Friday, 8 July 2016
JANINE DI GIOVANNI
'Last month, a convoy of aid trucks reached Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, where an estimated 8,000 residents and 1,000 rebel fighters have been slowly starving for four years. Before the Syrian civil war started, Daraya had a population of almost 80,000. But that was before Bashar Assad’s troops encircled the town and his planes began the daily bombardments that have reduced much of the city to rubble and devastated the wheat fields and farmlands that once sustained it. Many who are left in Daraya subsist on grass and grape leaves, whatever they can forage.
When the trucks finally reached the center of Daraya, they were swarmed by desperate people, who quickly became angered when they realized the trucks were packed with mostly inedible things like mosquito nets and anti-lice shampoo.
Ten days later, the U.N. sent another convoy. This one, at least, was carrying food, though it wasn’t sufficient to feed everyone. But it was enough for U.N. officials to claim that they had tried. One senior U.N. official, off the record, told me wearily that it was “impossible to get the numbers right of how many people are actually inside.” This fatalist excuse roughly translates as: People are going to starve, but there’s nothing more to do.
As soon as the aid convoy left the town, the barrel bombs started again. Twenty-eight of them, by the count of Ahmad, a 23-year-old former engineering student, whom I spoke to by Skype Messenger. Ahmad works as a volunteer in the “media center” in Daraya. I asked him if he had gotten any of the 480 rations of food.
“No, I have not eaten today,” he told me. “I don’t understand how the world can watch this,” he said. “We’re starving.”
Though Syria has endured five years of war, and suffered more than 400,000 dead, it manages to arouse as much suspicion as pity. And when it has been discussed at all by presidential candidates often it has been to argue over the need for an immigration ban on all Muslims to prevent terrorists from hiding among the trickle of Syrians entering the country. No one talks about Daraya, or the 18 other besieged towns across Syria just like it where starvation is being used as a tool of war.
Beginning last autumn and continuing through early this year, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), the 17-nation group plus the European Union and U.N., convened in Vienna and Geneva to help determine the future of Syria. The group issued a series of directives, most of them quite straightforward: Commit to a cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid to enter places like Daraya.
So far, Assad has violated every directive, with no consequences for his noncompliance. This demonstrates two things: the U.N., which has been attempting to mediate the peace talks for four years, has once again lost any credibility and that Assad is basically above the law. The question for the United States is what will the next president do about it?
“Under a Clinton administration, it’s fair to assume there will be a move to discuss the establishment of safe zones, probably first in places away from Russian activities to avoid any potential confrontation,” Shadi Hamid, a senior analyst with the Brookings Institution, says. “Regardless of her own preferences, she’d be under pressure to distinguish herself from Obama on foreign policy, and Syria would make sense as the place to chart a new approach.”
“Trump’s experience in foreign policy matter is dire, to say the least, and the erratic nature of his approach confounds explanation,” says H.A. Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East in London. “What little he has said on Syria indicates he’s more comfortable with the Russian position than he is with the current American one, and views ISIL as more of a threat to regional and international stability than Assad’s regime.”
In late August 2012, news reached me that a massacre had taken place. Daraya had been shelled for two days before Syrian forces entered on August 25 in a house-to-house clearing operation. People were taken from their homes, lined up against walls and in basements and shot.
I entered Daraya in late August 2012, disguised as a Syrian with a local woman. Before I arrived, The Guardian in London had called Daraya “Syria’s worst massacre” but several well-known Western reporters had traveled inside with the Syrian government and denied this. They were told the hundreds of dead bodies and the utter destruction of the town had been the result of a “prisoner swap gone wrong” and that it was a “counterterrorist operation” to clean up the area.
