Friday, 19 October 2018

Women, Art and Revolution

Image result for ‘Women, Art and Revolution’at home syria

 'The panel ‘Women, Art and Revolution’ hosted at HOME as part of the arts and cultural festival ‘Celebrating Syria’ turned elitism on its head, recognising the revolutionary power of art, even when – or especially when – your voice is failing to be heard.

 For the women on the panel, art in the context of the Syrian revolution was a way for Syrians to speak up, especially women, against an oppressive regime. Graphic designer and curator, Sana Yazigi, of, a website which collates into one place the rich art scene that emerged during the Syrian revolution, spoke on the panel. Yazigi explained that “when the revolution started, I was amazed, just like all other Syrians”.

 “Men and women began to express themselves: as a citizen, as a militant, an artist. Being represented like this was hugely important. It provokes the anger of the regime”.

 “Around 40 women artists emerged during the revolution”. Yazigi showed the room a collection of images of these artists’ work, including that of the cartoonist and caricature artist Sahar Burhan. If you venture onto you can find no less than thirty three pieces by the artist, each satirical, and undeniably chilling. ‘Ceasefire’ (2016) depicts a bomb in a glass of water. Though the weapon is lit, underneath we can see roots growing from it.

 The second panellist was Muzna Al-Naib, a children’s author and self-described “aspiring film-maker”. Upon watching her film during the panel, which focused on deaf Syrian story-telling, it was clear that Al-Naib was established in her own right. Al-Naib explained that anything from the red water representing blood in the fountain in Damascus to the viral image of an old woman holding up a sign stating she still hoped for the life of her son was art.

 “Art is the language of our struggle,” she stated. “Art is not elitist anymore. It carries the force and the heartbeat of a nation”. Al-Naib described the added layer of complexity that stems from her gender: being a woman demonstrating in Syria may have meant that she “has to do her own mini revolution at home before she goes to the street”. This is why the writer believes more female artists emerged within the revolution, “it was a liberation journey for freedom from the regime, as well as from being a woman”.

 It was clear, listening to the voices in the room who introduced themselves and stated where they were from, that the talk had attracted many Syrian women. Both old and young, university students and mothers, they were all here in Manchester, and eager to share their own personal revolutions. One woman stood up and said she always wondered what art was for. “Art never represented me,” she stated. “I always thought in art class, how does drawing fruit in a bowl help with anything? It never meant anything to me. But when I saw the old woman with the sign, I thought, there is hope”.

The panel sort to prove that art has the power to say: I will still hope for better, even when right now may feel so hopeless. Art has the power to make a fountain bleed in the middle of the street. Art liberates and revolts, and doesn’t back down.'

Monday, 15 October 2018

Tale of two brothers reflects Syrian rebel unity and divisions

 'Brothers Abu Eliyas and Abu Yousef have fought at opposite ends of the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
 Yet despite their ideological differences, they live under the same roof in rebel-held Idlib province and have fought on the same side against pro-Assad forces and Islamic State.

 “The important thing is we fight the same enemy,” said Abu Eliyas, 40, a member of the Turkey-backed Faylaq al-Sham group. “At home, we exchange military skills and information, and discuss the Syrian scene.”

 Abu Yousef, 27, belongs to the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. He believes the brothers’ “points of agreement are greater than the points of division.”

 “We are members of one religion, one country and one goal”, he said.

 Their parallel journeys through the civil war that began in Syria in 2011 illustrate the complexities of sorting insurgents deemed “radical” from more moderate rebels.

 In its first comment on the deal, Tahrir al-Sham said on Sunday it welcomed efforts to protect “the liberated area” from attack - an apparent nod of approval for Turkey’s efforts.

 But it also warned against Russian “trickery”, said it would not give up “jihad and fighting” to topple Assad and singled out foreign jihadists for praise, saying “we will not forget” them.
 The experiences of Abu Yousef and Abu Eliyas show that the line between the “radical” and “moderate” rebels is not always easily drawn.

 Abu Eliyas is a trained lawyer with seven children who was working as a government employee when the conflict began. He took part in the first protests against Assad in the brothers’ home town of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria.

 “They were unforgettable days. The feeling was very strange for us – that we are in Syria and going out in protest against the regime and the Assad family,” he said.

 Abu Eliyas took up arms with a Free Syrian Army group early in the war.

 After seizing the area, Islamic State militants destroyed his house in Deir al-Zor by rigging it with explosives and then blowing it up in what he described as an act of revenge.

 Abu Yousef, who is not married, was a student when the conflict began. He joined Nusra Front when it first emerged in Deir al-Zor, drawn by what he saw as the piety of its members, including foreigners.

 Both fought Islamic State when it attacked eastern Syria in 2014 and went north with their family when IS conquered the area. Once there, Abu Eliyas joined Faylaq al-Sham, and cited its standing in Turkey as one of the attractions.

 Faylaq al-Sham has ties to the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which mounted an uprising in the 1980s and is deemed a terrorist group by the government.

 Close to Turkey, Faylaq al-Sham was also one of the recipients of aid channeled through a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency program that was shut down by President Donald Trump.

 Tahrir al-Sham has clashed several times with other rebels in the northwest, and crushed a number of foreign-backed factions.

