Saturday, 22 February 2020

With the Syrian economy on the verge of collapse, recovery seems like mission impossible

 'A devastating civil war and international sanctions have destroyed Syria’s economy, leaving it with a GDP that is a third of what it was in 2010. The monetary crisis and depreciation of the currency is the latest chapter of the country’s economic meltdown. Despite the lack of accurate statistics, some agencies such as the UN Development Programme estimate that 83 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line and close to 12 million are in immediate need of humanitarian aid.

 The conflict has also had a drastic impact on economic activity. According to Chatham House researcher Zaki Mehchy, “By 2018, the total accumulated economic loss was estimated at about $428 billion, which equalled six times Syria’s GDP in 2010.”

 The reduction in local purchasing power has hit Syrian citizens who are already facing a lack of basic services, such as access to clean drinking water, electricity, gas and fuel. The Syrian pound has nosedived to an all-time low, from 47 pounds to the US dollar in 2011, to almost 1,200 to the dollar last month.

 Most of this can be attributed to the depletion of the country’s foreign currency reserves, which stood at $16 to 18 billion before the war. By supporting the regime’s war efforts, the Syrian Central Bank now has between just $700 million to $1.2 billion of foreign reserves left. This prevents the bank from taking any meaningful action against the falling currency.

 According to Souhail Belhadj-Klaz, a researcher on the transition process in Syria at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute, the country cannot reverse this trend if its regional and international isolation persists or increases. However, despite numerous obstacles, he said that Syria is not yet at the stage of hyperinflation. “This means that inflation in Syria is not out of control, and Lebanon and Russia are still providing stabilising support,” he told me.

 Economic turmoil in neighbouring Lebanon, though, means that a vital source of hard currency from Syrians living there has been cut off. Syria’s economy has, in fact, depended on banking ties to Lebanon to keep business and commerce running. Lebanese banks imposed tight controls on hard currency transfers abroad and cash withdrawals, leaving many Syrians unable to access their accounts. The Syrian diaspora has been using Lebanon’s financial system as a conduit for sending funds to their relatives in Syria estimated at hundreds of millions per year. Cutting this off may be an existential blow to many individuals as well as to numerous Syrian importers, with a corresponding effect on the Syrian economy. Lebanon’s crisis has also affected the value of the Syrian pound, which has depreciated rapidly since mid-October when the protests broke out in Beirut and other major cities.

 Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad has taken some emergency steps to try to halt the dramatic fall of the pound. He has banned the use of foreign currencies, for example, and violators face a prison sentence with hard labour.

 It is not clear, however, how Assad’s decree would apply to importers, as the government has stopped granting import licences for all but basic commodities. Since the beginning of the civil war, Damascus has become very dependent on external trade partners and almost all import payments are made in foreign currency, which increases the pressure on the Syrian pound.

 In order to improve living standards, Assad’s regime announced an increase in monthly salaries for public servants of around $28 dollars last November. Many analysts, though, suggest that the government covered the cost by simply printing more money, further reducing the currency’s value.

 In Belhadj-Klaz’s opinion, one of the ways to slow down currency depreciation and the destruction of the Syrian economy is to stabilise conflict at the national and regional levels — with Turkey — as a complete resolution is not possible at the moment, something of which the Syrian authorities are well aware. This would depend only partially on the will and capacity of the Assad regime.

 What’s more, in the absence of direct foreign investments and ever-declining exports, the Assad regime’s space to manoeuvre is limited. The regime knows that Western states will not participate in the reconstruction process without a negotiated political transition, leaving Damascus with few options.

 Assad has far better chances for negotiating economic support from the Gulf countries, said Belhadj-Klaz. Saudi Arabia and the UAE supported the late President Hafez Al-Assad in terms of grants, loans and investments, enabling the Syrian government to overcome several crises throughout the 70s, 80s, early 90s and later. Indeed, for the past two years, his son Bashar’s regime has been trying to set conditions for the re-establishment of relations with the Gulf States. However, any breakthrough would also require Assad to cut his links with Tehran, a precondition that he is unlikely to accept.

 However, support from his fellow Arab regimes, if any at all, may be too late if accumulated economic problems spiral out of control as the recent protests suggest. After a decade of economic and existential despair, citizens of Shahba in Sweida province have lost their patience and gone out onto the streets to express their anger over rising prices, sanctions and the dire economic situation. While the protests have been anything but frequent, such public displays of dissatisfaction could spill over to the rest of the country, as has happened in Iraq, and perhaps lead to another Arab Spring and the overthrow of Assad.

 According to Belhadj-Klaz, this is not likely, as the Syrian regime has managed to break up and isolate urban and village communities creating thousands of micro-territorial units with which it has negotiated micro-agreements of “non-aggression” or “support”. Hence, the spillover effect to other parts of the country is not very likely, with large parts of the country still insecure. Furthermore, the demography in Syria is against another popular uprising. As he pointed out, most of the younger generation have either left the country or are internally displaced and struggling for survival.

 Nevertheless, Assad may barely survive the civil war. He may have retaken most of Syrian territory, but how long can he survive the economic crisis? Long term currency stability requires a healthy economy and a development strategy that at the moment seems like mission impossible.'

