Friday, 20 October 2017

Journalist who risks life in Syrian war shares her story

The people of Syria of inspired Reem al-Halabi to document the abuses of her government. (Reuters)

 Reem al-Halabi:

 "I was a university student in Aleppo, but there was civil unrest in my city. The Syrian government was responding to that violently. At the time, the Syrian government had no trouble with Western and Arab reporters report on these events. At the time, I was working with a few Arabic channels, giving them the news, and telling them what was happening in my city. I was broadcasting live to the news channel Al Arabiya, covering the funeral of someone who'd' been killed the day before by the Syrian government. There was extreme anger on the streets and at the funeral that day. My goal was to document and film for people outside and inside Syria to see what was happening in my city and how the Syrian government was responding to the protests with violence. People were chanting for democracy and freedom and denouncing the violence that the Syrian government was using. I was carrying a cellphone to film and I stood up on a car to get a higher view to what was happening and to show how the security forces were targeting protesters. But unfortunately, I was the one who was targeted because it was very clear that I was filming. And the Syrian regime has always been afraid of journalists, of the cell phone, the camera, because that's the eye through which the world can see what was really happening in Syria.

 There was a lot of civil unrest and protesting. My job as a citizen journalist was to show people what was happening. I had to be there to show people the reality of the crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad's regime. I had to be there. The Syrian government targeted me directly and on purpose because I was carrying the cell phone.

 Because they were watching us, and Syrian security forces were targeting the protesters. And I was filming that, live. So as I was filming, that's exactly when they hit me - and others - who were filming. They're so afraid of any pictures or videos being transmitted live to news stations, or any involvement at all of citizen journalists because that would prove their crimes.

 As soon as I was shot, I hoped that I died. In that moment I really wished I was dead. I was so afraid of being injured and falling into the hands of the Syrian government and being tortured. I have a lot of friends who have died while being tortured by the Syrian government. So I was terrified of that. My friends took care of me, they gave me first aid, and then took me to a private hospital. Of course, the security forces found out where I was being treated, they came to my room, and they put me in handcuffs and shackled my feet until I told them what they wanted to hear. I basically said that I didn't see who hit me, that I had no idea who it was, and that I happened to be at that funeral by pure coincidence. They told me I had to go to court, and then told me I couldn't travel. That's when I left Aleppo and snuck out of the country, and towards Turkey.

 The Syrian security forces are known, they're the ones that are there, with weapons. At the time in Aleppo, there were no other factions or militias, or anyone else who would have had weapons except the Syrian regime. I saw them with my own eyes, firing from their cars, wearing their uniforms. It was clear, and I was filming that, but unfortunately that's when I got hit. Even international observers came to Aleppo, the month after I was injured, they came to Aleppo and saw with their own eyes too how the Syrian regime was targeting protesters, and how protests at the university in Aleppo were dispersed, and how people were injured, and started to leave the city in droves.

 I was shot in the back, in my back, and it came out through my arm. So it went through my back, and came out through my arm. I'm very lucky. I see that incident as a huge push for me. I could've died because of the work I was doing, but I'm going to live so that I can keep going and encourage and tell people that we can make our voices heard and that journalism can be strong in our country.

 It wasn't just that I got shot, it was because security forces were after me too. I used to use pseudonyms to report for different channels, I used the name Noor, or Reem, or Abeer, or Lana. But once I got shot, a lot of people found out my true identity and name. So there was a lot of fear. There were security raids, looking for me, at my house, luckily I wasn't home. I was in training with Al Jazeera in Gaziantep, Turkey. I learned that security was after me at my house. My family told me never to come back to Aleppo. And from there, I thought: how can I keep going with my journalism work if I can't go back? And I came up with the idea to start the radio station.

 My focus was on local residents. When I started this work, I wanted to know how I could get our voice out to the world, to say, listen world, and look what's happening to us in Syria. Look at the violations taking place, look at the demands that we're making. When things started to get worse and the world wasn't paying attention, the Syrian government began to punish residents. They cut off electricity and the internet in Aleppo, and all people could hear was the sound of shelling and attacks. And through it all, residents couldn't even communicate with each other, even if they were in the same city. That's when I thought FM radio can help. It can be broadcast over wide areas, and you don't need special equipment to use it. That's when I thought we could do a local broadcast to help Syrian citizens figure out what was going on in their neighbourhoods in case of emergencies, when the shelling started, the security situation, the living situation.

 I saw the radio as a platform for people to tell their stories. Official media channels were under Syrian government control. But Nasaem Radio gave people the chance to express their opinions, to send text messages, to speak their minds without phone lines disconnecting. So for people, this was a space for expression. And we were trying to provide them with information, news, with hope, with music, songs.

 When someone has a will to do something, that's something that keeps you going. The people around me also really encouraged me. My family, the people who wanted to help me work on it. It was like a dream for Syrians to have radio that's different from what they'd been hearing every day, the same old speeches, the same agendas. They wanted to hear the truth, to look for the truth. To go after the truth whether you're the person behind this idea or part of the public, that's something that really helps. I got so much support from our local listeners in the beginning. At first we would only broadcast for a few hours a day and our listeners would say, we want to hear more, we want to hear you longer, we get so bored after you go off the air. So that reaction really gave us courage to keep going.

 We talked about everything. Sports, art, lifestyle, emergencies, sewage problems in the city, the intensity of the shelling, the lack of hospitals available, the school situation, whether they were closed or open because of the attacks. We talked about how children in the city were doing, how they needed vaccines. All the things you need to live, from education to women, to work, that's what we talked about. We saw our job as radio people as connectors between all these subjects we were talking, and our listeners, and organizations doing aid and relief work. For example, an issue we're facing is the landmines that have been left behind by Daesh, or ISIS, after they leave the areas they had taken a hold of. So we go to organizations that remove landmines and ask when can they remove them? How safe are the fields and the farms now? So it becomes a source of connection between average people who need help and organizations that can help these very people through radio and our programming.

 We’re getting a lot of threats. These are hard to face for our reporters, our journalists inside Syria and outside in Turkey. But journalism is a line of work that's rife with danger. Whether they're from the Syrian government, or Daesh, or ISIS or corrupt groups who don't want our attention on them, it's dangerous work. So if you're a journalist, you have to live with the risks and be up to it, you can lose your family, your friends, and it'll change your life but it's a choice. I chose this line of work, and I know it's a job that's full of risks.

 Of course. Our news, our radio, covers Northern Syria, in cities like Azaz, Jarablos, Kafranbel, we're doing a lot of work in these areas. Because this is where Daesh was in control, and now they're gone. So these areas need a lot of media attention and work because people were so scared to talk or express their opinions for so long. These people there were under the very strict control of extremists, so as a media organization we are trying to help them get back to living normal lives.

 As a media organization, we want to help Syrians live their lives, democratically, where they have freedom of expression. We want to support Syrian women to get to decision-making positions, helping children with their education, to fight extremism and terrorism. So we have so much work to do.

 It's important to me that people know that to this day in Syria, people are dying, through shelling, arrests, drowning at sea, at the borders, people are still dying. And as Syrians, we need a lot of support. From Canadians, from the people, governments, from the Americans. These people are all far from us, but it's important that our voices get to them so that they know what's really happening. It's not just about refugees and helping them settle. Let's also ask how we can help them and support them, and find out what organizations can do to help them. For example, I'm here with Journalists for Human Rights, and they've really helped us with how to think about our news, our stories, and our storytelling, and our strategies, so that we can get the voices of Syrians out to the world. If people can't support us, they can at least listen to us. Listen to our stories, and find out what's happening in this world that's so far away from them.

 We're after the truth, and credibility. All we do is relay the realities of what's happening, convey what's being said and talked about, and give it to people. And it's the people that can decide and say what's right and what's wrong. We're trying as much as possible to speak out, and shine a light on things that governments, and other groups don't want people to know. We're just a light that's highlighting these problems."


Wednesday, 18 October 2017

From Syria to Porirua

Sharif King outside his home in Porirua.

 'Sharif King has been shot at, punched so hard his teeth have shattered and had an iron bar forced all the way through his leg.

 The 21-year-old now studies IT programming at Whitireia, a few minutes north of Wellington.

 Sharif was 16 when civil war broke out in Syria. He and his mother were living in Moadamiyah, a rebellious suburb of the capital, Damascus.

 Moadamiyah was gassed with toxic sarin in 2013, according to the UN, and was subject to a three-year Government siege that destroyed much of its infrastructure and caused its population to dwindle.