 The brothers have always stayed out of these troubles, though enmity runs deep between the jihadists and some Idlib rebels.

 Tensions in Idlib have eased of late. Rebels formed a joint “operations room” in anticipation of an offensive by Syrian government forces that had been expected until Turkey and Russia struck their agreement last month.

 Tahrir al-Sham, with which Abu Yousef fights, has widened contacts with other groups and been visiting their rivals, an official in a rival faction said.

 If it holds, the agreement between Turkey and Russia could stabilize the map of the Syrian conflict for some time to come. Though Assad is still vowing to take back the area, an Idlib campaign without Russian support is seen as out of the question.

 Writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, Erdogan said “moderate rebels” should be part of an “international counterterrorism operation” that would target “terrorist and extremist elements” and “bring to justice foreign fighters”.

 Abu Yousef sees a conspiracy to weaken the rebellion by dividing opposition forces.

 “The Russian-Turkish agreement is a tactic to finish off what remains of the areas held by the revolution,” he said. “We must depend on ourselves, and nobody else.”

 Despite his faith in Turkey, Abu Eliyas is also worried.

 “Faylaq al-Sham’s relationship with Turkey secured many benefits for the region ... but we fear the Turks will fall into the Russian trap that aims to disarm Tahrir al-Sham,” he said.'

Friday, 5 October 2018

“I’d rather be killed than be a killer”: How the Assad regime erased peaceful protesters

 'At the start of Syria’s popular uprising in 2011, a group of young activists from Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, became known for their philosophy of non-violence. They protested with flowers and offered bottles of water to the soldiers. The flowers represented peace and the water symbolised keeping the flowers alive, enabling the idea of peace to grow. Many of them were arrested, and subsequently disappeared, by President Assad’s security and intelligence forces in the first months of the revolution, including protest leaders Yahya Shurbaji and Islam Dabbas. Ever since, their families and human rights groups have campaigned for their release. In July this year, their families were informed that they died years ago. These men who carried roses sacrificed all for their dream of a free Syria. The story of their lives must outshine the tragedy of their deaths.

 Ahmad Helmi and Islam Dabbas were best friends. They went to the same school, played football and video games together, and in their later teenage years spent hours wandering the streets talking late into the night. Ahmad describes Islam as clever, charismatic, mischievous and a natural leader.

 When the Arab Spring began, the friends closely watched protests unfold abroad. Islam, 21, was studying architecture at university and hungry for the revolution to come to Syria. When protests broke out in Tunisia, Islam believed that change in his own country must be close, but Ahmad disagreed, arguing that Tunisian citizens had more freedom of expression which made civil action more likely. When protests spread to Egypt, there was a rising hope that Syria could follow.

 In early February 2011, there were calls on Facebook for a demonstration in Damascus. Islam’s sister Hiba vividly remembers that morning. She was making a sandwich in the kitchen and her parents were drinking coffee in their room. Islam called Hiba to their parents’ room and declared that he had something serious to tell them. He said that he was planning to join the demonstration, but made it clear that he was not asking for their permission because he’d already made his decision.

 “My parents and I were shocked,” Hiba recalls. “I immediately started crying. Then my mother started crying and begged him not to go. She warned him ‘You will be arrested, they will torture you, they will kill you in the prisons, no one will hear about you’.”

 Islam’s father didn’t try to change his son’s mind, but urged him to be careful. The whole family was upset and fearful. Islam explained that he wanted to go to create change and live in freedom and asked his family to pray for him. When Islam went to the bathroom to wash the tears from his face and fix his hair, Hiba asked him, “Let me take a photo of you in case I don’t ever see you again.” She took his picture.

 That first protest in the Damascus square didn’t materialise. Islam travelled there with friends but the square felt emptier than normal. Ahmad remembers Islam confessing that he felt two competing fires burning inside him that day, one of fear and one of anger. He feared being arrested, detained and possibly killed. But he was also angered by the thought that the Syrian people might fail to seize their opportunity for change.

  Weeks later, Islam attended other protests in Damascus, including one on behalf of Syria’s political prisoners. For decades, those who challenged the Assad regime – that of both President Bashar al Assad, and his father Hafez al Assad before him – found themselves brutally punished with torture and imprisonment. Islam and others like him dreamed of a country in which they could express dissent freely and campaign for political reform. Islam was then at the forefront of the first small protest in Daraya, knowing the eyes of the security forces were watching. “Islam made the first shout for freedom in Daraya,” Ahmad tells me. “He later described this as the moment of flight, the moment of lighting the flame, when he broke with everything that had gone before and became part of a larger spirit.”

 Islam was committed to peaceful protest and non-violence from the very beginning. He believed in it deeply, both as a principle and a strategy. The regime had guns, he argued, but if people fought back with guns, then the regime would bring tanks, and if the people got tanks, then the regime would bring aircraft. The forces would never be equal. He insisted that the regime well understood violence, but that non-violence was a game that the regime didn’t know how to play.

 More than this, Islam felt that violence couldn’t change Syria. It could only replace one dictator with another. He believed that words were more powerful than bullets because they had the potential to change everything: a mindset, a culture, even a whole society.

