Thursday, 2 July 2020

After 'reconciliation': Syria régime's silent crackdown

An activist group in Daraa has documented the deaths of 14 army defectors since 2018

 'Syrian army defector Salam had signed a surrender deal with the régime supposed to protect him, but after reporting for military service, he disappeared and months later was declared dead.

 "He went off and never came back," his elder brother said.

 Salam is one of a growing number of former rebel fighters who disappeared, died or suffered abuse at the hands of régime forces, despite signing so-called reconciliation deals in areas the government has recaptured.

 At least 219 people who have signed such agreements have been detained over the past two years, including 32 who likely died because of torture or poor conditions in régime jails.

 Most are residents of the southern province of Daraa, the defeated cradle of Syria's 2011 uprising.

 After the Russian-backed régime retook the area in 2018, most rebels decided to stay after signing reconciliation deal.

 They included Ahmad, a former rebel fighter then in his late thirties, and his brother Salam, an army defector and opposition fighter turning 26 that year.

 While Ahmad chose to join a Russian-backed régime unit, Salam decided to return to military service as requested under the surrender deal, despite objections from his brother, who feared he might be detained, or worse.

 "He called me to tell me he would hand himself in for military service," said Ahmad, now aged 40, using a pseudonym for fear of retribution.

 "I tried to stop him, but he insisted."

 Under the surrender deal, Salam had six months to rejoin his old army regiment.

 Two months before the deadline, he went to a Damascus office to enlist and was never seen again.

 His family was left in the dark until 2019, when the government responded to their enquiries with a handwritten note on which was scrawled his date of death and corpse number.

 Ahmad refuses to believe his brother died, but says if he did, the cause was likely torture or dire conditions in jail.

 "We agreed to the reconciliation agreement because we had no other way to stay safe," Ahmad said.

 "I managed to protect myself, but my brother didn't and now he is gone."

 An activist group in Daraa has documented the deaths of 14 army defectors since 2018.

 Some were stopped at checkpoints, while others died after trying to rejoin the army, the Martyrs' Documentation Centre says.

 But "the régime hasn't handed over any corpses to the families nor has it said where they were buried," according to the centre.

 Diana Semaan, a researcher at Amnesty International, charged the government with breaking the terms of surrender deals in Homs, Daraa and the Damascus countryside.

 "People living in government-controlled areas, especially areas that 'reconciled' with the government, continue to be at risk of arbitrary detention, torture and death in custody," she said.

 Omar al-Hariri of the Martyrs' Documentation Centre said reconciliation agreements did not include amnesty for crimes other than opposing the government.

 So "the régime has fabricated criminal charges against many people" or used minor offences as a pretext to arrest them, he said.

 Sara Kayyali of Human Rights Watch said ongoing detentions, torture and deaths in custody showed surrender deals were "completely ineffective".

 They "are more of a facade designed to falsely reassure people, when on the ground they make very little difference," she said.

 It also sends "a very bad signal" to individuals who are considering a return to government-held areas, she added.

 In just one case discouraging such returns, three brothers -- two former rebel fighters -- were arrested days after they signed reconciliation deals in 2018, a source at a rights group said. They have not been seen since.

 In another, as early as 2014, opposition fighter Omar, then aged 25, surrendered to regime forces after two years of siege in the central city of Homs.

 He had defected from the army before joining the rebels, his brother said.

 Under the surrender deal, Omar -- also a pseudonym -- was told he would be interrogated for two days, then would have to rejoin the army within six months.

 But instead, he was locked up for months in a school with other former fighters then transferred to Sednaya, a Damascus prison infamous for torture.

 "For four years, we paid just to make sure he stayed alive inside," his brother said.

 Omar was finally released, but then forced straight back into the army with no prospect of a way out, he said.

 Though "he's hoping to escape again, he feels his hands are tied." '

After 'reconciliation': Syria regime's silent crackdown | SYRIA ...

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

'Wished I were dead,' says survivor of Assad prison

'Wished I were dead,' says survivor of Assad prison

 'Sawsan Um Muhammad, 31, can never forget the torture she suffered in prison after she was detained by the Bashar al-Assad régime forces seven years ago.

 "We were not seen as human beings, all prisoners were treated as sheer numbers," she said.

 At least 500,000 people including women are currently languishing in Assad régime prisons and detention centers, according to opposition sources.

 Very few victims are able to muster the courage to speak about their ordeal.

 "They said I texted someone they were looking for [...] I spent time in different detention centers for nearly four months. I experienced some of the worst tortures," she said, as her eyes filled with tears.

 She spent time in prisons in Homs and Damascus.

 All these prisons seemed just like slaughterhouses, she said.

 However, the worst was the Military Security branch in Homs.

 Adding that her brother was also detained and killed by torture in 2012, she recalled her own experiences.

 "We wished we were dead a thousand times a day. I stayed with 40 women in a small room. It was boiling hot, we could not breathe.

 "We were not allowed to sleep more than 1-2 hours a day. We were exhausted, psychological violence was much worse than physical. They did all of this knowingly, we saw people die in front of us," she said.

 They were interrogated and beaten up making them confess to crimes they had never committed.

 "They used to burn us with cigarette butts. They hung us to the ceiling by our arms and just left us there for hours. They electrocuted some of my best friends in those prisons," she recalled.

 "Whenever they took me for interrogation, they told me if I listened to them I would not be tortured. But I resisted and experienced many tortures. I was a strong woman, but the torture made my whole body shake to the core," she said.

 "There was no humanity in the régime's prisons. It was a cemetery for the living. They would torture young people in front of our cells," she said.

 Bashar al-Assad has not been punished for his horrific crimes, and the international community remains ineffective and silent, she added.

 Um Muhammad was released during a prison exchange between the opposition and régime forces in September 2013.

 She said she will always support the Syrian revolution, and the tortures that she experienced will not turn her from her cause.

 She also regards everyone in Bashar al-Assad's prisons as her brothers and sisters, and she will always defend their rights.

 Since March 2011, when the people's revolution started in Syria, 14,253 people were killed by torture by Assad régime forces, according to a report by the Syria Network of Human Rights (SNHR).

 Of those, at least 173 were children, 46 were women.'

Leila Al-Shami (@LeilaShami) | Twitter

Saturday, 27 June 2020

'Ayouni', the documentary film that puts a face to Syria's forcibly disappeared

The bus of the NGO 'Families for freedom', which calls for the release of prisoners forcibly disappeared in Syria at the hands of the regime or various armed groups.

 'Award-winning Palestinian director Yasmin Fedda's latest documentary, "Ayouni", sheds light on Syria's forced disappearances through the intimate stories of Noura, widow of cyber-activist Bassel Safadi, and Machi, sister of Italian priest Paolo Dall'Oglio, who was abducted in Raqqa in 2013 and whose whereabouts are unknown.

