Saturday, 13 August 2022

Syria Rebels Call Protests Over Turkey's 'Reconciliation' Proposal


 'Widespread protests were called in Syria's rebel-held north on Friday over a proposal from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu for reconciliation between the Syrian government and opposition.

 "We have to somehow get the opposition and the régime to reconcile in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace, we always say this," Cavusoglu said Thursday, in remarks to diplomats.

 The comments -- an apparent easing of Ankara's longstanding hostility to the Damascus régime -- have sparked calls for protests after Friday weekly prayers in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces and their supporters, including in Al-Bab, Afrin and Jarablus.

 Similar calls were made in Idlib, controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other rebel groups, to gather at border crossings with Turkey.

 Small protests already began overnight in some areas, including Al-Bab, where dozens gathered holding opposition slogans and chanting against Turkey.

 Some demonstrators burned a Turkish flag, while others took down Turkey's colours hung up around the city.

 Dozens of others gathered at the Bab al-Salama crossing to Turkey, many shouting "death rather than indignity".

 In a statement Friday, Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic wrote: "Turkey played a leading role in maintaining the ceasefire on the ground" and in talks on drawing up a new constitution, although they have made no progress.

 Ankara "threw full support behind the opposition and the negotiation committee throughout the political process" he said.

 "Currently this process is not moving forward because the régime is dragging its feet. The issues expressed by our minister yesterday also point to this," he said.

 Turkey's top diplomat revealed on Thursday that he had held a short meeting in Belgrade in October with his Syrian counterpart Faisal al-Meqdad, adding that communication had resumed between the two countries' intelligence agencies.

 But he denied direct talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, despite long-standing calls from Russia for such dialogue.

 Cavusoglu added that Turkey would continue its fight against "terrorism" in Syria, following warnings from Ankara since May that it could launch new strikes on Kurdish-held areas in north and northeast Syria.

 Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria. Most have targeted Kurdish militants that Turkey links to a group waging a decades-long insurgency against it.

 Cavusoglu's comments have sparked widespread anger among the opposition, with renowned figure George Sabra writing on Facebook: "If Cavusoglu is concerned with reconciling with the Syrian régime, that is his business. As for the Syrians, they have a different cause for which they have paid and continue to pay the dearest price." '

Thursday, 28 July 2022

Syrian régime enforcer faces wrath of emboldened Druze population in south


 'At least 13 men have been killed in the last two days in southern Syria attacks by armed groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad. The fighters launched attacks on loyalist militias in the governorate of Suweida near the border with Jordan.

 The violence indicates the difficulty the régime has had in controlling a province largely inhabited by a religious minority it has sought to recruit to its side in the civil war, while portraying the opposition as Sunni fanatics bent on destroying the country’s many non-Sunni sects.

 Suweida is largely inhabited by the country’s Druze population, a Middle East minority sect which is also present in Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.

 Syria's civil war has gone on for more than a decade, sparked by a violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted in the south of the country in March 2011, demanding an end to five decades of Assad family rule. The economy in régime-held areas has been in free-fall, with the national currency trading at 4,200 Syrian pounds to the dollar, compared with 50 pounds to the dollar in early 2011.

 Armed men reportedly attacked several buildings and roadblocks belonging to a militia headed by Raji Falhout, a pro-régime enforcer in Suweida.

 They say Mr Falhout, whose forces are overseen by Military Intelligence, had been spearheading the persecution of members of the Liwa Party, an anti-régime group that has been trying to rid parts of Suweida of kidnapping gangs and drug rings.

 The attacking forces freed several Liwa Party members from a detention centre run by Mr Falhout’s group, they said, adding that the attackers lost four men while nine Falhout loyalists were killed.

 Suwayda24, a local news network run by civil activists, reported that Mr Falhout has been on the run after the attackers set fire to his home on Wednesday. It said that one of his headquarters that had been seized contained a Captagon factory.

 “Mass discontent has reached its peak against the behaviour of the security agencies in the province and their support for gangs like Falhout’s,” said one resident of Suweida.

 “For years these bandits have been choking Suweida,” he added.

 Suweida has been spared much of the violence that the régime has employed to crush opposition to President Assad as it has sought to portray itself as a bulwark against Sunni extremism, although it employed force to crush protests in the region in 2011 and 2012.

 A de facto waiver of mandatory military conscription has helped placate Suweida but in the last few years lawlessness has spread as the economy in régime-held areas has deteriorated. Kidnappings and armed robberies are becoming common, residents say.

 The tiny Druze community comprised about 3 per cent of Syria’s 20 million population in 2010, the last year for relatively reliable statistics. Members of the Alawite minority, the same sect as the president's, have dominated Syria since a 1963 coup.

 Peaceful protests over deteriorating living conditions, mainly by young men and women, renewed in Suweida in 2021 and in 2022 before they were crushed, with tacit support from the Druze religious establishment and Russian forces in the area.

 A Syrian military defector in Amman said that losses Assad's loyalists have suffered in Suweida are significant politically.

 He noted that Druze religious elders, as well as the Russian military, have this time not objected to undermining Mr Falhout's militia.

 “He has been playing a valuable role on behalf of the régime,” he said. “But he has overextended to the point that he became expendable to his backers.” '

Saturday, 2 July 2022

‘My roof was stolen’: Syrian homes looted after regime recapture


 'Ghassan Hammoud, aged 46, fled Kafr Nabel in southern Idlib province in 2019, as régime forces captured opposition-held areas in Syria’s northwest.

 He left behind a house he had built a few years earlier, and now lives in a displacement camp near the Turkish border, where he works as a day labourer to look after his seven children and his niece.

 Hammoud’s life is hard; he relies on loans for almost half of his monthly expenses and is struggling to cope with abysmal living conditions and cuts to humanitarian aid. But it is what he has recently discovered about his old home, left behind in Kafr Nabel, that upsets him the most.

 “I discovered my roof was stolen,” he said, still in disbelief. After hearing from friends and residents that Syrian régime forces had looted abandoned homes, Hammoud had been looking at Google Maps on his phone to view his old neighbourhood.

 “Then a friend of mine who passed by the area sent me a picture which confirmed everything,” Hammoud said, his voice trembling. “It makes my blood boil.”

 And Hammoud said, he was not the only one with a missing roof.

 “I don’t think I was personally targeted; they looted the entire neighbourhood!”

 Displaced Syrians who fled southern Idlib and Hama province over the past four years, along with human rights monitors, have accused Syrian régime forces of ransacking the ruins of their neighbourhoods and auctioning off agricultural land.

 The Syrian régime has not commented publicly on the accusations.

 Drone pictures show hundreds of houses and buildings in southern Idlib province stripped down to their concrete foundations. The glass windows, roofs, aluminium frames, and everything in between are all gone.