 The gas attack killed anywhere between 281 and 1729 people. As it overcame its victims, they suffered from convulsions, coughed up blood and foamed at the mouth. Images of the dead wrapped in white sheets in the street provoked international outrage towards President Bashar al-Assad.

 “I remember I was walking with some friends and we were shot at by soldiers. Some of my friends were hit. I only avoided being hit because I hid behind a car,” he recalls.

 Sharif doesn’t know why he and his friends were targeted: “Maybe it was because we were a group of people together?”

 A short time later he was arrested by government soldiers on a bus. Again, he doesn’t know why.

 “When you travel on the bus, you are stopped at many checkpoints and the army checks your ID. If they have any doubts about you, they will arrest you,” he says.

 “Maybe it’s because I was from Moadamiyah. If there is fighting or explosions in an area, they try to check everyone from this area. They persecute the people from this area in order to keep them silent.”

 While in custody, he was beaten and tortured for any information he might have - information he didn’t have.

 He was kept in the dark for three days until suddenly being released. Friends of his weren’t so lucky. His mother didn’t expect to see him again.

 “It was very hard - if a criminal commits a crime, that person knows how long they might have to stay in prison. But if you are arrested for no reason and it is a political issue, you don’t know what will happen. I thought I might die in the prison. I had no idea,” he says.

 “We knew people who had been kept in there and they were never seen again. My mum was so happy and she said we had to pack up our important things straight away and leave to Lebanon.”

 And so a teenage Sharif and his mother headed to the border, hoping for the best.

 In Syria, men must serve in the military from 18. Those caught trying to evade can be imprisoned and tortured.

 Sharif was yet to serve and his identification papers showed as much. Yet, another stroke of luck fell his way.

 “I was so lucky the soldiers at the checkpoint didn’t fully check my papers.”

 And so he and his mother moved to Lebanon.

 “Lebanon was difficult. There was no war, no shooting, no explosions, but the Lebanese army persecuted us. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees aren’t respected and [are] looked at as dirty people. If you go to work, they don’t pay you what they should. If you are walking in the street and someone knows you’re from Syria, they come up and hit you,” he says.

 “Sometimes I wish I had died in Syria. Better than being persecuted in Lebanon.”

 Sharif turned to writing rap music as a vessel for his pain: “It was the only way I could express my feelings because I didn’t have anyone to complain to. I wanted to explain the way I was feeling through music.”

 The first verse he wrote was about Syria and wanting to unite the country.

 Sharif still writes whenever he feels low, but admits that’s not so often anymore. The inspiration doesn’t flow as quickly in New Zealand.

 “Recently I felt lonely and started to write about that, but I can write about Syria easily. It has to be a very strong feeling for me to be able to write the words,” he says.

 He is also waiting until his English improves so he can begin mixing the language with Arabic.

 He thinks he’s adapting well to life in a new country, although some things take time. He’s been able to buy a car and loves working on it while he’s not studying.

 “I have met some friends at Whitireia and they help me with my English. I also already know every Syrian around here,” he says.

 “I like it here because people respect everyone.”

 He still misses his home, though: “I miss playing in the streets in Syria and my family. I want to go back one day, but only if things went back to the way they were before.” '
Smoke billows following an air strike in Damascus.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

In Tartous, Syria, Women Wear Black, Youth Are in Hiding, and Bitterness Grows

Tartus, Syria

 'When Syria’s national uprising began six years ago, and young people everywhere else in the country were calling for the overthrow of the regime, up to a thousand loyalists would march in the streets of Tartous in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

 “Al-Assad! Or we burn the down the country,” chanted the regime elements among them.

 Tartous has the biggest concentration of Syria’s Alawite minority and is the heartland for Assad’s Alawite-dominated government. So when the regime summoned the sons of our sect as backup forces against what it called a terrorist threat, Alawite families willingly sent their men and boys.

 Today Tartous is in mourning, with as many as 100,000 dead from the fighting and well over 50,000 wounded, out of a population of 2 million in the province. Women in black fill the streets of this city of 800,000, grieving for their sons and husbands, and a dozen or more coffins arrive every day from the front. Many of the young men of Tartous are now in hiding—by some estimate 50,000 of them—and the government has to conduct house-to-house raids to find recruits.

 This is no longer a city of fools. A small minority still believe that Assad is fighting terrorism, but most people I know think Assad has cheated his own people by sending them into an endless, pointless war.

 Tartous today is a city of the poor. The province is packed with 1.2 million displaced civilians fleeing active war zones, but with the exception of one camp for 20,000 internally displaced people, or IDPs, they’ve been left to fend for themselves, driving up the cost of housing.

 The Syrian pound has collapsed, and costs for staples have doubled, while salaries have gone up just a fraction. The only meat most families consume is chicken, and that’s once a month. Even heating fuel for the winter is a dream for most—it will cost half your salary. Utilities are the worst ever; we have electricity six hours a day.

 Tartous is also a city of the intimidated. The security forces, always heavy-handed since Assad’s father took power in 1970, spun off the National Defense Force, widely known as the Shabiha, and together they have arrested most of the political opposition as well as civil-society activists—anyone opposing them. Regime intelligence circulated “black lists” of those supporting the revolution, and most were beaten up, expelled, or killed. Today no one can voice his thoughts, even to a family member, even less to a neighbor.

 The exception is at funerals, where families of the dead often curse Assad and the regime. When a cousin of mine died in the summer of 2014, the family was in a state of rage. His mother collapsed, his father seemed bewildered. An honor guard brought the coffin but wouldn’t allow the family to open it and see the body. His mother started cursing Bashar al-Assad and “his damned war.”

 Almost every family has a tale of losses. Rihab, a 40-year-old widow I know, is typical. Her husband, an elementary-school teacher, volunteered for the National Defense Force militia in late 2011. “He wanted to write his own story of patriotism. He thought it would be an easy task, and the terrorists were weak foes that he and his comrades could crush without difficulty,” said Rihab, which is not her real name.

 During an attempt to storm the Waer neighborhood in Homs early the following February, he was felled by a mortar. “All I got from the regime was some empty words and a small sum of money,” she said. (Families of fallen soldiers receive a lump sump equal to $1,000, and half-salary, which amounts to about $30 a month.)

 The bigger calamity occurred the following September, when her eldest son began his compulsory military service. “We let him join his friends, thinking they would not put him in a dangerous place because his father was a martyr,” she said. But he was sent to Tabqa air base near Raqqa, in northeastern Syria, which the Islamic State extremists captured in August 2014. Two days before the base fell, most of the officers were airlifted to safety, leaving behind hundreds of common soldiers and a few officers who were captured and beheaded by ISIS.

 “The image of my son never leaves my mind, except when I remember my husband dying of a mortar shell, his limbs flying in the air,” she said. “I envy those who lost a loved one in this war, for I lost two, my husband and my son.”

 The call to patriotism lost its impact years ago, so the regime tried to replace it by putting the economic squeeze on Alawites. Economic pressures were easily brought to bear, because a great many Alawites are on the state payroll, either in the security forces or as government employees. I know many who enlisted in the military reserves only after they were threatened with the loss of their jobs and income.

 The privileges that Alawites enjoy are deceptive, for the regime’s motivation in granting them is to secure control. Even the Alawite faith, a Shiite offshoot that borrows from other religions, has been corrupted by regime appointments of retired army officers as sheikhs in the faith. Of the five clerical sheikhs in my village, three are former army sergeants. This has added to the loss of a moral compass among so many Alawites.

 The drive to stir sectarian hatred is a different story. The stereotype is that Alawites have a great animosity toward Sunnis and vice-versa, but from my perspective, that of an Alawite dissident, that is not the case. When the revolution began, Alawite opponents of the regime took to the streets in Baniyas, a predominantly Sunni town just north of Tartous, and formed a Sunni-Alawite Local Coordination Committee. During the height of the revolution, there were never any hostile communal acts against Sunnis. We’ve received Sunni IDPs by the hundreds of thousands without problems.

 It was the regime that stirred sectarian hatred. Its propaganda machine constantly told Alawites that the Sunni majority wanted to topple the regime and take out revenge against them, and the Baath party apparatus constantly referred to “Sunni terrorist jihadis.” The rhetoric began in June 2011, when Sunni rebels attacked offices of the Alawite-dominated security headquarters in Jisr al-Shughur; the government circulated videos showing the violence. This sowed anger among young Alawites and helped the regime in its recruitment.

