of entertainment.

 He recalled a recent exchange with a young member of his audience, who asked him why his toys at home didn't speak the same way Abu Rashed's puppets do.

 "He insisted that his toys participate in the next show so they can learn how to speak and dance," Abu Rashed said.

 While he holds most of his shows outside, the puppet master has recently turned the basement of his home into an alternative performance space for when the bombing spikes.

 Gathering outdoors during heavy air strikes, he said, is akin to suicide.

 But that does not deter him.

 "I promise you these shows will not stop," he said.'

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Monday, 4 November 2019

My Hospital Was Bombed by Putin and Assad. Why Won’t America Hear Our Cries?

 Dr. Amani Ballour:

 'On Oct. 13, The New York Times published a story that proved that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian allies deliberately bombed four hospitals in opposition-held Idlib province in May. Indiscriminate or intentional targeting of hospitals and medical facilities is a war crime, and both culprits have always denied the charges. In reality, Assad has targeted hospitals and other civilian structures from the start of the war, and Russia has done the same since it entered the war in 2015.

 The Times investigation is important because it is apparently the first to present substantive proof of this specific war crime. The newspaper’s conclusions are based on comprehensive evidence from many sources, including thousands of Russian Air Force radio recordings of pilots and ground control officers. There are videos documenting the bombing of three of the four hospitals, and recordings of the Russian pilots confirming their strikes. There are testimonies of witnesses and survivors, and flight logs from the spotters who keep watch on the sky in order to warn civilians of impending attacks.

 I know what it’s like to experience such an attack, having lived through many of them during the six years I worked as a pediatrician at the Cave, an underground hospital in East Al Ghouta. On September 28, 2015, Russian warplanes bombed the Cave, killing three male nurses and injuring two female nurses, including my friend Samaher. Samaher suffered terrible memory loss for about a year, but she continued working at the hospital despite the trauma she carried with her. When I became manager of the Cave in 2016, I did everything I could to shore up the infrastructure above and below ground so it could withstand bombings. I worked on evacuation plans to ensure the safety of patients and staff. We all knew another attack could come at any time. And the attacks multiplied in frequency and brutality as Assad and Russia closed in on Al Ghouta. During our final month in the Cave, we were hit five or six times by barrel bombs.

 It can’t be said often enough: Assad and Russia are malign actors that cannot be trusted. When they agreed to help the Kurdish-led SDF in northeastern Syria, it wasn’t about protecting a vulnerable ethnic group. It was about positioning themselves in a regional conflict that has international ramifications that go beyond the Kurdish issue. The Syrian and Russian governments didn’t protect the Kurds in the past, and they won’t protect them once the current fight is over.

 Assad has never been a friend to Syria’s Kurds, who are the country’s largest ethnic minority. All Syrians—Arabs, Christians, Kurds—have suffered under Assad’s regime. I have many Kurdish friends who took part in the 2011 demonstrations in Al Ghouta, one of the first and most important areas to speak out for freedom and democracy. We were all trapped there when the government laid siege to the area in 2013. When Russian troops marched into Al Ghouta in 2018, we were displaced.

 The list of Assad’s war crimes is long. With the help of his allies Russia and Iran, he has committed these atrocities out in the open while the world looked on. Half of Syria’s population has been displaced. In the five-year siege of Al Ghouta, civilians were deliberately starved, deprived of medicine, and repeatedly bombed. Then there are the multiple chemical attacks on opposition territories. I was in East Al Ghouta in August 2013 when rockets loaded with sarin gas were dropped while people slept. I never imagined that one day the government would use chemical weapons to kill civilians. When that happened, I realized they wanted to kill everybody in Al Ghouta—and anyone in Syria who wanted freedom. All told, close to one million people have been killed and about half a million are detained in prisons where they are tortured and murdered. Two-thirds of the country is destroyed.

 What concerns me now is the safety of the Syrian Arab and Kurdish citizens in the north, especially the women and children who always pay the highest price in wars. So far, some 160,000 people have been displaced, many of whom were already refugees from other parts of Syria. With winter coming, the situation is even more urgent. Every winter, refugee camps in the north are flooded with water and mud, and tents become uninhabitable. The camps in the northwest were already overcrowded and miserable and are hardly equipped to take in more homeless, traumatized civilians.

 It is not too late for the free world to act, for Western nations to show that they believe what they say about human rights. An entire generation of Syrian children—2.6 million—have had no education whatsoever because of the war. They deserve schools in safe places, where they can learn without fear. Women in refugee camps often have no idea about their rights and they are frequently exploited to work for barely any pay. They deserve better.

 Right now, the international community could direct resources to help the hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians who will soon be freezing. There is plenty of empty land in the northwest of Syria, where non-government organizations could build houses for people needing shelter. But in no way should those houses be considered anything but temporary. Because it is long past time for Syrians to be able to return to their own homes.

 For nearly nine years, the international community has let down the Syrian people. It has focused on solving the consequences of the crimes, instead of dealing with the culprits, Assad and his allies. It is not impossible to get Assad out of Syria, to hold him to account for his crimes against humanity. If we can get rid of Assad and free Syria of all foreign interference, then Syrians can begin new lives. We who are exiles and refugees can come home and join our fellow citizens in building a free, united, democratic Syria that includes all the Syrian people without discrimination.'