 Some of the drone pictures show pickup trucks near scrapheaps of metal and bricks. Watchdog groups and monitors have shared photos on the ground of régime forces looting not just the foundations of the houses, but washing machines, refrigerators, furniture, and even steel pots and pans. Photos that surfaced on activist pages and on social media show construction workers drilling through homes and mosques to remove their roofs.

 Syrian troops and state-backed militias have looted some three dozen towns and villages in southern Idlib over the past three years, after their residents fled northwards. Stolen goods are then sold online or in flea markets.

 “We call them the army of looters,” 32 year-old journalist Ibrahim al-Soueid said, as he scrolled through footage he had collected from years of covering the conflict in northwest Syria with pro-opposition television station Syria TV.

  Al-Soueid was born and raised in Kafr Nabel, and had to flee further north in 2019, when régime forces reclaimed the area.

 “It’s so overwhelming seeing your own home defiled,” he said. “I didn’t think we would never return when we left, so we kept most things, even the children’s toys.”

 The house al-Soueid inherited from his grandfather and shared with other members of his family was partially damaged in an artillery strike, but he says the doors, windows, kitchen appliances, and aluminium frames he put in were all looted.

 But it was the messages on Facebook that most upset him.

 “People who say they live in Kafr Nabel and appear to be pro-regime in their profile would send me defamatory messages,” al-Soueid explained. “And they would send photos of my looted home with threatening messages written on the walls.”

 Looters in military garb sprayed the word “confiscated” and al-Soueid’s name on his living room wall.

 In another photo, they had tagged “the home of the traitor has been confiscated”. Another picture they sent the reporter was a truck loaded with his furniture.

 Local governments and security committees are publicly auctioning off land they claim to be vacant, but which the NGO says is in fact the property of residents who fled into opposition territory or out of the country.

 Even people with their land deeds, other documents, and house keys have no way of claiming their property or land back.

 Experts and activists say that Syria’s régime, struggling economically, has resorted to auctioning off property to generate revenue, while pro-régime militias have sold valuable looted raw material from homes for profit.

 Most displaced Syrians do not have much to return to, having lost not just their homes, but their livelihoods. Meanwhile, human rights organisations have documented returnees being arbitrarily detained, forcefully conscripted into the army, and a host of human rights abuses.

 Even with no political solution on the horizon, and the leader he detests entrenched in power, al-Soueid hopes to be able to return to Kafr Nabel.

 “We hope to go back to our towns and homes, and rebuild this home that they took from me,” a dejected al-Soueid said. “My home is just one of thousands of homes that was looted.” '

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Syrian man recalls incarceration horror in regime prisons


 'With pain and fear writ large on his face, a former inmate of Syrian prisons run by the Bashar al-Assad régime recounted the torture and abuse he faced during incarceration.

 On the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture observed on June 26, Muhammed Salih Assaf, who was released on June 9, recalled the inhumane torture and cruelties he witnessed during his imprisonment.

 In 2017, Assaf was detained by PKK/YPG terrorists during a family visit in Afrin at the age of 17 and was handed over to the régime's security units.

 Assaf spent about five years in régime prisons.

 After footage of the "Tadamon Massacre" carried out by the Assad régime forces surfaced in April, the régime passed a "repentance law."

 Syria's military intelligence service conducted the massacre in the Tadamon neighborhood of Damascus in April 2013, with Palestinians among the 41 victims, according to a report by the British daily The Guardian. Members of military intelligence Branch 227 made civilians run toward a mass grave while shooting at them.

 According to the latest figures released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the Assad régime released only 539 people under the amnesty law. The organization said that at least 151,462 people are still held in régime prisons.

 Assaf said he was handed over to régime forces by PKK/YPG terrorists during Operation Olive Branch launched by Türkiye in the northwestern district of Afrin in early 2018.

 "They (régime forces) interrogated us and some of us were tortured to death. They wanted us to admit that we participated in armed actions, but we did not."

 He said that on the first day, he was tortured to the extent that he suffered memory loss due to a blow to the head.

 "They were inflicting all kinds of torture. They tortured (inmates) with plastic water pipes and sticks. I had wounds all over my body. They enjoyed the torture they inflicted on us."

 The régime forces tortured older prisoners even more, Assaf said, adding: "Those who enter the prison either become disabled or die before they can see their families."

 Underlining that he was randomly selected under the so-called amnesty law, Assaf said fellow prisoners asked him to inform their families of their whereabouts. "All I want is for everyone to be released and their torture to end," he said.'

Saturday, 25 June 2022

A Syrian democracy activist overcomes detentions, barriers in path to Yale


 'Most days, Karam Alhamad, a graduate student at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, can be found at Mediterranea, a restaurant and shisha bar on New Haven’s Orange Street that entices passersby with big bay windows lined with colorfully embroidered pillows. “I have a window to home here,” Alhamad says.

 Home, for Alhamad, is Deir Ezzor, a city in eastern Syria, where he was a student, a photographer and journalist, and a democracy activist in a country riven by conflict. After being detained by Bashar al-Assad’s government four times — the last for nearly a year— he fled to Turkey in 2014. Since then, he has worked in international development; spent time in the United States on a fellowship; finished his degree in Berlin; got married; started a blockchain nonprofit; and, after being admitted to the Jackson Institute for the fall of 2020, spent a year and half waiting to take his place at Yale.

 In 2011, when protests in the country began, part of the pro-democracy movement around the region known as the Arab Spring, Alhamad took to the streets as well. He carried his camera to document the movement and, to protect his identity, wore a mask in the style of the main character from the movie “V for Vendetta.”

 “We have a saying in Syria: ‘Even walls can hear you,’” says Alhamad. “You can’t trust even your family. There is always this state of fear that someone would try to report you.”

 As the protests, met with force by the army, escalated into armed resistance, Alhamad remained dedicated to opposition in the form of reportage. “I saw my friends holding guns,” he says. “I decided to continue holding my camera.” He provided photographs to the Washington Post, Reuters, and the Associated Press, using the pseudonyms Karam Jamar or Zendetta — a portmanteau of Deir Ezzor, his hometown, and Vendetta.

 In 2011 and 2012 he was detained three times. The first lasted only a day. The second time, security forces took his brother Karem in, too, confused by the similarities in their names. His brother was released after 14 days, but Alhamad was detained for 70, interrogated and tortured by intelligence officers. Two days after being released, he rejoined the protests. “The idea of detention is to put you down and make you fear, but it just fuels you,” says Alhamad. “I’ve seen people dying with me, I don’t mind dying now in the demonstration.”