Image result for With the Syrian economy on the verge of collapse

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Ariha: An ancient Syrian town emptied and destroyed

The aftermath of airstrikes on the neighborhood in which al-Shami Hospital is located

 'On both sides of Ariha’s Market Street stand dozens of shops selling sweets. Their windows display the full range for which the city is famous: mushabbak; awwama; halawat al-jibn. Most important of all is shuaybiyyat, the town’s great pride and trademark, with which it’s practically synonymous, such that the name Ariha can hardly be mentioned without adding shuaybiyyat. The sweet traveled with the city’s people throughout their displacement and exile—it’s enough for a shop anywhere in the world to write “Ariha shuaybiyyat” on its façade to draw the attention of Syrians.

 The town’s cardamom market, meanwhile, is the last of its kind in the surrounding region, popular especially with people from the nearby towns and villages of Jabal al-Zawiya, for whom Ariha is a marketplace in which to sell their produce, and a center for shopping, studying, healthcare, and work.

 Like a beehive, the town buzzes each day till the late hours of the night. Or rather, it did, until 2020 brought abrupt changes to the town, in the form of an intense military campaign by the Assad régime and its allies, which grew more intense still after the latter took over the city of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man along with other towns and villages in the environs.

 The images and videos now coming out of Ariha depict widespread destruction across the city. Local activists estimate around 30% of Ariha has been totally leveled, and a further 20% partially damaged. They also believe some 90% of Ariha’s residents have fled in recent weeks to seek refuge in safer areas, as the air and artillery bombardment intensify, and residents fear a ground advance by the régime towards the city.

 During the month of January alone, local civil defense crews documented four direct airstrikes on Ariha’s main market, as well as another market, a hospital, a bakery, and the civil defense staff themselves. A mosque, a kindergarten, a school, and numerous civilian houses were also hit. At least 25 civilians were killed, including seven children and numerous medical staff, most recently Zakwan Tammaa, the administrative director of al-Shami Hospital, who died of wounds sustained in the strikes. Dozens more have been injured.

 The bombardment has rendered most medical services inoperative in the town, according to an announcement by the Idlib health directorate, which said the attack on al-Shami Hospital left no more health centers operational across the entirety of southern Idlib province. In recent months, Ariha had taken in large numbers of people displaced from elsewhere in the province, who were forced to live in harsh conditions due to the suspension of aid from humanitarian organizations, according to Muhammad Khalid al-Attar, an engineer and member of the “Youths for Syria” organization, which was active in and around Ariha before suspending its work recently. “Today, the town is practically empty,” he says. “Most Internet towers have been dismantled and transported. The same goes for bakeries, most of which have been taken apart and moved, while others were destroyed by bombardment.” Al-Attar describes one recent night in Ariha as having been “pitch-black,” with residents too afraid of being targeted to light up so much as a lamp.

 “Only a small minority remained in the city. Electricity generators and water containers have stopped, as have all Internet networks, except one working at a specific location,” says media activist Sulayman Abd al-Qadir. A local woman who requested anonymity said the city was “completely shut down, with no activity except the work of the civil defense teams.”

 It was a “miracle,” says Layla Saeed, a humanitarian activist from Ariha, that she and her children survived the strike on al-Shami Hospital, which happened to be located near her home. They woke to the sound of a blast that smashed the windows and doors of the house.

 “There was thick dust, and dirt and shrapnel everywhere. We took cover in a side room away from the main street, only for another rocket to land, punching a hole in the wall of the room. I ran with my children toward the bomb shelter underneath the building. The sound of crying and screaming filled the air, until it was overpowered by a third blast, and then the sirens of the ambulances and civil defense crews looking for survivors under the rubble. When I came out, I was carrying a bag containing my ID papers. I took one last look at the wreckage of my house, and left.”

 The days and sleepless nights leading up to this attack, on the night of 29 January, had already seen numerous families depart the town. When the attack came, almost everyone remaining decided to leave. “The streets filled with buses waiting to take them away,” says Layla. “This time there was no Ariha to greet them. Most headed for the camps in the north, while others wandered aimlessly, not knowing where their feet were taking them.”

 “Will the city fall?” This, says Layla, is the question that has haunted her ever since, and was etched on the frightened faces of all the residents that joined her on the journey of mass displacement.

 Abu Ahmad, another Ariha resident, describes the events of that day as “apocalyptic:” people shouting through walkie-talkies at the civil defense and ambulances to arrive; others searching for survivors after the first raid, soon followed by the others on the same target to kill the greatest number possible of civilians and rescue workers; collapsed buildings with women and children fumbling for exits in the darkness. Most of those killed were displaced people from elsewhere, who had fled to Ariha from battles in their own towns and villages, only to find death waiting for them once again. “Nowhere is safe anymore,” says Abu Ahmad, “Death is everywhere.”

 Ariha is located to the south of Idlib City. In official administrative terms, the greater Ariha area comprises 55 smaller towns and villages, as well as 44 farms. The town of Ariha itself has great geographic significance within Idlib Governorate, in that it sits in the middle of four major cities: Jisr al-Shughur to the west; Ma’arrat al-Nu’man to the south; Saraqeb to the east; and Idlib to the north.

 The Ariha area also contains the Arba’een mountain, part of the Jabal al-Zawiya series of mountains, reaching a height of around 1,000 meters above sea level. This strategic highland overlooks the national M4 highway connecting Saraqeb to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, as well as the road from Ariha to Idlib, and a number of towns and villages in Jabal al-Zawiya and even southern Aleppo Province. Whoever controls Mount Arba’een, therefore, enjoys the ability to cut their opponents’ supply routes and monitor their movements or incoming assaults.

