Saturday, 28 January 2017

After Astana talks, Syrians take to streets in anti-Assad protests

 'Hundreds of Syrians took to the streets of Douma and Saqeba in Damascus eastern countryside on 
Friday to show support for the opposition members, who went to Astana for Syria peace talks, and to remind the world of the Syrian revolution’s basic and first demand, the ouster of Assad regime and the allied Shia mercenaries. The protesters carried banners that read "The Syrian people wants to topple Assad regime". They also expressed their objection to Assad regime’s staying in power.'

Friday, 27 January 2017

“My Heart Continues to Break”: Editor Aaron I. Butler on Cries from Syria

 'The most important element in the footage we focused on was the kids. The Syrian people had lived under a dictatorship for 40 years, but in 2011 the regime began openly torturing children. This was the final straw for the Syrians, and the revolution began in earnest at that point. As the regime continued to brutally attack the protesters and people who rebelled, we saw again and again in the footage the suffering of Syria’s children. No matter what you feel about the political situation in Syria, no one can deny that the suffering of these kids is inhumane.

 By far the most difficult scene to cut was the chemical weapons bombardment on civilians in Eastern Ghouta. We had footage from inside the hospitals right after the attack occurred, and watching little children convulsing and foaming at the mouth broke my heart. I focused on doing my part to help them, knowing that above all, the Syrians wanted the world to know what was happening to them. They wanted people to see the barbaric actions of their government. And I knew that the emotions I felt watching the footage were nothing compared to those who witnessed the atrocities first hand.

 When I began editing the film, I had very little knowledge of what was happening in Syria. I knew that the government had been bombing rebels in Aleppo, and that many cities had been destroyed in a civil war. But I had no idea how or why the war had begun. By the end of the film, the thing that struck me the most was who the “rebels” turned out to be. They were just ordinary civilians, who had taken to the streets to peacefully protest the brutal torture of their children. Throughout the film I got to see firsthand how these civilian’s lives were changed by the war, the fighting that they were forced into, and the brutality their own government subjected them to, simply because they asked for the most basic human rights. The overall feeling I was left with is that the Syrian people are no different than you or I, and we must do everything we can to help and protect them.

 Soon after the film was finished, we heard the news that Aleppo had fallen to the Syrian regime. It was a difficult blow to the revolution, and a horrible end to the unbelievable slaughter in that city. The war continues on, with more dying every day. My heart continues to break for the freedom fighters and refugees that the world has for the most part ignored.'

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Syrians are absent in Astana peace talks

Malak Chabkoun:
'Perhaps one of the biggest examples of the disconnect between Syrians inside Syria and Syrians sitting at the negotiating table in Astana this week is seen in a video produced by Shaam News Network, in which several residents of the besieged al-Waar district in northern Homs, when asked about the negotiations, responded, "What talks?"

 In another interview in the same besieged district by Qasioun News Agency, an elderly Syrian man asked, "What is this Astana? Who sent them and who elected those who went to Astana? Who are they? We are in besieged al-Waar district, and they're in Turkey, eating and drinking in hotels, while we're here 'eating' rockets."
 In Erbin, a suburb of Damascus, residents actually mobilised in protest against the Astana talks, chanting that they were sick of the same nonsense repeating itself, and calling on those at the negotiating tables to not betray the aspirations of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people.
 In Zamalka, during one of the demonstrations, a man reminded the Astana delegation, "in the name of Aleppo, and in the name of Wadi Barada, do not forget that the Ghouta region is a trust you must uphold at Astana."
 Some in Douma expressed that they had some hope in the Astana talks, so long as those negotiating on behalf of the opposition didn't compromise on the main principles of the revolution and the necessity of lifting all sieges and releasing all detainees.
 Those interviewed in Idlib focused more on the international actors playing a role in Syria, expressing that Russia's promises couldn't be trusted and that they saw attending Astana as a bad choice, but the best one given the limited choices on the table.

 Some went so far as to suggest that the opposition boycott the talks to avoid betraying the revolution and to protest against the regime's continuing violations of the latest ceasefire. Syrians have borne the brunt of the regime and Russia's record of broken promises, making it hard to believe that participating in the talks would bring tangible results on the ground.
 This translated into a very difficult decision for the opposition delegation: if they didn't go to Astana, not only did they risk further marginalisation in an already prejudiced decision-making process, but they also risked offending Turkey, who they see as not only as a broker of the talks, but also a supporter of the Syrian people.
 Furthermore, some of the better-known and more respected representatives risked losing popular support and respect in liberated areas of Syria.
 Osama Abu Zeid, who is the legal adviser to the Free Syrian Army and was an instrumental member of the negotiations committee during the pre-talks in Ankara and the actual talks in Astana, justified the committee's decision in a series of tweets, stressing that the only issues they discussed during the talks were the conditions of the ceasefire, complete cessation of hostilities, saving besieged areas, release of detainees and resuming service of the Ain el-Fijah spring.
 Another member of the negotiations team, Essam al-Reiss, said in an interview with Orient News that Astana was seen by them as "the only way how to stop the Syrian nightmare … we came here to show all the world who is the Free Syrian Army … we didn't achieve a lot, because we heard lots of promises, but it's just words for us."

 With each round of Syria peace talks, it is further clarified that Syrians under siege or being held in the regime's prisons are not the key factor in negotiations. After the last round in Astana, Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed to support a so-called ceasefire in the country, and the Syrian regime was being given 10 days to decide whether it will abide by the conditions put forth by the opposition.
 One thing is for sure. For over five years, talks on Syria have failed because the variables do not change: an opposition that feels cornered into talks because there are no other options, and international actors with agendas and interests far-removed from those of the Syrian people acting as brokers of these talks, with the added dilemma that these states are trying to broker the peace they have been responsible for disturbing.
 But it is the Syrians interviewed about the Astana talks who best summarise the two main reasons negotiations will continue to fail, no matter who is brokering them and no matter what implementation mechanisms are used: a lack of inner unity of purpose among the opposition and the absence of an external, international will to remove the regime and return Syria to its citizens.'

