Saturday, 16 June 2018

Syria's Graffiti Kids Who Sparked Revolution, Now Brace For Regime Attack

Syria's Graffiti Kids Who Sparked Revolution, Now Brace For Regime Attack

 ' "Your turn, Doctor." Seven years after scribbling the anti-Assad slogan that sparked Syria's war, activists-turned-rebels Moawiya and Samer Sayasina are bracing themselves for a regime assault on their hometown Daraa.
 They were just 15 when they and friends, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions they saw on television, daubed a groundbreaking message on one of the southern city's walls in the spring of 2011.

 "We'd been following the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, and we saw them writing slogans on their walls like 'Freedom' and 'Down with the regime'," said Moawiya, now 23.

 "We got a can of spray paint and we wrote 'Freedom. Down with the regime. Your turn, Doctor'," referring to President Bashar al-Assad, a trained ophthalmologist.

 Within two days, security forces stormed their homes and detained the boys, who are unrelated but share a common family name.

 "They tortured us to find out who had provoked us to write it," Moawiya said.

 The teenagers' detention prompted a wave of angry protests demanding their release, in what many point to as the spark to Syria's nationwide uprising.

 "I'm proud of what we did back then, but I never thought we'd get to this point, that the regime would destroy us like this. We thought we'd get rid of it," he said.

 The words that sparked the revolution more than seven years ago are no longer visible today, covered up under a coat of black paint.

 Samer, also now 23, remembers emerging from detention in March 2011 to find his whole country in uproar against the government.

 "We were in jail for about a month and ten days. When we got out, we saw protests in Daraa and all over Syria," he said.

 Violently smothered, the demonstrations evolved into a conflict that has since killed more than 350,000 people and thrown millions out of their homes.

 "In the beginning, I was proud of being the reason for the revolution against oppression. But with all the killing, the displacement and the homelessness over the years, sometimes I feel guilty," said Samer.

 "Those people who died or fled, all this destruction -- it all happened because of us."

 During the first months of protests, security forces rounded up dozens of people in Daraa, including 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib.

 After he was tortured to death, according to his family, he became one of the early symbols of the Damascus regime's brutal repression.

 With protests melting into civil war and rebels seizing territory, Moawiya and Samer took up arms in 2013.

 But the rebel movement has since fragmented and suffered a string of devastating blows, with the regime with Russian support retaking more than half the country.

 Last month, the army regained full control of Damascus for the first time since 2012, and Assad has now turned to the cradle of the uprising against him.

 In a recent interview, the president gave Daraa's rebels two options: negotiated withdrawal or full-fledged attack.

 But the young men who first demanded he step down remain determined to fight, as they once wrote, until the regime falls.

 "The regime's threats of entering Daraa don't scare me," Moawiya said.

 "Assad's regime may have weapons, but so do we. The only difference is he has warplanes and we have God Almighty."

 He refuses any settlement for Daraa like those that have preceded it for the armed opposition to evacuate other parts of Syria.

 "I'd prefer death to Bashar al-Assad's reconciliation," he said.

 Going out on patrol, Moawiya swapped his civilian clothes for grey military-style trousers and a black sweater.

 He moved between destroyed buildings with just sandals on his feet, a Kalashnikov in his hand and his eye trained on the horizon for any movement.

 Moawiya and Samer lost many friends to the war, including classmates from school who became their cellmates in jail.

 "We were a group of young guys," recalled Samer.

 "Some are dead now. Some fled. Some are still fighting," he said, counting off friends who died in clashes in 2015 or subsequent bombing raids on Daraa.

 Moawiya too struck a nostalgic tone.

 "We grew up on revolution, on weapons and on fighting. We started to lose friends, to bury them with our own hands. We grew up on war and destruction," he said.

 Despite the losses, he insisted: "My opinion of the revolution hasn't changed. For us, the revolution continues."

 "When I get married and have a son, I'll tell him what happened to me. I'll teach him to write on the wall whenever he sees injustice -- not to be afraid of anyone, and to write it all." '

syria graffiti boyssyria graffiti

Friday, 15 June 2018

Building the case against Assad's régime


 '20, 21, 24, 28, 34, 36, 40, 41, 83, 90, 92, 124 and 126. Yazan Awad repeats the days he was tortured like a mantra; the days the military prison guards smashed his legs with a club for six hours solid; the days they suspended him from the ceiling and beat him; the days they pushed a Kalashnikov up his rear. And the worst day of all; day 36.

 Awad joins other victims, witnesses and lawyers in Germany where the legal battle against Bashar al-Assad’s government is being waged. Almost 1.5 million refugees have flooded into the country over the last two years, and many are living proof of the atrocities committed in the regime’s prisons. Their presence, along with thousands of photos and Germany’s universal justice laws, has not only meant that cases such as Awad’s are being heard, but that the first international warrant has been issued for the arrest of a high-ranking official in the al-Assad regime.

 In a room a thousand kilometers from Berlin, the evidence needed to nail the culprits is stored in hundreds of cardboard boxes. This ‘who’s who’ of torture consists of hundreds of thousands of documents that have been smuggled out of Syria over a period of years showing who designed the gruesome game plan, who issued the orders, who carried them out and who turned a blind eye.

 These documents have been classified by veterans of the international justice system and are now driving investigations in a dozen different countries against middle-ranking Syrian government officials who have moved to Europe. But, more importantly, they are being used to construct a case against the al-Assad regime in order to avoid a Yugoslavia or Rwanda scenario, where a lack of evidence meant delaying justice for decades and, in many instances, forever. These documents mean that when the time comes for justice to be done, the evidence will be ready and waiting – the loopholes plugged.

 The first body of evidence against the Syrian regime is contained in the victim’s statements, which depict its repressive apparatus in grisly detail and reveal a pattern of systematic abuse. Over and over, their stories recount the pipes on the ceiling and the cables used to hang prisoners for beatings; the relentless cries of those being tortured; the overcrowded cells rife with infection; the uncertainty of not knowing if they would be alive the next day; the disappearance of fellow prisoners; the confessions wrung from them. And now, a desperate faith in justice that is keeping their spirits from breaking.