Tel Rifaat locals protest YPG/PKK occupation

Syria: Tel Rifaat locals protest YPG/PKK occupation

 'Displaced by the YPG/PKK occupation of the northern Syria city, thousands of locals from Tel Rifaat gathered Sunday in Azaz to protest against the terrorist group.

 Protesters convened in the district center of Azaz, which falls in the area of Operation Euphrates Shield -- Turkey’s 2016-17 anti-terror offensive in northern Syria -- to demand the liberation of Tel Rifaat and surrounding villages from the YPG/PKK terrorists.

 Demonstrators -- living in Azaz after being displaced from Tel Rifaat due to the terrorist occupation -- carried Syrian Revolution Flag, the symbol of Syrian uprisings, and banners urging the return of the displaced locals from Tel Rifaat.

 Bashir Allito, a member from political office of Tel Rifaat, said that at least 200,000 locals had gathered to protest against terrorist YPG/PKK.

 He called on the international community to support Turkey’s safe zone plan in Syria.

 “Neither the return of the régime nor Daesh or terror group SDF to the region can ensure the stability and safety in the region,” Allito said, using another name for ISIS and PKK, respectively.

 “Everybody has seen how the régime takes revenge from the public in Daraa,” he said and added that the stability and the safety of the region would only be ensured with the return of Turkey and Syrian National Army to the region.

 Located between Afrin and Azaz, Syria’s Tel Rifaat has been under occupation of the YPG/PKK since 2016.

 Some 250,000 Arabs from Tel Rifaat have sought shelter in Azaz camps, bordering Turkey.'

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

For Syrians in Arizona, distant war affects life in their new homes

 'Zaki Lababidi remembers when the Syrian community in Arizona was a close-knit group, holding social events and fundraisers to help people back home.

 But now, he says, the community is feeling the chilling effects of the conflict in their native land thousands of miles away.

 “You are 10,000 miles away, and you are afraid to go to an event that maybe somebody will tell the régime about,” said Lababidi, president of the Syrian American Council. “And then you and your family will be in trouble.”

 Lababidi lives in Scottsdale now – an American citizen and cardiologist. He said his relatives have fled Syria as refugees, but that many Arizona Syrians still have loved ones in their home country where an insurgency has been waged against the régime of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

 “Their wives want to go back to Syria and visit their families there,” Lababidi said. “And they have to stop anything that could be perceived that is an act against the butcher régime in Damascus.”

 When it comes to criticizing the Assad administration, he said, distance does not matter.

 “If they cannot get to you, then they take your relatives,” Lababidi said. “Either you have to go and give up yourself to them to release your relatives – and, sometimes, they don’t – or they kill your relatives, and you live the rest of your life with the guilt of the responsibility.”

 Tucson resident Rania – a Syrian refugee – asked that her last name not be used because she shares those concerns about the safety of herself and her relatives in Syria.

 “They have a wanted list,” Rania said. “My name’s not mentioned anywhere, but it’s still scary. You go there – you have no guarantee of coming back.”

 She first came to the United States as a student from Damascus, the Syrian capital, and opted to stay here with her husband.

 In Syria, “you cannot be free in your country,” Rania said. “So, we decided this is the place where we want to be.”

 Lababidi said he grew up in the Syrian city of Homs during the 29-year rule of Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad. He decided to leave after his car was sprayed with gunfire by a passing régime ambulance, whose “driver thought that I slowed him down somehow.”

 Still, he returned every year until 2010, when he encountered a political atmosphere that is reminiscent of the government under Hafez al-Assad.

 “It was back to the father days where you cannot say a word, you cannot speak,” he said of his 2010 trip. “His (Bashar) picture’s all over the place – the usual dictatorship mentality, propaganda that we’re used to in Cuba, Russia.”

 Rania also reluctantly stopped her visits to Syria about a decade ago. While she supports the ongoing “revolution,” she and her spouse both fear repercussions if they return.

 Even so, Rania said Syrians in Tucson are split in their loyalty to Assad.

 That same rift can be seen in Syria as well, said Hardin Lang, vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International. In a phone call from northern Iraq, he said certain areas of Syria still strongly support the government, while others have “very little love lost with the régime at Damascus.”

 Hardin said it’s important to remember that many Syrians “have lived under barrel-bombing and sort of the brutal tactics the Assad régime have utilized in order to regain this control.”

 For Lababidi, recent events only build upon decades of struggle that long preceded the start of the Syrian Civil War.

 “This is the régime that we Syrians dealt with since 1970,” he said. “This did not start in 2011. And it was equally brutal to all.” '

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Locals in Syria’s Jarabulus protest régime presence

Locals in Syria’s Jarabulus protest regime presence

 'The locals of the northern Syrian town of Jarabulus on Friday held demonstrations in protest of the presence of Bashar al-Assad regime and Russian forces in Manbij.

 The protesters, displaced from Manbij city, gathered at the town center following Friday prayers and chanted slogans against the Syrian régime.