 "I don't know if he's alive. I can't be sure he's dead. Until I see his body, I can't mourn him," said Noura Ghazi, who learned in August 2017 that her husband, Bassel Khartabil Safadi, had been executed, five years after he was detained in Damascus and two years after he disappeared. But she knows nothing else. Not where, nor when, nor how: "With a gun? Day or night?” she demanded. For years, the 38-year-old Syrian lawyer and human rights activist has been travelling around the world in search of answers and the "most basic right to say goodbye to my husband".

 Ghazi shares the questions that haunt her in "Ayouni", Fedda's latest documentary, which will be available for streaming on July 1. The Palestinian filmmaker, nominated for a Bafta and the maker of several films about Syria, where she spent her childhood, filmed Ghazi in her quest to find answers about her absent husband. Fedda also followed Immacolata – known as "Machi", the sister of Father Paolo Dall'Oglio. The latter is the Italian priest who in the 1980s founded the Syrian Catholic monastery of Mar Mûsa, north of Damascus, and was later kidnapped in Raqqa by the Islamic State group on July 27, 2013. He has not been heard from since.

 Like Safadi and Dall’Oglio, approximately 100,000 people have been forcibly disappeared after being arrested by Bashar al-Assad's régime or abducted by various armed militias, including the Islamic State group, since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, according to Amnesty International.

 For six years, Fedda filmed these two women, who did not know each other but were brought together by a common tragedy. "I had started a project on Father Dall'Oglio, a friend of mine, when we learned of his kidnapping. My film then took a different turn," the director told FRANCE 24. From Iraq to Italy through Lebanon and the United Kingdom, she recorded their secrets, their tears and their questions, and filmed their struggle for truth and justice.

 "I tried to capture the complexity of their emotions. In six years, there have been different stages, ranging from anger to hope, but the search for truth has always kept them going," Fedda said. As Machi told her brother's kidnappers in a video posted in 2014, "we hope to hug Paolo, but we are ready to mourn his death."

 Neither a journalistic investigation – although the facts are verified – nor a human rights campaign film - though the film’s release partners include Amnesty International and pro-democracy NGO The Syria Campaign, “Ayouni” is the film of an auteur. It is a thought-provoking documentary about war crimes seen through the lens of intimate stories.

 "It's not just a film about Syria and forced disappearances, it's a film that touches on universal themes," said Fedda.

 " 'Ayouni' means eyes in Arabic," Fedda explained. "But it's also a term of affection for the people you love. It can therefore be read in two ways: either what people see or as a testimony of love.”

 It’s this second meaning that unites Noura and Bassel, "the bride and groom of the revolution". The couple met in 2011 during an anti-Assad demonstration in Douma. Through video archives, Fedda introduces us to Bassel, a Palestinian-Syrian activist and open-source developer who played a leading role in the free Internet movement, notably by creating Arabic versions of Wikipedia and the Firefox web browser. "I wanted to make him a presence before filming his absence," she said.

 The couple got engaged in 2011, before the revolution turned into war. Although Assad has already ordered his armies to fire on demonstrators, Noura and Bassel still believed in change. "We have come such a long way..." they said in archive footage. But in March 2012, Bassel was arrested by the régime. Nevertheless, the couple got married in Adra prison on January 7, 2013, hiding from the guards. Then Bassel disappeared from the radar in 2015, the year in which he was allegedly executed. Allegedly. Noura has learned to learn to live with the uncertainty but has been relentless in her attempts to find out what happened.

 Ghazi, a lawyer and founder of the NGO Nophotozone, which provides legal assistance to the families of the disappeared, has become the voice of tens of thousands of Syrian families who have seen their loved ones vanish into the jails of the Damascus régime. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, an estimated 100,000 people have been forcibly disappeared. On June 16, Ghazi pleaded their case again before the UN Security Council, at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron.

 "I'm here to tell you about the suffering of the families of the forcibly disappeared, mostly men, leaving us women to raise children without fathers," she said in a video conference. "I am here to talk to you about the violations of Bashar al-Assad who flouts our laws and our Constitution. (...) I am here to talk to you about the lack of political will to put an end to it. I demand justice and I am ready to pay the high price for it."

 Fedda relayed the plea in her generous and empathetic documentary. "I would be happy if my film could make a modest contribution to making their struggle known," the director concluded.'

""Machi" Dall'Oglio holds a photo of his brother, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, kidnapped in Syria in 2013 by the Islamic State group and missing ever since.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Syrians tell why they are rising against the régime ‘no matter what’

An anti-Assad regime demonstration under way in Suweida, southern Syria, in early June 2020. AFP

Zouhir al-Shimale:

 'On June 7, just outside the Syrian intelligence offices in Suweida, about 100 people gathered in the streets on the first day of a growing movement to denounce President Bashar Al Assad.

 Their numbers grew as the protests gathered pace in the Druze-majority province in south-west Syria, an area traditionally seen as loyal to the régime.

 Many were youth – students and teenagers – wielding banners and calling for change as the country plunges deeper into economic uncertainty.

 Their peaceful demands echoed the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2011 before the régime unleashed violent crackdowns on the uprising, plunging the country into a brutal war.

 Many of the hundreds massing in Suweida’s central squares grew up knowing little else, their childhoods framed by violence that has laid waste to the country over almost a decade of conflict.

 But that has not stopped them from rising against the régime and voicing their discontent, even after security forces attacked and arrested demonstrators this week.

 "Despite the overwhelming perils, such as abduction and gunning by masked militants, people are persisting with carrying on their peaceful movement," said Rayan Marouf, a reporter for Al Sweida News 24.

 Echoing tactics it deployed in the early days of the 2011 uprising, the régime attempted to counter the demonstrations with a pro-Assad rally on June 10. A voice note shared on social media and circulated among students threatened expulsion if they failed to attend.

 At an anti-Assad sit-in on the same day, protesters held up images of political prisoners held in régime jails.

 On June 15, the protesters gathered in Suweida’s central squares to call for democratic change, the overthrow of Mr Al Assad and the removal of foreign militias from the country were joined by pro-régime protesters who started to attack them.

 Security forces then began to disperse the demonstrations using violence. “After the protest was attacked, the police and Mukhabarat started brutally beating up the participants and arrested many,” Mr Marouf said.

 State and regional media outlets are describing the demonstrations as “economically driven” and a response to the currency collapse after the Syrian pound plummeted to about 2,700 to the US dollar last week on the black market.

 But protesters are demanding a wider change, calling for the removal of Assad with chants of “Bashar, leave” and signs advocating an “inclusive civilian secular state”.