But the minute I got inside the town and smelled the rotting flesh of the dead, I knew this was no prisoner swap. I know something of the forensics of massacres and genocides and I could tell from my investigation that people had been lined up against walls and shot. I also knew there were many dead; that potent, sickening smell of rotting bodies reminded me too much of my time reporting in Rwanda, Bosnia and East Timor. Some of the people I spoke to told me the Syrian forces had stormed their streets and houses. They were followed by the paramilitary Shabiha “Death squads.” Some told me they had taken victims into their basements and assassinated them one by one. The ones who survived are the ones who hid. Ahmad was one of them. He was still a teenager then and his family was still intact. This is what he remembers, relayed to me in Skype messaging fragments when he could get electricity:
“It [was] horrible….I was afraid for my little sister Mareana… We were hiding in a hole under the ground… [it] was terrifying was the smell of blood and death cover the city.”
There had been warnings this would happen. Earlier that summer, while I was able to work on the regime side, reporting from Homs, Douma, Berzeh and other restive towns, the fighting had intensified. Syrian military helicopters had dropped leaflets to rebels fighting the regime: “The Syrian army is determined to cleanse every inch in Syria and you have only two choices: Abandon your weapons … or face inevitable death.”
Nearly everyone I know who works in Syria agrees that airstrikes after the 2013 Ghouta chemical attacks would have ended the war sooner and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. “What I would have liked to have seen,” said one senior U.N. official who worked consistently in Syria throughout the war “were neat little strategic airstrikes after the chemical attacks in 2013 that would have sent a clear message to Assad that he could not get away with it.”
There are some children who were born during the siege years who don’t know what fruit is. Bouthaina Shaaban, a British-educated top adviser to Assad, denied this. In May, she said that “nobody is starving in Daraya”, which was “producing peas and beans and food and wild berries that is enough for the entire Syria.” If that were really the case, of course, there would be no need for emergency food convoys.
“Daraya is a microcosm of all that is wrong with international policy in Syria,” says Nadim Shehadi, of Tufts. “It has been under siege since early 2013 and the perception is that even the U.N. is complicit in the regime’s siege and starvation policy … If all the West can do is watch while the Assad regime’s allies, Iran and Russia, are fully engaged on its side then further radicalization is to be expected. Syrians want a third choice.”
The first presidential debate will be held in late September. It will be the first opportunity to press Clinton and Trump to explain their sketchy ideas for how to solve this intractable crisis. Interestingly, the site of the debate is Dayton, Ohio, scene of the famous peace accords.
Meanwhile, the food from the June shipment will be running out around now. No one knows when the next one will arrive. And it’s a long time until January when the next president is sworn in.'
'Syrian government forces took a step toward completely encircling rebel-held parts of Aleppo on Thursday, capturing ground overlooking the only road into the opposition half of the city and effectively putting those areas under siege.
The army’s advance toward the Castello Road, which brought it to within its firing range, came during a 72-hour cease-fire announced by the Syrian army on Wednesday, which a monitoring group said had been a ruse.
Rebels said they were fighting to retake lost positions and re-secure the road. Its capture brings the Syrian government closer to its long-standing objective of encircling rebel-held areas of the northern city.
Heavy aerial and artillery bombardment had at times made the Castello Road impassable. But Thursday’s advance brings government forces the closest so far to the road, making it even easier to hit and effectively cutting off the opposition-held sector of the city near the Turkish border.
“Currently nobody can get in or out of Aleppo,” Zakaria Malahifji of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim told Reuters.
He said government-allied forces were being aided by Iranian fighters and that reinforcements on the government side had arrived from farther south.
A senior official in another Aleppo-based group, Jabha Shamiya, said the majority of the attacking forces were Lebanese and Afghan.
Aid agency Mercy Corps said the latest fighting and the almost immediate breakdown of the announced cease-fire had further constricted access to Aleppo residents, 75,000 of whom in the east of the city rely on its assistance each month. Mercy Corps warned its food stocks in the opposition-held half of the contested city of Aleppo could run out in a month.
“Unless we are able to resupply, it’s going to be very difficult if not impossible to continue support beyond that,” said Dominic Graham, who directs the organization’s Syria efforts.
