Thursday, 27 July 2017


 Dr. Rola Hallam:

 "One of the things that's done the Syria crisis such a disfavour is calling it a civil war. Because this isn't half the population killing the other half. What we have is state-sponsored murder and oppression, that was in response to people going out on the street, calling for freedom and dignity. And so it's actually a war on civilians. And it's a war on civilian structures, and it's had at its heart the targetting of doctors, and aid workers, and health care. And you guys know about presidents trying to destroy health care, right?

 Physicians For Human Rights have been documenting this since the beginning of the war in 2011, documenting nearly 500 attacks on health care facilities. Some of them are indiscriminate, but actually they say this has been part of a systemic attack on health care, and murder and torture of health care workers, so actually using it as a weapon of war. And it's decimated our health care system, and that basically means we've got children dying of preventable diseases like pneumonia, or treatable diseases. It's women who are now giving birth without health care attendance. It means we don't have the anesthesia we need to perform surgery.

 This is such a big problem for all of us. This isn't just a problem for Syria. And by that I mean that the targetting of health care workers - like this is protected by international norms, right? And when we allow that to occur, then when it breaks for one, it breaks for all. Does that mean that your health care facilities will be a legitimate target in any war that you may be involved in? It's a really dangerous precedent to set, and the fact that it's destroying our health care means we're going to become like Liberia and Sierra Leone. We're going to become exporters of disease, and viruses know no borders.

 In every crisis, the first responders are the people who are affected. It's the affected community. So my family, like many others, turned our houses into warehouses we could distribute this aid from. Then, as the crisis grew, and engulfed the whole country,  it became obvious these little efforts were no longer sufficient. So we coalesced, and started to form new charities, and its the local humanitarians, it's the local doctors, nurses, and aid workers, that do the majority of the aid work in Syria. A group called Local2Global* said that 75% of the humanitarian work in Syria is being done by Syrian charities. That's amazing, but what is less amazing is that we get less than 1% of the humanitarian aid budget.

 You start with pulling your hair out, and being frustrated and angry that this is still happening. That weekend [19-20 November 2016], five hospitals were bombed out of existence, including the children's hospital. Imagine, it had been bombed six times before, a children's hospital. I was so livid and furious. We'd been spending the last few years rebuilding, and helped to build six hospitals in Syria. And so I wanted to do something that everyone else could get behind, because I knew that there were so many people who were feeling this frustration, and that was how the People's Convoy idea came. We planned to crowdfund, to rebuild an an entire children's hospital. And we wanted to do it the week before Christmas, in ten days, and we wanted to take the whole equipment for the hospital across from London, across Europe, to Syria, and we did that. 5000 people from around the world. This wasn't just me, it was a global collective effort. It was 30 organisations that came together to endorse the campaign, and it was 5000 people from ten countries that raised $320,000 in 12 days. Enough to rebuild the hospital and keep it going for six months. It goes to show how much we can achieve when we work together, and can channel these emotions we have in a positive proactive way.

 At CanDo, we believe people are the biggest superpower. We just need to have a way to harness that collective energy and resources. That is why we are using crowdfunding, and we've just set up a crowdfunding platform, the first to provide humanitarian aid in war zones. We're calling you, the engaged citizens of the world, the global humanitarians. Through this platform, we're going to connect you to humanitarian organisations working in war zones, so that you guys can know exactly where your money is going, and you can trust that it's going to these trusted and impactful local humanitarian organisations, so that together we can provide this health care, and save many more lives.

 I think that's the way to do it, because the big NGOs are so bureaucratic, and slow to move, and they make us feel really detached from the issues, and it feels really disengaging and disempowering to just hand your money over when you've no idea where it goes.

 This way, you can connect, but also choose which project you want to support. The beauty of local humanitarians is they know the community really well, and they know what's needed and how to get it there, and they are creative, because they're the ones who are there in the most need. So to give you an example, there is a ceasefire across much of Syria, but there are still, and most people don't know this, about a million people who are besieged. Literally, like a medieval siege tactic, being slowly starved to death. So besieged Damascus is one of these areas where there's about 400,000 people being slowly starved to death. So one of our local partners has been working over the last couple of years to grow mushrooms, which we call the meat of the poor. So they've been working to see if they can get them to germinate and grow, and they've managed to do that, so that's one of the campaigns we're currently running. For less than $15,000, that is going to feed 800 people in a sustainable way. We're going to teach them how to grow their own mushrooms, so they can feed themselves when there is no other fresh food source there. So they have that ability to provide something really effective, and really efficient, and I think that's how we can all make a difference to people in crisis."


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Women in Idlib Challenge Islamic Extremists

 Zaina Erhaim and Jomana Qaddour:

 'In the middle of the main market in Idlib City, during one of the busiest days of the year, Eid day, Amal, a local resident, was stopped by the Islamic police. She was chastised because of her refusal to wear the required long dark coat, the mantou. Instead of looking down or profusely apologizing, Amal shot back at the Islamic police that is affiliated with Jaish al-Fatah, “No one has anything to do with what I wear! I have been living here for the past 25 years, who are you to control me!?” The scene quickly escalated and hand fighting ensued, with shopkeepers stepping in between Amal and the police until she managed to flee.

 Amal’s story, relayed to the authors, is but one example of the rising citizen anger against the fundamentalist armed forces imposing harsh Islamic regulations, especially on the female population in Idlib. Time and time again we have seen such stories reflect the absolute need to continue supporting civil society resistance against the extremist armed groups. Without such resistance, the groups would have had civil control over large portions of opposition-held territory long ago.

 Idlib province, often referred to as “Little Syria,” is now home to hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced Syrians from Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs. Idlib City was home to a population of 165,000 residents in 2011, and now houses as many as 400,000. Foreign fighters have come to the province from all over the world to fight with groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.). The presence of foreign fighters is felt daily in this opposition stronghold. “It took 20 years for me to see a foreigner in Idlib,” Ghalia, a resident and teacher at Idlib University, told Erhaim referring to her neighbor who came from Turkestan to fight in Syria. “Now they are all over the place!”

 Despite the fact that Idlib is home to H.T.S., as well as other extremist armed groups, Idlib residents, and in particular women, have found unique ways to halt support for the normalization of these groups’ ideologies. Socially, as witnessed firsthand by one of the authors, local Idlib women have isolated other Syrian women who have chosen to marry foreign jihadists. They are not invited to women-only daily traditional gatherings, and are thus ostracized from the community.

 Professionally, many women are the primary actors on the ground leading education, medical, and psychological initiatives. Idlib University is heavily policed by H.T.S., ensuring the segregation of males and females and interfering with the curriculum, such as converting the law school to a Shariah school and cancelling philosophy courses. Despite restrictions, teachers like Ghalia go on teaching, and try to motivate students to find value in continuing their education. The greatest challenge is not the constant bombing, shelling, and car bombs exploding every week; residents are accustomed to the violence. It is most difficult for educators to keep students interested in learning even though they know full well that their degrees will not be recognized by any authority. Schools and universities outside of regime territory are unregistered, so they cannot issue any official certification. But keeping these universities, accredited or not, is important now more than ever. Families are too fearful to send their daughters to government-operated universities in regime-held areas. If they are caught, and the regime is aware of their family’s support for Syria’s revolution, they will be sent to government prisons where they are likely to be raped. Even if they are not raped, the possibility that they might have been has stigmatized detained Syrian women in their societies, making it difficult for them to reintegrate and marry later on.

 Women have also provided unparalleled medical and psychosocial support to other women, especially those who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and now left without their former support structures, such as extended familial support, that they previously enjoyed. Ghalia’s sister Sawsan works as a field coordinator for a gender-based violence project with an international civil society organization, managing three centers that provide psychological support to ensure that victims are able to reconnect with society in the aftermath of such trauma.

 Vocational and learning centers are also setup throughout Idlib in order to provide outlets for women that keep them engaged, active, and aware of what life is like even outside of the province. There are now 19 centers that provide vocational training, peace education, and even basic education such as math and reading to thousands of women.

