Sunday, 18 November 2018

Interview with Captain Abu Salim, Jaysh al-Izza's spokesperson



 Abu Salim, Jaish al-Izza's spokesperson:
 "It seems there is a problem between some of the guarantor countries such as Iran and Russia concerning the Sochi agreement. Of course the treachery of the régime, Iranian militias and Hezbollah is nothing new. They attacked a position belonging to Jaish al-Izza under the cover of Russian drones. The aerial cover lasted almost 24 hours. They used modern nightvision and thermal weapons to attack a point belonging to Jaish al-Izza. After a few martyrdoms in our ranks, we were able to retake our position. 

 Regarding Jaish al-Izza, neither Sochi or any other agreement stopped the bombs falling on us. Starting from the Russian invasion and until now, we get bombed by artillery, rockets and airstrikes on a daily basis. The response was an assault on a régime checkpoint known as al-Tarabee. There are more responses coming, the bullets are still in our hands. We will teach them a lesson they will never forget.

 The reality is noone has details about HTS' own response except themselves.

I think there is some disagreement between some guarantor countries of Sochi like Russia and Iran. It looks like Iran is trying to make this plan fail and wants the resumption of war after it was paused for a bit. It seems like it is trying to remind everyone it is still there after sanctions were imposed on it by the USA. It appears it is trying to achieve something, working secretly or openly to make this agreement fail. In my opinion, if it continues like this, the agreement will be dead in the water. 


Death is better than losing sanity in prison - woman jailed in Assad's prisons



 "My name is Sarah al-Abdullah. I am a 29 year old computer and control engineer. My husband was killed three years ago. I only have one daughter, she is three.

 On August 19th, 2017, my home in Mazzeh was raided and I was detained by the General Intelligence. I was first held in Branch 40, and then I was transferred to al-Khatib or Branch 251. After that, I was transferred to the Central State Security Branch, and then to Adra prison pending trial at the counterterrorism court which eventually ordered my release.

 However, the Air Force Intelligence Directorate refused to release me. Theoretically, and on paper, I was released. But in reality, as was the case with many other detainees, my situation was presumed to have been resolved by the Civil Court, but instead I was handcuffed, blindfolded and transferred to the Air Force Intelligence Branch.
 In total I was detained for one year and four months, or 1 year, 3 months and 20 days to be more specific. 

 Interrogation techniques varied from one branch to another. In al-Khatib branch, they prey on detainees' morale or psychological makeup. Interrogation techniques vary from one detainee to another. They also inflict neurological pain. Prior to being tortured, the guard would place me in a position where my nerves are tight, and deliberately beat me on the parts that have clusters of nerve endings, to ensure a rapid nervous breakdown. 
 Torture has left me with a chronic knee injury. Other women developed mental problems. It varies from one to another. Cells in the Air Force Intelligence Branch are 1m². They are also dark.

 Water drop sound torture is one of the most brutal torture techniques. It had the biggest impact on me personally. For a prolonged period of time, one is made to listen to dripping water in a consistent pattern. But then it suddenly shifts to an inconsistent pattern which puts you on alert. Until today, I scream whenever I hear an unexpected noise as if I am still in prison.


 At first, I thought my husband was the reason for my detention. But later, during the interrogation, I found out the reason for my detention was my work in delivering relief assistance to besieged people, along with my media activity in documenting the violations of the 'non-Syrian' army or the Assadist army, including the shelling, torture and destruction.

 Many detained women lost their sanity. One inmate was beaten to death. She was a mother. They took her son away from her. Her cries went unheard. She didn't fear their beating. So, despite the fact that they knew of her heart condition, they kept torturing her until one day she died in our arms. I think that those who died have found some relief. Losing your sanity is harder.


 There was another detainee from Daraya. The interrogator used to apply pressure on her through her son, despite the fact that her son was living in the liberated areas. In order to make her confess, the interrogator repeatedly led her to believe that they detained her son and he confessed. They used the same technique in four or five interrogation sessions. Until one night, we were confused when she started screaming and banging on the door. Meanwhile, we could hear a young man clearly being tortured. At that point, we didn't really know the reason she was screaming, but later we realised that she believed the man who was being tortured was her son. The interrogator's threats misled her to imagine hearing and seeing her son.

 For three days, whenever the guard opened the door, to take her or someone else for interrogation, she would rush to the guard and ask him for the 'document'. 'What document, calm down,' we said. She said, 'I want them to give me a certificate to be able to bury my son. My son was killed four days ago. I need to bury him.' She started suffering from numerous nervous breakdowns, until one day, the major at the prison was tired of hearing her cries. So they took her out, and brought her back five minutes later. Her face was numb, and she was unable to speak clearly. Apparently she was given something. For the following 72 hours, she didn't eat or say anything. She was unable to speak. Instead she used signs to communicate with us.

 Less than 15 days later, she lost her sanity. You wouldn't believe she was the same person she was 90 days before. She was well educated and knowledgeable. She would charm you with her words, her way of thinking and her maturity, how she and her son were seeking and fighting to eliminate injustice. But if you met her after those 20 days, you would think that she was born this way.

 I can't get her memory out of my head. I keep thinking that I too could have lost my sanity. She is just one example of numerous women who collapsed. I can't imagine what is waiting for them, or where they will end up. That said, sometimes I think death is less painful. But unfortunately, death has become a blessing we don't have. 
Every night, detainees pray that they don't wake up in the morning. Particularly, when they know they will be taken to interrogation, they hope they cease to exist. They would pray to God to acknowledge the good they have done in their lives and not to wake them up in the morning. And yet, we can't even die.


 Here I am, after eighteen months in the liberated areas. Many others, however, are still inside. Many young women and men, old women and men, mothers and children. What hurt me the most while in detention was to hear a child crying, or yelling because they needed to use the bathroom, or because they were hungry. The Air Force Intelligence Branch is packed with children, five year olds and even babies under twelve months. There was one kid who was four. Imagine, a four year old detainee. He has been there for two years with his mother.

 It's difficult. There are no words to describe it. You can only feel it."



Saturday, 17 November 2018

Thousands rally against Assad in northern Syria

Thousands rally against Assad in northern Syria

 'Despite a fragile buffer zone deal and mounting skirmishes, thousands of people came out to the streets of rebel-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces to rally against the Syria régime and its key ally Russia.

 Demonstrators held up the three-star flag of the Syrian revolution and placards recalling the first days of the Syrian revolution in 2011, saying their goal is the toppling of the Assad régime and stopping the Russian aggression.


 The de-militarized zone in Idlib province and parts of Hama was announced by rebel backer Ankara and Moscow in September to separate regime troops from rebel fighters in Idlib and adjacent areas.

 Under the deal, the rebels were supposed to have removed all heavy weapons from the buffer zone by Oct. 10 but skirmishes have continued to pit regime forces against militants and other insurgents on the ground.

 Rebel factions have said they withdrew their heavy weapons from the zone but Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance led by Syria's former al-Qaeda branch and other hardline groups have refused to pull out their fighters.

 Russia has said rebels are trying to wreck the Russian-Turkish initiative and Damascus has said Turkey seems unwilling to implement it. But Turkey says the deal is going to plan.


 About 20 régime troops were killed and wounded Friday in a surprise attack targeted three checkpoints for regime army forces near the village of Forrow in the western countryside of Hama.

 Last week, Tahrir al-Sham killed at least eight régime troops in the north of Hama province.