On Wednesday, Syrian President Assad’s government announced the 72-hour truce, ending on midnight Friday. Mercy Corp’s Graham said a previous, U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire, which started in February but eventually fell apart, had not helped the group’s aid deliveries. Ahmed Ramadan, an exiled Syrian political opposition member, wrote on his Twitter page that the Assad government’s truce was a “hoax.” '
"Taking advantage of Regime assault on #Mallah, #YPG trying to seize Youth Complex from Rebels to reach Castillo Road."¹
"Opposition factions regain full control of Castello Rd, trying to push Regime out of the southern farms of #Mallah area."²
"Opposition factions repel #YPG offensive on Castello Rd from south-side. Clashes ongoing in north-side (#Mallah) with Regime+allies."³
Tuesday, 5 July 2016
“My overarching instinct, right from being an MP, was the debate on Syria had been completely skewed for two years, since the last failed vote that the prime minister brought [in 2013]. We’d taken Syria off the table – the government had taken Syria off the table in terms of having a comprehensive strategy – and the real conflict dynamic, which real Syrians were talking about, wasn’t reflected at all in policy conversations here.
It was all heavily skewed towards the refugee crisis and ISIS, rather than the civil war happening inside Syria and the actions of the Assad government. That wasn’t part of the narrative, other than a sort of general, ‘We’re not in favour of Assad’. But there was no ‘So, what are we going to do about the fact that civilians are being slaughtered or starved or isolated as an act of war?
There’s a thriving civil society, against the odds. I mean, it’s amazing that there is still a civil society inside Syria.
The first thing that Syrian civil society wants is all of the confidence-building measures that the Syrian opposition are arguing for: the end to besiegement, the cessation of hostilities, the ceasefire, the stop to aerial bombardment, the end to the barrel bombs, a no-fly zone, a no-bombing zone – that’s what they seem to be wholly united in arguing for.
Second thing: many organisations, whether it’s the White Helmets or others, have got really creative ideas about how to operate under the siege and civil war conditions. They’ve got really interesting ideas about channelling money, getting aid in, thinking creatively about how they operate, which DfID [Department for International Development] should be listening to.
And then the third thing is about giving airtime to civil society groups, making sure that they get more time on panels– and making sure this is representative of the diversity of civil society views as well, whether that’s women’s groups, or the White Helmets, or NGOs, or just doctors or people who are literally trying to get on with making society function in response to the humanitarian crisis.”
“What did you think of the 2013 vote [on intervention in Syria]?”
“I thought it was incredibly badly handled by the prime minister, in terms of a lack of a parliamentary strategy, and an explanation of what was going on, and I felt that the Labour Party put politics above content, and the whole thing felt to me badly managed, and led to the worst possible result, which was essentially taking any action off the table forever.
Now at the time I wasn’t wholly convinced that airstrikes at that stage and military intervention was the right thing, but I think to have put down a marker and said, “If you use chemical weapons against your own civilians we will respond as an international community”, and then not respond, I just think sent exactly the wrong message.
All moderate Syrians watched that and felt betrayed. The US watched it and took its action off the table, and what I feel happened then is the government turned away for two years while Syria went up in flames.”
Monday, 4 July 2016
From an interview with Bilal Abdul Kareem.
"I last saw my husband four and a half years ago, on 21st of April, 2012. On that day, the oppressive régime forces came, attacked the house, and took my husband to one of the security branches.
Every time we asked about him, they used to say that he wasn't there. We used to ask at the security branches, and in the régime's areas, they always said that he wasn't there.
This is normal coming from the régime. They always assault the people and arrest them without any reason. And if you go to ask, they always say that he isn't there. They even prevent his family from seeing him.