The exiled Syrian actress helping young refugees deal with trauma using theater

 'Raghad Makhlouf played a leading part in a TV series which addressed the uprising in her homeland Syria and was consequently exiled in Beirut. There are more than one million refugees in Lebanon, half of them are children.

 What was life like for you in Syria before the conflict started?
 It was very routine and monotonous because of the dictatorship. The Syrian people were forbidden from expressing their thoughts and feelings. We were forbidden from generating change – politically and socially. You can imagine what could happen to a person who is against the Syrian regime from a slogan they released in 2011. It said: “Assad - or we will burn Syria.”
 Syria is my home, it’s my friends and my family. But I never felt like a ‘citizen’ in Syria because of the regime and the system – I dreamt of equality, justice and dignity. When the Syrian revolution began I was so happy. I participated in peaceful demonstrations across the country, distributing campaign leaflets in the streets. But because of the Syrian regime and the violence that ensued, revolution turned into war.
 What was life like for you as an actor in Syria before the conflict started?
 I played a lead role in a TV series which addressed the first seven months of the peaceful revolution and protests in 2011. After filming it in Lebanon some of the actors who went back were investigated by the regime. They couldn’t get out of Syria for several months. The situation worsened when I worked on another TV series called Amal (Hope). It also addressed the peaceful revolution and the violence waged by the Syrian army.
 Then it became impossible for me to go back to Syria. I had only two options: to be with Assad, or to be in extreme danger – arrested, tortured or killed. So I fled and now my whole family is separated. Each of my two sisters, brother and parents now live in different countries.
 Then your 2012 visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan changed your life?
 Before the visit I thought I would leave feeling depressed but the opposite happened. The refugees were happy about my visit and show of support. They took me on a tour and were talking about all the suffering but still with a smile and a sense of humour.
 This experience changed my attitude to theatre. I started thinking about how it could be useful and how it could influence society. I thought that as acting professionals we should start working with ordinary people more. I thought about their needs, opinions and problems – then built a theatre workshop around it.
 Had you done anything similar in Syria before?
 I worked in an interactive theatre group touring rural Syria from 2006 onwards. We addressed complicated issues, such as violence against women, education and polygamy. I could see the power of change, especially with young people. After we performed scenes we held discussions, involving the audience in the acting. An ordinary member of the public would enter a scene to change the course of the play.
 What was the outcome of this project?
 The Syrian regime could see the interactive theatre’s influence on communities. They halted our project after we discussed marriages between different sects. We entered a taboo area, we became afraid and the project stoppe  
 Tell me more about your theatre workshops for the young refugees in Lebanon?
 It was part of the Create Syria joint project by International Alert, the British Council and Ettijahat Independent Culture to teach drama to young Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian teenagers living in the Bekaa Valley. I worked with fellow actor Wissam al Ghati teaching them for about two months in an intensive workshop, including acting exercises that were touching on their experiences of conflict and war.
 All their stories are sad and totally unacceptable. They saw dead bodies and their loved ones being killed in front of their eyes. One of my pupils was 10-years-old when the Syrian regime arrested his father at one of the military checkpoints in Damascus. His father said: “Don’t be afraid, I will come back soon.” They both started crying. It’s been four years since, he didn’t come back.
 What positive impact did you see from the drama and acting lessons?
 We broke a lot of barriers. We built a circle of trust, which improved their self-confidence. When the children gain this they are free to express themselves in a healthy way. The drama classes provided a safe space for the young refugees to freely share their stories and deal with the trauma. It helped make them feel there is hope and their lives have value after all.
 What did you personally gain from the Create Syria project?
 After three years in Lebanon, I felt I was forgetting everything about Syria. That was devastating. I didn’t want to forget about my homeland, I loved every detail about my life there. Working with young Syrians brings back my treasured memories.
 What did your young students learn from the experience?
 I taught them the main entry points into the acting world. Theatre is a tool for teaching young people communication and conflict resolution skills, as it makes them really listen to one another. I met many uniquely talented teenagers and the lessons helped them rebuild their aspirations through drama and storytelling.
 How do theatre workshops improve young refugees’ lives?
 Acting can both function to help them process the horrors they experienced or provide a much needed escape from their troubles. Actually, my main goal was to see them laugh, smile and dream again. Drama classes are a tool for traumatised young refugees to discover their abilities and gain a sense of purpose, self-esteem, friendship and belonging. That’s how the magic of theatre gives young refugees the capacity to be positive about their future.'

Why Fateh al-Sham is lashing out at Syrian rebels

 'Al-Qaeda's former affiliate in Syria has thrown itself into a violent, desperate attempt to impose its will on other rebel groups, but its actions can only polarise and damage the hopes of the Syrian revolution, according to analysts. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, this week unleashed its fury on other groups it said were "conspiring" to undermine it by co-operating with the government of President Bashar al-Assad in peace talks in Astana.

 It comes as JFS has in the past few weeks failed in a bid to create a new rebel coalition, and found itself isolated and facing a multi-front offensive: Russian, US and Syrian attacks on its positions, exclusion from ceasefire deals - and local JFS commanders are reported to believe that local rebels are now providing coordinates for the strikes. Its response has been severe: in one day of fighting on Wednesday on the fringes of Aleppo province, JFS attacked with sufficient force to destroy Jaish al-Mujahideen, a group allied with the Free Syrian Army and armed by the US, which had withstood months of bombardment by Assad during the battle for the provincial capital.