 With Iran’s backing, the regime gave the Shabiha a green light to attack Sunnis, leading to a massacre in Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. The regime ignited the killing spree when it turned over the body of a young Sunni man who died in prison to his family. When they saw the body and all the signs of torture, they got out weapons and fired in the air. This was the pretext for the regime’s order to Alawite militias to kill the Sunnis of Bayda and Baniyas and to burn down their houses. Regime intelligence members penetrated the militias and egged them on. Hundreds of Sunnis were summarily executed. But Sunnis did not exact revenge, and the sectarian propaganda slowly lost its effect. Still, the regime continued to demonize “Sunni jihadis.”

 This reached a high point in May 2016 with a wave of explosions that killed about 180 civilians. Four were in Tartous and five in Jabla, a city in the Latakia mountains—all occurring within a 15-minute time span. ISIS claimed responsibility on its website, but the regime blamed the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham rebel force. Many analysts suspect the regime sponsored the bombings in order to intimidate the population.

 Checkpoints surround both cities, and police patrol them day and night and raid suspected houses, so it would seem nearly impossible for anyone to carry out the attacks simultaneously and precisely unless it was the regime itself. And we all know the regime had staged incidents before this that it blamed on terrorists [high-level security officials who defected to the opposition say the regime staged a series of bombings of security installations from late 2011 to mid-2012 and blamed them on Al Qaeda, before the militants had set up a presence in Syria].

 Today the regime cannot make its case for Alawites to risk their lives, and all that’s left to it is forced recruitment. Early in March, security forces conducted raids in Tartous, gong door-to-door to seize youths for the military service. More than 600 were arrested and taken to join the fighting in the northeast.

 Alawite society, which once bought into the regime’s sectarian propaganda, now protects young men trying to evade military service. An acquaintance of mine named Ammar from the Qadmous area northeast of Tartous was arrested at a checkpoint in Damascus in May 2014. After his deployment to the frontline in Zabadani, a mountain town near Damascus, where he saw half his comrades die, he deserted his unit and is now hiding in a small village in the Tartous mountains.

 “I can’t work or travel. I can’t leave my village. But this is better than being in the army,” he told me. “I cannot choose death. For whom shall I die? And for what?”

 Today the anger is spreading even though it is largely muted and expressed in private. When Syria’s prime minister, Imad Khamis, visited Tartous last month, Ahmad K, a farmer, was entertaining guests at his home in the village of Himmin. For years Ahmad had tuned into state television for the news, but in the past year he’s switched to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network, and Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel.

 As they watched Khamis speaking on TV about the regime’s new projects for the region, as well as its drive against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate (which changed its name last year to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), and other groups, the guests started mocking the projects.

 Suddenly, Ahmad exclaimed: “There can’t be any terrorism worse than that. They kill the sons of the poor to keep the corrupt in their posts, at the top of which is Bashar al-Assad.” His guests, embarrassed, laughed into their jackets.

 But no one is ready to challenge the regime in the open.'

'Raped below a picture of Assad': Women describe abuse at hands of Syrian forces

 'Ayda was first arrested by Syria’s elite Republic Guards at a check-point in Aleppo. She was taken to their local headquarters where, under a picture of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, she was beaten, tied, and then raped.

 She was taken to a hospital to treat the bleeding stemming from the rape, but after seven days and against the better advice of doctors, security forces brought her to a prison where she was locked in a cell with 20 other women.

 Ayda endured three months of repeated rapes and a month of solitary confinement, where she shared a cell with a rotting corpse. She found a razor in the cell and tried to take her own life.

 She was twice put onto the notorious "flying carpet" (a wooden plank to which the detainee is attached and then bent backwards) and was made to watch a group of young male detainees sexually abused with bottles.

 By the time she was released, her husband had left her and married someone else. Authorities then forced her to sign an undertaking to leave Syria and never return.

 Ayda is one of eight women who have spoken about their treatment at the hands of Syrian authorities for the first time.

 Their stories were included in a new report by the NGO Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) and include horrific details of repeated rapes, extreme sexual violence and torture.

 Their names have been changed to protect their and their family’s identities.

 Commenting on the case, Toby Cadman, head of chambers at Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, which is offering legal support to LDHR on the cases, told Middle East Eye: "It is regrettable that there is presently no international accountability mechanism; that will come.

 “Everyone is working together towards justice - and we know from history, justice and accountability comes, even if it takes time. Pushing for accountability and ending impunity is absolutely essential for a future democratic Syria based on the rule of law.”

 The experiences - which have all taken place during the country’s civil war - have left the women with indelible psychological and physical scars and made them outcasts in their own communities.

 “Without exception, these women are still haunted by the terror of detention. They have become withdrawn, fearful and anxious,” the report said.

 Each of the women were medically evaluated by LDHR trained doctors. Medical experts then determined whether the findings were consistent with international standards of sexual violence and torture so that they could serve as evidence in court.

 While in detention, the women “in some cases were treated no differently from men”, the report said but there was “no regards to their differing health and personal needs.”

 “Against a background of forced nudity on arrival and the spectre of sexual harassment and insults in their cells, in bathrooms and in corridors, the women’s bodies were not their own,” it said.

 “There are many cultural, societal barriers to discussing detention and what happens there, particularly for women. Unfortunately, instead of care and support, women who have been detained face stigma and shame in their communities.”
 The report is the latest in a string of revelations about the inner workings of Syria’s depraved prisons to emerge in recent years.

 Earlier this year, Amnesty International said that as many as 13,000 people had died from torture and starvation at Saydanya prison near Damascus which it described as a “human slaughterhouse”.

 The US administration has claimed that the dead bodies at the prison have then been incinerated in a giant crematorium to hide the scale of the mass killing and abuse.

 The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimated that as many as 45,000 opponents of the Assad government have been killed inside prisons alone.

 However, justice for victims and their families remains elusive, human rights activists said.

 Russia - Assad’s key backer - has vetoed proposals at the UN Security Council to set up a court similar to those for the Rwanda and Yugoslavian conflicts.

 And Syria has yet to ratify the Rome Statute which allows for the International Criminal Court to prosecute core international crimes should the state not do so.

 In February, lawyers for Madrid-based Guernica 37, representing the sister of a Syrian man alleged to have been tortured to death in a Damascus prison in 2013, launched a criminal complaint against nine members of the Syrian security forces in Spain’s national court.

 The case was brought to light after a defector known as “Caesar” escaped from Syria in September 2013 with more than 50,000 photos documenting the deaths of more than 6,000 people.

 The case is thought to be the first in a western court brought against Syrian authorities.

 The case was made possible because the man’s sister is a Spanish citizen, and under international law, relatives of victims of crimes against humanity committed elsewhere are also considered victims.

 Last month Spanish courts reversed an earlier decision to hear the case. Guernica 37 have appealed.

 Cadman said that Guernica 37 was working on a number of investigations related to Syria and described the LDHR report as “highly credible and focuses on an issue of very real concern”.

 “We will continue to work with Syrian civil society and human rights organisations to document these crimes and bring cases before national courts and to work with Syrian civil society to develop the institutional framework for Syria that will one day bear the greatest burden of holding the perpetrators accountable.” '

Friday, 13 October 2017

Relatives admit existence of Russia’s ‘Wagner mercenary army’ in Syria

Image of Russian soldiers [file photo]

 'As Russia counts the cost of victories in Syria two years after the start of its overt military intervention, there is apparent surprise at the news that two fighters from a Russian mercenary unit have been killed by Daesh. The Defence Ministry in Moscow immediately denied the news, stressing that there are no Russian prisoners of war in Syria.

 The Kremlin promised to look into the identity of the men who are said to be Russians. Just as it has done in east Ukraine, Russia has denied the presence of any of its mercenaries fighting in Syria.

 However, a brother of one of the killed fighters from the Moscow suburbs told Al-Hurra radio that his brother did belong to a mercenary unit. “The fighters are lured by money and are sent to be slaughtered, and then the authorities deny this. The state established a private army under the name ‘Wagner’, and my brother was part of it.”

 He added that his brother also fought in east Ukraine in 2014 as part of the Slavonic Corps, which later became the “Wagner mercenary army”. Thousands of young Russians are said to have fought with the unit and been killed.

 “Why doesn’t Russia establish an official Special Forces unit with these fighters rather than use them as bait?” asked the anonymous relative. “Their existence is then denied when they are killed. President Putin himself has granted Wagner officials awards in the Kremlin. Why are official awards granted to the leaders of this private military company, while the fighters are denied when they are injured or killed?”

 He added his belief that an official announcement of the Wagner private army would force the Russian leadership to announce the real number of its losses in Syria, which are “much higher” than has been admitted.

 According to the girlfriend of the other fighter killed by Daesh, “Wagner” trains its fighters at an official military base in Krasnodar and promises to pay them well, about $4,000 a month. However, she said that they are only paid about half of that, while they pay the families of fighters killed between $22,500 and $52,000 depending on their rank and mission. She also said that the contract that the fighters sign with Wagner “would make anyone’s hair stand on end.” It apparently prohibits family members from contacting the fighters and prohibits them from opening the coffin and identifying them when they are killed. She claimed to have been informed of the death of her boyfriend on 26 September by “sources” in Syria, but has not still received his body. Although she knows that Rostov Airport received 12 coffins on the 28 September and that they were met by a Wagner representative, friends and relatives were not informed of anything officially.

 The last letter the fighter’s family received was on 13 September, in which he wrote, “I am still alive, but we cannot leave. Everything around us is mined.”

 Responding to the question of why fighters would join a mercenary unit to fight in Syria, she said, “President Putin has declared that the minimum cost of living for Rostov is 33,000 Rubles; I am a state employee and I make 13,000 Rubles. How can I live on this?” It is, she concluded, only natural for these men to want to make more money.'

For a different Syria

 'After six-and-a-half years of conflict, it appears as though ruler Bashar al-Assad has succeeded in doing something that no despot has so far managed to do: despite hundreds of thousands of deaths and 12 million displaced people, he can continue to rule just as before – with arbitrary acts by the state, the deployment of illegal chemical weapons and the systematic mass elimination of civilians in regime detention centres. But does this mean he has won the war? Will the Syrian conflict soon be over? And can those Syrians who have fled then finally return home?

 Assad is dependent on people who only use Syria for personal enrichment and to increase their power. What appears on the surface to be stability – because no bombs are falling, the rubble is being cleared from the streets and traders have reopened their shops – is in reality a peace of the grave. The people may be safe from air attacks, but not from the influence of the militias and intelligence agencies, not from the arrest and elimination machinery of the regime and not from expropriation.

 A Syria under Assad will continue to be centralist, totalitarian and characterised by despotism, whereby the problems of clientelism and nepotism have been further exacerbated by the war economy and foreign influence. The circumstances that spawned the rebellion are therefore still present and have to some extent worsened. What Syrian society really needs – stability without fear, reconciliation, codetermination, justice and equal opportunities – is inconceivable with Assad and the guarantors of his power.

 The conflict in Syria is therefore not reaching its end, but entering a new phase. Any Syrian refugee leading a bearable existence in a safe place is not going to return for the time being. If the return of Syrian refugees is to be a declared interest of Germany, the government must stand up for a different Syria. Five things would be helpful in this endeavour.

 Firstly, end the German military intervention. Even if this is part of the fight against IS terror – German Tornados help with the bombardment of civilians and not with their protection. Any nation not placing itself in the service of the civilian population has no business in the air space of a foreign country. It would be better for Germany to spend the half-a-million Euros that its Tornado mission is costing every day on aid for Syrians displaced to neighbouring countries.

 Secondly, no normalisation of relations with the Assad regime, no opening of diplomatic representations, no intelligence agency cooperation. Assad's secret services have been using jihadist networks for many years to consolidate their own power and are therefore not trustworthy.

 Thirdly, no reconstruction with Damascus. Assad's reconstruction serves neither the economic restoration of Syria nor its social reparation, but is rather an opportunity for self-enrichment, to reward supporters, punish opponents and cement demographic changes.

 With the help of a new decree (No. 66), major housing projects are being agreed, former owners are being de facto expropriated and Syrians who have fled abroad are being passed over so that supporters of the regime can be housed in particular regions. This is why Assad has publicly welcomed a "healthier and more homogenous" society. Without the prospect of a political transition, only small, local and direct reconstruction measures should be financed in cooperation with civilian structures in appropriate opposition areas.

 Fourthly, Berlin should adopt a leading role in the legal prosecution of the crimes of the Assad regime and equip the Federal Public Prosecutor for the task with more personnel in the international criminal law division. Owing to the universal jurisdiction principle, Germany can try war crimes committed in Syria in German courts. The evidence is overwhelming. The first charges, investigations and witness interviews should result in international arrest warrants against high-ranking representatives of the regime as soon as possible. Because there can be no peace without justice. And without justice, no return for refugees.

 Fifthly, more aid for Syrian civil society, even if this has barely any room for manoeuver within the country itself. Many activists have fled abroad, where they can be supported, educated and prepared for a future role in a democratic Syria.

 What Syria needs right now is a clear stance. Because the nation will find no peace with this regime, we should at least move to make it illegal. This is not about Assad the person, but the system behind him. Only when the security apparatus has been disempowered and those primarily responsible for the crimes have been charged, will Syrians draw hope and return. Until then, we should promote their integration in Germany by enabling them to bring their families over to join them. After all, much of what they experience here could be useful in a post-Assad Syria.'

Destroyed by war: the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in December 2016 (photo: Reuters)

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's silence on Syria is hypocritical

Jeremy Corbyn's silence on Syria is hypocritical

 Sam Charles Hamad:

 'When Jeremy Corbyn delivered his keynote speech at the recent Labour Party conference, it was with zero irony that he discussed the core of his 'ethical' foreign policy:- how democracy and human rights were 'not an optional extra to be deployed selectively'.

 Corbyn listed as examples 'the cruel Saudi war in Yemen' and the 'crushing of democracy in Egypt or Bahrain', before saying his government-in-waiting would give 'real support' to end the oppression of the Palestinians.

 These points are welcome and do represent a significant break from previously established UK foreign policy, but a bitter ethical sticking point arose when Corbyn himself indulged in a bit of 'selectivity' during his speech.

 Nowhere in Corbyn's speech will you find the word 'Syria'. Nowhere in Corbyn's speech will you find condemnations of the genocidal violence or ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Assad regime, Iran and Russia against free Syrians.

 The 'cruel war' being waged by Assad, Iran and Russia against the Syrians, leading to the death and injury of more than a million people, not to mention the ethnic cleansing of millions more, was entirely omitted. The destruction of an entire country was not even mentioned once.

 It ought to be astonishing that someone pitching to be the next prime minister of the UK would completely disregard a conflict that has been so central to world events in recent years, never mind the fact that the speech coincided with the brutal bombardment of Idlib by Assad's forces and Russia.

 It really was not so surprising however, considering Corbyn's personal ideology on intervention and how far Syria has slipped down the hierarchy of political interest.

 One must understand that while Corbyn's unique selling point is to do things differently to previous Labour and Tory governments, his policies are more rearrangements than fundamental overhauls.

 For Corbyn is entirely correct – one cannot be selective when it comes to championing or concretely supporting democracy and human rights. One cannot selectively apply principles of opposition to oppression in one area, while supporting or ignoring it in another area.

 And this is precisely what previous British governments and Mr Corbyn have in common. While he wants a British government, presumably his government, to concretely end the oppression of Palestinians and end Saudi Arabia's vicious war in Yemen, he has been one of the most consistent voices in advocating that nothing be done to aid Syrians fighting for liberty against Assad.

 Take, for example, his intervention in a debate on the EU arms embargo on Syria in May 2013. Here, the then-backbench MP warns against 'supplying arms to people [the Syrian rebels] we do not know', associating the rebellion to 'the way the USA raced to supply … arms to [the] opposition in Afghanistan in 1979, which gave birth to the Taliban and, ultimately, al-Qaeda'.

 This has been a consistent line of Corbyn's since the revolution in Syria began, both in his capacity as an MP and in his former role as the chairman of the notoriously Assad and Russia-friendlyStop the War Coalition (StWC). It was during his time at the organisation that they invited Mother Agnes Mariam, a notorious paid propagandist for Assad and a supporter of his genocidal war effort, to their annual 'peace conference'.

 Corbyn has persisted with the will to conflate the Syrian rebels with al-Qaeda and Islamist extremism since becoming leader of the opposition. During the 2015 debate on UK airstrikes on IS targets in Syria, former PM David Cameron made the accurate if not conservative estimate that there were at least 70,000 anti-IS and anti-Assad Syrian rebels on the ground. Corbyn, as a self-proclaimed internationalist and progressive, ought to have asked why Cameron and the British government had not done more to support these fighters previously, but instead denied they existed and, once again, made the claim that they were 'jihadists' and 'Salafis'.

 As Russia and Assad pounded the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their allies, murdering civilians and destroying hospitals, Corbyn stood up as Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and peddled the same line as Assad, namely that the FSA contains groups that 'few if any would regard as moderate'.

 For a man who has supported, rightfully, and within the context of Palestinian resistance, Hamas, this is a monstrous double standard that is entirely conditioned by the way Corbyn views the world – a view that sees Russia, Iran and even Assad as, at best, lesser evils to any force that is conceived to be pro-Western - never mind the Western countries themselves.

 This is precisely why, far from offering anything truly different to the UK's realpolitik of supporting tyrants with zero regard for human rights, Corbyn simply offers a realpolitik conditioned by his own politics, rooted in post-war Stalinism of the Labour variety.

 It's why he can obsessively, and rightfully, admonish the Tory government for arm sales to Saudi Arabia, while advocating for and lobbying on behalf of the Iranian regime.

 The logic behind the Tories' advocating arms sales to the Saudis is not disrupted at all – it's simply transferred onto a camp that Corbyn finds to be more ideologically acceptable.

 And this gets to the heart of why Corbyn's stance or, if we go by his most recent speech, silence, on Syria is important. While he references US and UK-supported tyrannies like in Egypt, he himself endorses a worldview that supports such tyrannies and their consequences.

 In his most recent speech he attributes 'terrorism thriving in a world our government helped to shape, with its failed states, military interventions and occupations … where millions are forced to flee'.

 Corbyn has in past speeches as opposition leader claimed, for example, that the NATO no-fly zone in Libya was connected to the Manchester bombing carried out by the Libyan migrant Salman Abedi.

 According to Corbyn's worldview, what happened in Libya wasn't a popular revolution aided by NATO in averting civilian casualties from Gaddafi's air force and overthrowing the Gaddafi's brutal Jamahiriya (which Corbyn praised during the intervention against it), but a mere 'military intervention' that can be compared to the criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq.

 Corbyn, with his criticism of 'ungoverned spaces' - actually code for the vacuum left by the vanquishing of a decades-old tyranny - endorses the same kind of fetishization of order that sees the UK support Sisi or Saudi Arabia or Israel. It's the same logic that Sisi sells – that either brutal authoritarianism or 'jihadism' will allegedly cultivate these 'ungoverned spaces'.

 This is what 'internationalism' has been reduced to - solidarity with states and not people. Abstract and idealised notions of 'anti-imperialism' versus the reality of multipolarity and living struggles against oppressors,

 This is precisely why you'll never hear from Corbyn about the fact that Libya is split by two nominally democratic bodies vying for state hegemony (ones that united and vanquished IS).

 Or about the great strides the civil revolution in Syria made. Instead, the spectre of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and 'Salafism' is conjured, all the better so that these realities remain obscured.

 One might say that singling out Jeremy Corbyn is quite odd when those in power have allowed fascism and counter-revolution to triumph in Syria, but it's precisely because Corbyn claims to represent an alternative to the status quo that necessitates this criticism.

 It's why when the Tory government so supinely dismissed the policy of dropping food not bombs into besieged areas of Syria, saving Syrians from starvation, Corbyn didn't say a word. It's why when the UK government sat and watched as Free Aleppo was destroyed by Assad and Russia, Corbyn was busy defending the Morning Star, which had deemed it a 'liberation'.

 Or while issuing statements, written by his spin doctor and open Putinista Seumas Milne, that focussing on Russian atrocities in Syria was a 'deflection' - despite the 4000 people killed by that point.

 It's why when Assad gassed to death perhaps more than 100 Syrians at Khan Sheikhoun, Corbyn said nothing, only breaking his silence to condemn the US for its paltry airstrike on the base from which the death gas was fired and to cast doubt on whether Assad was responsible.

 Corbyn has clearly struck a chord on certain issues that blight the UK, but the bitter and tragic reality is that he doesn't function as a progressive opponent of UK foreign policy.'

View image on Twitter

Monday, 9 October 2017

Collaboration between Assad and ISIS goes on

 'IS has captured a few points in the Idlib badiyah after Assad regime made way for IS to attack from E. Hama. Stab in the back comes after HTS saves women & children from Aqrabat pocket, launches assaults on Assadists in Hama. A move very beneficial to Assad regime which allows it to throw pressure & losses off from itself, and unleash the useful idiots into Idlib.'

 'ISIS marched over 30 km through Assad controlled territory.'

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Sneaky Erdogan, if this is true!

 'All the bla bla, just to attack the YPG, while continuing to tolerate HTS in Idlib. We will see!

 "Reports Turkey and HTS reached an agreement HTS will hand all positions on PKK fronts to Turkey. No Euphrates Shield."*'


Mixed Reactions trail Syria’s World Cup Qualification Hopes

 'A cross-section of Syrians and football fans have criticized President Bashar al-Assad regime’s football propaganda tool. Syria has been involved in a brutal civil war since 2011 with over 500,000 dead, millions of displaced Syrians and countless cities in ruins.

 During Fifa’s world cup qualifications in September, Syria was on the brink of crashing out of the competition when a 93rd-minute equalizer against Iran was scored by Omar Al-Somah.

 After returning a month earlier from a five-year exile that was self-imposed by Al Somah, Somah helped to secure a 3-1 win over Qatar.

 At the end of the game in September, Somah infuriated many fans when he gave thanks to Syria’s Dictator Bashar al-Assad.

 Syrian defender Ahmad Al Salih and Captain Firas Al-Khatib, who had recently returned from a self-imposed 6-year exile, said any instability with the constant changes was overshadowed by the need for common national unity.

 Players who have been absent for a long time like Al Somah require little time to adapt to the nature of the environment they are faced with, said Al Salih.

 Al Salih said the driving force behind the adaptability of his teammates is the determination to make Syrians happy and unite Syrians through football during the on-going civil war.

 He also said the length of time and experience shared between his teammates makes it easy to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses on the field of play.

 In the Post-match comments, Al-Somah and Al-Khatib made inflammatory statements, claiming a non-political approach was adopted towards soccer and national sport by an Assad regime that used sporting arenas to launch shells into civilian populated areas.

 A compiled list that allegedly contains names of slain or incarcerated players was released by former player Ayman Kasheet; he further denies the claims of Al-Somah and Al-Khatib.

 He queried how consideration can be given to a team that carries the same flag as the planes that drop bombs every day killing children and scores of civilians.'

Qatar’s pragmatic Syria gamble

 'The 2017 Gulf Crisis between Qatar and its GCC neighbors has developed into a clash of narratives that concerns not only the various regional interests in the Middle East, but also vital U.S. national interests. The Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) has justified its embargo against Qatar due to its alleged political, ideological and financial support to non-state terror groups across the Middle East, especially during the Arab Spring.

 The UAE in particular has invested in a public-diplomacy campaign in Washington to persuade key policy circles that the small gas-rich emirate of Qatar has been one of the main sponsors of terrorism in the region. The Trump administration’s response has been ambiguous. While the White House initially embraced the joint effort of the Quartet to “correct” Qatar’s alleged Islamist foreign policy, the State Department and the Department of Defense were more cautious.

 A more nuanced understanding of Qatar’s foreign and security policy during the Arab Spring is needed in order to assess how Doha has advanced its interests and values since the late 1990s. Qatar’s Syria policy is an excellent case study to illustrate Doha’s ambitions, intentions and its flaws with implementation.

 When the first protestors took to the streets of Tunisia in late 2010, the then emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani saw an opportunity to put his worldview into practice. Running state affairs since the early 1990s, Hamad proposed an avenue of social, economic and political reform that would help the small state propel into the twenty-first century. Qatar had to emancipate itself from the ultra-conservative influence of Saudi Arabia by overcoming entrenched social norms, liberalizing education and the job market, and introducing civil liberties. Although Qatar was surely not en route to becoming a liberal democracy, Hamad nonetheless invested in liberal values such as the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and a pluralistic sociopolitical discourse between the emir and the public. Apart from exploring the incredible wealth of natural gas, Hamad was eager to ensure social justice, equal distribution of wealth among citizens and an inclusive society. In many ways, Qatar, has become a more liberal counterpart to the authoritarian regimes of the Arab World.

 In late 2010 and early 2011, Hamad, presiding over the richest country per capita in the world, hoped that maintaining a liberal political view would support those rising up against authoritarian regimes would bring about a transformative shift in the region’s direction. Similar to President Clinton who spoke about “being on the right side of history,” Hamad envisioned an “Arab Awakening”—a dream which proved more difficult to realize in practice.

 After the fall of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and the outbreak of civil war in Libya, Qatar turned its attention to Syria in March 2011. Hamad, making use of the royal family’s personal relationship with the Assads, sent his son Tamim to convince the Syrian president to step down (Tamim is now the Emir of Qatar). In return for ensuring a path for political reform and a peaceful transition of power, Tamim promised compensation and financial aid to Assad to make this transition as smooth as possible. The Syrian president declined, which shifted Qatar’s posture towards Damascus from engagement to confrontation.

 In close coordination with the Obama administration, Doha started to work on an initiative to isolate the Assad regime in the Arab League while setting up a governing body representing the Syrian opposition: the Syrian National Council. Qatar shared the Western vision for a new Syria based on sociopolitical inclusion, social justice and civil liberties—a vision that did not necessarily mandate a transition to liberal democracy. The council was to become the strategic body managing the Syrian opposition as a quasi-government in exile representing then 60 percent of all Syrian opposition groups. From the beginning, the Qatari government was adamant that any opposition initiative had to be inclusive and represent the “will of the Syrian people”—an ambition that might appear unachievable in hindsight considering the multiplicity of different agendas dividing the opposition.

 The most dominant force in the opposition at large (the council in particular) was the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. Syria’s oldest and most extensive opposition group had been relentlessly repressed by the regime since the 1970s. Due to existing personal relationships with the Syrian Brotherhood, Qatar was immediately drawn to the moderate Islamists who presented themselves as well organized and influential, and who had a clear sociopolitical vision for a new Syria. When it became apparent that the Syrian National Council was getting bogged down in turf wars and political rivalries between different oppositional camps, the far-reaching network of the brotherhood appeared as an alternative means for Qatar to deliver goods to Syrians cut off from public services by the Assad regime.

 By early 2012, more and more reports surfaced that the military councils, supervised by the council, developed into corrupt patronage networks failing to provide Syrians with aid and security inclusively. It was then that Doha began to reach out to individual groups in northern Syria—moderate Islamist groups that were often linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar felt these groups had a better track record of providing public goods as they had long been supplementing regime services locally through their charities—something that independent research into the effectiveness of Islamist councils confirms.

 Thus, Qatar’s Syria policy was neither ideological nor religious, but pragmatic. Qatar’s networks with Islamists evolved from the emirate’s tradition of maintaining a place of refuge for the politically persecuted and the country’s attempt to hedge its foreign policy through diversification. Moreover, there was a widespread belief among senior policymakers in Qatar that political Islam provided the only functional opposition to authoritarianism. Also, Doha believed that the charitable work of Islamist groups was more effective, reliable and inclusive than that of secular charities. Thus, at a time when the existing sociopolitical order of the Arab World disintegrated, Qatar perceived Islamist groups as the only available force able to fill the sociopolitical void left by the failing regimes—at least temporarily.

 Qatar initially provided Islamist military councils with financial and nonmilitary support that allowed these councils, which were widely underfunded by the Syrian National Council, to provide public goods and services in areas liberated from regime forces. These groups were comprised of indigenous Syrians, held together by their Islamist creed, and guided by principles of social inclusion and a commitment to public security—all at a time when salafi-jihadists were still a tiny minority in Syria.

 While Qatar’s ambitions were noble, the idealist approach to supporting widely autonomous rebel groups proved to be difficult. Like the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey had all invested in training and equipping rebels on the ground, Qatar found it hard to retain control over the operational and tactical activities of its protégés. At the same time the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria was hesitant at best, delaying Qatar’s support for moderate rebels allowing salafi-jihadist groups to gain ground. The nonpermissive environment created by the Obama administration—and the failure of the international community to whole-heartedly back moderate Islamist rebels—drove moderates into the hands of radicals.

 Further, it was the more decisive intervention of Iran and Russia over the course of the civil war that turned the tides of the conflict. As Assad’s sponsors turned on the moderate opposition, Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh were able to consolidate their power, fulfilling Assad’s claim that his regime was fighting terrorism.

 When it became apparent that Syria’s moderate opposition was fighting an uphill battle amid a constrained geostrategic environment where no Western powers were willing to fully commit to being “on the right side of history,” Qatar withdrew its military liaison officers from Syria in 2014. Qatar’s charities continued providing aid to local councils. But with the proliferation of salafi-jihadists in Syria, it was no longer feasible to provide military support to groups on the ground.

 Qatar’s efforts to indirectly reach out to Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra were thwarted by the unwillingness of those groups to comply with Qatar’s strategic narrative of serving the Syrian people inclusively in order to create a more liberal sociopolitical system in a post-Assad Syria—a future that neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia will be able to shape. Now, the protégés of those groups have been widely defeated by radical elements that came to dominate Syria’s opposition in 2014.

 Hence, despite its strategic miscalculations and clumsy operational implementation, Qatar’s objectives in Syria were widely aligned with those of the West. While the United States and Europe shied away from determinedly confronting Assad’s heinous killing spree, Qatar tried to help Syrians build a post-authoritarian future. It did so relying on Syria’s moderate opposition—groups promising to embrace pluralism, civil liberties and socio-political inclusion. Qatar neither sought to fund or arm the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra or Daesh as they are incompatible with Doha’s relatively liberal raison d’état. The fact that Assad and his henchmen are now on a winning streak is the collective failure of the international community to come to the Syrian people’s defense.'

Thursday, 5 October 2017

At the core of the war in Syria

The Restless Earth Installation

 Bente Scheller:

 'Those of you who visited Syria before 2011 may tend to remember their journeys as fondly as I do: A country in which buildings from a variety of eras bear witness to a long history of many peoples and religions. The old town of Damascus in which the Umayyad mosque rises atop the foundations of the ancient Roman temple of Jupiter, an environment characterised by tradition in which people, in between prayer calls and church bells, go about their everyday lives which in turn could be thought to have emerged from the tales of the Arabian Nights.

 Engulfed by the scent of jasmine and cardamom coffee, a foreigner can easily forget about the dark side of Syrian life. Syria was not only a country in which you could positively feel the heartbeat of thousands of years of ancient societies, but also a state in which the most enormous security apparatus in the Middle East virtually strangled its citizens.

 The widely praised peaceful coexistence of religions was certainly no feat of Hafez al-Assad who had gained hold of power in the country by means of a coup in the 1970s. It was rather a characteristic of Syrian history without which so many small and minuscule communities of different religious affiliations could never have developed and persisted.

 Yet his grasp for power brought on a religio-political issue for Hafez al-Assad. As is common with dictators, he was concerned with assuming the appearance of legitimacy. However, while the Syrian constitution states that the president must be of Muslim denomination, Muslims were conflicted over whether the religious community to which he belonged, the Alawites, were part of Islam.
 As much as he laid emphasis on the pan-Arab nationalism propagated by the Syrian Baath Party, the crucial question remained: how should he deal with this religious matter?
 Hafez al-Assad is succeeded by his son Bashar – and history repeats itself.

 This was Hafez al-Assad’s solution: to have a religious decree fashioned by Muslim scholars which declared his religious community Muslim. Simultaneously, he disallowed any discussion of religion or political-religious questions such as whether any one religious group enjoyed privileges or was oppressed.

 Not everyone supported Hafez al-Assad’s politics. Expropriations for example which were enforced on the basis of socialist-tinted politics and the disadvantaging of certain territories caused tensions.

 When, towards the end of the 70s, a first major uprising formed for this reason, the regime crushed it with armed force and Hafez al-Assad branded the movement “Islamist”. Although the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was the driving force backing the rebellion in the beginning of the 80s, it was by no means only its members that were met by violent suppression.

 Syrian human rights solicitor – of Christian faith – Anwar al-Bunni who now lives in Berlin experienced the insurgency and its suppression in Hama, the city centre of which was levelled to the ground at the time. Widespread arrests caused all men fit for military service to be put under general suspicion. Even back then, it was enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for a person to be executed on the spot or to be abducted.

 The suppression of the uprising by Hafez’ son and successor Bashar al-Assad which commenced in 2011 is a repetition of history, only at a much greater scale.

 As soon as the demonstrations began to form, Bashar al-Assad denied the insurgents any form of humanity: they were, in his view, “microbes” – an evil that had overcome Syrian society and required eradication. Not long after, they were declared “terrorists” – a term that also entices people in Western societies to abandon constitutional thinking and to justify any means.

 The majority of insurgents were without doubt of Sunni faith – simply because the majority of the Syrian population, approximately 70 percent, is also of Sunni faith.
 The protesters in Syria demanded only what is a given for us in Germany.