 The human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh (who is herself now disappeared at the hands of Islamist extremists), wrote in 2011 about the aspirations of Daraya’s non-violent activists. She observed that these exceptional revolutionaries were trying to change more than the regime.

 From the start of Syria’s uprising, activists in Daraya proposed protesting with flowers, with every protester carrying a rose. One of the leading activists was Yahya Shurbaji. At age 31, clean-shaven and smartly dressed, he was an experienced political campaigner, who had previously protested against corruption and for an end to the Iraq war. He was detained in 2003 for his activities.

 Razan reported that Yahya Shurbaji said that Daraya itself was in need of roses and described the revolution as an opportunity “for us to change too”. He said, “The revolution should be achieved inside of us before it is achieved on the ground.”

 Ahmad recalls, “When Yahya spoke about non-violence you could see the passion in his face. He was very genuine because he spoke from the heart. He made people want to follow him. He could transform very ordinary uneducated young men who were angry into believers in non-violence. But he was also very quiet in a way. At coordinating meetings, he encouraged others to participate, from multiple backgrounds, and would often just say a few sentences at the end.” Videos from that time show the power of his speeches.

 From the outset of the protests, the regime responded with violent repression; shooting at protestors in the street and detaining and torturing activists. This provoked more demonstrations. Some of those attending wanted to retaliate by swearing, throwing stones, and lighting tires. Yahya urged against this response. Razan reported how Yahya showed empathy for the soldiers. He recognised that many of the soldiers were young men doing mandatory military service, under constant investigation by their superior officers and enormous pressure. He didn’t want anything to make them feel further embattled or pushed to respond aggressively.

 Yahya and Islam held fast to their non-violent principles, even when tested. In April 2011, Ahmad was shot in the face by a sniper and left Daraya to get surgery and recuperate. In his absence, Islam became more involved in organising the protests alongside Yahya and others. Hiba tells me: “One of Islam’s friends asked him what he’d do if they used weapons against the regime. Islam said, ‘If the peaceful activists turn violent, I will let it go and I will stay in my house and never come out because I stand against all people who use weapons. I’m against all violence.’”

 Yahya famously said: “I would rather be killed than be a killer.”

 The friends continued their peaceful protests and decided to offer roses with bottles of water to the soldiers. Hiba remembers when, one night, another prominent Daraya activist, Ghiath Mattar, came to their house with flowers and bottles of water and stayed up all night with Islam, writing messages in preparation for the demonstration the following day. She sends me a photo of a rose affixed to a water bottle with an elastic band, and a handwritten message from Islam to the soldiers: “We are Syrians, why are you killing us?”

 Razan reported that at one protest in July 2011, the soldiers released tear gas and shot rubber bullets at the protesters. Islam approached the row of water bottles and roses and spoke to the military and security personnel about the peacefulness of the revolution and its goals. She wrote, “The soldiers were puzzled at first. Then they began collecting and reading the leaflets that the protesters had cast their way. As they did, protesters chanted, ‘The army and the people, hand in hand.’ Then the soldiers began gathering the water bottles off the ground. One of them tried to shoot rubber bullets at the protest again, but his colleagues prevented him from doing so; indeed, they were waving at the protesters, who quietly walked away.”

 Engaging with the soldiers provided an inspiring and instructive lesson for the activists. Islam in particular must have been heartened by the experience, because Razan reports that the following Friday he insisted on crossing the dividing line and offering roses to the soldiers and security personnel directly, making eye contact, trying to further break down the barrier between them.

 Tragically, he disappeared amongst the regime forces and was arrested. This was on 22 July 2011. Islam’s friend, Abdulsattar Kholani, went after him and was also detained.

 More arrests of the group soon followed. On 8 August 2011, Abdulsattar’s brother, Majd Kholani, another committed student activist, was taken. Then on the 6 September 2011, Yahya’s brother, Maan Shurbaji was arrested. Their sister Bayan Shurbaji told me that when Maan was arrested, the security forces made him call Yahya to ask for help. Yahya went to find Maan, taking his friend Ghiath Matar with him, and both Yahya and Ghiath were then arrested too. A few days later, Ghiath’s dead body was returned to his parents and pregnant wife.

 The others remained forcibly disappeared in the Syrian security services’ detention system, with their families searching desperately for any news of their whereabouts. After many months, news came through that they were being held in Saydnaya prison, and in 2012 the family of Majd and Abdulsattar Kholani managed to visit the brothers there and Islam’s family visited too. Hiba told me that when they saw Islam he said that he was due to appear before a court in January 2013 and a guard hit him for sharing this information. This was the last time the family saw him.

 Ahmad was arrested and detained in December 2012. One of his primary concerns was that he wouldn’t know if Islam was released. “Islam never remembered phone numbers but he knew mine because it was very easy,” he recalls. “I knew that if he was released then he would call me and I was scared of missing that phone call whilst I was detained.” After six months of being forcibly disappeared in the regime’s detention system, Ahmad was transferred to a state prison where his mother could visit him. On her first visit Ahmad told her to put his mobile phone on charge permanently, so that it would always be on if Islam ever called. His mother did this and when Ahmad was eventually released in October 2015, he continued to keep his phone charged and paid the bills to ensure the line remained constantly open for Islam to call.

 In July this year, Islam’s family heard that the Syrian regime were releasing names of people who had died in government custody. They asked a distant relative who was still living in Syria to go and enquire as to whether there was any new information about Islam. At first an official at the registry office refused to share any records because the woman was not a direct relative, but when the woman explained that Islam’s direct relatives had left Syria and begged for information, the official showed her on a screen that he was registered as dead on 15 January 2013. This news had been withheld from the family for over five years.

 The Kholani family sent a distant relative to the Daraya civil registry office to ask for news of Islam’s friend Abdulsattar, and his brother Majd, and they were notified that the brothers had also died on 15 January 2013. Yahya Shurbaji’s family received news that he was killed on the same day, and that his brother Maan died later, in December 2013.

 The fact that this group of Daraya activists – Islam, Abdulsattar, Majd, and Yahya – are registered as dying on the same day has led their families and others to speculate that they may have been sentenced to death together and executed. The timing of January 2013 matches the final news from Islam of when he was due in court. It also correlates with rumours spread by other detainees that the group were taken from their cells in Saydnaya around this time but not seen again. Amnesty International’s report, Human Slaughterhouse, describes prisoners in Saydnaya being sentenced to death by a Military Field Court and killed in mass hangings.

 The sisters of these activists - Hiba Dabbas, Amenah Kholani and Bayan Shurbaji - are members of the group Families for Freedom. They’re campaigning to know the full truth of how and where their relatives died, and what has been done with their bodies. They also want to save those detainees who are still alive and to see those responsible for their brothers’ deaths brought to justice. Islam’s father also joined peaceful protests, and was arrested 20 days before his son. He is now serving his sentence in a state prison.

 Ahmad tells me: “I’ve been through a lot over the past seven years. I was shot in the face, I was detained. But I have only cried twice. The first time was when I heard that Islam had been arrested, and the second time was a few weeks ago, when I heard that Islam was dead.” He was still hoping and waiting for Islam’s call.

 The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, run by Mazen Darwish, a renowned human rights activist and a friend of Yahya, released a statement responding to the news of the deaths of the activists from Daraya. It said that the Syrian government had “deprived the country of its knights and dreams” and asked who could rescue them from a looming future “built by warlords, not by men of wisdom and peace”.

 Now Ahmad is a refugee in Europe and has set up an organisation called Ta’afi to support political detainees when they are released from detention in Syria.

 I asked Ahmad how he reflects on the protests now, with all that he has suffered and the friends that he has lost. “Those days were the best days of my life. I felt like I was really free, really a patriot. They were very powerful days, to shout for freedom when we had previously been silent even in our dreams. We felt we were the change. I tell you, they were the best days of my life. I would do it again one thousand times over, even knowing that I’ll be shot in the face and detained for three years. It was heaven.” '

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Syria opposition rejects Idlib demilitarisation amid uncertainty over Sochi deal

 'Syrian opposition group Faylaq Ash-Sham denied reports that it has started withdrawing its soldiers and heavy weaponry from Idlib, amid growing resistance from rebel factions to the deal brokered by Turkey and Russia in Sochi last month.

 Reuters reported last week that Faylaq Ash-Sham was the first group to comply with a requirement to leave a demilitarised buffer zone agreed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin that averted a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive. An official statement from the group, which has some 8,500 to 10,000 fighters under its command, denied that any withdrawal had taken place.

 The news came after Jaysh Al-Izza, one of the first Syrian opposition factions to back the deal, confirmed over the weekend that it had also withdrawn its support after the terms of the agreement became apparent.

 “They don’t only want the withdrawal of heavy weapons, but to also remove the revolution’s willpower to re-establish Bashar Al-Assad,” Captain Mustafa Al-Maarati, the spokesman of Jaysh Al-Izza, told On the Ground News. “The solution to the revolution’s victory is to remove the tyrant Bashar Al-Assad and his fascist regime.”

 The group also refused the launch of Russian patrols in opposition territories and the reopening of the international between Aleppo, Hama and Latakia, unless detainees held by the Syrian regime are released.

 Hurras Al-Din, another armed group designated “radical” by Moscow, also announced its rejection of the deal over the weekend.

 “We advise our mujahideen [fighters] brothers in this decisive and dangerous phase… [to] begin military operations against the enemies of religion to thwart their plans,” Hurras Al-Din said in a statement.

 The biggest opposition group in Idlib, Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam, has also yet to announce its position regarding the agreement, with members reportedly split on whether to side with Turkish demands.

 Whilst the Sochi deal was initially met positively on both sides of the conflict, optimism has drained following revelations that the 15 to 20 kilometre buffer zone was to be absorbed entirely by opposition-held territory in Idlib, with no military withdrawal on the part of the regime.

 Skirmishes have also continued to take place between forces allied to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and opposition groups, with irregular shelling in Aleppo and Hama in the past week, despite the agreement stipulating a total ceasefire.

 “The Sochi agreement was an excuse to exit the Astana agreement. Astana stated the formation of de-escalation zones. President Erdogan admitted that the de-escalation zones have totally collapsed,” Captain Al-Maarati said, reflecting growing pessimism about the long term impact of the settlement amongst fighters and civilians.

Erdogan has repeatedly vowed that Turkey will tackle factions designated as terrorist groups by Russia, and has been exerting pressure for opposition groups to comply with the conditions of the agreements. A campaign of assassinations of senior opposition commanders that started earlier this year has also continued, with suspicions of Turkish involvement.'

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Syrians mark 3rd anniversary of Russian intervention

 'Syrians in Zardana village in Idlib countryside staged a silent sit-in on the 3rd anniversary of the Russian military intervention in Syria.

 Civilians and activists gathered on Monday (Oct. 1) at the site of the Russian massacre in Zardana village.

 They raised placards which read: “We are not terrorists,” and “Stop the crimes of the Russians, Assad and the Iranian regime.”

 “We refuse the Russian occupation, the constitutional process led by Moscow, and a political process that does not achieve the demands of the Syrian people,” a demonstrator said.

 We chose this place to remind the whole world that we will never forget our beloved civilians who were killed by the Russian aggression last June, another demonstrator said.

 Russian warplanes targeted Zardana village on June 7, killing 44 civilians, and injuring 80 others. 
 At least 6,239 civilians have been killed at the hands of Russian forces, including 1,804 children, between the start of their military intervention in Syria and September 30, 2018, according to an SNHR report issued yesterday.'

Saturday, 29 September 2018

“Our revolution will not stop before the release of all detainees”

Syrie: manifestations à Idleb pour la libération de détenus aux mains du régime

 'Several thousand people demonstrated on Friday in several cities of the Syrian province of Idlib (north-west), the last great bastion of insurgents in the country, calling for the liberation of prisoners in the prisons of the régime.

 Out in the streets after Friday prayers, the demonstrators chanted against the Assad régime, some waving the flag of the revolution and that of Turkey, in support of the uprising.

 They carried placards and banners, reading in English: “Our revolution will not stop before the release of all detainees”.

 “We call this Friday the Friday held to send a message to the world: our freedom will be complete only with the release of the prisoners in the prisons of the régime,” said Izz al-Din al-Idlibi, one of the organizers of the rally in the town of Maarat al-Numan.

 At the march in Maarat al-Numan, attended by women dressed in black, Abu Hassan carried on his shoulders his niece dressed in a blue dress and waving the portrait of his father, who was kidnapped five years ago.

 “We have joined this peaceful demonstration to demand the release of prisoners from the dungeons of the intelligence services”, he reiterated.

 Rallies were held in other towns of Idleb, as well as in the territories the rebels of the neighbouring province of Aleppo.

 “The detainees are our cause. We call on the international community to put pressure on the régime to free them”, said Mayssa Mahmoud, a protester in the city of Atareb.'

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor

 "If all of Syria was taken (by Assad) except for one inch, I would stand on that inch and scream.. Curse your soul oh Hafiz! The revolution shall continue!"

"ISIS is the Arm of Assad Regime, freedom for our kidnapped women in Sweida. From the liberated countryside of Aleppo."

"To whoever is betting on our fatigue after 8 years, we say to him do not test our patience, as God has given us the patience of Ayoub (Job)."

Friday, 28 September 2018

The last rebel stronghold in Syria has survived – for now


 'The doors of fear and hope have revolved again. For weeks, Dr Mahmoud would rush his daughters into the basement at night, or tuck them in a corner in the lavatory, improvised shelters against the impact of airstrikes by the Syrian government and its Russian allies.

 That is, if he was at home. For the future, his plan was to hire a smuggler and move them to Turkey.

 It would cost him between $500 and $2,500 each to transport them illegally across the border. The lower the rate, the bigger the risk of being shot at by the Turkish police. He had heard of some seasoned smugglers who had mapped out the few unmanned crevices on the sealed frontier and, unlike most civilians in northern Syria, he could afford the expense. As a cardiologist, he had managed to save some money.

 He knew he himself would stay back in Idlib. There is a shortage of doctors and he intended to stick by the people, helping them endure the attack, were it to take place.

 For now, though, he and his children are breathing more freely, and the evacuation plan is postponed. An unexpected deal between Russia and Turkey last week may have averted the catastrophe he feared: a full-blown invasion of his home in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel province. Nothing is certain and agreements have been made and broken with monotonous regularity in the past.

 But Dr Mahmoud – a pseudonym, for fear of future reprisals – is happy for now. “I think it’s a good deal,” he said.

The agreement calls for a 15-20km demilitarised zone to be set up by mid-October, which will act as a buffer between the forces of the Syrian government and the rebels. Until then at least, a military offensive has been halted.

Dr Mahmoud’s first feeling was relief. He had other feelings too – the rush of a tiny victory, the joy of being alive another day, a diminishing hope leaping and suffusing his heart with promise because the revolution hadn’t yet died. However, the sense that his family would not be bombed that night came before all of that. “My first priority was to save my family,” he told me.

Then there was suspicion. Would the deal work? Or was it a ploy by the Russians to appear sympathetic to the humanitarian cause, that would lead eventually to a resumption of the bombing?

 “We are people, just like you,” he told me in an attempt to counter the narrative of the Syrian government that Idlib is entirely inhabited by Islamists and jihadists.

 The last remaining rebel stronghold, Idlib is dominantly in the grip of a jihadist outfit now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or the HTS, infamous for its al Qaeda links. Yet their estimated numbers – 10,000 fighters in all, according to the UN – are a mere fraction of the people residing in Idlib.

