Friday, 24 May 2019

Syrian doctor describes latest alleged chemical attack as US mulls response

Alleged chemical attack victim in Syria on Sunday

 'Just after 9 a.m Sunday, witnesses on the ground in the remote Syrian countryside near the border of Idlib province claimed they saw more than 40 rockets slash through the sky, along with three different-looking shells that landed in a thud of yellowish smoke. These were described as large cylinders that did not explode, yet produced a strong chemical smell.

 “On May 19, we received information about an attack using toxic gases in a fight between the Syrian military and ‘revolutionary’ military. I was informed to be ready. Four people came with red eyes, struggling to breathe, headaches,” Idlib-based Dr. Ahmad, who claims to have treated the wounded, said on Thursday. “We took off their clothes, put them in water, and gave them oxygen. They smelled of chlorine.”

 Doctors who supervised the treatment process recorded that the patients endured an array of other symptoms from severe coughing and watery eyes to wheezing and vomiting. The four alleged victims are said to be males under the age of 30. They were kept under observation most of the day, Dr. Ahmad claimed, and were discharged later that evening in a “generally good condition" around 9 hours after they were admitted.

 “We immediately got our emergency staff – who are trained for chemical weapon attack – ready for any inquiry or support,” concurred Nidal Shikhani, External Relations Manager at the Chemical Violations Documentation Centre of Syria (CVDCS), which has worked closely with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to document alleged chemical weapons use. “We were informed that there were four affected victims by chemical weapons toxic gas. They all received emergency treatment.”


 Images of the victims were provided to Fox News by CVDCS under the condition that faces and hospital logos were not shown. Medical centers have routinely come under attack throughout Syria's protracted civil war.

 A specialized team is said to have collected blood, urine, saliva and clothing samples from the injured to be tested, with the hope of starting a thorough investigation by OPCW.

 “We fear this will happen again and again,” Dr. Ahmad said. “They gave a green light to attack.”



News that the government of Bashar al-Assad may have used internationally banned substances once again has prompted a harsh, if confusing, response from the United States.

 “We continue to see signs that the Assad regime may be renewing its use of chemical weapons,” said U.S State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, cautioning that if the alleged actions by the Damascus government are proven, "the United States and (its) allies will respond quickly and appropriately."

 Later, the State Department’s leading diplomat for Syria, James Jeffrey, backtracked somewhat and told reporters that officials were “watching it closely” but could not yet confirm that the alleged attack had occurred.

 The U.S. has twice launched airstrikes in the past against Syrian military installations after verifying that chemical weapons were used against civilians.


 According to the most recent “credibly substantiated” data gleaned by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI), chemical weapons have been used at least 336 times since the war started in early 2011. The Assad regime stands accused of using the banned substances 98 percent of the time, while ISIS is documented as having carried out the remainder of all chemical bombardments on Syrian civilians.

 “Assad is once again testing President Trump, first by attacking Idlib despite the President’s clear warning, and now by using chemical weapons – violating the President’s bright red line,” said Jameson Cunningham, policy and public affairs strategist for Americans for a Free Syria. “President Trump has responded twice, and we urge him to take swift military action again to protect civilians and deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons.”


 Idlib remains the last major bastion of the war-embattled country that remains under the control of forces opposed to the Damascus regime. Ground fighting and bombing sharply escalated in the area earlier this month after a seven-month ceasefire agreement seemed to wither, with many fearing it will amount to an all-out assault by Assad's forces that could prove the deadliest battle in the war to date.

 Meanwhile, many in Washington have resumed their push to further punish the Assad government for its long-documented war crimes. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a bill which holds the Syrian leader and its Russian and Iranian allies accountable for the crimes and hampers their ability to fund further human rights abuses.

 The law is named after a Syrian who, under the pseudonym Caesar, took grave risks earlier in the war to smuggle out more than 50,000 images of civilians who were barbarically tortured and murdered in government prisons.

 The Caesar Act provisions include sanctions on anyone aiding Damascus in executing its barbarities, including construction sectors in the war-torn nation until Assad completely halts all attacks on civilians.

 “We have taken high risk for our lives and the lives of our families when we left Syria at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. We had great hope that the world that claims freedom and humanity would put an end to the bloodshed in Syria and work to stop the killing and torture inside the Syrian prisons,” “Caesar” – who remains in-hiding – said this week. “Especially that we have all the evidence and evidence that condemns the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad by committing the worst types of torture and systematic killing against the Syrian people inside the basements of the Syrian prisons and intelligence.”

 The whistleblower stressed the importance of his namesake legislation being put into full-force by Washington.

 “Caesar's law is a powerful message that justice will be handed to Bashar al-Assad and his oppressive regime." '

Medicines for those alleged to have been attacked by chemical weapons in Syria on Sunday (Provided CVDCS) 

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The Syrian régime’s slogan ‘Assad or we burn the country’ must not become reality

A civil defence member carries an injured girl following air strikes which hit Idlib, Syria 2 June 2016 [REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi]

 'The bombardment of Idlib by Syrian régime forces over the past few weeks has been relentless; the long anticipated offensive on the city in northern Syria has arrived with devastating results. A massacre of gargantuan proportions awaits as air strikes hit homes, schools and hospitals. More than 120 civilians in Idlib have been killed by Russian and Syrian régime air strikes over the first two weeks of the bombardment, and more than 180,000 have been newly displaced as they flee from barrel bombs.

 Idlib is currently a refugee centre within Syria; it has absorbed most of the internally displaced persons and provided them with new homes, with nearly 4 million Syrian citizens living there. People who have had their lives torn apart and have had to escape bombardment and bloodshed are already anticipating further violence, with some preparing to flee for the second or even third time in just a few short years.

 According to British surgeon David Nott who has visited northern Syria on multiple occasions for humanitarian reasons, 12 hospitals were destroyed in the first 10 days of May and there is considerable evidence that the Assad régime is engaged in the systematic targeting of hospitals and healthcare centres to terrorise and punish civilians who have fled areas controlled by Damascus. The destruction of any form of healthcare and emergency services is clearly the goal of the régime. Civilians who have “deserted the régime” can die of their injuries is Assad’s apparent rationale. The irony is lost on no one that Assad himself was once a doctor but is now more akin to a butcher, destroying hospitals as opposed to saving the people within them.



 The potential taking of Idlib would signify the régime’s re-conquest of the Western Syrian corridor and demonstrate Assad’s so called “victory”. This is a farcical, pyrrhic victory when the Assad régime currently just controls a “rump state” which is both smaller and weaker than the pre-uprising Syria and has in a way given up sovereignty to both Russia and Iran.

 Large swathes of Syria remain uninhabited with some areas in ruins and resembling ghost towns. The régime doesn’t even bother to repair the damage caused or rebuild the areas; it leaves them – for now at least – as the horrific, visible consequence of going against Damascus, and acting as a deterrent for anyone else. The slogan “Assad or we burn the country” which was scrawled in graffiti in many places by the loyalist Shabiha (state sponsored militias) during the early days of the uprising unfortunately rings true. Parts of Syria with revolutionary zeal have been obliterated with no immediate plans for rebuilding. This arrogant belief of Assad has led to untold horrors and the ruin of a nation yet he is still somehow viewed as the legitimate ruler of the country who unfortunately still enjoys the privileges of UN membership.



 A political resolution is impossible while the perpetrator and the root of the problem – Bashar Al-Assad – remains in power. The paralysis of the UN Security Council is nothing new. As long as Russia sees fit to back Assad then he is granted political and legal cover at an international level proving that international law has a long way to go before it is able to hold rogue régimes to account. Even former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that the Security Council has failed Syria. It is difficult to foresee Russia not using its veto to block any attempt to refer the Syrian régime to the International Criminal Court but recent developments in the case of Myanmar and the Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh offer a potential legal path to charge the Syrian régime with crimes against humanity.