 After his third detention, he decided to limit himself to areas controlled by revolutionaries. He continued his studies, established a media office for the city, and was elected to the Deir Ezzor provincial council. The position gave him the opportunity to work closely with international donors and to travel to Turkey for training and meetings with diplomats and humanitarian organizations, giving him new perspective on Syria’s conflict.

 Then, in August 2013, he returned briefly to a régime-controlled area to visit his mother — who he hadn’t seen for months — and to get a passport a family member had helped him secure. Within hours, the family member arrived — accompanied by several cars full of soldiers. They again took Alhamad and his brother. “This time was the most horrifying one,” says Alhamad. The brothers were transported by military plane to Damascus and held at the Palestine Branch, a prison operated by Syrian intelligence agents.

 Alhamad recalls the year he spent in the Palestine Branch calmly but vividly: the heat of the small room, where detainees crowded together; the constant fear and anguish of watching others die and knowing you might be next. The extreme stress caused his brother to wake up one day having lost three years of memory: he had no idea where they were or why.

 Alhamad, along with Karem, was finally released in July of 2014, and a month later he’d made his way to Turkey.

 What fuels him is the sense that he’s in a position to make a real difference for all Syrians — a position that is anchored and amplified by the Jackson Institute. “The freedom the curriculum gives is amazing — there is a lot of support here to do what you have passion for,” Alhamad says. “I can’t think of any other school that could possibly help me grow in my chosen field like that.”

 He points to classes like Robert S. Ford’s “Arab Spring, Arab Winter,” which brought together students with a variety of backgrounds working in the region, including military service. “I like to engage with people who have a different experience, so I can learn from them,” Alhamad says. “But at the same time, I try to be vocal about my ideas about American diplomacy, invasion, military operations, so they can learn from me.”

 Alhamad’s move to New Haven, for all its rewards, also has its strains. His wife remains in Berlin, and the nature of his visa — which needs to be renewed every three months — means that his status in the U.S. still feels tenuous. He suffers from survivor’s syndrome: guilt that he managed to make it out of detention when so many others did not, and a feeling of responsibility for those left behind. He finds refuge and respite in the shisha bar. “I know it’s unhealthy,” he says. “But there’s a lot of stress — it’s not all milk and honey. It’s hard to continue working on Syria, focus on what’s going on in terms of the detainees and advocate for a free Syria, do the educational aspect of my work, and study as well.” '

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

The SDF, the PKK, and the Syrian régime


 'Mohamed Ismail, member of the presidium of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) in Syria and head of the KNC delegation to the intra-Syrian-Kurdish talks:

 "The SDF cannot do anything without the Americans. It can take some movement on the side. The Americans could allow this: “see the régime, see the Russians,” Ismail says. There are relations between the SDF and the Russians, logistical in certain points, and the US gives a bit of space, but as a result, it doesn’t do anything without US consent, likewise for the régime

 The SDF tries to hand over areas to the régime, and this is leaked news from their circles, and they also announce it before the Turks come, to hand over areas to the régime. The régime is preferable for the SDF in comparison to Turkey. I do not know to what degree the Americans agreed or not

 The relations with the régime are of two types. Relations between the PKK and the régime are ongoing and have not stopped for a single day, and they exist at all levels. The SDF’s relations with the régime, as well as their tactics with the régime, are what the US allows them to do on the sidelines. So, they will not bother the Americans.

 Sabri Ok, visited Damascus recently. He is a Turkish PKK. He lives inside inside Syria, of course, how can one go to Damascus and go back?"

 Abdallah al-Hafi, the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Local Councils Unit Director in Azaz:

 "In the Western part of Northern Syria, the YPG coordinates with the Russians, while in the east with the American. There was a before Ayn Daqna, and there was an after Ayn Daqna. There was no intention of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to enter Afrin. There were no problems at all. Not between the Assad -opposed Kurds and the Assad -opposed rebels. Firstly, the YPG made a Russian base in Afrin, in Kafr Janna, and Russia entered. Secondly, when the régime was besieged in Nubul and Zahraa, they let them escape. Thirdly, there was Ayn Daqna. It became a war. One sees his brother’s corpse, or his cousin’s, or his friend’s, and the YPG militants put the corpses on a loader and parade them. After that, it was over. The peace ended. They tried to take Azaz, if they could.

 The battle for Tel Rif’at was with Russian and régime airplanes bombing Tel Rif’at, and on the ground, the Kurdish YPG took it. There was coordination between Russia, the régime, and the YPG. The bombing caused the people to flee, and there was a total war in the area. They organized it completely. Furthermore, the Russians have a military base in Tel Rif’at, and régime soldiers entered Tel Rif’at. The same happened in Afrin. This is proof that they are coordinating among each other."

 The defected security director of Qamishli, in Syria’s northeast Hasakah province:

 "I got orders to hand over all police departments to the PYD/YPG. We even handed them the new weapons and equipment we received months ago."

 Koran Ahmad, the Kurdish chairman of the board of Bahar, an NGO working in opposition-held and SDF-held parts of northern Syria:

 "It was in June or July 2012, the PYD announced a curfew, so the people wouldn’t leave the house. We heard a few shots. I was standing on the balcony, there was nothing on the ground. Two hours later, they said we had the victory over the régime and we took the areas. Now, there is no Syrian régime here anymore. And really, the next day, when we went out on the street, the régime wasn’t there anymore. So, this happened within one day? Within three or four hours, not a day. They said we won from the régime with the fact that the régime elements stayed but changed their clothes from military to civil and stayed among the people. Afrin was special in all of northern Syria. There were seven security branches. Even military security was present in Afrin. State security, criminal and political security, etc., were all present in Afrin."

 Rena Netjes:

 "From the early 1980s until 1988, Hafez al-Assad’s régime hosted the PKK in Yafour, Zabadani, and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Assad’s objective in supporting the PKK was to gain leverage over its much larger northern neighbor, so as to influence various territorial and water disputes. The PKK’s long-standing presence highlights the contrast between the Syrian régime’s treatment of domestic Kurdish political and militant activity and its treatment of externally-oriented Kurdish political and militant activity on Syrian soil. The former was harshly suppressed in most cases; the latter was supported. Such support was naturally conditioned on the PKK staying out of Syria’s domestic politics. Instead of mobilizing Syria’s Kurdish community against Damascus, the PKK harnessed it for its war against Turkey. From the PKK’s point of view, the Syrian Kurdish community became a recruitment pool for its war in Turkey." '

 Taken from "The SDF, the PKK, and the Syrian regime" by Rena Netjes in MENA Affairs.

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Displaced civilians await day YPG occupation of Manbij ends


 'Locals displaced from Manbij, northern Syria by the PKK terror group's offshoot in the country, the YPG, are now waiting for their homeland to be cleared of terrorists so they can return.