 Awad is a big guy; a 30-year-old who sought refuge in Germany two years ago after being imprisoned in the al-Mezzeh airport – which was under control of the Syrian military air force – for 137 days. “As soon as I arrived, they beat me for six hours. They lay us on the ground and beat us with pipes. They beat the soles of our feet. Then they put me in a cell with 180 people. The pain was terrible. I couldn’t go to the toilet. Two people had to drag me there.”

 Awad’s story pours out of him. “They beat me like crazy – my head with their boots and with the butts of their Kalashnikovs,” he says. “They stuck an AK-47 up my ass and I ate nothing for two months. It was dangerous to ask to see the doctor; for every 10 that went, only one would come back alive. They gave us 10 seconds to go to the toilet. In that time you had to drink, tend to your injuries, go to the bathroom and clean up.”

 On Day 36, “They told me they were going to kill me,” he says. “I was still hanging from the ceiling and they put a gun in my mouth and they told me to recite the shahada [the Islamic profession of faith]. I couldn’t stop stuttering and it took me more than 15 minutes. Someone fired a shot. They had cut the rope and I was on the ground. I thought they had killed me. They took the bandage from my eyes and I ran after them. I needed to see their faces so I could explain to God who they were on Judgment Day.”

 Awad had been a regular guy, living an ordinary life. Then, on April 29, 2011, he joined his first demonstration against the regime. The Arab Spring had seen the fall of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and suddenly anything seemed possible, even in Syria. The photos portraying the torture of the Daraa children acted as the catalyst. These were 14-year-old schoolboys whose only crime was to deface a public wall with the slogan, “Your turn doctor,” referring to Bashar al-Assad’s training as an ophthalmologist.

 “When I saw the photos of those children, I decided to fight the regime,” says Awad. First there were the demonstrators, like Awad, then came those who would help the demonstrators escape arrest and, finally, there would be a network of underground doctors and hospitals to tend to the injured involved in the protests.

 The start of the conflict in Syria was infused with hope, a sentiment that has been stamped out along with the lives of around 400,000 people. Now, in its eighth year, the conflict has also forced 11 million from their homes, amounting to almost half of the population. But perhaps worst of all, there is still no political solution on the horizon and no end to the suffering in sight.

 Despite all this, Awad is filled with a sense of purpose. “My friends are still in jail and I promised I would get them out. My dream is to speak in front of the UN Security Council. In 2012, they stopped the torture for two weeks and we were able to sleep because the cries and screams also stopped. And they gave us food. It was only in case UN inspectors came to check out the prison. Those two weeks were incredible. Paradise in hell.”

 After seeking asylum, Awad encountered the renowned Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni – who had also moved to Germany – through the internet. His strategy began to take shape. “My time had come,” he says.

 In Damascus, al-Bunni was the go-to defense for political prisoners and when he got to Europe, the refugee community quickly sought him out. Soon he was inundated with messages from fellow Syrians who, like Awad, wanted his help and were keen to talk.

 In next to no time, he was able to compile first-hand accounts from all over Europe. From his office in the north of Berlin, where the only decoration is the Syrian flag, al-Bunni explains: “We are preparing witnesses in Norway and also in Stockholm. There’s a case going on in France brought by two victims with French nationality…” In total, there are five Syrian lawyers working in Berlin and another 30 scattered across the rest of Europe. He explains that among the 27 they are seeking to indict is Bashar al-Assad himself.

 Activism runs in al-Bunni’s blood. Between himself, his four brothers and his sister, they have chalked up 75 years in jail. Back in Damascus, al-Bunni was director of a well-known human-rights center that acted as a point of reference for western diplomats and European institutions. Accused of seeking to debilitate the country and of collaborating with international organizations, he spent five years in prison between 2006 and 2011. During that time, he says they tried to kill him twice.

 Al-Bunni was actually behind bars when the revolution took off in Syria. Following his release, Germany offered him asylum – his work had previously been recognized by the German Association of Judges. But al-Bunni stayed. Demonstrators were being arrested without any guarantee of charges or trials and al-Bunni made it his business to find them and secure their release. In 2012, his partner and friend Khalil Maatouk disappeared. Al-Bunni kept going until 2014 when the government ordered his arrest. Aware that his life was on the line, he fled to safety with his wife and children.

 “We know there are more than 60 people from the regime in Europe, but I am not scared of them,” says al-Bunni. “They should be afraid of me. They know me from my time in prison. They interrogated me every day and they know that the only way to shut me up is to kill me. If they kill me in Germany, it will be easy to catch them and they will go to jail and I will have achieved my goal.” He laughs. “I promise I will put them in jail, dead or alive; these people cannot be part of the political transition.”

 Al-Bunni is convinced there is a lot at stake for Europe too. “If we let the al-Assad regime go unpunished, it will be like giving carte blanche to the world’s dictators. If international law collapses, what will become of our societies?” he says.

 Al-Bunni is also part of a project that makes use of his contacts among the refugee community to track down criminals coming to Europe in the guise of refugees. These could be either officials from the regime or members of Islamic State and al-Nusra – Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. “We know that more than 1,060 people with refugee status here have committed crimes,” he says. “And there’s a lot of evidence to prove it.”

 Among the documentation with the Attorney General is a crucial package containing 26,948 photos. Almost half of them show the dead bodies of detainees. They are known as the Caesar photographs, after the military defector who smuggled them out of Syria.

 Caesar was a forensic photographer with the military police. Between 2011 and 2013, his job was to photograph the corpses from the different prisons arriving at the 601 Military Hospital in Mezzah and the Tishreen Military Hospital, both in Damascus.

 Besides providing proof of identity, the images offer evidence of systematic abuse and the subhuman conditions within Syria’s detention facilities. Most of the bodies are emaciated, their bones jutting and their skin showing infection and sores as well as evidence of torture. There are marks indicating strangulation, burns and beatings; mouths whose teeth have been smashed and eyes filled with blood.

 In another corner of Europe whose location is being kept under wraps, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) carefully files the documented evidence of abuse. One-hundred-and-forty-five legal experts from around Europe and the Middle East have already compiled 800,000 pages of incriminating evidence.