 One such center, My Space, first began in 2015 as a free-of-charge internet cafe so that women could access news about events outside of their local communities. Within a couple of months, the center began to offer first aid and International Computer Driving License courses, in addition to English, French, and Turkish language courses. Instructors also provide guidance on resume building and job searching. Such courses have facilitated the economic empowerment of women, and their independence, allowing them to remain in Idlib instead of forcing them to seek refuge in neighboring countries. And while the Idlib Provincial Council currently has no female board members, it has invited women activists to participate in coordination meetings. This is one realm that remains in need of improvement.

 It is no easy feat to be a female in Idlib, home to H.T.S., as well as an area constantly and heavily bombarded by the Syrian regime. Women have not only taken extraordinary measures to keep their communities physically safe and inside of Syria, they have also fostered intellectual growth and fought to reintegrate victims of some of the most horrendous crimes we have seen this century, including violent rape and torture.

 Continuing to support the kinds of programs highlighted above is not only in the best interest of Syrian women, but also in the interest of external powers like the United States, which seek to oversee the transition into a stable Syria. Killing foreign jihadis or targeting H.T.S. soldiers will not alone produce a stable Syria. The culture of patriarchy and extremist ideology will spread and will continue to gain footing if civilians, especially women, cannot safely meet to learn basic skills, seek treatment, or are not empowered to respond to suppressive fundamentalist police and armed groups. Ending the war, and ridding Syria of both the oppressive Syrian regime as well as extremists is imperative before the long road to ensuring Syrian stability begins.'

Hay’at Tahrir al Sham’s gamble: the failure of blood

AMMAR ABDULLAH/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved.

 'On July 19, 2017, the rebel factions Ahrar al Sham (Ahrar) and Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) engaged in some of the fiercest infighting that Greater Idlib has experienced during the Syrian Civil War.

 This old conflict has been brewing just beneath the surface since before the formation of HTS, which came as a response to rebel failures and the decrease in international support for moderate rebel groups in 2016. Following it's formation, HTS pursued a two-pronged approach towards achieving its dream of a grand merger: cooperating with Free Syrian Army groups in joint offensives and using violence and the threat of violence to pressure smaller groups into joining the fold.

 The failure of this strategy was clear following the lost Hama, Damascus, and Quneitra offensives, along with rejection of HTS by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in southern Syria.

 As HTS realized that their military actions were not successful in attracting additional factions, the group began taking an increasingly violent stance towards non-aligned rebel groups in Idlib.

 On May 12, amid fears of a Turkish-backed united FSA front, HTS orderedFriday’s sermons in Idlib to denounce Turkey and the FSA groups that fight in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation. Five days later, Ahmed bin Ghalib, a Saudi HTS commander, “vowed to eradicate Ahrar al Sham.”

 On May 31, in a sign of internal dissent, former Nour al-Din al-Zenki commander and current HTS leader Hossam al-Atrash stated that all groups should dissolve and unite under the Interim Government’s Defense Ministry.

 Eight days later HTS made its first major attack since January when it attackedFSA and Faylaq al Sham units in the town of Maraat al-Numan, killing FSA Colonel Tasyeer al-Samahi.

 Violence in Idlib continued on June 13 when HTS kidnapped two FSA commanders – Nidal Haj Ali and Ahmed al-Mousa. HTS Political Chief Zayd al-Attar announced his resignation the following day, and on June 20 at least five former Ahrar al-Sham units defected back to Ahrar in further indications of internal division over HTS’s aggressive actions.

 Finally, on July 8 al-Modon reported that the Turkistani Islamic Party and clerics Abdullah Muhaisini and Abu Mariyah Qahtani were mediating between HTS and Ahrar as tensions rose along the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

 However, attempts at mediation repeatedly failed as the increasing tensions exploded on July 19. HTS General Leader Abu Jaber justified these attacks in an audio message that day, claiming that Ahrar “refused to merge with us and sold out to foreign interests” – a reference to Ahrar’s close ties with Turkey and its participation in Euphrates Shield.

 Ahrar appeared to hold the upper hand following the first day of fighting, capturing several towns from HTS. However, on July 20 HTS reiterated its position that it would only accept a full merger and launched a new wave of attacks, making quick work of Ahrar strongholds and seizing all of the Idlib/Turkey border crossings by July 23.

 At least nineteen armed groups have joined HTS since July 19 – reportedlyincluding 7,000 fighters from Ahrar’s Badia Division – with many local forces defecting after HTS captured their towns.

 Despite the apparent military success of HTS, the most recent round of infighting has called into question the strength of HTS’s “coalition” label.

 On July 20, after only one day of fighting, Nour al Din al Zenki broke from HTS, claiming that the new attacks were launched by Jolani and Abu Jaber without the approval of the Shura Council and that Zenki had only joined HTS with the promise that infighting would cease.

 Even the HTS-aligned cleric Abdullah Muhaisini declared that the new infighting was haram and confirmed that the Sharia Council gave no approval for it. Zenki’s and Muhaisini’s statements imply that Abu Jaber and the former leaders of Jabhat al Nusra still act with impunity within the organization, despite the fact that former Zenki leaders held the high positions of Deputy Political Chief and President of the Consultative Council.

 On July 20 another HTS group, Quwa al Markaziya, defected to Ahrar and an unnamed Uzebek group announced that, while remaining a part of HTS, it would not fight Ahrar. This, as well as Zenki’s defection, demonstrates that while HTS appears to have won the Idlib war, it has done so only through force and an unwillingness of many Ahrar fighters to fight HTS.

 Fighters and civilians throughout the region still adamantly oppose HTS’s ideology and policies, and any union with HTS will not be amicable.

 Thus, the recent infighting is a clear indication of the failure of HTS’s attempted middle-ground policy. Abu Jaber and Jolani have abandoned the carrot for full license of the stick and will never again be able to masquerade as a welcoming, uniting force in Idlib.

 HTS’s only chance now to achieve a complete merger with Ahrar and the dozens of FSA factions throughout the region is to violently force them into submission – a course which will cement their pariah status both within Syria and the international community.

 Yet this possible merger may have been aided by the United States when the Trump Administration announced the end of the CIA’s arming program on July 19.

 If the formation of HTS was a partial response to the perceived abandonment by the international community, then the actual abandonment of moderate factions by the United States will only serve to further force moderates into HTS.

 In January, choosing to unite with HTS offered a clear decision between choosing a unified domestic opposition that will aggressively pursue war, or remaining outside in order to seek stronger ties with international backers and a more diplomatic approach to resolving the overall conflict.

 Unfortunately, it appears that most factions no longer hold a choice in this matter, but the effects will remain the same.

 As HTS grows at the expense of others, opposition representatives will continue to lose negotiating power in the Astana and Geneva talks, leaving Assad and Russia only one option with which to end the war.'

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Lone clinic in Syria’s rebel north tackles war’s mental toll

Syrian patients watch TV in a room at a mental health clinic in the town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey, July 6

 'At an austere mental health clinic in northern Syria, male patients with shaved heads squat barefoot in a courtyard, some dressed in uniforms and others in T-shirts and tracksuit trousers.

 One man screams at those around him, while another laughs to himself. A third sings exuberantly, exposing bare gums missing teeth.

 The second floor houses female patients in patterned dresses and flowery headscarves. Some smile at visitors while others lie motionless on their beds.

 One woman is tied to her bedframe.

 The horrors of Syria’s six-year war have left the country’s population with devastating psychological scars, but staff at the only mental health facility in Syria’s opposition-held north are doing their best to treat those affected.

 Among the patients at the clinic in Azaz, northern Aleppo province, is a 17-year-old girl deeply scarred by the conflict.

 “She saw a small child that had been killed and was being eaten by animals,” said Dorar al-Sobh, one of two doctors at the facility.

 “She was so shocked she lost her ability to speak. Now she can’t sleep or eat… She avoids everyone.”

 A male patient from the neighbouring province of Raqa came back to his bombed-out home to find the lifeless bodies of his wife and six children.

 “He has difficulty sleeping… he gets flashbacks and nightmares,” says Sobh, 46.

 Some cases predate Syria’s conflict, but others – particularly of post-traumatic stress disorder – have been directly caused by the war. “Of course, we have seen an increase in cases, especially depression, PTSD and coping disorders,” Sobh says.

