Saturday, 11 February 2017

Syria war seethes despite cease-fire between regime and rebels

 'Syria’s fronts are on fire despite a cease-fire reached in December between the rebels and the government. Though the two sides sat face-to-face in the Kazakh capital of Astana a month later, the government has pressed offensives against rebels around the capital, Damascus, and recently escalated its air campaigns in Homs and Idlib.

 Here’s a look at the fighting around Syria:

 DAMASCUS: Despite a rebel ultimatum delivered in Astana against further aggression around the capital, Syrian government forces along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group pressed on with an offensive against rebels holding Damascus’ primary water source, and defeated them one week later. About 2,000 rebels, opposition activists and their families chose exile from the Barada Valley rather than remaining under government authority.

 This has become the hallmark of the government’s strategy – to squeeze its opponents through siege then offer them exile. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes from bombardment across the country, with thousands more fleeing to northwestern Idlib province instead of submitting to government rule. Opponents call the strategy “forced displacement.”

 Government forces have also intensified their assault on the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus. Home to some 400,000 people, the area has hardly seen a day without fighting since the rebels expelled the government in 2012. The government justifies its attacks, saying those areas include fighters from the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, although the rebels deny that. Rebel factions are fighting back with tank, artillery, and other heavy weapons fire.

 IDLIB: This province in northwestern Syria is now almost entirely under rebel control and has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of people displaced by fighting there and elsewhere.

 But it is hardly safe. Multinational aircraft are constantly raiding the province, striking Al-Qaeda-linked rebels as well as civilian positions. U.S. coalition aircraft are believed to have killed more than 100 Al-Qaeda-linked fighters on the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency, according to the Pentagon, while government or Russian aircraft are believed to be behind a string of raids on the provincial capital, also called Idlib, that killed at least 26 civilians and more than a dozen militants earlier this week, according to the Observatory.

 Rebels, meanwhile, are fighting one another in the province as they divide into competing camps over whether to engage in the diplomatic process in Geneva and Kazakhstan. On the one side are groups aligned with the Al-Qaeda-linked affiliate, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, while on the other are an array of Western- and Turkish-backed rebels, led by the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham.

 CENTRAL SYRIA Pro-government forces have intensified their bombardment of Al-Waer, the only enclave for the opposition in the country’s third-largest city, Homs. Nine people were killed in shelling and airstrikes Wednesday, according to local activists. Osama Abu Zeid, a resident, said he believes the government is trying to force the neighborhood to surrender and activists like him into exile. Rebels, meanwhile, are raiding towns and villages loyal to the government in neighboring Hama province.

 DAESH TERRITORY Daesh seized Palmyra and its ancient ruins on Dec. 11 and has maintained its grip on it ever since. It has gone so far as to threaten the government’s position at the strategic T4 air base in central Syria, but the military has so far stood up to the test. The group has seized and destroyed several natural gas fields and facilities, with consequences for the national economy for years to come.

 The extremists also stepped up their campaign for Deir al-Zour, which has been under siege since 2015, and for a nervous two weeks in January forced the U.N. food agency to abandon its air drops due to safety fears. The U.N. estimates more than 90,000 civilians are trapped inside. Government troops and loyal militias are fighting back.

 With the U.N. planning to convene peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 20, hopes for success hinge on the intentions of the three powers closest to the conflict – Turkey, Russia and Iran – who together pledged to guarantee the tenuous cease-fire.

 And nowhere will their intentions crystallize more clearly than in Al-Bab, where each side has a stake – Turkey fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, and Russia and Iran backing the Syrian government and allied Shiite militias.

 The outcome in Al-Bab – whether it is ultimately taken by the government or the rebels, and whether the front between the two sides stabilizes or dissolves into all-out warfare – will set the direction of future talks and any settlement.'

  'Assad regime seems overwhelmed. Too many frontlines at the same time. Al_Bab, Khanaser, Tiyas, DeirEzzor, Eastern Ghouta, Sayqal.'

  'People in Latakia besieging the last gas stations. The Assad regime is running out of fuel.'

 'Pro-Assad forces are blocked now. They will never reach Al_Bab without a bloody battle with EuphratesShield.'

Up to 13,000 secretly hanged in Syrian jail, says Amnesty

Image result for Amnesty International estimates 13,000 people were killed in mass hangings in Saydnaya prison between 2011 and 2015

 'As many as 13,000 opponents of Bashar al-Assad were secretly hanged in one of Syria’s most infamous prisons in the first five years of the country’s civil war as part of an extermination policy ordered by the highest levels of the Syrian government, according to Amnesty International.

 Many thousands more people held in Saydnaya prison died through torture and starvation, Amnesty said, and the bodies were dumped in two mass graves on the outskirts of Damascus between midnight and dawn most Tuesday mornings for at least five years.

 The report, Human Slaughterhouse, details allegations of state-sanctioned abuse that are unprecedented in Syria’s civil war, a conflict that has consistently broken new ground in depravity, leaving at least 400,000 people dead and nearly half the country’s population displaced.

 It suggests thousands more people could have been hanged in Saydnaya since the end of 2015, after which former guards and detainees who spoke to Amnesty no longer had access to verifiable information from inside the prison.

 Among the 84 people interviewed were four former guards at two key buildings, a “red building” in which civilian detainees were held and a “white building” that held former military members and where hangings were carried out in the basement. More than 12 months of research focused on 31 men who were held in both buildings. A military judge was also interviewed.

 The witnesses claimed that once or twice a week 20 to 50 people at a time were hanged after sham trials before a military court. Their bodies were taken to the nearby Tishreen military hospital where a cause of death was typically registered as a respiratory disorder or heart failure. They were buried on military land in Nahja, south of Damascus, and Qatana, a small town to the west.

 The report’s author, Nicolette Waldman, said the estimate of the number of people hanged ranged from a minimum of 5,000 to a maximum of 13,000.

 “There is no reason at all to expect that the hangings have stopped. We believe it is very likely that the executions are going on to this day and that many thousands more people have been killed,” she said.

 “They came for them on a Monday. Before they were hanged, victims were condemned to death in a two- to three-minute hearing. The death sentence was signed by the minister of defence, who was deputised to sign by President Assad. It is inconceivable that all of the top officials did not know about it. This was a policy of extermination.”

 Waldman said the hanging victims were separate to claims of the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees in Syria from March 2011 until August 2013, which were documented by a photographer codenamed Caesar who worked for the Syrian military police.

 Amnesty said non-state armed groups had also carried out serious human rights abuses against detainees. It singled out the al-Qaida-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State as perpetrators of war crimes. But it said the “vast majority of detention-related violations since 2011 have been carried out by Syrian authorities”.

 Witnesses to the killings in Saydnaya described a methodical routine in which those about to be hung were collected from their cell block in the red building in the afternoon and told they were to be transferred to another prison. They were instead taken to the basement of the white building, several hundred metres away, and repeatedly beaten. They were taken before a military judge and condemned, before being hanged between midnight and 3am.

 “Some of them initially did not know what the sounds were,” said Waldman. “It is such a dehumanising and horrible experience in prison already.”

 Amnesty said its witnesses had detailed each step of the process, with some giving graphic accounts of having heard the hangings being carried out in the room beneath them. The organisation said it had sought a response to its allegations from Syrian officials in mid-January but received no reply. Amnesty researchers are barred from entering Syria.

 “What we have uncovered is beyond anything else we have seen,” said Waldman. “This demands a new kind of response. These practices have to stop. It is one more step of diabolical intent by the Syrian authorities.” '

Thursday, 9 February 2017

A sarcastic response to Syria's militants

Raed Fares at work at Radio Fresh FM

 'It takes a special kind of person to run a radio station in an area controlled by Islamist militants in northern Syria. Music is forbidden, so are women presenters. But Raed Fares - manager of Radio Fresh FM - has come up with a creative response to the militants' demands.
 It is mid-day and almost time for the latest news from Radio Fresh FM in the rebel-held province of Idlib, in north west Syria.
 Suddenly the airwaves are filled with assorted sounds of tweeting birds, clucking chickens and bleating goats. As the newsreader gets under way, the cacophony continues beneath his voice.
 You might be forgiven for thinking that this is some sort of farming bulletin. It's not. It's simply that the station's manager, Raed Fares, has had enough of being told what to do by the powerful jihadist group, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or JFS - which until last July was linked to al-Qaeda and known as the al-Nusra Front.
 "They tried to force us to stop playing music on air," says Fares. "So we started to play animals in the background as a kind of sarcastic gesture against them."
 In what appear to be further acts of sarcastic sabotage aimed at JFS's ban on music, Radio Fresh FM has introduced long sequences of bongs from London's Big Ben clock, endless ticking sounds, ringing explosions and the whistle of shells flying through the air.
 And instead of songs with melodies, the station now plays recordings of tuneless chanting football fans.
 Fares has been getting involved in confrontations of one kind or another for years now.
 He took part in hundreds of demonstrations against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime at the beginning of the uprising in 2011 and continues to see it as the biggest enemy. Many of his friends were killed or imprisoned, as the authorities responded with increasing violence.
 Then came the threats from fighters of the so called Islamic State. Like JFS, they said the station's music was haram, or offensive to Islam. Believing this to be totally wrong, Fares ignored the threats and carried on as before, but nearly paid with his life.
 Just over three years ago, when the 44-year-old former estate agent arrived home in the early hours of the morning, after finishing work at the radio station, two IS gunmen with Kalashnikovs were waiting for him. They fired a barrage of shots, leaving more than a dozen holes in his car, even more in the wall behind, and two in the right side of his body. These shattered several bones in his shoulder and ribs, as well as puncturing his right lung.
 Fares was left lying in a pool of blood and only narrowly survived after being rushed to hospital by his brother.
 "I still have trouble breathing, he later said, but my doctor says my lungs should be no problem because of the size of my nose."
 It's not that surprising that IS doesn't like Fares. After all, he did once design a poster depicting Syria as an alien with a monster called ISIS exploding out of its chest. The group has since been pushed out of Idlib province.
 President Assad, though, is his favourite target. He once got his friends to drape themselves in shrouds and then filmed them staggering out of graves calling for Assad to step down, as if even the dead want him gone. He posted it online and it was played on a number of Arabic television stations.
 Humour, it seems, is never far from the surface with Raed Fares. Take his response to another of JFS's demands, to get rid of women news readers - who are also haram, they say.
 Has he, agreed to swap them for men?
 "No, I have another solution for that issue. We simply put their voices through a computer software programme which makes them sound like men."
 The feisty 6ft 2in station manager has also refused JFS's demands to allow their members into the radio station to monitor the behaviour of his staff.
 "We said 'No,'" he says. "You have to monitor the transmissions, not what people are doing inside the radio station."
 JFS are not the only extremist rebels in the area. There are about a dozen others, and even though some of the biggest factions have recently been forming new alliances, this still makes the area chaotic to govern.
 There is little more than two hours of mains electricity a day, water supplies are limited and food increasingly expensive in a region flooded with 700,000 refugees from elsewhere in the country.
 The fact that Fares's dispute with JFS has continued for so long is evidence that the group is a little more tolerant than IS. But as a family man with three children is he not worried that sooner or one of these jihadist groups will kill him?
 "They've tried that five times already," he says. "If it happens, it happens. But they haven't succeeded yet. I try to survive, but if I can't, it's OK."
 He says that the lowest point in his life came when one of his closest friends was killed and another severely injured by a bomb last summer. Fares admits that he nearly took his own life in the days that followed. But now, he says, he is more determined than ever to carry on.
 "We started the revolution together and were all aware that we faced the same risks," he says. "That means that my life isn't more expensive than my friends who lost their lives." '

Demonstration in Kafranbel in May 2011

Monday, 6 February 2017

Homs: Women’s Coffee Morning in al-Waer Without Coffee


 'Women in besieged al-Waer no longer get together in the morning around a cup of coffee. Instead, they gather in the streets looking for fuel for one or a few days, from tree branches that have become an essential alternative to oil and gas during the siege and the most important resource in the absence of the men of the household.

 Eman Abdul Halim, a woman in her forties, told Enab Baladi that the siege had transformed the lives of women in the neighborhood of al-Waer in Homs from an ordinary one to a life full of obligations. Comfort has become a mere dream, added to the other dreams of the besieged, who seek freedom and safety.

 “As a woman, I noticed a change in my life over three stages, each radically different from the other”, Eman added.

 In the period before the revolution, “I lived a comfortable life with my family. However, during the revolution I gradually lost that life mainly due to being displaced, since I was forced to leave my property and my “kingdom” (her house). The siege has also deprived me of my most basic rights, such as security, basic goods and access to daily needs”, said Eman.

 The regime-imposed siege on the neighborhood since 2013 has changed Eman’s life from what it was in the past, and it is difficult to get that life back.

 “In the past, women did not have a gas range to cook on but they had a small stove on which they were able to cook the most famous Syrian dishes. