Friday, 18 October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

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

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

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

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

 And then her world and her dignity were ripped apart.

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

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

 Yet Muna considers herself one of the lucky ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 October 2019

Thousands protest against Assad régime in Syria's Idlib

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Shattered Assad’s régime beginning to crumble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Syrian Rebels See Chance for New Life With Turkish Troops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

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

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

Raed Al Saleh:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Syria’s economic struggle

 'War has both gutted Syria’s economy and reconfigured the economic activity that remains. While swathes of the country have been destroyed and depopulated, others have absorbed their people, businesses, and economic capacity. Dozens of businesspeople across Syria testified to this chaotic transfer of wealth, which has spurred limited economic growth even as it introduces new forms of socioeconomic dysfunction.

 Syria’s coastal cities are perhaps the starkest and most consequential embodiment of this trend. Having remained comparatively stable throughout the war, the cities of Latakia and Tartous absorbed wave upon wave of displaced people from Homs, Aleppo, and Idlib—an influx that both strained and buoyed the region’s economy in a time of stagnation. A hotel manager in Tartous—whose economy has for decades relied on tourists visiting the coast’s Mediterranean beaches—stressed the paradox: “The period from 2012 to 2017 was a bad time for tourism. But even so, all the hotels and resorts were rented out by displaced families.”

 Newcomers included traders and industrialists from Aleppo and Homs—two erstwhile transit hubs and manufacturing centers laid low by siege and bombardment. Such individuals frequently brought their small- and medium-sized businesses with them, palpably accelerating the region’s economic activity. A resident of Latakia described how a street that comprised only shuttered shops before 2011 now buzzes with activity, thanks to Aleppans who rented and re-opened every last storefront.

 This upsurge in commercial activity marks a major historical shift, as Syria’s economic center of gravity had long been distributed along the north-south axis from Aleppo to Damascus. That shift has triggered multiple disruptions, not least in the form of competition between the newly arrived and pre-war laborers and businesspeople: “Carpenters from Homs and Aleppo work harder and are more experienced than the locals here,” said a Homs native who moved his furniture shop to Tartous in 2013. “So they compete with the locals and often push them out of the labor market.”

 Another fault-line divides established elites and wartime profiteers seeking to launder their wealth in the regular economy. This particular schism takes on an unmistakable sectarian hue, as predominantly Alawi nouveaux riche break into markets historically controlled by Sunnis and Christians. Yet this shift also fuels pragmatic collaboration, in a symbiotic relationship where longstanding business figures contribute their expertise while upstarts supply fresh cash and connections to the security apparatus. A Christian restaurant owner in Tartous city summed up this dynamic, in a tone that conveyed his own sectarian bent:

 “Historically, Sunni families have run Tartous’ restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. Christians ran wine stores as well as those restaurants serving alcohol. In the last two years, more and more Alawi security officers and militia leaders bought restaurants, cafes, and wine shops from Sunnis and Christians.

 I’ll leave Syria someday soon and expect to sell my shop to an Alawi. I’ve received multiple offers from Alawis already. They have plenty of money to buy it, but can’t run it like I do: I have much experience making high quality food and wine, and these people have money only. As a result, you see Alawi officers buying up restaurants but keeping Sunnis and Christians as managers and chefs, while most of the waiters and cleaning staff are young Alawis.”

 Although some coastal Alawis have successfully cashed in on Syria’s conflict economy, most have been plunged into misery and work menial jobs simply to get by. A community that was downtrodden before the war has been further impoverished by Syria’s overall economic malaise, as well as the death, disappearance, or debilitation of countless young men who formed the backbone of the régime’s security apparatus. The result is a complex tapestry of inequality and frustration: While the coast’s established business owners chafe at rising competition from displaced people, an expanding Alawi underclass finds itself more neglected than ever—despite sacrificing tremendously in defense of the régime.

 Those displaced from Homs and Aleppo also converged on the city of Hama, in central Syria. The latter was largely spared by the conflict, and thus took on growing importance as an administrative hub: As the provincial capitals of Idlib and Raqqa fell from government control, Damascus relocated those cities’ state offices (along with staff and resources) to Hama, which thus became the de facto capital of three provinces. Meanwhile, the city’s strategic positioning—at a crossroads between areas controlled by the régime, the rebels, and the Kurdish Autonomous Administration—rendered it a hub for transit and trade. An Aleppan industrialist, speaking from his factory just south of the city, recounted his own move:

 “I came to Hama in early 2014 when the clashes in Aleppo reached [the industrial zone of] Sheikh Najjar. Hama is a stable city with a perfect location. I know hundreds of traders and industrialists who were displaced from Aleppo and restarted their businesses here. Lots of traders from Homs, Idlib, and Raqqa also opened companies in Hama and now buy their materials from Hama-based suppliers.”