 Nurse Mohammed Munzer recalls receiving patients who had been arrested at the peaceful protests in 2011 that kicked off Syria’s uprising.

 “They were tortured and beaten, especially on the head. They started to have mental problems,” the 35-year-old says.

 Others have developed anxieties related to the relentless bombing and violence that has killed more than 330,000 people.

 “There are people who can’t handle the sound of aeroplanes,” Munzer says.

 The facility serves nearly 140 inpatients as well as others who come from outside for care.

 It was originally set up in Masaken Hanano district on the northeastern outskirts of Aleppo city.

 But it was forced to relocate when fighting broke out after rebels entered the city in 2012.

 “The hospital was hit in Masaken Hanano, wounding one of the nurses in his hand and handicapping him,” facility administrator Mohyiddin Othman says.

 Many of the hospital’s medical staff fled and left patients behind, some of them wandering the streets.

 Local residents, alarmed by the situation, contacted a Turkish medical NGO that worked with local Syrian doctors to transfer the patients.

 By 2013, they had been moved first to a facility in western Aleppo province, and then to Azaz with help from charity group Physicians Across Continents.

 While Azaz has been periodically targeted by regime strikes, particularly in the early years after the patients were moved to the area, the new hospital has not been hit.

 That has allowed medical staff to focus on their work, offering residents and outpatients medication, assessments and one-on-one treatment.

 At times they struggle to help those in need, such as a man who regularly visited Sobh to seek treatment for depression.

 “I asked him once about suicide. He told me he didn’t think about it,” Sobh said. “Fifteen days later he shot himself.”

 The hospital also faces shortages of medicine. It receives occasional donations from the World Health Organization, but often relies on alternatives bought on the local market or in neighbouring Turkey.

 The challenges can feel overwhelming, the facility’s staff say.

 “We are psychologically exhausted,” says Sobh. “Sometimes our patients hit us or curse us… Sometimes we take vacations to distance ourselves from the atmosphere of the hospital for a few days.”

 The facility’s basement is set aside for a kitchen and a cafeteria, where residents queue for food.

 Standing at tables or seated on the floor, they eat meals of stew and bread from metal bowls.

 The facility is sparsely furnished, with long rows of beds for patients and washing lines hung with blankets.

 In one room, a television is mounted on the wall, and patients sit together watching.

 The staff also do outreach in the community, hoping to tackle the stigma around mental health issues.

 “We try to spread awareness in our surroundings, and through flyers and social media, to explain that people who have mental illnesses are like anyone else who is sick,” says Munzer.

 Sobh says the growing need for mental health care has caused a subtle shift in local sentiment.

 “The presence of a treatment centre in this area is positive,” he says.

 “The residents of the area accept it, and it’s no longer a sign of weakness.” '

Syrian patients walk around a yard at a mental health clinic - the sole such facility in the rebel-held north of Syria - in the town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey, July 6. - PHOTOS: AFP

Syrian rebels fear Bashar Assad benefits from Trump-Putin truce

A Syrian displaced family that fled the battle between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State militants from Raqqa arrive at a refugee camp in northeast Syria. The U.S. military is supporting local Syrian forces in a campaign to drive the Islamic State from Raqqa. (Associated Press)

 'Diaa Sroor recently watched as Russian troops move to the outskirts of his hometown of Daraa in southwest Syria, supposedly to act as observers under a cease-fire agreement recently struck between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their much-anticipated Group of 20 meeting in Germany this month.

 The Syrian acknowledged in an interview to having mixed feeling about the deal from the start.

 “The airstrikes have stopped,” said Dr. Sroor, 35, a medical doctor, “but the regime artillery units are still active outside the de-escalation zone.”

 Daraa is the fourth and most recent area of Syria covered by “de-escalation agreements” — a series of cease-fire arrangements brokered since May by the U.S., Syria’s Sunni Muslim neighbors Jordan and Turkey, Iran’s Shiite Islamic Republic, Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian backers. Mr. Trump has repeatedly pointed to the cease-fire accord he and Mr. Putin reached in their lengthy G-20 meeting, in part to bolster his argument that engaging with Moscow can deliver real-world results despite the deep doubts of the Washington foreign policy establishment.

 The agreements have been embraced by officials in Amman and Ankara grappling with refugees and violence spilling over from the 6-year-old Syrian civil war.

 But Syria’s anti-Assad rebels and their supporters are disappointed by the patchwork nature of truce agreements and fear they could allow Mr. Assad to further reclaim the approximately 15 percent of Syrian territory held by the opposition after six years of brutal civil war. Mr. Assad and his key backers, Iran and Russia, stand to be the big winners from the truce, they fear.

 “We agreed to do this because we want to improve the humanitarian situation,” said Maj. Issam al-Reis, Southern Front spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a major rebel force. “But it worries us that it’s not for all areas in Syria.”

 The opposition’s concerns have only heightened with reports late last week that Mr. Trump is ending a troubled covert program begun under President Obama of support for armed rebel groups fighting Mr. Assad, a move long sought by Mr. Assad and Mr. Putin.

 For those on the ground in Syria, the stability of the cease-fire is more than an exercise in international geopolitics. Lives are at stake, and fears are rising that Mr. Assad and his allies, especially Iran, will use the respite to cement and extend their control.

 Dr. Sroor admitted that Daraa residents face health risks ranging from poor sanitation to shortages of food and medical supplies, but he said “people in rebel-held areas have a greater level of freedom, and we owe that to [the] bloodshed of our sons.”

 About 70 percent of Syrians are Sunni. Mr. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, and his political base includes Syria’s Shiites. Dr. Sroor said he and his neighbors fear that the cease-fire will give Iran-backed Shiite militias and the Russians more time to bolster Mr. Assad’s positions.

 “People here see the cease-fire as a strategic tactic for Assad’s forces to have a rest and rebuild their fronts to re-attack the city later,” said Dr. Sroor, particularly given Russian support for Mr. Assad even as Mr. Trump pulls back.

 “If the Russians and regime continue to attack in all the other regions, these agreements will be in danger,” said Maj. al-Reis.

 For nearly six years, the Jordanian military has allowed Maj. al-Reis and other Free Syria Army officers to run an operations center in the kingdom.

 But since 2015 Jordan’s focus has been turned from undermining Mr. Assad to fighting the Islamic State, a trend that accelerated since the jihadis savagely burned alive Muath Safi Yousef Al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot whose F-16 fighter aircraft crashed over Raqqa, then the Syrian stronghold of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

 “King Abdullah personally started flying missions against Islamic State after they killed Al-Kasasbeh,” said Shehab Al Makahleh, the Jordanian founder of international security consultancy Geostrategic Media. “Abdullah saw the scourge of Islamic terrorism under the black banner of the Islamic State as a greater danger than the Damascus regime.”

 U.S. and Russian negotiators secured a de-escalation pact in Syria’s Quenitra province in Jordan at the same time they agreed on Daraa.

 Quneitra province borders the Golan Heights — territory Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War. Neither Jordan nor Israel wanted violence to escalate in those regions, especially in case the Islamic State got involved in the fighting as Mr. Assad’s fortunes have improved in the past year.

 “The emergence of terrorists within the armed opposition groups became a threat,” said Jordanian retired Gen. Jamal Madain, an analyst at NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions in Amman. “Now we want to avoid any military confrontation in southern Syria that would lead to additional refugees or the growth of terrorist groups.”

 The Jordanian-brokered de-escalation zone in southern Syria follows a May arrangement for the northwestern province of Idlib, where Turkey has backed a deal with Iran and the Russians aimed at constricting both the Islamic State and Kurdish separatists, whom Ankara has accused of seeking to establish an independent country carved in part out of Turkish territory.

 “Without a political settlement, Ankara will find itself facing increasingly disgruntled military groups that have the capacity to go deep into Turkey,” said Ammar Khaff, executive director at Istanbul-based Syrian think tank Omran Dirasat. “The de-escalation zones are a way to better position Turkey politically.”

 Many rebel factions, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda, are based in Idlib. Infighting between those groups resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen militants on July 19, according to Sunni opposition sources.

 Still, an Omran Dirasat analysis of the de-escalation process published last week estimated that since March, there has been an 88 percent reduction in military operations in Idlib province, suggesting de-escalation is bearing fruit.