 The deadly militant assault came hours after régime troops killed 23 fighters of a formerly U.S.-backed Jaish al-Izza group. The regime forces pushed into the stronghold of Jaish al-Izaa near the town of al-Latameh.

 In retaliation, rebels wounded 9 régime army troops in rocket attack on Joureen military camp, local activists said.

 Also in the northern countryside of Hama, several troops were killed and wounded by a landmine near the town of Bredeeg, local reports said Monday.


 Meanwhile, Tahrir al-Sham is on alert amid concerns of imminent offensive on northern Idlib province following violations for the Russian -brokered buffer zone agreement, sources said.

 All the formations and units of Tahrir al-Sham have been mobilizing units.

A statement issued by Tahrir al-Sham accused the régime forces of breaching the deal through unprecedented attacks on the northern countryside of Hama and Idlib province that left casualties, including 10 civilians.

 Idlib and some adjacent areas are the last major rebel bastion in Syria, where the Russian-backed régime has in recent months retaken much of the territory it had lost since the civil war erupted.

 It had threatened an assault on rebel territory around Idlib, which is home to some three million people, but the truce deal struck by Russia and Turkey averted it.'


Image may contain: 1 personImage may contain: 14 people, people smiling, crowd and text

Friday, 16 November 2018

Blinded in war, former Syrian fighter guides others with app

Talha sharing a laugh with his first wife, Samia, in the market in the rebel-controlled town of Anjara. Talha is helping a dozen others like him to better navigate their smartphones using a screen reader app. — Photos: AFP

 'Years after losing his eyesight in battle, former Syrian rebel fighter Ahmad Talha hunches over his mobile phone in a bare classroom, listening to the robotic voice he helped translate.

 At a rare association for the blind in the northern province of Aleppo, Talha is helping a dozen others like him to better navigate their smartphones using a screen reader app.

 “My wish for all blind people is for them to have the best device, the best tools,” says 24-year-old Talha, whose eyes are permanently closed, a purple scar under his right eye.

 Heads lowered in concentration at the centre in the rebel-controlled town of Anjara, men of all ages and a teenager clutch their phones and listen for instructions.


 “Alright guys, everybody open up WhatsApp,” says instructor Mohammad Ramadan, dressed in a brown leather jacket, aviator sunglasses concealing his eyes.

 As the students scroll around to find the messaging service, the classroom erupts into a low cacophony of artificial voices guiding them across the invisible icons.

 The voices are male and female, some sped up to three times the normal pace.


 Talha says he found the screen reader application online in English, and translated it to Arabic with help from friends.

 The application tells the user what page they are looking at, what they can do with it, and reads out text it encounters.

 A student in computer sciences, Talha joined the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s régime in 2012.

 But two years later, a gunshot wound to the head saw him lose his eyesight.

 “I didn’t give up. I continued living,” says the young man with a short black beard.


 Talha married his first wife, then a second, and returned to his studies. And he recently became engaged to a third woman, who is also blind.

 “I still see a little light in my right eye,” he says, gazing out the window into the sunlight outside.

 “It’s all mostly dark, but with a little romance – like a lit candle in a large room,” says that father-of-three.

 At home, Talha helps his one-year-old daughter Aisha walk by holding her little arms, and crouches by his three-year-old son Hassan to talk him through opening up YouTube on his phone.

 Three months ago, his first wife gave birth to another daughter.

 “We’re not missing anything in life,” says his first wife Samia, her eyes made up beneath her black face veil.

 “Nothing stops him,” she says of her husband. “He may have lost his eyesight, but he has vision.”

 This year, Talha helped set up the area’s first association for the visually impaired, whose name in Arabic translates to “Seeing Hearts”.

 “It’s a home for the blind. We gather, get active, ask for our rights,” he says.


 Largely self-funded with a few donations, the centre stands in a one-floor stone building, its façade freshly painted.

 Around a dozen people arrive for the day’s lesson on foot, aided by friends, or on a dilapidated grey minibus.

 Director Ahmed Khalil says the new centre seeks to help those who have lost their eyesight in the seven-year war, including in air strikes.

 “The association aims to draw the blind out of their isolation,” he says, seated inside his office, wearing a brown jacket.

 Since October, eight volunteers have offered psychological support, as well as training to use mobile phones and the centre’s single computer, he says.

 But they also have more fun activities, says Talha, including chess and football – using a special ball with an inbuilt bell.'

Ahmad Talha, a former Syrian rebel fighter who lost his sight as a result of a gunshot wound, stands with his son in their home in the rebel-controlled town of Anjara, in the western Aleppo countryside, on November 10, 2018. - A student in computer sciences, Talha joined the fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime one year into Syria's civil war in 2012. But two years later, a gunshot wound to the head saw him lose his eyesight. (Photo by Aaref WATAD / AFP)

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Extracts from Nicolas Hénin's Jihad Academy, translated by Martin Makinson



 'The promotion of the idea of a Syrian régime that defends its Christians is carefully stage-managed. Any visit from an academic, MP, or lobbyist, with the potential to involve Syria's Christian groups, is always seized upon and exploited in news reports. Soon after the Ba'ath party came to power, its relationship with the Sunni majority turned sour. Very quickly, the régime targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the only forces which could claim to constitute any sort of opposition. But it was the assumption of power by Hafez al-Assad in 1970, and the Syrian invasion of Lebanon in 1976, that lit the touch paper. Confrontation escalated: there were terrorist attacks and murders on one side, and arrests and torture on the other. Then, in 1979, a sectarian offshoot of the Brotherhood launched an attack against the Aleppo artillery academy. Eight-three cadets, all Alawis, were killed. The régime's revenge was ruthless. A full-scale civil war followed, which was little known in the West since no media were able to cover it. It ended with the crushing of the city of Hama in 1982. Tens of thousands of people were killed. Thousands more were deported to the Palmyra prison in the middle of the eastern desert, which effectively became an extermination camp. This massacre - which sparked little international protest - brought the régime three decades of relative internal peace, at a high price. The régime sent a number of Christian officers to the front line to crush the Hama insurgency. This was a Machiavellian way of sealing a blood pact with the Christian community. The message was clear: if one day the Sunni are in a position to take their revenge, they will avenge themselves on you as much as on us. Your fate now depends on our régime's survival.'
[Chapter 1, Marketing Secularism, pp 2-3]

 'In reality, the régime fed sectarian fears. It did, after all, claim that when the revolution began, that the demonstrators were chanting: "Christians to Beirut, Alawis to the grave!" ("Massihiyin bi-Beirut, Alawiyin bi-Tabut!").

 I have not found any confirmation of this claim. Yet many believed the threat was real, and from the start of the uprising, it contributed to inter-communal tension. Also early on, the régime distributed weapons, particularly in the Alawi coastal villages, and the Druze suburbs of Damascus, and these deliveries were accompanied by scaremongering about entirely invented threats, said to originate in neighbouring Sunni villages.

 Yassin al-Haj Saleh is an old communist militant from Raqqa, long opposed to the régime. These Machiavellian tactics do not surprise him in the least. In a chilling article, "The Murder Industry in Syria", he describes Assad's methods of creating two walls of fear: fear of oppression by the régime and the fear of potential informants: "Before the outbreak of the revolution, we knew the régime depended on two Orwellian strategic systems: the fear complex, whose aim is to prevent things being called by their proper names, and the lie complex, whose function is to call things by other names than their own. Both ensure that Syrians are cut off from the real conditions of their lives, and that they can neither describe nor control them." '
[pp 6-7]

 'The number of its victims give the lie to the régime's alleged "protection of minorities". Photographs secretly sent out by someone using the codename "Caesar", who was employed for years by the military police in Damascus, photographing people killed. More than two years after the revolution began, he managed to send 55,000 pictures out of the country, documenting the fate of nearly 11,000 victims. These pictures prove in disturbing detail that the régime has indeed attacked minorities. Many Christians could be identified by the fact that they were uncircumcised and by tattoos in the shape of the cross. Other victims bore religious markings indicating they were Shia, and others even had the name or face of Bashar al-Assad on their bodies.

