Friday, 5 February 2016

These Rebels Have Amassed A Library From Syria’s Ruins

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 'Syrian opponents to President Bashar al-Assad have been widely derided as extremist jihadis hungering to establish a puritanical Islamist regime. Even members of the U.S. Congress say the moderate opposition to the Damascus regime has been supplanted by sectarian extremists such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
 But interviews with half a dozen fighters, photos, and video footage from the Daraya library east of Damascus paint a different picture of Syria’s uprising. They suggest the hopes for progressive social change, raised by the largely peaceful 2011 uprising against the Assad regime, have yet to be completely quashed.
 “Despite what people think of us, we are people who have demands and a message to deliver,” said Omar Abu Anas, a 24-year-old former university student turned rebel fighter who frequents the library. “When we were attacked, we defended. Despite your calling me a jihadi, I’m Free Syrian Army and I want to bring down the regime to build a new government, to live in a free society.” '

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Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Syrians in Switzerland on the ‘Geneva 3’ talks

The start of the talks in Geneva was met with protests (Keystone)

  Hani Abbas, a Syrian-Palestinian cartoonist:
 "Enough! We cannot be in the 21st century and look on while a people are being completely annihilated. I do not hold any hope for these talks for a number of reasons, including the failure of the “Geneva 1” and “Geneva 2” talks and the presence of many obstacles that are essentially related to the nature of the talks. After five years of criminality, bombardment and displacement, the eyes of the world and Syrians should be looking towards the International Criminal Court to put on trial all war criminals, instead of focusing on re-polishing and re-manufacturing the Syrian regime and involving it in these Geneva talks."

Chadi*, human rights activist
 "Before anything else, justice must be administered. This would help solve the humanitarian problem as soon as possible, but also create Syrian unity when all its citizens become equal, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. Justice will also ensure the departure of Bashar al-Assad, which is the key to all other issues."

Zyed Akkad, aid organiser
 "When the Syrian revolution erupted, the students, intellectuals and others called for freedom and dignity, which the regime met with brutality. That is why our priority is to get rid of this regime, which has destroyed the country and displaced the people."

Monday, 1 February 2016

'No place to go': Refugees risk freezing to death to flee from Syrian army

 'Hundreds of people at the refugee camp at Yamadi, close to the border with Turkey, are loading their belongings onto trucks and heading deeper into rebel-held territory after pro-government forces regained control of a series of strategically placed towns.

 “We don’t want to live under the rule of the government for a minute. They have no mercy on us. If they catch you then it’s the end for you,” Umm Asim told Middle East Eye as she prepared to flee with her family amid fears that one or two more nights of heavy fighting could bring Syrian army tanks rolling down the road.

 “We are trying to leave because the government is getting closer and the Russians have done nothing good. We get shelled from one side and bombed on the other side and we are afraid. My little son doesn’t eat and he doesn't move because he is so afraid.”

 “I’m afraid for my children,” added Umm Marwan. “We are leaving because of the planes and because the children are so afraid. The army is getting closer and the planes are constantly shelling us. We want to leave and find a new place to stay.”

 Russia is accused of killing hundreds of civilians since intervening in Syria last September on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by launching air strikes in rebel-held territory.

 In November, Russian jets bombed camps including Yamadi in the Turkmen Mountain region of northern Latakia that had become refuges for Syrians fleeing from war-shattered cities, including long-besieged Homs and Aleppo, and Ariha in Idlib province.

 The bombardment came after a Russian jet crashed in the area after being shot down by Turkey for reportedly violating Turkish air space, with local rebels accusing Moscow of taking revenge.

 “The Russians came to kill the Syrian people. It’s a massacre, they use planes, tanks and missiles,” said Umm Asim. “Where do we go? If we go to the villages they bomb us, if we go elsewhere… where do we go?” '

Covert $34m UK program helping Syrians with skills and knowledge for life after war

Mahmoud, who attends a vocational centre funded by the British Government in Syria

 'Dotted across the north-eastern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, which border Turkey, in the rural suburbs of Damascus and in the southern province of Deraa, almost 40 communities are functioning outside both regime control or the influence of Islamists such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State. This is the real "free Syria".

 Civilian councils are implementing projects covering everything from the supply of water and electricity and other essential services, to education and health facilities, vocational training, women's empowerment, road building and good governance. It is being funded by a covert $34 million program run by the British Government's Department for International Development (DFID) — and it has already directly benefited more than 1.4 million Syrians.

 "If we are not providing services, then the armed groups will. That's bad, especially if they are Islamist. For example, we provide vocational training to 15 to 18 year olds. They are learning skills and in a few months will be ready to work, to earn. If they were not in training they would be on the front lines. We are trying to get these people's lives as close to normal as possible."

 One the communities Mr Shayyah manages is Darret Azzeh, a city of 40,000 people with another 60,000 living on its outskirts, in rural Aleppo. The city fell out of regime control to the Free Syrian Army in 2012. It was one of the first areas to rise up against President Bashar Assad when protests broke out in 2011, demanding freedom, equality and dignity. When the movement developed into an armed insurgency, the city became a symbol of the revolution's resilience, with Free Syrian Army rebels weathering aerial bombardment from regime aircraft and attacks from Islamist radicals.

 "The people of Syria were never asked for their opinions. We are asking them what they need. They are getting the chance to express their democratic opinion and learning how to run things ... away from systems of nepotism and corruption." '

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Starving Madaya’s Rebel Commander Speaks


 'A former baker, Abu Abdulrahman leads the local unit of Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham. He was detained in 2005, as he tried to fight in Iraq. Sent to Sednaya prison, where the regime sent many Islamists, he became friends with Hassan Abboud, the future leader of Ahrar. He and Abboud were among the detainees released by the Assad regime in 2011.

 Now Abdulrahman is in Madaya, cut off since Hezbollah and regime forces tried to overrun the nearby town of Zabadani last July. Despite a ceasefire deal in late September, the Syrian military maintained its blockade, allowing in only one aid delivery weeks later. Prices for food skyrocketed in the town, people were reduced to eating grass and leaves, and up to 75 people have reportedly died from starvation.

 Abdulrahman says he and the hundreds of rebels under his command have tried to surrender multiple times, but Hezbollah will not accept their terms. The commander first offered to leave, if the rebels retained their guns and were guaranteed safe-passage to opposition-held territory. Then, he said weapons would be given up, if the disarmed rebels were escorted out of town by UN officials. Finally he offered to stay in the town as “a police force” for the local community.

Speaking about the rebels’ blockade of 12,500 people in two regime enclaves in northwest Syria, Abdulrahman says:

 "I am against any civilians being put under siege. Let me be clear, speaking for myself: I am against the Jaysh al-Fatah siege in Fu’ah and Kafraya."

 He continues, “After the war, I hope we can live together: Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites, in a state of law. Someday I hope we will get along, and things will be as they were before.”

 And what of the claims from Russia and the Assad regime that rebels have caused the starvation by hoarding food?

 Abdulrahman responds, “When Madaya goes hungry, we go hungry. These are vicious lies.”

 He referred to his five children, saying that his youngest son is afraid to leave the house and go to school, and that he cries for hours on end when food runs scarce: “Can you imagine that? I am the commander, and even my child is starving.”

 A female resident offers further testimony. She says that a supposed “protest” by women and children as aid was delivered was stage-managed by Russia and Hezbollah. Claiming that she was one of the women brought out of Madaya to a barricade, she says the group was told to condemn the rebels and praise President Assad in exchange for food and safe passage from the town.

 Meanwhile, Abdulrahman prepares for more siege and struggle. He says he once “had so much respect for the way [Hezbollah] defended their homeland”. But now “I have to see Hezbollah as my enemy now: they cut down our trees and starve our children”.'