 Dr Mahmoud, a practising Muslim, admits the province leans towards the conservative, but he insists that does not make him an extremist. The people of Idlib, he says, including him, back the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army, now rebranded as the National Liberation Front, and not the jihadists of HTS.

 “Most people want the Free Syrian Army, they don’t like the HTS,” he said. “We don’t want to be ruled by them because we want democracy and they have deviated from the path of the revolution.”

 Yet digging a little deeper reveals a relationship riddled with complexities. Whilst Dr Mahmoud doesn’t wish to replace the dogma of the Baath party with the hardline ideology of the HTS, he finds them useful in fighting the régime.

 “They are certainly better than Assad. We don’t dislike them as much because they are also fighting the régime,” he says. He draws a distinction between the group’s leadership and its foreign fighters, and the foot soldiers, who are mainly ordinary Syrian boys and hence by and large trusted.

 What civilians like Dr Mahmoud think about the HTS is crucial because the future of the Russia-Turkey deal hinges on the HTS backing off from the demilitarised zone and giving up its weapons.

 Dr Mahmoud says that if HTS shows reluctance to co-operate and move out of the buffer zone and Russia consequently uses it as an excuse to attack Idlib – as is feared – the people of Idlib will also hold the group responsible for squandering a shot at peace.

 “Turkey will make the HTS co-operate and if they don’t, all Syrians will blame the HTS. I think they will respond,” says Dr. Mahmoud.

 A few days before the deal came about, I had spoken via a translator to an HTS commander who goes under the nom de guerre Abu Abd al-Rahman. “We are not at odds with the National Liberation Front when it comes to knowing who the real threat to our revolution is, and that is what matters right now,” he said. “Whatever our differences may be, I believe we are capable of setting them aside. This does not mean, however, that either of us should merge with the other."

 The relationship between HTS and the National Front for Liberation (NLF) – which is a conglomeration of several rebel groups backed by Turkey including the Free Syrian Army – is now key to the deal’s implementation. HTS's demand for co-operation – subordination is what the NLF fears the jihadists mean – but no merger makes NLF leaders certain that some sort of clash is coming. The deal makes it more likely.

 I first met Faras al-Bayush two years ago. He was a leader with the then Free Syrian Army based in Iskenderun in Turkey and we have stayed in contact. Now he says that a fight with HTS is inevitable. “It is a matter of time,” he said.

 General Haitham Afisi, another senior leader of the FSA who collaborated with the US during the early stages of the war, and is currently the NLF chief of staff of the rebel armed forces, says HTS is a bigger threat to the revolution than even the régime. General Afisi’s son was kidnapped and tortured by the group and held in captivity for two years.

 “They consider us infidels, as ‘Murtadeen’: Muslims who are not practicing Islam,” he told me over a secure messaging app. “But our Islam is an Islam of love and forgiveness and we want elections, we want democracy. There is no doubt over us fighting them.”

 If Idlib falls to the Assad régime and the worst comes true, Dr Mahmoud will prefer to live in Turkey or Turkey-controlled areas east of Euphrates, should he survive.

 However, so long as the deal exists, it means that for now the revolution is not yet at its end, giving him room to dream. One day, when there are free and fair elections in Syria, he says he will revisit Aleppo and take his daughters to see the citadel and the old city.

 Not everywhere, though; there are places which will remind him forever of the deaths and mangled remains of the dead, children included. These are the places he never wants to visit, that he never wants to be in again, not even in his dreams.'

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Corpses left rotting under rubble in régime attacks on Ghouta

A child is treated following an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria. Pic:

 'The intensity of a Russia-backed assault on a former rebel stronghold in Syria using suspected chemical weapons and cluster bombs has been laid bare in a new report by the Atlantic Council, which said 16,934 strikes were documented in eastern Ghouta during a 49-day assault in April of this year.

 This amounted to an average of 345.6 per day. The heaviest day of bombardment was 21 February, with 1,658 attacks recorded, it said.

 "Locals reported that corpses and body parts were often left rotting under the rubble and even strewn in the streets due to the danger and difficulty in retrieving them," according to the report.

 "Multiple victims were buried in mass graves with merely numbers attached to their improvised shrouds, as relatives and friends were unable to reach the hospitals and morgues to identify their loved ones."

 The report counted "at least six suspected chemical weapon attacks, five of which were verified". The deadliest chemical weapons attack was on the besieged town of Douma on 7 April in which dozens of people died.

 The report said: "The régime's takeover of Ghouta… was the culmination of years of 'kneel or starve' siege tactics, indiscriminate aerial bombardment, cynical manipulation of truce and ceasefire, and the likely use of chemical weapons against population zones. The significance lies less in the régime using these tactics - it was reasonable to expect it would do anything it could to ensure its own survival-than in the fact that it not only went unpunished for, but ultimately was rewarded by, the fall of Ghouta."

 The Atlantic Council heavily criticised the international community for failing to respond to stop all of the other deadly assaults by Assad forces and their Russian and Iranian backers, below the level of chemical weapons.

 "Not once in six years of war in Ghouta was there a meaningful international effort to disrupt Assad's atrocities or exact a serious price for them," the report said.'

Monday, 24 September 2018

Exiled Syrian artist draws torture to "continue the revolution"

Image result for Exiled Syrian artist Najah al-Bukai

 'The characters drawn in black-and-white ball-pen by Najah al-Bukai look broken, left in pain and despair by the torture the exiled Syrian artist says he went through and witnessed when imprisoned twice in government jails.

 One drawing shows a group of half-naked men being beaten up. Another depicts a man bent double, lying on his back with his feet over his head, tied up between two heavy wooden boards.

 “We were around 190 to 220 persons in this room which was 16 metres long and 3 metres wide. This is where the questioning sessions took place, where the torturers were using different techniques,” said Bukai, who now lives in France.

 “But the worst was unloading corpses. Once we had to unload three corpses while another (day) we could have to unload 13. They were prisoners who died under torture during questioning or of diseases because of deplorable hygienic conditions.”

 Syrian government officials have denied past accusations of systematic torture during the country’s seven-year-long war and also denied accusations that authorities have carried out mass executions in jails.

 But after years of government silence about the fate of tens of thousands of people that rights groups say have been forcibly disappeared in the conflict, authorities have begun quietly updating registers to acknowledge hundreds of their deaths.

 “I feel like it is my duty to continue the revolution,” Bukai said in his home in a Paris suburb he would not name for safety reasons.

 “If I stop drawing on this topic, it means I have given up and I have said to Bashar al-Assad: ‘Yes, you won your war against us.’ ”

 Bukai said he was first imprisoned for 11 months in 2011, in camp number 227 near the Syrian capital Damascus. He was arrested after he helped organise a protest against Assad.

 In 2014, he was arrested again at the Syrian-Lebanese border as he tried to leave the country after two years of hiding at his in-laws’ house.

 Bukai returned to France, where he first lived as an art student in the early 1990s, 2-1/2 years ago with his wife, Abir, and their 16-year-old daughter.

 Art is a therapy for him. Haunted by his experiences, he has not been able to draw any other subject for years.

 “Each time I try to change topic and find another path into my drawing, an exit, a window, I finally come back to the same,” he said.'

Image result for Exiled Syrian artist Najah al-Bukai

Monday, 17 September 2018

In the line of fire: Free Syria's police brace for regime's Idlib offensive

In the line of fire: Free Syria's police brace for regime's Idlib offensive

 'As Syrian regime forces mobilise for a new offensive on Idlib, a group of men and women continue to maintain safety and security in the opposition-held province, amid an atmosphere of panic, dread and terror.                                                       
 The Free Syrian Police (FSP) have been key to the establishment of law and order in Syria's north over the past six years, preventing outbreaks of looting and lawlessness in opposition territories.

 Their pursuit of thieves, as well as their work with the White Helmets, or more ordinary tasks such as directing traffic, have seen their roles as officers transformed since they defected from the regime.

 The trust the unarmed officers have earned from the community and ability to maintain order, without brutality, has made them among the most popular institutions operating in opposition areas.

 Their ability to halt the spread of extremist groups - such as Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - has also seen the Free Syrian Police become one of the Syrian opposition's great success stories.

 Many predict the whole revolutionary enterprise appears doomed with the police hit by US and UK funding cuts and soon to face the full wrath of the régime.

 When the bombs rain down, the officers expect to be among the first targets of Russian missiles, as has happened during other recent regime offensives on opposition areas.

 Operating since 2012, the police commanders said that they - and their officers - will continue their work amid the bombing.

 Plans have been made to help civilians access air raid shelters, aid in rescue operations, and clear roads for refugees uprooted from régime bombing.

 "There have been constant attacks and air raids [on FSP facilities] from the régime. Our headquarters, our centres, and all the FSP facilities have all been regularly targeted," said Brigadier Adeeb Sharraf, the founder of the FSP.

 The FSP command has given orders for officers to be on call 24/7, when Assad orders the assault on the people of Idlib.

 Their training and experience gained during the revolution will be put to the test, but Brigadier Adeeb is confident the officers will fulfill their duties.

 "The police's role is to help the medical teams and civil defence provide aid and save the people. There is a big fear that a mass offensive could lead to tens of thousands of casualties in the north," he added.

 If the regime takes Idlib, then officers will also have to think of their own safety.

 Along with the White Helmets, the police will likely be among the regime's most wanted, for daring to defy the brutal government and for their ability to run state-level institutions outside Assad's command.

 "The liberated areas have shown there is no need for the regime [to provide security], so this is why they have targeting the FSP more than [rebel] fighters," he added.

 Colonel Ali Alzzain helps operate the FSP in Idlib, and was one of the first commanders to defect from the regime to the new opposition police force.

 "The Syrian régime has always hated the revolutionary institutions, and the FSP are among the largest. We don't know what the fate will be for the officers if the regime takes Idlib, but we expect it to be torture and death," said Colonel Ali.

 "When the régime took Daraa this summer, the first thing they did was to photograph officers outside FSP centres."

 The message was clear. Not only did such tactics serve in intimidating supporters of the revolution, but also signify to the Syrians that the security of the FSP was over, and the brutality and murder of Assad had returned.

 The unarmed police force formed one year after the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, with armed uprisings breaking out across the country in the following months.

 At the time, Bashar al-Assad's gangs operated with impunity, breaking up pro-democracy demonstrations and rounding up opposition activists in their thousands.

 Recent reports suggest most have been murdered and tortured to death in the régime's prisons.

 When state violence against the demonstrations intensified in late 2011, many of the soldiers sent to quell the uprisings joined the protesters, taking up arms and becoming revolutionary fighters.

 Less well-known were the defectors from Syria's security forces, who had grown disgusted with the regime's barbarous methods of maintaining control and left.

 Hoping to serve the country in more dignified and honourable roles, they formed an unarmed volunteer security force, serving the people and ensuring their safety in liberated areas.

 "Before the establishment of the FSP, there was no security institutions in the north of Syria. We were established to help people, keep them safe and ensure security," Colonel Ali said, speaking from Idlib province.

 The FSP now operates 54 police stations - known as centres - in Idlib and 17 in Aleppo, with officers serving almost four million people.

 They have defied not only the regime but also the Islamic State group, as well as common criminals who are said to be prolific in regime and Islamist-controlled areas.

 The FSP's day-to-day work varies, from chasing down car thieves, to protecting women and children from kidnappers.

 It is dangerous work with at least 153 officers killed in the line of duty in Idlib and Aleppo, mostly from regime and Russian airstrikes, but also by armed groups or criminals.

 The FSP's ability to provide security in areas outside government control has brought them the ire of the regime, with FSP centres among the most heavily bombed targets of Russia and the regime.

 Colonel Ali said that although officers are committed to the ideals of the revolution, they maintain their independence from armed actors in the conflict.

 "We are civilian police that cooperate with local councils and civil communities only. We don't deal with armed groups and are neutral. We don't allow anyone to interfere in our work, and the people of Idlib want us here," he said.

 Idlib and Aleppo provinces are covered by two main security forces. One is the FSP, while an Islamic police force operate in areas under HTS control.

 The people - particularly in refugee camps - have made it clear which group they prefer to govern their communities.

 When HTS took over opposition territories run by revolutionary civil councils, protests broke out. A key demand from the people was the withdrawal of the fighters and the return of the FSP.

 The armed groups backed down and the areas were handed back to the civil police force and councils, and peace returned.

 "There are many more thefts, abductions and assassinations in HTS-controlled areas, while security more or less prevails in the FSP territories, and much fewer incidences of crime," said Colonel Ali.

 Kidnappings have become commonplace in HTS areas, but almost completely unheard of in places where the FSP has authority.

 Much of the FSP's success is down to officers' professionalism and ability to win the confidence and support of the people.

 "When you join the [regime] police force you swear an oath to serve your country and protect the people's rights, but it really became tools of torture and oppression," the colonel adds.

 "We work to change this mentality, but we cannot forget that huge numbers of officers defected because they refused to serve in the regime oppression and wanted to honour the code of ethics they swore to when they joined the police."

 Serving in the FSP has seen the officers' roles transformed. They have adopted the concept of community policing - a common concept among European police forces - and work with locals to solve crimes.

 They are also more focused on conflict resolution, rather than using intimidation and cajoling to get results, as is common in regime areas.

 Their hard-won successes are not only threatened by the regime but also the UK and US' announcement that they have pulled funding from the force.

 "The impact will be a weakening of security in opposition areas. Police officers and generals will face cuts to their wages, forcing them to find other sources of income to support their families."

 Yet with régime forces building-up around Idlib and Aleppo, their attention is directed at ensuring the safety of people, as rebel fighters dig-in to protect the opposition territories.

 "We have offered a lot of martyrs, and many FSP officers have become paralysed and lost limbs, but this is all part of the bigger purpose and pursuit of protecting the people and their property," Colonel Ali added.

 Regardless of the outcome of the battle, they have shown the world that law-and-order can be achieved without the regime's brutality.'

Doctors, nurses rally against Syrian régime in Idlib

 'More than 300 doctors and nurses rallied Sunday in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, urging the international community to protect them against an expected offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

 Brandishing roses and wearing white coats and blue surgical uniforms, the demonstrators gathered in front of the hospital in Atme, near the border with Turkey.

 Backed by its ally Russia, the Syrian regime has targeted several areas of Idlib with artillery and air strikes, sometimes hitting hospitals and rescue centres in the country’s last major opposition stronghold.

 The protesters in Atme, both men and women, waved the flag of the Syrian revolution as well as placards in English that read “UN, protecting us is your responsibility”.

 Another directly addressed UN Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura, telling him that “protecting health worker in Idlib is part of your mission”.

 “We call for an end to the strikes against hospitals and our protection by the United Nations,” said nurse Fadi Al Amur.

 “Medical staff are neutral. We treat civilians affected by the Russian and Syrian air strikes,” he said.

 An air strike on September 6 struck an NGO-backed hospital in Kafr Zita, a town in the neighbouring province of Hama, putting it out of service.

 The UN said information on the location of the hospital had been provided to parties whose aircraft are involved in the conflict in order to avoid such incidents.

 Two days after the attack on the hospital in Hama, a strike hit and damaged an underground hospital on the outskirts of Hass in Idlib.'