 “People in Suweida demand a holistic, transformative change in the country ... [they] would not risk their lives and protest out of economic hardship [alone]. People want freedom, equality and the end of oppression,” said a protester called Jamal.

 Another protester, who gave his name as Khaled, said that “hegemonic powers are inflicting more poverty, destruction and chaos in the country; their departure from Syria is a key element of the movement”.

 People in Syria are tired, he continued. “They are waiting for real change that relieves their suffering.” However, fear of retaliation by the régime makes them “negative” about the prospects for a positive outcome, he said.

 There is little cause for hope in Syria as the country sinks into a deepening economic crisis, with some experts warning that famine could be on the horizon.

 Two-thirds of the population already lives in severe poverty, according the UN, and fears over the impact of new Caesar Act sanctions has sent prices skyrocketing, leaving many Syrians unable to afford basic necessities like bread.

 However, there are critical dynamics in the current movement that could yield a different outcome to previous protests.

 In the past, the Suweida’s support for the Alawite-dominated régime – as a fellow minority area – has seen some Druze residents back security forces against protest movements.

 The Sheikh Alakil Druze administration, a local body headed by Druze religious figures, has always been supportive of the state and was the first to renew its vow of loyalty to Mr Assad during protests in 2011 and 2015, but its silence now is telling, Mr Marouf said.

 “Their support and loyalty to Assad seemingly is relinquishing; otherwise we would have seen them by now racing to renew their ultimate support.”

 The population fears the régime will take advantage of high unemployment in the city to enlist local armed groups to squash dissent.

 In 2015, small demonstrations were followed a few days later by car bombings that killed 46 civilians including Sheikh Al Balous, a well-known local Druze leader.

 “It is nerve-wrenching thinking of those days. This is a criminal régime which is ready to orchestrate [similar attacks] once again,” Mr Marouf said.

 “Nonetheless people so far remain, albeit with some division, united for their case, and to using peaceful means until they achieve their aims.”

 Nawras Zain Al Deen, who has been participating in the protests, sees the movement as a continuation of the 2011 revolt – and the violent response it was met with.

 At the demonstration on June 16, he saw between 600 and 700 intelligence and police forces gathered at the planned protest site. “I went to warn people as the protest was postponed because there were ongoing negotiations being held to free the detainees,” he said.

 “The policemen spotted us and starting running behind us. I made it, but my friend, who tried to distract them to help me escape, got arrested.”

 Mr Al Deen said the régime wants protesters to reduce their demands and stop calling for the overthrow of Mr Al Assad.

 “The uprising is going to continue no matter what. People have had enough from this régime and will no longer be silent in spite of their fake rallies. We will continue our protest until this régime changes and Syrians have their freedom.”

 Syrian writer and human rights activist Rima Flihan pointed to the clear distinction between peaceful calls for change that marked the early days of the 2011 uprising, and the war that followed.

 “What is happening now is a twin revolution of 2011, one with the same desire for change,” she said.

 “People in Syria need to breathe; that will never happen until we enter a transitional phase led by honourable people, preparing for a constitution, elections, reconstruction, and revival of the Syrian economy. Syrians have the right to this, and it is not difficult if the will exists; people want democracy, dignity, and freedom.” '


The reluctant refugee: Majeda's story

Majeda Khouri pictured for Migrateful during UK Refugee Week 2020 | Source: Twitter Migrateful

 'Majeda Khouri was detained in Syria for peacefully protesting the Assad régime. After her release, raids on her house prompted her to leave -- first for Lebanon and eventually the UK, where she was granted refugee status. In London, she has founded her own catering business and helps other Syrian refugee women from poorer backgrounds use their own cooking skills to earn a living in London.

 Majeda Khouri bridles slightly when she is introduced as a refugee. "I like to introduce myself as a feminist and human rights activist," she says firmly, "because that is what I am." Being a refugee in the UK is something she has been "forced" to become. "It is not a choice."

 "When I came here [to the UK] I was so depressed," says Khouri. "I wanted to be with my family. I had left my children for two years." At the time, her two sons were just 13 and 15. Khouri said she had done everything not to leave Syria, even after being detained for four months.

 Eventually though Khouri was forced to leave for Lebanon where she continued her activism. She worked in refugee and migrant camps, trying to support the activists she had left behind in Syria. But in Lebanon she had no right to remain, and so when she was invited to speak at an academic forum in Edinburgh in 2017, it became impossible for her to return. "I had no choice but to seek asylum in the UK," says Khouri sadly.

 Since arriving in the UK, she has built up her English by listening to the radio "24 hours a day," Khouri explains. She says she even kept it on while she slept, "to perfect my accent. I wanted to speak, so that gave me the power." Soon she was using those skills to speak at seminars, events and cooking classes, become a chef, give cooking classes via the organization Migrateful, and set up her own catering business "Syrian Sunflower."

 The sunflower represents her in more ways than one, Khouri explains. She used the image of a sunflower on her Facebook page when working as an activist in Syria. "I love the sun," she enthuses, her voice warming up, "I have a special relationship with it," then she adds wryly, "perhaps that is why I find the UK so difficult to live in." When her friends were campaigning for her release from detention, they all grew sunflowers and wrote her messages on her Facebook page saying "we are waiting for you, Syrian sunflower." So, says Khouri, "it means a lot to me."

 For Khouri, food is a way to tell her story and that of her country. "When you sit down to eat, you exchange something; you share something emotional, when you talk, people listen and they hear what you say," she says. That was how the idea for cooking Syrian food in London came about. Through the dishes, Khouri explains to people what is happening in Syria. "I needed to communicate to them that the war in Syria was not about Assad versus Isis, that it was more complicated than that."

 At one of the first events she catered, she didn't serve up the middle eastern delights that people might have been expecting, but a thin watery gruel. It was the only dish that people could eat when their city (Ghouta) was under siege, she told the BBC at the time. The trick worked, Khouri says, remembering the evening. "We were campaigning to break this siege," says Khouri. "I thought that if people shared this food, [this experience] they would listen more."

 While they were tentatively sipping their soup, Khouri passed around a letter she had written to British parliamentarians, trying to get attention focused on what the Assad régime was doing in Syria. Coming into contact with a small taste of the realities that people were facing, many who attended the event duly wrote a letter to their MP too. "A few months later, I met one of the MPs involved in the Syrian case and he told me had received over 40 of my emails and letters from people who attended the event. I was very pleased," concludes Khouri.

 Khouri had long been dissatisfied with the régime, but she could not do much about it because her family was constantly monitored.

 "My uncle had been tortured to death about 40 years ago and the security services would come to my house all these years, they came and turned our house upside down. Not just my family, most families, that was how it was. It was a security régime," says Khouri.

 In 2011, when the peaceful revolution began in Syria, Khouri saw her chance to work for change. She began to use her status as a Christian Syrian -- generally seen as being favorable to the régime -- to smuggle bread to people, who were already experiencing food shortages, across checkpoints.

 For a while, the ruse worked, says Khouri. But the régime cottoned on and in 2013, she was detained for four months. "We were only allowed out to the toilet once every 24 hours, at 3 am in the morning." This was because, explains Khouri, they were torturing people the rest of the time "between our space and the bathroom." Sometimes, when the women got to the bathroom, there would be dead bodies lying there. "They didn’t care," says Khouri about the régime. "They wanted us to see what they were doing."

 Sometimes, Khouri knew the people or recognized the voices of those being tortured. Once, in her cell, she heard the voice of a child. "He was just 13," she remembers. "I knew his mother and when he said he was 13 years old, immediately my son came to my mind." The boy, she says, was being forced to stand on a chair with a rope around his neck. They were threatening him that if he didn't admit to killing someone, they would first hang his mother and then him. "The boy was pleading with them not to kill his mother," Khouri remembers sadly. "He said, kill me, but please don't kill my mother."

 On hearing this, Khouri begged the guards to let her talk to the boy, telling them she would get the information they wanted. "It was very hard for me to hear that," she said. "I wanted to do this just to hug him and tell him 'don’t worry about your mother.' This is a small part of the horrible things the régime did," says Khouri.

 She was eventually allowed a few minutes with him, and she tried to tell him that she would get a message to his mother and that she would be safe. But the attempt doesn't have a particularly happy ending. "Since then the boy has not been found," says Khouri baldly, without speculating about what might have happened. The subject is quietly closed.

 Despite her experiences, on being released, Khouri was determined to stay in Syria and keep fighting for the country she wanted it to become. "Assad must go," she says determinedly. "It is time." But after frequent raids on their home, and periods in hiding, in 2016 Khouri was forced to use a smuggler and begin an 18 hour "dangerous" journey to get her over the border to Lebanon.

 You can hear Khouri smiling slightly down the telephone when asked if she thinks she defies people's expectations of what a refugee 'should' be. "Yes, yes," she says, eagerly recounting a story about being on a panel discussion with the mayor of London soon after she arrived in the UK. Khouri had also catered the event at which she was giving a speech. When the food arrived and it was made clear that she was the cook behind it, the mayor of London turned to her surprised and asked: "Did you make this food too?" Khouri laughed and answered him simply: "Yes, I can talk AND I can cook!"

 Khouri's capable strength and leadership skills shine through. "I am a leader," she agrees. "I am good at communicating and I can lead a team of people."

 Despite hoping to return to Syria one day, Khouri has filled her life in London. She has been busy helping other Syrian refugee women, who come from poorer backgrounds, use their own cooking skills to earn a living in London. As well as her catering business, she works as an online researcher for the Open University, contacting people in the camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

 Once she had refugee status, Khouri's sons were able to join her in the UK through the family reunification program. They are about to start studying at university but do not want to hear about her activism. "When I am talking to you here on the phone, they go in another room," she says. "It was difficult for them. When I was detained they didn't know where I was. They knew that the reégime killed people. I can understand, it was very hard for them, they don't want to hear about politics. They refuse to talk about it or get involved," she says quietly.

 Nevertheless, Khouri remains undeterred. "I believe I have a responsibility as a human rights activist. It is on the same level of importance as my family," she says. "That's why I have to do as much as I can. […] That's why I have this passion and this power inside to clarify things for people."

 "In 2011 when we started our revolution we said, yes, we have a dream and it will come true. Until now, we haven't achieved it but we will, I hope we can. 60% of Syrians were living in poverty. I had a good life, my children went to a good school but I could see things were not fair. People didn't have opportunities and the régime was taking everything into their own pockets."

 The régime wants us to leave, says Khouri. "Now there are 10 million people living outside Syria. ... But I will keep fighting until we have the country we dreamed of. What we need is the first step of change. If Assad goes, people will see there is the possibility of change." '

The destroyed hospital of Kafr Nabl, Idlib's countryside, in Syria | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/YAHYA NEMAH

Friday, 19 June 2020

Can Syrian sexual violence survivors get justice in Germany?

Women in Hatay, Turkey, take part in a protest to draw attention to women languishing in Syrian prisons in 2018

 'For most women, the horror starts at the moment of arrest. First, the male soldiers touch them inappropriately. On arrival at the prison, they are forced to strip naked. The invasion of their bodies often begins with an aggressive, intimate search by a male guard.

 For thousands of female detainees in régime prisons this marks the start of a journey to hell — one that very often ends with them being broken and then ostracized from their families and communities.

 Sexual, gender-based violence is one of the most widespread crimes in Syria's government detention facilities, according to international law expert, Alexandra Lily Kather. Yet, it is also one of the most underreported.

 "We know about air strikes, we know about weapons, we know about torture, we know about [the Islamic State]," says Kather who works for the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin.

 "But what is not being covered sufficiently either in the media, or in terms of calling perpetrators to account, is sexual violence [in régime prisons], despite the devastation it causes both for the victim and for society as whole."

 On Tuesday Kather and her colleagues at the ECCHR took a step they hope will change this state-of-affairs in a radical way.

 Together with Syrian rights activist, Joumana Seif, Kather filed a criminal complaint with Germany's federal prosecutor calling for sexual and gender-based violence in Syria to be prosecuted as a crime against humanity.

 Germany has already achieved a world first by putting two former Syrian intelligence officers on trial in the town of Koblenz for war crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to try foreign nationals for crimes committed abroad.

 However, while applauding this effort, ECCHR says Germany has failed to include sexual violence as a crime against humanity on any indictments or arrest warrants, which in their view is a grave oversight and a blow to the victims.

 "From the evidence we have," says Kather, "we can clearly see that sexual violence was part of a systematic and widespread attack on the civilian population and therefore should be categorized as a crime against humanity."

 The UN Human Rights Council shares this opinion. In a harrowing report published in 2018, the body detailed abuses based on the testimony of nearly 500 survivors and witnesses. Of all the warring parties, pro-government forces and militias were the most prolific offenders when it came to sexual attacks and rapes. The UN concluded they used sexual violence as a weapon to instill fear and inflict humiliation.

 The report's section on detention centers outlines acts of astonishing cruelty with a girl as young as nine being raped by a Syrian guard. Others were also sexually tortured and threatened with rape or raped in front of other guards and detainees. One brigadier general told a low-ranking officer who showed an interest in a female inmate: "Take her. Do anything you want with her."

 Men and boys were also raped and sexually violated in detention, but according to the report women and girls were disproportionately targeted.

 The need to seek redress for such atrocities is at the heart of the case being pursued by the ECCHR. They are acting on behalf of seven survivors, including four Syrian women and three men now based in Europe. All were civilians incarcerated in prisons operated by Syria's Air Force Intelligence Service in Aleppo, Hama and Damascus. ECCHR say they have identified nine perpetrators based on the testimony of these victims and other sources of evidence.

 As part of their criminal complaint, the international lawyers at ECCHR have issued a demand to Germany's Federal Prosecutor for an existing arrest warrant for the former head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence Service, Jamil Hassan, to be amended to include sexual violence as a crime against humanity. Additionally, they have called for investigations, also focusing on crimes of a sexual nature to be opened into the other eight alleged perpetrators and arrest warrants to be issued.

 Rights activist and legal expert Joumana Seif underlined the importance of characterizing crimes as "sexual" as opposed to other forms of brutality, especially in Syria.

 "Most of the survivors are women and when they are released, despite having such dreadful experiences in prison they are discriminated against. They pay twice," says Seif.

 "What they need are special health services and psychological help and the right to be protected. They need recognition."

 Men subjected to sexual violence in prison often feel their masculinity has been compromised and fear losing the respect of their peers, according to fellow legal expert Kather. Yet for women the consequences can be doubly devastating.

 "If a woman has been sexually violated, she is judged to have brought shame on the honor of the family and will be excluded," says Kather. "This destabilizes the family and if you destabilize family after family, you end up destabilizing the core of society."

 Justice for victims of sexual and gender-based crimes is also seen as key to any future reconciliation efforts, especially given what the UN report called a "near-total absence of accountability for such violations."

 For now, though, lawyer Kather, is focusing on the present.

 "This is a régime, a state that uses people's bodies for their political aim to oppress and terrorize, she says. "And we demand accountability from the German prosecutor." '

Lily Kather and Joumana Seif of the ECCHR

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Régime’s destruction of agricultural lands as a tactic of cementing displacement

 'In a disturbing trend, the Syrian régime and its allies have recently been burning agricultural lands belonging to displaced Syrians with a clear intent to cement their displacement. The systematic nature of the targeting is evident as the fires have been instigated in different areas and governorates under the control of the régime, making it impossible for the displaced to return and harvest the fields and orchards. This text provides a closer look in such incidents in Palmyra, Harasta and Al-Qusayr.

 The city of Palmyra is an oasis that adorns the Syrian desert, located northeast of Damascus. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring Roman monuments that bear witness to a great city that was once one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. It came under international spotlight when ISIS took control of it and destroyed some of the priceless artefacts, before the régime regained the control of the area.

 In May, fires burned agricultural lands in the area near the Meridian Hotel, in the vicinity of the Temple of Antiquities. The sources of the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity in the region confirmed that the fires raged in the area for hours, with the Syrian régime not making any notable effort to control the blaze. According to eyewitnesses, the deliberate failure to deal with these fires might be motivated by the desire to cover up the smuggling of antiquities the régime is carrying out in collusion with Iranian militias.

 Our sources reported seeing digging equipment and trucks moving to the area immediately before the fires were started. According to these sources, the militia controlling the area has been excavating for more than two years for the antiquities in the area where the fires occurred. The area where the digging is going on has been sealed off for “security reasons” to prevent civilians from accessing it. The displacement of the local residents is at the same time a tool and a long-term consequence of this criminal effort.

 Excavation and smuggling of antiquities from Palmyra is considered an important economic resource that the régime and Iranian militias use to finance the war in Syria. The practice was documented by Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, which reported that “Iranian militias, led by the militia of Al-Najaba and Fatimiyun, began a new exploration campaign on the antiquities in the ancient city of Palmyra and its eastern desert that extended towards Deir Al-Zour, where excavation mechanisms brought in by the militias have been monitored over the past three months.” The area where these excavations started was blocked off to the people who live there, and the route of the motorway Deir Al-Zour-Damascus, which passes near Palmyra, was changed for this purpose.

 We have recently reported on the régime’s demolitions of private property in the area of Harasta, in Eastern Ghouta. In the aftermath of that, the local sources reported massive fires in the same area which burned agricultural lands overlooking the Damascus-Homs International Highway during the month of May.

 According to this information, members of régime’s forces present in the area intentionally set fire to the surrounding lands in the Panorama area in the city of Harasta, on both sides of the international highway from the Qaboun side, as well as the agricultural lands separating Dahiet Elasad and the Harasta and Barzeh farms.

 These recent fires caused great damage to the crops and the trees planted in those lands, especially in the orchards that extend between Harasta and Arabin from the governorate side.

 This is not the first time fires have been used to devastate agricultural lands in this area. The eastern Ghouta groves, overlooking the Damascus-Homs international highway, witnessed major fires during May 2019. Thousands of olive trees, some hundreds of years old, were burned in the groves of the Karm Al-Ras area, separating the cities of Duma and Harasta, and the western area of ​​the highway in Harasta. One of the engineers working in the Damascus countryside governorate suggested that the fires are aimed at emptying the agricultural areas and forcing the residents to sell or accept the régime’s expropriation, as part of a plan to include it into the “re-organization” that covers the northern entrance to the capital.

 Lastly, at the beginning of April 2020, a big fire broke out in some of the orchards in the villages of Al-Qusayr, a town in the Homs governorate on the border with Lebanon. The area is under control of Hezbollah and the information from the ground suggests that the fires were instigated to clear the land which the militia plans to use to expand its cannabis-growing operation in the area, which is reportedly a major source of income.

 The area is of importance to Hezbollah as it has a number of crossings along the border between Lebanon and Syria from the Al-Qusayr side, which are used to transport the loot from Syria which is then sold in the Central Bekaa valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah also uses the Al-Qusayr region as a training camp for the new recruits deployed in the operations in the Aleppo countryside and Daraa.

 With the increasing pressure on Hezbollah in Lebanon as a result of the collapse of the Lebanese economy, Al-Qusayr with its vast green areas is increasingly important to the militia as a source of income and resources. It is for this reason that the southern countryside of Homs remains empty of residents despite several attempts at return of some of those who are displaced in the areas held by the régime, such as the city of Homs or the city of Damascus.

 The described practice of burning of agricultural lands in Palmyra, Harasta and Al-Qusayr clearly aim to cement the displacement of the local population by depriving them of a source of livelihood and making their return more difficult. Initial displacement affected by brutal violence and destruction is made worse, with the goal of making it permanent, by the destruction of lands and oases, which then either become settled by members of militia families who live off trafficking (Palmyra), are exploited for cultivation of narcotics (Al-Qusayr) or designated for “re-organization” (Harasta). Or, as was recently the case in the areas of the eastern and southern Idlib countryside and the western countryside of Aleppo, from which people were displaced as a result of the recent military campaign against the Syrian north, the crops sown by the displaced are first harvested by the régime forces and militias, and then set alight.