 They held protest banners saying: "Those who bombed us in Idlib shall not police in Manbij and Ayn al-Arab", "Turkmens, Arab and Kurds are brothers", "Militants of YPG/PKK/PYD are a threat to the world".

 The protesters raised the flag of the Syrian revolution and stated that the administration of Manbij should be handed over to the locals.'

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Don’t tell Syrians to go home. We need to deal with Bashar al-Assad’s régime first

Image result for Don’t tell Syrians to go home. We need to deal with Bashar al-Assad’s regime first

 'In Europe and across the Middle East, politicians are increasingly urging Syrians displaced by the eight-year conflict to head back home. Strongman Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has won, they say, and like him or not he has brought stability to the country.

 But a meticulously assembled report issued this week documents the violence and terror that colour the lives of Syrians under the Assad régime. His circle appears to have learnt nothing from the conflict, and the desire of most of the returnees to abandon Syria again, other than to employ maximum repression against the population.

 The report, prepared by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity and based on interviews with 165 returnees in Homs, the Damascus countryside, Daraa and Aleppo, paints a dire picture of life for those Syrians who return to the country. The report also underscores the failure of the international community to address the core problem of the Syrian conflict: the continued existence and nature of the dictatorial Assad régime.

 “It is not safe for displaced Syrians to return to Assad-held areas,” the 44-page report’s executive summary concludes. “Returnees and most people living in régime-held areas live in fear and feel extremely vulnerable and unsafe.”

 It describes continuing “widespread and systematic human rights violations” by unformed security forces, Iranian-backed militias and foreign groups. “Arbitrary arrests, forced recruitment, extortion and the absence of basic services are the main factors driving this fear and the returnees’ desire to leave their homes again, this time permanently.”

 “Returnees overwhelmingly asserted that they regret their decision to return, regardless of the hardship they faced in displacement,” says the report. It states that 63 per cent of returnees interviewed are actively seeking to flee Syria again.

 The problems go beyond violence and human rights abuses. The régime is rotten to its core. Interviewees alleged that they were shaken down by officials and security forces for bribes – for everything from obtaining official documents to transporting harvested fruits and vegetables to marketplaces. With no industry and a collapsed economy, many returnees are unemployed, and unable to sustain their lives while paying off régime enforcers.

 “There is always the fear of extortion or detention because my children are away and because of the malice of the security forces,” one 62-year-old from Homs says.

 “I have been arrested and blackmailed several times, and there have been several robberies in the neighbourhood,” another man from Homs tells the researchers. “Everyone knows the thieves but cannot do anything.”

 Of those who want to leave, 31 per cent want to head to Europe and another 31 per cent said they intended to reach Turkey. Both the European Union and Turkey have grown hostile to any more refugees fleeing Syria. They are eager to find a way not only to prevent further arrivals but also to convince at least some refugees to head back home.

 But the miserable conditions of Syrians inside the country may prevent many voluntary returns. Some 84 per cent of returnees and residents living in areas under Assad’s control say they don’t advise members of the diaspora to return home.

 In conversations with friends and relatives abroad, they “describe a vicious circle of fear of arrest, enforced disappearance, inadequate basic living requirements, monopolies enforced by régime-backed traders, pervasive corruption, and the absence of the rule of law.”

 A one 27-year-old from Deraa told the researchers: “Return? Where to? To the injustice, to detention, to be drafted in [military] reserves or in compulsory service, or into the security forces?”

 Despite the precariousness of life as a refugee in a foreign country, fewer and fewer Syrians want to their native land, even if the civil war ends.

 The Assad régime ignited the largest refugee crisis in recent history by launching a war against its own people that has displaced around half the country’s population of 25 million.

 “The international community must increase and adapt their efforts to protect Syria’s displaced from refoulement or increased pressure to return until the conditions for their voluntary, safe and dignified return are guaranteed,” says the report.

 As long as Assad and his cruel, corrupt enforcers remain in power, who could blame Syrians living abroad for not wanting to return?'
Salah Estwani, 26, has received instructions from German authorities to go back to Syria. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Friday, 18 October 2019

Syria’s heroic underground female medics hailed in ‘The Cave’

 'Oscar-nominated Syrian director Feras Fayyad has risked his life to chronicle the atrocities of the Assad régime, and suffered torture in prison because of his films.

 Despite having his nails pulled out and electric shocks administered to intimate parts of his body, Fayyad continues to document Syria’s eight-year wa.

 But he remains in awe of a young female doctor who ran an underground hospital through a devastating, years-long siege — the subject of his new film “The Cave,” out in theaters this week.

 “She saw so much. I don’t think anyone alive — just the Holocaust survivors — has seen the same size of what she saw,” Fayyad said. “The barbaric siege, the longest running siege in Syria’s modern history in Eastern Ghouta … Nobody can imagine this.”

 Amani Ballour, the young female pediatrician who is the film’s subject, ran a subterranean network of tunnels and makeshift wards and operating rooms beneath the final rebel foothold at the gates of Damascus.

 She and her team were the first to respond and the last hope for many civilians — including children — hit by relentless waves of Russian and Syrian régime bombing, until a 2018 chemical attack finally forced them to evacuate.