 Bearing the initials of Syria’s National Security department, one lists categories of people to be detained, including demonstrators and people in contact with foreign journalists. “Clean all sectors of these people,” one document reads. Another asks that any new names extracted from interrogations be sent to the National Security office. There are also notes taken during interrogations.

 “The culprits aren’t going to be able to be tried in absentia, but the international arrest warrants send the message to the perpetrators that the crimes will not go unpunished,” explains María Elena Vignoli, an expert in international justice from Human Rights Watch.

 As such, for many Syrian refugees, the German justice system is currently its only hope. Maryam Alhallak is one of them: in 2012 they took away her son.

 Last July, Maryam Alhallak testified in court, explaining how she managed to confirm that her son was dead after seeing him among Caesar’s photos. Prior to this, she had spent three years in Damascus searching for his body in vain. “The government was looking for me and wanted to arrest me,” she says. “I went to call on all the officials, which is why they were after me and threw me out of my home.”

 A “mother courage” figure who nobody wanted to listen to. However, the German justice system has been keen to hear her story and that of her son, who was a supervisor in the Odontology faculty. “There were no charges against him,” she says. Her voice breaks.

 She takes a deep breath and, referring to the trial, continues: “I am very hopeful. Justice is all that is left to us.” '

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Silent War: How Rape Became a Weapon in Syria

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 ' "I didn't know what was happening to me except that I was screaming and I was in pain. I felt like my thoughts no longer belonged to my body and my body no longer to my soul. My soul was elsewhere and my body was in the hands of the monsters."

 In basements, prisons and their own homes, Syrian women were repeatedly raped for "crimes" such as participating in peaceful demonstrations or to send a message to their husbands, fathers and brothers.

 "Every free citizen or any citizen engaged in the revolution has had one of the women of his family sent to detention ... His sister, his daughter, his wife. The message is, 'Either you surrender or we keep your wife or your daughter'. The regime used rape to humiliate the Syrian men," explains one woman who served in the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for eight years before defecting.

 "They started to rape women at roadblocks, at home in front of their husbands, their children …. At some point, the regime took a new approach. It recorded videos of the rapes of women in detention and sent them to the fighters."

 Soldiers were, in turn, encouraged to film themselves raping women so that the videos could be sent to the women's families.

 It is a topic filmmaker Manon Loizeau has long wanted to tackle.

 "Since I made my first film in Homs in 2011, I have thought about how to make a film about the unnameable," she says. "The family I was staying with took me to a house where there lived a woman who had just been released from the torture cells of Bashar al-Assad. She stood pale and frail by the door, then left without saying a word, too afraid to speak. For all those years, I wondered how to tell this story."

 Through their harrowing personal testimonies, the women in Silent War tell not only the story of what takes place in these cells but of what happens when they leave them, returning to a society that stigmatises, rejects and punishes them for being raped, sometimes to the point of death.

 "The regime raped her and society rejects her. If it happens to you, then you must die. But it happened to me and I did not die. What can I do?" asks one woman.

 "We are trapped between traditions on one side and the regime on the other. And we die caught in between." '
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Thursday, 7 June 2018

Armed factions join forces to counter Syrian regime gains

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 'Military factions in northern and central Syria are joining forces to form the National Liberation Front (NLF) and calling on others to join them in building a new democratic state that preserves the rights of all Syrians regardless of ethnicity.

 The NLF includes a number of major opposition military factions operating in northern and central Syria, among them the Free Idlib Army, Martyrs of Islam Brigade, Jaish al-Nasr and others. The group officially launched in May, when Col. Fadlallah Al-Hajji was appointed commander in chief, with Lt. Col. Suhaib Leoush as his deputy and Maj. Mohamed Mansour as chief of staff.

 “The NLF is a new military formation that was the result of four months of consultations and negotiations between the leaders of the Free Syrian Army factions. The leaders realized how serious this phase is and how important it is to have a unified front, a unified position and unified efforts on the military, political and security levels, to find solutions and face any hardships," NLF spokesman Capt. Naji Abu Hudeifa said.

 “The NLF is committed to the objectives and principles of the Syrian revolution. It seeks to overthrow [President] Bashar al-Assad's regime and to hold him accountable for his terrorism and the killing of the Syrian people,” he added. “One of its other objectives is to defend the people against the attacks of any terrorist organization, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Democratic Union Party.”

 The new group's members are deployed on most fronts and regions in Syria, especially Idlib province and the western, southern and northern countryside of Aleppo, as well as on the Syrian coast in the Kurd Mountains and the Turkmen region, and in Afrin.

 "Our members are ready to thwart any attack by the enemy," Abu Hudeifa said.

 The NLF has no direct civil activities. "Its role is limited to providing assistance to local civil councils that run the opposition-controlled cities, towns and villages," he added. "We are always ready to provide whatever help these local councils might need.”

 Syrians who oppose Assad’s regime, as well as activists at home and abroad, have long called for unifying the armed military factions. Syrian activists in several opposition-controlled areas in past years have organized popular demonstrations calling on the factions to unite and overcome their differences. In the past, disagreements evolved into direct military confrontation between factions, such as the battles between Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman in eastern Ghouta in mid-2017. Activists later said such battles allowed the Syrian regime forces to take control of eastern Ghouta in March.

 Activist Moumtaz Abu Mohammed from northern rural Aleppo said, “Every action that unifies the military factions is seen as a positive step. The years of division have paved the way for the Syrian regime forces to advance and take over large areas once controlled by these factions.”

 He added, “The regime and its allies want to end this in the field, ignoring all cease-fire agreements signed in Astana [Kazakhstan] and elsewhere. All military factions operating in Syria should join forces as soon as possible to prevent a future catastrophe in the remaining areas under their control in northern Syria.”

 Many Syrians have high hopes for unifying the armed military factions to thwart attacks by regime forces that are supported by Russia and Iran. The regime has displaced thousands of people into the north. Syrians believe that as long as division prevails among opposition factions, battles are bound to erupt in the areas they still control in northern Syria — and then the displaced would have nowhere else to go, save a few opposition-controlled areas in southern Syria.

 Other militias forming NLF include Sham Legion, 1st Coast Division, Second Coast Division, 1st Infantry Division, Second Army, Elite Army, al-Forkh 23 and the Horya Brigade.'

Friday, 1 June 2018

Raqqa in the eye of the storm again

Raqqa in the Eye of the Storm again

 'Raqqa is witnessing developments not previously observed since it was declared controlled by YPG militia-dominated Syria's Democratic Forces (SDF) militias in 2017. As the popular demands for exiting the city increased, clashes broke out between the rebel and Kurdish protection militia (YPG) that the US-led International Coalition forces failed to stop such clashes. This comes in conjunction with preparing Saudi Arabia-backed Arabic forces to manage the region.

 Kurdish protection militia YPG-dominated Syria's Democratic militias seized in October 2017 complete control over Raqqa after months of fighting against ISIS that ended with the complete destruction of the city, the displacement of most of its population and the killing and wounding of thousands of civilians. The YPG have imposed its laws, which led to compulsory recruitment and the resettlement of Kurds, and this is what the Syrian Arabs considered an attempt to change the region's demographics.

 Public protests in the city of Raqqa have been going on for more than a week, demanding the end of the arbitrary arrests and forced recruitment implemented by Kurdish protection militias.

 "Such demonstrations were caused by the militias' practices of theft and confiscation of civilian property, raids and random arrests, and the imposition of forced conscription, as well as the issuance of decisions and judgments and the administration of the city to suit their plans," media activist, Mohamed Othman, said.

 Almost every day, evening demonstrations take place in the areas of al-Sakia Street, Dawar al-Barazi and al-Mashbal district. Although they are met with violence and repression, the protesters insist on their demands for the militia to withdraw and hand over the city to civilian bodies. Recently, a demonstration erupted in "Rumaila" street was attacked nearby the "al-Batani" square and the protesters were met with shooting, which resulted in the injury of some demonstrators lightly injured and the arrest of four of them.

 In response to the popular movement in the city, the militias blocked cars with food aid from entering the Rumaila neighborhood, in a move described by the people of the city as "collective punishment."

 Clashes broke out last Sunday between the Al-Raqqa Revolution Brigade and Kurdish protection militias near the roundabout of al-Barazi, where the latter targeted civilian houses with heavy machine guns, coinciding with the roll-out of military reinforcements towards the district of Maslab to storm the area.

 Osman explained that the protection militias represented by the forces of Asayish and its military police tried to arrest one of the military commanders of the Brigades of Raqqa in his home in the neighborhood of Rumaila and got a quarrel and loud voices before a number of elements of the brigade managed to assist the commander and then patrols withdrew towards the district's outskirts and called for support from the elements of "Syria's Democratic Forces" in conjunction with the deployment of the brigade's fighters at the entrances of the neighborhood.

 He added: "Then the militias fired at the neighborhood, which led the brigade to respond in the same manner. Meanwhile, the civilians came out in dozens and then developed the situation until they became hundreds of protesters from the neighborhoods of Rumaila and al-Mashlab to demand the exit of Kurdish protection militia from Raqqa.

 On the other hand, the leader of the brigade, "Abu Ismail al-Askari" declared that "Syria's Democratic Forces" are trying to pressure the brigade to dismantle and prove their selves the only force on the ground, stressing their willingness to resort to similar operations against them in the event of continued violations.

 Despite the intervention of the international coalition more than once to calm the situation and force the militias to withdraw to the outskirts of Rumaila, but they have returned the attack.

 "Syria's Democratic Forces" has been trying to get rid of any military entities that have Arab forces majority, where the village of Abu Hamam in the eastern suburb of Deir al-Zour witnessed earlier military confrontations between Syria's Democratic militias and the "Elite forces" of the al-Ghad Movement headed by Ahmad al-Jarba, before the American President's envoy to the International Coalition "Bret Magork" interfered to resolve the conflict.

 The Arab Council of the Jazira and the Euphrates region, which is close to the al-Ghad Movement said that the Kurdish protection militias that control the decision in "Syria's Democratic Forces" reject the presence of any Arab faction in the region, because it poses a threat, especially in light of the refusal of members of the Arab tribes to join them.

The Council expressed its fear of an Arab-Kurdish sedition that foreshadows more Syrian bloodshed, and the region of the al-Jazira and the Euphrates remains open to all possibilities.

 After the announcement of the representative of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that the city of Raqqa after the expulsion of ISIS from the city  will join its federal system, and a member of the Political Bureau of the Kurdish Democratic Party, "Azad Brazi" revealed the existence of the idea of establishing a federation of Manbij and Raqqa, Deir al-Zour after the entry of Arab forces backed by Saudi Arabia, pointing out that is now being discussed by the Syrian Democratic 
Council which is the political front of the SDF militia.

 A delegation from Arab countries met with officials from the Syria's Democratic militias to form a nucleus of a new Arab force in northern and eastern Syria. According to the sources, the meeting was held between the leaders of the Sanadid forces, the Elite forces, the brigades of Raqqa and other Arab factions in Syria with officials of the Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan defense ministries, at the American-run base "Esh Kharabak" in the countryside of Ain Al Arab.

 According to PassNews website, the Arab forces will be stationed initially only in the areas of Raqqa from which Washington withdraw its troops, which pressed the YPG to accept that step.

 The source adds that the sheikh of the clan of Shammer "Hamidi Dahham Al Hadi" made an offer to participate in this force through the grouping of the Arab tribes and the formation of a Sunni tribal force with its capital (Raqqa) and under the supervision and support of Saudi Arabia.'

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Daraa revolutionaries respond to the Syrian regime's psychological warfare

Daraa revolutionaries respond to the Syrian regime's psychological warfare

 'The Daraa revolutionaries responded to the psychological warfare waged by the Syrian regime against them by promoting reports of the imminent attack on the liberated areas, and the publication of leaflets from the helicopters calling for the people of the province to surrender.

 The revolutionary factions in the operations room of "al-Bunyan al-Marsous" used drones to drop leaflets on the areas under the control of the Syrian regime forces in Daraa province, in which they called on the people to revolt against Assad because he has killed thousands and caused the displacement of millions of Syrians.

 Numerous reports issued by media outlets close to the regime talked about preparing for a battle against free Daraa areas and about crowds in the region. However, military sources denied that there were any reinforcements or field changes.'

