Friday, 22 February 2019

Idlib peace talks mean little to Syrians still being bombed

Idlib peace talks mean little to Syrians still being bombed

 Zouhir al-Shimale:

 'Ever since Assad's régime recaptured the majority of opposition territories across the country, Idlib has provided a haven for the majority of displaced families once involved in the uprising, unable to return home and forced to stay displaced in domestic exile.

 Idlib has been one of the main issues at the international negotiations in Russia aiming to resolve what Moscow calls "the last rebel pocket".

 The Sochi agreement, launched in September 2018, established a buffer zone with Russia and Turkey running joint patrols in the area between rebel-held and Assad-held territory.

 But despite the agreement, Syrian troops have been bolstered by Iranian militants recently removed from Damascus - reportedly after Russian orders - and moved towards the infamous T-4 airbase and Idlib's frontlines.

 The largest bakery in Khan Shaykhoun has been devastated after it was deliberately targeted in a recent bombing, which killed four civilians.

 "This bakery is the only one of its kind in the area," local activist Bahr Shaheen said. "People from inside and  outside the town come in the morning and all day to buy their bread supply - it was deliberately targeted by Assad's militants, he's done it before. Assad's militants are targeting vital facilities, now they've devastated our bakeries, later they'll attack hospitals and schools."

 Khan Shaikhoun, along with other towns in the Idlib countryside, has been pounded with mortars, explosive rockets and cluster bombs.

"We're very frustrated and letdown, even though Russia and Turkey have agreed to set up the demilitarised zone here. There is no application whatsoever, or commitment. It's worse [than before Sochi]," added Shaheen.

 Thousands of families who have already fled from Aleppo, Homs, Ghouta and Dara'a have had no choice but to leave their shelters under fire and become displaced for a second or third time.

 Fawaz Haj Alo is a father-of-three who fled from Arbin in East Gouta last April and settled in Al-Teh, a town in the Idlib area with his family.

 But the local council has announced an emergency situation after declaring "catastrophic status" on the majority of Idlib's southern countryside.

 "Since we arrived in this town we've been trying to establish a way to earn a living and resume our lives. We were, despite the desperate circumstances, able to survive," Fawaz said.

 "However, we were forced to leave the town. The bombing has always been random and sudden; it hasn't stopped since last year, but massively increased in the past few months.

 "Our house and our neighbours' one got hit by the attacks. My son was already wounded with shrapnel in his legs. As a result, we had to move to the Salqen camp near the border.

 "I call on everyone to help us, it's unbearable here in these camps, there is nothing to survive with, no NGOs, no food. Just stop the bombing, so we go back to our town."

 However, many civilians remain in Idlib's towns under fire, maintaining their shelters and unwilling to leave their homes, taking daily risks out of a sense of despair and a lack of alternatives.

 "Where would we go to? The borders and camps are full of refugees, we can't find an empty tent or shelter," said Salem Obayda, an Arabic teacher living in Maratnomn.

 The town has come under daily artillery fire, with many families forced to leave the southern part of the city, heading towards the camps on the border.

 "Education here was fully halted because of the attacks and a lack of underground schools," says Salem. "I prefer to stay rather than undergoing the dilemma in the border camps. "Everything is under attack, the peace talks have brought only blood and grief to us. All of us can see a large scale insurgency looming in the close future. We have no military existence in the city, all the factions left as part of the peace talks, but it has changed nothing, we've been under ruthless attacks since the start. We've been displaced many times, from Dara'a to Ghouta then to Idlib and within the cities. Where else would we go? Turkey has closed its border, camps are the only option. We are not willing to go anywhere, and we'd rather stay - regardless of the consequences."

 Amid the devastation and rubble, volunteers from Syria's Civil Defence Corps, known as The White Helmets, have been doing what they can to save lives.

 "The White Helmets have been carrying out non-stop rescue efforts to help civilians affected by Assad's relentless offensive," Mohammad Abdoullah, a White Helmet volunteer in northern Syria said. Our teams have been at full capacity across northern Syria's towns. There have been indiscriminate attacks against civilian residential areas, killing unarmed people - nevertheless, our medical and rescue teams are working on the ground, day and night. Most of the deaths and injuries have been women and children. We've been taking risks and pulling dead and severely injured and burned bodies from beneath the collapsed buildings."

 Hospitals and makeshift medical centres across northern Syria have been over-crowded with patients. Many have been moved to Turkish hospitals due to a lack of equipment.

 "In spite of the medical fund's recent cut, we're still able to function and run the hospitals to treat the large numbers of patients we've been receiving so far," said D.Feras al-Jonde, the health minister in the Azaz-based Syrian Interim Government formed by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. On the other hand, the medical support available isn't sustainable and [treatment] won't be carried out as efficiently as it is at the moment [for long], we're running low on medical resources. We put the responsibility for the catastrophic consequences of the medical fund's cut on the international community - who must as soon as possible understand the upcoming shut-down of our medical facilities. The donors must be conscious of putting more than 3.5 million civilians at risk of losing even their rights to medical treatment." '

 "For the second time this week people in in Al-Bab protest in solidarity with the people who are suffering under government shelling."

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Wednesday, 20 February 2019

‘They will do what they want to do’: How the Syrian régime has managed former rebel communities

‘They will do what they want to do’: How the Syrian regime has managed former rebel communities

 'It was not so long ago that the notion of negotiating with the Syrian régime was considered an untenable prospect to the residents of areas formerly under the control of the armed opposition.