 The pattern of these actions reveals a systematic targeting of the displaced Syrians, which is one of the key causes for the imposition of sanctions by the EU and the US on the régime’s officials and the individuals and entities involved in such criminal conduct. The reversal of these actions, restitution of property and lands to the rightful owners and safe and voluntary return of displaced people who lived on the harvests from the lands devastated by deliberate burning, will be among the basic pre-conditions for the lifting of the sanctions and the possibility of a political solution that guarantees the right to all Syrians.'

How new protests in Syria are pushing Assad to the brink

How new protests in Syria are pushing Assad to the brink

 'Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has survived a nine-year-long civil war after brutally suppressing a countrywide protest movement. But a new wave of protests fuelled by economic distress has once again exposed the régime leader to the bitter reality — that beggars can't be choosers.

 “When you look at recent military developments on the Syrian ground, Assad appears to create some advantages for his rule. Except for the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, he was able to control much of the country through military operations,” said Serhat Erkmen, a Turkish political analyst on Syria.

 For Erkmen, Assad's ability to conduct military operations does not warrant for his survival.

 “While Assad feels that he is so close to the eventual victory in the civil war, he could bitterly discover that he might not have the economic power, which is the most essential means to control the rest of the country (taken over by force mostly).”

 Assad has been the only surviving dictator from the Arab Spring movement, which began in 2011, toppling autocrats across the Middle East from Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

 On Thursday, Assad sacked his prime minister, Imad Khamis, who had been in office for four years, scapegoating him for the country’s economic hardships.

 “For most, life in 2020 is a great deal worse than life at the peak of nationwide armed conflict in 2014-15. In holding on to power, Assad has effectively—and purposely—destroyed his own nation and economy,” wrote Charles Lister, a senior fellow and the director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, who is also the author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.

 The civil war has badly hit the Syrian economy and the US sanctions against Damascus have worsened the country’s pains, exposing people to degrading living conditions.

 Most recently, the losses of the Syrian currency have reached enormous dimensions, decreasing people’s purchasing power by extreme margins.

 “At the beginning of the civil war, one US dollar was equal to 47 Syrian pounds. Last week, one US dollar was equal to 3200 Syrian pounds, seeing a huge hike in its losses of the value of the country’s currency,” Erkmen said.

 As a result, some experts believe the protests could be motivated mainly by economic distress rather than political distrust, while anti-Assad opposition is smouldering in rage across the country.

 “This could bring him down in the most simple language,” Erkmen says.

 He sees the fall of Assad possible not only due to the protests but also due to the reemergence of several crucial dynamics of the Syrian conflict.

 First of all, some clear political infighting has recently become noticeable, Erkmen says, referring to Assad’s decision to confiscate the assets of Rami Makhlouf, his oligarch cousin. Makhlouf is Syria's richest man. He reportedly owns more than half of the country’s wealth.

 The Baath Party in Syria has been stained by internal strife between different power holders or political clans ever since it began ruling the country. These rivalries sometimes morphed into full-blown clashes mainly between Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez al-Assad and his uncle Rifaat Ali al-Assad.

 “Hafez’s victory over Rifaat was not ensured because the family supported Hafez over Rifaat, who was militarily and economically more powerful than Hafez. It happened thanks to Hafez’s power coalition inside the Baath party,” Erkmen observed.

 Erkmen thinks that similar political dogfighting is now going on in Syria with Assad’s taking over Makhlouf’s assets. While both Assad and Makhlouf are part of the Alawite religious sect, which is considered to have secure connections with Shiism, their political base might not be just related to the minority sect, according to Erkmen.

 “In this sense, we can find similarities between the past (referring to the fight between the two brothers) and the current, referring to the struggle between Assad and Makhlouf,” Erkmen suggested.

 According to the political analyst, it could be an inadequate assessment if the current infighting should be understood in the context of a struggle between Bashar al Assad and other family members.

 “It has to be understood in the context of a broader political and economic power fight between Syria’s different political groups,” Erkmen says.

 Erkmen thinks that Assad, whose wife Asma is coming from a prominent Syrian Sunni family, is currently not only “liquidating” Mahklouf but also other political and military figures including the fired prime minister, who might support the powerful cousin.

 Some crucial generals have also been changed with others, Erkmen says.

 “Right after a crucial operation in Idlib, changing generals, who occupy critical positions in the army, does not appear to be logical as long as some serious issues do not exist inside the régime,” Erkmen analyses.

 Moscow, Iran and the Gulf's economically vibrant capitals might matter most for the survival of the Assad régime, according to Erkmen.

 Throughout the destructive Syrian civil war, Russia invested heavily in the Assad régime to reassert itself across the Middle East, lending its military might in the service of Damascus to defeat the once-powerful opposition forces.

 But, while the régime has taken much of the country back, Bashar al-Assad does not seem to be ready to heed Russia’s advice to compromise with his enemies and lay out the country’s future, escalating tensions between Moscow and Damascus.

 Erkmen still thinks that after so much investment to the Assad régime, Moscow will not allow Damascus to fall apart. But despite Assad’s dislike, Russians also want to satisfy some American demands in Syria, Erkmen says.

 Iran, a Shiite-majority country, which has heavily supported the régime with its Shiite militias and other military means, might not do much because of its existing economic and pandemic-related difficulties, according to Erkmen.

 “The flowing of the Gulf’s wealth could be the most important factor for Assad’s future. If Assad does not receive covert financial support from the countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, he might not dodge the current economic crisis,” Erkmen said.

 But that support might also depend on the approval of Washington.

 If the economic crisis worsens, the two political scenarios might emerge, says Erkmen.

 Assad might force his chances to beat opposition forces in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, to rally the population under his banner, Erkmen says.

 “Or, the protests could further expand across the country. If fresh protests hit the country, things could irreversibly change in Syria,” the political analyst views.

 “If the Syrian régime again chooses to violently suppress a possible new wave of protests, refusing to learn any lessons from the past, I do not think that Assad could survive this time,“ the analyst concluded.'


Friday, 12 June 2020

The failure of the Syrian economy goes beyond the imminent Caesar Act

A merchant counts Syrian pound notes, bearing a portrait of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at the Bzourieh market in the centre of the Syrian capital Damascus on 11 September 2019. [LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images]

 'The Syrian economy is in freefall. At the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, $1 was equivalent to approximately 50 Syrian Pounds. Today, it is equivalent to around 3,000 Syrian Pounds, a 600-fold increase over the past nine years. A state employee in Syria was paid what was equivalent to around $200 per month in March 2011 but that is now worth approximately $15-$20 a month. This is barely enough to cover basic groceries, and the collapse of the economy has been even more severe over the past 6 months with the Syrian Pound clearly weakened to the extent that salaries have become worthless.