 Idlib is holding out for now, but when considering the current onslaught by a régime that has been proven to use chemical weapons — and a report suggested that Assad used chemical weapons in northern Latakia as recently as last weekend — the worst is to be feared. If this slaughter goes on in Idlib, it will be a huge humanitarian disaster. The effects won’t be limited to the four million civilians in the city; it will lead to consequences as far away as Europe, with another wave of refugees potentially heading across the Mediterranean.

 The city of Idlib must not be allowed to fall to Assad, and every effort must be made to ensure that he and his régime are held accountable for the crimes committed against the Syrian people. We may one day view Idlib as a flashpoint within the Syrian conflict; it is imperative that history does not repeat itself as it has so many times within this eight-year conflict. The binary choice between Assad and burning the country must not be allowed to become an enduring reality.'

Graffiti Slogan saying 'Assad or we burn the country' in DamascusGraffiti in saying 'Assad or we burn the country' in Damascus, SyriaGraffiti in saying 'Assad or we burn the country' in Damascus, Syria

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Assad militiamen use chlorine gas in Latakia countryside



 'Assad militiamen used chlorine gas bombs in shelling the anti-regime factions in Latakia northern countryside on Sunday (May 19).

The Assad militiamen used the chlorine gas shells in the Kabina Hill in the Akrad Mountain in Latakia northern countryside after they failed to make any progress on the front, according to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's news agency (Ibaa).

The opposition defected brigadier, Ahmad al Rahal, confirmed the incident. "The Assad regime used chemical weapons (chlorine gas) in the village of Kabina on the coast front," he wrote on his Facebook page.


 The Acting US Ambassador to the United Nations Jonathan Cohen warned the Assad régime against using the chemical weapons during the Security Council session on Friday, adding that Russia and the Assad régime were responsible for the attacks on health centers. He said it was "most alarming" that several of the centres attacked were on a list created by Russia and the United Nations in an attempt to protect them.'



"

Results of failed SAA attempts to capture KbanaSAA losses: 85+ wounded soldiers 58+ KIA 1 BMP destroyed 1 UAV destroyed"

[https://twitter.com/MansurMuwahhid/status/1130141752587935744]

Image

Friday, 17 May 2019

Amina’s three brothers



 "My name is Amina Khoulani. This is not the first time that I sit down and tell people my story, and the story of my three brothers. Tens of news channels, newspapers, events, have been talking to me about the story of my brothers, from 2011 when they were first detained to this time.
 The difference is that in the past I used to talk about them full of hope that I was going to meet them some time again, that they would be released from their prison and I would see their faces, but this is the first time that I will talk about them since I got the news that they were killed under torture.

 It’s very difficult for me to sit down and tell this story.

 When I first received the news, I made a decision that I am not going to tell anyone. I will never attend any event, and I am not going to tell anyone about the story of my brothers.

 We started to lose hope, we Syrians, after we had been telling the story of ourselves a hundred times to everyone, but no-one had listened to our pain, and no-one understood what the pain meant to us.

 Later on I decided that no. I have to tell everyone of their story. I feel very proud of them because they were the first ones who drew the big dream and the big vision of Syria for everyone. And they had a dream like any of you British people, the same as anyone in a country that takes care of human rights.

 I took the decision to tell the story of my brothers and all other young men who sacrificed themselves for the big dream, the big vision of Syria, and democracy and freedom, because they deserve that. They deserve their stories to be told and their remarkable work to be remembered.

 And I will never stop talking about their stories and telling people about how brave and how great they used to be, because it might not be my turn, not in my lifetime, to see accountability and justice prevailing, but maybe the next generation are going to see it prevail. We have to tell the whole world about the crimes of the Assad regime, and the atrocities they committed.



 The first one I’m going to tell you is the story of Majd, the youngest brother of mine, the one that we call in Syria the last piece and the vine of the grapes.

 He was studying law at Damascus University, in his second year. Majd took the decision to go to the streets at the very beginning of the Syrian revolution, and he was a peaceful activist who demonstrated for a free democratic Syria for everyone, a Syria that respects the citizenship of all citizens there.

 The last thing that Majd wrote on his Facebook page was that all the blood of every single Syrian is prohibited from being scattered, including the members of the army and the security forces—the same security forces who took the decision to detain him and torture him to death.

 Majd and his colleagues, they were the ones who initiated distributing flowers and water bottles to the security members and soldiers during demonstrations. Because they wanted to deliver a great message to them, that ‘You and I are one, so why are you killing me?’ And they wanted to tell them, ‘We are peaceful demonstrators, we don’t want any bloodshed.’ And they went to them, to hand them the flowers and the water bottles. On a bottle of water they put the Syrian flag—now we use the revolution flag—and on the other side of the flag they’d write: ‘You and I are Syrians; we are the same, so why do you have to kill me?’ And despite that they were shot by the soldiers. And that day his colleagues were shot and he was detained.

 If Majd was with us today, he could have been a lawyer and working on human rights, or he could have been a footballer, because he was a fine footballer. He used to love friends so much, and this was what was really remarkable about him.

 During all the demonstrations he attended, he used to wear this red t-shirt, and when he was arrested he was wearing that red t-shirt.



 My eldest brother, Abdulsatar, he used to go to demonstrations and participate in them. He was married with two kids. He was almost newly married.

 The Air Force Intelligence, they arrested Abdulsatar, and we didn’t know any piece of news about him. That was the first time where we contacted Amnesty. Amnesty was the first organisation that acted in aid of my brothers after they were detained. But it didn’t work. The regime never replied to any appeals. We did not receive any piece of information about them. And we kept living sometimes in hope and other times in despair until we got the chance to visit them in December 2012 in Sednaya Prison.

 Of course it was an awful shock because we had bribed the officers in the regime to allow us to go to Sednaya Prison, we paid a lot, and we went through all the regime officers, and they allowed us to go see them behind three layers of barriers between us and them. We were only there ten minutes. We agreed to only see them for ten minutes at that time.

 I don’t know why the regime kept chasing my family. In November 2012 we were forcibly evicted out of my hometown Daraya, and we moved to live in Mazzeh, which is close by. But because we hold the ID of being from Daraya, and we are of the Khoulani family which is a family that participated in the revolution, this meant that we were cursed as a family, and the intelligence forces they broke into the house that we rented in Mazzeh and they arrested my other two brothers, Bilal and Mouhamed, though they had never participated in demonstrations.

 After six months, and after paying loads and loads of money to regime officers to gain any piece of news about my two brothers, we learned that they were taken by Branch 215, and because we paid loads of money they released just one out of two: Bilal.



 Fortunately he escaped to Lebanon, and from Lebanon he got resettled in Ireland, and he is recovering, thank God. He became kind of himself again. He survived. But to this day he shows the presence of torture. He still suffers from the torture.

 When Bilal was first released it was a great happiness for the family, but at the same time it was a disaster, because when Bilal was released from prison he told us that he witnessed with his own eyes that my brother Mouhamed was killed under torture. And he was killed in the detention centre of Branch 215. But we refused to believe. We thought at that time that Bilal, when he was released from the prison, was mentally unstable, and maybe he was hallucinating, maybe he had seen things that had never happened. So we kept that piece of news to ourselves, myself and my other siblings, and we refused to let my mum and dad know about it.

 Mouhamed, when he was detained, literally we wept. His wife was pregnant with his first child, so we didn’t let her know because she was still pregnant, and we thought that piece of news is not true.