 Whether the aim of such negotiations was allowing the entry of food supplies to besieged residents, opening closed crossings or reaching certain local agreements, such calls were often considered insufferable, and the fate of those who proposed such negotiations was sometimes assassination.

 However, when the régime’s sieges started to tighten on one opposition area after another, compounded in 2015 with the start of the Russian air force’s intensive bombardments of rebel-held areas - the increasingly-exhausted locals of the besieged areas started to soften their stance towards negotiations. In time a clear shift started to transpire, whereby “Local Reconciliation Truces” (and later full-blown “settlement agreements”) started to become a demand of some in rebel-held areas.

 One official involved in negotiating such a reconciliation agreement on behalf of former rebel-held areas in Southern Damascus, describe the change in attitude: “A few months before signing the agreement with the régime, we distributed 3,000 paper questionnaires to the population to find out whether they were indeed leaning towards negotiating with the régime. The result was that 76% of them wanted to negotiate – and that was before the last bombardments by the Russian air force in the area. After the bombardments, the proportion surpassed 90%.”

 Dozens of such agreements were signed in the countryside of Homs, Eastern Ghouta, Southern Damascus, Dara’a and other areas across the country. They were distinguished in form by only minor differences, and the key clauses and general template remained the same: evacuating those who refused to subjugate themselves to régime authority; surrendering heavy weaponry; and offering guarantees of safety to those who decided to stay.

These agreements were signed by committees that represented the populations of the besieged areas. Yet following the implementation of the agreements, many of the very same committee members could be found amongst the first contingents of displaced residents to Syria’s north, arriving in the now-infamous “green buses” to the remaining areas still under rebel control.

Others remained to share the fate of the residents on whose behalf they negotiated. Whilst some of these were sometimes targeted and intermittently subjected to accusations of “treachery”, they are today faced with a new and far more perilous reality. At a rate that has markedly intensified in recent times, many are being arrested by régime security forces - especially in the southern province of Dara’a, once the cradle of Syria’s revolt.

 In general, the opposition-held areas that signed “reconciliation” settlements all underwent a similar scenario. First, communication channels would be opened with the régime, to be followed with the formation of a negotiations committee and the commencement of meetings with régime representatives. The drafts of the agreements would then be presented to the civil and armed local authorities in the area, before being signed and subsequently implemented.

 Abdullah al-Hariri, one of the members of the negotiations committee for Southern Damascus as a representative of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), recounted: “The committees, particularly with their first representatives, did not include the notable religious, academic, or public opinion leaders in the areas they were negotiating for. Instead, they encompassed those who had the ability to reach influential individuals within régime circles - and those who had contacts on the opposing side who they could communicate with to try and obtain food supplies in the first stage [of implementation]”.

 He adds that the committees became more organised at a later stage, transforming into “negotiation sittings, in which [the aim would be] to surrender the areas with the least possible losses”.

 Delineating how the makeup of the negotiation committees would evolve, al-Hariri said: “When the idea of negotiation was still in its early days, the original proponent of the concept in Southern Damascus, Shaikh Abu Omar Khalifa, was assassinated. After the siege tightened however, every segment began looking for a representative to negotiate on its behalf - leading to the increase in prominence of negotiators as intermediaries with connections to the régime, which in turn allowed them to occupy a social and political status in their areas since they were responsible for the entry of aid supplies to civilians and fighters. Thus, negotiators with the régime at a certain stage became leaders in their areas.”

 In Dara’a however, the situation was different, Hariri noted. On the one hand, negotiations were rapid and did not follow a period of prolonged siege, as took place in Southern Damascus and Eastern Ghouta. Omar al-Khateeb, a journalist who was forcibly displaced from Dara’a following the signing of a reconciliation settlement in his area, said that the negotiation committees in Dara’a were initially founded by groups locally known as “the men of reconciliation” - individuals who negotiated with the régime after its latest military offensive there. On who constituted their membership, Al-Khateeb said: “Some of them were cooperative [even] originally with the régime and this was discovered afterwards; they had a large role in inciting the population against the [armed] factions, as well as spreading rumours”.

 Al-Khateeb marks the Russian entry into the negotiation process - and its request of the rebel factions to form a negotiations committee – as the moment which crystallised a split between the opponents and supporters of reconciliation. “Popular pressure was moving towards negotiation in order to cease the continued bombardment and destruction of the areas,” he said. “Subsequently meetings began and a settlement was reached”.

 Soon, the emergent situation in the northern countryside of Homs, which would be subject to threats of a pro-régime offensive, before agreeing to a settlement, would be replicated in Dara’a.

 Mahmoud, a member of the negotiation committee that represented areas of the Northern Homs countryside, who requested anonymity for security purposes, said that among the members of the committee were representatives of the armed and civil factions.

 “Some of whom had an intimate relationship with the régime, and indeed counted amongst them individuals who would leak the private deliberations of these committees before [even] sitting on the negotiation table with the régime,” he said. “Most of these committees were infiltrated, with each negotiating with the régime individually to try and attain the best conditions for its own area, whereas the régime was negotiating professionally as a single body, knowing how to impose what it wanted and how to infiltrate one committee or another.”

 The Syrian régime has lately begun to implement a new stage of the settlement agreements – one naturally absent from its provisions, but considered implicit by many who preferred displacement – namely, the stage of nullifying the settlement.

 Beyond the forcible displacement of those who refused to subsume themselves to régime authority to Northern Syria, along with the surrendering of heavy weaponry, the terms of the reconciliation agreements also entailed granting “settlement [identification] cards” to former rebels who surrendered themselves. Under these terms, former rebels were guaranteed that they would not be transferred to military fronts outside of their local areas – indeed, going further to even provision for their retention as a strong local security force.

 Furthermore, conscripts required for military service would not be taken to frontlines before a certain period had elapsed - granting some of them the right to obtain a deferral of service or choose to travel. Finally, the terms of the agreed settlement offered the guarantee that civilians would not again be subject to arbitrary arrest.

 Ultimately however, the aforementioned promises which would serve as the main basis of “guarantees” within the reconciliation settlements - in which Russia would play the role of “guarantor” - have collapsed one after the other in all the “reconciliated” areas following the entry of the régime into them.

 Symbolising this de facto reality, a group of women arrested almost two months ago by régime security forces would include the wife of a member of the negotiation committee, then representing Dara’a.

 Indeed, activists and journalists have documented dozens of cases of arbitrary detention - which have not only targeted former activists, but have also expanded to include dozens of former members of negotiation committees, as well as former rebels who have been granted “settlement cards”. Recently, these cards have mutated into what could perhaps be more accurately described as “condemnation identifiers” - serving as witness to their holder’s past as a fighter in an opposition faction, and expediting the arrest of its carrier.

 One local journalist in Dara’a, Emad al-Ahmed, has documented the arrest of dozens of former negotiation committee members and holders of settlement cards.

 “The current number of detainees from the negotiation committees exceeds twenty, whereas the number of settlement card carriers in Dara’a who have been detained has surpassed hundreds”, he said. “The régime is arresting those that it granted settlement cards on a daily basis and under various pretexts. Additionally, it has arrested those who have not yet enlisted in military service before the passing of the six-month period that was granted them as part of the settlement agreement.”

 Various charges are invoked under which former negotiation committee members are taken to detention camps: ranging from the theft and smuggling of antiques; working in unlicensed money transfer bureaus; possession of unlicensed weapons and building violations, among others. Some of those detained are released after a few days, only to be eventually re-arrested – a common occurrence according to local sources. Others remain in detention today.

 These events serve as testimony to the easy manipulation of the agreed settlement clauses, which some say was a reality known to the Russian “mediators” themselves from the start.

 Abdullah al-Hariri said: “In our last session with the Russian officers, they told us: ‘the régime will impose its conditions, and will not accept except what it wants, and will not abide by its promises’. They used to indirectly communicate to us that none of us should stay in the area after signing the agreement.”

 He added: “They offered us, as a negotiation committee, to travel to Moscow to continue our lives there, which we rejected. We signed [the settlement] and went to Idlib knowing what the régime would do, and praying that those who remained can endure the upcoming injustice as they endured the hunger, deprivation and bombardments before”.

 Al-Hariri arrived at his evaluation after closely following the trajectory of the negotiation process. “It is laughable to call them negotiations,” he said. “We were only trying to guarantee our exit, and reduce the level of suffering that those who remained would live under, nothing more.”

 Evoking an incident that took place during the negotiation process, he said: “I remember that we submitted a paper [in the negotiations] asking that the régime does not enter our areas, and that they give us the right to govern our localities; the paper returned to us torn up via the Russians.”. The goal of the “negotiations”, he concluded, was obvious, and it was “evacuating those who did not want to stay, and ruling the rest by iron and fire.”

 Expounding on the likely fate of others who, like him, had also been members of the negotiation committees, following the implementation of the “reconciliation settlements”, Al-Hariri said he had no illusions.

 “Most of the committee members in Southern Damascus left the area, because they knew that the régime would not take it easy with anyone,” he said. The régime knows exactly who we were, knows that we are his enemies that were forced to sign reconciliations with it, knows that we utterly hated negotiating with it, but did so because we were negotiating to safeguard the safety of people. Of course, [it was clear that] it [the régime] would not be lax with anyone, especially the committee members, and it will arrest them, as has transpired recently in the countryside of Homs, Dara’a and elsewhere.”

 Al-Hariri left Southern Damascus after the signing of the reconciliation settlement and was displaced to Northern Syria and then Turkey, following eight years as a field doctor and political activist in an area that witnessed the harshest siege in Syria.

 It is still nonetheless the case that some committee members have not left their areas following the réegime’s entry, and have also not turned into agents of the régime. Absent any political solution however, Al-Hariri’s prediction for their fate is a somber, morbid one.

 “Of course, their fate will be death or detention,” he said. “The régime entered these areas to implement its law, and will find a thousand excuses to arrest whoever it wants - whether it be those who sat with it to sign the “reconciliation” settlement, or those [former fighters] who hold settlement cards”.'

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Sunday, 17 February 2019

My heart almost stopped from fear

 'Under this fire and flames there are 2 bodies, the siblings Mohammed and Amenah. Near them under the rubble there are the bodies of brothers who have physical disabilities. Khan Sheikhoun massacre yesterday.

 What is the guilt of this children? In the eyes of this child who was wounded today by Assad's shelling on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib is one question for us all... What did we do to deserve all this? What did we do to be killed in such a horrific way?!

 Since the morning, Assad’s forces have started shelling cluster bombs on the southern Idlib countryside.

 The first city was Khan Sheikhoun. At 1:20 the shelling began on the city of Ma’arat al-Nu’man.

 When the first rocket landed on my city, I was very afraid. My heart almost stopped from fear.

 People started running down the streets to hide from the shelling.

 My sisters and children in school — I was very afraid for them.

 The ambulance began to rush to the bombing sites to save children and civilians. I went to the bombing site to document and photograph the location of the shelling.

 When I was there, an observer said there is a rocket in the sky. I ran and ran away.

The rocket landed 500 meters away from me. My legs no longer carry me with fear.

 Finally I went to my workplace and took a break. There were many dead and wounded civilians and children.
 We were afraid of cluster bombs falling on us.

 This is our life — when you live in the most dangerous country in the world.

 Now I am very tired. Today was very difficult from the severity of the bombing. I’m going to sleep for comfort

 Please everyone pray for us.'

Under Assad Regime Attack: A 1st-Hand Account from Idlib Province

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

How a play written 2,500 years ago is giving hope to Syrian refugees in Scotland

 'A new production of Greek tragedy The Trojan Women, by Euripides, is being staged by an Edinburgh-based theatre company, with cast comprising amateur actors and a story adapted to incorporate their experiences of fleeing Syria with millions of others.

 The play, written in 415BC, tells of the women of Troy after their city has fallen to Greece, their husbands have been killed, and a life of slavery beckons.

 More than two millennia later, it is being staged at an arts venue next to a fast-food drive-through and a bookies in Easterhouse, Glasgow.

 For producer William Stirling, who with his wife Charlotte Eagar has mounted several previous productions of the play around the world, the process is about much more than storytelling.

 He said: “A lot of women we have worked with in the past say they have lost their identities, crossing borders, losing their homes. If you are from Syria or the Middle Eastern countries, you typically live as part of an extended family of 30 or 40 aunts, uncles, cousins, like a big support group. You have to have a big family in order to survive. That’s something they lose. What we hope we have created is a bigger support group, a wider family for the people who have taken part. When we first did it in Jordan, we were told that theatre wasn’t big in the Arab world, that wives, daughters and mothers would not be allowed to go on stage. The opposite was true. We’ve found this helps give them back some of their identity.”

 Heba, 19, said her family fled Syria in 2013 when Bashar Assad’s forces targeted schools.

 “It was very bad, the village I lived in was very dangerous, the army started shooting in our schools, the people who were supposed to protect us. My dad had been taken to prison in Syria but he got to Jordan and we went to meet him there. When they started shooting at the school we hid at my teacher’s house. It was so dangerous to move in the streets, we had to hide in the trees and then in the evening I left for Jordan in a van with my brother and sisters and mother. Before this, I had a perfect life as a child, my family protected me. But when the war started, I couldn’t understand why the army were shooting us. They aimed for schools and hospitals. Can you imagine this? I don’t always tell people these things here, I worry about their feelings. Not everyone has the flexibility to listen to these stories and I don’t want to make people feel sad.”

 Heba is a social science student at Motherwell College, living in Milton of Campsie, and plans to become a clinical psychologist.

 She said: “The people I have met through the play I think of as my wider Syrian family now. When you speak your suffering for the first time, you cry. But when you say it twice, three times, you control your feelings. For three months I don’t think about Syria. This has been very positive for me.”

 Alaa, 27, works as a translator and interpreter and lives in Glasgow. She secured a scholarship to study literature in Edinburgh and left her home in the suburbs of Damascus in 2016. She doesn’t know when she will ever see her parents again.

“My village was under siege when I left. We had to pay a large amount of money at the checkpoint to get to Lebanon. My parents are still there. I feel sadness, anger but worst of all hopeless, because it feels like things are getting worse since the revolution, and now the regime is gaining control again. All the people who died, everything that has been done, is for nothing. I can’t go back to Syria, and I have not seen my parents since I left. It is very hard, especially when you know they are suffering, and they have no hope of seeing their children again. Taking part in the play has meant a lot to me, to see people from your country every week. Many had no purpose when we first started and this has given them something.

 Life here is different in ways I couldn’t imagine. Syria has technology, but it doesn’t have humanity. The main differences I see are happiness on the faces of children, how humans treat each other. People are downtrodden in Syria, trying just to get gas, electricity, money to feed their children. If you’d lived in another country which has no consideration for humanity, you’d see it every day.”

 Essam fled Syria after receiving a terrified phonecall from his daughter.

 “I was working in Egypt and my daughter phoned me. She said she wanted to come to where I was because there were bombs. She was three years old, she was scared. I realised we had to go away if we wanted to be safe.”

 Having successfully mobilised his family from Syria to Egypt in 2012, he arrived in Scotland in 2016 and now works as a delivery driver.

 “It is very hard for us, it is not easy to start again from below-zero in your 40s. This play sends a strong message from Syrian refugees in Scotland. We have to say who we are, why we are here. We are here for safety. We have to tell people that we are not Isis, that is so important. Syrian people have a massive civilisation and history.” '

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Monday, 4 February 2019

Change is possible in Syria despite Arab leaders normalising Assad’s genocide

Image of Syrian President Bashar Assad on 14 April 2017 [Inform the world/Twitter]

 Yvonne Ridley:

 'Bashar al-Assad must be buoyed by the support that he has these days across the Arab world. Such support includes the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), the Palestinian Authority’s official news channel, opening a new bureau in Damascus. The campaign to rehabilitate Assad’s brutal regime continues more or less unchallenged.

 There seems to be very little political will within the international community, let alone the Arab world, to stand up and question the Syrian dictator’s continued leadership, despite him presiding over one of the most devastating wars and humanitarian disasters on the planet. Nor does there seem to be much appetite at the UN to view Assad as one of the key obstacles to a peaceful solution in the brutal Syrian civil war which began in March 2011.

 This war has cost the lives of between 500,000 and one million people (we will probably never know for certain); displaced more than half of the country’s 22 million population; and involved countless atrocities and crimes against humanity. Shocking images smuggled out of Syria in 2014 provided clear evidence of the genocidal intent of the regime in Damascus, but they are conveniently ignored, or even forgotten.

 Moreover, while Qatar is adamant that it will not reopen its embassy in Damascus, both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain opened theirs last month, claiming that they are seeking to counter Iranian influence. Such claims are largely dismissed by Middle East analysts.

 Even as the repeated cries of “Never Again” from last month’s Holocaust Memorial Day events still echo around the world, the Assad regime rolls on relentlessly like an out-of-control juggernaut targeting its own people. I am still haunted by the Syrian women who told me of their horrific experiences as prisoners of the regime in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and other cities. I despair at the lack of will and moral backbone of presidents and prime ministers from East to West to make real efforts to end this war, not least because of the alarming signs that the main effort at the moment is to bring Assad back into the fold and normalise his behaviour. This will include, we are told, a visit by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas very soon. This is appalling news; if any nation knows the pain of brutality and violence at the hands of a repressive regime, it’s the Palestinians. What is Abbas playing at?

 Despite what conspiracy theorists will have you believe, the democratic uprising against the Assad regime began over the arrest, detention and torture of a group of schoolboys in Daraa, as MEMO revealed back in 2014. It did not begin with CIA interference, nor an influx of foreign fighters, Al-Qaida, rebranded weapons from the West, NATO or a global call across the Muslim world for jihad. This was a reluctant revolution which was forced upon the people by the murderous response of an evil, malevolent regime to their call for justice and reform.

 Mercifully, while politicians with very short attention spans and an eye on the poll ratings have grown weary at the very mention of Syria, ordinary people are standing up to and taking action against the Assad regime. For this very reason, there is concern among the privileged elite surrounding the Syrian President. While state leaders and the UN seem powerless to do anything constructive, extraordinary individual efforts fuelled by exceptional determination can possibly bring about change.

 I have seen two examples of these in the past 48 hours, herculean efforts which could force a change in direction of the Syrian war if only the international community will show similar courage and leadership to bring an end to Assad’s brutal rule and the sectarian strife which has ripped the region apart.

 The first was when a US court ruled that American journalist Marie Colvin was murdered by the Assad regime during an artillery attack on Homs in 2012. She was not just another random casualty of war; following an exhaustive inquiry, Judge Amy Jackson ruled that she was targeted deliberately as part of the regime’s policy of violence against independent journalists, whom it considers to be “enemies of the state”. The court in Washington was told that this violence is ongoing.

 “Officials at the highest level of the Syrian government,” explained Judge Jackson, “carefully planned and executed the artillery assault on the Baba Amr media centre [in Homs] for the specific purpose of killing the journalists inside.” Colvin and a French photojournalist, Rémi Ochlik, who was also killed, were “specifically targeted” in order to silence their reporting of the growing opposition to Assad’s dictatorship and atrocities committed by regime forces.

 While it is unlikely that Colvin’s family will ever benefit from the court’s award of $302 million in punitive damages against Assad, his brother Maher Al-Assad and their associates, the verdict opens the way for the seizure of some or all of an estimated $1 billion in Assad family assets salted away around the world, some of which have already been identified and frozen. The premeditated murder of Colvin should now also form a part of the ongoing UN-led criminal investigation of Assad, which seems to have stalled of late.

 Make no mistake, though, this has only come about through the determination of Colvin’s family to get justice for this incredibly brave journalist who in death may just yet achieve as much for the innocents of war as she did in her amazing life. Colvin was a former colleague of mine at the Sunday Times and she was fearless in her determination to get to the truth; her defence of vulnerable people in conflict zones was breathtaking.

 As the verdict was returned in the US court, another group of equally courageous and determined individuals held a press conference in Idlib, in rebel-held Syria. This seemingly inauspicious occasion looks set to be a thorn in the side of the Assad regime with the unveiling of a civil society initiative called the Unity Project.

 Around 350 “ex-pats” from the West have come together in Idlib to help Syrians rebuild and develop their country. Using a variety of professional skills — including medical, education, engineering, science and media — the group has networked extensively with Syrians on the ground, charities back home and each other to rebuild and open schools, hospitals, playgrounds and community hubs to help widows and orphans.

 Most of the ex-pats — or foreigners as the Syrians call them — arrived in the war-torn country more than five years ago “for humanitarian purposes”. Their decision to stay has cost some of them their British citizenship because of the simple but toxic narrative that anyone leaving Britain to go to Syria can only be fighters or Daesh brides.

 I met some of the founders of the Unity Project during my visit to Idlib last month and was told by one that there are no fighters in the group: “Our only motivation is to help Syrian people rebuild their own country.” Sadly, rather than being applauded for their work which has convinced many Syrians to stay in their country, some individuals have been punished by the British government, which has cancelled their passports.

 Undeterred, and arguably more determined than ever, the ex-pats came together on Thursday and unveiled the project. Far from seeing Idlib as “the last stand”, this group sees the tide turning in the fortunes of the Assad regime despite its powerful Russian and Iranian allies which are counting on the West’s growing fatigue and general political malaise with regard to Syria.

 To this end, it is worth remembering the poignant words of the late theoretical physicist and cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking, who said about human beings and our place in the universe, “We are very, very small, but we are profoundly capable of very, very big things.”

 Perhaps self-serving politicians who are growing tired of Syria would do well to remember this and the millions of ordinary Syrians holding out in the rebel territories. With that eye on the poll ratings and public opinion, do they really want to be remembered as the lawmakers who allowed genocide, torture, suffering and abuse to become the accepted norm in the world? Surely not.'

Yvonne Ridley

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Syria Found Liable for the Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin

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 'Judge Amy Berman Jackson, of the D.C. District Court, has unsealed a $302 million judgment against the Syrian Arab Republic, finding it liable for the assassination of intrepid journalist Maria Colvin in Syria in 2012.

The judgment (still partially redacted to protect the identities of some sources) offers a stinging indictment of the Assad régime. It notes that the systemic suppression of the media during the revolution led to the rise of citizen journalists, who disseminated news about the conflict through social media networks and smuggled satellite transmitters, the locations of which were partially hidden through the use of proxy servers. The Assad régime considered media activists to pose an existential threat because they were helping to organize protests and reporting on the government’s abuses. Accordingly, the régime’s Central Crisis Management Cell ordered government forces to launch “daily joint security-military campaigns” against “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media and international organizations.” This resulted in a policy and practice of targeting journalists and other media personnel for arbitrary detention, disappearances, torture, and summary execution.

 According to the judgment, Marie Colvin—“hailed by many as the greatest war correspondent of her generation”—traveled to Syria in February 2012 to cover the war via a smugglers’ route. She made her way to Baba Amr, in Homs city, which was the heart of the independent media movement. A defector, code-named Ulysses, offered testimony that the government had made it a priority to eliminate the Baba Amr Media Center. To this end, the government was intercepting communications coming out of the local neighborhood to try to pinpoint the Center’s precise coordinates. A network of intelligence personnel and informants intercepted Colvin’s final live broadcasts in which she charged the Syrian army with shelling a city full of cold, starving civilians. Having effectively located the Media Center, the Army began a new shelling campaign, “bracketing” the location of the satellite uplink. Journalists attempted to evacuate the area, assuming their location had been identified. A blast killed Colvin and French journalist Remi Ochlik as they tried to escape. After the attack, evidence revealed that the security officials celebrated Colvin’s death. Homs Security Chief Major General Sahadah stated: “Marie Colvin was a dog and now she’s dead. Let the Americans help her now.” He was rewarded with a new car from President Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, and was later promoted to head of the Syrian Military Intelligence Department.

 All told, the evidence “shows that officials at the highest level of the Syrian government carefully planned and executed the artillery assault on the Baba Amr Media Center for the specific purpose of killing the journalists inside.” The attack was timed after it received information as to the location of the Media Center and was consistent with “Syria’s long-standing policy of violence towards media activists.”

 The court awarded $2.5 million in solatium damages (for pain and suffering) and $300 million in punitive damages based upon the unconscionable nature of the régime’s conduct, the grave harm to the plaintiffs, the imperative of deterrence, and the wealth of the defendant. The fact that Colvin was specifically targeted for her profession (unlike some victims of terrorism) for the purpose of silencing journalists justified an elevated award ($150 million is typically awarded per victim of terrorism). The court noted that “the murder of journalists acting in their professional capacity could have a chilling effect on reporting such events worldwide,” which warranted punitive damages to vindicate the shared global interest in the collection and dissemination of information about armed conflicts.

 Indeed, the court noted that, "By perpetuating a directed attack against the Media Center, Syria intended to intimidate journalists inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information, and suppress dissent. … A targeted murder of an American citizen, whose courageous work was not only important, but vital to our understanding of warzones and of wars generally, is outrageous."

 Upon learning of the verdict, Cat Colvin, Colvin’s sister and the lead plaintiff, stated: "My heart goes out to the families of the many thousands of victims of the Syrian conflict. It is my greatest hope that the court’s ruling today will lead to other criminal prosecutions, and serve as a deterrent against future attacks on the press and on civilians. Marie dedicated her life to fighting for justice on behalf of the victims of war and ensuring that their stories were heard. This case is an extension of her legacy, and I think she’d be proud of what we achieved today." '

Syrians in FSA-controlled town rebuild their lives

 'Residents of the Syrian town of Qabasin are now rebuilding their homes after the war caused severe damage to infrastructure and the economy.

 Around one-third of the town's houses now lies in ruins – a problem that has forced residents to look for other places to live.

 "At the time of Daesh [ISIS] we couldn't get even a loaf of bread. They would not allow us to work or move around. They stepped into everything. They didn't allow us to live," said Abdullah Asani, a construction worker.

 For the past two years, the town has been in the hands of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), backed by Turkey. With their help, reconstruction has started.

 "The project consists of five blocks. In total we'll have 190 apartments and 95 shops. In addition, there'll be a playground for children," said Jouma Muslim, the director of a reconstruction project in Qabasin.

 "The compound will house 2000 people when finished. Nearly 50 people work on the project."

 Amina Muharram recently returned after spending three years in Turkey with her six children. She said, "Daesh heavily persecuted us. They threatened to kill me and my children and seize our properties. They killed the sons of my brother. It was terrible here. But now I came back to my home, I can't leave my home any more."

 Turkish officials say more than 300,000 Syrians have returned since 2017, a move which was made possible after the Turkish military cleared out Daesh during Operation Euphrates Shield.'

With the help of the Turkish-backed FSA, Syrians are are rebuilding devastated areas in Qabasin, Syria.

Friday, 1 February 2019

White Helmet hero is haunted by loss and war

 ' “I was not afraid of dying. I was afraid of being caught and tortured.” Mayson al-Misri, 43, had been a reporter, covering the lies the Syrian government was telling the people about the deadly attacks they had levelled against the innocent citizens in her home-town of Daraa. She was pressured by the government to blame the bad news on al-Qaeda and ISIS, who were also plaguing the city with their extremism, but al-Misri told the truth.