 But analysts say while JFS had proved its unquestioned military prowess, such action has fractured an already weak rebel front with no guarantee of boosting its own position. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Jihad-Intel Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum, said JFS has grown steadily aware that some rebel groups were actively opposed to its presence in Idlib, the last bastion of rebel power after the fall of Aleppo.
 “I think part of this is rooted in JFS' perception of a conspiracy against it with the broader attempts to isolate the group,” he told Middle East Eye. "There wasn't really rebel unity in Idlib to begin with."
 The retreat of some groups from Aleppo into Idlib had hardened that perception, he said. 
 “I have no doubt about the broader attempts to isolate JFS as being a US strategy. And to an extent, you can perceive the effect in the wider [rebel] reluctance to offer JFS condolences for casualties in air strikes.”
 The presence of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Syrian opposition has long been the most contentious factor in the country’s six-year civil war. Reactions to the militant group have ranged from outright opposition to sometimes reluctant cooperation with many other rebels recognising Nusra, or JFS, as one of the most potent and experienced fighting forces in the country. JFS began its assault on Tuesday, primarily targeting a base belonging to Jaish al-Mujahideen, a Free Syrian Army group which has previously received CIA support. Clashes then spread to numerous other sites in Syria, including opposition strongholds such as Maraat al-Numan, Kafranbel, Saraqeb and Ariha. Clashes broke out last week between JFS and their erstwhile allies Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups and, unlike previous disputes, appear to have escalated. On Thursday, Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger forces in the region, said six groups were involved in the fighting. On Tuesday, Ahrar al-Sham released a statement criticising JFS for their attacks on other groups "without any justification or legitimate reason” and said it would help their “enemies” in isolating JFS from the other rebel groups.
 “We will join our brothers in the rest of the factions... to prevent JFS (or others) columns to go and attack Muslims and harass them and wrongfully take their blood and money,” read the statement.
 Though the statement appeared largely defensive, Syria analyst Charles Lister said on Twitter that Ahrar al-Sham were threatening a “full declaration of war”.
 Labib al-Nahhas, a media representative for the group, later warned JFS on Twitter that it “either completely joins the revolution or it is a new Islamic State”.
 In turn, JFS released a statement accusing other rebels of involvement in "conspiracies" and being backed by "foreign projects".
 "We attempted to make a coalition, with the open hearts of friendship... even though writers and fatwas said it would be 'suicide' to form a coalition with us," read the statement, released on Tuesday. "After the coalition failed, bombing by the international coalition began, and we were targeted in several locations. Leaders were also targeted. The message from this is clear: we were first sidelined, and then targeted, while other rebel groups were building close relations with the US. We call for the establishment of a single, united Sunni force, both political and military... We stress the importance of working fast and cooperatively to achieve this goal."
 By midday on Wednesday Jaish al-Mujahideen had been effectively destroyed, and their bases and weapons confiscated by JFS. The current round of fighting appears to have been triggered by an ongoing dispute over the presence of another militant group, Jund al-Aqsa, who were absorbed into JFS’s ranks in October. While Jund al-Aqsa had historically been linked to al-Qaeda, many other rebel groups accused them of being a front for IS and questioned the decision by JFS to allow them to join. This eventually escalated to the point where, after alleging numerous violation by Jund al-Aqsa, Ahrar al-Sham launched an operation to “annihilate” the group at the weekend.
Though JFS announced on Monday that they had expelled Jund al-Aqsa, the damage appears to have been done, and violence continued unabated between JFS and other rebel groups, particularly those with representatives currently participating in the Astana negotiations. Another Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson suggested that JFS attacks on rebels indicated JFS's “external agenda” while prominent JFS leadership figures Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti and Abu Sayyaf al-Jawfi reportedly quit the organisation over the violence.
 These incidents do not mark the first time that JFS has attacked other rebel groups - previously, it had effectively crushed both the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the US-trained Hazm Movement in northern Syria, while in March 2016 mass protests erupted against JFS after it attacked and kidnapped members of the FSA’s 13th Division. However, while SRF and Hazm were unpopular organisations with heavy links to the US, Jaish al-Mujahideen are much more popular and therefore its demise, according to Lister, could have a much bigger impact. Following the clashes, rebel groups appear to have started setting out their alliances in different camps. Jaish al-Mujahideen are reportedly in negotiations to join the more powerful Ahrar al-Sham, while the Sham Front, Faylaq al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam also fell on side with the group. Conversely Nour al-Din al-Zenki appears to have thrown its lot in with JFS.
 What then, does this mean for the future of Syria's rebels? Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow at Chatham House, said the infighting was not a rerun of 2014, where rebel factions including what was then Nusra united to turn on Islamic State fighters and kick them out of Idlib and Aleppo. JFS' actions meant rebels were in fact heading for further fragmentation while JFS consolidated its power: "JFS as an overlord."
 Haid Haid, also an associate fellow at Chatham House, added that JFS was undoubtedly powerful and no one, at this stage, was prepared to directly oppose them.
 "JFS has been able to prove once again that they are able to eliminate any threat they might want to and no one will stop them," he told Middle East Eye.
 And any counter plan to eliminate the group, was a long way off.
 “Jaish al-Mujahideen and others don’t want to have this fight because they don’t want to do this alone - they know that others were not ready to fight alongside them against JFS.
 Haid added that JFS had specifically blamed Jaish al-Mujahideen for providing the US coalition with their location for air strikes and "that’s why they’re being targeted". He said that despite the threats against JFS from and other rebel groups, they had largely stood by while JFS eliminated Jaish al-Mujahideen - many groups wanted to see JFS gone, but there was no united front against them.
 “Many groups want to see that, but the problem is how to do that - they are not able to start fighting JFS until they see a political solution to the conflict in Syria," he said. “They will hope that the international community will have a clear strategy to weaken and eliminate JFS, but at this point it’s quite difficult to imagine what kind of strategy that would be."
 For now, rebels opposed to JFS need to bide their time and re-assess their options.
 Tamimi said that there were effectively two paths open to the rebels at this stage: get closer to Turkey, which is prosecuting a campaign in northern Syria and considers JFS a "terrorist group", or get closer to JFS themselves.
 "Each option has its pitfalls," he said. "Neither can achieve the original goal of the revolution at this point, but Turkey is more likely to ensure the survival of more mainstream factions." '