 Alawi and Christian revolutionaries I met in Lattakia at the start of the uprising told me: "God help us if the Mukhabarat [the dreaded intelligence services] catch us because they take it out on people like us in particular, because they consider us traitors to our community." '
[pp 9-10]

 'Ayman Abdel-Nour: "The Syrian Christian clergy has literally been bought wholesale by the régime. In the photos of every official event, there is always a representative of each religious denomination around the government representative. The régime has turned it into a competition between the representatives of each Christian church, who fight each other for the privilege of being in the photo. And there is also direct corruption, with cash handouts." '
[pp 10-11]


                                            ********************************

 'From the summer of 2011, detainees held for their alleged jihadi activities began to be released. In January 2014, Nawaf al-Fares, a former chief in Military Intelligence (Amn al-Askari), revealed that, "the régime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, by helping them set up armed units."

 This four-month release programme was supervised by the Directorate of General security and lasted until October 2011. The prisoners were carefully selected. Those with a known commitment to human rights and democracy remained in jail, while the radicals went free. One of the most famous was Zahran Alloush, who founded the most powerful anti-Assad group in the Damascus area as soon as he was freed and became well known for his violently anti-Shia rhetoric.'
[Chapter 2, Birth of the Jihadists, pp 16-17]


 'Wherever ISIS fighters advanced, they drove back moderate groups, forcing them from their hard-won territories. ISIS is like a cuckoo, plundering the nest the revolutionaries fought so hard for. Almost all of the territory  ruled by ISIS was previously occupied by other groups. ISIS has on the whole been content with seizing teritory only after others have taken it.

 As a result, ISIS has rarely launched frontal attacks on the régime, seizing the Menagh airbase, capturing Division 17 in Raqqa, and small-scale battles elsewhere being the complete list. Baghdadi's men have not tried to confront the régime. Quite the reverse: they have concentrated their offensives on revolutionaries and the Kurds, with whom ISIS competes for territory.'
[p19]


 'ISIS has an adversarial relationship with other jihadi movements such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. The accusations of betrayal, even of collaboration with the régime, are some of the main charges made against ISIS, even more than its extremist stance and violent methods.'
[p20]

 'At the end of 2013, the moderate groups, lost patience when ISIS took the border town of Azaz in the country's north-west. In early January 2014, a coalition was formed (mainly between the Islamic Front and the Northern Storm Brigade), in order to dislodge ISIS from its north-western strongholds. The coalition also had the support of several countries, notably the United States, Turkey, and several powerful Gulf states.'
[p20]


 'Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda franchise, nevertheless enjoys real support in Sunni areas. This is the result of its genuine and effective fight against the régime. In the parts of Syria it controls, the population appreciates the fact that it plunders resources less than other armed groups, including the régime's militias. Sunnis also tend to consider Jabhat al-Nusra to be effective in protecting them against the régime's abuses.

 Abu Mohammad al-Joulani sought recognition in the summer of 2014, and asked the United Nations to remove his group from the list of terrorist organisations. The group offered to withdraw from al-Qaeda in exchange for this, but this did not seem to catch the attention of the great powers.'
[p22]


 'Thomas Pierret: "The military advantages of alliance with Assad are insignificant compared to the political drawbacks. Backing Assad and abandoning the rebels is equivalent to making ISIS the régime's sole credible opponent, and therefore means throwing a large proportion of Sunnis, even the moderate ones, into its arms." '
[p24]


                                           ***********************************

 'The "House of Assad" quickly became "Assad, Inc." it met in the winter of 2005, shortly after the Ba'ath party's tenth congress, amid the colonnades of a luxury hotel in the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in the eastern desert. In this luxurious setting, the régime's favoured businessmen agreed to divide up the country's entire wealth. The result of this "Yalta of privatisations was the creation of two holding companies, the Cham group, run by Rami Makhlouf, the president's cousin, and the Souria group. From then on, these groups split the country between them, tapping its wealth through participation in the government and taking public contracts.'
[Chapter 3, Money Talks, pp 27-28]


 'Ziad Majed: "There is a class dimension to the Syrian revolution. Apart from the students, intellectuals and activists, who played an important part in the early months, this revolution is mostly about the poor country folk, simple peasants for whom some of the new Syrian middle class have little sympathy. The new rich prefer to identify with the régime's "westernised" appearance, and the régime in addition protects its "deals", interests and businesses. There is also a strong element of social racism. People only want to see others who look "like us". People shut themselves off in a kind of bubble, and despise workers, vegetable sellers, cleaning ladies and all those who support them." '
[p30]


 'Syrian journalist Hala Kodmani describes how "a spontaneous but very well organised movement sprang up as soon as there were free zones: the city's prominent citizens came together and created local councils. The people organised food supplies, schooling, hospitals and courts. This experiment failed for two reasons: first of all the bombings by the régime, which particularly targeted civilians - especially schools and hospitals - and secondly because of the Islamic fundamentalists." '
[p31]

 'The state soon had difficulty paying for the various militias and informal militiamen called shabihha it used to carry out repression (often ex-criminals in charge of the intelligence services' dirty work). The régime's henchmen were therefore authorised to "live off the land". When subduing a neighbourhood or retaking a village from the revolutionaries, they would not only attack the locals, but also loot and plunder.'
[p31]


 'Hamit Bozarslan: "In Syria, we are witnessing an insane disintegration of the state, to the point where it is turning into a militia. We are watching a mafia state destroying its own society to live off its very destruction." '
[p32]


 'The régime does not have a monopoly on theft and looting. Yassin al-Haj Saleh describes how, "Armed groups have stripped the civilian population. You need them for everything - even just to eat. They want to control people. Among them are groups that are more open-minded, but their resources are more limited and they are weaker than the radical groups." '
[p32]


 'ISIS and the Syrian régime are happy to do business together when it suits them. In January 2014, Ruth Sherlock, the Daily Telegraph's Middle East correspondent, revealed the murky secrets of oil trafficking between these two "enemies". Crude oil extracted in government-controlled areas was being transported via pipelines to areas held by ISIS and vice versa.'
[p36]

 'The terrible irony pf these airstrikes is that people suffer more in the areas no longer under government control, whether they are held by the Free Syrian Army, ISIS or another rebel group. The régime is able to maintain the population's standard of living through substantial financial support from Iran and Russia. Quite the opposite occurs in areas freed from its yoke, with the partial exception of Kurdish regions.'
[pp 37-38]


                                          *******************************************

 'When it was founded in spring 2012, when the Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amr was under siege from the Syrian army, Jabhat al-Nusra initially enjoyed the esteem of its countrymen. Fairly well-organised, honest, effective in battle, with a limited use of "martyrdom operations", its members were, in the eyes of Syrians, an effective bulwark against the régime, even though most did not share their extremely conservative political, religious and social views. It did not baulk at taking on the army and intervening when the latter attacked. It was always careful to distinguish between civilian and military targets.

 The régime continued to push the radicalisation of the conflict, contributing both to Jabhat al-Nusra's increasing sectarianism, and the creation of ISIS. This is why Jabhat al-Nusra, which had previously been selective in its choice of targets, changed tack in summer 2013, after the chemical attack on the Ghouta. The movement decided to be more sectarian by attacking "Alawi targets".

 One of Jabat al-Nusra's priorities is to avoid fitna, an internecine struggle between Muslims.'
[Chapter 4, A Self-fulfilling Prophecy, pp 42-45]

 'It seems obvious to everyone I've met in Syria since the revolution began that the country needs international assistance to finish off Assad's dictatorship. But it has taken a long time for Syrians to realise that this assistance will never come, and that realisation has been painful.

 There have been innumerable calls for help from revolutionary groups. In October 2011, a request for a no-fly zone. In December 2011, a request for a humanitarian buffer zone, in which displaced people could seek protection. In January 2012, there was a request for clear support for the Free Syrian Army. In March 2012, a request for an international military intervention to put an end to massacres. In August 2012, a request for anti-aircraft weaponry, and so on.

 The most shameful inaction followed the chemical bombing of the Ghouta in August 2013, which resulted in 1400 deaths. Initially the régime panicked. Observers in Damascus thought the upper echelons of the régime were preparing to flee, convinced that Western intervention was imminent.

 But on the contrary, the absence of reaction was finally taken as giving the régime carte blanche; it realised the West would never do anything. Assad immediately intensified the brutality of his attacks, and insidiously reintroduced chlorine, his chemical weapon of choice.

 Historian and publisher Farouk Mardam Bey, agrees that "since the lack of ant Western reaction to the chemical bombing of the Ghouta, régime bombing has doubled in ferocity and now targets the civilian population much more viciously to cause the maximum number of civilian casualties. We have seen the advance of the Syrian army on the ground, with militia support, while watching a media offensive intent on conveying the message: 'it's either Daesh [ISIS]. or the régime.' " '
[pp 46-47]


Wednesday, 31 October 2018

In Syria's Idlib, a protester still going strong




 'Nearly eight years after he joined his very first protest against Syria's régime, Bahr Nahhas still demonstrates every week with unwaning energy, even if the slogans have changed.

 Just like he has since 2011, the 45-year-old tilemaker carefully paints clever slogans on protest banners before each Friday rally in his rebel-held hometown of Maaret al-Numan, in Syria's northwest Idlib.


 In his very first protest in March 2011, Nahhas demanded "freedom and dignity" in solidarity with other cities rising up against President Bashar al-Assad's régime.

 "I'll never forget those days for the rest of my life," said the tall, olive-skinned father of five.

 Protesters would kiss and hug each other, Nahhas recalled, exhilarated by the prospect of speaking out freely against Syria's iron-fisted régime.

"We hoped to bring down the régime in just a few days or weeks," he said, his hair and beard greying.



 Instead, a drawn-out conflict has seen Russia-backed regime troops slowly roll back rebel and jihadist gains nationwide, until this summer they started to mass around the Idlib region.

 That prompted residents of Idlib, including Nahhas, to protest once more in order to head off the assault.

 "By going down to the streets, we are telling people that we are a coexisting, peaceful people asking for freedom and dignity," he said.

Now, a shaky buffer zone is keeping regime troops away from the region, more than half of which is held by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham jhadist alliance.


 But for Nahhas, hardliners do not represent all of Idlib.

 "We have gone out to protest again to tell the world that we are not terrorists," Nahhas said, wearing a short-sleeved stripy white and black shirt.

 Most days of the week, he makes floor tiles, scooping a grey mixture into a square mould with large yellow gloves, before pushing each into a small oven.

 But with the week's end approaching, he left his workshop to prepare banners for the town's Friday protests.

 Inside a building still under construction, he knelt over a long white sheet, brushing curly Arabic letters across it in thick black paint.




 Nahhas said he has lost many of his fellow protesters in Syria's war, which has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions.

 "Some were killed, some were arrested and are being held in the régime's jails, some were tortured to death, and some emigrated to Turkey or to Europe," he said.

 Others picked up weapons to fight, but Nahhas decided not to.

 "Words can be stronger than weapons," Nahhas said, as he prepared signs in Arabic and neat, block-lettered English.

 Outside, young men hoisted up protest signs in the street.

 A young man in a black hoody stood inside the elevated metal lip of a bulldozer, reaching down for a banner before tying one end to a rusty pole.


"We were among the first towns to go out into the streets against Daesh," Nahhas said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

 ISIS briefly held parts of Maaret al-Numan before opposition fighters expelled them in 2014.

 "Afterwards, we protested against Al-Nusra... and they were kicked out too," added Nahhas, referring to the group that later became HTS.

 Turkish-backed rebels ousted HTS from the town this year after months of fighting.

 All along, the town weathered bombardment by the régime and its Russian ally.


 Nahhas said he is still haunted by an air strike on a primary school in the town several years ago that killed three students and maimed several others.

 "I rushed to rescue the pupils after the raid, but I couldn't see anyone because of all the dust," he said.

 "I found one of the students reaching out to me, begging. I carried him out to a car outside the school. His leg had been cut off."

 He pulled out one victim after the other, until rescue workers arrived. "I couldn't take it anymore and I collapsed," he said.



 Friday's demonstration got underway after midday prayers.

 Carrying a small child, Nahhas melted into the crowd of demonstrators, surrounded by banners he helped make.

 Assad has vowed to eventually retake Maaret al-Numan and wider Idlib, but the veteran protester remained defiant.

 "There's no way this revolution -- that has seen so many people killed and jailed -- can end before the régime is toppled," Nahhas said.'


Saturday, 27 October 2018

They’d rather be right

Image result for leftists syria revolution

 This was originally written for Muftah Magazine's Syria Collection in 2016, in which a heavily edited version appeared under the title 'Some Leftists Would Rather Be “Right” Than Principled on Syria'.


 If you are in a left-wing group, try this bit of stage magic on your friends. Ask them what they would like to see happen in Syria, and I’ll tell what their answer will be. Half of them will say, “the victory of the revolution”, those are the hacks who think they know something about Syria. The other half will say “peace”, and these liberals have bothered to learn nothing. What you won’t hear any of them say is the answer that most Syrians would give if they could articulate it, “the victory of the rebels over the Assad régime”. And therein lies the gross failure of the left, not even to answer the right question on Syria, but to know what the question is, and that they are failing. Even as they compete with other left-wing groups for who has the best line, each one thinks their organisation has done right by Syrians.


 When the revolution broke out in 2011, I had the good fortune to follow the writing of my friend of 20 years, Robin Yassin-Kassab. From the beginning I see could see the shape of the pro-revolution and the anti-revolution narratives. Free Syrians saw their struggle as a simple one for freedom and dignity, while their enemies presented it as a complicated one we couldn’t hope to understand, based on religious hatred, where the problem was that neighbouring states had turned it into a proxy war by arming the opposition.
I started writing a blog, News of the Revolution in Syria because I could see that much of the left was accepting the anti-revolution narrative by default, or even, like the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition, actively promoting it. All along I could see that even those on the left who thought they were better than that would accept parts of this reactionary message. As a result, Syrians have been appalled at the behaviour of the left, a process that has gone unnoticed by much of the Western left, and those who have noticed, always think they themselves are immune to the criticism because they have done enough. So I would find myself appalled by the behaviour of leftists, and fear for the future of the left when Syria was such a gaping hole in their conduct. Whenever I thought I might be too hard, I would look at what my friend Robin was saying, and it would inevitably be harsher, and given that most Syrians are not as secular or leftist as he is, I could assume that even his contempt was mild compared to the average.

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 A few weeks ago the BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet said on the news, “We have been told that peace requires that the US and Russia come together.” Yes we have, by her, and by the rest of the Western media. Which has constructed an image of the conflict where the problem is that each side is arming its own proxies, and the role of the Great Powers has to be to bring them to the conference table to talk peace. As Syrians know, the truth is that Russia and Iran have been behind Assad’s efforts to crush them from the first, while the Americans have been stopping any friendly nation from providing Free Syrians with the weaponry they need to defend themselves. It requires some careful analysis to see where the interests of Russia and America differ, as the one benefits from Assad continuing in power while the other is responding to its previous imperial over-reach by handing Syrians over to their oppressors, but the Left (with a handful of exceptions) has nothing of the ability to comprehend this, stuck as it is in a world where everyone is bombing Syria just the same, and we might as well concentrate on stopping Britain bombing ISIS, even if that is almost entirely irrelevant to the life and death of Syrians.


 There are other aspects that the left misses out on. The wave of disinformation that comes directly out of Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, the way this is given prominence in mainstream Western media as a reliable source, whereas opposition sources are always unverified, and all too often it is the US administration’s spin that is presented as the alternative to Damascus. The way supposedly alternative media just laps up or creates its own additions to the Assad narrative, how it is the West that made ISIS what it is, how the Israelis run it, how the Saudis and Qataris fund it. We can see how the left groups fail because their methodology of looking for anti-Western sources to tell them the real story in this case just leads them to those like Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk who present the partially concealed and almost straightforwardly lunatic versions of the Assadist narrative. But those individuals outside the left groups are often no better, thinking that RT or Global research are wakening them to the real powers in the world when they are peddling the least subtle of lies.

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 Almost all of the left groups have their history on Syria bookended by their support for Hands Off Assad demonstrations in the wake of his chemical attacks in 2013, and their support today for Jeremy Corbyn. Just as then they simply wouldn’t listen to the argument that they were disrespecting Syrians by pretending the threat against them was US action against Assad, they simply won’t hear it when it’s pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn is pro-Assad, he called the SAA the credible and acceptable force without whose support we shouldn’t attack ISIS, pro-Iran, six out of his seven PMQs to Cameron on Syria in 2012-13 were asking for an increase in Iran’s participation in the debate over Syria’s future, and pro-Russia, he welcomed the Russian intervention. 99% of Corbynites simply won’t engage with the facts, including those who shouted down a speaker at yesterday’s Stop the War conference who challenged Corbyn over his inaction over Syria by chanting “No more war.”

 
 There was a Middle East / North Africa solidarity conference this year at which one speaker pointed out how much the left had failed over Syria, prompting Judith Orr of the SWP to say she didn’t know what he was on about, they had written lots of articles for Socialist Worker on the revolution. The SWP does encapsulate the failure of left groups quite well, as its insularity makes it unaware that it might do anything wrong. Simon Assaf of the SWP went to the first Syrian solidarity conference, and then stayed in the hallway selling books and not engaging with anyone. They have attended no anti-Assad demonstrations, their leader Alex Callinicos has consistently promoted Patrick Cockburn’s views on Syria, Anne Alexander wrote a piece for the International Socialism Journal in which she claimed the Free Syrian Army was seeking an alliance with ISIS. Callincos also defended the Stop the War Coalition leadership over its refusal to allow any Syrians on its platforms, calling its critics “supporters of Western airpower.”


 RS21 split from the SWP in 2013, and initially said even less about Syria. In late 2014 they put an article by Andy Cunningham up on their website that said we shouldn’t support the Free Syrian Army because it might let Islamic extremists win power. In 2015 they discovered the refugee crisis, but only as a way of bashing the Tories for not letting those stuck in Calais into Britain. One of their members Miriam Asfar joined the Syrian Solidarity Campaign Organisers group (I’d been asked to join by the existing organisers, despite my reluctance to get more politically active) on Facebook, and immediately denounced all the supporters of a no fly zone as imperialists. I pointed her to a piece called Blanket Thinkers on my blog where there is a discussion with Robin Yassin-Kassab and a couple of other Syrians in which we discover that if leftists start their pitch to Syrians by telling them how terrible Western imperialism, they are going to be written off as pro-Assad. She responded by claiming I’d called her pro-Assad, and flounced off. The following year she apparently told an rs21 meeting it might have been a mistake to write off all no fly zone supporters. A couple of their members have done some Syrian solidarity work, but the other members seem to think that they can justify doing less than nothing themselves by taking credit for that.


 Socialist Resistance think they are much better, and in having links to Gilbert Achcar, they do have contact with some of the better leftist thinking on Syria. Still they think of it as one issue among many, so when related issues come up, like the abuse meted out to Michael Weiss by supposed pro-Palestinian activist Richard Silverstein, their members are on the wrong side. Or Tony Greenstein, who accuses the rebels of being Israel supported and users of chemical weapons, they defend without ever mentioning his views on Syria. And their support for Corbyn infects everything else they do, so they were on the side of those claiming that the 70,000 moderate rebels were just an invention of David Cameron’s.


 Similarly Workers Power formally have the best position of the small left groups on Syria, demanding the arming of the Free Syrian Army with anti-aircraft weapons. But when I read Marcus Halaby’s pamphlet on Syria, it took the situation and turns it into an apologia for their own narrow splinter of politics. So instead of attacking Stop the War, they attack the same people in their political group guise as Counterfire, because that is who Workers Power compete with for members, while they think Stop the War is a good thing. The pamphlet also attacks unnamed FSA commanders who might want Western intervention, and claims the Syrian National Coalition wasn’t really trying to displace the regime, but would be happy with obtaining some ministerial posts. It has nothing to say about the actual debates going on inside or outside Syria, just promotes Workers Power. And when I talked to other members of Workers Power, the understanding seemed to be very shallow, it wasn’t hard for them to veer off into seeing the US as the main problem in Syria. As a smaller cult, they seem to let one member to write the policy and everyone else to memorise it. This wasn’t so bad on Syria, but when their leader Richard Brenner decided the policy on Ukraine was that the Ukrainians were fascists, it destroyed any credibility they had built up. They used to come to Syrian solidarity demonstrations, but then they got too busy supporting Corbyn, including aggressively attacking anyone in the Labour Party that didn’t support Corbyn’s policy on Syria.

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 Across the Atlantic, the International Socialist Organization has been better. They have organised marches and demonstrations*, and co-ordinated with other Syrian solidarity activists, even if occasionally thinking they can decide who is part of the movement or not. Stanley Heller wrote an excellent piece in Socialist Worker ending with what can be done to show solidarity, from protests to challenging the Assadist narrative wherever it appears. They have enthusiastically picked up on Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami’s book Burning Country, and its message of the Syrian revolution and its betrayal.