 Despite her heroics, Fayyad said Amani took some convincing that the world would be interested in a film about her story.

 “Why do you think they will respond when there’s bigger issues happening around us?” Amani asked Fayyad, who admitted he did not have an answer.

 “I want to try — I want to trust that people could respond to this,” he recalled telling her. “I don’t think people will (be able to) move their eyes from that, from what you do.”

 The result is a harrowing 102-minute documentary, shot by a local camera crew still living in Ghouta, showing life below and above ground as bombs rain and casualties are rushed in on stretchers and wheelbarrows.

 The film — from National Geographic and Danish Documentary Films — was directed by Fayyad, in daily contact with the crew from rebel-held northern Syria.

 Fayyad, the first Syrian director nominated for an Oscar with 2017’s “Last Men in Aleppo,” instructed them to depict everyday life in claustrophobic, cinema verité style — without voice-over or direct-to-camera interviews.

 Amongst the tears and tragedy there are vignettes of everyday life, from a young nurse’s creative attempts to cook for 150 people with scant supplies, to a secret birthday party featuring surgical gloves for balloons.

 Footage of medics scrambling to deal with the chlorine gas attack’s deadly aftermath is especially searing.

 In addition to her bravery, Fayyad chose Amani for another reason. She was an extremely rare — possibly the first — female hospital director in deeply patriarchal Syria.

 Early in the film she is berated by a desperate patient’s husband, who blames the hospital’s lack of medicine on its female director.

 Fayyad, who grew up in a female-dominated household with a Kurdish mother and seven sisters, said he is acutely aware of harassment and even violence against women who refuse to conform.

 “Along with the torture I’ve experienced, I heard the sounds of women who were tortured because of their gender,” he said. “And I was threatened that they will bring my mom and my sisters to the prison.

 “There were times when I heard the sounds and I felt like it was my mother and my sister (being tortured).”

 Amani was able to escape to northern Syria, and eventually Europe via Turkey — joining the refugee exodus which has sparked intense, polarized debate in the West.

 Fayyad himself was earlier smuggled to safety across the Jordan border, and now travels between his home in Copenhagen and work in northern Syria.

 Like many, he has been alarmed by recent events which saw US forces withdraw from Kurdish-held northern Syria, and Turkey launch an offensive across the border.

“I think what’s happening now it’s very, very scary because it’s extending the time of the war in Syria, and there are more victims,” he said, predicting another wave of refugees will follow.

 “Because I’m not there, I feel guilty,” admitted Fayyad. “Like I’m sitting here away, and thinking every day about my family and my friends and colleagues who are suffering.

 “I feel like you have to do something… and bring these voices. I try to bring the hope for these people.” '

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Syrian régime accused of dozens of torture methods from 'crucifixion' to rape to eye-gouging

Lebanese Red Cross workers carry the coffin of British doctor Abbas Khan, 32, who was seized by Syrian government troops in November 2012, into the Hotel-Dieu de France hospital in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013. The circumstances in which Khan, died while in detention in Syria remain in dispute. A senior British official has accused Syrian President Bashar Assad's government of effectively murdering Khan, while the Syrian authorities say the doctor committed suicide and there was no sign of violence or abuse. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

 'Before the Syrian revolution ignited in 2011, Muna Mohamed was a schoolteacher in the eastern city of Deir Ez-Zor.

 When protesters swarmed the streets in pursuit of democracy and a change in the Bashar Assad-led régime, she took an active role in the media wing – distributing leaflets, crafting statements on behalf of the opposition and media advocacy.

 And then her world and her dignity were ripped apart.

 Muna was arrested three times over the next few years – severely beaten with an iron rod, electrocuted, told she must die, constantly threatened she would be raped, and held in solitary confinement.

 “I saw an old man stripped naked and beaten until he fainted, they arrested my sister, my teen brother, and my aunt in search of me,” Muna, 31, said from exile. “I still live the nightmares in my sleep. There are more than 200,000 detainees, and thousands more are disappeared. Friends of mine have been gone for nine years in the prisons.”

 Yet Muna considers herself one of the lucky ones.

 Thousands have already died in dirty dungeon prisons spanning the decimated country. Others are still languishing and subjected daily to harrowing methods of abuse that the world has not been able to stop.

 The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a global non-profit that serves as a leading source on all death toll-related statistics in the war-wracked nation, has compiled the most extensive torture report to date, exposing the barbaric methods of abuse inside the dark walls of government detention facilities and military-run “hospitals” which have led to the deaths of at least 14,000 people.

 The report documents that between March 2011 and September 2019, 14,298 people – including 178 children and 63 women – died in Syria as a result of torture.

 More than 14,000 victims allegedly met their fate at the hands of Syrian government forces, while Islamic extremist groups killed 57 through torture. Factions of the armed opposition killed a further 43, while 47 were under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and another 20 were parties the group was unable to identify.

 Focusing specifically on the torture practices of the Damascus régime, the new report has pinpointed a total of 72 methods of torture used against detainees.