 She joined the White Helmets after the régime had killed 10 members of her family, and learned how to use her wits to help her neighbourhood survive. She says, ‘You learn how to get from street to street by timing the bombings: the Syrian planes bomb a location, then they switch, and a Russian plane comes. The switch takes about 10 minutes — that’s when you make a run for it — one street to the next.”

 There was no safe place for a female White Helmet who is being hunted by the régime. So when her colleagues Jihad and Farouq got in touch with her in early July and said, “Start moving,” she packed what she could in a backpack along with her husband Maan Al Aboud, 40, who is also a reporter but not a White Helmet. They began a perilous journey to what’s known among Syrians simply as “74” — a strip of land between Syria and Israel, and a supposedly demilitarized zone along the frontier that still contains about 40 Syrian villages. There were as many guns, rebels and fanatics as there were government forces between Daraa and this 500-square-kilometre stretch of no man’s land.

 They were on the run for three weeks — sometimes without food and one full day without water. They lived under tarps and hid wherever they could. “We were scared all the time. The road wasn’t safe. It could be bombed, we could be seen and arrested. I knew to get to 74, we’d have to be very lucky.”

 She couldn’t even say goodbye to her nieces and nephews — the children of her dead brothers and brothers-in-law. They went partway by car but worried about being stopped and eventually left the car to go by bus. “We were on the bus when I had a call from Jihad, who said, ‘Get off the bus right now, the régime is moving it to a government-controlled town.’” He told them to go to the Golan Heights border which they thought was a very unusual instruction. “Israel and Syria don’t have good relations. I wondered, how are we going to get help from our enemy? ISIS was on one side of us, the Syrian army was on the other. We were in the middle — more than 400 of us, all of us terrified — walking toward the Israeli border.”

 At about 9:30 p.m., the gate opened and the order came to cross one family at a time. “I had to leave my backpack with my computer and camera and clothes behind. The only thing I could bring was my phone. That was because they needed to move us as quickly as possible and checking bags would take too long.” She shudders while retelling the story, remembering the abject fear she felt at the time. “I looked back – the last I saw of Syria was black smoke from the bombs and flashes of light from explosions. The régime was moving fast.”

 They were bussed to the Ayzak Camp in Jordan where they stayed until their relocation to Canada on October 23. As much as Mayson is quick to say she’s happy in Canada, she admits her soul is in Syria. “I’m afraid to answer the phone, afraid it’s bad news.” She can’t call her surviving family members as it might tip the régime to their relationship, so she gets her news from others in a scattered chain of information. “I only think short term. I can’t think long term,” she says.

 The agony of war and the memory of loss haunt this woman who says she can no longer cry. She scrolls through her phone naming each smiling person on the screen — a young man giving her a thumbs up, another boyish-looking fellow who is grinning at her. “Dead, my brother,” she says in her halting English, “dead, also my brother,” as the photos flash by. She knows she and her husband are safe now. “Canada is a place where you don’t have to be afraid. Everyone lives their own life here; no one looks at your religion or your scarf.” She’s very grateful for all that has been done to save her. But here in a strange city at the onset of winter, she struggles to hide her broken heart.'
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Thursday, 31 January 2019

Popular discontent in YPG militia-held areas as violations peaked

Popular discontent in YPG militia-held areas as violations peaked

 'Most areas under the control of the YPG militia have been in a state of popular unrest because of the militia practices and violations, which reached their peak in the recent period, and as a popular reaction, the people and some tribesmen began carrying out a popular movement that developed into armed clashes and attacks on military sites and checkpoints in the rural areas of Raqqa province.

 Dozens of youths from the Bukhmis tribe left Wednesday in the town of Mansoura in the western countryside of the province, attacked and burned some of the YPG militia's barriers, and managed to control a military headquarters run by the so-called Asayish, the security arm of the YPG.

 The move comes after a young man from the clan was shot dead by YPG militiamen while he was trying to escape in an attempt to arrest him to be taken to forced conscription camps.

 The protests reached the eastern districts of Deir al-Zour province, where the tribesmen of the "Shu'aytat" clan also decided to go out to express their resentment at the situation in their villages of deliberate neglect of services, forced recruitment of young people and the implementation of arbitrary arrests.

 The "roadmap" presented by the YPG to Russia to reach an agreement with the Syrian régime on the fate of northeastern region of Syria raised the fears of the people of those areas, especially since a small part of their residents fought against the régime at the beginning of the revolution and some are still fighting even now with the factions In northern Syria.

 The map will be under a Russian guarantee and pave the way for the militia to join the Assad army and recognize him as the "president" of the country, said Saleh Musallam, the representative of the YPG's political wing the PYD.. "The map included a decentralized administration of our regions, and the distribution of wealth in the north-east of Syria in addition to the border crossings and gates."

 "Suhaib al-Jaber," a member of the network "Furat Post," specialized in reporting events in the Eastern region said" that the main cause of protests, whether in Raqqa or other areas is the resentment of the population against the practices of YPG militia and violations on the one hand, and fear of hidden ties with the Assad régime, especially after the Kurdish units repeatedly announced their intention to reach a final settlement with the Assad régime, and this is an important reason that drives hundreds of thousands of people wanted by the régime to action.

 As a direct measure, YPG militia launched a large-scale raid in the town of Mansoura, west of Raqqa, aimed at arresting and forcibly recruiting participants in the protests and sending them to other areas to get rid of them in order to avoid their re-demonstrations.

 According to identical sources, more than 50 youths were arrested by the militias and taken to the detention centers in conjunction with the imposition of a curfew on some streets of the town.