 The collapse of the economy under Bashar Al-Assad is due to a number of reasons, not least because the régime has transformed itself into a war economy, with the killing machine massacring its own people and using money meant for humanitarian aid to do so. According to Foreign Affairs, most of the $30 billion in UN-led humanitarian aid to Syria has been used by the régime to skirt sanctions and subsidise its war effort.

 The régime is infamous for its deep-rooted corruption and cronyism led by the Assad family’s money man, Rami Makhlouf, who controlled a huge slice of the Syrian economy and essentially had a veto on any proposed business enterprises. Moreover, the threat and intimidation of the notorious Mukhabarat — secret police — led to a brain drain and the flight of working age young people as well as the emigration of wealthy business people and potential investors.

 More recently, the Lebanese banking crisis has had an impact on Syria, as many Syrian businesses use Lebanese banks as a safe haven for their funds, and some businesses attached to the régime use it for money laundering. The economic problems faced by Iran, the main financial supporter of the Syrian régime, have increased recently as the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the effect of sanctions.

 The Syrian régime has been guided by corruption and poor economic decision-making, and has stopped the currency exchangers from operating and threatened their workers with imprisonment. Millions of dollars in remittances from expatriates to support their families in Syria have thus been lost to the economy. Local businesses have suffered as they can no longer import materials for pharmaceuticals, textiles and other industries vital to the Syrian economy. Iran and Russia have demanded repayment of their war loans because of their own financial crises. Ordinary Syrian citizens now have to pay grossly-inflated prices for locally produced food items, which shouldn’t be affected so badly by the exchange rate of the US Dollar.

 Even before the implementation of America’s Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act which will come into force next week introducing sanctions against the régime for alleged war crimes, over $500 billion is needed to rebuild the country. Unfortunately for the Assad régime, Russia is no longer able to act as its main financial patron and rebuild the country singlehandedly.

 The Caesar Act demands the régime to stop bombarding civilians and put an end to siege warfare and using starvation as a weapon. It also demands the release of all political detainees and for humanitarian aid to be distributed freely with no restrictions, while allowing all refugees to return safely to their homes with no threat of repercussions. Moreover, the Act stipulates that war criminals should be held accountable and that Iranian militias should be made to leave Syria, making clear that human rights organisations should have the unrestricted rights to visit Syrian prisons. It ultimately states that Geneva Resolution 2254, which references the transitional political process, has to be implemented.

 Fundamentally, the Caesar Act — named after Caesar, a former Syrian military photographer who fled at great personal risk in 2014 with 55,000 images proving the cruelty and brutality of Assad’s prisons — is not aimed at disadvantaging civilians in Syria. Its aims are the exact opposite, as it wants to prevent any country, non-state actor or company from financing or supporting the current régime in Damascus.

 As a former Soviet intelligence agent who witnessed the dramatic collapse of the USSR, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has always dreamed of restoring Russia to its so called former glory and would like to set the stage for a new Yalta, in imitation of his Soviet, American and British predecessors who planned a new world order after the Second World War. The US, however, does not consider Russia to be its equal as a superpower in the way that President Franklin D Roosevelt viewed Premier Joseph Stalin. Nevertheless, even with its current indifference, the Syrian issue cannot be resolved without the US. The fact that Washington has pushed through the Caesar Act implies that its involvement is essential.

 Russia has staked a larger slice of the Syrian pie, and due to the lack of payment from the Syrian régime, Moscow has started to take control of its ports (the port of Tartus, for example, has been taken on lease for 49 years) as well as its businesses as a form of repayment. Both Syriatel and SyrianAir are rumoured to be part of this.

 Even without the implementation of the Caesar Act, the Assad régime is on the brink of economic collapse. Once the act is implemented, though, it is likely that the entire system will come crashing down. Assad cannot control his own economy. In recent days, protests have been erupting in areas of Syria, such as Suweida, which in nine years of conflict have never criticised the régime.

 The Syrian people yearn for their freedom from Assad’s tyranny. They may not have much longer to wait. Despite the lack of military intervention and the belated Caesar Act, it is starting to look as if the régime will finally crumble under the weight of its own deadly incompetence.'

Syrian woman holds a hen at a camp hosting Syrian families, who have been forced to displace due to the attacks carried out by Assad regime and Russia, in Idlib, Syria on 10 January 2020. [Esra Hacioğlu - Anadolu Agency]

Monday, 8 June 2020

 'An anti-Assad demonstration took place yesterday evening Sunday in the town of Zakia in the western countryside of Damascus, as a result of the deteriorating living conditions, after similar demonstrations in Daraa and Suwaida.

 The demonstrators expressed their protest against the living conditions and the deteriorating economic situation, and demanded the overthrow of the Assad régime and the exit of Russia and Iran from the country, local sources said .

 Dozens of civilians demonstrated yesterday for the same reason in the city of "Tafas" in the western countryside of Daraa, and chanted slogans calling for the fall of the régime.

 Dozens of Suwaida residents [pictured above] demonstrated this morning, wandering the streets of the city, demanding the fall of the régime and the departure of Bashar Al-Assad, against the background of corruption and causing the country's economy to deteriorate and the standard of living to decline.

 Reference is made to the poor living conditions of Syrians in the areas seized by the Assad régime, due to the low income and the devaluation of the Syrian currency; what caused a significant increase in prices, and the Syrian pound today touched 3,000 against the US dollar.'

Anti-Assad regime Demonstrations reach Damascus countryside

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Assad versus Makhlouf

 'The open rift between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf, who with his dubious business interests controls a considerable segment of the Syrian economy, gives some idea of the seriousness of the crisis currently facing the Syrian régime. And it also demonstrates the magnitude of government corruption.

 The signs of disintegration that have long since been evident in the military and security apparatus, as well as in the country's economic life are now beginning to show in the all-powerful ruling clan as well. Against the backdrop of the military and political presence of Russia and Iran and growing criticism of Assad's actions by the Russian media over the past few weeks, a few surprises are still to be expected.

 A power struggle amongst mafia-like players for economic resources and political supremacy, plus a reckoning for the enormous number of victims amongst the Syrian population since 2011 are some of the factors that will define how things play out.

 To begin, though, we have to ask how Syria got itself into this dismal situation in the first place. So let's take a look back. The revolution of 2011 only became radicalised when the Assad régime decided to embark on a strategy of repression and military force to suppress a rebellion that had started out peacefully.