 A textiles trader and Hama native echoed this point, noting the irony that locals often seem to benefit from new arrivals even as they resent them:

 “My profits increased more than tenfold during the war. Every day, there are traders and shop owners from Raqqa and Idlib who come to buy garments and textiles in bulk to sell in their hometowns. My brother has a real estate office and most of his clients are displaced people. My brother-in-law has a big ice cream shop, which also mostly sells to displaced people. Everyone here is making money off the displaced, even while complaining about them.”

 This uneasy growth represents, in part, the inheritance of Hama’s bloody history. The city bore the brunt of the régime’s repression of a Muslim Brotherhood-led insurgency in the 1980s, and still bears the scars. This legacy helped deter Hamwis from fully casting their lot with the 2011 uprising, and continues to shape a tense relationship between original residents and newcomers—many of whom are civil servants employed by the state. “Hamwis don’t trust these outsiders,” remarked a grain trader and member of a deep-rooted Hama family. “They consider them loyalists and informants.” Political sensibilities overlap with social schisms between Hama’s urban, conservative population and displaced constituencies that tend to be more rural and secular. “The people of Hama are very religious,” added the same trader. “The newcomers are Sunni like us, but they’re not devout.”

 Those tensions are further informed by a historic strain of competition between Hama and Homs, which lies just 45 kilometers to the south. In a striking mirror-image of the present, it was Hama’s destruction allowed Homs to flourish in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Homs—which was at the vanguard of Syria’s 2011 uprising—remains economically paralyzed following its own ruinous showdown with the régime. Some Homsis look bitterly at their northern neighbor, which has profited from the very war for which they paid dearly.

 Meanwhile, Homs itself has been reorganized in ways that add to many residents’ frustration. As the régime’s siege and military campaign flattened swathes of the city’s predominantly Sunni western quarters and commercially vital old souq, Homs’ internal center of gravity shifted toward its mostly Alawi eastern quarter. The latter has witnessed its own miniature boom, as fighters and militia leaders have sought to reinvest their spoils. An NGO worker from an Alawi neighborhood described the area’s transformation:

 “Eastern Homs has thrived, but in a very brittle way. It’s mainly militia figures who open a shop with the few thousand dollars they made looting, despite having no idea how to run a shop. They go out of business and are replaced by someone else who doesn’t know, either. The whole system is based on theft, but at this stage there’s nothing left to steal. So decline is coming.”

 Much of Syria’s wartime growth feels similarly ephemeral, as entrepreneurs rush to spend ill-gotten gains in response to rapidly changing demands. “Just as trade and services produce quick money,” remarked a Syrian economist, “construction is absorbing a lot of cash—but that will create a bubble.” By contrast, Syria’s industrial sector—integral to any large-scale recovery—has bleak prospects, for lack of investment, expertise, and government support. “Industry will be a hellish sector to work in for years to come,” added the same economist. “Reviving the industry would take partnerships between the nouveaux riche and those old industrialists with expertise.” For now, many of the latter remain in exile.

 Amid this economic free-for-all, Syria’s state—far from providing structure or guidance—contributes to the turmoil. A degraded and cash-strapped government abstains from all but the most perfunctory forms of governance, focusing instead on funding itself in ways that push the country deeper into a downward spiral. At the heart of Syria’s crumbling state is its embattled bureaucracy, which is so severely underpaid and under-resourced that civil servants can only live by taking on multiple jobs and engaging in diversifying forms of petty corruption. At best, well-intentioned government employees do their jobs inadequately as a result. A government firefighter described his situation:

 “The government wants soldiers, not employees. They don’t really care how ordinary citizens are living. Our salaries don’t exceed 20,000 pounds [approximately 40 dollars], so really we’re working for God more than anything else. I’m the leader of a fire brigade and I still have to work as a taxi driver and depend on support from my family. Everyone in the brigade has another job.

 The state bought our fire suits through a corrupt contractor, and you can tell the suits are basically plastic. In a serious fire I think they would melt on our bodies. We only have one driver for our firetruck, so if he’s not around when we need him, there’s nothing we can do.”

 This deterioration has diverse and far-reaching implications for an economy originally built on socialist principles and which still relies on intensive state intervention in sectors such as industry, energy, trade and agriculture. Even in some areas it has controlled throughout the conflict, the state has retreated from a host of essential functions such as providing key subsidies and ensuring core municipal services like waste management. A state-employed agronomist remarked on the declining support to agriculture on the Syrian coast:

 “Greenhouse farmers in Latakia and Tartous are mostly from families with ties to the army, security services, and loyalist militias. Those farmers have been calling for the government to supply them with heating oil, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. The government has given them nothing.”