Daraa revolutionaries respond to the Syrian regime's psychological warfare

Monday, 28 May 2018

Residents in Hasakah, Syria Protest PYD, Reject Conscription

 'Local sources and some social media accounts have been reporting that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls certain cities in Syria, was forcing civilians into full submission. Besides for using taxation and other ways of collecting money, the PYD has a major problem with its conscription activities.

 The PKK-affiliated group has been employing youth in its attacks against Turkey and opposition groups. It has been reported that the residents of the Syrian city Hasakah, in the country's north, have gathered to protest the PYD.

 In fact, at the beginning of the civil war Hasakah residents were totally siding with opposition groups. However, due to the city's strategic position the regime forces did not abandon the city center. Instead, when it became clear that the regime would not maintain its rule, the PYD somehow ascended to power. The regime and the PYD refuse to admit that they are allies, but it is a fact that the two sides have allied several times and avoid confronting each other. The regime has never considered the PYD a threat, for instance, when its militants captured large swathes in Syria's north or Aleppo's northern neighborhoods.

 One of the first things that the PYD did was to silence other Kurdish groups. There were certain Kurdish groups, who were supporting the opposition, willing to fight the regime and not intended to be associated with terror activities.

 However, an implicit alliance between the PYD and the regime, and U.S. support has led the emergence of the PYD as the sole power in that area.

 According to the Syrian sources in Istanbul, it is not possible for the civilians to raise their voices against PYD rule. They need to launch another revolution attempt as they did against the regime. Yet, people seem to be fed up with the unjustified acts and harsh measures imposed by the PYD since they, in the protest in Hasakah, exclaimed that they were not going to give their sons to the so-called PYD army. The PYD and its main backers, including the U.S., claim that their struggle is focused against Daesh. Indeed, the U.S. has benefited from using Kurdish people as manpower against the terror group. Yet, the civilians, according to the claims on social media, say that their sons do not want to be conscripted.

 News agencies reported that a large number of armed PYD members were mobilized last week into the country's south. A new wave of fights against Daesh would be possible. Therefore Hasakah residents along with the residents of other cities, which have fallen under the PYD control, were worried.The conscription issue seems like a problem for the residents. Another problem, mentioned by rights groups, is that the PYD patrols are free to arrest anyone. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that a few people are arrested almost every week and taken to an unknown destination.'

'Anti-SDF protest in Rumialah neighborhood after clashes erupted between predominantly Arab rebel group Liwa Thuwar ar-Raqqa & the Kurdish-led #SDF. "Raqqa is free. Kurds go out!" '

A woman’s place in the resistance

 'Syrian journalist Kholoud Helmi has paid a heavy price for her fight for the truth. Since co-founding a newspaper in 2011 she has watched her hometown come under siege and lost friends and family at the hands of President Assad’s brutal regime. But her pursuit for the freedom and dignity of Syrian citizens is one she will never give up.

 Born in 1984, as a child growing up in Darayya, a suburb outside Damascus, Helmi was unaware of the atrocities the ruling government was capable of. Everything they knew was fed to them by the ruling Ba’ath regime, and nobody dared to speak against the government. It was these memories of growing up under state control that led Helmi to join the Arab Spring protests, and the injustices she witnessed shaped the course of her life as she found herself reporting from the frontline.

 “We had one channel for TV, which was state-owned media. We watched all the same programmes. There’s something funny where all Syrians have all the same collective memory, as if we were all brought up in the same house where nothing could change,” she says.

 Helmi’s transition from Syrian child to activist and journalist was gradual, informed by whispers of information she heard. When she was 11 a schoolfriend told her about her father, who had left Syria after he was accused of being affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time Helmi did not know anything about the group, or about the massacre in 1982, when government forces, under the orders of the country’s then president, Hafez al-Assad – father of the current leader – besieged the town of Hama for 27 days to quell an anti-government uprising.

 The attack has been described as one of “the single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East” but, growing up just a decade later, Helmi had no idea of the atrocities that had taken place.

 But by 2011 Helmi had learned enough about the ruling regime to know she wanted change. Inspired by protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen and Libya, she attended a demonstration in Damascus.

 “I will never forget that day,” she says. “Demonstrations were so dangerous, so we relied on the trust groups. We would go to the neighbourhood and then we would receive another sign to direct us to a point, then when we got closer and the numbers were there, people would gather together and then we would start the demonstration for one minute.

 “The first time we were just chanting. We chanted for freedom of expression and change. I will never forget what I was feeling. I felt like I was floating, not walking. Demanding something that we were not allowed to – speaking up – it was like I was flying. What I remember is that I was so happy to the extent that I was shedding tears the whole time, for no reason. I have never felt free, but that time I did.”

 Protesters handed bottles of water to soldiers. Others gave them roses as a sign of peace, but it wasn’t long before soldiers then reacted with violence.

 “We believed we were all brothers and sisters of the same nation, but it turned out that they arrested people anyway,” says Helmi, whose friend Islam Dabbas, a civil engineering student, handed soldiers water and roses and was arrested. Seven years on, Helmi does not know what has happened to him.

 “You could mention thousands of names of people who have disappeared because they were peacefully protesting in the streets.”

 The state-run media was keen to brush over the truth. TV cameras would turn up hours after the demonstrations had finished, denying that anything had happened.

 “They would cover things that told people nothing was happening in the streets of Syria, but [meanwhile] my friends were arrested, killed, taken to prison, and the security forces were breaking into houses, arresting people, harassing women.”

 Helmi and a group of friends decided to take matters into their own hands. In December 2011 they founded a newspaper.

 “We had to tell the people why we protested and what we had been facing,” she says. “Darayya is 20 minutes from Damascus, but most of the people in Damascus didn’t know what was going on. We also wanted to reach the international media.”

 In January 2012 the first issue of Enab Baladi was published. Helmi and colleagues knew they were risking their lives, so they had to devise a meticulous method of distributing the newspaper. They would gather the news, write it at home and send it to the designer. It was printed by another colleague, who would fold the newspapers and put them in bin bags outside his home. The group communicated through a secret Facebook group, and once the newspapers were ready people were assigned to go and collect them.