 However, the demands brought forward by the insurgents were neither of a religious nor of a secular nature. They were humane.
 Those who in the hundreds of thousands summoned the courage to take to the streets were neither controlled from the outside nor had they a religious agenda. They demanded what is a given for us in Germany: dignity, freedom and justice.

 The women and men protesting chanted: “silmi, silmi” – “peaceful, peaceful” while they raised their hands to the sky to show that they did not carry any weapons – and they were met with the regime’s bullets.

 Bashar al-Assad mocked the victims during his parliamentary speech at the end of March 2011. And yet, in order to impart their message, “do not dare challenge the powers that be”, on the population, the regime quickly discovered even more cruel methods.

 One of the first casualties was thirteen-year-old Hamza al-Khatib. The secret service arrested him amidst a demonstration and a few days later, handed over his brutally mangled corpse to his parents. A child, tortured to death by the secret service.

 With that, the regime revoked the unwritten pact that at least those who do not pose an essential threat to its power would be spared. A certain degree of security and stability, a minimum, for the expense of which many Syrians were prepared to accept an authoritarian rule, was therefore no longer given.

 This is a prime example in that autocrats are not only no guarantor of stability, but that they are its natural enemy: due to their lack of democratic legitimacy, they live off turning any opposition to their rule into a threat to society – at best, a threat that hits a nerve in democratic states. Such as terrorism. Autocrats do not stick to the rules, they bend them. Their rationale is despotism. They thereby disqualify themselves as reliable partners of constitutional systems.

 Because prominent Christians and Alawites were among the ranks of the Syrian resistance, because many purposefully non-violent activists had attained a certain reputation within and outside of Syria, it was of much greater importance for the regime to silence them than to deal with the protagonists who started to arm themselves after six months.
One of our partners, internet activist Bassel Khartabil, was incarcerated and tortured to death

 Perhaps you are familiar with Padre Paolo Dall’Oglio. Paolo was an Italian Jesuit priest who had settled in the Deir Mar Moussa monastery. There he founded a community which took it upon itself to restore the 7th century cloister and to transform the place to one of interreligious dialogue. Here, one would meet young Syrian men and women of various denominations who would work and meditate together. Looming majestically above the scraggy mountains, Mar Moussa became an emblem of Syrian diversity and of lived cooperation and was tolerated by the regime, whereby it watched it with distrust at the same time.

 Padre Paolo was an impressive personality. After decades of working in Syria, he spoke fluent Arabic - and never failed to speak his mind when it came to decrying injustices. At the beginning of the revolution, he called for a shared solution and for people to be vocal against violence.

 As a consequence, the Syrian regime expelled him from the country. Syrian members of his community were arrested.

 Activists in Syria face danger from all sides. Whoever is persecuted by the regime is just as persecuted by the so-called “Islamic State”, ISIS. In 2013, Padre Paolo travelled to Raqqa in order to negotiate with ISIS, a power that cares little for conversation. It is here that he was abducted. To this day, he remains disappeared without a trace.

 In 2012, nonviolent internet activist Bassel Khartabil, a partner of our office, was among those arrested and tortured to death within months. At the same time, the regime discharged various Islamist detainees.

 These had only ended up in prisons in the first place because the regime itself had once recruited them as fighters for Iraq in order to perpetrate attacks against the American intervention in 2003. Most of the people who fell victim to attacks in Iraq were not foreign soldiers but Iraqi men, women and children.
 The regime is not afraid of Islamist terrorism, Assad uses it for his purposes

 The Jihadists who returned from Iraq were incarcerated by the Syrian regime. The regime perceived it too risky to have these battle-hardened extremists at large in its own country. However, in times of political crisis they worked in its favour by adding vigour to the regime’s narrative that they were dealing not with a revolution, but with an attempted Jihadist coup.

 Islamist terrorism has by no means been what the regime fears most, but instead is what it has learnt to brilliantly exploit - to this day.

 It was not until the so-called “Islamic State” proclaimed its caliphate that a counterpart came into existence beside which the Syrian regime - which itself had forced millions of people to flee their homes, had killed hundreds of thousands and had “disappeared” tens of thousands more - appeared to be the lesser evil.

 Nowadays, people who shy away from criticising the regime typically do so while referencing religious minorities. Assad as the guardian of Christians has become a topos. How far have our standards dwindled if we accept Mafia-like sponsorship without question?

 Chartered rights are what protect minorities. What we see in the Syria of today is the exact opposite. When armed groups set their sights on the Christian town of Maaloula in which to this day Aramaic - the language of Christ - is spoken, the regime chose not to protect it at the town gates but instead positioned itself between churches and monasteries – with the view of provoking headlines to the effect that the opposition was specifically targeting Christian institutions.

 Regime forces were withdrawn from the characteristically Islamist city of Salamiyeh in order to exert pressure on its population to send their sons to join the military service. Minorities have no rights in Assad’s Syria. Protection is granted or withdrawn as an act of grace - depending on the current political expediency.

 To my knowledge, the Syrian regime has not put itself forth as secular. Yet, with the emergence of ISIS, it seems to me that the regime is being increasingly perceived as secular in Western countries. The paralysis which befalls Western societies when confronted with ISIS leads to this seemingly so obvious and simultaneously problematic conclusion.
 Assad’s regime abuses and kills like ISIS – only at a much larger scale.

 The Syrian regime’s propaganda in many ways contains religious references. Starting with their slogan “Assad forever”, later extended to “Assad forever and the time thereafter” – that is a clear reference to the afterlife. Or, as chanted by Assad supporters: “With our soul, our blood, we defend you, Bashar”.

 I have not only watched the perfectly staged execution videos released by ISIS which were recorded for Western eyes with the aim of spreading fear, but I have also seen hundreds of videos by the regime’s henchmen who have proudly filmed their abuse of prisoners.

 One element that constantly recurs is that prisoners, while being abused, are shouted at, “Say it: ’There is no God but Bashar’” – a derivative of the Muslim creed ‘There is no God but Allah’. One need not be of Muslim faith, even a particularly religious person at all, to feel the humiliation that is pelted at the defenceless victims.

 Barbarism is what ISIS is rightly known for. However, in reflection of all that I have not only seen on YouTube but what former detainees of Syrian prisons and former employees of Syrian hospitals – some of which are part of the Syrian torture apparatus – report, it leaves me to say: It is a challenge to identify a form of abuse or killing that is deployed by ISIS and not also by the regime. The latter only does it at a vastly larger scale.

 There is no shortage of evidence for these atrocities. A military photographer who was tasked by the regime with taking pictures of those tortured to death in Syrian prisons smuggled 55,000 photographs out of the country, depicting more than 6,700 slain people. Nobody should be forced to see these images. However, it is of much greater importance to establish: Nobody should be forced to suffer what has been inflicted on the people in these pictures.

 In 2004, the Syrian regime signed the international Convention against Torture.

 In 2013, the Syrian regime joined the international Convention against Chemical Weapons.

 The regime is regularly and systematically in breach of both. That is no trivial offence and also, in my judgement, no inner-Syrian matter. This constitutes a serious breach of international law which we should view with deep concern.
 As soon as the air strikes grind to a halt, people return to the streets with their demands: dignity, freedom, justice.

 International conventions set boundaries to the rights of the more powerful protagonists. They protect the weaker ones. If we allow the conventions to be consciously and frequently breached, we thereby not only abandon our values and question our own moral integrity, but also endanger our security and the security of many others.

 Even when what ISIS seems to stand for and what other Islamist protagonists seem to strive towards instils fear in us: We should not be tempted to understand this situation as a religious conflict, as a war that draws from religious convictions that are foreign to us, that we struggle to comprehend, and therefore assume we cannot speak up for humanity and human rights.

 This is a conflict which over the course of the past years has increasingly exhibited the characteristics of a proxy war between the involved international military and political protagonists.

 This is a conflict that has been religiously charged.

 Yet, at its core, this is a conflict that pursues interests comprehensible to us: a conflict for power and participation in profoundly mundane processes. And furthermore with protagonists who continue to demand what is closest to us: dignity, freedom, justice. Even in the face of an increased emergence of Islamist rebel groups, that has remained unaltered.

 During the (few) moments in which negotiated ceasefires prevail, the following scene can be observed in hundreds of localities: As soon as the air strikes of the regime and its allies grind to a halt, people take to the streets with unchanged demands – even in regions that, for years, have been starved and riddled by bombs.