 Where the state retains positive economic functions, it does so in selective and self-serving ways. In 2019, for example, Damascus reasserted its traditional role in purchasing wheat at fixed prices from private farmers, despite the latter’s concentration in areas controlled by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration. This move—and its extensive coverage by state media—was eminently political, reflecting Damascus’ effort to reestablish economic influence in northeastern Syria while reducing its own reliance on imported wheat. In another telling example, a resident of the Damascus suburb of Harasta noted that his neighborhood, unlike many others, had been cleared of rubble and now enjoys free, 24-hour electricity. Indeed, it is adjacent to the strategically vital M5 highway and contains or abuts multiple military sites. A top-tier régime crony is rumored, moreover, to have slated the area for redevelopment.

 As the state retreats, citizens are left to navigate an ad hoc process of privatization in which the government intervenes to extract resources—in an extreme version of Syria’s liberalization drives in the 1990s and 2000s. Municipal councils in Douma and other ruined areas of Eastern Ghouta provided a stark illustration in late 2018: “If people want to remove rubble, they must rent bulldozers from the municipality at their own expense,” said a real estate broker from Damascus. “The municipality deals only with the main roads. Municipal workers are known to damage buildings by removing rubble carelessly, so people prefer to do it themselves anyway.”

 The bureaucracy’s shrinking capacity coincides with its growing propensity for graft. Syrians from all walks of life—including civil servants themselves—consistently grumble about a metastasizing culture of corruption. They occasionally joke that Syrian society is now responsible for subsidizing the state, in a stark reversal of the Baath régime’s socialist roots. A factory owner described this dynamic, and the resulting disruptions:

 “Government employees now meddle in everything. A low-level employee from the Electricity Directorate can walk into my factory and inspect every inch of it without giving a reason. The same is true of employees dealing with water, phone lines, taxes, health, environment, local administration, and customs.

 Just a few days ago, four employees from customs came to my factory shouting and demanding to see our entire facility, even the kitchen. I asked why they were being so rude; they responded that they have the authority to check anything and arrest anyone. Eventually I paid a bribe. Before that, a committee from the Environment Directorate came to the factory to check if we were using harmful substances. If I hadn’t bribed them, they could easily have fabricated a report and shut my factory down.”

 The state’s extractive tendencies extend from the bottom to the top. Even as government bodies have largely ceased to function as architects of economic policy, they continue to interfere in sectors that present opportunities to siphon money back into state coffers. “The régime is making life harder for everyone,” said one businessman. “As a manufacturer, I was recently required to purchase a million stickers from the government to place on my products to prove they were made in Syria. It cost me 14 million pounds [approximately 30,000 dollars] at a time when I’m already struggling to break even.”

 These simultaneous processes of withdrawal and interference are particularly evident in the import-export sector. As Syria has become increasingly isolated and unproductive, exports have plummeted and reliance on imports from neighboring states as well as from Russia, Iran, and China has deepened. Among other problems, this trade imbalance piles onto the shortage of foreign currency reserves created by American and European sanctions.

 Damascus has coped with this pressure by micromanaging the flow of imports, concentrating rights with select individuals and ratcheting up various fees. In the most striking example, the much-anticipated reopening of Syria’s border crossing with Jordan in late 2018 ushered in a brief uptick in trade which was quickly stifled by a reported eight-fold increase in dues on trucks transiting from Jordan. From Damascus’ perspective, such restrictions limit private importers’ ability to expend foreign currency and increase prospects for high-level corruption. Yet they also cancel out the revenues from partial trade normalization, while undermining the very exporters Syria needs to bring in foreign currency. An exporter of foodstuffs described his difficulties:

 “The Central Bank now demands that we sell back our dollars to the government at the [artificially strong] official exchange rate of 435 pounds. In the gray market, the rate is 615 pounds—and that’s the rate at which we buy all our raw materials. That means we lose almost 200 pounds on every dollar. We are working for a government that gives us nothing in return: no subsidies, no materials, nothing.”

 By and large, Syria’s most vital economic allies are only adding to these structural failures. On one side, Moscow and Tehran are vital to keeping Syria’s economy afloat, through desperately needed shipments of fuel and wheat alongside an overall strengthening of trade relations as all three countries seek to circumvent Western sanctions. Cheaply-made Russian and Iranian products have gradually permeated Syrian markets. China has remained a key trading partner, but likewise has shown no tangible movement toward large-scale investments.

 On the contrary, Russia and Iran look to recoup their expenditure in Syria by appropriating growing shares of its remaining assets, in a process that amounts to mortgaging the country’s economic future. Most striking is Russia’s deepening influence over Syria’s oil, gas, and phosphate resources. An oil engineer from Homs described this process:

 “In early 2018, Russian companies started entering Syria’s oil and gas sector. Those companies signed contracts with the Syrian government whereby they will invest in and operate oil and gas fields, taking about 25 percent of the profits—while previously the Syrian government ran everything and took all the revenues. Russia wants to monopolize this sector and pushes the government not to issue contracts to any non-Russian companies.”

 Syria’s seaports also represent prime real estate for Russian and Iranian encroachment. In early 2019, Syrian authorities granted a Russian company a 49-year lease on the commercial port of Tartous, drawing criticism even from loyalists who accused Damascus of giving away vital economic infrastructure. Tehran has reportedly been vying for a similar role, through discussions between the Syrian government and an Iranian company seeking to take over management of Latakia’s seaport. If successful, this takeover would both entrench Iran’s economic influence and invite new sanctions-related woes. A manager with an international shipping company described the risks:

 “The Iranian bid for the port puts the Syrian government in a difficult position. It’s very hard for the government to say no, but it’s impossible for them to say yes: Giving an Iranian company control of the port is like shooting yourself in the head, because Western companies cannot deal with the Iranians. They would immediately have to stop shipping there.”

 Syria’s hollowing out goes beyond jaw-dropping figures on death, destruction, conscription, and displacement: It has eroded society’s very ability to regenerate what was lost.

 Syria’s agricultural sector provides a window into Syria’s self-perpetuating downward spiral. Rural communities across Syria have proven remarkably adaptable throughout the war and small-scale agricultural production has shown signs of bouncing back faster than more capital-intensive spheres like industry and energy. Yet farmers from Deraa to Homs to Hassakeh underscore the enduring challenges posed by plummeting human capital—from unskilled laborers to specialized professionals. A farmer in rural Hama lamented crippling emigration:

 “You can’t have farming without farmers. I would guess that a third of our village has left. And the situation remains unstable, so people are continuing to leave. I personally plan to emigrate with my family in the coming months. Most others have similar plans. I can’t honestly say that I think anyone will be left in a few years. If emigration continues at this pace, it will wipe out the area’s agriculture entirely.”

 An ongoing brain drain has likewise pared down government institutions—responsible for bolstering agriculture and other key sectors—in ways that further complicate the prospects for recovery. “Our qualified accountants and managers left for Turkey, the Gulf states, and Europe,” said an employee with Syria’s Agricultural Bank, a government entity extending loans and subsidies to farmers. “Low government salaries discourage university graduates from coming to work for state-run banks, when they could make double in the private sector. New employees are mostly the widows and daughters of martyrs.”

 “I have no dreams or plans,” said a third-year student in Damascus University’s Faculty of Agricultural Engineering. “My only dream is to avoid military service. Male graduates have two options: Join the army or leave the country.”

 Compounding this issue is the degradation of the education sector, which has itself been drained of human and financial resources while sinking deeper into its own cycle of corruption and mediocrity. “Instructors have very low salaries, so they’re focused on finding bribes or gifts to support their families,” said the same student. “Some will sell students the answers to an exam in exchange for a smartphone or a bottle of whisky.” A professor in the same faculty added:

 “Since 2011, about a third of my faculty’s professors left the country. Young professors fled to avoid military service. Older, experienced professors emigrated because they found better opportunities abroad, or simply to get their conscription-aged sons out of Syria. Graduation rates are very low, because male students don’t want to graduate: They deliberately fail in order to delay military service.”

 This pattern, whereby the gutting of Syria’s work force is reinforced by the degradation of essential support structures, is replicated across all sectors. A plastics manufacturer in Aleppo’s industrial zone of Sheikh Najjar described his predicament:

 “Factory owners are trying to reopen, but face huge challenges—from the shortage of electricity and fuel to the lack of trained working hands. All the experienced workers have been displaced to rebel-held areas or Turkey. When I talk with other industrialists, they tell me they want to reopen but they can’t find male workers—and, when they do, security services come and arrest them. Before 2011, I had two hundred workers. Today I have twenty men and a few women and children who work in cleaning, packing, and making tea and food for what’s left of the crew.”

 Indeed, the devastation of Syria’s male work force has had the transformative side-effect of thrusting women—and, to a lesser extent, children—into the forefront of economic activity, as families find ways to make ends meet in the absence of male breadwinners. Women have thus assumed an expanding role in virtually every sphere, from the civil service to manual labor to entrepreneurship. “Women play an increasingly prominent role in small-scale business, start-ups, and NGOs,” said an academic in Damascus:

 “It’s less risky for a woman to be in such a position: She’s not at risk of conscription and can move more easily across checkpoints. Meanwhile, 70 percent of those employed at my university are women.

 I’m fearful for the sustainability of this development in the long-run. On one hand, small-scale businesses run by women are largely dependent on funding related to foreign aid programs—they aren’t self-sustaining. On the other, society’s view of these changes is worrying. Men will admit that women working is, for now, the only choice. But there’s this perception that the issue is out of their hands, which exacerbates tensions within families and society. So there’s still much work to be done on this front.”

 Moreover, Syria’s continued stagnation places women at the center of an economy in which most can aspire to little more than survival. The imperative to fight for even a minimal stream of income often locks women and men alike into a sort of wartime limbo, where they cannot so much as return to the hometowns from which they were displaced. A woman in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana explained that she would like to return to her hometown of Qadam, but remains anchored to Jaramana by the need to keep working:

 “I currently live off cleaning jobs, in a school during the week and in private homes on weekends. I can’t return to Qadam because I won’t be able to find such work there. If I did go back, I would have to commute to Jaramana via three different buses, so would spend all my time and money on the road.”

 Syria’s sprawling complex of foreign-funded aid programs aims to rein in such hardship, including through a wide range of capacity building and employment-generating interventions. Such programs, however, often incur unintended side-effects: Well-paid jobs with UN agencies or NGOs tend to suck talent out of other sectors and into a job market whose very existence depends on political decisions taken in faraway capitals. In the process, the aid sector has created another tier of wartime nouveaux riche, whose high salaries are as integral to Syria’s fragile economy as they are galling to the majority who remain mired in poverty.'

Under Siege Inside Idlib — The Last Rebel Stronghold In Syria

Idlib Syria

 'Mohammed Sadder was sitting outside with his eldest son in the midday heat when a shell from government-held territory tore through the air and struck his family home.

 His wife, mother, and daughter had been laying out lunch on the living room floor.

 The 62-year-old dug through the dust and rubble, yelling out for any signs of life from his family inside. When he found his wife and mother, they were badly injured, but his 5-year-old daughter Islam had been killed.

 Later that evening, with his wife and mother in the hospital, Mohammed carried Islam’s body a few hundred yards down the road to a hill where hundreds of other bodies are buried. He dug her grave with his bare hands, and collapsed next to the small mound of dirt, not wanting to leave her side.

 Since late April, the Syrian régime and its Russian allies have launched near-daily airstrikes and shelling throughout the province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold left after 8 years of bitter civil war. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claims he is targeting rebel terrorist groups, it’s clear that civilians like Mohammad are bearing the brunt of a relentless and indiscriminate bombing campaign.

 More than 700 civilians, including 300 children, have been killed since the latest offensive began. More than 400,000 more have been displaced in the same time frame, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil Defense teams work round the clock to help struggling families move away from neighborhoods that are still being shelled.

 “It’s an indescribable fear,” said Rajaa Hamdu Kazmuz, a mother of seven. The fighting continues even as Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders have agreed to multiple ceasefires to end the violence in Idlib Province.

 Kazmuz and her seven children spent the last few weeks sleeping in a makeshift bunker beneath their house, hoping to escape the worst of it until the next lull in fighting. But the shelling has only ramped up in recent weeks, and she’s looked on in horror as several of her neighbors have been killed. They’re currently living without electricity, and basic goods have become hard to get hold of. Her children are afraid to even walk outside.

 So they packed up their belongings in mid-September and drove 60 miles towards Turkey, praying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bombs wouldn’t reach them there.

 But they’ll face another set of roadblocks on the Turkish border, where displaced Syrians have flooded in by the thousands in recent months. Facing the mounting humanitarian emergency on his border, President Recep Erdogan has warned global leaders that he’ll throw his country’s gates open, sparking fears that another refugee crisis could reach Europe’s borders.

 But few solutions appear readily available. On September 19, the UN voted on a resolution to work towards a peaceful resolution in war-battered Idlib, but China and Russia, killed it, all but assuring the violence in Idlib will continue indefinitely.

 Those in Idlib who cannot afford transport to safer areas, have resigned themselves to their fate.

 The day after burying his 5-year-old daughter, Mohammed shoveled out enough rubble so he could sleep in a corner of what’s left of his home.

 “Where would we go?” he asked, “I don’t even have enough for a cab fare... We’ll clean it up and continue living here.” Pointing to a grave adjacent to his daughter’s, he added, “That’s my spot. If Allah wills it.”

Idlib Syria

‘We’re staying’: The doctors refusing to flee Idlib’s deadly front line

 'The blood forms pools on the floor of a whitewashed operating room. Two men pose for a photo with their table of metal instruments, unable to smile.

 It’s late at night after a long day of airstrikes on Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. The two doctors have been operating on the wounded for hours.

 “This is from a day where we were working from early morning until late at night, treating injuries,” said Dr. Haitham Diab.

 Diab is a surgeon in one of the few hospitals close to the front lines in Idlib that is still operational. He said it was hit by an airstrike in July, but the damage was minor.

 In another photo, Diab can be seen crouched down in a corner of the hospital in a set of wrinkled green scrubs, exhausted. Packages of medicine, gauze, and other supplies lie stacked on metal shelves to his side.

 Diab is among the healthcare workers still doing their job in the midst of a four-month air, artillery, and land campaign waged by Syrian government and allied Russian forces in and around rebel-held Idlib – areas home to an estimated four million people.

 Despite the dangers, many doctors are working under fire with limited supplies, even as more patients need help.

  At the peak of the bombing last month in the southern part of Idlib where he works, Diab said the hospital’s 20 doctors were performing some 40 emergency operations every day.

 Civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and health clinics, have been hit hard by the offensive.

 Several doctors said the places where they work have been bombed, including the hospital where Diab operates alongside Shaker al-Hamido.

 After an airstrike hit just outside their house several months ago, al-Hamido, a doctor from southern Idlib, said he sent his wife and toddler-aged children north to the Syrian-Turkish border so they could stay somewhere safer.

 “Of course I’m afraid,” he said, but he continues to live and work in the area.

 Among the bombed hospitals are those that voluntarily registered their coordinates with a UN-run no-strike list, which was shared with Russia, Turkey, and the United States as part of a deconfliction mechanism supposed to prevent such facilities from being targeted.

 Al-Hamido and Diab said their hospital had shared its location with the UN.

 The UN says a total of 51 medical facilities – such as hospitals, ambulance points and clinics – have been damaged as a result of attacks since the offensive began.

 At least 14 sites hit by the end of July had shared their coordinates as part of the UN mechanism, according to a tally provided by the Syrian American Medical Society, or SAMS, a US-based group that supports medical facilities in rebel-held areas in Syria.

 Eleven of those sites match incidents recorded by the Armed Conflict and Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a group that monitors and maps conflict.

 The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, which runs the deconfliction system, declined to verify the detailed listings, saying the parties to the conflict were responsible for their conduct under international humanitarian law (IHL) and investigating violations.

 Civilian infrastructure, and medical facilities in particular, enjoy special protection under IHL regardless of whether or not they were “deconflicted”.

 From 27 April to 15 September 2019, ACLED’s latest information, records 69 incidents affecting health workers and patients in northwestern Syria, mainly aerial bombing and shelling by Syrian government and allied Russian forces.

 The Syrian American Medical Society has provided a partial list of strikes on sites whose coordinates were on the UN’s no-strike (or “deconfliction”) list through the end of July.

 Among the hospitals bombed out of service this year was one situated outside Ma'arat al-Nu'man, a town in southern Idlib province. Wassel Aljork, a general surgeon, treated patients there until an airstrike hit it several months ago.

 The hospital, which once served more than 100,000 residents of the surrounding countryside, according to Aljork, is now a pile of rubble.

 When he and other doctors went to survey the wreckage, they found that none of their equipment could be salvaged.

 After the bombing, Aljork left his nearby hometown, where he ran a makeshift clinic out of his house, and headed north. He now works in a hospital near the border with Turkey, where hundreds of thousands of people have fled in search of safety.

 The UN announced earlier this month that it would launch an investigation into attacks on hospitals and other civilian sites, although some doubt how effective it can be.

 “An investigation won’t stop the attacks, but at least it might put some pressure,” says Mohamad Katoub, a doctor and spokesperson for SAMS. The organisation supports some 43 healthcare facilities in Idlib province, according to its website. “We have many concerns about the safety of our medical staff,” he added.

 Some facilities have been built to survive bombardment. Dr. Ahmad al-Bayoush, who specialises in internal medicine, spoke earlier this month as missiles flew overhead. His hospital was moved underground, he explained, to protect it from the bombs.

 Still, the hospital has been hit once already and al-Bayoush worries it could happen again: “The missiles are still flying over us,” he said.

 Those who fled north leave behind dozens of ghost towns in their wake, according to a report published in May by REACH, an organisation that analyses humanitarian data.

 But civilians are still living in southern Idlib; mostly people too poor to afford the cost of transportation out of the area.