 For this reason, the Assad régime had fought hard to keep hold of Ariha in the early years of the revolution, which had seen three attempts by opposition factions to liberate the town by the end of 2014. Local residents paid dearly for their eventual release from the régime’s rule, with around 1,300 killed as of the start of 2015. On 28 May, 2015, the jihadist-led “Army of Conquest” coalition succeeded in taking control of the town after driving out the régime.

 Ariha represents a mid-point between Aleppo and the Mediterranean, on the one hand, and between Idlib and Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, on the other. In addition, the road leading to it from Jisr al-Shughur hems in all the towns and villages of Jabal al-Zawiya, which is one reason so many of their residents fled, fearing besiegement.

Ariha today contains local fighters from the town itself as well as the surrounding villages. Some spoke said they first moved their families to safe locations and then returned to defend the area. They were reluctant to divulge details about their preparations, saying only that they would do what they could to keep the town out of the régime’s hands.

 Al-Attar, the engineer and activist, does not downplay the significance of the local resistance, though he recognizes the disparity between the scale of the air and ground bombardment pounding the town and the ability of the lightly-armed locals to combat them. For their part, fighters encountered by al-Jumhuriya said the régime’s forces were heading for the city of Saraqeb, east of Ariha, and would be concentrating the bulk of their firepower there. The fighters asserted the military map would change in the coming days, since the régime had been sustaining large losses in men and materiel, while new fronts had been opened in the Aleppo countryside as opposition factions mounted counter-attacks.

 Subhi al-Khalid, a local activist from Jabal al-Zawiya, says that regional and international factors may prevent the régime from succeeding in its ambition to control all of the M4 and M5 highways in their entirety; an aim that, if accomplished, would inevitably mean the capture of Ariha. By way of evidence, al-Khalid points to an intensifying dispute between Russia and Turkey, made manifest in Turkey’s deployment of five observation posts around Saraqeb. One such post has faced direct fire from Assad régime forces, killing Turkish troops in the process, and prompting a wide-ranging response from the Turkish army against régime positions. These developments, al-Khalid argues, indicate Turkey aims to prevent the régime from taking the highways in full.

 Since antiquity, Ariha has been bound to the city of Aleppo. In his 13th-century Encyclopedia of Countries, the geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi described it as “a small town on the outskirts of Aleppo; the most verdant and luscious on God’s earth; endowed with green fields, trees, and rivers.” Indeed, as well its famous sweets, Ariha is also renowned for cherry trees. It was a breathing space for the surrounding region’s residents, especially Aleppans, with its touristic sites and ancient archaeological monuments. As for its name itself—which it shares with the biblical Jericho—it is thought to hail from Aramaic roots, meaning “the sweet fragrance of flowers.” '

Ariha as seen from al-Arba'een Mountain

Thursday, 13 February 2020

A doctor in Idlib: 'It cannot get more evil than this'

Dr Tarraf on the roof of his home after it was bombed for the first time [Photo courtesy of Dr Tarraf]

 'My name is Dr Tarraf. I was born in Al-Mash'had, one of the urban slums of Aleppo, on February 1, 1982 - the day the terrifying Hama Massacre began. Over 27 days, Syrian soldiers razed the city, killing 20,000 people, to put down a rebellion against the rule of President Hafez al-Assad, the father of current President Bashar al-Assad.

 My family is originally from a small village in Idlib province called Haas, about 10 kilometres (six miles) west of Maaret al-Numan. We moved back there in 1995 because our small apartment was not large enough for our growing family.

 I was the second child in a large household of six boys and two girls. One of my brothers, Mustafa, has managed to move to Germany to start a new life. I call him the only survivor of the family.

 Of the remaining five boys, two have been lost to Syria's war, two have had their lives and studies put on hold because of the fighting and detentions, and I no longer make plans for the future.

 My work as a doctor has become unbearably exhausting - both physically and mentally - since the régime launched its Idlib operation last spring. At the time, I worked at two hospitals, Kafr Nabl surgery hospital and Maaret al-Numan central hospital. These facilities were the closest to the régime's front line, and came under intense bombing for a long period of time. There was a constant stream of casualties coming to the hospital. The medics literally did not get a chance to rest.

 I remember one of the worst days, August 28, 2019, when the main vegetable market in Maaret al-Numan was targeted by an air raid from a Syrian army jet. We had six operating rooms in the hospital, and only eight doctors. Soon after the air raid, injured people began streaming in, along with dead bodies. Within five minutes all the operating rooms were full. I was the last surgeon to get there.

 I walked in to find two patients, both needing immediate help. As a doctor, I had to choose which one to treat and which to transfer to another hospital some 30 minutes away - something we do when there are limited resources and many cases to attend to. The first patient was a man in his thirties who was in hemorrhagic shock. The other was a three-year-old-boy who was bleeding from shrapnel in his chest; he was also in shock.

 It was a terrifying moment in which I had to make a choice; one which would help one patient but might lead to another dying on the way to the referral hospital. I had no other choice but to choose, so I chose the child.

 It was a difficult choice. But I thought about my two-year-old son. I saw that child as if he were my own, and so I chose to help him. I started treating him, I opened his abdomen, tried to stitch blood vessels. But after 15 minutes we, unfortunately, could not save him, and the anesthesiologist declared him dead. I went out of the operating room to find that the man was still there, still waiting for an ambulance, as they were in high demand.