How sports became means of defiance in Syria's besieged al-Waer

 'The Assi River and orchards surrounding the river separate al-Waer district, a northwestern suburb of Homs, from the city. Despite its proximity to strategic sites such as the military academy, the military hospital and Homs’ refinery, the district was considered a paradise and a summer destination.

 But when the Syrian revolution began in 2011, the repression and brutality of the Syrian regime forced many residents from other Homs neighborhoods to flee to al-Waer, at one point bringing together nearly 300,000 displaced people, in addition to the district's 50,000 original residents. Al-Waer became the last opposition-held area of the city.

 The regime began tightening the noose around al-Waer, even using missiles and explosive cylinders. Regime snipers shot civilians, and the regime ultimately besieged al-Waer in mid-2015, preventing people from moving in and out. The regime also blocked supplies of medicine and baby formula. Only small amounts of supplies enter, infrequently, through the United Nations — barely enough for 5% of the district's needs.

 Najwa Um Ziad, an al-Waer schoolteacher, said, “The number of students in the district of al-Waer is declining significantly, as more students are dropping out for long periods due to the military regime campaigns.”

 Those students who do attend class feel the war's psychological repercussions. "Students dread bombing, missiles and aircraft, and this affects their concentration during classes,” she added.

 Maher Abu Muhannad, who moved to al-Waer with his family from the Bab al-Sebaa district in Homs, said, “The blockade has caused major physical and psychological problems for my family. Almost none of their needs can be met because of the blockade, and all I can give them is the aid provided by the UN from time to time.”

 Muhannad said the war sometimes makes him feel like a failure as a parent. “When I see my children dream of a chocolate bar — in such moments, I wish I was not their father. How can I be their father if I cannot even buy them a chocolate bar?” he asked.

 In such times of oppression, people seek out vestiges of normalcy. In al-Waer, some have turned to sports, despite their lack of nourishment. Athletes in the district managed to form a sports committee in July 2015 affiliated with the General Authority for Youth and Sports in Syria, a civic anti-regime sports organization.

 These people, including soccer referee Abdul Aziz Dalati, have organized two al-Waer Sports Festivals under the auspices of the general authority, which was founded in 2014. The second festival ran from late May to early June. A large number of residents and children participated in a variety of sports including basketball, volleyball, martial arts, gymnastics, track and others.

 Dalati said, “My dream was very simple: to become an international Syrian referee and receive an international badge in arbitration from the international [soccer] federation [FIFA]. The blockade is the greatest obstacle to this dream. Syrians within the besieged regions are denied all the necessities of life.”

 He added, “It is true that this blockade prevented us from achieving our sports dream, but it made us help the children and rookie athletes to pursue their training and move forward to be able to complete the journey and make it to the podium."

 The festivals are symbols of defiance.

 “The ​​festivals came about for two reasons," Dalati said. "The first is to breathe new life into the Syrian revolution through revolutionary festivals, and the second is to give athletes the opportunity to test their abilities and join strong competitions and tournaments in various sports that can be practiced under the siege. These festivals are a way to challenge the regime and prove that, despite the worst humanitarian conditions and the bombardment, we can manage to organize festivals and tournaments.”

 The al-Waer district is still considered one of the most important strongholds of the Syrian revolution in Homs. The district is now witnessing a cease-fire in Syria, declared by the international community on Dec. 30. Meanwhile, its residents still dream of better conditions and the entry of aid agreed upon with the UN to maintain their right to life and a decent living. The last aid convoy entered al-Waer in September, and the population of the district currently amounts to 100,000 amid the ongoing blockade.'

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A distress call from Wadi Barada civil society organisations

  'The communities of Wadi Barada have been under violent attack by Hezbollah and the Assad regime for over a month.

 Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists are trying to force out the local Syrian population.
 Wadi Barada’s civilians are in dire need of food and medicine.
 Wadi Barada could be reached by JPADS airdrops using GPS guided parachutes without aircraft having to enter Syrian airspace.
 The World Food Programme has used JPADS elsewhere in Syria but both the WFP and the UK refuse to help Wadi Barada.
 Theresa May dismissed MPs’ calls for airdrops as impractical but didn’t say the WFP was already using JPADS elsewhere in Syria.
 Read more: World Food Programme used JPADS for Deir Ezzor aid drops

 We have received the following distress call from civil society organisations in Wadi Barada:

 "For the 33rd day running, Assad regime forces, Hezbollah, and other militias have been attacking Wadi Barada despite a proclaimed ceasefire in Syria, which was announced on 30th December 2016. The human and material cost has been terrible.

 200 people have been killed as a result of the military attack, 60% of them women and children.

 400 people have been injured. 150 of these are in need of urgent medical evacuation.

 45,000 people have lost their homes following intense bombardment of residential areas by the regime and its allied militias.