 But still, they seem stuck in the same mentality as other far left groups. Indeed their members were shocked to find that the British SWP was so bad on Syria, just about the time they had signed a joint statement on Syria, which equated the Russian and US bombing and told Syrians they shouldn’t accept support from Islamists or anyone who asked for Western arms. I read a piece by Ashley Smith in Socialist Worker, and it starts very well with extensive praise for and quoting from Burning Country, but then it goes on to say that Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to arm the rebels, but they are never going to defy the US, so Syrians have to forget about them and look to the international working class, which seems very detached from reality in the way that left groups are. They also have continued to support the PKK/YPG attacks on Turkey which weaken its ability to support the Syrian revolution against Assad, and conversely deny there is anything progressive about Turkey’s policy at all, as they enable the FSA to retake 1000 sq km around Jarablus. Or they will say that Jabhat al-Nusra as was and even Ahrar al-Sham are just as reactionary as the regime, when Syrians have always seen them as better, even if they didn’t want to be ruled by Islamists, and certainly after they broke the siege of Aleppo, Syrians refuse to fall into the trap of seeing them as a legitimate target. When régime propaganda claimed a massacre had taken place when Islamist groups conquered the Alawite village of al-Zaraa, they condemned them even though it proved not to have happened.

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 I haven’t bothered to talk about the worst of the left, the Tariq Alis, the George Galloways. But they will be what is thrown at the left when Syria is done with. The world isn’t forgiving when the Left makes mistakes, it doesn’t have the money to buy good PR. When the Left made the mistake of supporting Stalinist tyranny it produced a generation of anti-communism, which even those like the Trotskyists who opposed Stalin were not immune to. When there is no longer the need to keep quiet about Syria to protect the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Middle East, the association of the left with every aspect of Assad’s genocide will begin. It is only if the Left understands they not only have to show proper solidarity, to look at Syria the way Syrians do, to distinguish themselves from not only the grotesquely pro-Assad, but all the clueless leftists who offer nothing but slogans about revolution, then everyone is going to be caught up in the association between leftism, torture, rape and other atrocities. But that isn’t going to happen, because if they were listening to that sort of message, they would have heard it already. I fear for the future, when someone who wants a better world will be perceived as the worst evil. It will make it harder to fight for any sort of freedom and dignity, to defend the rights we have already. Indeed, by failing Syrians, the left has ensured that we are all likely to be treated like Syrians.

*I may have been overpraising the ISO there.


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Thursday, 25 October 2018

Assad will fall



 In the summer of 2015, the Assad régime forces collapsed in the northwest province of Idlib, town after town falling to the rebels, culminating in the humiliating siege of the Tiger forces led by the star military officer Suheil al-Hassan, in the National Hospital in Jisr al-Shugour.

 You wouldn’t have read this in the media at the time. Taking the lead from régime apologists like Patrick Cockburn, the mainstream narrative was that Assad had defied predictions of his demise and was the strong and stable leadership Syria needed as the only alternative to al-Qaeda and ISIS taking over the country with the aid and acquiescence of the West and its allies. An analysis dishonest in a number of aspects, such as Assad fighting ISIS rather than cooperating with them, but significantly, he had only survived because of the massive foreign intervention in his favour and an equally significant indifference by those powers rhetorically opposed to him. Russia provided a billion dollars of weaponry a month and UN Security Council vetoes against censure for his crimes, Iran provided tens of thousands of troops from its proxy Shia jihadist militias, firstly Hezbollah from Lebanon, but moving on to recruit from as far away as Tajikistan. The US blocked any anti-aircraft weapons that could have stopped Assad’s barrel bombing, and refused to take action to bring him to account even when he blatantly crossed President Obama’s red line by using a whole bunch of chemical weapons in 2013.




 There had been indications already that the Assadist state had shifted the balance in ruling between force and consent dramatically in favour of force. In late 2012, looking at the reporting of an Assadist counter-offensive in Aleppo, I noticed that when the régime advanced, there was no return of the population to their homes. Clearly there was a large section of the population, predominantly Sunni Muslims but including anyone who might be suspected of opposition to Assad, that he intended to kill or induce to flee. As the head of Military Intelligence, Jamil al-Hassan, said this year, “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.”

 In addition to the deliberate bombing of civilians, attacking schools and hospitals as well as homes, there was the mass torture of detainees, often to death, with the accompaniment of forcing them to declare there is no God but Bashar. The mass use of rape, both in the prisons and in Sunni villages across the country, where parents were raped in front of their children, children in front of the parents, often people forced to rape each other. All this was designed to force the entire population to practice absolute obedience or destroy it.

 But there was more. I discovered the core of it in an article in late 2015 by Ansar Jasim called “The Malice of Power: Arrests in Syria as Part of a Politico-Economic Rationale”:

 ‘ “By now, it is estimated that 90 % of those arrested by the regime or régime militias had nothing to do with the revolution,” says Amer, a former officer in the Syrian military. Free rein when it comes to arrests is one of the ways in which the régime renders it possible for various parts of its security apparatus to enrich themselves. That way, the régime secures support for its actions in times of economic demise. The ones who are left to suffer are the thousands of disappeared Syrians and their families.’

 Assad’s state is more than a sectarian military dictatorship. It is a torture-rape kleptocracy that profits from the destruction of the society it rests upon. As such it is the most unstable state in the world, a black hole that constantly destabilises the world around it as it fights to maintain its existence. There have been other states that resemble it in some ways. Only one government had ever bombed its own cities before - though it is time to stop calling a ruling party a government when it eschews government in favour of murder so blatantly – General Somoza’s in Nicaragua. The only state I can think of that so systematically murdered the professional classes of the population was Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. Neither lasted for more than a few years after they began to destroy the foundations of their society.



 The torture-rape state did not come out of nowhere. Its lineage is traced in Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s chapter on the Neo-Sultanic State in The Impossible Revolution. A personality cult was set up around the person and position of the President from the time in power of Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad, and permission for all activity is given by connections to the security state that he heads. A culture of mass murder against threats to the state from the time of the Hama uprising in 1982, when tens of thousands were killed both in the city and in the prisons afterwards, with both an official silence about events, and a message to its enemies that the state would permit no dissent. Those with power, particularly the security branches, were able to derive income from the extortion and robbery of large sections of the population. A system of informing to the security branches kept the nation in fear of their neighbours. And from the accession of Bashar, large parts of the economy were handed over to a few cronies, most notably the President’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

 Stephen Starr in Revolt in Syria records the result. A sclerotic economy, in which many jobs are only available to those with the money and connections to buy their way into them, with then little incentive to perform them properly. In modern capitalist societies there are two contradictory tendencies, towards authoritarianism so that property can be protected from threats from below and abroad, and towards liberalisation so that the economy can maintain efficiency and creativity. Usually when dictators have lost all consent, like Marcos or Duvalier, their exit is arranged. But the Assadist state was peculiarly set up to resist reform, and the international situation was aligned in such a way that it has prolonged its life.

 I think evidence for the extreme nature of the Assadist state can be seen in its relations with two other forces in Syria, ISIS and the PYD offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish separatist organisation the PKK. In the first case I’d highlight that they collaborated with ISIS in many ways, beyond buying oil, gas and wheat from them to deliberately abandoning Palmyra to them with the consequent massacre of many ostensible régime supporters, so that they could be seen to be fighting ISIS with Russian help. There is simply no depravity the régime won’t sink to, or limit to the violence it will unleash, as it has no concern for the people it rules. Something that could be borne in mind when looking at the supposed attacks on civilians by the opposition, whether in Damascus this year (attacks which couldn’t even be located to one area of the Eastern Ghouta), or against empty classrooms in West Aleppo in 2016, right back to the attacks on civilians by unknown gunmen Samar Yazbek records as false flag operations by the régime in 2011 in her diary Woman in the Crossfire, when the reason for thinking that this couldn’t have been done by Assad, nobody would do this to their own supporters, no longer applies. In the second case, I’d highlight that the PYD/YPG has consistently been prepared to offer Damascus a deal where it would retain autonomous rule over Kurdish areas in return for integrating those areas into the Assadist state. Assad’s ministers have consistently rejected it, because Assad’s rule depends on an image of an unchallengeable leader.



