Friday, 20 May 2016

Arab civilians suffer long struggle for self-determination

Jean-Pierre Filiu disagrees with Barack Obama’s refusal to intervene in Syria because the US did not know who would replace Assad. Photograph: James Leynse

'In late 1400 and early 1401, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane left “pyramids of skulls, like those constructed by Islamic State today” across Syria, recalls the French Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu; it’s impossible not to see a parallel with the behaviour of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In his most recent book, From Deep State to Islamic State; The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, (published by Hurst in London) Filiu concludes that the Arab revolution of 2011 - a term he prefers to “Arab spring” - is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by the remnants of dictatorships in collusion with jihadists.

 Over the past century, Filiu writes, the Arabs’ right to self-determination was “denied by colonial intervention, ‘hi- jacked’ at independence by military regimes, trampled on by the double standards of the war for Kuwait and the ‘global war on terror,’ and perverted in the UN, where peoples are represented by the regimes who oppress them”.
 No other people have faced “so many obstacles, enemies and horrors in the quest for basic rights”, Filiu says. “In 1926, the French bombarded Damascus while holding an election in Aleppo; in 2016, Assad bombarded Aleppo while holding elections in Damascus,” Filiu says. “The logic is the same: faced with a revolutionary movement, hold meaningless elections.”
 Filiu portrays the Arab dictators as modern-day Mamluks, after the former Ottoman slaves who ruled Egypt and Syria from 1258 until 1516. “They were a military caste, totally foreign to the population,” he explains. “They lived in a closed, endogenous society that inter-married, and the only thing that interested them was their internal power struggles. They were ready to burn down their own countries to keep power.” To support dictators against Islamic State “is not only immoral, it cannot work”, Filiu says. He wants the West to abandon faith in Arab “armies of occupation” and help Arab peoples.
 Filiu strongly objects to President Barack Obama’s two basic tenets on Syria: that the people Obama has referred to as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” were incapable of overthrowing the Assad regime; and Obama’s refusal to intervene without knowing who would replace Assad.

 Sovereignty can come only from the people, Filiu argues: “Who liberated America from the British? It was doctors, farmers and pharmacists. A revolution is made by the people who exist.” Burned by the Libyan experience, Obama demanded the impossible in Syria. “Imagine if in [the French revolution in] 1789, people had asked who would replace the king. Revolutions don’t work like that,” he says.

 Filiu wrote a book on his stay in revolutionary Aleppo in 2013, when the population drove jihadists out. The world then allowed regime forces to decimate the “doctors, farmers and pharmacists” who had risen up.

 “There were a million people in the revolutionary zone,” Filiu recounts. “Then Assad started the TNT barrel bombs. There are fewer than 300,000 left now. Assad and Putin cannot take Aleppo house by house, so they decided to starve them and kill all the doctors in the hope people will die of their wounds. They want to turn Aleppo into Grozny [the capital of Chechnya, where 200,000 people were killed by Russian forces.]”
 Despite our fixation on dictators versus jihadists, Filiu reminds us, the people count. In March, local militias along the Libyan-Tunisian border drove Islamic State out of their area. When the Syrian resistance briefly took the town of Rai from Islamic State in April, they received no help from the West.

 “When the Berlin Wall fell, no one said, ‘That’s the east Europeans’ problem’. We have to stop obsessing about Islam and the ‘caliphate’ and talk about Arabs and the right of Arab peoples to self-determination.” '

Why choosing Iran over Syria is a moral and strategic failure for Obama

Image for the news result

 'For years, Syria’s revolutionaries have suspected America’s lack of meaningful support for their uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad was tied to President Barack Obama’s desire to re-engage with Iran.

 There is one outgrowth of Syria’s civil war that Obama thinks is sufficiently threatening to American security that it must be met with force: the rise of the so-called Islamic State jihadist group. Islamic State’s murderous nihilism is rejected by most Syrians. They also know Assad is the most prolific killer in their country. That America stood by when Assad’s forces used poison gas against civilians in 2013, and that America appears to prioritize improving relations with Iran over stopping Assad’s slaughter, pushes Syrians opposed to Assad into the arms of jihadists, says Hamdi Rifai, director of Arab Americans for Democracy in Syria.

 “We understand none of these people are our friends, but when our friends are betraying us, then we are left with no one else but our enemies to help us,” he says. The Americans “force us to play a game of realpolitik just as they have. They’re forcing us into the hands of the very people they want us to fight.”

 Obama’s refusal to do much to stop Assad’s mass murder is not just a moral failure but a strategic one. The lives of millions of Syrians have been destroyed. It’s impossible to know how much of that suffering America might have mitigated by forcibly challenging Assad, but—unlike when civilians are threatened by Islamic State—it’s barely tried.'

Thursday, 19 May 2016

What’s Left of the Syrian Arab Army?