 There can be no doubt that the military response to the uprisings and the resulting elimination of the civil and popular character of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and 2012 was what led the Syrian Free Army to splinter into many different militias.

 And yet the régime preferred to embrace a scorched earth policy rather than curtailing Syrian presidential powers, or even implementing a minimum of political reforms to ensure social participation and the accountability of those in office.

 This may not be anything unusual for dictatorships. But it makes a huge difference whether a régime comes to the realisation that all signs are pointing toward radical change (as in some other Arab countries, where a new president at least took office), or whether it holds fast to its leader until its dying breath, without caring in the least what price there is to pay.

 In the hope of circumventing a political solution and reforms, the Syrian régime first enlisted the help of the Hezbollah from Lebanon and then called in Iranian government militias.

 When these steps failed to give the régime the necessary clout to regain the upper hand against the insurgents, it appealed to Russia with its fighter planes and military bases. In September 2015, Russia thus arrived on the scene and put all its weight into crushing the revolution, at a time when the insurgents were just on the verge of tipping the scales against the régime.

 The cumulative result of all these developments was millions of displaced persons and hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed. The régime increasingly put itself in the hands of Iran and Russia. In the meantime, Turkey to the north had become another player in the Syrian game.

 The fanatical policy pursued by the Syrian régime with the aim of maintaining total power has ended up robbing the President and his government of every last shred of credibility and sovereignty. The bloody treatment chosen by Bashar al-Assad to treat the revolution that began in 2011 has proven a hundred times worse than insurgents and activists could ever have imagined in their talks at the beginning of the uprisings.

 One of the products of the violent suppression of the revolution and the ensuing chaos has been the terrorist organisation "Islamic State". ISIS would never have been able to take advantage of the turmoil had Assad's government made any attempt at the outset to reach a political understanding with the insurgents. The régime completely misjudged the events and the deep-seated anger among the Syrian population. It was a misstep that would culminate in serious crimes against humanity.

 The monstrous scale of the murder and destruction perpetrated against the Syrian people since then has prompted numerous efforts to initiate criminal proceedings against the régime. In Germany, for example, litigation began a few weeks ago against members of the Syrian secret service who are alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity on behalf of the government.

 Victims finally have an opportunity to testify as witnesses against their tormentors, who are accused of torture, murder and the execution of prisoners. The indictment makes it clear that such acts were part of a systematic policy against activists and non-violent freedom fighters. The courts will also seek to prosecute those who ordered the executions, murders, torture and kidnappings.

 There is also the prospect that the trials and indictments will lead to further legal action. European countries including the Netherlands have for example begun to process tens of thousands of cases of missing persons who disappeared in the régime's prisons. The régime will not succeed forever in hiding from millions of Syrians around the world.
The revolution broke out at a time when the Syrian people had had enough of the régime's repressive approach, its disregard for the dignity and freedom of its citizens, and its lacklustre economic and security policies. Having sold off the country's resources to a small and influential elite, the government managed to degrade Syria's economic standing to place it near the bottom of the international league table.

 While the régime had still shared its financial resources with various sectors of society under former President Hafiz al-Assad, when his son Bashar al-Assad took office everything changed. Corruption and special interests came to the fore, to the increasing detriment of the lower and middle classes. In 2011 the people of Syria, like those of other Arab countries, rose up to demand a decent living standard and a minimum of social justice.

 All the while, the régime failed to realise that its repressive measures and the war it had launched against certain parts of Syrian society would end up contributing to the downfall of the old political system. Or that its propaganda claim that it would emerge victorious from that war was but a figment of its imagination.

 For how can a country speak of victory while driving out its own people, destroying its own economy, its villages and cities, and killing hundreds of thousands of its native daughters and sons?

 After the massacre of Hama in 1982, the régime still managed to bridge the country's divides. But what has happened in the years since 2011 has taken on a whole new dimension. All of Syria has become one colossal crime against humanity.

 The régime's ability to achieve reconciliation with its people and within the ruling elite has diminished under the presidency of Bashar al-Assad. Since the beginning of the uprising, the president has utterly squandered his moral and political capital.

 The fact that world and regional powers will now determine the fate of Syria is without doubt the natural consequence of the destruction of the country and its social structures by its own government and security apparatus.

 The coming events are still likely to throw up a few surprises. For Syria, the revolution of 2011 was the beginning of a new history. And thus, the ability of the Syrians to regain their honour will also be put to the test in the months and years to come.'

Friday, 22 May 2020

Assad regime threatens thousands of lives in Syria's Daraa, opposition says

Syrian children are seen play amidst the rubble of damaged buildings in Deraa, July 15, 2017. (Reuters)

 'The Syrian opposition expressed concern over the Syrian régime elements' escalation in the southern province of Daraa on Thursday, warning that the civilians in the region could face a "massacre."

 Abdurrahman Mustafa, head of the Syrian Interim Government, said despite being under régime control since 2018, the locals in Daraa continue to resist Bashar Assad rule and its supporters.

 "In order to oppress the rising opposing voices, the régime and its militia are deploying troops to Daraa," Mustafa said.

 Criticizing the régime's policy of intimidation against the civilians, Mustafa warned that the deployment of the military to the region would mean even greater risks for the locals.

 "We are concerned that the bloody-minded Syrian régime which has committed war crimes in Syria will cause a massacre in Daraa," Mustafa underlined.

 "Our people, who are against régime forces entering the region and kidnapping children, do not want to be under régime rule again. Our revolution will continue. The future belongs to our people," he said, emphasizing that Assad's rule is doomed to fail.

 He also called on the international community to take action against the régime's actions in southern Syria.

 "We need immediate precautions," he said.

 Back in 2011, upon the flow of the Arab Spring's spreading to Syria, a group of students in Daraa began the Syrian opposition movement by writing "Ejak el door ya Doctor," meaning "Your turn, doctor," on a school wall.

 After this initial move, Daraa was taken under opposition forces' control.

 However, in 2018, when Daraa was under heavy attack and blockade of régime forces, Russia became a mediator between the opposition and the régime. As a result of Russian mediation, the ones who wanted to stay in the region agreed to lay down their arms, while the groups that refused to reconcile were forced to migrate to the northern parts of the country.

 Currently, opposition groups who chose to stay continue their fight with light arms in regions that régime forces infiltrated.

 In accordance with the 2018 deal, public buildings display régime flags and have one régime security guard each.

 Although Assad régime forces claim that Daraa is completely under their control, in reality, there are constant attack attempts by unknown perpetrators. In these attacks, many régime figures, including high-ranking military officials, have been killed.

 Civilians in the region, on the other hand, warn régime forces to respect the boundaries of the deal while often staging protests for the release of the prisoners.'

Three former Syrian rebels killed in Daraa province | SYRIA NEWS ...