 YPG terrorists forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee to areas close to the Turkish border from the Manbij district of Aleppo, which they occupied six years ago with the help of the United States under the guise of fighting Daesh.

 Residents have been forced to migrate from Manbij, where more than 90% of the population is Arab, due to the YPG's practices, including forcibly recruiting young people into its armed ranks under the pretext of "compulsory military service."

 Displaced people from Manbij have been living away from their homes for about six years in makeshift tents they set up with their own means around the al-Bab and Jarablus districts on the Turkish border.

 Abdullah Shilash, the leader of the Beni Sait tribe in Manbij, said that they are ready to do their part to rid their district of terrorists.

 "We want the city to be liberated as soon as possible. We have been displaced for many years. We support the statements of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan," he said, referring to the president's recent announcement that Turkey plans to rid Manbij and Tal Rifaat of YPG/PKK terrorists.

 Emphasizing that the YPG is detaining Arab youth with practices such as "compulsory military service," he said: "Everyone is ready (for the operation). Those in the district and the displaced are ready."

 Turkey is ready to rid northern Syria's Tal Rifaat and Manbij areas near the Turkish border of terrorist elements in a bid to eliminate the terror threat from the region, Erdoğan said last week.

 "We are taking another step in establishing a 30-kilometer security zone along our southern border. We will clean up Tal Rifaat and Manbij," he said, adding that the planned military operations will gradually continue in other parts of northern Syria.

 Erdoğan has said that since the U.S. and Russia have failed to live up to their commitments to provide a safe zone along the border region, Turkey is ready to mount an operation to protect the nation and locals in northern Syria from the YPG/PKK terrorist threat.

 In October 2019, Russia committed to removing the terrorist group from Tal Rifaat and Manbij after reaching an agreement with Turkey during Operation Peace Spring. Moscow also promised that the terrorists would be pulled back 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the border on the M4 road and in the area outside the Operation Peace Spring zone.

 Likewise, then-U.S. Vice President Mike Pence pledged to Turkey that the YPG/PKK terrorist group would withdraw from the Operation Peace Spring region.

 Ali Suleiman from Manbij said that thousands of young people were forced to migrate because of the so-called compulsory military service.

 Waiting for the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Syrian National Army (SNA) to take action so he can return to his district, he said: "We are counting the days to regain our lands."

 Another displaced person, Cuma Hatib, said that he supports any military operation that will allow displaced civilians to return to their homes and stop fleeing the persecution of the YPG.

 "I haven't seen Manbij for years because of the terrorist organization YPG/PKK. I hope that a military operation will begin as soon as possible to clear the district from terrorists."

 The YPG terrorist organization harasses the predominantly Arab population of Manbij with its impositions, prompting the people of Manbij to organize demonstrations from time to time against the terrorist group's practices such as conscription.

 Pressuring the people of Manbij to accept their demands, the terrorist organization monopolizes the fuel in the district, which had a prewar population of 1 million, depriving residents of the resource.

 Most recently, locals living in Syria’s Azaz district held a demonstration against the Bashar Assad regime and the YPG terrorist group on Sunday.

 Having been forcibly displaced from their lands by the YPG in northern Syria, the people of Tal Rifaat gathered in the district center of Azaz and asked the TSK and SNA to clear their lands of the terrorists.

 The Syrian opposition forces have also said that they are ready to join the Turkish military in a potential new cross-border counterterrorism operation against the YPG in the north to liberate largely Arab populated towns and villages from the terrorists.

 The YPG/PKK mostly carries out terrorist attacks in Manbij, Ain al-Arab and the Tal Rifaat district of Aleppo. The terrorist group even uses these regions as bases for its attacks. The YPG, which occupies roughly a third of Syria's territory with the support of the United States, frequently targets Azaz, Marea, al-Bab, Jarablus, Afrin, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in the north of the country with heavy weapons.

 In their attacks, the terrorists use advanced heavy weapons such as TOW missiles, multi-barrel rocket launchers, Katyusha and Grad missiles as well as U.S. and Russian-made rocket launchers and mortars.

 The YPG has controlled much of northeastern Syria since the forces of Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad withdrew in 2012. The PKK is a designated terrorist organization in the U.S., Turkey and the European Union, and Washington's support for its Syrian affiliate has been a major strain on bilateral relations with Ankara. The U.S. primarily partnered with the YPG in northeastern Syria to fight the Daesh terrorist group. On the other hand, Turkey strongly opposed the YPG's presence in northern Syria. Ankara has long objected to the U.S.' support for the YPG, a group that poses a threat to Turkey and that terrorizes local people, destroying their homes and forcing them to flee.

 While acknowledging Turkey’s security concerns, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price has voiced concerns about Turkey’s plans, saying a new operation could undermine regional stability and put American forces at risk.'

Mass graves are still being dug in Syria, anonymous whistleblower tells US senators

 'Mass graves are still being dug in Syria today, filled with victims of the ongoing conflict and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's régime, an anonymous whistleblower known as "the gravedigger" told US senators during a congressional hearing about the conflict on Wednesday.

Dressed fully in black from head to toe with his face and head completely covered by black cloth, the gravedigger spoke of the horrors he witnessed working as one of the civilian workers at a mass grave site in Syria from 2011 to 2018. While the gravedigger left Syria in 2018, he said he has spoken with others who fled the country more recently, and said they told him the mass graves are still being dug. The gravedigger gave a prepared statement through a translator.

 Before the war, the gravedigger worked as an "administrative employee at the Damascus municipality," but, in 2011, the "régime intelligence officials" visited his office and ordered him to work for them.

 "When the régime asks for something, you don't say no. I was not prepared for the horrors of my duties," the gravedigger said through a translator.

 "Every week, twice a week, three trailer trucks arrived packed with 300 to 600 bodies of victims of torture, bombardment and slaughter. Twice a week, three to four pickup trucks with 30 to 40 bodies of civilians that had been executed in Sednaya prison also arrived for disposal in the most inhumane way," the gravedigger said.

 The gravedigger was able to escape Syria in 2018 and "follow his family to Europe." He testified before a German court in Koblenz about the horrors he witnessed. Because of other people he worked with who have recently escaped, he knows there are still mass graves being dug today, he said.

 "My heart is heavy with the knowledge that many at this very moment are experiencing inhumane torture at the hands of the Assad régime," the gravedigger said via the translator. "In some, I know exactly where they are piled up into mass graves that are still being dug today. I know this because others who have worked with me on the mass graves have recently escaped and confirmed what we have been hearing."

 The gravedigger said the longer the war goes on and Assad is in power, the more it also enables Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Enabling Assad enables Putin, in stopping Assad hurts the Russian dictator. We must finally learn from the past and not let this never again moment happen yet again," he said.