 All hospitals and medical centres are inoperational after they were directly attacked by the regime and its allies. Two medical staff have been killed and six injured as a result of these attacks.

 The Civil Defence system is also out of service, after all its operational centres and equipment were destroyed because of deliberate targeting.

 There is a great deal of destruction throughout the villages of Wadi Barada, particularly Basimah and Ain al-Fijeh.

 80,000 people are suffering as a result of continuous bombardment and siege. Food supplies are now so meagre that people eat only one small meal a day. Sometimes this meal only consists of one apple. Families have been forced to slaughter whatever livestock they possess for food. There is now a severe shortage of children’s milk. The situation is getting worse because the regime and militia checkpoints which completely surround Wadi Barada have not allowed any food in for a month and not allowed medicine in for over four months. If the military assault continues and the regime and its allies continue with this policy, this could well lead to starvation.

 There is now an almost total lack of medicine, especially medicines to treat chronic conditions often suffered by older people, such as diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure, and blood disease. More than 20 people have died as a result of the lack of these medicines. The regime and its allies do not allow people to be evacuated from Wadi Barada for medical treatment.

 Following the regime’s bombardment of the Ain el-Fijeh water plant, the water supply cannot be purified and is now polluted and people have contracted diseases from drinking impure water. Dozens of people now suffer from symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting. As a result of the destruction of homes, people have taken shelter in mosques, halls, and other spaces, and this has led to overcrowding and this has exacerbated the situation, further spreading disease. Infants are especially at risk. Two new-borns have died as a result of the inability of medical staff to provide adequate care and jaundice has spread among infants due to trauma and fear.

 Due to the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, we declare the whole of Wadi Barada a disaster area and we call on all humanitarian organizations, human rights organizations, the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, and the international community to urgently intervene to save the civilians trapped in Wadi Barada, who are at the mercy of the rockets and mortars of the Assad regime and its allies and who are now facing the threat of disease and starvation.

 Relief Corps in Wadi Barada • Medical in Wadi Barada • Media Corps in Wadi Barada • Local Council in Wadi Barada • Civil Defence in Wadi Barada • Institution of Barada Al Kheir • Institution of Ghouth Barada" '

How the Syrian Civil War is Creating a Nation of Exiles

 Leila al-Shami:
 'The world watched, throughout November and December 2016, as conditions in the rebel-held area of Aleppo became unbearable. There, amid heavy snowfall, thousands of residents were forcibly displaced from their homes. Most were sent to rebel-held Idlib, where the regime is concentrating its opponents and may soon concentrate its military might. Some of those sent to regime-held west Aleppo were reportedly arrested, including Ahmad Mustafa, a journalist with Halab Today, and Abdulhadi Kamel, a volunteer with the Syria Civil Defense. Others were forcibly conscripted by the regime army.

 Aleppo is only the latest opposition stronghold to follow a now-familiar pattern. Pro-Assadist ground troops, often Iranian-backed Shia militia from Lebanon, Iraq or Afghanistan, enforce a siege on the rebel-held area. No one is allowed to exit; those that try are detained or shot by snipers. Nothing is allowed to enter, including basic food items or medical supplies. Bashar al-Assad's regime grants few requests by humanitarian agencies to access besieged communities. The sieges, which amount to the deliberate starvation of the civilian population, are accompanied by a campaign of intense regime and Russian bombing. Internationally prohibited barrel bombs, chemical and incendiary weapons are dropped on residential areas. Agricultural lands, medical facilities and rescue workers are deliberately and systematically targeted. Weakened and exhausted, the besieged population is then forced to capitulate in a “local truce deal” often accompanied by the eviction of the whole, or part of, the population. And finally, the regime sends green buses to evacuate civilians, who may never see their homes again.

 A recent report by Siege Watch estimates that as of October 2016 there were more than 1.3 million people trapped in at least 39 besieged communities across Syria. Of the 1.3 million, 91 percent are besieged by the Assad regime and its allies. The exceptions include Deir el-Zour, where the siege is primarily enforced by ISIS—although the regime is imposing additional restrictions internally, such as regulating humanitarian aid distribution and restricting freedom of movement for civilians. In Idlib, Islamist rebel groups have besieged the predominantly Shia towns of Foua and Kfraya, using civilians as a negotiations tool—these civilians were also evacuated from their homes in the December Aleppo deal. All those trapped in these open-air prisons are vulnerable to displacement. The regime’s “starve or surrender” policy can mutate at any time to “surrender or risk annihilation.” In October, Syrian and Russian planes dropped leaflets over eastern Aleppo reading: “If you do not leave this area immediately you will be finished. You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom.”

 Throughout its strategy of sieges and displacement, the regime is re-conquering territory through evacuating a civilian population it can never hope to rule through consent. On December 30 and January 6, following a reduction in hostilities, Syrians were once more on the streets in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Damascus, demonstrating their continuing opposition to Assad’s rule. And the regime cannot hold re-conquered territory alone. As the city’s residents left eastern Aleppo, Russian occupation forces moved through deserted streets. Fears now abound for those displaced, who have been forced into ever-decreasing opposition-held territory, or into camps of exile in the winter cold.

 Around the capital, revolutionary strongholds have faced a similar fate to Aleppo's. Daraya, for example, a suburb of Damascus, fell to the regime in August 2016. This town, a model of non-violent civil resistance and democratic self-organization, was a living example of what a post-Assad Syria could look like. Following a 1,368-day siege, and bombardment with napalm and barrel bombs—roughly 9,000 of the latter, according to local activists—Daraya’s residents were forced to surrender. As part of the truce deal negotiated between rebel groups and the regime army, the entire remaining population was forcibly displaced. Assad’s soldiers chanted pro-regime slogans as Daraya’s residents boarded the buses under United Nations supervision. Fighters were sent to rebel-held Idlib and civilians to regime-held areas of Damascus province.