 I got back to work, trying to save him as well. I started a blood transfusion in the waiting room; I opened his abdomen and made thoracentesis. But unfortunately, the man also died after 30 minutes of trying to help him.

 I had just left the operating room, frustrated and exhausted, when a local man asked me about the patient. I told him he had died. He then asked me about the child, and I told him he was dead, too. He then told me: "You know, doctor. The two were a man and his son."

 It was one of the worst, most traumatising, moments of my life. I will never forget it because I failed to save both the man and his son.

 At the hospital, there were so many critical cases in urgent need of help. So I would always be under pressure and suffer from insomnia.

 More than a month before that August day was another horrifying moment. It was after sunset on July 10 when Maaret al-Numan hospital came under attack. The facility was badly affected and the electricity generator was damaged.

 I was the doctor on duty and, along with other colleagues, decided we needed to evacuate the hospital and all the patients. But the most worrying part was when we had to evacuate the newborn incubators. The hospital had six of them. All those babies needed to remain there; but we knew the régime might target the hospital again, so they had to be moved. We continued with the evacuation, but some of the babies died along the way.

 Some of the patients, about 10 percent, refused to be evacuated. It was a very difficult moment. But as medics we decided to stay with them, accepting the potential risk of being hit a second time by the air raids. Two hours later, régime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the town of Maaret al-Numan. The hospital received dozens of injuries. We managed to save most of them because we stayed.

 After the régime's latest campaign in Idlib, I sent my family to the Turkey-Syria border where it is safer, while I remained working in hospitals in Idlib.

 But for months before, every time I went to the hospital, I would say goodbye to my family as if I would never see them again. There was always the thought that I would go to the hospital and never come back.

 It was mentally exhausting, because we had to work under constant bombing. Whenever I heard jets in the sky, I would think the hospital would be the next target. That put those of us in the medical field under enormous psychological pressure. And it made my family and loved ones worry constantly. They contact me every once in a while to make sure I am not hurt. Especially my parents, who have already lost two sons, Yusuf and Huzaifa.

 When we were young, our family did not have much. But my parents tried their best to provide a decent life for my siblings and I.

 Although all eight of us were very good at school, life began to get harder when my brothers and I started college. My father's salary was hardly enough to cover basic family needs. My eldest brother, Yusuf, went to medical school in 1999 and I did the same in 2000. My father started to borrow money, and those debts began to accumulate. With more college bills as the years continued, my family remained in debt until my brother and I graduated from college and started to work overtime shifts in hospitals in addition to our specialisation internships.

 In 2011 the Syrian revolution started. Yusuf was by then a doctor at the Tishreen Military Hospital, near Damascus. He was a resident doctor specialising in general surgery and I was in my last year of a urology specialisation at the Al-Muwasat Hospital in Damascus. Our brother Huzaifa was in his last year at medical school.

 Soon after, Yusuf left Damascus and moved to Idlib. Then he left his government job and started to help people in our hometown, where people were being shot during protests and later killed by régime bombardment. I remained in Damascus until I finished my thesis and got my degree.

 Then, Huzaifa was arrested in late 2012 at the university campus in Damascus. I did my best to get him out and paid huge amounts of money to get him released. I reached out to an intermediary involved in these types of transactions. However, when he found out Huzaifa was a doctor he said he could not help.

 "It is easier to secure the release of a [opposition] militant or a protester from prison than doctors," he told me.

 We found out two months later that Huzaifa had been tortured and killed in custody.

 I moved back to Haas, our village, and the revolution had by then become militarised. Yusuf and I remained firm in our commitment to revolutionary principles by helping people in the field hospitals. Another one of our brothers, Qutaiba, was arrested during his last year of civil engineering college but later released, after which he decided to go back to the village and never dared to return to university.

 Our youngest brother, Ubayda, finished high school and got into computer engineering college, but he did not dare to continue after his first year because he was afraid of being arrested. So we all remained in the village. All besides Mustafa, who went to college, where he started to study communication engineering, and then managed to move to Germany to continue his studies.

 In 2016, Haas was bombed. The régime targeted a complex of schools on October 26 in what later came to be called "the Massacre of Pens", since the régime deliberately targeted the schools complex and all the roads nearby. Most of the victims were children in elementary school.

 Many medics were killed, too. My brother Yusuf was in the village and rushed to the place that had been targeted because he wanted to help those in need of medical assistance. The régime planes targeted the same place deliberately and he was among the victims.

 Régime forces always do that. They would target a location with air raids and when people come to help any survivors, they would target the place again several minutes later. And a third time as well.

 Our house had been targeted repeatedly throughout the entire revolution, but with the help of my brothers we had always managed to fix it. The last time it was targeted it was destroyed completely, as was my house.

 Now, I have no plans for the future. We live day by day, here. I cannot even think of tomorrow. Just today another battle started a few hours ago, with non-stop air raids and artillery shelling, injuries constantly coming to the hospital in the city of Idlib, where I now work.

 My worst fear is for the future of Syria. Syria is turning into the worst possible thing a state can be: A failed state plus a dictatorship, combined under occupation. It cannot get any more evil than that.'

Photos - Idlib doctor first person [Photo courtesy of Dr Tarraf]

Friday, 7 February 2020

As Syria régime inches closer, Idlib city prepares for mass exodus of civilians

As Syria regime inches closer, Idlib city prepares for mass exodus of civilians

 'Fahad Aswad hasn't slept in two days. An anaesthetist at a maternity and paediatric hospital in Idlib city, Aswad has been working around-the-clock to treat patients injured in the mounting violence that's gripped Syria's last rebel stronghold.

 "As I talk to you, the sound of warplanes fills the air," Aswad says.

 The Syrian army has advanced to within eight kilometres of Idlib city, the heavily populated provincial capital home to scores of civilians already uprooted from fighting elsewhere in the country. But even as pro-government forces inch closer to the city, Aswad is determined to stay put.

 "We will continue to work until our last breath. If Bashar al-Assad's forces decide to storm the city, we will be displaced to the camps," he said.

 In what amounts to one of the largest displacements since Syria's war erupted in 2011, a deadly régime offensive in northwest Syria has forced more than half a million people to flee their homes since December, the United Nations estimates.

 Videos posted to social media showed bumper-to-bumper traffic as thousands poured out of Idlib city and the surrounding towns this week.

 Desperate families packed their cars and trucks to the brim and headed north toward the relative safety of towns near the locked Turkish border.

 The civilian exodus began in late April when the government launched its push to retake Idlib and parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Hama provinces – the last swath of the country still in the hands of the opposition.

 According to the UN human rights agency, at least 1,500 civilians have been killed in the past nine months of fighting.

 Bashar al-Assad, whose forces now control roughly two-thirds of the country, has long vowed to capture every inch of Syria.

 Supported by Russian airpower and Iran-backed militia forces on the ground, the Syrian army has retaken several key towns and villages in the past two months, including the opposition stronghold of Maaret al-Numan.

 Under the cover of airstrikes, Syrian forces seized parts of the major highway town of Saraqeb on Thursday, some 15 kilometres east of Idlib city.

 "They are trying to advance from several axes in southern Idlib and Aleppo countryside," said Captain Naji Mustafa, spokesperson for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front.

 "[The régime] suffered heavy losses, but Russia is using all of its military power and practicing a scorched-earth policy," he said.

 Turkey, which backs the opposition, called for an end to the bombing campaign after shelling by Syrian forces killed eight of its military personnel.

 Turkish President Recip Tayipp Erdogan warned his country would not allow Syrian forces to advance further and accused them of pushing "innocent and grieving people" toward Turkey's southern border, which is currently closed to new refugee arrivals.

 He added that Turkey would retaliate if pro-government forces did not retreat from Turkey's 12 observation posts in Idlib, two of which have been encircled by Syrian troops and were set up as part of a 2017 agreement with Russia designed to de-escalate the fighting.

 With an estimated 150,000 people displaced in the past two weeks alone, aid agencies are warning of a potential humanitarian catastrophe unlike anything seen in the past nine years of war.

 The UN has appealed for $336 million to assist with the latest wave of displaced people, 80 percent of whom it says are women and children.

 Freezing winter temperatures and rising fuel costs have compounded an already miserable situation for Syrians on the move.

 With skyrocketing rental prices for houses in the towns along the Turkish border, many of the displaced have resorted to sleeping in the open air or makeshift tents. Some have found space in crowded displacement camps, which are currently hosting five times their intended capacity.

 "Living in camps would be very difficult. As a woman, I cannot imagine," said Afaf Jakmour, a 29-year-old journalist living in Idlib city.

 If the régime gets much closer to her home, Jakmour and her family plan to drive north toward the border and from there look for shelter. It's a painful decision Jakmour says she's putting off as long as possible.

 "If the régime storms the area, I will definitely leave. But I plan to stay until the last minute," she said.'

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Russia-Turkey tensions play out in media following deadly Syria clashes

 Ragip Soylu:

 'A day after Syrian government forces killed eight Turkish soldiers, Russian state media published a series of anti-Turkey reports, the kind not seen since relations between Ankara and Moscow hit a nadir in 2016.

 Russian state news agencies Rossiya Segodnya and TASS claimed in separate articles on Tuesday that Turkey had played a role in the creation of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's former Syrian arm that has now rebranded itself as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.

 The articles included the testimonies of two Syrian fighters, who claimed Ankara gave $100 salary to the Nusra militants. Zvezda TV, operated by the Russian defence ministry, ran a similar report that put Turkey under the suspicion of aiding the militant group.

 Turkish relations with Russia have been tense since last week, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Moscow wasn't abiding by the de-escalation agreements it had promised to uphold in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province.

 Multiple ceasfires have collapsed in Idlib, a province in northwest Syria bordering Turkey, and Syrian government advances have displaced 500,000 people since December, according to the UN.

 Russia is a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and its forces have decisively swung Syria's war in his favour.

 “A million Syrians are on the move to the Turkish border,” Erdogan said on Monday.

 Turkey, which backs some of the Syrian rebel groups, has for months had a military presence in Idlib, centred around a series of observation posts.

 In an effort to stop the Syrian government offensive, however, Turkey deployed about 100 trucks carrying armoured vehicles and tanks to Saraqeb, a strategically important town where the M4 and M5 highways cross over. And then the deadly Syrian shelling came.

 For many in the Turkish media, the Syrian government attack on Sunday night wasn’t surprising. Cumhuriyet daily, a secularist opposition newspaper, noted on its front page that the raid occurred days after Erdogan’s severe criticism of Russia.

 Sabah, a staunchly pro-government newspaper, highlighted comments by Erdogan ally Devlet Bahceli, chairman of the nationalist MHP party, who said Russia had incited the Syrian government to attack.

 “The Moscow administration, which focuses on regional and historical ambitions rather than achieving stability in Syria, is untrustworthy and two-faced,” Bahceli was quoted as saying.

 Burhaneddin Duran, an advisor to Erdogan, has used his column in Sabah to repeatedly call on the US and EU to help stop the humanitarian catastrophe playing out in Idlib, where more than three million people are trapped in the fighting.

 In his column on Tuesday, Duran said Turkey hadn't been left with many options other than changing the balance on the ground.

 “Ankara is reinforcing the observation stations in Idlib. And moving to the stage of territorial control rather than just observing,” he wrote.

 Erdogan, in remarks released to the media on Tuesday, said that Turkey had completed the first stage of addressing the issue by deploying reinforcements, and signalled that something resembling a full-scale military operation might be needed next, following through on previous threats.

 “They believe we have been joking. Our military response to [Syrian government forces] was a good lesson to them. But we won’t stop, we will continue,” he said.

 Erdogan’s visit to Ukraine on Monday also seemed to have rattled the Russians.

 Before leaving for Kiev, Erdogan repeated the official Turkish policy that Ankara would never recognise Russia's unilateral annexation of Crimea.

On top of that, a video showing that Erdogan greeting Ukranian soldiers during the official welcoming ceremony with a “glory to Ukraine” salute created a social media sensation.

In Russia, the slogan is linked to Ukranian nationalists aligned with the Nazis against the Russians during the Second World War.

 “It had a really negative impact on Russians,” said Kerim Has, an independent analyst on Turkish Russian affairs based on Moscow.

 However both sides tried to calm the waters with new statements on Tuesday.

 Following a phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, Russia's foreign ministry said that “there was no alternative to a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by political and diplomatic means”.

 Erdogan, too, underlined that Turkey doesn’t need to clash with Moscow.

 “We don’t need to be in confrontation with Russia. We have many strategic initiatives with Russia" other than Syria, he said. “We will talk about everything. We shouldn’t act on our anger.” '

In Idlib, Assad's war machine has a lethal message: 'Leave or die'

In Idlib, Assad's war machine has a lethal message: 'Leave or die'

 Sam Hamad:

 'In the almost nine years of the war in Syria, the sight of tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands civilians fleeing their homes and neighbourhoods has become a disturbingly familiar sight.

 Since the conflict began, the lowest estimate of those
"displaced" stands at 13.5 million, equating to over one million people per year being made into refugees.

 The other familiar sight is the destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and markets turned to rubble by Russian or Baathist bombers. In the past 10 days, tens of thousands of people in Idlib - the last rebel-held province of Syria - have been forced towards the Turkish border under the threat of annihilation from a veritable blitzkrieg of Russian airstrikes, and the capture of left-behind ghost towns by Assad-Iran's militias.

 An estimated 6,500 children have fled Syria every day since the offensive began on 1 December last year, with 300,000 children becoming refugees in that time span. Seven hundred thousand people have been cleansed in a mere two months, with 80 percent of those women and children.

 None of this is accidental. The chaos of the destruction wrought by Assad masks the terrifying reality that every element of such destruction is methodical - from the deliberate targeting of civil infrastructure, to the carefully planned evacuations of entire populations.

 Though even I describe the cause of this mass exodus from Idlib as a result of "war", this language only tells a small part of the story. The true story can be summed with two words that the world seems reluctant to use: ethnic cleansing.

 Make no mistake, ethnic cleansing is both the aim and the effect of Assad-Iran-Russia's war effort. Many people have claimed over the years that ethnic cleansing cannot apply to Syria, since Assad is the same ethnicity as his victims.

 However, even if you momentarily set aside the fact that Assad's forces are as much as 80 percent foreign, or that he is himself largely now a puppet of Russia and Iran, ethnic cleansing is defined by UN Security Council Resolution 780 as "a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas".

 This perfectly describes precisely what Assad, Iran and Russia have set out to do since the popular revolution gripped the country. Assad, under the growing guidance of Iran, recognised that the protests were so widespread and deeply embedded in the Sunni population of the country.

 The solution was never for him to rule over Syria as it was before the revolution and war.

 The plan was to sectarianise the conflict, using mostly Alawite militias (Shabiha) and Alawite-led ultra-loyal units of the Syrian Arab Army. Assad had to demobilise two thirds of this national army due to its overwhelmingly Sunni composition and the high risk of defections as it was ordered to massacre Sunni Syrians.

 These Alawite militias eventually became, with the training and financial backing of Iran, the 'National Defence Forces' (NDF), joined by Hezbollah, the IRGC and Iranian-backed foreign Shia militias. Assad would utilise his, Iran and latterly Russia's extensive war machine to cleanse the mostly Sunni hotspots of the revolution.

 The end result would be a Baathist rump state, heavily under the control of Iran and Russia, where reduced and more ideologically compliant populations would be easier to rule over than the demographics who had initiated the revolution and tasted freedom. In the valleys between Damascus and the Lebanese border, Iran even infamously began the process of resettling cleansed Sunni towns and villages with loyalist Shia populations.