 The Idlib figure contrasts starkly with a 45 percent decrease in violence for the east Damascus suburban zone of Ghouta, which is still subjected to shelling and airstrikes. Mr. Assad and Russian officials reached a de-escalation agreement in the area last week.

 “Within the last 24 hours, the Russian party of the Russia-Turkey Commission on violations of the joint agreement has registered three cases of firing in the province of Damascus,” said the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman on Sunday.

 On Saturday the Russians said they had reached an agreement with the rebels to more clearly draw boundaries in Ghouta and establish delivery routes for humanitarian aid.

 “Since the war started, many people were killed just because they were walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, and many bodies still are under the destroyed buildings in Idlib,” said Abd Elrezzak Al-Taweel, a 43-year-old mosaic tile craftsman. “We’re experiencing a kind of peace after this cease-fire, but we’re not comfortable because Assad still is living in his palace, and we’re in this destroyed area.”

 Mr. al-Taweel just returned to Idlib in May after spending six years in notorious government-run prisons, including the Adra jail and the detention center at Mazah air force base outside Damascus. Widespread use of torture and “disappearances” of prisoners at both facilities have been widely documented by Syrian and international human rights groups.

 “Most of the detainees did nothing to be arrested, but the issue was not addressed in any of the de-escalation talks,” said Mr. al-Taweel.

 The failure in any of the cease-fire talks or political negotiations to obtain the release of an estimated 107,000 prisoners in Mr. Assad’s jails has raised objections from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the Qatari capital of Doha.

 The detainees’ plight is just another example of how the cease-fires benefit Mr. Assad, said the network’s chairman, Fadal Abdul Ghany.

 “The most recent agreements don’t tackle the detainees issue, which is a fatal flaw,” said Mr. Ghany. “Freedom for these prisoners is just as important as ceasing the bombing and killing or delivering humanitarian aid.” '

Monday, 24 July 2017

Syrian rebels and militants fight for crossing into Turkey

 'Clashes have intensified between two major opposition groups in Syria with violence spreading to a border crossing with Turkey.

 The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) coalition, led by former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham (JFS), has been engaged in intense fighting with the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group and various allies, nominally over HTS’s removal of the Syrian revolutionary flag in opposition-controlled areas of Idlib province.

 So far, at 65 people - including 15 civilians - have been killed in the violence which threatens to tear apart the last seams of rebel unity in Syria.

 Fighting has spread thoughout the province, spilling over into Aleppo and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.

 "The fighting is now inside the crossing. It has become a battlefield, with part of it under Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's control, and part under Ahrar al-Sham's control," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

 Ongoing clashes have also prevented emergency evacuations of severely injured patients from inside Syria to Turkish hospitals near the border.

 An AFP correspondent in the province also reported heavy clashes on the outskirts of the town of Binnish and attempts by HTS to break into the village of Ram Hamdan.

 “We are going to fight until the end,” said Ali al-Omar, the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, in a video published on Twitter.

 “I call people and other factions to gather themselves and fight against HTS, to maintain the revolution, and to protect our homeland.”

 Although rising tensions and sporadic clashes have been ongoing between Ahrar and HTS for some time now, the latest round of fighting was sparked off when Ahrar attempted to raise the revolutionary flag associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the capital city of Idlib, a move objected to by HTS.

 The fighting has put an immense strain on civilians.

 “It’s insane, we want to live in peace, away from war," said Abdulsalam Haji Ahmad, a citizen living in Idlib.

 "I wish the truce would be halted soon, so Assad and Russia will kill all those parties.”

 Breaking down in tears, Abdulsalam said there was “no winner” for Syrian civilians.

 “They pretend that they are fighting for us, they are liars,” he said.

 “It’s a power struggle, It’s Game of Thrones.”

 Civilians in much of opposition-controlled Syria have staged protests against HTS accusing them of being “extremists” along similar lines to the Islamic State group.

 Protests in the town of Sarmada on Wednesday and Thursday were greeted with gunfire by HTS.

 “Citizens are divided between the ones who want to get rid of HTS, or other simple people who want stop this farce,” said Ahmad Omar, a citizen based in the west of Aleppo.

 “On one hand, protesters took to the streets refusing this indecisive inter-rebel fighting in some areas as it weakens both sides, therefore it will definitely benefit the Assad regime.”

 However, he said that some protesters had taken to streets specifically to oppose HTS, chanting "we don’t bow to anyone but God, and Al-Jolani is an enemy,” referring to the leader of JFS.

 In Saraqeb city, where HTS reportedly opened fired on protesters, killing a media activist, civilians forced the militants to leave the city peacefully.

 Ahrar and HTS were once allies and fought alongside each other in the Army of Conquest coalition to capture most of Idlib province from Assad forces in 2015.

 But tensions have grown, exacerbated, analysts say, by HTS's fears of a plan to expel HTS from the province, partly as a way of assuaging fears in the international community that rebels were too close to the group, who are designated a terrorist organisation by many countries.

 The in-fighting has also led to fractures within HTS - Nour al-Din al-Zinki, a rebel group who became notorious after a video appeared online appearing to show them beheading a minor, left the coalition on Thursday citing the failure of rebels to focus their fighting on Bashar al-Assad’s government as well as the “absence of sharia governance”.

 As a result of fighting in Aleppo, a group of rebels managed to seize control of a military checkpoint in the entrance of Al-Atareb, west of Aleppo, a city which had also previously witnessed anti-HTS protests.

 Mohammed Atareb, an FSA fighter allied to Ahrar, said that 150 Ahrar fighters had come from territory controlled by Turkey in the north to aid the anti-HTS forces, while fighters from “other factions are bracing themselves to support the movement.”

 “We are going to support Ahrar al-Sham not because we like it - we definitely have a different ideology, they insulted the revolution flag many times before adopting it recently,” he explained.

 “But we want to defeat the extremism represented by HTS.”

 Experts said the outbreak of violence comes against the backdrop of a deal agreed in the Kazakh capital Astana in May for four "de-escalation zones" in Syria.

 The agreement between Assad allies Russia and Iran, and rebel backer Turkey, designates the Idlib region as one of the mooted zones where combat between the government and rebels would halt.

 HTS opposes the agreement, which calls for continued fighting against militant groups like its main component JFS.

 "As soon as there was the announcement of Idlib as a de-escalation zone, that's it," said Nawar Oliver, a military analyst at the Istanbul-based Omran Centre think tank.

 "HTS felt like a war is upon it," he told AFP.

 "You have these two main rebel forces that are vying for control for Idlib province," added Sam Heller, a Syria expert at the Century Foundation.

 "Whatever kind of political or ideological differences existed between them have been exacerbated or inflamed by the Astana talks, as well as by the rumours - if not the reality - of some larger deal that would work against HTS," he said.

 Oliver added that the fighting was a chance for each side to gain valuable territory, including the border crossing where taxes and tariffs can be extracted.

 "This is an attempt by each faction to extend more influence and control over new areas," he said.

 Idlib is one of the last major parts of Syria beyond the control of the government, which has recaptured vast swathes of territory from opposition fighters since its ally Russia intervened on its behalf in September 2015.'

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Inside Syria's militant-run prisons: Abuse, torture

 Loubna Mrie and Ahmad Zaza:

 'He was only 14 years old when he was first detained by the Syrian government for joining the 2011 protests against President Bashar al-Assad. When militants linked to al-Qaida began gaining ground in rebel-held Idlib province three years later, Jawdat Malas would once again find himself holed up in a dark and dingy detention room.

 The media activist from the Idlib town of Maarat al-Numan said that life in an al-Qaida prison comes with a cruel routine: For hours every day, he would crouch in a corner of a dark cell, where he would be tortured until his body was heavily bruised.

 "I reached a point where I was constipated. My whole body was dark blue," he said. "Other detainees were taking care of me. I had no idea what I did wrong. I was terrified."

 Malas says that he was arrested on charges of colluding with the Free Syrian Army, a confederation of nationalist forces fighting the Syrian government. He also says he was falsely accused of supplying video footage to the U.S.-led coalition fighting al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Syria.