 The first category highlighted in the report pertains to 39 methods categorized as “physical torture systemically practiced against those detained in the Syrian régime’s detention center.”

 Some of the horrific methods include pouring scalding hot water on the victim’s abdomen and back, drowning and suffocating. Then there is torture with electricity, which includes using an electric baton directed at the detainee’s abdomen or reproductive organs, tying the detainee to a metal chair with restraints and delivering an electric current to shock the entire body, which leads to severe nervous system damage, involuntary trembling, and permanent trembling.

 The report details fire-related torture, which ranges from heating a metal skewer to the highest possible temperature and holding it against “sensitive parts of the body,” as well as burning with oil, chemical aids, flame, insecticides, and even gunpowder ignited onto the victim’s body. In other cases, victims are alleged to have been hung in various degrees of suspension for days on end, often whipped and lashed as their body dangles.

 Torture by prevention of movement is also highlighted. Detainees have been made to squat, stand on one foot, wedged into tires for hours and days, often enduring beating and massive spinal damage. SNHR also documents a method known as the “flying carpet,” in which the detainee is tied to a folding wooden board and made up of two bendable sections, which are bent towards or away from each other, leading to severe spinal injuries.

 There is also a technique called “The Crucifixion.” This entails the detainee having their hands and feet tied to a cross “in a grotesque imitation of crucifixion before the beating starts, which particularly targets the reproductive organs.”

 That is just the tip of the iceberg in Syrian government prisons.

 Other documented torture practices include crushing the head, smashing teeth, pulling out nails and gouging eyes, using garden shears to cut off body parts including reproductive organs, stapling noses, ears, and lips.

 “Detainees suffer unspeakably in the Syrian régime’s detention centers. The detainee’s clothes are often worn, soiled, ragged, and torn as a result of beatings. This is the primary contributor to the spread of illness, disease epidemics, and infections,” the report stated. “And because of the narrowness of cells and overcrowding, detainees must take turns to stand, sit and sleep.”

 SNHR goes on to specify six basic forms of torture within the context of neglect of health care and conditions of detention. These include the denial of access to medicine and treatment, depriving the detainees of bathing, toilet and hygiene facilities, depriving the detainees of clothes and blankets, human stacking in which detainees are so crammed they virtually pile on top of each other, food deprivation and sleep deprivation.

 Sexual violence remains a glaring cause for concern. In some cases, both males and females are forced to “strip naked during inspection or torture sessions, to inflict as much harm as possible or to insult human dignity,” some experience “rape or inserting tools in reproductive organs,” and in other unfathomable cases detainees are mandated to sexually abuse and even rape their fellow detainees, SNHR claims.

 The report also exposes an array of psychological torture methods. These vary from forcing the detainee to imitate animals – often with a rope tied around their neck – to making them watch and hear the cries of the tortured echo through hollow walls, to keeping deceased detainee’s bodies in cells or forcing others to carry the dead bodies as means of inducing trauma and maximize suffering.

 Furthermore, transferring the detainee to a military hospital also comes with its own bundle of atrocities. It points to circumstances in which doctors and nurses are made to “beat the detainee specifically targeting his wounds or broken bones,” and “treating the detainee without any sterilization and depriving him of analgesics and medicine.”

 In 2014, the world got a rare peek at the hidden horrors with the release of the “Caesar photographs” leaked by a régime defector. At immense personal risk, the disguised defector brought to Washington more than 55,000 graphic photographs – their authenticity confirmed by the FBI – and testified to the brutal torture happening in his homeland. Yet, the call to action has fallen on deaf ears.

 But rather than curb the human rights abuses following the global outpouring of shock and anger, according to SNHR investigators, “the régime supported the officers who issued the torture orders, promoting them to senior positions, and used other state institutions as part of its torture machine.”

 “We have taken high risk for our lives and the lives of our families when we left Syria at the beginning of the Syrian revolution," said “Caesar” – who remains in-hiding – to Fox News. “We had great hope that the world that claims freedom and humanity would put an end to the bloodshed in Syria and work to stop the killing and torture inside the Syrian prisons.”

 Over the past 4 years, SNHR has pored over some 6,189 Caesar photographs in an attempt to “determine the identity of those shown in these photos because this provides stronger confirmation that this individual is dead, and thus helps determine his or her fate and give his or her family closure.”

 To-date, 801 individuals have been identified despite their distressing physical condition – including two children and 10 women, several of whom are chronicled by SNHR. This includes Ayham Mustafa Ghazzoul, born in 1987, who died on November 2012. His mother recalled that her son received a severe blow to his head, and a friend detailed that he had his nail pulled out and was doused in boiling water, and guards refused to treat him.

 Then there was the case of Nedal Abdul Aziz al-Haj Ali, a 37-year-old Ph.D. engineering graduate who was arrested in the summer of 2013. His lifeless body emerged in the trove of Caesar images – severely emaciated with obvious signs of torture, his family said.

 SNHR additionally pointed to stories of sordid survival – some former detainees have been rendered disabled and brain-damaged as a result of their mistreatment behind bars. Former detainees offered additional testimony in the report – recounting scenes such as one where a child was sprayed with insecticide and set on fire before his body was wrapped in gauze, “and from time to time, they (security) lifted the gauze, peeled his skin with a blade.” Other alleged cases involved medical students extracting bone from a victim’s leg, and putting an external fixation device on it.