 This is precisely why during every conquest of any "liberated" area of Syria by Assad-Iran-Russia, we have seen the targeting of civilians and civil infrastructure. Normal life in liberated areas has been made almost impossible by the constant targeting of schools, hospitals and markets.

 When populations have resisted initial aerial bombardments, we've seen Assad's forces use chemical weapons on multiple occasions to escalate the terror and reach into the embedded populations and choke them to death - to burn the images of such cruel and traumatic images of death into the mind's eye of populations so that they will endeavour to get as far away from Syria as possible. Resistance among conquered populations is met with genocidal viciousness, including a network of prisons where tens of thousands of Syrian prisoners have been starved and tortured to death.

 After the brutality of the fall of Free Aleppo, who could forget the famous white buses that turned up to literally cleanse the remaining population? The same "evacuations" took place in Deraa, Homs, Ghouta and in most other parts of Syria reconquered by Assad. The slogan used by the regime has been "Leave or die".

 Though "evacuations" is the term preferred by the media, let's call it for what it is: ethnic cleansing. Of course, the destination then was Idlib, whose population swelled by millions as it became the primary location of Syrians cleansed from other parts of the country.

 And this is why it's time we began to use this term to describe the reality engulfing Syria. To understand this aspect of Assad-Iran-Russia's war in Syria not only exposes yet another dimension of criminality to their actions, but it opens up the reality that what was already the worst refugee crisis since WWII is only going to get worse.

 Those Syrians fleeing Idlib have found themselves trapped at a Turkish border that will not let them pass. Turkey has taken in more refugees than any nation on earth, with at least 4 million Syrians settling in the country. Europe, the so-called bastion of liberalism, which contains the world's richest nations, is mired in overtly racist policies of rebuking the refugees. Turkey doesn't have the necessary resources in isolation, which has led to ugly incidents at the border and protests from desperate refugees.

 On Monday, Turkish forces in Idlib were shelled by Assad, prompting Turkey to swiftly retaliate. Assad-Iran-Russia, it seems, is determined to cleanse Idlib, with Russia probably counting on Turkey eventually relenting to the refugees, thus prompting another so-called refugee crisis in Europe. As with the last time, perhaps it's only a coincidence that the fascist parties that gain ground due to the racist backlash against Syrian refugees tend to be largely pro-Russia.

 We live in a world where many cannot even bring themselves to face up to the nature of the savagery being perpetrated against Syrians by Assad-Iran-Russia, namely the interrelated crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Only a few voices use these terms to describe the situation in Syria.

 This failure of language of is part of the general failure of the world that allowed genocide in Syria to triumph.

 The situation for Syrians in Idlib is now a tightrope between barbarism or survival. It seems like the former is the most likely outcome.'

Idlib demonstrators call international community to stop Russia’s slaughtering of civilians in Syria

Image result for Idlib demonstrators call international community to stop Russia’s slaughtering of civilians in Syria

 'Syrian demonstrators took to the streets on Friday (January 31) in Idlib city center and al-Bab city in Aleppo countryside, chanting anti-Russia and Assad militia slogans and calling the international community to stop Russia’s slaughtering of civilians in Syria.

 The demonstrators confirmed the continuity of the Syrian revolution and condemned Assad and Russian bombardment on Idlib.

 They also expressed their sympathy and support to the forcibly displaced persons from Idlib and Aleppo countryside.

 They asked International community to press Russia and Assad régime and Russia to stop killing civilians and to release the detainees.

 On Wednesday midnight Russian warplanes bombed al-Shami Hospital, a bakery and civilian homes in the city of Ariha in Idlib countryside, killing 12 civilians, including four children and six women and injuring 68 others, including 13 children and 15 women.

 Assad-Russian warplanes have committed dozens of massacres in Idlib and Hama countryside since they launched their bombing campaign on the 30th of April, largely violating the de-escalation zone deal reached between Russia and Turkey.'

Image result for Idlib demonstrators call international community to stop Russia’s slaughtering of civilians in Syria

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Christians face threats throughout Syria, thanks to its president

Image result for Christians face threats throughout Syria, thanks to assad

 Mirna Barq, George Stifo and Bahnan Yamin:

'As Syrian Christians who grew up in Syria, we are concerned at the ongoing instability in the north. Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, this area is home to a rich diversity of Syrians: Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others. It’s unconscionable that, after surviving genocidal rampages by ISIS, Christians and other civilians yet again are caught in the crosshairs.

 But our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria face much worse, more long-term threats than this latest chaos. Targeted violence against Syrians of all faiths, including Christians, is a daily occurrence in the other two-thirds of the country controlled by a man whose unique sadistic tendencies have shocked the world: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A member of a minority community himself, Assad has used his status to garner sympathy and set himself up as the “protector of Christians.” We know better.

 In September, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, relied upon for civilian death tolls by the UN since it stopped counting in 2014, released a report counting the number of Christian houses of worship targeted by all parties to the conflict — régime, opposition, ISIS, al-Qaeda and others. The results were damning: of the 124 churches targeted for shelling, bombing or military use since 2011, nearly two-thirds were at the hands of Assad’s forces, backed up by Russian air power and Iranian militias.

 For Assad’s purposes, minority identity is a useful tool, until it’s not.