The gravedigger recounted horrors of his time working at the mass grave sites. In one instance, a man who was dumped from a trailer truck with other dead bodies made a movement, signaling he was still alive.

"One of the civilian workers said, started crying, said that we had to do something," the gravedigger said. "The intelligence officer supervising us ordered the bulldozer driver to run him over, the driver could not hesitate or else he would have been next. He ran over the man in the trenches, killing him. As for the young man in our workshop who dared to shed tears over the victim of Assad's régime, we never saw him again."

 The gravedigger called on the senators to "take action."

 "Although hundreds of thousands have already been murdered and disappeared and millions displaced, the worst is still yet to come. It can be prevented. But I beg of you do not wait a second longer. I beg of you to take action," the gravedigger said.

 "These massacres are still happening. The Syrian people have suffered enough. Men and women, children and elderly, innocent people slowly tortured to death, screaming in the darkness, while the world looks the other way." '

Friday, 3 June 2022

Syria’s eastern factions unite in the Liberation and Construction Movement


 'Following a series of reshuffles within the Syrian National Army (SNA), a Turkey-supported alliance of armed opposition groups in northern Syria, four armed groups with roots in Syria’s eastern provinces, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Jaish al-Sharqiya, the 20th Division, and Suqur al-Sham’s eastern affiliate, announced the formation of the Liberation and Construction Movement (LCM) on Feb. 15, 2022.

 Saad al-Sharae:

 "Some factions in the LCM joined the Azm Operations Room initially. However, they soon realized that the eventual outcome of the formation of Azm would be to reduce the professional hierarchy of the SNA and to erode the corps’ hierarchy. The groups that constitute the LCM do not support this because we wanted to move away from factionalism toward something institutional. As a result of the creation of Azm, there was the creation of the Thaeroon coalition, which led to further polarization within the SNA. Therefore, it made sense for the eastern groups to respond to that situation by creating the LCM in order to create a balance within the SNA and to steer the SNA back to the established corps system.

The creation of the LCM came after several weeks of meetings between the different leaderships. The LCM is a unique experiment. There have been many operation rooms in the past, but there has not been a full merger of several factions. In terms of the gradual approach toward a full merger, we are at 40-50% already."

 Abu Barzan:

 "First let me provide a bit of background on how we see the concept of unification. At the moment, there are roughly 1 million people from eastern Syria either in northern Syria or Turkey. These people have strong bonds of blood and tribal connection that keep them together. The eastern region of Syria is split into territories under control of the YPG [People’s Protection Units] and Iranian-led militias. Our goal in the LCM is to unite the eastern armed groups as well as the society of eastern people that has been displaced. We therefore understand this not only as a military merger, but also as a social merger. So the merger of the military factions is only one step toward a wider project, which has a political, administrative, and civilian nature.

 The LCM is not just about representing Arabs from the eastern provinces. We have taken steps to reach out to different groups with the aim of enabling participation or letting them become part of the LCM. The eastern provinces include people who are not Arabs or Muslims. Among others, there are Christians, Kurds, and Chechens. The LCM has been engaging with these groups in Ras al-Ayn and Afrin. For example, Abu Hatem recently hosted a celebration of Nowruz with fellow Kurds. Myself and Saad recently held meetings with Christian leaders in Ras al-Ayn. We also have meetings with the SOC’s Abdulahad Astepho, who is of Assyrian origin, and with other actors with the goal of achieving dialogue. One practical example for these efforts is a workshop that the LCM will hold soon to reach out to ethnic and religious minorities."

 Abu Hatem: 

 "Yes, the Arab identity is prevalent on account of the armed groups themselves being Arab, therefore it is natural that the identity of the Syrian revolution is an Arab one. However, we have pluralism in terms of the constitution. The LCM includes Arabs not only from the eastern regions but also from other provinces such as Homs and Damascus."

 Abu Barzan:

 "We have to diagnose this situation very carefully because we don’t want to create a narrative similar to the one the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] helped to create, suggesting that there is an Arab-Kurdish struggle. We don’t want to see this repeated in northern Syria, where there is now talk about an Arab-Turkmen conflict. I wholeheartedly reject this idea. Turkmens are part of the Syrian people. The relationship of certain Turkmen individuals with Turkey might be very good because of linguistic and cultural factors, but overall and with regards to the SNA, there is no preference for Turkmens over Arab."

 Abu Barzan:

 "We can see that the popular base is putting pressure on armed groups to be more in tune with the needs of civilians. Of course, the LCM is part of the SNA but the battles will not continue forever. We carried weapons not as a goal but as a means to an end and we are ready to carry the pen and enter parliament. So, yes, generally speaking we are ready to move to a more overtly political stage."

Abu Hatem:

 "At the same time, the LCM is a military actor, which means that a fully-fledged transition to a political party is unlikely. However, there is a possibility that the LCM will work with other political actors to form a common political platform."

 Abu Barzan:

 "The beauty of Syria is in its diversity. We want a democratic Syria. This is not just a political slogan, I genuinely mean that. To achieve this, one aspect is important to consider: 65% of Syrian society is tribal. Yes, there are urban centers such as Damascus, Homs, or Aleppo. But everywhere else, society is organized along the lines of clans and tribes. Syria doesn’t have political parties in the true sense; it doesn’t have labor unions or any other kind of social organization structures. We only have the clans and tribes as a way of mass mobilization. If we are able to provide the necessary support for these institutions, I think a lot can be achieved in terms of democratic change of Syria."

 Abu Barzan:

 "You need to engage the tribal society more proactively. We are not talking exclusively about Arabs here. The Druze are organized in clans and tribes as well, same for Kurds and, for example, Chechens in Ras al-Ayn.

Many of the Gulf countries would not have become states if the clans and tribes of these areas did not unite behind a political project. In Iraq, the parliamentary system was established by the support of the tribal leaders in 1920. History has some precedents for this kind of approach."

 Saad al-Sharae:

 "With regards to increasing the number of certain groups within the SNA, this is a decision taken in consultation between the leadership of the SNA and the Turkish military. We are proud of our alliance with Turkey because the Turkish army stood side by side with Syrians, and Turkish soldiers were killed side by side with our fighters. If Turkey gives the green light to expand, that is due to Turkey’s appreciation for the strong nature of groups from Syria's east because of the military experience they have gained in the last years in their fight against the régime and ISIS as well as the Iranian militias.

The political wing of the LCM just concluded a visit to the SOC in Istanbul, where meetings were held with the SOC leadership. There will be a meeting of the LCM leadership soon where the options for representation in the SOC will be discussed. If the leadership council agrees that this will be a positive step, the LCM aims to get an additional seat in addition to the existing representation that we have, which is Abdelbaset Abdullatif, who was previously secretary-general of the SOC."