 Deterioration of service and humanitarian conditions are pushing the population to revolt.
All areas of eastern Euphrates under the control of the YPG suffer from deliberate neglect of services despite the abundant funds resulting from the sale of oil, and the theft of millions of US dollars of financial aid by YPG forced the people to take to the streets.

 The villages of Abu Hamam, Granagh and Al-Kashkiya in the eastern suburb of Deir al-Zour witnessed for the second time in a row in less than a week the emergence of popular demonstrations to express dissatisfaction with the policies of the protection militia, where the protesters insisted on the implementation of their demands, including the allocation of part of the oil revenues to activate services and repair houses damaged by shelling as well as their emphasis on the need to stop arrests for the purpose of forced recruitment.

 "Civilians are in constant discontent and discontent in all respects, suffering from a lack of water, electricity, sewage services or even waste disposal," Al Jaber said. They also complain about the problem of removing rubble and recovering the bodies of their victims, which pushed them to protest several times denying the Kurdish units presence in the region. "

 "What these civilians need is humane treatment," said a Furat Post member. "They are not slaves at the al-Assad farm and for the YPG, and that's what they have said over and over again."

 Al-Jaber noted that the demonstrators' efforts and demands seem to have been displeased with YPG, which has been increasingly constrained by the curfew, which has become the standard weapon against which these protests sometimes reach 20 hours out of 24 hours.

 The spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Syrian tribes and clans, Mudar Hammad al-Asaad, led by the Free Army and Turkey, called for intervention and the expulsion of the YPG militia from the eastern Euphrates region, stressing that they received daily appeals and demands from the residents.

 Al-Asaad told Arabi21 website that the YPG militia "are working to kill the remaining residents of the region under the pretext of fighting terrorism, following the policy of demographic and geographical change in the region. This happened in Hasakah, Raqqa and Manbij, as Arab guys had been taken to the war fronts, most of them children, where hundreds of young Arabs have been killed in the past months by involving them in the battles of the Kurdish YPG-dominated "Syria's Democratic Forces" to achieve the separatist project that seeks to apply.

 A few weeks ago, a group of Arab tribes in Manbij issued separate statements calling on the Turkish army to enter their city and kick out the militia, stressing their readiness to provide all kinds of support to implement this.

 Turkey has mobilized tens of thousands of troops in the border area east of the Euphrates to launch a military operation against the protection YPG militia, but US President Donald Trump's proposal to create a safe zone has contributed to delaying the process. Turkish leaders have agreed to accept according to a set of conditions agreed between Washington and Ankara.'

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Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Rebellion in Daraa against the Assad régime, dozens of young people demonstrate

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 'Dozens of people from the city of Daraa demonstrated on Tuesday to express their refusal to join the military service in the forces of the Syrian régime.

 According to local sources, dozens went out to protest the practices of the regime's intelligence services, the ongoing arrests, the imposition of forced recruitment on young people, and to demand that the crisis committee to abide by its commitments not to take the wanted to military service according to the time specified during the negotiation process.

 On Monday, hundreds of young people from the town of Nawa in rural Daraa joined the recruitment centers in the presence of Daraa Governor, Mohammed Khalid Al-Hanous, Secretary of the Baath Party branch Hussein Al-Rifai and the Negotiations Committee after the intelligence sent threats to the wanted and dissidents to punish them in the event of absence.

 It should be noted that the recruitment division of the Syrian régime sent to the reconciliation areas recently lists of thousands of wanted for compulsory and reserve military service, and circulated names at checkpoints and barriers and demanded their arrest.'


Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Mass Arrests by Assad Regime Triggers Renewed Protests in Dara’a

Mass Arrests by Assad Regime Triggers Renewed Protests in Dara’a

 'The wave of protests in the province of Dara’a, the birthplace of the Syrian revolution eight years ago, were renewed following the Assad régime’s security forces’ arrest of dozens of young people in the town of Musaifra in eastern rural Dara’a.

 Local activists reported that the province is on the verge of a new uprising because of the Assad régime’s security forces’ harassment of the local population and the frequent raids on civilian homes, the most recent of which targeted many homes in the town of Musaifra in search of people who are wanted by the regime.

 The new wave of random arrests targeted dozens of military-aged people and former FSA fighters.

 In response, new anti-régime graffiti appeared on the walls in the neighboring town of al-Sahwa calling for the overthrow of the Assad régime with all its symbols. The graffiti also rejected compulsory service in Assad’s army as they reaffirmed commitment to the principles of the Syrian revolution.

 Despite the so-called the reconciliation agreement in place, the Assad régime’s security services continue to raid civilian homes in Dara’a province. A civilian was killed in one of these raids in southern rural Quenitra while two others were detained a few days ago.

 In recent weeks, Dara’a has witnessed the scrawling of new anti-régime on the walls defying the Assad regime and threatening its presence in the province. The revolutionary movement has intensified since last month despite the Assad regime’s tightened grip on the province.

 A new video was published on social media showing the flag of the Syrian Revolution raised on the minaret of a mosque in the town of al-Karak al-Sharqi. Such moves will likely threaten the Assad régime’s grip on the areas that fell to its forces following brutal military campaigns in the past few months.

 President of the Syrian Coalition Abdurrahman Mustafa earlier said that the revolution “will not stop," and that the Syrian people "will not give up their fight for freedom.”

 Dara’a province, the cradle of the Syrian revolution, last week saw renewed anti-régime demonstrations in central Dara’a city emphasizing the revolution would continue until the overthrow of the régime with all its symbols. Various areas across the province also saw the scrawling of anti-régime graffiti on the walls denouncing the régime and its security apparatuses.'

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