 We kept that piece of news a secret until the images of Caesar were leaked, and the first image that we were seeing was the image of my brother Mouhamed. It was horrible. But we still hold to the memories of his previous features.



 I shall remember him as he was before he was detained.

 When my family went to the regime and they asked about the reason why Mouhamed is dead, they received a note that his heart had stopped. He had heart failure. My brother was 24 years old. He was very young and healthy—how come he died of heart failure?

 In 2013, the regime arrested me and my husband at the same time, same minute. We were taken in the same car to detention centres. That was a blow to my family as well, where they lost almost every kid in detention centres for six months, and my husband remained for two years, but we were both released. Everything that happened has never stopped me from speaking up for my brothers and for every detainee.

 Me and a group of colleagues that I’m really proud of co-founded a group called Families for Freedom in 2016 in Geneva.

 If no-one is going to talk about detainees, we are the families of the detainees, and we have to speak up for them. Maybe somebody is going to hear the story, they are going to hear our voice calling for them, and that was the reason for establishing Families for Freedom.



 In 2018, cold-bloodedly, the regime started to release lists of young men and women killed under torture in the detention centres. And that release was very rude where they sent the lists to the civil registry and there they registered them as dead, as simple as that.

 My home town Daraya itself, it received a list of a thousand young men who were killed under torture. Me and my family, we were very reluctant to go and search in the civil registry lists for my brothers, Majd and Abdulsatar, because we wanted to live in the hope that we were going to meet them one day. But later on we found out that no, we won’t then have a closure for that. We have to know their destiny.

 Because no-one of my family is in Syria, no-one was able to get papers from the civil registry, and that was why we appointed a lawyer to take that mission. And we found that my two brothers were both sentenced to death, same day, same minute, 15 January 2013. And this is the piece of paper I received showing that we lost them.

 I myself was a detainee. And I experienced how to be a wife of a detainee when my husband was detained in Sednaya Prison. I also experienced how to be the sister of a detainee. I experienced how to be a human rights defender, to defend the rights of the disappeared, and I experienced speaking up for them and their release.

 What I feel proud of despite everything that I mentioned is that even when I lost my brothers, even when I was in a single cell in the detention centre, even when they threatened to rape me, they threatened to kill my children when I was in prison, threatened to kill my husband, I never lost faith in this revolution.

 I never lost faith in how just this revolution is. Despite that I might never see the results of this revolution with my own eyes, but maybe one day my grandchildren will feel very proud of me. I will never be silent.

 Even if the whole universe is not going to listen to me, I will keep speaking up. And I will keep being proud of this revolution, this just revolution, even if I am the only one remaining in the opposition, because this revolution deserves to exist, to succeed, and one day we might invite you to Syria, and we will all sit together there, and we will talk freely about these things."

What one activist's death tells us about war crimes in Syria



 Paul Wood:

 'The Assad régime has disclosed that an opposition activist known as Jeddo had died in prison. He was from a suburb of Homs called Baba Amr, which was one of the first parts of the country to fall under rebel control, the ‘cradle of the revolution’. Every foreign journalist who went there knew him. Before the revolution, he’d had a shop selling vegetables. When street protests started, he picked up a video camera and became a ‘citizen journalist’. His real name was Ali Othman, but a few premature lines on his weathered face had earned him the nickname Jeddo, or Al Jed, ‘the grand-father’. He had jug ears, a ready, gap-toothed smile, and absolutely no fear of death.

 In February 2012, the régime began a relentless artillery attack on Baba Amr. Al Jed took us out in his little Suzuki jeep to have a look. The air was filled with a terrible sound of booms and crashes — the government shells — and a constant crackle of rifle fire — the rebels, using almost the only weapons they had. Jeddo rolled his jeep to a gentle stop in the centre of a crossroads to point out a smoking hole in the wall of a mosque. That’s very interesting, I told him, trying not to flinch with each crash, but perhaps we ought to move? No, no, he said, unconcerned, we’re fine. This went back and forth for an agonisingly long minute, my voice increasingly strained; Jeddo was relaxed, just out for a Sunday drive. Finally, he did a three-point turn of infinite slowness and drove away. Another shell landed, covering the place we’d stopped in a furiously billowing black cloud.

 It seemed as if he had gone a little mad because of the constant danger. I think now that it was something else: an unshakeable determination not to go back to the old days, to do anything to defeat the régime. Remembering him this week, a friend said that Jeddo had been wealthy by his neighbours’ standards (small shop, jeep); he hadn’t joined the uprising to enrich himself. "He wanted only freedom." Many of the activists in Baba Amr believed the rebels should make a stand there, whatever the cost. They knew the régime would win the battle but they thought that a massacre — filmed by citizen journalists such as Jeddo — would force the US and Europe to step in. Baba Amr would be sacrificed for the revolution. Jeddo was furious when the rebels fled, calling them cowards and dogs. ‘They are chit-chatting in Qusayr [a town miles away], watching while Baba Amr is destroyed and their women are violated.’


 He told me that when we got through to his mobile as Baba Amr fell in March 2012. He had dug a hole in his garden, ready to hide when the Syrian army kicked in the door. In fact, he managed to sneak out of Baba Amr, almost the last to leave. But he was caught a month later in a small town outside Aleppo. The story is that a female activist sent him a text telling him to come to collect some video equipment. She had been turned by the secret police, or they had her phone. A month after that, Jeddo appeared in a TV ‘interview’ from his jail cell, shown by a channel that supported the government. Nothing more was heard of him until last month, when the authorities in Homs told his family that he had died. They were given a document saying this had happened on 30 December 2013. The régime had kept them waiting — in hope and dread — for more than five years.

 This official document does not say how he died, though if the family ever get a death certificate it would probably have some innocuous term like ‘cardiac arrest’ or ‘respiratory failure’. That is usually the case with victims of the Syrian prison system. Jeddo’s friends say his broken appearance in the TV interview was evidence that he had been tortured. They could not imagine him doing the interview at all unless forced to. The Syrian Network for Human Rights says that almost 14,000 people have been tortured to death in Syrian prisons. Jeddo’s family and friends assume this is what happened to him. A fellow activist told me he didn’t want to believe it but said: ‘He’s better off dead.’

 The activists know all too well what happens in Syrian prisons. One survivor told the press this week about a guard who called himself Hitler and who made prisoners get down on all fours and bark like dogs or bray like donkeys. Prisoners were stripped naked and beaten, hung from wires, soaked with cold water, starved and forced to fight one other, even to kill other inmates. A report from the UN Human Rights Council quotes a man who was held in the Damascus Political Security Branch. ‘The officer took two girls, held their faces down on the desk, and raped them in turn. [He] told me, “You see what I am doing? I will do this to your wife and daughter.”’ Sexual violence is common. I once interviewed a government militiaman captured by the rebels who said — with no trace of emotion — that his job had been to rape women arrested at anti-government demonstrations. All these stories speak of systematic torture. It is policy. No one in Syria believes otherwise, whatever the régime’s public protestations.


 A body called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability — funded by several western governments — has been investigating Assad’s culpability. They are not trying to prove he is guilty of this or that specific war crime, but that he runs a system where such crimes are routine, so-called command responsibility. They have collected some 800,000 documents — the Syrian régime is meticulous in its bureaucracy, everything written down. The organisation’s spokesperson, Nerma Jelacic, told me the evidence against Assad was ‘very strong’. The idea was to have a case ready to go immediately if Assad were arrested.