 “People would come to my house and collect their editions,” says Helmi. “The people who came to me didn’t know that I worked for the newspaper. My own family didn’t know that I was a journalist and writing for the newspaper. They only discovered later on when I started to have huge loads of the newspaper in the house.

 “I was afraid but the dream was so huge, to the point that we forgot that we were under danger. What we were aspiring for, freedom, freedom of expression, change, democracy – the dream was big and we had belief in the international community at that point.”

 To distribute Enab Baladi as far as Damascus, Helmi would smuggle copies underneath her clothes and pass through army checkpoints.

 “We had big dreams at that time and it really conquered our fear, but to tell you the truth many times I was really terrified. I would write the news or contact people and I knew for certain that security forces could break into my house or kill my parents.”

 In May 2012 Helmi’s worst fears came true. Security forces broke into her home and arrested her brother Ahmad. She has never seen or heard from him since. Three months later the regime arrived in Darayya and massacred over 1,000 people in 15 nights.

 “We were besieged and bombarded,” says Helmi. “The army left the town and left it on fire.

 “We stopped issuing the newspaper for two weeks, but we had to keep up the work, so Enab Baladi was issued and we told the world what happened during the massacre: the raping of the women, the killing of the men and women, the suffocating of kids, everything.”

 At the beginning of 2013 Helmi decided to leave Syria for Lebanon. Meanwhile, some of her colleagues on the newspaper were incarcerated.

 “Some were arrested for 10 months and released, so they started to tell the stories of what the prison was like and how they had been tortured in prison and all these horrible stories. The bad things that happened added to the diversity of the newspaper. When I went to Lebanon I started to report on how life was for Syrians in Lebanon while others moved to Amman, so they started to write about how life was for Syrians in Amman. We started to be the voice of Syrians in diaspora, not only inside Syria.

 “We were so fragile in the hosting communities. No one knew who we were. It was so dangerous to continue so we stopped printing the newspaper when we left, but it was online instead.

 In the following months, four of Helmi’s colleagues were killed.

 “The first one we lost was the CEO, Mohammad Quraitem. He took the decision to stay in my hometown after we left and he was killed by a missile that hit his home. Then we lost a reporter from Darayya one month later. Then within the period of two or three months we lost the managing editor, Ahmad Shihadeh. Then in 2015 one of our co-founders, Nabil Shurbaji, was killed under torture in prison after he was arrested in February 2012. He was the only journalist among us. The rest of us were amateurs.

 “We only learned that he had been killed two years later. Other people are still in prison. We paid a very heavy price.”

 In 2014 Turkish authorities granted them a licence to open an office and the newspaper returned to print soon after. As its readership grew, so did its team of reporters. It now has anonymous citizen journalists based throughout Syria, including in Raqqa, a former Isis stronghold. The newspaper is considered one of the most prominent Syrian media organisations and publishes 7,000 print copies a week.

 In 2015 Helmi was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award for her services to journalism. The prize honours female human rights defenders from war and conflict zones. Helmi believes her role as a female journalist gave her a unique advantage in leading the resistance, as she was able to reach areas her male colleagues couldn’t.

 “Women have a unique role in leading the resistance in Syria,” says Helmi. “First of all because of the culture in Syria the army were afraid to trespass the cultural norms at the very beginning of the Syrian revolution where it was taboo to touch a woman or to take her to jail, but shortly afterwards they stopped abiding by anything.

 “The other thing is that being a woman I was able to tell the stories of other women. I could speak to ordinary Syrian women and see how they were suffering, whereas it would be more difficult for men to enter a house and interview women and ask them what’s going on.

 “During the massacre in August 2012 they raped women. One of my colleagues went to the houses and she created that trust circle with a number of these girls. She listened to their testimony and wrote an article and it went viral.

 “We had access to many places, we could easily interview women, we could deal with delicate stories of kids who had been burned or suffering. It was easier for us women to deal with these stories than men.”

 Has the global community failed Syrians. “Yes,” she says sadly. “Unfortunately. I mentioned before that we used to have big dreams and big expectations, but these expectations only remained until 2013. We kept those high expectations until the minute Assad used chemical weapons against people in Eastern Ghouta. To wake up in the morning, open your eyes, go on Facebook and to see all the images of the kids who had been killed just because they were breathing, it literally suffocated me. I thought: ‘I am breathing and I am alive, but these kids had been breathing to die.’

 “I was so naïve. I thought that the whole universe was going to shake. But nothing happened. Since then we lost all our belief and all our faith in the international community.”

 In response to the UK’s recent air strikes against Assad, Helmi says it is too little, too late.

 “It would have meant fewer casualties and less forced eviction if such an action, but a real serious one, happened in 2012, or 2013 when the first chemical attacks occurred. I know it did nothing, Assad is still there, still bombarding people and forcing them to leave their homes and towns. The attacks resulted in nothing serious.”

 Helmi is now studying for a masters degree in the UK. When she graduates she plans to reunite with her parents, but for now, she wants to continue the work of her Enab Baladi comrades.

 She says: “I am not arrested yet, but my friends are. And I am not dead, but my friends are. I think I have to carry the burden of their messages to tell the world what is going on.” '

Image result for A woman’s place in the resistance Kholoud Helmi

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Assad accused of ‘using urban development law to carry out ethnic cleansing’

 'The Assad régime in Syria was accused on Saturday of using a new law on urban development to rid the country of all political opposition.

 The so-called “Law 10” allows the regime to acquire previously private property to create zoned developments, and to compensate the owners with shares in the new projects.

 However property rights are in a state of confusion after a seven-year war that has created more than 5 million refugees and 6 million internally displaced people. Many of the displaced have lost the necessary paperwork, are struggling financially or not aware of the legal requirements in time.

 The Assad regime is using the confusion to create a suitable environment for demographic change, Syrian opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi said.

 “The régime has a two-fold goal,” he said. “First, terrorize the opposition and supporters of the Syrian revolution so that they lose the right to their properties.

 “Second, there is talk of reconstruction in Syria now. This law sends out a message to investors that their interests lie with the regime. It is an attempt to tempt companies and business people to support the regime, because the regime is the only party that approves bids and gives grants and contracts. All this merely adds to the Syrians’ plight and misery.”