 The Assad cult was already a thin one. Lisa Wedeen wrote in Ambiguities of Domination in 1999:

 “The regime produces compliance through enforced participation in rituals of obeisance that are transparently phony both to those who orchestrate them and to those who consume them ... Assad’s cult operates as a disciplinary device, generating a politics of public dissimulation in which citizens act as if they revere their leader.”

 It must now be much thinner. 20 years ago the Syrian population could be largely denied access to any other picture of their reality. The existence of a large part of liberated Syria for years has meant that must have broken down to the point where it is only a facade to fool foreigners and indicate compliance. I remember the BBC broadcast a film of a woman after the fall of East Aleppo in 2016 declaring, “We will lay down our lives for you Bashar.” Nobody can believe that someone who had been besieged and bombed by Assad for four years would declare such a thing unless it was the only alternative to torture and starvation. As it has taken surrendered areas with much of the population in place rather than simply pushed out, the lack of any real support for the régime can only be hidden partially by keeping many people in prison camps (“processing centres) until they buy their way out, and inviting régime officers and Iranian militiamen to operate as an internal occupying force in the “reconciled” areas.

 The régime is left with very immediate threats of violence as its governing strategy, and cannot step back to a more consensual method. Because those who carry it out the arrests, rape torture and extortion, those who profit from it, are the core of the state. Individual militias can sometimes be disbanded by the Russians, but the nature of the state relying on extreme violence for profit cannot be changed while the state remains. For another good reason: the threats of war crimes prosecution. Despite the help of an unprecedented level of genocide denial in the world’s media, particularly leftist and alternative media, the evidence against members of the Assadist state for war crimes and crimes against humanity is at a level never seen before in history.

 To prevent themselves being carted off the Hague, the state from Assad at the top to the torturers and looters at the bottom don’t just need to protect themselves against actual threats. They need an excuse to avoid facing up to justice. They need the war to continue so that they can claim to be stopping chaos. Even if all military activity against them ended, the claim that they were still fighting terrorism would never end. The arrest and torture to suppress all opposition and provide opportunities for profit would never end. Once all opposition eyes were removed from the country, it would likely increase. Because that’s what violently sadistic people do when their violent sadism seems to have produced results.

 And even with the massive aid they have received from Russia and Iran, the $21 billion the Iranians have sunk into Assad being a major cause of the bankruptcy and mass protests in Iran, Assad’s forces have shown themselves incapable of retaking any area without chemical weapons and international agreement to keep other fronts quiet while they concentrate on each opposition area.



 The Western indulgence for the Assad régime does not stem from their direct economic interests, as the support for Assad from Russia and Iran does (or at least the hope of recouping their investment by further impoverishing Syria). Rather it stems from their avoidance of a confrontation with an anti-interventionist public opinion (a point made by Alistair Burt to an All Party Parliamentary Group on Syria in the UK in 2016 when explaining why the government felt it couldn’t help those besieged in east Aleppo) fuelled by the left whether it openly supported Assad or not, and a belief that Assad represented some sort of stability, so the can of what to do could be kicked down the road as Assad returned normalcy once he defeated the rebels. In addition President Obama’s administration saw giving Iran a free hand in Syria to aid Assad’s repression a carrot to get it into a nuclear deal, and other powers lukewarm towards Assad found themselves unwilling to take decisive action without American leadership.

 It didn’t work out that way. Assad’s bombing caused millions to flee, threatening to destabilise the neighbouring countries and Europe too. His enabling of ISIS caused the retraumatisation of an Iraqi nation only just recovering from the US invasion in 2003, and fears of terrorism across the west. The false reporting of his war against Syria as a western plot echoed and reinforced Russian propaganda to It didn’t work out that way. Assad’s bombing caused millions to flee, threatening to destabilise the neighbouring countries and Europe too. His enabling of ISIS caused the retraumatisation of an Iraqi nation only just recovering from the US invasion in 2003, and fears of terrorism across the west. The false reporting of his war against Syria as a western plot echoed and reinforced Russian propaganda to justify its actions from the invasion of Ukraine to the chemical attack in Salisbury. Gradually the chickens of seeing Assad as the easy option were coming home to roost.

 A more immediate change of detriment to Assad has been in Turkish policy. Always anti-Assad, but hopeful that the trigger would be pulled, or at least a shield would be put in place to protect Northern Syria from the régime until late 2015, they decided then that their security required the abandonment of the policy of not fighting the war on the Syrian side of the border. First they cleared ISIS and the PKK/YPG from the northwest – the capture of Afrin making it far harder for the YPG to assist Assad in an Idlib offensive as they had helped him capture Aleppo – and then stopped the Idlib offensive in its tracks by moving the own troops in and threatening to aid the redeployment of tens of thousands of Free Syrian Army troops from North Aleppo.



 Until recently there seemed like one way for Assad to continue the horror while overcoming his inability to revert to a position of ruling with any consent from the people: get new people. The Iranians, along with their Shia sectarian militias from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond, have settled areas of Syria previously occupied by Sunni Muslims who have fled. They’ve taken over areas of Damascus, of towns in the west captured by Hezbollah like Qusayr, Madaya and Zabadani, and more recently in Deir Ezzor.

 But in their confidence of victory, the Iranians have over-reached. From keeping Hezbollah from any real conflict with Israel, with retaliation against attacks on Hezbollah weapons convoys purely against Syrians, the believed they had become strong enough to make their threats against Israel tangible. And Israel has responded by destroying hundreds of millions of dollars of Iranian equipment at bases in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Without the ability to project force on a national Syrian scale, their settlers are just another group with limited wasta (connections), and unable to determine the future state of Syria. This has been reinforced by the change of administration in Washington, with the US now seeing Iran as more of a hindrance than a help across the region.

 So, we are left with a situation in which 75% of the Syrian economy has been destroyed, and rather than rebuilding, the forces of the state are weighing in the copper piping. As Rafia Salameh writes in al-Jumhuriya of an economy that devours itself:

 “Returning entire neighbourhoods to a state before construction and infrastructure, and destroying what few walls remain standing to extract and pillage what inside them, is a systematic process of impoverishment of the country. It is a process replacing production with property recycling, undercutting its value, swapping its owners, like a rotting carcass devouring what little sign of life remains until it simply vanishes.”


 The statue of Bashar’s father recently erected in Deir Ezzor is a symbol of the Assadist state’s attitude to reconstruction, nothing is important other than its own glorification and consumption. There is no economic multiplier where wages go on goods that pay for further wages that lead to an increase in the circulation of wealth through the economy. Instead as much as can be taken, and the exploitation is hardly limited to the walls of the lord’s stomach as they were in medieval times so much is never enough, is diverted into the consumption by Assad and the small circle of his relatives. Just as the UN aid for Syria has ended up as supplies for his soldiers or sold in régime areas for the same cronies’ profit, the same would happen to any reconstruction aid, which is why Russia demands the West provide it, and the West is very unlikely to make that mistake. Assad isn’t going to rebuild Syria, he won’t even stop the unbuilding of it.