 And doctors are running low on supplies to treat them, including some basic medicines like antibiotic creams. “There’s a lot we’re running out of, for surgeries [and] for medical exams,” said Diab. “We’re just working with what we’ve got.”

 The shortages can be deadly. Last month, a man arrived in the operating room having lost his legs in an airstrike. His stomach had been torn open by the blast.

 “We didn’t have enough blood on hand to give him,” said Diab, recalling how the patient died while his wife and children were outside the room. “They were waiting to hear any good news,” he said.

 Al-Hamido said the scale of patients’ injuries is so severe there is often little he can do to save them, even when supplies are on hand.

 One patient sticks in his mind in particular: a pregnant mother who arrived in the operating room in May, after a bomb left her head riddled with shrapnel. The wounds were too deep to save the mother, so al-Hamido and other staff performed a Caesarean section on her in an attempt to save the baby. Despite their efforts, both the mother and child died soon after.

 “I couldn’t save anyone,” al-Hamido said. “I sat down and cried like a child.”

 “This psychological pressure – it’s going to kill us,” he said.

 As pro-government forces continue bombing the area, he and others say they fear what could be in store for southern Idlib, where they work.

 Last month, the Syrian army took the city of Khan Sheikhoun, along a key highway in to the south in Idlib, and doctors worry about their fate if there is a further advance northwards.

 They fear further bombs on their hospitals, but also possible government arrest.

 Late one night, after a shift at the hospital, Diab said he was determined to stay, regardless.

“What else can we do? There is a lot of bombing still happening,” he said. “We’re staying here. As long as there are still people [getting injured], we’ll continue working.” '

Al-Zerbeh Primary Health Center in southern Aleppo after an airstrike on 30 August 2019.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Bus turns into classroom in war-hit Syrian village


 'Near the village of Hazano in northwestern Syria, children come running through the olive groves every morning to meet the bus that brings school to their improvised tented camp.
“These children can’t go to school, it’s too far from where they are,” said Farid Bakir, a local programme manager with Syria Relief, the charity that launched the bus project.

 In Hazano camp, the children get in line and hope to be among those who squeeze into the bus for a few hours.

 A whiteboard is installed in the back, a thick carpet laid on the floor and a few dozen small desks, also used as chairs, are re-arranged depending on the activity.

 The ceiling is too low for the teacher to stand fully upright but Hussein Ali Azkour, a young boy wearing a yellow T-shirt, is enthusiastic about his classroom-on-wheels.

 “The difference between a normal school and the bus, is that the bus is air-conditioned. It’s better than a thousand schools,” he said.

 “When we fled here, there was no school and they started bringing the buses. If these buses were to stop coming, we would have no education and learn nothing.”

 The buses cater only for ages ranging from five to 12 and include classes in Arabic, mathematics, science and sometimes English, as well as singing and drawing.

 Since the project was launched in May, around 1,000 children have benefitted from the bus programme, Bakir said.

 That’s a drop in the ocean of problems children, who represent more than half of the Idlib region’s three million inhabitants, are facing.

 According to Save The Children, the heavy bombardment since late April has damaged or otherwise impacted 87 educational facilities, while a further 200 are being used as shelters for those the violence displaced.

 The UK-based NGO says some parents have been pleading with them to shut down schools for fear they would be targeted in regime air strikes.

 “As the new school year starts, the remaining functional schools can only accommodate up to 300,000 of the 650,000 school-age children,” it said.

 Ragheb Hassoun’s children are among the few who have been fortunate enough to receive a few hours a week of lessons through the bus project, but he says the situation is not tenable.

 “We want something permanent — a school on the land where we live,” the 28-year-old said.

 He and his family have been displaced several times since the start of the conflict in Syria eight years ago.

 Hassoun said he would be happy if his children could at least go to school during normal hours in a tent at the camp.

 This is what children have in a larger camp near Dana, north of the city of Idlib, where the local school is housed under two large UN tents.

 The conditions are dire however, with camp manager Hammud Al Sayah explaining initial planning was done for 50 children, yet attendees now top 375.

 Books — or with bags strapped to backs — pupils are squeezed around black desks, while those unable to find a seat perch cross-legged on the floor. Children who are four or five years apart attend the same classes.

 “The pressure is huge,” Sayah said, admitting that the schooling conditions have a serious impact on the quality of education.

 At 10 years of age, Abdel Razaq knows that his education is being compromised.

 Standing in front of the white tent he has come to call his school, he said he dreams of a big building “where the number of children in each class is lower.” “And where we could sit comfortably and hear what the teachers are saying
.” '

A displaced Syrian child peaks out of a bus window that was converted into a classroom in the village of Hazano, in Idlib province, northwestern Syria, September 15. (AFP)

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Pro-régime Militias and ISIS Militants Stand Against the Return of Palmyra’s People

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 'In 2015, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the renowned city of Palmyra, which was then under the control of the Syrian régime. The subsequent battles between ISIS and the Syrian régime over Palmyra led to the devastation of the modern city and the displacement of its 100,000 inhabitants.

 The majority of the civilians who were displaced did not manage to go back because of their fear of reprisals from the Syrian régime militias and the continued presence of ISIS militants in the surrounding desert. The return of these local people to Palmyra will be a cornerstone in any attempt to rehabilitate the ruined city and revive its tourist industry after the war. But the obstacles to that return show no sign of being resolved.

 Following the battles between ISIS and the Syrian régime, many of the displaced people avoided taking refuge in régime-controlled areas, fatigued by living under a repressive régime and distrustful of how they would be treated as internally displaced people. Only a small minority were allowed to stay in Homs, while the majority of these displaced people were dispersed between the governorate of Idlib and the al-Rukban refugee camp.

 Since 2015, the régime militias, accompanied by other Iranian militias and Russian military advisers, have commandeered different houses in the city of Palmyra for use as military bases. Some locals who made it back to Palmyra recently found militias that spoke a foreign language occupying their homes. These locals avoided conflict with the foreign fighters even though some of the foreign fighters were living in their houses and using their furniture. The locals’ response was to avoid confrontation and leave Palmyra.

 Despite the régime’s state media claiming that it is encouraging locals to go back to Palmyra, this return is happening on a very small scale and only for those who have connections with the régime and fought alongside its national defence militias. Encouraging these particular people to go back is an attempt to strengthen the régime’s presence in Palmyra, enabling it to withdraw some of the militias from Palmyra to fight at the frontlines in Hama and Idlib.

 Palmyrenes who live in al-Rukban refugee camp, who were promised amnesty by the régime if they return to Palmyra, have been arrested, some killed, while others have been conscripted into fighting with the régime’s militias. Those who returned from Idlib without permission have been exposed to arrests and disappearances.

 Incidents like these and the previous experiences of living under the régime will continue to play in an important role in deterring people from going back even if they live under extremely difficult conditions in al-Rukban refugee camp and the rural areas of Idlib.

 Since the beginning of its activity in Syria, ISIS has been active in the mountainous areas to the north of Palmyra. When the group captured Palmyra in the middle of May 2015, it executed approximately 500 locals, including Khaled al-Assad, the director of the Department of Antiquities in the city, accusing them of being collaborators with the régime.

 Although ISIS has been driven out of Palmyra, the group continues to have a strong presence in the surrounding desert, particularly in the mountain of Abu Rujmain, which has deep natural caves which makes it suitable for hiding. The group’s active militias in this area have arrested and killed many Palmyrene sheep herders and truffle gatherers.

 Moreover, using hit-and-run attacks, the group has killed dozens of Syrian army soldiers around Palmyra since their withdrawal from the city in 2017, and captured some of their armoured vehicles and machine guns.

 During its lifespan in Syria, the group attracted more than 150 youths from Palmyra itself who became active members in the group, providing intelligence and logistical information about the city and its inhabitants. Even régime loyalists, protected by the régime’s militias, returning to Palmyra would be concerned that their identity could berevealed to ISIS by these local members.

 These local members of the group played an important role in creating a ‘death list’ before ISIS captured Palmyra in 2015 and 2016. They also have knowledge of the desert routes that enabled the group to capture Palmyra, which could potentially enable them to sneak into the city and kidnap some of its people.

 The continued presence of ISIS militias in the surrounding mountainous areas of Palmyra and the local members among its ranks are constant reminders of the group’s ability to retake the city, which it did in December 2016 when they massacred dozens of locals, accusing them of being supporters of the régime.

 The return of local Palmyrenes to their hometown in the near future seems far-fetched. Régime loyalists who live in Homs and Damascus are terrified about the prospects of ISIS resurging and taking over their city again, while those who oppose the régime are certain that they will be persecuted by the régime militias if they go back. The recent cases of arrests and disappearances of returnees from Idlib and al-Rukban refugee camp shows that the current régime is not keen on allowing people to return to Palmyra unless they constitute part of its support base.

 The régime has announced on more than occasion that it wants to restore the archaeological site and activate the tourist industry in the city. However, unless the official plans to rebuild the world heritage site are accompanied by sincere action from the Syrian state to allow the safe return of local people regardless of their political background, any attempt to rebuild Palmyra will founder.'

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