 The SNHR and its activists are pushing Congress to push forward with The Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act. This would impose a fresh wave of sanctions on Syrian leaders and would compel the U.S to support international prosecution of alleged human rights violators.

 Despite passing the House of Representatives three times since 2016 with bipartisan support, the measure currently languishes in the Senate.

 “The most (important) message of this report is to draw attention to [it]; we need Congress to move ahead with his bill. This is important to the Syrian people, and for the world in fighting torture,” SNHR Founder Fadel Abdul Ghany said. “It is civilian protection and accountability. What has happened to Syrians when it comes to these torture crimes amounts to extermination.” '

Friday, 11 October 2019

Thousands protest against Assad régime in Syria's Idlib

 'Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Friday (October 11) in Idlib province, chanting anti-Russia and anti-Assad militia slogans and confirming the continuity of the Syrian revolution, condemning Assad and Russian bombardment on Idlib and expressing their support for the Peace Spring Military Operation.

 The anti-régime protests took place for the seventh consecutive week in Idlib city and Idlib countryside’s villages and towns, including Binnish and Kafr Takharim.

 The demonstrators asked the international community to press the Assad régime and Russia to stop killing civilians and to release the detainees.

 Idlib is the largest part of Syria controlled by the opposition with a population swollen by Syrians who were displaced by the Assad régime and its allies’ advances in other parts of the country.'

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Shattered Assad’s régime beginning to crumble

 'Streets in many different Lebanese cities witnessed protestslast week. The country has been suffering from dire economic conditions, which have been worsened recently by a lack of hard currency on the market. This has caused an increase in the US dollar exchange rate, seeing it jump from 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar to as much as 1,700. The Lebanese central bank’s financial engineering, which has kept the exchange rate for US dollars fixed in order to stabilize the financial environment, is no longer sustainable. This crisis has been attributed to the fact that dollars are being taken from the Lebanese market and smuggled into Syria.

 Though the central bank and the government are said to be taking measures to mitigate the crisis, it is important to see what it means in the broader context: It means Syrian President Bashar Assad is cornered and the US policy on Syria is working, despite false moves such as this week’s withdrawal from the northeast.

 The breakdown of the system in Lebanon is not in Assad’s interest. The current Lebanese government — despite the existence of factions that vehemently oppose Assad — is more or less neutralized. Lebanon is the home of Assad’s best support: Hezbollah and its Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement. Additionally, Lebanon contains a large portion of his opposition. Assad, of course, prefers them to be refugees in camps rather than an armed opposition fighting him in Syria. Nevertheless, he accepted the risk of seeing Lebanon destabilized in order for him to get an injection of American dollars. This shows how desperate and fragile his régime is.

 Assad’s eagerness to get hard currency led him to pressure his allies to suck liquidity from Lebanon and inject it into his régime. Moreover, in August he issued an order to freeze the assets of his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, as well as other business people. Though the régime has marketed the move as an anti-corruption measure against those who made their money illegally from a war economy, the truth is Assad is cornered and is desperate for cash. A confrontation with businessmen fronting the régime is bad news for Assad. It means the cake is too small for him to share with his cronies. However, those cronies are his support and the tentacles through which he operates. By alienating them and confiscating their assets, he is also limiting his ability to maneuver.

 Though Assad is winning the Syrian conflict militarily, he has not been able to garner stability in the country. As events unfold, his inability to run the country is exposed. Syria is de facto divided into four parts: Idlib contains the remnants of the armed opposition and is controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham; Afrin and the Euphrates in the north are under the influence of Turkey and its allies; the northeast is controlled by the Kurdish factions with the Syrian Democratic Council; and Assad supposedly controls the largest swath of land in Syria, limited by Abu Kamal in the northeast, Raqqa and Manbij in the north, and the Mediterranean to the west. However, the reality for Assad is much grimmer than one would think. He has no resources and no authority to govern. He is at the mercy of his patrons: The Russians and the Iranians. And he is living on borrowed time, as he is becoming an expensive client, especially for the Russians.

 So far, Moscow has been hoping that the US and the international community will accept Assad as victorious, start the reconstruction process and enforce polices encouraging the return of refugees without a proper political transition. However, the US and EU are holding firm. As one high-level European official told me, it is an ironclad guarantee that there will be no reconstruction until there is a concrete and proper political transition.

 The US policy has focused on isolating Assad. Instead of further militarizing the conflict and injecting funds and arms to rebel groups that are difficult to control, the US has decided to demilitarize. White House policy also extends into pressuring other nations to sever ties with the Assad régime. The delegation of Syrian business peoplewho met with UAE investors in January left empty-handed because of American sanctions. On the other hand, while the US policy aims at making life under Assad hard, it has put in place plans to revive the economy in areas outside his control — in the north and northeast. Washington established the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, known as START, with a mandate to stabilize those areas and make them livable.