 'The general impression is that the Syrian Arab Army remains the largest military force involved in the Syrian Civil War, and that — together with the so-called National Defense Forces — it remains the dominant military service under the control of government of Pres. Bashar Al Assad.

 Media that are at least sympathetic to the Al-Assad regime remain insistent in presenting the image of the “SAA fighting on all front lines” — only sometimes supported by the NDF and, less often, by “allies.”

 The devil is in the details, as some say. Indeed, a closer examination of facts on the ground reveals an entirely different picture. The SAA and NDF are nearly extinct.

 Unsurprisingly, the regime was already critically short of troops by summer of 2012, when advisers from the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps concluded that units organized along religious and political lines had proven more effective in combat than the rest of the Syrian military had. Thus the regime’s creation, in cooperation with Iran, of the National Defense Forces. Officially, the NDF is a pro-government militia acting as a part-time volunteer reserve component of the military. The IRGC and various other domestic and foreign actors began sponsoring specific NDF battalions. These actors included the Ba’ath Party, the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP), groups of Palestinian refugees living in Syria for decades — such the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — the General Command and the Palestine Liberation Army and even the Gozarto Protection Force, the latter made up of local Christian Assyrian/Syriac and some Armenian communities.

 This process or reorganizing the Syrian military into a gaggle of sectarian militias was nearly complete by the time when Russians launched their military intervention in the country in the summer of 2015.

 Correspondingly, while planning a counteroffensive against insurgents in northern Latakia, the Russians established what they call the “4th Assault Corps” — a typical formation for what can be considered the modern-day Syrian armed forces.

 A similar organization was subsequently introduced in the Damascus area, too. Although the regime can still fall back on at least five brigades of the Republican Guards Division deployed there, these units are incapable of running offensive operations. Therefore, major assaults on insurgent-held pockets in Damascus and eastern Ghouta are overseen by two brigades from the Lebanese Hezbollah, three brigades of the PLA and various of local IRGC surrogates, including the Syrian branch of Hezbollah. Units of Iraqi Shi’a militias are not only securing the Sayyida Zaynab District of southern Homs, but have also deployed to fight Syrian insurgents, too. Furthermore, IRGC-controled units of Iraq’s Hezbollah branch, Hezbollah-Syria, the PFLP-GC and the PLA played a crucial role during the offensive that resulted in the capture of Sheikh Mishkin in January 2016.

 Currently, Homs and Hama appear to be the last two governorates with any kind of significant concentration of the SAA. Actually, merely the HQs of various former SAA units are still wearing their official designations. Their battalions all consist of various sectarian militias — including that of the Ba’ath.

 Despite the presence of such units as the Ba’ath Commando Brigade, the city and province of Aleppo are largely controlled by Iranians, foremost the IRGC. The latter is usually said to operate three or four units in Syria. Actually, the Fatimioun Brigade (staffed by Afghan Hazars) and the Zainabioun Brigade (staffed by Pakistani Shi’a) are most often cited, while the Pasdaran have deployed four other such formations in Aleppo province alone — all staffed by their own regulars. Even larger are different contingents of Iraqi Shi’a, including nine brigade-size formations of Badhr and Sadrist movements, seven brigades of the Assaib Ahl Al Haq movement, five brigades of the Abu Fadhl Al Abbas movement, two brigades of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units and nine brigades staffed by Iraqi Sh’ia but which the author of this report was unable to associate with specific political movements in Iraq.

 Correspondingly, there is hardly anything to be seen of the actual SAA and very little of the NDF. It’s unlikely that Al Assad has more than 70,000 troops left under his command.'

Stories of torture in Syria shock Swiss students

In Bern, some 170 pupils under the age of 20 came to hear the activists' testimony. (

 ' “I was beaten on my back by a torture device called ‘Flying Carpet’. My left foot was broken. My hair was cut with a knife. Cigarettes were put out in my hands. I was lashed with a whip on my back and hands as they beat me. My left hand needed 48 stitches. I bled for three months. I lost my eyesight for three hours, then I was transferred to a hospital where I underwent gynaecological surgery – I don’t know what they did, and I am a virgin.”

 This is part of the testimony with which Amal Nasr opened her talk to students. She was not the victim in that case. The victim was a 22-year-old political prisoner in the Adra prison for women in Damascus, one of the largest prisons in the country. She sent a letter to Nasr, a feminist activist who since the 1990s has been defending the rights of women in Syria. She has been arrested several times.

 Nasr was granted asylum in Switzerland more than a year ago after she had to escape from Syria because the security forces pursued her after she had left prison. She told the young audience that most Syrian women fled their homeland “to protect their children from rape, killing, kidnapping and detention”.

 She explained that the last time she had been detained was because of her involvement in a peace initiative between women supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. But her dream of peace turned into a nightmare in the Adra prison after she had been charged with terrorism.

 She found herself behind bars with about 800 women, “the sisters, mothers or daughters of young men who had to take up arms to confront the regime’s violence”.

 “We experienced political detention before the revolution, but the detention after the revolution has been scary,” she said. “We were 12 women in a cell about two metres long and one-and-a-half metres wide. We could neither sleep nor sit. There were girls aged 13 and mothers aged 86 among us. I will never forget the day when a young woman entered the cell and shouted the number of a corpse outside: 15,940.”

 The young woman knew the number because many prisoners, young and old, had a number on their back, explained Raneem Ma’touq, who was also detained in Adra prison where she met Nasr, a friend of her parents.

 “I saw children in the prison with numbers on their backs, and of course the fate of each child or person with a number on their back was death under torture or execution. You can’t believe that those children were terrorists,” said Ma’touq, who took refuge in Germany with her mother and brother about a year ago.

“ Around 11 corpses would be carried out of the prison every day, and this was not done right after death: the dead bodies used to stay with the prisoners for several days to the extent that the smell of freedom became associated with the smell of death.”

 In a quiet voice, she explained how detainees were often locked away in secret places so no information would be available about them or about where “the worst kinds of torture are practised, women raped and organs of detainees trafficked”.

 Speaking about the “crime” that took her to Adra prison, the young university student said: “My activity in Syria was the organisation of peaceful student demonstrations demanding freedom and a civil state. For the regime, our activity was more dangerous than armed groups or the terrorism of the so-called Daesh [Islamic State]. Despite all our peaceful demands for freedom, we were always referred to terrorism courts.”

 One person said: “I’m always touched by such testimonies about things we do not have here in Europe. We cannot imagine what this suffering means to these people. We can just try to understand it. This mother is here, but her daughter is still there in Syria (...). We don’t get the same picture of Syria if we read newspapers or watch TV. So when we listen to testimonies like these, it’s as if we’re discovering a new truth." '

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Open Letter from Aleppo to Prime Minister David Cameron

British PM David Cameron

 'Dear Prime Minister,
You don’t know me, but my name is Farah Alfarhan. I was born in Preston, Lancashire, and I am a British citizen who has lived and worked in Aleppo, Syria, for 27 years. As a result of my humanitarian work with displaced children, I was arrested by the Assad regime in October 2014 and spent a total of 35 days in detention. I was subjected to brutal and humiliating torture at the hands of this regime. Upon my release, I returned home to Britain.
 I have been outraged to see that the violence and human rights abuses in Syria are not only continuing to increase in number, but also continue to be met with a failure to act by the British government.
 Prime Minister, as someone who has lived through the horrors of the Syrian conflict, I am urging — indeed, demanding — that the British government makes use of the Royal Air Force based a short flight away in Cyprus to deliver humanitarian aid to the starving civilians living in besieged areas across Syria.
 Prime Minister, as someone who has lived through the horrors of the Syrian conflict, I am urging — demanding — that the British government takes steps to ensure that the Assad regime’s crimes do not go unaccounted for. We should back the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal without delay.
 Prime Minister, as someone who has lived through the horrors of the Syrian conflict, I am urging — demanding yet again — that the British government, of which you are the leader, puts pressure on those such as Russia who fund the brutal Assad regime, provide it with weapons and kill Syrians on its behalf.'

Russian-Iranian ‘Postharvest Soil Turnover’ Plan to Take over Aleppo

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian citizens and firefighters gather at the scene where one of rockets hit the Dubeet hospital in the central Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, A.P.

 'Asaad al-Zoubi, head of the Syrian opposition delegation of High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in Geneva, revealed that Russian air campaigns joined by Iranian forces and regime forces have a recent attack plan underway. The offensive, called “Postharvest soil turnover”, comprises instigating six battle fronts simultaneously to take over Aleppo. Al-Zoubi urged the international community to unconditionally supply the Syrian Opposition to be capable of defending themselves.

 “Battles will be waged on fronts including Syrian Democratic Forces, ISIS, Afghani forces present inside Aleppo, Iranian forces in South and Southeastern Aleppo, regime forces located near east Aleppo near Sheikh Najjar and the so-called Hezbollah forces near Al-Zahraa town, located northwest of Aleppo,” he briefed. Al-Zoubi expressed his deep regret regarding the unwarranted opposition’s deficiency in arms, which would inhibit their chances of outweighing the opponent despite their efforts.

 Al-Zoubi reassured that despite the substantial lack of arms, the affectionate connection rebels share with land will be a key player in defending their territory and supporting their mission.s for support delivered to Syrian Opposition factions, Al-Zoubi said “ongoing word on the international community potentially supplying the opposition with arms is being circulated with no backing substance. The international community, evidently, will not allow the opposition to be armed. Then should they approve of providing support artillery, it would be under the condition of only using it against ISIS,” in reference to the fact that several fronts and groups drain the Syrian Opposition forces, other than ISIS.

 Syria-based Qasion News Agency reported Russian warplanes launching strikes on Monday evening over Handarat camp. Syrian Opposition had recently taken control over the camp. The strikes also breached the premises of the Canadian-Run Aleppo Hospital. However, no deaths or injuries were reported. On the other hand, many other media outlets confirmed the arrival to Aleppo of over 500 Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members, who are missioned to aid regime forces in launching a military operation across the rural areas of Aleppo. Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces took control over three towns located in the northern rural areas of Aleppo after fierce clashes with ISIS.'

Sunday, 15 May 2016

A Fistful of Dollars: The Dwindling Value of Syrian State Salaries

 'Since this March, the value of Syria’s currency, the pound, has been sliding fast. Some economists now warn of a serious currency crisis. The dwindling value of the pound is cutting into Syrians’ purchasing power while raising the cost of subsidies on things like oil, which is imported and must be paid for in hard currency.

 Until now, President Bashar al-Assad’s government had been able to use its foreign reserves, but these seem to have been depleted. It has also relied on financial support from its allies, primarily Iran. While the government in Tehran has spent billions of dollars on keeping its Syrian ally afloat, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems to have contributed much less, despite intervening militarily on Assad’s side in September 2015. Iranian-backed oil shipments from Iraq are still keeping fuel flowing in Syria, and the government remains able to pay salaries, even outside areas of army control; this has been key to Assad’s hopes of one day reclaiming lost territory. But this spring, the devaluation of the Syrian pound has shown the weak foundation of the state’s influence. Little by little, the Syrian state is losing the ability to provide the services and patronage that has undergirded Assad’s rule.

 Already, the falling pound has meant that most civil servants, soldiers, and others working for Assad’s government are unable to live off their salaries. Second and third jobs, various forms of corruption, remittances from family members abroad, and a strong dose of Syrian creativity have enabled many to survive, barely. But for how long, and what happens when paychecks are simply too small and too few to move the full machinery of state?

 In mid-March 2016, Putin unexpectedly announced he would withdraw part of the Russian expeditionary corps from Syria. Although the withdrawal was largely a political stunt, the announcement set off a panic among Syrian currency traders, and by March 24, the value of the pound tumbled to an all-time low, at 500 pounds per dollar. The government urged calm, but seemed unable to stem the decline. Syria’s currency reserves, which had been estimated at around $18 billion at the start of the war, were now reportedly down to $700 million. On May 7, the value of the pound dropped past 600 to a dollar. The Central Bank blamed a “fierce media campaign” by Syria’s enemies, but this did little to restore public confidence in the economy.

 At 1,000 pounds to the dollar, an average salary in Syria would be worth $20 to $30, while the living costs of a family are calculated at around $500 per month. The situation is looking very grim indeed and reports have begun to emerge that people near President Assad’s inner circle are moving money abroad. “The Damascus businessmen are now actually beginning to be afraid, for real,” a trader told the Financial Times.

 Some 2.7 million people draw a salary or a pension from the state. This makes the government by far the largest employer in Syria and a vastly dominant economic actor in the regions still under Assad’s control. State employees received a significant pay hike in June 2013 and another, smaller one, in September 2015, but these have long since been outstripped by inflation; in real terms, their income is now much less than it was five years ago.

 Most troublingly for Assad, that includes the security sector. The basic monthly pay of a soldier in the Syrian Arab Army is reportedly 18,000 Syrian pounds, though this can be complemented by various bonuses and officers earn more. Five years ago, 18,000 pounds would have meant $383, but at today’s rates, it is closer to $28. Last summer, the government ordered a special salary bonus of 10,000 pounds monthly for frontline troops, to compensate for inflation and to boost morale. But by the time the bonus began to be paid out in June 2015, its value had shrunk to a modest $34 and it is now down to $16.

 These problems are slowly digging into the fundament of Assad’s power. As noted by the Syrian researcher Kheder Khaddour, the hollowing-out of Syrian military salaries since 2011 has pushed the officer corps even deeper into corruption. In order to make ends meet, many commanders allow recruits to bribe their way out of the service, aggravating an already crippling manpower shortage. Many units seem to contain “ghost soldiers,” who are listed on the payroll only to generate income for those in charge. The role of non-state funding for pro-government paramilitary groups, from Iran or Assad-connected businessmen, has grown tremendously. Since local militiasare often able to provide higher salaries, they are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the proliferation of militias has strengthened Assad’s military might; on the other, it is empowering parochial interests and weakening the military as a national institution.

 Syria’s crumbling economy will thus continue to undermine both Assad’s military might and his capacity to govern, just as surely as it undermines the Syrian state and any hope for post-war reconstruction. The question is how much more the pressure can rise before something, deep inside the state, snaps.'