 Assad knows enough not to travel to any western countries. Russia will use its veto in the UN Security Council to stop the creation of a Syrian tribunal at the Hague. But some argue that the UN General Assembly could vote for the tribunal by a two-thirds majority. And Assad might be toppled, not by the rebels but as a result of the régime’s vicious internal politics. President Milosevic of Serbia thought he was safe from the Hague until a successor handed him over. General Pinochet went to London for medical treatment and was arrested on human rights charges. Philippe Sands, a QC who knows this area of law better than anyone, says a war crimes prosecution hangs over Assad ‘like a sword of Damocles… A leader needs to know the possibility of justice is real.’ He would not be surprised to see Assad in the dock eventually. For a large part of the Syrian population, the war will not be over until he is.'

Image result for Ali Othman baba amr jeddo

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Daraya: A Library Under Bombs in Syria



 'This is the tale of a group of young rebels in Daraya. Daraya was besieged and bombed by Bashar al-Assad's regime from 2012 to 2016.

 During the relentless four-year blockade, these 20-year-old revolutionaries challenged themselves to open a secret library in a Daraya basement, in order to save some 15,000 books that they dug up out of the rubble.

 As the months went on, this paper agora gradually turned into a clandestine university. It became an open debate space, where chairs were sometimes pushed aside for dancing, where slogans were invented, newspapers were written, and ideas were born while guns relentlessly fired up above. Life, despite it all. An incredible breath of fresh air amid the Syrian chaos.

 I was never able to visit them. Daraya was completely surrounded by the regime's army. But thanks to the internet, and the magic of Skype and WhatsApp, I created a special bond with these incredible book saviours.

 Amid bombs and power cuts, I listened to and wrote down their stories. I probed their fears and dreams as I tried to make out their city's skyline.

 Whether in the morning or at the dead of night, I listened to them tell me about their everyday life.



 I remember what I thought back then, as I spoke to them, seeing the first images they sent over. They were young people who looked just like us, who wear Adidas T-shirts and washed-out trainers. They were funny, curious, and full of life … They were far off from the "terrorist" label that Bashar al-Assad insisted on giving them.

 When night fell, they would watch Amelie on their laptops. They devoured Paolo Coelho's Alchemist. They were fascinated by Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Efficient People, while their city crumbled under the bombs falling from the sky (up to 80 a day).

 Refusing to accept isolation, they even sent letters to the United Nations and to Francois Hollande.

 They also wrote to me, the day after the November 13 attacks, to express their solidarity to the people of France.

 There was Ahmad, the library cofounder.

 Shadi, the citizen journalist who documented everything.

 Hussam, the flirt.

 Omar, the anti-Assad fighter who wouldn't stop reading.

 And around 40 or so young people who accompanied them, bringing a fragile and threatened dream to life, day by day.

 We see them tending to vegetable gardens to answer to the food shortages. Melting plastic to make fuel. After every lull, they tirelessly lift their heads up high once again.

 One day, we see them building a football pitch where shells have fallen the day before. Another day, they are decorating the empty shells of destroyed houses with joyful graffiti. On yet another day, they have fun filming children making cakes out of earth, mocking the absence of flour.

 I was struck by their resilience, by the collective solidarity that they never ceased to believe in. For four years, they resisted as a group. They braved explosions, the cold, power cuts, the lack of running water. Humour became their defence mechanism. Dignity became their best shield against barbarity.



 I remember how during my first contacts with them I was touched by their fervent attachment to the democratic values of the early moments of the 2011 revolution … and to culture, which they defended like a survival instinct.

 We could feel their will to stay loyal to the pacifist spirit of one of their friends who was tortured to death by the regime. He had invited protesters in the first demonstrations to respond to the Syrian soldiers' bullets by offering them gifts of roses and bottles of water.

 Despite the violence of the bombing, despite the Islamist temptation for some, these young people never ceased to answer to the unfailing barbarity of Damascus with the language of peace. They organised debates in which they promoted dialogue, always favouring discussion and listening over following a definitive plan. The obstination to build a political ideal based on respect and non-violence underlay everything they did.

 This ideal was illustrated, for instance, by the peculiar choice to place the different Free Syrian Army battalions (anti-Assad forces) under control of civilians from the Local Council (contrary to other rebel cities, such as Homs or Aleppo).

 I was constantly surprised by their ability to never renounce the hope of a better tomorrow. Defying fear and death, they intensified their creativity, embarking on new projects every day.

 Daraya, the symbolic cradle of the anti-Assad revolt, was also peculiar in that it woke up well before the 2011 uprising. My informants told me that in Daraya, civic engagement goes back to the 1990s. At the time, a group of dissidents started a number of citizen initiatives on the quiet - anti-corruption campaigns, anti-smoking campaigns, etc - in order to raise awareness among the inhabitants about claiming their rights.

 These revolutionary pioneers transmitted a kind of civil disobedience to Ahmad, Shadi, Hussam, Omar and all the young people of the new generation.



 Their relationship with books also says a lot about their attachment to democracy and the pluralist ideal. Saving books also meant saving their heritage, preserving a few traces, however minute, of their past and their cultural identity that were getting erased under the daily effect of bombs.

 It meant resisting the regime, along with its ideology and propaganda.

 One of the principles for their secret library involved writing the owners' name into the first page of each book, in the hope of giving it back once the war was over. Much to my surprise, I discovered that their paper refuge had precise rules: opening hours, return dates to be respected … They said it was a way to introduce some order into the chaos of their everyday lives.

 When all they had left to eat was a daily soup made of nothing but leaves, reading became their spiritual food.

 In the library, they read everything they could get their hands on: theology books, political science books, novels, American-style self-help books. As the months and years went by, they became fascinated with the Tunisian 14th-century sociologist Ibn Khaldoun, devoured the poems of Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, took interest in Mustafa Khalifa's Shell, discovered Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, as well as Shakespeare's plays.

 Surrounded by tanks, with no escape, they took refuge in their books. When the bombs went quiet, their fighter friends would sneak away from the front lines to come and read with them. They read to stay human, to not succumb to madness. They read to escape. To keep a door open onto the world. To continue learning. Reading was their weapon of mass instruction.



Towards the end of August 2016, the small group of friends was forced to evacuate Daraya within 24 hours, along with its 7,000 last resistors (the city originally numbered 250,000 inhabitants). They fled after having been through hell: hunger, explosives, chemical weapons, and, towards the end, a series of Napalm attacks that set fire to the city's only hospital.

 Delocalised to the Syrian province of Idlib, on the border with Turkey, 300km north of Daraya, they had to abandon their cavern of books, their graffiti and their broken dreams, against their will. When they left, the regimes' soldiers quickly plundered their collection.

 After a few months, some of them decided to cross the border. Shadi wanted to get medical treatment for his injured hand in Istanbul. Hussam went to join an NGO that was operating from Gaziantep.

 Of course, we met up. It strangely felt like we had just seen each other yesterday. But direct contact added an extra dimension to their story. I remember sitting with Chasi in a cafe, watching him unwrap a plastic bag filled with dozens of hard discs full of last-minute images of Daraya … I can still picture Hussam telling me that he was renouncing his pseudonym to take back his old name, Jihad. After four years of forced confinement, he was planning to get married, to travel, to go elsewhere.

 That's when I understood that this story, their story, was not over. It continued through the images, through all of the unedited videos of the blockade reported by Shadi to Istanbul, that I watched in great detail. It lived on through the burning desire that they felt to reunite. To consolidate a friendship that had been forged under the bombs.

 Mainly, it continued through their wish to keep the Daraya flame and the library dream going. Ahmad recently inaugurated a library bus in Idlib in Syria, where he chose to stay, a bus that continues to deliver books to women and children on site to this day.'

Monday, 6 May 2019

Syrian rebels say goal of Russia's Idlib assault is to take highways

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 'Syrian rebels backed by Turkey said on Monday that Moscow and its Syrian government ally were trying to wrest control of two major highways in their last enclave in the northwest of the country in a bid to shore up Syria’s sanction-hit economy.

 The sixth day of the campaign by government forces saw heavy aerial attacks targeting the city of Jisr al-Shughour and the al-Ghab plain, as well as the towns of al-Latamenah and Maarat al-Numan in the south of Idlib province, the rebels said.


 Taking those areas would bring President Bashar al-Assad close to regaining control over the strategic M5 and M4 highways from Aleppo to Hama and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, two of Syria’s most important pre-war arteries.

 The first few days of the assault struck at towns in northern Hama and southern Idlib province inside a buffer zone agreed in September between Russia and Turkey as part of a deal which averted a major offensive on the area, the last major foothold of the Syrian rebellion.

 Russia and the Syrian army say they are responding to stepped up attacks by jihadists on government-held areas and deny indiscriminate strikes that medics and rescuers say have killed dozens of civilians in recent days, knocked down at least five medical centres, and paralysed day-to-day life.

 The United Nations has said the attacks have included the worst use of barrel bombs by the Syrian army in 15 months. It says an estimated 323,000 people have been displaced in northwest Syria since September last year.

 Residents say tens of thousands have fled their homes, many to camps on the Turkish border, since the latest offensive began. Some who failed to reach those camps sought shelter in olive orchards, residents and witnesses said.


 “The shelling and aerial strikes have increased in intensity and ferocity and the area hit has widened with more intensity,” Naji Mustafa of the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) rebel group said.

 Russia says Turkey has not done enough to evict jihadists from the buffer zone or to open the M5 and M4 highways that link cities held by the government and run from Syria’s southern tip near the border with Jordan to the northern border with Turkey.

 Opening the commercial and passenger routes through Idlib province would reassert the state’s control over a fragmented economy that sprung up during eight years of conflict and now facing U.S. and EU sanctions, economic experts say.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that he did not rule out a full-scale assault on militants in Idlib province, after Russian officials publicly questioned how far they would continue to tolerate jihadist control.


 The Syrian opposition seeking to topple Assad accuse Moscow of using the jihadists as a pretext to step up attacks on civilian areas and put pressure on Turkey.

 “There has long been a Russian aim to capture these highways. This is rejected as a princple of our revolution and it would have meant the displacement of tens of thousands of people who live in the area and refuse to be under Russian (rule),” Major Yousef Hamoud, spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Army said.


 The loss of opposition control over the highways would mean the loss of a financial asset for the rebels, as well as be a sign of their weakening hold on their last enclave.

 It would also undermine a sphere of influence that Turkey has carved out in recent years in Syria.'

Friday, 3 May 2019

The Occupation of Deir Ezzor

The Occupation of Deir Ezzor

 'The local people of Deir Ezzor, driven by tribal dynamics, organized wide-scaled demonstrations against the YPG-dominated governance in their areas. The demonstrators cut off roads from Deir Ezzor to Hasakah and burned tires. The frustration of the local Arab population in Deir Ezzor is grounded in the unequal share of oil incomes, relations of U.S. partner forces with the Assad regime, arbitrary arrests, forced conscription, and the limited freedom of movement imposed by the YPG. Slogans of the demonstrators also included: “No to Kurdish occupation.” As negotiations to end the demonstrations began, tribe leaders handed over a 20-point demand list with a 72-hour ultimatum. The overall situation in Deir is miserable and being exploited by Daesh, which waged an insurgency in the region. Therefore, a new approach is urgently needed. Deir Ezzor was once a stronghold of the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, and should become so again.

 Since the capture of the Deir Ezzor region by U.S. partner forces dominated by the Marxist YPG, the new governors have been perceived as occupiers by the local people. As the YPG lacks the outreach into Deir Ezzor's tribal society, people living in the region were banned from leaving their areas. Anyone leaving the area for medical reasons has to name a guarantor to ensure that he or she has returned. A practice formerly used by Daesh.


 According to DeirezZor24 News - a Syrian activist network – commanders of U.S. partner forces like Fawaz Al-Teraikhim are blackmailing people to pay or be arrested on charge of belonging to Daesh.

 Other reasons for the people in Deir Ezzor to demonstrate against the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces include the arbitrary arrests and the forced recruitment of youth. As the Deir Ezzor region is a tribal area, solidarity with these people are high.


 The overall security situation in the region is weak. An incident resembling this is for instance in Bassirah, where demonstrations took place, masked men kidnapped a shop owner, took a copy of his shop's keys and threatened him by telling him that if he changed the locks, they will burn the shop and return to kidnap and kill him.

 The revenue income of the oil-rich region has been a main topic of the local people. They are angry about the fact that the YPG supplies the Assad regime with oil from the region and hence demand a stop of oil deliveries to the regime.


 The local population regards the current governance backed by the Americans as occupiers. A local who wanted to remain anonymous told the author, “Deir Ezzor is governed by Kurds; some of them not even Syrian Kurds. The people of Deir Ezzor are all Arabs. No Kurd is living here at all.”

 On May 1st, tribal elders in Deir Ezzor gathered together and handed over a 20-point demand list to the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, giving the other side a 72-hour ultimatum. Tribes demanded the release of detained and the cessation of raids, to hand the administration to the local people, to treat the people of Deir ez-Zor like the people of Raqqa and Hasakah, and to allow them to enter and exit the area with sponsorship or the guarantee of another person. Tribes also demanded the abolishment of compulsory recruitment.


 Since the administrative performance of the U.S. partners in Deir Ezzor have proved to be very bad, Daesh terrorists are exploiting the situation to their own advantage. Once the terrorist organization controlled the entire area, but after their military lost, Daesh changed its tactics to guerilla warfare. To perform efficient guerilla warfare, either a safe zone or popular support is needed. As Daesh does not have a safe zone, they need to move amongst the people as fish swims in the sea, which they seem capable of doing as the local population is frustrated with the YPG-dominated governance of their home towns. To eliminate this supportive environment for Daesh, the region has to be governed by its own people.


 In this regard, one suggestion could be to turn Deir Ezzor to a Syrian opposition stronghold backed by the U.S. and Turkey. This idea would address the call of the local people to ‘return it to the way it started.’ Displaced peoples in the Euphrates Shield areas who originate from Deir Ezzor could be relocated to their hometowns. Additionally fighters from Deir Ezzor within the National Army like the 20th Brigade, Jaysh al Sharqiyyah and Ahrar al Sharqiyyah could be relocated as well. By sending convoys similar to the evacuations from Ghouta and Homs to northern Syria, these people and fighters could be sent in convoys to Deir Ezzor. The U.S. could actively work together with the local people in Deir Ezzor. By doing so, the revolutionary flag would once again wave over the area, preventing the possibility of the Assad regime reaching a deal with the YPG in order to control the oil-rich region. Most importantly, locals would not feel like they are being governed by occupiers, which will help ensure the defeat of Daesh.'

Monday, 29 April 2019

Leader Of The White Helmets On State Of The War In Syria

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 Raed Saleh:

 'Taking control of rubble does not mean victory. What is Assad controlling today? He is controlling a destroyed country. He's controlling land without people. Thirteen million people are outside of Syria or forcibly displaced internally to areas he does not control. He is controlling cities that are completely destroyed. Today he can't provide the most basic services to the so-called homogeneous society that he has talked about, such as gas, heating and bread.


 Impartiality for us is providing services to all Syrians and to providing support to all Syrians. Now after six years of war, we have saved more than 116,000 people from under the rubble. We have not asked any of these 116,000 people who did they belong to? Is he a Kurd? Is he a Christian? Is he a Muslim? Is he with Assad? Is he against Assad? Is he with the Kurds? Is he against the Kurds? We have never asked anyone these questions. But at the same time, we do not stand impartial between the executioner and the victim. Today we take the side of the Syrian people who are being murdered on a daily basis by airstrikes - all different kinds of airstrikes. So when we talk about impartiality, we mean impartiality in providing services.