 Al-Aridi said the attempted land grab was being resisted by European countries, especially France and Germany. “The Syrian Negotiating Committee is also exerting a very important effort so that such an evil act will not happen,” he said.

 Also on Saturday, the US warned Damascus it would take “firm action” if the regime violates a cease-fire deal, after Syrian aircraft dropped leaflets on a southern province in advance of an expected offensive.

 Al-Aridi said any such offensive would be a breach of agreements between Russia and the US on de-escalation zones, and he warned the regime and Iran against “playing games” with the US. “Such threats are part of a response to the two unanswered Israeli attacks on Iran’s military positions in Syria,” he said.

 “They area also meant to divert attention from the American-Israeli intent to kick Iranian militias and forces out of Syria.”

 He said the regime and Iran could do nothing without Russian support. “We don’t think the Russians are willing to provide such support, or to mess with the US or Israel. Parallel to such threats, Assad is trying to make certain reconciliation agreements with what they call ‘Syrians in liberated areas.’ We believe that they cannot do anything of the sort.” '

Friday, 25 May 2018

Russia will do anything to keep Syria’s Assad in power

 'Russia appears to be ready to pay any price to keep the Assad regime in power and maintain the Kremlin’s semi-colonial domination, Syrian journalist Ammar Hamou writes in his 2016 book “Russia and the Syrian Revolution: Politics, Deception and Military Aggression.”

 “Russia’s opposition to the Syrian people’s revolution does not come from a place of love for Bashar al-Assad,” the author states in his rare study of the Kremlin’s intervention. “It is rather a position of unambiguous greed and self-interest.”

 “Russia did not want improved Syrian relations with the West, and Israel in particular, fearing it would lead to the introduction of Western competition in the Syrian market,” Hamou wrote. “Moscow worried that a Western presence in the Russian sphere of influence could potentially lead to the arrival of a Sunni regime in Damascus, threatening decades of exclusive investments and privileges that Russia had cultivated with the Assad regime.”

 What is even more important is the Kremlin’s desire to retain its control over a naval depot in Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea, the only Russian military outpost beyond the post-Soviet area.

 Besides, Assad’s dependence on Russia enabled the Kremlin to win profitable nationwide contracts in Syria long before the war.

 “Russia set its crosshairs on Syrian energy and oil, receiving plum deals and economic privileges, including rights to construct Syrian railroad lines and energy deals from the Euphrates dam,” the journalist writes.

 Moreover, he adds, in 2005 Putin agreed to write off 73 percent of Syria’s $13.4 billion debt to Russia, and also pumped in $3.5 billion in direct investment. Even after war broke out, Damascus and Moscow agreed to establish in 2013 a joint company for offshore oil and gas drilling and oil refining.

 “The amount that Russia stands to lose in the event of regime collapse is fully evident,” Hamou writes.

 Now in 2018, with the Assad regime much more confident of its future in post-war Syria, Russian construction firms with close links to the Kremlin are already claiming exclusive contracts with the Damascus government to rebuild the ruined country.

 On Feb. 26, the Russian Trade Chamber’s vice president, Vladimir Padalko, asserted that Moscow expects “the biggest gains from building, energy, the restoration of heat power grids, and machinery, including the supply and production of engineering and agriculture hardware.”

 Moscow is thus doing all it can to save its puppet regime in Syria — with an overt military intervention, as well as the deployment of its clandestine mercenary armies such as the Wagner Group, which also fought in Ukraine, and vocal diplomatic protection of the Syrian regime in the United Nations Security Council.

 In his book, Hamou notes that Russia and China vetoed at least four Western and Arab peace proposals.

 “Even in the aftermath of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, Russia fought tooth and nail to ensure that a U.S. military strike would not occur,” the journalist writes.

 As of today, Russia has blocked 12 Security Council resolutions on Syria, the latest on April 10, following a deadly chemical attack on civilians in Douma, allegedly carried out by the Assad regime.

 In a bid to justify its own airstrikes, Russia tells outright lies, claiming that it is fighting against Islamic State forces and other jihadists.

 But instead, Hamou writes, evidence shows Russia is attacking the secular Free Syrian Army, delivering airstrikes on locations 150–200 kilometers away from the nearest Islamic State strongholds.

 Moreover, Russia’s reckless war against Assad’s adversaries has resulted in unprecedented massacres of the civilian population all across Syria, he writes.

 In his 2016 study, statistics from the Syrian Human Rights Committee show that at least 1,690 civilians have been killed by indiscriminate Russian airstrikes between Sept. 30 and Dec. 31, 2015 alone.

 In the further course of the devastating war, the Russian airstrike campaign has continued to take a heavy toll on Syrians, especially during the horrific battle of Aleppo in 2016.

 On May 22, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a British-based watchdog, issued a report in which it accused Russia of killing at least 6,113 civilians in Syria.

 Moscow, despite twice claiming it would withdraw its forces, keeps fueling the war to preserve its neocolonial privileges at any price.

 “As Syria crumbles, Russia’s strategy looks ever more like an occupation, one predicated upon Russian national interests,” Hamou concludes. “Russia’s relationship with the Assad family spans 45 years. It is a relationship built upon shared interests, ones that are fundamentally at odds with the Syrian people.” '

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Syria’s war is not over

Image result for american interest eisenstadt Has the Assad Regime “Won” Syria’s Civil War?

 'Bashar al-Assad has said about Syria's bloody civil war that "things now are moving in the right direction" and that "the worst is behind us." Senior officials from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the UN and former U.S. diplomats have gone even further, proclaiming Assad the victor and urging rebel groups and the U.S. government to reconcile with this unpalatable "reality." An analysis of regional conflict dynamics, however, reveals a more complicated picture, which indicates that Syria's agony may be far from over and that its military gains may be more tenuous than they appear.