 We don’t yet see a clash between Assad and his patrons, as everyone seems to be on the same wavelength. Moreover, everyone is expecting that the American withdrawal from the northeast will be in Assad’s favor. However, he is unable to rule the country in the same centralized and oppressive way he used to. He is running out of steam, shattered by the long war and the American sanctions. His régime seems to be slowly crumbling. He might have won the war, but he has not won the peace — and he won’t.'


Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Syrian Rebels See Chance for New Life With Turkish Troops

“Now it is a fight for land, not for freedom and dignity as before,” said Fares Bayoush, a former senior commander in the Free Syrian Army.

 'Amid the criticism over President Trump’s Syria policy, there is one former American ally that has welcomed his decision to pull back Kurdish-led forces and allow Turkish troops to create a safe zone in northern Syria: the rebel Free Syrian Army.

 Ensconced in several small enclaves of Syria near the Turkey border that are protected by Turkish forces, the Free Syrian Army (now named the National Army) is ready to deploy 14,000 soldiers as ground troops for Turkey in such an operation, Yousuf Hammoud, a spokesman, said on Monday.

 Mr. Trump’s decision, announced late Sunday, has been sharply criticized by politicians of both political parties in the United States as a desertion of the Kurdish-led forces — the most reliable American partners in fighting Islamic State militants in Syria. But fighters and veterans of the Free Syrian Army point out that they were also abandoned by Mr. Trump when he cut support to their force in 2017.

 Now, the Free Syrian Army, which has largely been marginalized in the conflict, sees a chance to regain lost territory in its struggle against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

 “A new hope is born for our people who were sent into exile from their homes, whose houses, work stations and land were taken away,” Mr. Hammoud said.

 President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose country hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has long called for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to shelter those fleeing the war and has raised his demands in recent months for a safe zone to resettle refugees along the Turkish border. Some rebel fighters of the factions that make up the National Army have been packing their bags in anticipation.

 “We really need the safe zone for the civilians,” Abdul Naser Jalel, a division commander of the Free Syrian Army, said in an interview in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep near the Syrian border. “A big part of the people will go back to their houses and their lands and we are preparing for that.”

 Hisham al-Skeif, a former civilian leader of the anti-Assad uprising and a spokesman for a faction of the rebel army, said the creation of the safe zone had been negotiated to avoid clashes. Free Syrian Army soldiers would be on the ground, backed by Turkish forces, but would avoid areas where United States forces and their Kurdish-led allies were based, he said.

 “We are allied with the Turks, and we are convinced this is for peace and not war,” he said. “We always say we never want to fight.”

 Mr. al-Skeif said Free Syrian Army soldiers and Turkish troops were expected to occupy a strip of territory between the two border towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, where most residents are Arabs. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been allied with the United States, were reported to have withdrawn from the towns on Monday.

 The operation to create a safe zone, if successful, would be a boost for Mr. Erdogan, who is under political pressure at home from splinter groups in his own party and growing public resentment against Syrian refugees.

 Syrians have mixed feelings. Some dislike seeing another foreign power further invading their land, but for the Free Syrian Army and many refugees, Turkey represents the best hope.

 The Free Syrian Army once seemed a lost cause, including to some of its own fighters. It came close, according to supporters, to toppling Mr. al-Assad’s government.

 Born out of the 2011 uprising, led by military defectors and ordinary citizens who took up arms as the government began a violent crackdown against protesters, at its height the Free Syrian Army had extensive popular support.

 For Mr. Jalel, 35, a former captain in the Syrian special forces who defected to join the uprising in 2012, the Free Syrian Army still represents the original ideals of the Arab Spring democracy uprisings that roiled the Middle East.

 “For us, as the Free Syrian Army, we think the civilians are our family,” he said. “We are the civilians.”

 But the rebel army was weakened by infighting and attacks from radical Islamist groups — the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) — which were better funded and far more ruthless. In 2014, Free Syrian Army factions fighting the Islamic State on one side and the Syrian military the other suffered heavy losses, and nearly collapsed when the United States ended its support in 2017.

 It has since regrouped with Turkish support, headquartered in the Syrian town of Azaz. The group’s true size is unclear, but it claims to have 30,000 to 40,000 fighters, a collection of rebel factions in a small area that Turkey has carved out and placed under its control around the towns of Jarabulus, Al-Bab and Azaz and the district of Afrin.

 Under Turkish management, the group has struggled to maintain credibility. In early 2018, it provided the ground troops for the Turkish army to seize Afrin from Kurdish-led S.D.F., and was criticized in a United Nations report for human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and looting.

 Mr. Jalel said his forces had caught many of the culprits, saying they were not members of the Free Syrian Army but opportunists who had exploited its advance.

 Mr. el-Skeif acknowledged that abuses had occurred in Afrin. He attributed them to revenge because the Kurdish-led forces have occupied Arab towns and villages, ousting members of the Free Syrian Army from their homes.

 Other elements of the Free Syrian Army, in northern Syria’s Idlib Province, regrouped under a Turkish-backed coalition known as the National Liberation Front. But last year they lost sway to the more powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates the province.