 The U.S. financial support continues, and we still receive financial support that helps us with acquiring ambulances and helps us with search and rescue operations.


 We do not call this a civil war, but we rather call it a revolution against a dictatorship - a dictatorship that has used all kinds of weapons against people who are revolting against it. They have used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against civilians. I'm not sure how far away from the end are we. I'm not sure how far along we are with this revolution. But we have gone through many phases. I'll tell you back in 2013 when the Iranian forces interfered in Syria, they said that without their intervention, the régime would have fallen within two weeks. The revolution continued. And in 2015, the Russians came in. And they said that without their intervention, the régime would have fallen within a few weeks. Three years after the Russian intervention, the revolution still goes on. We have not lost. The Syrian people have not lost. This revolution continues. So I can't tell you exactly what's going to happen next, but I can tell you that there is no force in the world that can defeat a people's revolution.'


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Thursday, 25 April 2019

HTS attempts state-building as survival strategy in Idlib



 'While the world is looking to Russia and Turkey to determine the fate of greater Idlib,  Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), is attempting to shape the future of the region. Following military gains earlier this year against rival opposition groups in the last rebel-held pocket in the country, HTS is establishing new civilian and military administrations to consolidate power.

 In so doing, the group is trying to increase its legitimacy and popularity by consulting with local communities and encouraging their participation through local elections. This strategy is seen as essential — to prevent a possible battle of annihilation, to embed the group in society and to permanently reshape the balance of power in the region.


 HTS leader Abu Mohammed Al-Julani first introduced the new project during an appearance on a talk show broadcast by the group’s Amjad media channel in mid-January. Al-Julani argued that there needed to be new administrations that separated civil and military affairs, but he did not elaborate on how that would be achieved.

 Then, on Feb. 10, the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government, which governs most of the region, organized a conference to discuss how to encourage the participation of regional residents. During the event, dozens of civilians and fighters discussed the establishment of a new consultative shura council for Idlib, which in theory will lead to the formation of a new administration.

 Following approval of the proposal, 10 conference attendees were selected to form an electoral commission to oversee the process and determine the number and distribution of shura council seats. Instead of conducting direct elections, however, HTS organized a poll involving only a small number of representatives from local communities, who nominated and elected people to the council. The process allowed HTS to participate in the selection of representatives and candidates, giving it influence over both the process and the results.


 The limited elections took place on March 27, with the selection of 107 representatives from 55 local communities, 23 from internally displaced communities in Idlib, and 29 from civilian bodies such as the tribes and the professional associations of doctors, businessmen and lawyers. An official announcement heralding the new council and the next steps is expected soon. The council is also expected to meet later to form a new government that could, in theory, replace the current Salvation Government, although the structure of the new administration is still highly speculative.

 In parallel with the work to establish new governance institutions, HTS military commanders are leading consultations with rebel commanders in greater Idlib to create a unified structure that would include all armed factions. At this point, however, it is not clear whether HTS will be able to create something resembling a unified force, although it should at least be able to expand joint operations by encouraging larger groups, such as the National Front, to join, while using force to co-opt smaller groups. As with the proposed civilian administration, HTS seems willing to cede formal leadership of a proposed military entity, as long as it can still pull the strings from behind the scenes.

 On both governance and the military front, HTS is making pragmatic attempts to keep up with changing circumstances and ensure the group’s long-term survival, clearly understanding that fully controlling greater Idlib is beyond its current financial and structural capabilities.

 As a result, HTS is fashioning the new administrative structures to put local residents center stage, while the group retains control, or at least a veto, over strategic decisions. Doing so allows the group to share the burden of governance and to deflect responsibility for its failures — both military and administrative. HTS is trying to lead from behind the scenes to increase its popularity, which seems to be plan B to ensure the survival of its project and ideology even after a potential territorial defeat.


 The Idlib residents’ reactions to the new administrative structures have been varied, but there seems to be a general sense of resentment. A sizeable number of local councils and communities in greater Idlib have publicly rejected the consultative council because of HTS’ extensive influence. This defiance is driven by the failure of the Salvation Government to provide basic services, as well as the rejection of HTS ideology and fears about the consequences of its dominance, which could result in the termination of Western aid or cause further military conflicts.

 There is also a shadow over the legitimacy of the council and its members because of HTS’ extensive involvement in a process that many consider to have been staged. Similarly, most armed groups remain hesitant to participate in the proposed military administration, especially the majority of groups that are affiliated with Turkey. Although HTS has won significant battlefield victories recently, the power struggle among opposition groups continues and many are hesitant to become affiliated with a designated terrorist group.

 Despite these significant challenges, HTS seems determined to establish administrations to resist future efforts to erase its influence in the northwest. This approach relies on co-opting the local communities.'

“For Sama” Director Waad al-Kateab: ‘This film is the only weapon I have against the régime’



 Waad al-Kateab:

 "I always dreamed of becoming a journalist. My parents supported me in whatever decision I would make, but with this one, they would say, ‘Don’t do this. You can’t do this.’ My parents — my father especially — would tell me that it is impossible to be a journalist in Syria, and that I would get sent to prison.

 Suddenly, in 2011, the revolution started. I wanted to be a part of this change. So, I started filming the protests at Aleppo University with my phone.

 From the early days of the revolution, all of the official news channels were saying that nothing was happening, that Syria was a very good country with democracy and freedom. The régime was not allowing any foreign journalists inside the country in the first year to cover the protests. We hadn’t seen anything like this before, so I felt like it was our role to show the world what was happening. I wanted evidence, and I felt that film is a way to really transfer the reality of what was happening to others.


 I was always at the hospital with my camera turned on, filming my friends fighting or laughing or just whatever was happening. Suddenly, we lost one of our friends from this group. I felt that the fact I recorded all of these moments with people I could lose at any time was one of the most amazing things I could do in my life. Since then, I decided to record everything, because one day I may be the one who is killed.

 It was also really important to me to record the reality of life under the régime — what our dreams were and how we ended up in all this violence. It is a record for the future that is outside the régime propaganda and misinformation.

 The camera became a part of me. It was something that supported me and helped me feel strong even when I felt scared.


 People in Syria had to deal with these things whether we had the strength or not. There was no choice. I wanted the film to be delivered to people just like the war came to us, while being respectful of the dead and their families.

 People around the world — even us sometimes — start to see the dead as just numbers. It is different when you see death up close. The solution isn’t to not watch, but in how we react to it.


 The régime is trying to kill our hope. I really believe that we would not be able to survive without hope.

 There was one guy who would deliver flowers — he helped set up the garden on our porch in Aleppo. I filmed him because I wanted to record the hope and beauty of how he continued to do his job despite the siege. He ended up getting killed. When you are really desperate and can’t see anything good, something beautiful comes your way, and that gives you hope.


 Tthe chronology of the film jumping around shows how any human being can live his life after having these experiences. In each moment — no matter how dark — I always remember the good things. And from the good things, I always come back to some really difficult moments. So, it is exactly how my mind would work.

 Some journalists come for one or two months or one year and then leave. I grew up with these people, and we lived together through the siege for five years. My neighbors were used to seeing me with my camera, and I was also living in the hospital. We faced the same threats together and shared all the good and bad things as a family. This made people feel comfortable around me with a camera.


 My daughter Samahas of course seen the film. It has been two years of me working on the film on my laptop. She gets very excited when she sees herself on the screen and shouts her name. We are trying to make sure she remembers where she comes from. When we ask her where she is from, she will say, ‘Syria, Aleppo.’

 Home will always be Aleppo and Syria. We are trying to lead a normal life in London, but at any moment we could return to Syria. People always ask me why I stayed in Syria even though there was so much suffering and war. Even though we could have been killed, we were happy to stay because we were fighting for our land, our freedom. When we lost Aleppo, we thought we lost everything. But we do find new hope.

 This morning my father called me early because he wasn’t aware of the time difference. When I told him the time, he asked me why I was checking my phone so early. I laughed and said I am always checking the news to see if the régime has fallen. Then my mom shouted from the other side of the room, ‘don’t worry, if the régime falls, we will call you.’ "

Saturday, 20 April 2019

The Dark Path of Minority Politics



 Yassin al-Haj Saleh:

'Since the inception of the Syrian uprisings, the Syrian régime has had an implicit justification for its violence: the protection of minorities. The réegime has never been open about this, yet it is there. The justification reveals the dual structure of the Syrian state under the Assads: there is an outer, public discourse of national unity and an inner, publicly unexpressed discourse of minority protection and a minorities’ alliance. After eight years of war in Syria that saw savage oppression, genocidal massacres, and the rise of brutal extremist groups, the régime’s claim that it must exist to protect minorities proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy—at least for a while, especially between 2013 and 2016. This reality has emerged not because the “protection of minorities” was necessary to begin with, but because the Syrian régime’s strategies, response to the uprisings, and role in the civil war made it all but inevitable.

 The temptation to give the Syrian régime credit for protecting minorities must be refuted and resisted. The truth is rather the opposite: the régime’s top priority is to protect itself, using minorities as a shield. The entire minority-versus-majority narrative in Syria is one that the régime carefully crafted long before the uprisings of 2011 began—indeed, since the 1970s. It fashioned this narrative on a pattern inherited from colonial powers, which had earlier cast themselves as protectors of minorities throughout the Levant. To understand the possibilities for a better future in Syria, activists and analysts need to unshackle themselves from the false narratives and fears of inevitable minority persecution. This is not an easy task, but the cycles of violence and repression in Syria will continue until its politics can confront a very basic truth: what Syria needs is not a politics of minority protection, but civil and economic rights for all on the basis of citizenship, neither enhanced nor restricted by the divisive identity markers bequeathed from the colonizers and reinvigorated by the Assad régime.



 This report draws heavily from an essay I first published in Arabic in early 2013, when I was still living underground in Damascus. It was motivated by a March 2012 statement by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warning of “Sunni rule” in Syria. I wrote the essay believing that my experience as an activist and intellectual contemporary to the Assad family rule during half a century gave me an important perspective on the historical and political origins of what I called “minority politics” and its implications. Needless to say, the régime never commented on Lavrov’s flagrant comments. Nor, of course, did it comment on Iran’s pretext for intervention in Syria—protecting Shia holy shrines—which recalled the Crusaders’ justifications for their destructive campaigns almost a thousand years before. What might seem more surprising was how little Lavrov’s comments, and others like his, were questioned from other quarters. Not a comment was heard from any Western government, international analyst, or anti-imperialist leftist. Indeed, in the years since, there has been continued silence on comments like Lavrov’s and the logic underlying them, even from groups and individuals who should have been in a position to give a critique.

 This report is thus an attempt to fill a years-old gap in the discourse on minority protection in Syria. Much has changed since 2013 when the essay that inspired this report was written—not least, the Syrian revolution has been defeated on the battlefield, without qualification or any hope for military miracles. But the fight over the rhetoric and analysis surrounding Syria’s uprisings, society, economics, and politics is far from settled. There is still time to understand the truth behind the violence. There always will be. But now especially, the time is ripe for developing a fact-based and truthful explanation of the régime’s resilience—one that reveals the way it has sold out the security and happiness of the Syrian people in order to ensure its survival.


 Since the inception of the Syrian uprisings, the régime and its Russian backers have clung to a justification for their violence: the protection of minorities. Even as the rest of the world has disavowed any sympathy or support for Bashar al-Assad, it has come to endorse his claim of minority protection. And at least for some outside observers, the war in Syria seems to have borne out Assad’s claims that he and his ruling clique were standing between majoritarian extremists and the annihilation of Syria’s “mosaic” of ethnicities and sects. According to the inner, publicly inexpressible rhetoric of the régime mentioned above, this diversity stands arrayed against the overwhelming menace of the Arab Sunni masses, descending mostly from rural areas, and their extremist foreign backers.

 Various insurgent groups seemed to provide proof for the régime’s position. The Islamic State provided the most famous example, but other militias also ruled over conquered populations, with brutality visited on non-Sunnis and Sunnis alike. Western media has bought into this story, almost completely. Even its insistence on the use of the name “Islamic State” or the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” lends an implicit legitimacy to the narrative: the name can be misread as the Islamic state, a misinterpretation that the group is surely happy to have perpetuated. Syrians refer to the group as “Da’esh,” a word with ugly resonance in Arabic, which is hated and punishable by Da’esh thugs. “Da’esh” is thus a name that carries less baggage. While it is simply the Arabic acronym for “the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” it does not have the sheen of “the Islamic State”—a name that bolsters the idea that the group is somehow the expression of the Muslim majority’s political ambitions, which of course it is not.



 Further supporting the régime’s position, observers cling to superficial coverage and tend to ignore the dynamics of militarization, sectarianization, and radicalization that the systematic violence of the régime triggered in Syria. This leaves people under the false impression that people in Syria kill each other because they are Sunnis and Shias, an erroneous and essentialist claim echoed time and again by American leaders, most recently by Barack Obama when he said sectarian fighting had been going on for “thousands of years.”

 For a while, it was more tempting than ever for some to give the Syrian régime credit for, at the bare minimum, being somewhat accurate in casting itself as the protector of minorities. Hundreds of thousands are dead. More than half of Syria’s prewar population of twenty-two million are now refugees or internally displaced. There have been countless atrocities in a war that has exhausted everyone connected to it. But the temptation to give the Syrian réegime credit must be resisted. This is a genocidal réegime, a quality that is inherent in its sectarian formation and the identity-based politics it has adopted, which dehumanize some people and “overhumanize” others according to their inherited denominations. Some 90 percent of the war’s victims were killed at the hands of the Assad protectorate and its protectors. Government forces monopolized war planes and weapons of mass destruction, organized a killing industry in Sednaya military prison (effectively a torture camp), and may have built a crematorium to dispense with the dead bodies.

 Notably, it is not only foreign powers that profess concern for the fate of minorities in Syria. Some Syrian intellectuals, too, adhere to this line of thinking, in one form or another. A common characteristic of such individuals is that they never prioritize the struggle for justice, democracy, and equality over their own elitist fears and privileges. One of the frequent grievances leveled against the Syrian revolution since its inception is that it failed to mobilize broad segments of “minorities,” or hasn’t sufficiently “reassured” them. There is a clear link between the revolution, which these elites perceive as a possible tectonic change in the sociocultural geology, and a growing concern about the situation of minorities in a post-Assad Syria. Every time the régime is not quite secure, its industry of fear produces more of this commodity.





 The premise of “the protection of minorities” or “minority rights” deems the Syrian revolution to be essentially majoritarian and anti-minority, without a clear explanation for why that is the case, and without showing sensitivity to time and historical changes in the course of the last eight years and for decades before. The roots of Western “neutrality” toward the Syrian revolution are based in this premise. Most Westerners are repelled by the Syrian régime, but they are equally or even more repelled by the Islamic core of our societies. Many sectors of Western society have never reconciled themselves with Islam as a religion, especially those who identify the West with the Judeo-Christian tradition (a relatively modern concept that only gained wide currency after World War II and the Holocaust). The emphasis placed on “the protection of minorities” is a vocal implication of this amoral neutrality, which is essentially apathy.

 In fact, there isn’t one single majority in Syria. Nor are there static minorities, whose political and social positions are identical and whose defining characteristic is their being minorities in the face of a similarly static majority. There are different majorities and minorities, which vary depending on the criteria we adopt to distinguish between them. If the criterion is ethnic, the majority is Arab and the minorities are Kurdish, Armenian, Assyrian, and Syriac. If the criterion is religious, then the majority is Muslim, and the minorities are Christian and Yazidi. If the criterion is sectarian or doctrinal, the majority is Sunni and the minorities are Alawite, Christian (and their many churches), Druze, Ismaili, and Shia.

 But these are all static categories that Syria has inherited from its past, not dynamic categories of the kind that are supposed to distinguish modern, national, or democratic political sociologies. The subtext of foreign commentary on Syria is that these groups are the country’s innate political majorities and minorities, and that this reality reflects deep-rooted sociological features. This misguided premise is, in some ways, self-fulfilling—contributing to the formation of static minorities and majorities.

 However, these static differentiations don’t have equal political value. The Sunni–Alawite contrast seemed far more menacing during the Syrian-versus-Syrian struggle in the first two years of the uprisings than the Muslim–Christian one—which Western powers and Russia engaged in during the nineteenth century. It also seemed more dangerous than the Arab–Kurdish contrast—which has been ranking second in the list of the most politically grave dichotomies. The reasons for this are political, historical, and ever-changing, and are related to contemporary polarizations, transformations, and conflicts.

 One might assume from this logic that minorities are at greater risk when there is an identification between ethnic, religious, and sectarian majorities, constituting an overwhelming majority—which is the case with Sunni Muslim Arabs in Syria, who make up more than two-thirds of the population. But this abstract inference is disproved by reality. Syria’s Arab Sunnis are far from being homogenous or majoritarian, and there has never been an active identification that brings them together in a way that might threaten any minorities.7 What’s more, they weren’t regarded as homogenous in the brief modern history of the Syrian entity (1918–63) before the Ba’athists seized power. The regional, cultural, and class differentiations within this Arab–Muslim–Sunni component make the notion of an “Arab Sunni majority” of little to no political significance. Even within the broader organized religious Sunni spectrum, there are significant political differentiations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, and Salafi jihadists. I tend to call these groupings Sunni sects; taken together, they are minorities among the Arab Sunnis, and even more so among Syrians at large.





 The years of war in Syria, during which most victims, casualties, and displaced people were Arab Sunnis, underline the lack of merit in the assumption that there exists a unified Sunni majority, or even one that has convergent stances on public affairs. It has also been clear that a section of Syrian Sunnis has been supportive of the régime—maybe not in an active way, but still preferring stability and the status quo.





 While minority politics neutralizes or marginalizes atypical individuals from majoritarian backgrounds who do not endorse this politics, majority politics, whether in alliance with minority politics or not, marginalizes atypical Sunnis. It marginalizes them because it is based on mainstreaming an assumption that a typical Sunni Muslim is a pious believer who is socially conservative and politically Islamist, and ultimately close to either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. Indeed, Syria has already witnessed this outcome in the last few years of war, with nihilist elitist groups like the Nusra Front, Da'esh, and the Islam Army (“Jaysh al-Islam”) targeting many Sunnis who were deemed inadequately devout, or apostate. Partly, this is because the supposedly “typical” Sunni is hardly common at all. Estimating the percentage of Syrians who fit this “typical” mold is impossible. But it is certain that when international media reports that “70 percent of Syria is composed of Sunni Arabs,” it disguises a huge diversity of practice and identity within this “majority.” This is particularly noteworthy because an unreserved employment of the signifier “Sunni majority” can potentially involve a political agenda to impose homogeneity and sectarianization on Syrian Sunnis, and perhaps to recruit them in explicitly religious or even extremist groups in order to hold power. Without this process, the Sunnis of Syria do not constitute a “sect” (though it may be said that Islamists do).

 Islamists are a product of the contemporary historical crisis: a foundering of nation building, including the building of a modern sovereign state capable of war and politics. They aren’t exclusively a product of Syria’s inherited culture or that of Arabs, despite their ideology stating otherwise. Islamists are one facet of a crisis whose other manifestations include sectarianism and minority politics in general. As such, the problem of Islamists needn’t be tackled as separate from other problems of sectarianism and minorities, or as if solving the problems of sectarianism and minorities is conditional upon or a prerequisite for the solution of the Islamist problem. These are all different manifestations—rather than causes—of a forcible deactivation of social, political, and cultural dynamics. Islamists put forward the past as an answer to the questions of societies whose historical horizons are blocked by “politics of nature,” according to ancient Muslim scholars—that is to say, politics of sheer power and violence. In other words, these are societies that are stripped of their future but left with an open road to the past. The Islamic solution can alleviate a temporary Sunni resentment, but cannot form a new majority that serves as the basis for a nation of citizens. An end to the politics of eternity is a vital need in Syria and the Middle East.

 There is a basic practical principle that can be a valid starting point for change. This principle is that prospects to solve public problems increase when people’s engagement in the public sphere increases. The larger the number of public actors—regardless of their backgrounds—the greater our chances of overcoming static majorities and minorities. Large numbers encourage blending and diversity, as well as further expansion of the public sphere. The greater the number of publicly active citizens, the more likely they may belong to nonelitist milieus, and the higher the chances of “disarray,” “blending,” and de-sectarianization. On the other hand, the fewer the number of those publicly active, the more likely old differentiations may be activated and gain political and public value. Even if the existing régime hadn’t activated these differentiations to divide, and thus weaken, the population it controls, opportunities for social and political upward mobility under such a régime are inevitably dependent on the activation of these differentiations and capitalizing on them. Further, the fewer the public actors, the more likely they may be “identifiable”—in other words, the more likely they will be distinct or very identity-salient, and the more the system will develop an instinctive resistance to blending and hybridization. A sectarian instinct will prevail.

 Opening up the political system to large numbers—to “the people”—is the first step in overcoming the problems of minorities. Such an opening of the system doesn’t, by itself, ensure broader historical horizons that will automatically prevail over minority politics. But without an opened system, horizons cannot be unblocked.

 Unfortunately, such a system simply cannot be achieved in the current circumstances in Syria. A circle cannot be squared. We lost the battle for change in Syria; and the battle for democracy on the global level appears lost for good. I think we can now talk about a Syrian Question, because of its complex of sectarianism and religious rivalries and hatreds on the one hand, and, on the other hand, problems related to who the masters are—who has power and the right to kill people. Yet another issue is that of external interventions and imperialism. The Syrian Question is a monster. These three elements nurture each other in a vicious closed circle.

 Muslims aren’t the Christians’ problem, nor are Christians the Muslims’ source of troubles; Sunnis aren’t the greatest threat to Alawites, nor is it the other way around—as many sectarians would like to believe, religious and “secular” alike. Nor are Arabs endangered by the Kurds, or the cause of the Kurds’ frustration, as frantic nationalists like to argue. Such prescriptions solve nobody’s problems, and instead contribute to the problems and troubles of everyone. Minority politics will only produce more majority politics and sectarianism. They lead, at best, to “solutions” like a confessional system, and in all cases to a lingering catastrophe.

 Syrians need to search for a rule by the many—but not a rule by the many in the service of an identity-based majority, but rather in the service of justice and equal rights. Until such a vision is pursued, without the intervention of foreign powers or the self-appointed guardianship of local elites, Syria faces new cycles of its ongoing catastrophe.'

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