 "They beat me up and terrorized me, asking me to give them the names of who I work with and whom I work for," he said. At one point, militants pressed a knife against his throat and shot a bullet on the ground to rattle him into submission.

 "I had nothing to tell them and nothing to confess. But they didn't care," he said. "If you are not serving their agenda and if you are not with them, you are their enemy."

 In rebel-held parts of Syria, Malas' story is not an anomaly.

 Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, civilians, activists and human-rights groups have consistently reported that non-state armed groups have subjected thousands of people -- including aid workers, doctors, lawyers, rebels and journalists -- to arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, unlawful detention and torture.

 Though pale in comparison to the number of people detained by the Syrian government, arbitrary arrests by armed militant groups is becoming a grave and often overlooked problem for Syrians living in rebel-controlled parts of the country.

 The exact number of missing and detained is unknown, but the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a local watchdog, estimates that more than 9,000 people, including at least 200 children, have been kidnapped or arrested by extremists, such as al-Qaida and IS, since 2011.

 Malas was eventually released by al-Qaida-linked militants after being detained for two months. He said that his captors had finally realized that he had no useful information to provide about either the FSA or the U.S.-led coalition.

 The media activist continued to document and track violations in Maarat al-Numan following his release, but this time his camera lens widened its focus beyond abuses carried out by the Syrian government.

 "This time I knew that I am not only fighting against Assad. I am fighting against all those who are trying to hide behind religion to dominate our struggle," he said. "And I have to document their violations like I do with the Syrian regime."

 In Idlib province, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaida-led alliance of insurgent fighters, has become a dominant force in the only governorate in Syria under near complete rebel control. The hard-line militant group has carried out several arrests against moderate Syrian rebels, activists, citizen journalists and even schoolchildren over the past year alone.

 An activist-run monitoring group sprung up roughly two years ago to document and track abuses carried out by HTS and its predecessor -- the Nusra Front -- in the province and nearby areas.

 One of its founders, Assem Zidan, who lives in Turkey because he is wanted by the group, says that it is difficult to provide accurate statistics on the number of people detained in al-Qaida jails. He says he believes, however, that the problem of arbitrary arrests in Idlib is only increasing.

 In one week this month, his monitoring group recorded the kidnapping of dozens of civilians in Idlib by HTS. On June 15, the monitor claimed that more than 50 FSA rebels were being detained in an HTS prison located in the northern Hama countryside, near Idlib.

 Zidan says that these HTS crackdowns and arrests target any individual or group that has a large following and is capable of "changing public opinion" in its respective area of control. These people are often presented with three options, he said: "detention, death or following their [HTS] ideology."

 Torture and arbitrary arrests have also rattled the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, which has been under the control of Jaish al-Islam, a hard-line armed opposition group, since late 2013. The city of nearly 140,000 people, has seen the arrest of women and children as young as 10 years old at the hand of the radical armed group. The Jaish al-Islam group is also accused of kidnapping and arresting Razan Zaitouneh, Wa'el Hamada, Nazem Hamadi and Samira Khalil, four human rights activists who were abducted in Douma on Dec. 9, 2013.

 Tellingly, the al-Tawba (Repentance) Prison, which is supervised directly by Jaish al-Islam, is one of the most infamous institutions in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, notorious for its abuse and torture methods.

 While there is a large network of activists in the area, there are no accurate statistics on the number of detainees in the jail. Abu Khaled, a 31-year-old media activist from Douma, says he is surprised by the absence of such reports since arbitrary arrests by the militant group have proven to be a serious problem in rebel-held areas east of the capital.

 "Random arrests take place all around Eastern Ghouta. Some former prisoners who had been detained by Jaish al-Islam have spoken of the abysmal conditions in Jaish al-Islam's prisons, and especially in al-Tawba prison," he said.

 "These prisons are as bad as those of the Syrian regime, and, according to former prisoners, many detainees stay in prisons for months without trial."

 Firas, a 32-year-old resident of the suburb was detained in the facility for a month in the summer of 2016. Unlike other prisoners who were accused of spying for the government or colluding with rival rebel groups, the Douma native says he was thrown into jail for raising a complaint against a well-connected neighbor who had links to the hardline Jaish al-Islam group.

 "I talked to my neighbor many times hoping that he could find a solution for the loud noise made by his generator, but he never responded," said Firas, who works at an Internet cafe in the suburb. "I finally decided to go to the police, but it was me who was arrested after they claimed I attacked my neighbor and destroyed his generator."

 Firas was confined to a small cell for one month, where he was subject to "torture and humiliation" by armed militants. He said, however, that he had to "overlook these abuses" because the militant group could easily accuse him of colluding with the government and end his life.

 He was eventually released from prison after agreeing to drop his complaint.

 "When I left prison, the generator was still in place. A little while after that, my house was hit by a shell and my neighbor's generator was destroyed in the attack. Now neither my house nor the generator is there," Firas said.

 Abu Muhammad, a 42-year-old father of three, was held for a month and a half by Jaish al-Islam in Douma last year on charges of colluding with the Syrian government. "I found it ironic to be detained by Jaish al-Islam [on charges of collusion] when I was one of the first in my town to join the Syrian revolution," the vegetable vendor said.

 Abu Mohammad described the torture he faced in the Jaish al-Islam prison as "brutal." He said that he was surrounded by dozens of other prisoners who also had no idea why they were being detained. He would eventually be released after residents connected to the group vouched for him and pledged to keep him out of trouble.'

Friday, 21 July 2017

Idlib is Green

Robin Yassin-Kassab:

'The people of Saraqeb, Idlib, a couple of days after holding a free election for their local council, push HTS (ex-Fateh al-Sham, ex-Nusra, ex-alQaida), out of town. Idlib is Green.'

 Raed Fares:

 'So she lured me this picture and I couldn't resist the magic to spread it.

 I tried to grow her up repeatedly to keep track of the cars, how they felt and what they were thinking.
 Strangers even though they're from the city, but they're strangers, strangers to their religion, their parents and their childhood dreams.
 Strangers from the garden of their grandfather, strangers from their past, their present and their future, strangers from life after they painted the lines of their west.
 Who are you to judge a gun? Who are you to stop a frenzy that has erupted in their chests seven years ago?
 Who are you? And how did you come? And who sent you?
 Leave and take with you my fear of you and take with you the idea that we are ad, and to learn very well that who broke the barrier of oppression and fear in 2011.'

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Thursday, 20 July 2017

As Trump Shores Up Assad's Genocidal Regime, America's Hard Left Is Cheering Him On

The U.S. far left and far right have found love in common: Assad and Putin. Max Blumenthal tells Tucker Carlson on Fox News "Russian hysteria has buried the Left". 17 July 2017

 Oz Katerji:

 'Prominent left wing blogger and self-declared "anti-imperialist" Max Blumenthal was recently the special guest of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. Blumenthal took to the airwaves of a hard-right, Islamophobic propaganda network to rail against sanctions and dismiss irrefutable accusations of collusion between Donald Trump’s election campaign and the Kremlin.

 Normally a situation in which the far-left find kinship with the far-right would raise more of an eyebrow, but in the world of Trump-Russia it barely registers anymore. This is because these voices have found ideological bedfellows on the Western far-right.

 Blumenthal’s appearance on Fox wasn’t an anomaly, for the editor of the 'Grayzone Project’, supposedly dedicated to "combatting Islamophobia", has long been at the forefront of a group of Western bloggers, pundits and academics promoting pro-Kremlin propaganda and regurgitating widely debunked Islamophobic conspiracy theories about Syrians.

 Blumenthal, along with his colleagues and frequent Russia Today contributors Gareth Porter, Benjamin Norton & Rania Khalek have spent the best part of the last 18 months publishing smear attacks against NGOs, medics, journalists, first responders and Syrian civil society groups.

 Virtually any group that speaks out on the Assad regime’s campaign of systematic slaughter have been targeted by this coterie with the express intention of defending a regime guilty of human extermination. This work is focused squarely on painting any grassroots opposition to the Assad regime as either the work of U.S. imperialism or borne from violent Sunni extremists. Blumenthal and his crew have also positioned themselves as the enemies of truth, by frequently using their platforms to deny or dismiss the war crimes of the Assad regime.