 Soon after, in October, rebels and the regime negotiated a truce deal in Moadamiyeh to end the four-year siege and aerial bombardment there. Moadamiyeh was one of the towns in the Ghouta region hit in the August 2013 sarin attack, where hundreds were gassed to death. Fighters and their families, but not civilians, were transferred to Idlib, and regime security re-entered the town after its long absence. As the UN had received heavy criticism for assisting the forcible transfer of Daraya’s population, they refrained from assisting in subsequent evacuations. There is no independent monitoring of areas that have come back under regime control, and residents of Moadamiyeh have reported recent arrests and disappearances since the return of Assad’s tyranny.

 In western Damascus, the town of Khan al-Shih (which contains the “Al Awda” camp for Palestinian refugees) has also seen recent evictions. Despite the efforts of Al Awda residents to remain neutral during the revolution and war, they were subjected to arrest campaigns and regular shelling. Over the summer, regime and Russian airstrikes intensified in renewed clashes with rebel groups in the Khan al-Shih area, and the camp’s schools and hospitals were targeted. All main access roads to the camp were sealed, trapping 12,000 residents (out of what was once 30,000) inside. Facing dwindling food supplies as well as power and water shortages, they reached a deal to ease conditions in the camp in return for the evacuation of fighters and their families—as well as many activists, journalists and other civilians, according to on-the-ground reports gathered by the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria. In November and December, residents boarded the green buses to Idlib. For those who had fled Palestine in 1948, this was a second Nakba.

 In Al-Waer neighborhood, the last remaining revolutionary stronghold of the city of Homs, opposition fighters and the regime reached an agreement in August to evacuate rebels and their families to Idlib in return for an end to the siege and aerial bombardment and the release of—or update on the fate of—some 7,300 local detainees. Since then, over 600 rebel fighters and their families have left, yet only 194 detainees have been released, stalling further evacuations. Those who have left will join the 6.6 million Syrians who are no longer living in their own homes but have been internally displaced by the conflict, not counting the five million who have fled the country as refugees since 2011.

 Those who leave may never return. Old Homs, once called the “capital of the revolution,” returned to regime control in 2014. Over two years later, official statistics say only 40 percent of the estimated 300,000 that fled the city have returned. Many will not return to regime-controlled areas for fear of reprisals, arrests or forced military conscription. Others no longer hold property documents or are afraid of going to state departments to validate them. Even to rent a property today can require security clearance from thirteen different departments. In some cases those who have returned find new families living in their homes. Others may find their home in ruins. According to Human Rights Watch, thousands of houses in opposition strongholds in Damascus and Hama have been demolished by the regime, using explosives and bulldozers, effectively erasing entire neighborhoods from the map.

 Through these evacuations Assad is able to regain control over lost territory. The regime’s first priority is to empty rebel strongholds of the fighters who defend them, enabling it to concentrate its military resources elsewhere. Assad also knows he cannot win the loyalty of dissenting communities that have suffered so much at the hands of his regime, so civilians, too, are often evicted. Many are sent to rebel-held Idlib, where the huge influx is placing increasing pressure on opposition bodies to provide for the population despite limited resources. The dominance of extremist groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra)—al-Qaeda’s former affiliate—in Idlib provides a ready excuse for regime assault in the name of its “War on Terror.”

 There’s an ethnic dimension to Assad’s cleansing of opposition strongholds as well. Opposition communities are mainly comprised of Sunni Arabs, which make up the majority of Syria’s population, whilst most minority communities, particularly from the Alawite sect to which the president belongs, have stayed loyal to the regime. When Old Homs was “evacuated” in 2014, reports emerged of Alawite and Shia loyalists from nearby villages being moved into vacant Sunni homes. Foreign settlers have also moved into areas cleansed of locals. Around 300 Iraqi Shia families have reportedly relocated to Daraya and Moadamiyeh, reportedly provided with a house and financial incentives. Iran has been buying real estate around the capital and in Homs, including the homes of those who have been displaced, pricing locals out of the market. Even in the old city of Damascus, which never slipped regime control, Christian residents have complained about the presence of large numbers of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia militia changing local demographics.

 Through such demographic engineering the Syrian regime is attempting to ensure a loyal constituency in the areas it deems useful. Some observers have welcomed local truces as a prelude to peace. Yet the accompanying acts of forced population transfer and the implantation of settlers should be considered war crimes. The international community must place real diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime and its allies to end the bombing and lift the sieges, allowing freedom of movement for civilians and access for urgently needed humanitarian aid. This will not be possible without sustained pressure from a global public standing in solidarity with the oppressed Syrian people and calling on responsible parties to end their suffering. Any just peace must also include the right of return, so Syria’s millions of displaced people can safely return to their homes.'

East Ghouta 'refuses any evacuation deal'

 'As a new round of Syria talks, aimed at consolidating a nationwide shaky ceasefire, begin in Kazakhstan's capital, residents of the besieged East Ghouta say they will refuse any deals that would eventually lead to their "displacement" and the transfer of Eastern Ghouta to government hands.

 "There is no human being in Eastern Ghouta who would accept packing up, leaving this city, and handing it over to the government, even if that means being killed," Ward Mardini, a local journalist in Saqba, one of the 29 communities in Eastern Ghouta under opposition control for the past four years, told Al Jazeera.

 Over the past year, Damascus has reached a series of local truce agreements in which rebels, the government refers to them as "terrorists", agree to lay down heavy weapons and evacuate areas after years of bombardment and siege.

 Despite talk of East Ghouta becoming the next east Aleppo, Daraya, Moadamiyat al-Sham or al-Waer, where government forces imposed airtight sieges until evacuation agreements were reached, residents say there is an internal effort to unify the opposition and civil society in hope of resisting any such deals.

 "We are under pressure of being forcefully displaced. It is clear that the government may be using the same tactics it used in Aleppo," Abu Salem al-Shami, an activist in Eastern Ghouta, told Al Jazeera."The siege creates an internal psychological crisis being felt by everyone, and people want to get out of this crisis. Now, you suddenly have all these reconciliation projects that are coming up so that people will succumb and leave."

 "That's why we are trying to pressurise the factions and the people here to unify so that we could produce a clear political outlook of our demands," which, said al-Shami, was the downfall of the regime. "If we want to get rid of tyranny, then we need to do this."

 Last Monday, Syria's state news agency that "a reconciliation will be reached within the coming few days in one of the East Ghouta regions and probably in several towns and villages". "Members of the reconciliation committees confirmed that most Eastern Ghouta residents are in favour of reconciliation," the statement said.

 In Eastern Ghouta, the main groups leading the fight are Faylaq al-Rahman (al-Rahman Corps), Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Islamic Movement of the Free People of the Levant), which works closely with Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, who have some fighters on the ground, as well.

 The groups have often fought against one another, despite their joint aim of bringing down the Assad government, which has been in power for 17 years under Bashar al-Assad, and since 1971 under Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father.

 "There used to be more than 150 rebel groups operating in Eastern Ghouta. Now there are four or five main ones, owing to our efforts to unify the groups. But they remain divided," said al-Shami.

 Despite the presence of hardline groups on the ground, residents say there is no place for the ideologies of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham or Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, which aim to create an Islamic state in Syria under Islamic law.

 "We know that people on the outside are framing this as a war of ideology and wanting to build an Islamic state - but this no place for this kind of talk here. There is no way that residents here will give Ghouta away to such groups. There's no way," said al-Shami.

 But in this fight, the civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict. With the government gaining the upper hand since Russia launched its campaign of air strikes in support of the regime in September 2015, civilians in areas under opposition control have been the prime victims.

 In 2013, approximately 1,500 people were killed when rockets with poisonous gas heads were dropped on Eastern Ghouta. And, today, medical centres and hospitals say at least 20 to 30 people are being treated on a daily basis for wounds from the constant bombardment.

 "Most people that come in have shrapnel wounds," Abu Hussam, a doctor and head of media relations for the Unified Revolutionary Medical Bureau in East Ghouta, told Al Jazeera. "Many of those who need complex surgeries have been finding ways to get out of the enclave to be treated in Damascus, which involves paying large sums of money."

 Mahmoud al-Sheikh, the administrative director of the bureau, which oversees all the medical facilities in East Ghouta, says there are about 55 medical centres remaining in the area. "Around 60 percent of the centres that we had before have been targeted by the regime," said al-Sheikh.

 "They are seen as points of strength and persistence - that is why they're being targeted," he said, adding that there is a huge deficiency in the needed medical supplies.

 The siege has also severely restricted access to electricity, water, food and fuel, and the suffering of residents has been exacerbated by the winter cold. "Due to the high price of wood, people are forced to burn their old clothes and their furniture - anything they can burn, they burn it," said Mardini.

 "Every day, you see women and children collecting plastic or anything that is flammable to be able to keep themselves warm and to cook."

 East Ghouta, whose inhabitants number approximately 300,000, is only one of 39 besieged communities across Syria, according to a report by Siege Watch. The monitor, which is managed by the US-based Syria Institute research group and PAX, a Netherlands-based peace research team, says more than 1.3 million people remain trapped.

 An additional 1.4 million face siege-linked conditions, the group says.

 Despite the daily struggles, the area's residents remain steadfast. "All we're asking for is an end to this river of blood. We did not ask for this. We asked for freedom from a dictatorship," said al-Sheikh.

 "We want a transition of power, an end to the siege, and freedom for our prisoners."

 At least 400,000 civilians have been killed since 2011, when the Syrian conflict began as a largely unarmed uprising against the government, according to the United Nations.

 More than 6 million Syrians, including 2.8 million children, have been internally displaced from their homes - the biggest internally displaced population in the world. An additional 4.8 million have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

 "If I wanted to send a message, it would be this: Before the revolution, Syria used to accept many refugees from several countries - Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and even tourists," said Mardini.

 "We never treated anyone with a superior manner; we opened our homes and we were very good to them. But now, unfortunately, we have not found sympathy from anyone." '

Monday, 23 January 2017

Islamic State Steps Up Oil and Gas Sales to Assad Regime

A video image released Nov. 23, 2015, by the Russian Defense Ministry shows show Russian airplanes carrying out an airstrike against Islamic State-run oil facilities in Syria.

 'Islamic State has ramped up sales of oil and gas to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. and European officials said, providing vital fuel to the government in return for desperately needed cash.

 The regime’s purchases are helping sustain Islamic State amid unprecedented military pressure on the militant group in both Syria and Iraq. It is also helping the group despite the regime’s insistence that it is dedicated to eradicating the militant group with the help of its top allies Russia and Iran.

 Oil and gas sales to Mr. Assad’s regime are now Islamic State’s largest source of funds, replacing revenue the group once collected from tolls on the transit of goods and taxes on wages within its territory, the officials said. Their information comes from the monitoring of oil-truck traffic routes, which have changed from carrying oil to Turkey and Iraq to transporting it to Syria.

 “Daesh’s revenue and energy generation is being supported by the Syrian regime,” said Amos Hochstein, a U.S. State Department official, referring to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.

 Islamic State’s energy sales to the Syrian regime illustrate the shifting, and sometimes confounding, alliances that have marked the country’s nearly six-year war.

 Islamic State has found some relief from U.S. airstrikes targeting their oil-smuggling operations in central and western Syria, where the Russian military has a heavy air presence, a Western official said. The group is also harder to hit in Syria because the pockets of territory it controls are smaller, the official said.

 Although Islamic State is a regular target of Mr. Assad’s pronouncements against terrorism, his government depends on the militant group for oil and natural gas to the extent that the Syrian capital Damascus “relies on gas produced in ISIS territory in the Palmyra area for a large part of its power generation,” a European counterterrorism official said.

 Western officials said the Assad regime has fallen behind on payments to Islamic State for the gas. They said they suspect that Islamic State blew up a separate Syrian gas plant on Jan. 8 to send a message demanding payment.'

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Doctors And Nurses Of Aleppo Wonder What To Do Next

 'Right up until he absolutely had to leave, 24-year-old nurse Abu Hussam was determined to stay in Aleppo. Months of airstrikes and assaults couldn’t dissuade him — his community needed him.

 When forces supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad moved in to take control of the city last month, Abu Hussam was among the last of the civilians evacuated from the city. He couldn’t stay, because the Syrian government has persecuted medical staff and their families for treating rebels.

 “I left my city maybe forever,” says Abu Hussam, who is now staying with family in Idlib, Syria — just 40 miles west of Aleppo. “I left my childhood house. I left my soul back in Aleppo.” This is also why Abu Hussam goes only by his family name. He’s afraid he’ll be arrested.

 Like many of the other doctors and nurses who risked their own lives to help their city’s sick and wounded, he’s now out of a job.

 After years of hunkering down in underground medical clinics, bracing themselves against bombings and covertly treating Aleppo’s injured, many doctors and nurses who’ve fled Aleppo now feel they have no purpose, says Dr. A.M., — a Detroit-based intensive care specialist with the Syrian American Medical Society, a humanitarian organization that provides relief services and funds clinics all over Syria.

 “There’s a lot of need for medical staff in Idlib, but not enough hospitals to accommodate them,” notes M., who asked that we only use his initials because he worries the Assad’s government forces will come after his family in Syria.

 SAMS is now working on building two new hospitals at the border between Syria and Turkey, says M. — where Aleppo’s civilian refugees can get treatment, and medical workers like Abu Hussam can find employment. Other humanitarian groups, including the Union of Medical Care and Relief, have also offered jobs to doctors and nurses fleeing Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Red Cross and Red Crescent announced new efforts to bring aid to Aleppo’s displaced in Idlib.

 “For staff working at SAMS-supported hospitals in Aleppo, we paid them one salary in advance for January,” M. says, since rent is very high in Idlib and the suburbs of Aleppo where most of the medical staff who fled the city have relocated.

 Many medical staff are still looking for positions — and others, injured during the evacuation process, are unable to work.

 They are also haunted by their last, harrowing hours in Aleppo. “We left humiliated,” says Abdulbari, another nurse who was working at SAMS-funded hospitals in Aleppo who only gives his last name for fear of persecution by the Syrian government. “We were so scared we would be captured and tortured at the checkpoint.”

 “They are frustrated, and some of them are finding it so difficult,” M. adds, because they no longer feel useful. “One of our nurses lost his vision [in an airstrike], so he can’t work. So he even thought seriously about giving himself to the regime — he said, ‘Let them take me and torture me — what do I have to live for?'”

 M. and his other friends managed to talk him out of it. “I tell them, just be patient,” M. says. “We will build more hospitals; it will be OK.” '

Ex-detainee describes murdering methods in Assad-run hospitals

Image result for Ex-detainee describes murdering methods in Assad-run hospitals

 'Abu Saeed, who was displaced from the southern countryside of Damascus to Daraa, tells his story of arrest which ended in an Assad military hospital causing him a permanent disability in his foot.

 "I was shot by a sniper at the beginning of 2012 so I was being treated in a private hospital when the military security forces arrested me, but due to my health condition I was moved to a military hospital called 601 in Damascus.

 At the hospital, the detective charged me with terrorism and armed action even before making sure of the reason of my injury or whether I was a civilian or a militant and so I was moved to a cell in the hospital where I suffered and witnessed the atrocities against the detainees.

 I stayed for more than a year in that cell and saw how the detainees were being treated as all of them were handcuffed regardless of their health conditions.

 The hospital was affiliated to the regime’s military forces so it was mainly treating regime’s thugs and militants, but the injured detainees who were taken there were kept in a cell inside the hospital campus without receiving any kind of treatment, they were rather dying because of torture and medical negligence.

In that cell, we were never observed by any doctors or nurses.

 Their [
detainees who were brought from security branches] wounds were left to rot and severe infections and they were brought there to be liquidated, that was the hospital’s main function when it came to the detainees.

 Killing methods in the hospitals varies from direct liquidation to killing by deliberate medical negligence, not to mention brutal hitting with rifles, suffocating by putting wet cotton pads on our noses and mouths or even injecting oxygen water in our blood.

 1700 detainees from only one security branch were killed along the period I spent there. After killing a detainee, they used to write a number on his forehead then take a photo of him and move his body to an unknown place.

 During the 7 months I spent in that cell, I never got any kind of medical treatment, so the infection in my wound reached the nerves and most of my back and I was lucky to be able to get treatment after being released while hundreds of detainees died there because of gangrene.

The detainees inside the cell varied from defectors from regime forces, doctors, engineers and university students and instructors who were tortured the most because they were educated as regime forces think that they are the ones who encourage people to revolt against the regime." '