 Pro-regime forces now control more than 50 percent of Syria's territory and between one-half and two-thirds of its population. Yet the regime's hold on many areas remains uncertain due to a lack of loyal and competent troops and institutional capacity. While pro-regime forces have been able to "clear" many areas they have retaken, they are overstretched, so it remains to be seen whether they can "hold" them. (Indeed, ISIS has recently mounted stinging attacks in areas—like Palmyra and Deir al-Zor—that have been repeatedly "cleared" by pro-regime forces.) The transfer of rebel fighters and their families from recaptured areas to Idlib or Deraa provinces—as part of so-called reconciliation agreements that are in fact anything but—will facilitate this clearing task, but pro-regime forces could still face renewed armed resistance in these areas from a new generation of oppositionists. And as long as U.S. forces remain in and over northeastern Syria, they can veto the regime's reconquest of that part of the country—which includes some of its most productive oil-producing and agricultural regions.

 The Syrian Army has perhaps 10,000-20,000 troops available for offensive operations throughout the country. These are drawn mainly from the 4th Armored Division, the Republican Guard, the Tiger Force, and elements of the National Defense Forces (NDF). The rest of the Syrian Army—including the remnants of several regular Army divisions, most of the NDF, the recently formed IVth and Vth Corps, the Local Defense Forces (consisting of various pro-regime militias), and the regime's intelligence services—totals perhaps 100,000-150,000 men under arms. Many are poorly trained conscripts and volunteers of all ages, as well as militia auxiliaries responsible for local security in regime-controlled areas. They cannot be relied on for operations outside their home regions.

 Much of the regime's offensive combat power is provided by fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah (6,000-8,000 fighters), Iran (2,000 fighters), Shia fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (10,000-20,000 fighters), and a relatively small Russian ground and air contingent. Pro-regime forces have been able to tap large reserves of Shia foreign fighters to support their efforts—while the flow of anti-regime Sunni foreign fighters has been reduced to a trickle as the result of tighter border controls and ISIS's battlefield defeats. Moreover, many areas are currently controlled by foreign pro-regime forces, as well as "reconciled" rebel groups and tribes whose loyalty to the regime is conditional. Should these foreign pro-regime forces and fighters need to return to their places of origin, or should reconciled rebel groups and tribes switch sides once again, the regime would be hard pressed to hold on to many of the areas it currently controls. Moreover, Lebanese Hezbollah must balance its desire to draw down its presence in Syria and return its fighters to Lebanon with the ongoing need for them to remain in Syria.

 A rule of thumb used by military planners states that 20 troops per 1,000 civilians are required for stability operations. This would equate to a force of 200,000-240,000 for the regime to dominate the 10-12 million people now reportedly living in areas it more or less controls. That is considerably more than pro-regime forces currently have at their disposal. But after seven years of war, rebel forces are depleted and exhausted too—and about as divided among themselves as ever. Indeed in most places, they may no longer be capable of sustained resistance.

 It is not clear whether the Assad regime can achieve an outright victory; rebel enclaves remain in Idlib and Deraa provinces and in Kurdish-controlled areas in the country's northeast, and some of these areas are protected by foreign powers. Moreover, it is not clear whether the regime's victories will bring about a period of prolonged quiet, as occurred after the scorched-earth victories scored by Syria in Hama (1982) and Russia in Grozny (1999-2000), or whether it will resemble Iraq's unconsummated victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) from 2007-11, which paved the way for its return as ISIS in 2013-14 in response to heavy-handed regime policies.

 The outcome in Syria, as elsewhere, will depend in part on the degree to which the Syrian people are exhausted and accept defeat, and on the effectiveness of the regime's internal security apparatus. Even in areas controlled by the regime, its "victory" may be incomplete; while some areas may be quiescent, others may remain troublesome. Moreover, the Turkish government's use of elements of the anti-regime Free Syrian Army in its fight against the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northwest Syria ensures the survival of at least part of the anti-Assad opposition.

 The potential for conflict is further increased by the newfound confidence of the Assad regime and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies. Syria is likely to once again use chemical weapons, perhaps prompting new U.S. strikes to enforce its red line. And just as the defeat of the Soviets by the Afghan mujaheddin spawned a generation of Sunni jihadis in search of additional victories, the victories of the Shia jihadists of the "Axis of Resistance" in Lebanon (2000), Iraq (2011), and Syria (2015-present) may lead Hezbollah and Iran—intent on transforming Syria into a platform for projecting power in the Levant, and for continuing the struggle against Israel—to overreach in their interactions with Israel or the United States. Finally, in a part of the world that is 75 percent Sunni Arab, it is hard to believe that this expanded Iranian role will be accepted forever; rather, it is a formula for enduring instability.

 Believing that the worst of Syria's civil war is behind them, tensions and divisions within the regime could also come to the fore. The civil war has created new regime security counter-elites in the Tiger Force, the National Defense Forces, and the Local Defense Forces, and commanders in these organizations may demand a greater share of the spoils of war and of governing what is left of Syria. The ever-present potential for internecine violence among the regime's thuggish security elite could intensify—especially if Assad and Iran drag Syria into a ruinous war with Israel that results in heavy losses to pro-regime forces.

 Syria's security elite has closed ranks and generally avoided self-destructive violence throughout the civil war, though this group has always been riven by personal, family, tribal, and regional tensions and rivalries. Perhaps the most relevant precedent was the crisis that followed Syria's previous civil war, which occurred after former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad suffered a heart attack in late 1983. Fearing a coup by the President's younger brother Rifaat, who commanded the regime's premier praetorian unit—which had played a central role in suppressing the 1976-82 insurrection—key army officers ordered their units to occupy blocking positions in and around Damascus to thwart a power grab. The resulting military standoff was defused only when the elder Assad recovered, leading to Rifaat's exile and the disbanding of the military units and militias under his command.

 Overstretched pro-regime forces reliant on exposed lines of communication that run through majority-Sunni regions are vulnerable to a covert, cost-imposing strategy using guerilla proxies to prevent the Assad regime from consolidating its gains. And now that Tehran's entanglement in Syria has become a political issue in Iran, it is a source of Iranian regime vulnerability—especially if the costs of its intervention were to rise, and if a deteriorating economic situation back home were to force Tehran to cut back on the billions of dollars in annual economic aid that helps keep the Assad regime afloat.

 Such a strategy might also tie down pro-regime forces in Syria, limiting their ability to threaten areas that remain outside of regime control, to produce new destabilizing mass refugee flows, and to make trouble elsewhere in the region.'