 “Now it is a fight for land, not for freedom and dignity as before,” said Fares Bayoush, a former senior commander of the Free Syrian Army who worked closely with American military and intelligence officials and had to flee attacks from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

 He and other Free Syrian Army veterans criticize the United States, which in their view allowed extremist groups to grow so strong that they obliterated more moderate groups like theirs.

 The United States then began supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, while at the same time ending its support for the Free Syrian Army.

 Free Syrian Army members resent S.D.F. control of majority-Arab areas. Like Mr. Erdogan, they see the Syrian Democratic Forces as a sister organization of the P.K.K., a Communist-styled party that has been waging an insurgency in Turkey for three decades. The proof, they say, is evident from the portraits of the P.K.K. leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in the Syrian Democratic Forces’ offices and bases.

 “A Kurdish minority is ruling the majority,” Mr. al-Skeif said. He complained that they had been fighting the dictatorship of Mr. al-Assad only for it to be replaced by the personality cult of Mr. Ocalan, a Turkish Kurd.

 “We were seeing Assad’s picture before, and now we are seeing Ocalan and he is not even Syrian,” he said. “We were studying Assad’s life in university, and now they are studying Ocalan in schools and universities and he is Turkish.”

 Mr. Jalel pulled up photos on his cellphone of 52 new recruits at his training base last week in Jarabulus to show the continued public support for the rebel army. The army recruits were 18- and 19-year olds who have grown up in the tented camps of displaced people that surround the town.

 “As long as we have the civilians and a free army, with a small piece or a small town of Syria, we will liberate all of Syria again,” he said.'

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

I thought I'd seen all the horrors possible here in Idlib – until now

A civil defence worker helps carry out a rescue operation after airstrikes on the town of Arihah in Idlib province, in July

Raed Al Saleh:

 'Most of my country is in ruins. But the worst crisis of Syria’s conflict is unfolding now. Beautiful cities have become ghost towns, their inhabitants forced to flee the country or pushed into one of the last remaining areas outside of Assad’s control. More than 3 million people, half of whom are children, are trapped in Idlib, where a tyrant is unleashing horror from the sky. It’s the largest displacement crisis of the 21st century and yet Idlib’s people have been abandoned by the world.

 After eight years leading teams of volunteer rescue workers, the White Helmets, I thought I had seen all the horrors possible. But looking at the state of Idlib today, I can honestly say it’s the worst my country has been.

 People are sleeping in the open, with just olive trees to shelter them and their families. Their most pressing needs are for clean water, toilets, and showers, but the UN has diverted the little funding available to fuel and heating. As a result, more than 40,000 people are thought to have contracted a tropical disease. When I was speaking to an elderly woman who had taken shelter in the open fields, she cried out for a toilet – it was the one thing she said would restore her dignity.

 More than 180,000 families have fled their homes since April but a mere 9,000 tents have been provided in recent months. Schools and community centres are overcrowded with people looking for somewhere to sleep, preventing children from going to classes, and displacement camps are close to breaking point. The ceasefire broke again this week, and the bombs are likely to push yet more families to the overcrowded camps. In August, 40,000 people left their homes in fear for their lives in just 24 hours.

 Since 26 April, the Syrian régime and Russia have pounded Idlib with a ferocity we have rarely seen before. Almost 1,000 civilians have been killed and many more severely injured. As with previous major escalations in the conflict, the war planes target our rescue workers, medical personnel and humanitarian facilities as a tactic to prevent help reaching the population.

 At a time when people are in urgent need of healthcare, more than 50 aerial attacks on hospitals and medical facilities have been recorded in the past six months, many with patients still being treated inside. After pressure from two-thirds of the UN security council, the secretary general finally launched an inquiry into the bombing of hospitals in Idlib in August, which must mean justice for the war crimes still being committed today.

 Nine of my White Helmet teammates have been killed, seven in “double-tap” airstrikes that target rescuers arriving at the site of the bombing.

 Yet local humanitarian groups are working with virtually no backing from the international community. The UN funding allocation for the crisis in Idlib is just 6% of the amount needed to provide vulnerable people with the basics – food, clean water and sanitation services.

 With little sign that the United Nations is stepping up its response, people are scared and desperate. But as the crisis worsens, there’s the possibility that this emergency could mean millions more refugees seek safety in Europe, a reality that could finally shake world leaders from their stupor.

 By destroying hospitals, rescue centres and schools, the Syrian régime and Russia are waging a physical and psychological war against the people of Idlib, hoping to squash their hope and strangle the essential services they rely on to survive. They want to destroy all aspects of life and leave them with no option but to flee.

 But we refuse to let go of hope or to believe, as Assad and Putin want us to, that Syrian lives and international humanitarian law no longer matter. Every White Helmet volunteer has made a pledge to stand up for humanity and human rights, guided by our motto: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”

 Today I ask the United Nations and the international community to finally step up with urgency and increase funding for shelter, water and sanitation, health and education in north-west Syria. They must pressure the Syrian régime and Russia to abide by multiple UN resolutions and stop the attacks on civilians. Syria has been the UN’s catastrophic failure – but it’s not too late to act.'

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, carry a wounded man on a stretcher following a reported airstrike on the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, June 2019