 If my hypothesis that the Assadist state can be defined by its extreme criminality is correct, it won’t even be able to stop fighting a war. It has imported ISIS into Suwayda in order to drag the province into the militarisation process it had largely avoided (the narrative that the régime has almost won the war and is now safe is belied by its desperate manpower shortage, and a guide that the decentralisation of the violent chaos with a single arbiter of violence to many is likely to continue). It is still shelling Lattakia and Hama, has tried to infiltrate the Turkish backed FSA held area on the Tadef Front this week, organises agents and very probably aids ISIS to commit assassinations in Idlib. As I take a break in writing, the régime bombarded Kafr Hamra in Aleppo and has mobilised a thousand members of the Palestinian Quds force.

 At some point, destabilisation will not be enough. The régime will have to attack either Idlib or Eastern Syria. The latter might seem more attractive because it would hope to get the oil fields back, but the last time it tried it with the help of Russian mercenaries (giving the Kremlin deniability), it lost dozens if not hundreds of fighters to little effect. The régime’s preference is always the cowardly one of attacking the weakest, attacking civilians in the hope that the fighters can be made to surrender. But soon, given it’s impatience, the need to protect its image as the valiant destroyer of all opposition, the need to give its armed forces something to do and to keep the country unstable so war crimes prosecutions cannot begin, it will have to attack with force, and the indications are that the Turks and others will protect the opposition enough so that Assad exhausts his forces. And although it looks right now as if the conflict is far from his palace in Damascus, if Assad loses his remaining useful troops in a failed offensive, his time left will be short. The Russians will be tempted to back him to the hilt, as it finds such genocidal leaders are the easiest to guarantee will stay within its sphere of influence, but their policy has been to use bluff and the threat of general war to inhibit states from forcing Assad out. If it is faced with the determination to prevent Assad’s violations, they aren’t going to risk their all on a war with states when it can’t even maintain stability in Syria only fighting locals, and will likely scramble to avoid a scenario like the Americans fleeing their embassy in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.


 Assad’s régime is a house of cards, glued together with such a system of repression that it cannot be pried apart, only blown over. As long as it stands, it will continue to look for internal and external enemies to butcher, mutilate and violate. If it is not overthrown, it will increasingly see fights between the various armed forces within it over control of resources, as their are no avenues for peaceful resolution of disputes.

 So the first message for the opposition and humanity is one of hope. Assad will fall. You cannot keep a sphere atop a spike indefinitely before it bursts. Patience, and remembering who the enemy is, would seem to be the key. Don't put your faith in foreign aid, but don't think they are all the same either. It is hard to know what better strategy the opposition could have come up with in the face of the international indulgence of Assad up to now, though hanging on to as much liberated territory as possible and refusing any transition that does not mean the downfall of the régime seem to have been the right moves, the first, despite the bombing and other violence they have endured, maintaining the option of the second without a wholly external assault on the régime. I would say also that the rebels need to keep their eyes on the prize and never again be distracted into fighting each other. It may be important to root out the frogs that have tricked other liberated areas into surrender, or to protest against violations of civil liberty by armed groups, but that really shouldn't extend to fighting against other anti-Assad Syrians because they are either too Islamist or too secularist. When rebel groups have fought each other, it has given Assad a new lease of life. When they have united, such as in Idlib in 2015, only the whole world standing against them could stop them advancing against the feeble power of a monster that knows only how to rape and loot.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Syrian High Negotiations Committee under fire

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 'Syrians in the country's opposition-controlled north are demanding the dissolution of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC), claiming the negotiators are making too many concessions to the regime and even Russia and Iran.

 Activists accuse the HNC, headed by opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri, of giving up too much and failing to implement items stipulated in the Geneva I conference, which include forming a transitional government in Syria and releasing detainees from regime prisons.

 The HNC was established in November 2017 in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, during the opposition’s second Riyadh conference. It has 50 members representing the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, the Moscow and Cairo platforms, Free Syrian Army factions and a number of independent opposition figures.


 On Oct. 5, Syrians took to the streets of opposition-held Idlib and the countrysides of Aleppo and Hama. They are calling their movement “The HNC Does Not Represent Us." (Another name considered was "Normalization with Assad is Treason.")

 Figures representing the HNC, including Hariri, criticized the movement's demands and even its name. Hariri told al-Arabiya news that the regime, on the other hand, likes the new group's name, and will no doubt be pleased that a movement is rising to challenge the HNC.

 Demonstrators called for dissolving the HNC and holding it responsible for what's happening in Idlib and other opposition-held areas. The protesters raised banners attacking the HNC, stressing that it has failed to provide any benefits to the Syrian revolution and the liberated areas. Their signs conveyed the messages: “The revolution shall continue until our victory is achieved” and “The political solution begins with overthrowing the regime and prosecuting its figures."


 Activists explained that the protest movement’s name is a strong message from the revolutionary street to energize all opposition-affiliated institutions and forces. This will force politicians to seriously reconsider the situation and discuss reform.

 “Hariri’s statements and his criticism of anti-HNC protesters in the north have angered many," said Yahia Nanaa, head of the Association of Free Syrian Engineers in Aleppo and a member of the Political Body of Syrian Revolutionary Forces. "Syrian activists in opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo’s countryside vowed to carry on with their movement, demanding the dismissal of the HNC.”

 He said, “The HNC wasn't at the level we expected it to be. It worked to achieve international interests rather than revolutionary ones. We, as the Syrian opposition, are in dire need of restructuring the HNC and creating change that guarantees the interests of the national revolution. We need to eliminate mercenaries, those who benefit from them and who don't work for the revolution.”


 Mohammed Shakib al-Khaled, also a member of the Political Body of Syrian Revolutionary Forces in Idlib, said the group considers HNC an illegal representative of the opposition.

 “Every military, political or other opposition institution must serve the objectives of the Syrian revolution, and if it fails to do so, then it does not represent the opposition in any way. The HNC is supposed to be an opposition-affiliated institution representing the Syrian revolution and defending it in international forums. However, we were surprised to see that some members of the HNC still consider Bashar al-Assad to be a legitimate president, treating the oppressor as the victim. In addition, certain independent figures that no one knew about have for some reason joined the HNC.”

 Khaled noted that the Cairo and Moscow platforms are two Syrian gatherings that were announced in Egypt and Russia in 2014, claiming to represent a spectrum of Syrian opposition. However, the opposition in northern Syria believes that these platforms are close to Russia and the regime, and have different orientations and objectives than those of the Syrian revolution. He explained the opposition is convinced Russia has worked to deliberately involve the Cairo and Moscow platforms in the HNC.

 Abu al-Ala al-Halabi, an activist in northern Aleppo province, said, “There's a real problem within the HNC. It doesn't serve the Syrian revolution, nor does it care for the people’s demands. This is why [the HNC] needs to be changed. Reform should be established in all other political institutions affiliated with the opposition as well. They must be restructured so as to serve our people in the best possible way and always put Syria’s interests above all else.”


 On Oct. 15, controversial HNC Vice Chairman Khaled Mahameed submitted his resignation, one day before the Syrian opposition candidates to the Constitutional Committee met in Riyadh. He said he resigned because he was under a lot of pressure.

 HNC members would not answer questions about Mahameed and refused to comment on the demonstrations.

 Opposition to Hariri and HNC has been building for some time. When Hariri visited al-Bab in July, dozens of opposition activists demonstrated in front of the city’s local council demanding his dismissal. Protesters held banners rejecting the HNC and accusing its members of visiting their area to promote reconciliation with the regime.'

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