I have two kids. Actually I am having a big problem with my kids. My son always asks about his father, "Where is my father?" He even used to call his grandfather 'Dad' during the first period after his father was arrested. He thought his grandfather was his father, he didn't know his father. That was a problem for me. He always asked: "When will my father come? Why do kids have fathers but I don't? This affected me psychologically. I'm worn out because I don't know what to say to him. "When will my father come?" I know that this régime is oppressive, I don't know if there is hope that he might come back home. That situation puts too much pressure on me. I suffer a lot when my son asks, "Where is my father, when will he come back?" Unfortunately, I never had an answer for my son.
I have hope because I believe in Allah. Alhamdulillah, I hope that Allah will free him. But I don't think the régime will do it, because they are infidels. They are torturing millions of Syrians in their prisons, who were taken from their houses; their families don't know anything about them, and their kids are waiting for them. But unfortunately, there is no hope with the régime.
As for the revolution, I am glad that we got rid of an infidel régime, the oppressors and their oppression. But I am sad because of the situation of the country, the people killing innocent kids and orphans and the tortured captives in the prisons.
I want to say to the people who are outside Syria, and don't know how much the Syrian people are suffering, that there is an infidel régime, oppression, kids are becoming orphans, women are becoming homeless, destruction of houses while people are still inside. There is great suffering, but it isn't reaching them outside. This régime is infidel, and killing people without any reasons. The people have suffered torture for four or five years. People have to support them, have mercy on the Syrian people, and understand that they are really oppressed.
As for the women, just a small section of them are still with their husbands. A lot of them are the mothers of orphans, or is the wife of a captive or an injured husband. Sadness controls the hearts of the people, because of the oppression and destruction that are happening. So the people have forgotten that Eid is coming, because of the tragedy that we are living in. There is no Eid for a kid without his father."
"It is not too late to attempt to challenge the axis of Russia, Iran and Assad in Syria. For five years serious diplomats, military officers and experts proposed a variety of options to help the Syrians help themselves to get rid of Assad: safe zones, for displaced Syrians under the protection of air power provided by the U.S. and regional states, enhanced military training and equipping moderate opposition groups, limited and specific deployments of special forces from the U.S. and European and Arab allies, to defeat ISIS in Syria and turn the liberated areas to the Syrian opposition groups to work with Arab forces as stabilization force. Such a relatively small Western-Arab force can intervene in Syria without the approval of the Security Council, as was the intervention in Kosovo.
It is important to keep reminding people that Syria, is our collective shame in the twenty first century, that it gave the lie to the cry of “never again”. During the Nazi war of extermination against European Jewry, a relatively small enlightened community that distinguished itself by its tremendous contribution to European civilization, most of the horrific deed was done in relative darkness, although some Western leaders were aware that unspeakable evil was let loose; Syria’s evil on the other hand is operating in high noon, and we see it live on video, bloody blow after bloody blow. Let’s make people inconvenient once again: Half a million people died in Syria, many of them civilians with a frightening percentage of children. Forty five percent of Syrians have been displaced.
The population has already shrunk by 21 percent, with 7 million internally displaced and almost 5 million refugees living in squalid camps in neighboring countries or roaming the highways and byways of Europe seeking shelter and a home. The Syrian refugees in Lebanon and to a lesser extent in Jordan are subjected to abuse and exploitation, they suffer from malnutrition, and many young refugees are deprived of basic schooling, some girls and women are subjected to sexual abuse and sexual slavery. Arranged or forced marriages of teenage girls is rising. And then there is the growing phenomenon of many young teenage Syrians, particularly girls turning to suicide as a way out of their private hell. In 2014 one UN study found that 41 percent of Syrian youths in Lebanon have harbored thoughts of committing suicide.
A decade or two from now, many of these refugees, who may never go back to their homes, and some of them will never shed that status; will look back in anger at those who turned them refugees and those who exploited them and that would be enough to harden their hearts. And when they look ahead, they would do so in anger too, for they may see nothing but quiet and not so quiet lives of desperation."