 Most of the oppositional areas in Syria suffer a double threat: While ISIS and the Syrian regime – of which one could assume that they are opposite poles - largely stay out of each other’s way, they instead run riot on the Syrian opposition. As soon as the opposition has a moment to catch its breath, it drives out the Islamists, be it ISIS or as it recently happened in the locality of Saraqeb: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of Jabhat al-Nusra, itself close to al-Qaeda.

 As complex as the situation in Syria may seem, its basic constellation is clear: A regime which not only holds sovereignty over the airspace and the air force, but which also counts powerful international protagonists as its supporters is waging a war of annihilation against wide parts of its own population.
 The very least we can do for people in Syria.

 It may be difficult to imagine a different Syria and even more difficult to show how to get there. The opposition is fragmented and as such is unable to present any viable alternatives.

 However, the conclusion cannot be to remain uncritical of the regime’s systematic displacement of Syrians and the – in the words of human rights activist Stephen Rapp – “killing on an industrial scale”.

 The very least we can do for Syrian civilians – who continue to make up over 90 percent of the Syrian population – is: not to demean the democratic, active forces.

 If, politically, we are unwilling or unable to end the war, we should acknowledge that we at least have a responsibility to those who were forced to flee. And yet, it is our policy to coerce the people who are in search of protection to commit illegal acts: Whoever wishes to find security is often forced to pay smugglers and put their life at risk once again during the unsafe journey through the Mediterranean.

 Only recently, the television appearance of a Syrian army general, Zahreddine, was aired in Germany in which he, accompanied by the derisive laughter of surrounding soldiers, said: “My advice to those who fled Syria to another country is to never return. […] we will never forgive nor forget.” To “not forgive” that they fled war and violence? That is a clear indication that those who have fled cannot safely return to Syria.

 Based on my own outlook on Afghanistan and also our office’s work in Iraq I can say: the Syrian population’s will to govern itself, to not lose heart when faced with military superiority and to create alternative civil structures is exceptional. For that, many Syrian activists have paid with their lives. And we have largely looked on without taking action.

 Those remaining deserve to not be brushed aside as irrelevant or even non-existent – and for us not to lose sight of the true perpetrators.
 It is not the Syrian revolution that has brought about death and ruin to the country, but it is the Syrian regime’s brutish response.

 The first placard those entering Syria see reads: “Welcome to Assad’s Syria.” That is precisely how the Assad clan perceives the country: not as a state of which they have been temporarily entrusted with its rule and therefore the citizens of which they carry the responsibility to safeguard, but instead as private property. Private property that they would rather destroy than abdicate their power. And that is dangerous.'
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Amid Syria's horrors, a desert massacre passes unnoticed as survivors claim dozens killed by government forces

A crying toddler with her left arm missing and bandages around her torso holds her hand to her face.

 'In the early hours of Tuesday September 26, hundreds of men, women and children were making a perilous trek through the Syrian desert by night.

 After weeks of trying, they had finally managed to escape a small Islamic State-held pocket in Syria's Hama province near the town of Oqeirbat.

 They were attempting to make their way across regime-held territory and into rebel held north-western Syria.

 Families walked for hours, guided by the stars and the moon in the dark. Across harsh desert terrain, carrying small children and the few belongings they had.

 Sheep and goats were sent ahead, in case there were any landmines.

 Suddenly, the hundreds of men, women and children came under fire.

 According to survivors, dozens — perhaps 70-80 people — may have been killed in the incident.

 "I was walking with a group of almost thirty people," 22-year-old survivor Khaled Abu Mariam said.

 "Only me and another person survived."

 Mr Abu Mariam, who spoke from a camp where he and other survivors are now sheltering in Western Aleppo, said he believes the fleeing families were hit with machine guns and tank shelling from Syrian government forces.

 "We made it to the main road, we were in a location between two Syrian army checkpoints. And we were fired at from both sides," he said.

 Another survivor, Mnahi Al Ahmad, said it was impossible to know the exact number killed or injured because it was dark and people had rushed away, leaving the dead behind.

 Adding to uncertainty about the full toll, the families walked in separate groups. Most seemed to know only of their own dead.

 The ABC was sent phone video interviews with other survivors who were now in a camp for displaced families in Western Aleppo.

 "We were running away, I saw around six or seven die and before that another seven out of around fifteen in my group. Many of them were women and children," one man said in the video.

 "The valley was full of people, they were shelling us," another woman added.

 "We were massacred there; people were dying on the ground."

 The survivor accounts match up with information received by UN officials in Damascus who say they received reports of the attack from two different sources.

 "A large number of people were trying to flee from one area to another," a UN official said.

 "That's when they were reportedly hit, resulting in a large number of people being killed."

 The UN official said they had received reports that between 70-80 people had been killed and that the attack had taken place in regime-controlled territory.

 The Syrian Network for Human Rights said it hasn't been able to determine the exact number of victims due to the remote nature of where the attack occurred.

 Yasser Mohamad, a volunteer with the Saed Charity which works in opposition-controlled territory, said he met survivors from the incident when his team arrived to do a mobile clinic in the camp they are now sheltering in.

 "Some of the children arrived at the camp alone, with no parents," Yasser Mohammad said.

 The survivors in the camps said they had tried to escape the IS controlled area near Oqeirbat in early September but it had proven too dangerous.

 Mr Mohamad spoke of one little girl, Tayba, who survived last week's incident but who lost her parents and her arm in early September when families had first tried to escape.

 "She lost her left arm and the woman who brought her to us told me her parents were killed," he said.

 One woman shakes her fist angrily as she speaks about her two daughters she says were killed in the first attempt to escape.

 "One was 12 years old and one was nine years old," she yells.

 "They were killed by the Russian jets, we gathered their body parts, the fragments, off the ground." '

A colour-coded map of Syria showing IS, rebel and regime-controlled territory.

This exhibition gives a voice to the silenced women prisoners of Syria

Womens prisoners

 'Manchester based organization, Rethink Rebuild Society recently held an important event to highlight the horrific aspects of Syrian imprisonment under Assad’s regime.

 Assad’s regime has been accused of barrel bombing and the use of torture detention centers. Since the revolution in 2011, Assad’s regime has been responsible for 85 per cent of civilian deaths in Syria.

 What is often overlooked in the coverage of Assad’s regime is the treatment of detained women in Syria. This important and horrific part of Assad’s regime has been kept quiet through fear. Women are often too afraid to speak out, and others did not survive the atrocities they were forced to endure.

 Just recently a woman named Farah described some of the horrors she endured in an interview with BBC. “One time they hanged a man from his legs and hands. I tried not to see, but sometimes they hold your face to see,” remembers Farah, of an event she witnessed. “They were pulling the ropes… They split him. Until now I remember his voice shouting, and then suddenly I couldn’t hear anything.”

 Another survivor, Alma Abdulrahman, described her experience during an interview with the Atlantic. Alma recalls that before the officers would gang rape her they would yell “here’s the freedom you wanted.”

 Rethink Rebuild Society hosted ‘Silenced Voices: Syrian Women in Assad’s prisons’. The event took place on September 8, 2017. The aim of the event was to help bring to light the testimonies of the women who have survived torture at the hands of Assad’s regime.

 The exhibition also provided direct ways to create change by providing the tools and help needed to write letters to parliament and tweet politicians.

 Asma, a former prisoner, explained that she would be taking part in the conference because “I want to cast a light of Syrian Prisoners so the world knows the torture, hardship and brutality that they are going through. I was imprisoned in 2012, and I saw many people die there. My brother was imprisoned in 2014, and to this day we do not know if he is alive. Through this exhibition we wish to show that all we really want in Syria is freedom.”

 It’s past time that the world became aware of this horrific issue that has been happening in Syria since 2011.

 Sixty-five former prisoners have testified to the guards cruelty and use of sexual torture. Men were ordered to rape one another for the guards amusement. Guards would rape women in front of their families to elicit confessions. The violent treatment and beatings that prisoners have to endure under Assad is unfathomable to those lucky enough to live in countries that respect human rights.

 Amnesty International has been trying to look into Assad’s prisons and have been blocked. Amnesty has since launched an investigation that has found that 17,723 people have died in Syrian jails. Amnesty has compiled at 69 page document filled with human rights violations.

 Since 2011, 75,000 Syrian citizens have been deemed “missing” or forcibly detained in prisons by the government. It is imperative that the information gets out there to help. These first hand accounts are essential as Assad’s regime forbids journalists from entering detainment centres.'