 The irony is that Blumenthal used his appearance on Fox to dismiss the credibility of irrefutable Trump-Russia connections on a supposed lack of evidence, whereas in Syria, Blumenthal and his AlterNet Grayzone colleagues have repeatedly ignored evidence in favour of fact-free war crimes denial narratives, even when those narratives contradict each other.

 But those who have followed Blumenthal’s evidence-free approach to Assad should not be shocked by his desire to jump into bed with the pro-Putin right-wing chorus.

 Take for example the Assad regime’s air strike on the Ain al-Fijeh water springs in the Damascus enclave of Wadi Barada. When the spring was bombed, temporarily cutting off fresh water supplies for large parts of Damascus, the regime claimed that the rebels poisoned the water supply with diesel fuel. Despite there being no evidence of this, Blumenthal ran with this lie. Following a UN investigation that found the Assad regime responsible for the war crime, not only did Blumenthal fail to retract the lie, his colleague Rania Khalek rejected the UN investigation and again mouthed the regime line.

 The same thing happened following the regime’s bombardment of the Aleppo aid convoy in September 2016. Again, AlterNet writers started pushing the Kremlin line and, following the United Nations conclusive report finding the regime culpable, they refuted the conclusions of the investigation in favour of Russian claims. This has been repeated time and time again by these bloggers, whether dismissing recorded attacks against field hospitals or outright denying regime culpability for chemical weapons attacks based on claims from one anonymous source. The reality is these pundits aren’t interested in the veracity of evidence when it comes to using fabricated claims to defend Russia or Assad from allegations of war crimes, even following conclusive independent United Nations investigations.

 This evidence-free, propaganda heavy position on Syria has been fawned over by the far-right. Blumenthal’s work has received gushing praise from America’s leading racist commentators including Ann Coulter, Pamela Geller and former KKK leader David Duke.

 Earlier in July this year in an interview Blumenthal declared: "The [American] national security state has completely abrogated what should be its top mission, which is to take on these [anti-Assad] Sunni jihadist organizations which have repeatedly attacked soft targets in the West and caused chaos. They should be fighting them."

 Blumenthal is conflating all anti-Assad forces with ISIS and Al Qaeda, as he has frequently denied the existence of any moderate Syrian rebels, a frequent trope to delegitimize all anti-Assad forces.

 These are the words not of a Leftist or "anti-imperialist", but of a Westerner fully embracing the expansion of Bush, Obama and now Trump's 'war on terror’, with a specific remit to target Sunnis. With a healthy dose of sectarian hypocrisy, a longstanding defender of the designated Shia terrorist organisation Hezbollah has openly called for the expansion of Trump’s bombardment of civilians in the Middle East.

 What Blumenthal fails to disclose is that this campaign is already firmly under way and has already seen civilian deaths jump from 80 per month under Obama to 360 per month under Trump. As well as openly supporting the Russian-backed offensive against Aleppo, which was labelled a war crime by the UN, it seems Blumenthal is not opposed to the bombing of Syria as long as Assad’s enemies are the target.

 The U.S. is bombing Syria, and the thousands of coalition air strikes carried out against ISIS in favour of pro-Assad militias around Palmyra or Deir ez-Zour or against al-Qaeda-affiliated opposition militants in Idlib or Aleppo prove this, however Blumenthal’s loudest protests are saved for Assad’s air bases, not Trump’s coalition bombing civilians in mosques. It is no coincidence that during the campaign trail Benjamin Norton endorsed Trump’s foreign policy, sentiment that was also echoed by mainstream backer of AlterNet’s pro-Assad crowd Glenn Greenwald.

 The sectarian rot of these bloggers isn’t even particularly well hidden, as evidenced by Benjamin Norton’s faux-media outrage over the use of the word ‘stronghold’. When it comes to Beirut and Hezbollah, Norton is enraged by the use of the word stronghold to describe areas under its control, however in Idlib, the entirety of the population is reduced to a ‘stronghold’ belonging to a terrorist organisation.

 This kind of language is deliberately used by these bloggers exclusively to dehumanize Syrian civilians, and on this issue, these far-left activists have found ideological kinship against "manufactured liberal hysteria" with the most reactionary elements of the far-right.

 While these supposed leftists continue to present themselves as "anti-war" or "anti-imperialist", they are in fact acting as full-time advocates for Russian and Iranian military imperialism in Syria and to provide them immunity in the American public square from war crimes charges. This American far-left: far-right coalition on Syria looks set to keep flourishing, on the backs of millions of almost exclusively Syrian Sunni Arab victims, whom they’ve thrown to their eager Assad-supporting predators.'

Syrians memorialize victims of a a suspected toxic gas attack on Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, reported to have killed 88 people, including 31 children. July 12, 2017

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Putin, Trump

 Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 'In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

 To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

 The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

 Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

 Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

 Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

 But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down.

 The United States has also struck Iranian-backed columns in the southeast of the country three times in recent weeks, as well as destroying at least two Iranian drones. The Shiite militias were advancing near Al-Tanf, where Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. From the Al-Tanf base, the U.S. military has supported local rebel groups as they won large swathes of the southern desert from ISIS, and from here it hopes to drive ISIS out of the Euphrates valley. But as the rebels advanced eastward against Sunni jihadis, Iran’s Shiite jihadis came from the west and claimed the newly liberated territory.

 After six years, and the interventions of a myriad of states and organizations, each with competing agendas, the war in Syria is immensely complex. This doesn’t stop people reaching for simplistic total explanations, both ethnic and sectarian.

 Some in the region will frame the intensifying tensions as the U.S. siding with Sunni against Shiite Muslims, a perception reinforced by President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and the multibillion-dollar arms deal he signed there. Likewise, President Barack Obama ignoring the Iranian build up in Syria, and the disappearance of his chemical “red line” in August 2013 when Assad gassed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburbs, led many to believe then that America was siding with Shiite over Sunni Islam.

 Many in the West too—politicians, academics and journalists as much as anyone else— assume that the Middle East’s current wars are symptoms of ancient, unchanging enmities. Obama, evading his own share of responsibility, asserted that regional instability is “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” In other words, in “ancient sectarian differences.”

 But it’s not “the Kurds” occupying Arab-majority towns; it’s one political party-militia claiming to speak for the Kurds. Likewise, ISIS in no way represents Syria’s Sunni Arabs, though it says it does. Neither does the externally based Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has proved incapable of recognizing Kurds’ right to autonomy in areas where they do form a majority. And Iran’s goals are strategic, though it exploits sectarian identity in order to achieve these goals.

 Proponents of the “ancient conflict” thesis are unable to explain why religion matters in politics in some moments but not in others. The main cleavage in Lebanese politics, for instance, appears today to be Sunni vs. Shiite, but during the country’s 1975-90 civil war battle, lines were drawn between Christians and Muslims. Similarly, Sunni and Shiite communities in contemporary Iraq seem largely closed to each other, but before 2003, a third of Iraqi marriages were made between sects.

 Any serious analysis of these shifts and reversals must pay attention not to theology but politics. A new book—Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, a collection of essays focusing on crises from Pakistan to Yemen—does just that. The introduction (written by editors Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel) defines sectarianization as a deliberate policy pursued (or perpetrated) by authoritarian regimes, the better to divide and rule. By this reading, the problems of the Middle East arise from tyranny and political underdevelopment, not from inherent cultural divides.

 In its early stages, the Syrian Revolution was explicitly anti-sectarian. Protesters hoisted such slogans as “My sect is freedom” and “The Syrian people are one.” Christians attended mosques so they could join the demonstrations after prayers, and Arabs chanted azadi—the Kurdish word for “freedom.” As land was liberated, Syrians of all sects cooperated in elected local councils. How did this promising start degenerate in six short years to today’s seeming tangle of ethnic and religious wars?

 In the essay on Syria in Hashemi and Postel’s book, Paulo Hilu Pinto identifies four channels of division: “top-down (state generated); bottom-up (socially generated); outside-in (fueled by regional forces); and inside out (the spread of Syria’s conflict to regional states).”

 The most significant is top-down. From the start of the revolutionary challenge, the Assad regime made “strategic use” of visible state violence against Sunnis while mobilizing minority groups to police their “own” revolutionaries. To shore up minority support, and to pose to the West as the lesser evil, the regime helped create a Sunni-jihadi opposition by organizing massacres of Sunni civilians (in 2012) and releasing thousands of extremists from prison (in 2011) even as it rounded up, tortured and murdered democrats.

 Greater division grew out of the trauma of war. Rumors, jokes, songs and media platforms expressed a sense of communal victimhood and demonized the other side. The chief regional forces contributing to the broth were ISIS—an Iraqi Sunni organization—and Shiite-theocratic Iran. Both broadcast their presence in April 2013. Iran did so through its Lebanese client Hezbollah, which recaptured Al-Qusayr for the regime. In the same month, ISIS declared itself a “state.” At this point, some Sunnis came to believe that Iran’s Shiite International was attacking them not because they had demanded democracy, but simply because they were Sunnis. And some non-Sunnis came to believe the regime was the only alternative to annihilation.

 Both ISIS and the Assad-Iran alliance have practiced sectarian cleansing. ISIS does it for ideological and propaganda reasons. Assad does it more politically, to clear rebellious populations from strategic points and often to replace them with loyalists. To a lesser extent, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also contributed to communal hatred, through propaganda and by funding Sunni-identity militias.

 But Saudi Arabia’s divisive influence, as Madawi Rasheed’s essay shows, is most pronounced at home. There’s a long history to this, but most recently the Arab Spring, and the specter of a national opposition movement, “pushed the regime to reinvigorate sectarian discourse against the Shiite.” Just as Iran portrayed Syria’s uprising as a Saudi plot, so the Saudi Arabians described their restive population as a tool of Iranian imperialism.

 Shiite Muslims form a majority in nearby Bahrain. Toby Matthiesen’s essay remembers that the country contained an active workers' movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The (Sunni) al-Khalifa royal family responded by banning unions, disbanding parliament (in 1975), building an exclusively Sunni security service (staffed by foreign mercenaries) and promoting Islamist parties. In February 2011, in response to pro-democracy protests, Saudi troops moved into Bahrain, supposedly to foil an Iranian-Shiite plot.

 Today the U.S. maintains a naval base in this dictatorship. When Trump told the Muslim dictators massed in Riyadh to drive out extremism, he missed the main point. Dictatorship is the problem. The long-term solution to extremism is democracy. Sectarian division is just one of the obstacles that dictators deliberately throw in its way.'

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Two Testimonials Shed Light on Syrian Life and Death

 ' “I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood,” the writer Svetlana Alexievich said in her 2015 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “We were taught death.” Alexievich was speaking of Belarus, where she grew up and where, during World War II, 2.2 million people died — nearly one person in four. The scale of this suffering seems impossible to fathom, numbers so large that the mind snaps shut. Yet one needn’t cast back in history for such figures. Since the war in Syria began six years ago, 6.5 million people — more than one in three Syrians — have been internally displaced, and another 470,000 are dead. Now, as the war grinds into its seventh horrifying year, literature written in English and borne out of the conflict is finally beginning to reach the rest of the world.

 Alia Malek’s memoir, “The Home That Was Our Country,” is one of the finest examples of this new testimonial writing. Born in Baltimore to Syrian-American parents, Malek is a journalist and attorney who landed a job in the civil rights division of the Justice Department less than a year before 9/11. Unable to endure the political climate under President George W. Bush, she quit the United States for the Middle East, where she traveled and taught human rights for the better part of a decade. Her political and cultural fluency, as well as her deep familiarity with the landscape, allow her to become “a human ear” as Svetlana Alexievich calls it, recording the tragic absurdities of daily life that give way to dark humor. On an earlier trip, she had visited southern Lebanon and toured a prison that was recently closed. Her guide, a former inmate, instructed the group’s members to cover their noses and mouths, “so as not to inhale the germs of diseases that he was convinced still lingered.” The disease that lingered, of course, was despair. She spotted a sign for the “suffering yard” — suffering, she writes, “was their translation for torture.”

 In April 2011, Malek moved to the Syrian capital of Damascus to report in secret for The Nation and The New York Times. The country was in the initial throes of what many hoped would become a democratic uprising born out of the Arab Spring. Yet there were already terrible signs that the regime of Bashar al-Assad wasn’t going to give up without bloody reprisals. In February, his security forces had rounded up and tortured at least 15 children for anti-Assad graffiti in their town of Dara’a. Ordinary Syrians, long oppressed by two generations of the Assad family’s brutality, were taking to the streets in protest. In an attempt to quell reports of dissent, the regime banned many foreign journalists. Malek went to work anyway. As a cover story, she tells her Syrian cousins that she’s writing a book about her maternal grandmother, Salma, the daughter of a Christian businessman, Sheikh Abdeljawwad al-Mir, born in the Ottoman Empire in 1889.

 Her cover story wasn’t entirely false, as that book becomes this one, and Malek grounds her narrative throughout in her grandmother’s story. Salma, a charismatic and embittered matriarch, grew up as the chain-smoking daughter in a family that prized only men, and after suffering a stroke, spends the last seven years of her life in her Damascus apartment, “locked in” her body, paralyzed yet alert, able to communicate only with her eyes. When Salma dies, she leaves behind a chic flat for Malek’s family, which, after decades of feuding with a hostile tenant, they succeed in reclaiming.

 As Syria burns, it falls to Malek to renovate the flat — haggling for light fixtures from the Electricity Souk during a blackout, and keeping an eye on a corrupt contractor while the Assad regime gasses its own people, drops barrel bombs — oil drums loaded with shrapnel — from helicopters, and disappears thousands to be tortured in underground prisons.

 Malek observes almost none of this firsthand. Instead, her war is largely made up of what she can’t see. She lives day to day under the cloud of claustrophobia and menace that dominates the Syrian capital, where her presence poses a significant risk both to herself and to her Syrian family. Attempting, at one point, to communicate to Malek the kind of danger she’s putting her family in, a beloved cousin grabs her own hair, imitating the treatment the security forces mete out upon women, which can include gang rape. “That’s what they will do,” she tells Malek. “They will take all of us if you do something.”

 Although it becomes increasingly clear that her family would prefer that Malek leave Syria immediately, she stays on for two years, conducting clandestine interviews with ordinary Syrians undertaking extreme acts of courage — from those shuttling medical supplies to besieged areas to others launching ingenious and nonviolent protests against the regime. Some have survived unspeakable horrors in the basement of the nearby office of the security forces. Malek often walks past “with a shudder.” Its cells, she learns from torture survivors, are smeared with blood.

 This office dominates her waking life, as Malek, both insider and outsider, is forced to pass it most days, thinking about much that others would rather ignore. In her neighborhood, as elsewhere, she realizes, the proximity of the mukhabarat, as the security forces are called, has a double purpose. Their nearness terrifies local civilians into submission. “But most insidiously, no matter how much we averted our gaze, the fact that we knew what was happening inside and yet went about our lives made us complicit.” This quotidian collusion takes a moral toll. By the time she leaves for good in May 2013, she realizes that, whether she likes it or not, she too has become an unwilling collaborator: “By going about our lives, we had become bit players in the regime’s effort to maintain that everything was normal.”

 By contrast, “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” chronicles Syrian lives that are anything but normal. In it, Wendy Pearlman, a professor of politics at Northwestern University, collects the accounts of refugees, most of whom have fled the brutality of the Assad regime. Pearlman speaks fluent Arabic, and between 2012 and 2016, she travels to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Europe to record their stories.

 Many of these voices render themselves unforgettable. A doctor named Annas tells Pearlman during an interview in Turkey how he and others found unconventional ways to treat protesters gassed by the regime: “People were choking on tear gas and we’d pour cola on their faces, which counters the effect of gas. Their faces were sticky and glistening.” Another, Adam, a media organizer interviewed by Pearlman in Denmark, debunks facile Western talk about ancient religious divisions in Syria: “Our children are in prison ... and you’re talking about Shia and Sunnis?”

 Amin, a physical therapist, shares an ingenious bit of activist tradecraft on how to elude security forces, who often dial the contacts in the phone of someone they capture in order to ensnare others. “If someone dies, don’t delete his number. Just change his name to ‘Martyr.’ That way, if you get a text from him, you know that someone else has gotten a hold of the phone.” He adds, “So I’d open my contact list, and it was all Martyr, Martyr, Martyr.”