 Abu Hatem:

 "ISIS has kicked us out of our land. Of course we dream about going back day and night — this is our goal and our ambition. But the question is how. This will be decided by events and how they will unfold. We see that there are racist policies adopted by the SDF. We see how they are stealing natural resources and implementing discrimination against Arabs, in addition to the bad security situation. ISIS is very active in Deir ez-Zor, as is the distribution of drugs and drug abuse in the eastern region. We are not against Kurds in general, but against the PKK as a terrorist organization. In my own family they have married into Kurdish families since the 1960s."

 Abu Barzan:

 "We need to differentiate between Kurds as civilians and the PKK and its affiliates as an organization. Kurds are an ancient people; they are Syrian and we recognize them as such. We have been living together with Kurds for decades. The LCM has sought very hard to include the Kurds and to make them feel welcome and not enemies of the LCM. But just as Sunni Arabs have been blighted by ISIS, the Kurds have been blighted by the PKK. If there is a political solution to administer eastern Syria that the Kurds can be part of, we would obviously welcome that. But let us get rid of terrorists, whether it is ISIS or PKK.

The problem I see in terms of the foreseeable future is that Kurds as a society are unable to get rid of the control of the PKK, even though they suffer from it. For instance, the PKK sends IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and car bombs to the Peace Spring area, and I don’t think the average Kurd would approve of such actions. Having said this, if there were international will to resolve the question of eastern Syria according to the Syrians who live there, we would be open to dialogue. But we don’t accept the idea of sitting around the negotiation table with a Kurd who comes from the [PKK headquarters in the] Qandil Mountains. That is to be rejected, just as any negotiation over the future of our country with foreigners."

 Abu Barzan:

 "A lot of injustices have befallen the Peace Spring area because of the EU and U.S., as they have been blocking any humanitarian and stabilization assistance to this area for the last three years, including SRTF [Syrian Recovery Trust Fund] projects. In all the regional and international formats we are involved in, including the Astana platform, we have called for the lifting of this embargo.

 The Peace Spring area relies on agriculture; most people make their living from rearing livestock or growing crops. We haven’t had heavy rainfall since 2018, which has led to poor harvests. This, in turn, means that there is insufficient animal feed, causing a reduction in livestock. Under these circumstances, a large project to resettle Syrians seems unlikely.

 But if there were concerted efforts to resettle and rehouse Syrians, we would be the first to support them and we are ready to take action. Our leadership has decided to support local councils in any way that we can. At the same time, we don’t interfere in the affairs of the local councils or civilians. Abu Hatem is personally responsible for the implementation of this decision."

 Abu Barzan:

 "After the last Astana round, I met with Salem al-Muslet, the SOC’s president, and he told me that an amount of money was assigned to be spent in the Peace Spring area, but that it was vetoed by the U.S. I heard rumors in the last weeks that this position has changed, but I haven’t seen anything concrete so far.

 Because of this embargo, the LCM has taken things into its own hands. It has established a clinic in Nusf Tal that serves 37 villages, especially to treat Leishmania, an infectious disease. We also implemented a number of further projects, such as setting up a bakery and constructing homes for IDPs in the areas of Adwaniya and Hurubi. The LCM is perhaps the only armed group that is doing such projects out of its own pocket.

 What crime have the local civilians committed that they should pay the price for Western estimation of local governance and whether it is legitimate? Why should they go hungry and not receive services like in other places because of the political estimation of local governance? You can see in other areas that the U.N. can implement projects without empowering local governance structures deemed illegitimate. This is an issue of justice."

 Abu Hatem: 

 "In addition, I want to stress that it may be true that the international community views the local governance structures in the Peace Spring area as insufficiently legitimate, but the people on the ground believe they are. Who decides what is right and wrong in that case?

 Abu Barzan: 

 "Most crucial are medicine, food aid for people and livestock, and education. Thousands of children are not getting the education they deserve. Many school buildings were being used as headquarters by the PKK and got blown up hours before the PKK withdrew. The infrastructure has been badly eroded. The LCM has tried to convert homes into schools but this is inadequate.

 Around 300,000 people live in the Peace Spring area, but this number is increasing because there is a movement of people fleeing from régime areas, often through SDF territory and from there to the Peace Spring area. Some of them settle, others use it as a transit point to try to get to Turkey. The issue of migration is becoming more and more relevant. If the EU and the West were serious about solving the migration issue, they would turn their attention to this area. It is becoming a transit route."

 Abu Hatem: 

 "Sanctions were imposed way before the LCM was founded. However, we see this as an act of injustice and it has been detrimental to us and hurt us in several ways. Not just financially, but also with regards to the willingness of external parties to engage with us in recent years. We are pursuing legal channels to overturn the sanctions. There is a law firm in the U.S. that is following up on the matter and we are refuting the allegations through legal means. I cannot disclose more than this because we have an agreement with the law firm to maintain discretion given that there is an ongoing legal process."

 Abu Barzan: 

 "What we count upon is to seek a de facto lifting of the sanctions. And this can only happen through a reform process of the SNA and the avoidance of past mistakes that happened especially in areas that had been newly conquered."

 Saad al-Sharae: 

 "All the factions that formed the LCM were the first to fight ISIS, even before the international coalition was formed to fight terrorism. All elements of the LCM, without exception, have official records certified by the National Army. These records include fingerprints, personal photos, and complete profiles." '

40 thousand gigabytes: An archive of Assad's war crimes in Syria


 'A young Syrian man fled the war and devoted his life to collecting digital evidence of crimes committed by the Syrian régime from 2011 to now.

 Tamer Turkmani stares at his laptop screen for hours every day. A Syrian national, Turkmani's goal is to maintain a digital archive of the victims who have been shot dead by the troops loyal to Bashar al Assad.

 "I knew that these martyrs needed to have their names documented so the coming generations could honour and remember them," 32-year-old Tamer said.

 It started off with Turkmani writing a Facebook post in 2014, urging people on his friends list to send the photos of their loved ones who have been gunned down mercilessly by the Assad régime.

 In less than 24 hours, Tamer received at least 2,000 photos.

 From that day, Turkmani worked toward designing a 170-meter-long mural containing 50,000 pictures of victims. He planned to put up the mural on the sidewalk right across the White House in Washington DC. Unable to travel to the US, his friends helped him display it at the same spot in August 2015.

 "I worked on several other portraits that were displayed in European countries such as Austria, Romania, Canada and Switzerland," Tamer says.

 In 2020, Turkmani held an exhibition in Türkiye's Istanbul city. Titled "People of Memory," the exhibition featured photos of 600 children along with the stories of how they were killed by the Syrian régime between 2011-2012.

 In 2012, a year after the Syrian revolution shook the Assad régime, Turkmani was hit by a bullet, which left him injured. Two years later, he left his hometown Homs and crossed over to Jordan.

 Away from the war, Turkmani began collecting two million YouTube videos of demonstrations, street battles, and speeches of various politicians.

 "Everything related to the lives of Syrians since the beginning of the war, I am working on gathering them to be a witness in history one day," he added.

 The idea of downloading videos from YouTube en masse came to him after he noticed that the video-sharing platform had pulled down dozens of videos showing killings and massacres of Syrians. Upon inquiry, he learned that YouTube removed that content under the pretext of its community guidelines.

 Downloading such a large number of videos needed more and more hard drives. That's where his friends and family members are proving helpful. He's over forty thousand gigabytes of data stored on dozens of hard drives.

 For his commitment to preserving the history of the Syrian war, many of his friends and fellow activists call him: "the memory of the Syrian Revolution.”

 Turkmani also collects books about the Syrian revolution. He has a digital archive of 650 books. He sends them to people if they ask for one.

 He has also maintained a database of 260,000 news articles from about 190 news websites. The articles are about the major events of the first wave of Arab Spring protests that hit the Assad régime in 2011. They also chronicle isolated incidents of torture, extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuse.

 "I managed them all on Excel and I can search about anything I need to know by typing the date. It shows us all the articles published in newspapers and websites that day," he said.

 "All these files that I collected years ago will help us in the future to write history based on pieces of evidence in front of us. We will tell our children what happened in Syria with audio and video, and we will expose the reasons for our departure from Syria and describe the worst tragedy that happened to us."

 Turkmani has another goal to achieve — which is to provide all the necessary evidence that would lead to the prosecution of Bashar al Assad and members of his armed forces who have committed war crimes in the past 11 years of the Syrian civil war.

 "The documentation will ensure that the truth is not falsified. This will bust all the misleading reports and false allegations broadcast by the Syrian media," he said.

 Turkmani now wants to develop an online library where he could upload his archives so people could access them freely.

 "This library will help any student, researcher or journalist to obtain the necessary information — photos, videos, reports and articles that expose the Syrian régime's crimes against Syrians for years." '

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Release of jailed ex-soldier triggers angry protests in opposition stronghold


 'Syrian protesters ended a week of tense anti-corruption rallies on Monday in opposition-held areas, after reaching an agreement with local authorities.

 Residents of the northwestern city of al-Bab had taken to the streets last week, denouncing the release of a former soldier with Bashar al-Assad's army from custody.

 The soldier, who they accuse of committing various war crimes, was released by the military police of the Turkish-backed rebel Syrian National Army (SNA).

 The soldier was arrested about five months ago after he moved to al-Bab following the end of his compulsory service with the Syrian régime army.

 For the past 10 years, he served in the Fourth Division, an elite military unit led by Maher al-Assad, the brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The period of compulsory service is between 18 to 21 months, but can be extended in an emergency and those whose service has ended can be called back into service again in case of war.

 The Fourth Division is under western sanctions for its alleged role in human rights abuses against peaceful protesters.

 The soldier was released by the SNA's military police chief within 24 hours of his arrest after a $1,500 bail was paid by a relative rebel leader.

 The police re-arrested the soldier on Wednesday in response to the protests that erupted after documents were shared online, dated 10 May, containing the soldier's confessions.

 "Our demands were really clear which are re-arresting the criminal, holding those involved accountable for his release, and dismissing the military police chief," Ahmed Nassar, an organiser of the protest, saif.

 "In the beginning, they did not pay attention to the demands, and after the protests began, they formed a committee to follow up on the issue and promised us to refer the demands to the minister of defence in the [opposition] interim government and resolve it within 72 hours," he added.

 The protests in al-Bab reached their peak on Sunday when an ultimatum set by demonstrators was ignored.

 Activists had asked for those involved in the soldier's release to be held accountable, including the chief of military police Colonel Abdul Latif Khalid al-Ahmad.

 In a meeting with protesters, the minister of defence of the Turkish-backed interim government, Hassan Hamada, said he was not obliged to meet the demands of every protest that erupts in the city, which fuelled anger.

 On Sunday afternoon, protesters surrounded and stormed the military police headquarters, while officers were inside, including Hamada.

 They also set tyres ablaze to block off the entrances to the city.

 The escalation prompted another meeting between authorities and protesters around midnight, where an agreement was reached that demonstrations satisfied their demands.

 Shortly after, the interim government issued a statement dismissing the military police chief Colonel al-Ahmad and "referring all those involved in the case to justice".

 On Monday morning, the SNA's Sultan Murad Division issued a statement saying it referred one of its leaders involved in the case to a military court.

 "We have conveyed the message that we can confront corruption, and we have received support from the rest of the areas who have protested in front of the Ministry of Defence headquarters in Azaz city," Nassar said.

 The SNA is a coalition of rebel groups, some of which were founded by officers who defected from the Syrian army following the 2011 mass protests in which security forces killed, detained and tortured thousands of peaceful protesters.

 With Turkish support, the military police - made up of members from each faction within the SNA - were formed in mid-2018.

 One of the main purposes of the force was to stop crime such as the smuggling of goods, drugs and other unauthorised crossings between régime and opposition-held areas.

 However, residents have been growing frustrated with it over allegations of arbitrary detentions and abuse against civilians, local police and charities.

 In early May, the military police detained an activist for a week after he published information claiming that one of the rebel factions that make up the SNA was facilitating the entry into al-Bab of former régime soldiers.

 "The people consider the military police to be a revolutionary institution, but unfortunately some of its members are acting in accordance with their supporters' interest not the interest of the region," an internally displaced Syrian from the city of Hama said.

 "It can be reformed as an institution that serves the region by employing honest people," he added.

 Turkey has controlled al-Bab city since it launched operation Euphrates Shield in late 2016 to drive out the Islamic State from its southern border.

 The city is a stronghold of activists displaced from prominent opposition towns such as Aleppo, Daraa and Maarat al-Numan - which are now controlled by régime forces.'

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Syrians in Idlib fear history is repeating itself


 'Ahmed Abu Hajar, President, Idlib University:

 "Of course there is one criminal, whether in Russia, Ukraine or Syria, and that is Putin. It was Putin himself that targeted hospitals and schools, infrastructure and educational buildings in Syria and in Ukraine."

 Abdel Kafi Al-Hamdo, English Teacher:

"The world was ignoring what's happening in Syria, and this is repeated in Ukraine. And this will be repeated everywhere."

 Ahmed Al-Khalif, Internally Displaced Person:

 "To this day we live in camps because of the bombings by the Russian planes. This is our reality now, snow, bitter cold. We just want to go home."

 Abdul Salam Yusuf, Internally Displaced Person:

 "We wish to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, who share the same sad fate as us because of this criminal.

 But at the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine, we got a sense of some of the attitudes of world leaders. They call Ukrainians Ukrainian citizens, while Syrian migrants are called beggars and refugees."

 Aziz Al-Azmar, Artist:

 "With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have felt that this scene is very similar to what happened to us in Syria. We also saw Ukrainian children and Ukrainian citizens fleeing from their villages and homes, just like what happened in Syria.

 If we don't put a stop to this, Russia will go further and invade all the weaker states it can. This is why we have come to paint on the walls of our destroyed homes pictures of Russian jets, a Russian bear invading Ukraine, to send a message to the world that this killer is uniting us in Syria and now in Ukraine." '

Friday, 8 April 2022

Putting paintbrush to ruins: How the sorrows of Syria’s war became a canvas for artist Aziz Al-Asmar


 'Bombed homes, schools and buildings take up most of internationally renowned artist Aziz Al-Asmar’s view, no matter what direction he is looking in. So, he decided to make them his canvas, on which he continues to touch the world with his creative statements, as he depicts the sorrows of Syria’s war, and stands in solidarity with the world’s deepest devastations.

 The 50-year-old Syrian artist was living in Beirut, Lebanon when the ongoing Syrian uprising began in 2011, and President Bashar al-Assad’s régime violently cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protesters.

 Yet at a time when most people inside Syria were trying to flee for their safety, the creative father of three made the difficult decision to return to his country in 2015, to serve it with his talent.

 “The decision to return to Syria was fraught with risks, but life is about principles and I considered that what I am doing is a human and moral duty,” Aziz said.

 He said his goal was to “tell stories of the revolution and Assad’s crimes” from inside Syria, including the régime's unlawful arrests, torturing and killing of civilians. The first mural he painted was 30-metres long and bared the names of 600 martyrs who were killed in bombings in his village of Binnish. His most recent was a mural marking the 11th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, which citizens across Idlib commemorated in March.

Aziz says his creative process includes meeting with a group of painters, doctors, journalists, teachers and language specialists in a studio almost every day to discuss the situation in Syria and exchange ideas for paintings. The artist also participates in discussions on global events to inspire his artwork, as he produces murals in solidarity with various social justice cases around the globe.

These include his famous murals of George Floyd – a Black American man killed in 2020 by a US police officer – and of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he thanked, following her resignation from politics, for welcoming Syrian refugees into her homeland with open arms. The artist has also painted in solidarity with Ukraine during Russia's brutal invasion of the country which began on 24 February.

“Painting possesses a humanity that makes us search amid the rubble of our broken hearts and burning dreams for a space of feeling and solidarity, with all the grievances of people of different races, languages and religions,” Aziz said. For it is an unfortunate and deep understanding of pain – gathered through “horrendous scenes” the artist has witnessed in Syria – that allow him to relate to the suffering of others’ so fervently.

 For Aziz, connecting with humanity through art has extended to providing local Syrian children with a momentary escape “out of war and sadness, by allowing them to draw and colour their wishes and dreams” with him. The artist says this has been his greatest reward throughout the conflict, as he has painted with children in schools, displacement camps and other areas bombed by the Syrian régime and Russia, with an aim to boost morale and provide hope.

 However, Aziz's contribution to his community doesn’t stop at art. The artist told of many occasions where he has volunteered with the Syrian Civil Defence – otherwise known as the White Helmets – who provide humanitarian assistance to civilians across the war-torn country.

“A human heart doesn’t let you sit still, you want to see who’s hurt, who has been killed, and try to help,” he says.

 “I have wiped away the tears of many orphaned children who lost their fathers and mothers… you would never be able to imagine the extent of the atrocities we have lived. I witnessed many massacres and I helped to collect civilian body parts laying around to bury, out of respect for the dead,” he reveals, explaining that bombs would physically tear their victims apart.

 Despite Aziz living out what he believes to be his duty, his decision comes at the troubling cost of knowing tragedy could strike at any second. “Sometimes when my children would sleep, I would sit next to their mattress and ask them to forgive me for bringing them to a place that has war, bombing and displacement… but I didn’t have a choice, my heart and conscience could only be at ease on the side of the vulnerable civilians,” he says, sharing that he regularly prays for the safety and future of his children.

 However, Aziz believes his “pure intention to do good” is what opened more doors for his talent to be seen than ever before. This extends to his children – who he describes as “geniuses whom God has endowed with many talents.” This includes his 13-year-old second-born son Muhammed, who was nominated for an International Child Peace Prize award for delivering messages of Syrian children’s suffering to the world.

“In Beirut, our talents weren’t shown, in Syria despite everything, our talents have a voice globally… and that’s thanks to God because we’re doing our duty,” Aziz says.

 The artist vowed to continue to draw attention to humanitarian cases and "share the world's joys and sorrows" using his colours, with a strong conviction that “painting is a universal language understood by all".

 However, he says his hopes for a peaceful Syria require international help to be actualised. "International communities must work to help stop the war in Syria and wars everywhere," Aziz says, demanding that they "put an end to the crimes of tyrants, and turn their prisons into schools, hospitals, and institutions that serve humanity." '

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Syrians march in Idlib to mark revolution's 11th anniversary


  'Syrians filled the streets of Idlib as they marched to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the Syrian revolution on Tuesday.

 Syrians reflected on the "very difficult" times they've lived through over the past decade but joined forces in a display of hope demanding an end to régime rule.

 "The demonstration today was one of the most beautiful demonstrations because thousands of people gathered yet shared one heart, all calling for the overthrow of the Syrian régime and demanding to return to their homes," Idlib-based journalist Izzedin Kasim said.

 "Personally, I lost my country and my house was destroyed, and I live in a rented place and the humanitarian conditions are very difficult," Kassim added.

 He insists that despite the effects of the war on him, his work as a journalist has given him a strong sense of duty and purpose.

 Many still hold that the years of struggle were necessary, including Idlib-based photojournalist Yousef Gharibi.

 "The past 11 years were difficult and brought many tragedies, but they were necessary in the path of reaching the Syria we dream of... a free Syria without a tyrannical régime without corruption and criminality," Gharibi said.

 Idlib and parts of Aleppo province remain the only areas in Syria to be held by the Syrian opposition.

 Fadel Abdul Ghany, the chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, believes there will be more developments in the revolution in the years to come and despite the military failures of the rebels, the uprising has achieved success in other ways.

 "I don't think the revolution has been defeated... there will be other waves... we succeeded in other aspects like in the human rights and media aspect like [achieving] international condemnation of the régime," he said.'