 To wit, the ranks of peaceful protesters who took to the streets in 2011 demanding freedom, dignity and an end to corruption and injustice reflected the diversity of Syria. And all were equally targeted by the régime for demanding freedom — facing detention, torture, rape and death — including Christians.

 Khalil Maatouk, a Christian human rights lawyer, represented many activists in Syrian courts. He was “disappeared” into a régime prison in October 2012. Saeed Malki, president of the Syriac Cultural Association, was taken into custody in 2013. Their statuses remain unknown. Bassam Ghaith, who led the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, was abducted in 2014 and months later the régime told his family he had died of cardiac arrest — the régime’s blanket explanation for those whose hearts stop under torture.

 Christians likewise are among victims documented in the “Caesar” photos taken by a régime defector. His 55,000 images present bodies of protesters grotesquely mutilated and tortured almost beyond recognition, if not for the carefully cataloguing practices of Assad’s machinery of death that include identifying numbers for each victim. The photos are the strongest evidence of war crimes since the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis, according to the former U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes Stephen Rapp. Christians are among those whose eyes were gouged out, bodies electrocuted, stomachs starved and throats slit. Assad’s leash of “protection” runs as long as his desire for control, and no further.

 It hasn’t always been this way for Christians in Syria. Few remember that a Protestant Christian Fares al-Khouri was democratically elected as prime minister of Syria in 1954. Since the rise of the Assad family to power in the 1970 coup d’état, however, Christian freedoms have declined. Even after the so-called reforms of 2012, Christians have still been barred from becoming president since the elder Assad took power. Free exercise of religion is restricted under Assad’s rule: church leaders are controlled and congregations infiltrated with spies to prevent dissent. Resistance to intimidation leads to arrests and execution, even nearby in Lebanon. Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi, both of Aleppo, were abducted in 2013 only days after Bishop Ibrahim, a previous Assad supporter, criticized the régime’s brutality against Syrian citizens. The two remain missing. It’s no wonder that, as shepherds of their flocks, clergy are under extreme pressure to repeat régime talking points, even in the face of egregious human rights abuses like chemical attacks.

 Further, Assad has purposely created escalating extremist dangers to Syria’s Christians in the cynical expectation they would have nowhere else to turn than his government for safe harbor. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Assad’s strategy was simple: send violent extremists across the border to kill U.S. troops as a punishment and warning for toppling a fellow dictator. Immediately following the peaceful protests in March 2011, he employed the same strategy to dilute and poison legitimate, moderate voices for freedom and democracy. According to a former member of Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate, “The régime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades. The régime wanted to tell the world it was fighting al-Qaeda, but the revolution was peaceful in the beginning so it had to build an armed Islamic revolt. It was a specific, deliberate plan and it was easy to carry out.” Before he defected from the régime, Affaq Ahmad, the right hand of the head of the notorious Syrian Air Force Intelligence, testified that the régime found the al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked groups who made their way into Syria “very useful.” How? By allowing jidahist groups to kill minorities, the régime could “use that to convince these minorities to rally around the régime.”

 The ploy’s results are plain: beheadings, enslavement, rape and genocide of Christians and Yazidis by ISIS, and destruction of churches, torture and death by Assad.

 Backed up by Iranian-sponsored proxy militias and Russian warplanes and targeting assistance, Assad has waged a bloody campaign against all Syrian civilians, including Christians. Every day we pray with the psalmist: “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up Your hand. Do not forget the afflicted” (Psalm 10:12). Our Christian faith demands we speak up for our Muslim, Alawite, Kurdish, Druze, Assyrian, Arab and Christian brothers and sisters throughout Syria, from the Tigris River to the Mediterranean Sea.

 But it must be stated clearly: the United States is flailing in its approach toward Syria. It must take stock of its entire Syria policy, and fix it.

 First, the United States must maintain a strong troop presence. A modest military force has essentially created a No Fly Zone in the northeast for years, and is the best bang for our buck in leverage for eventual peace negotiations. Foreign powers know the consequences of attacking U.S. troops and our partners nearby.

 Second, the administration must restart $200 million in stabilization aid throughout the country to provide alternatives to both Assad and extremism. Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities throughout the country need assurances that they can live lives free from both hazards and from Iran, which is pursuing its well-trod policy of discrimination and demographic change in Syria as it has in Lebanon and historically Christian areas in Iraq. The State Department should realize the mandate for international religious freedom doesn’t stop at Iraq’s border — Syria must be a part of the picture.

 Finally, stop the slow-motion civilian massacre in Idlib province, where men, women and children — including hundreds of Christians still holding on — are caught between extremists, Russian bombs, Assad’s troops and a closed Turkish border. While Turkey threatens to unleash the 3.5 million refugees it’s hosting into Europe, a similar number of internally displaced people are crammed into an area the size of Connecticut. It’s a humanitarian disaster already — we cannot let it become the worst catastrophe since the conflict began. President Trump must follow-up on his promise a year ago to stop the killing.

 One sign of hope arrived in time for Christmas last year, as Congress and the President came together to sanction war criminals by passing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act into law. We must build on this bipartisan momentum.

 While division, war, oppression and hatred are Assad’s weapons of choice, Christ teaches unity, peace, freedom and love. Americans and officials in Washington must not ignore the torture of Christians in Assad’s prisons, the destruction of their churches by régime and Russian bombs, and the general horrors perpetrated on Syrians of all faiths.'

Image result for Christians face threats throughout Syria, thanks to assad