 These oral histories aren’t dutiful case studies. Instead, Pearlman shapes her subjects’ narratives, winnowing interviews down to stirring illustrations of human adaptation. In a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Pearlman finds a woman named Bushra, a mother who has, five years into the war, raised her children largely on the move and out of doors by necessity. One day, she took her young daughter to a woman’s center, which was in an actual building. “After living in a tent, she was amazed by the real walls and real floors,” Bushra tells Pearlman. Astonished, her daughter exclaimed, “Take a photo of me next to the wall!”

 One slight issue, however, with these accounts: The more compelling they become, the more questions they raise about how exactly they were fashioned. Pearlman could tell us more about the process of deposition and translation. In the introduction, she describes working with more than 20 researchers to transcribe the interviews, which she then edited, she says, for “readability,” a word that calls for more explication. The stories would benefit from being framed by a detailed accounting of this process. In some places, their seamless beauty grows distracting, as we become unsure of where the speaker ends and where Pearlman’s editorial hand begins.

 Nevertheless, Pearlman’s oral histories, like Malek’s memoir, will remain essential reading in the emerging body of literary reportage from Syria in English. (Two other memoirs that will be published here this fall include the journalist Deborah Campbell’s “A Disappearance in Damascus,” and the photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie’s account of his captivity, “The Shattered Lens.”) What makes Pearlman’s and Malek’s books particularly necessary is their insistence on foregrounding the extraordinary heroism of ordinary Syrians — both those who remain trapped in the yoke of an oppressive regime, and those struggling to make new lives in unwelcoming places. Such stories couldn’t be more urgent. “I was writing history through the stories of its unnoticed witnesses and participants,” Svetlana Alexievich tells us. “They had never been asked anything.” '

Monday, 17 July 2017

US-Syrian woman keeps school going in al-Qaida-run region

US-Syrian woman keeps school going in al-Qaida-run region

 'When Syria's uprising broke out, Rania Kisar left her job in the United States and returned home to join what she dreamed would be the ouster of President Bashar Assad and the building of a new Syria. Her main focus these days has been to keep al-Qaida-linked militants from taking over the dream.

 Syrian-American Kisar runs a school in the last main enclave in Syria held by the opposition, the northwestern province of Idlib. The strongest power in the territory is al-Qaida's affiliate, and it is increasingly intervening in day-to-day affairs of administering the province. That means Kisar has had to become adept with dealing with them to keep her school running.

 Sometimes that means making concessions to them, sometimes it means pushing back. Throughout, she knows why the militants keep trying to get their way: "If they don't interfere, they won't be considered powerful."

 Al-Qaida's branch leads an alliance of factions known as Hayat Fatah al-Sham that dominates the opposition administration running Idlib. But the group has to tread carefully, balancing between its aim to control and its wariness of triggering a backlash from residents and other factions. So far, it has stayed relatively pragmatic: it takes every opportunity to show it is in charge but has shown no interest in a wide-scale imposition of an extremist vision of Islamic law.

 They halted public killings of criminals; there are no religious police patrolling streets, arresting or beating people — and they haven't forced women to wear the niqab face veil.

 That is a sharp contrast to the Islamic State group in the stretches of Syria and Iraq where the rival militant group has ruled the past three years.

 Instead, al-Qaida administrators and fighters try to enforce some rules on a smaller scale while avoiding heavy-handed confrontation and presenting themselves as the champions of Syria's "revolution" against Assad.

 Idlib now stands in a tenuous position among the international and regional powers that are effectively carving up Syria. Assad's Russian-backed military is focused on fighting Islamic States militants further to the east, as are the United States and its Kurdish led-allies. Turkey and its allies have seized a pocket of territory neighboring Idlib. Eventually, all these forces will turn their attention to the fate of the opposition enclave.

 In the meantime, Idlib, swelling with more than 900,000 Syrians displaced from fallen rebel enclaves elsewhere, is the refuge of an opposition movement that only a few years earlier appeared to have the momentum in the conflict.

 Now Kisar and others like her are trying to keep al-Qaida's influence at bay.

 "Everyone sold us out," she said in a recent interview in her office in Istanbul, where she regularly travels.

 Kisar said the international community's fear of radical Islamists taking over Syria is exaggerated and reflects a lack of understanding of the Syrian opposition. She and others argue that the militants are needed, they provide services and infrastructure as well as skilled fighters for now, but will not have support later.

 From the start, Kisar has been a true believer in the uprising. After the revolt began in 2011, she left her administrative job at a Dallas university and joined the opposition.

 She traveled with fighters on the front lines, helping displaced people. She organized services in opposition territories. Along the way, she survived an airstrike and lost a colleague who was kidnapped by Islamic State group militants and was later believed killed.

 Finally, she settled in Maaret al-Numan, Idlib's second largest city. It was one of the few strongholds of the moderate Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group for the internationally-backed opposition factions. In recent years, radical factions like al-Qaida have grown in influence and gained a foothold. But Maaret's residents largely continued to support the FSA. They held repeated protests whenever al-Qaida fighters went too far, arresting journalists or cracking down on opponents.

 In 2015, Kisar launched her foundation — SHINE, or the Syrian Humanitarian Institute for National Empowerment.

 It provides classes for adults in computers, programming and web design. Registered in Dallas and funded by donations from Turkey and private citizens in America and elsewhere, the foundation has so far graduated 237 students.

 Kisar takes great pride in the result: a "geek squad" of tech-savvy men and women who can fix smart phones and computers. That is vital in opposition-held areas, where there are no telephone lines and the population relies on satellite internet for communication.

 "There are no private institutes, no universities, there are no hospitals," she said. "It is us, a bunch of locals, volunteers, stepping forward and saying, OK, I am going to clean the street, I am going to go volunteer in a hospital and I am going to build a school. ... This is my part. This is my honor."

 Her first brush with the militants came when she had to explain her work to gain accreditation from the bureaucracy they control.

 She bickered with one official, arguing that armed groups should not control civilian affairs. He wouldn't look her in the eye since she's a woman. But "when he heard I am from America, he said: 'We have every honor that an American Muslim is here and wants to be here'," she recalled.

 Even in heated debates with the militants, she said, she has always kept a respectful tone, something that has helped keep her operating.

 It also helps that she is a woman. "I can get away with a lot of things," she said with her characteristic giggle. "There is a lot more leniency toward me because I am a woman."

 The ultraconservative militants were concerned that SHINE provides classes for men and women. So she kept it going by segregating the space — men on the bottom floor, women on the top. When airstrikes hit the top floor, she set up separate areas on the ground floor.

 Before graduation, an inspector told her not to play music at the ceremony. She argued back. Then on graduation day, the ceremony started with a nod to tradition with a Quranic recital in line with the inspector's wishes.

 But as the students filed out in front of an audience of relatives and local officials, Kisar played an anthem. It was a calculated gamble: she was betting the militants would not make a scene.

 "It was matter-of-fact. They did nothing," she said.

 Even as it interferes more in administration of opposition-held areas, al-Qaida's affiliate is struggling between its identity as a hard-line jihadi movement and its ambition to lead the rebellion with its variety of factions, wrote another Syria watcher, Mona Alami in a recent Atlantic Council article.

 When that balancing act breaks down, violence can explode.

 In June, Maaret al-Numan was shaken when pitched street battles erupted between al-Qaida militants and the FSA, bringing gruesome revenge killings and leaving at least six civilians dead. HTS fighters opened fire on residents protesting against their presence in the streets.

 For a moment, the chaos seemed to shatter Kisar's spirit. "It is going to break loose," she said over the phone at the time. "Everybody is fighting everybody."

 She left town for several days to "breathe."

 Eventually, calm was restored with a shaky reconciliation, though one that increased the militants' influence: the FSA faction running the town had to leave their offices, replaced by an agency linked to al-Qaida.

 Kisar resumed her work — and her own balancing act. This time, she was preparing festivities for local children to celebrate a major Muslim holiday.

 "You must check out the videos," she said, giggling. "It is like Disneyland. It is SHINEland. It is majestic." '

US-Syrian woman keeps school going in al-Qaida-run region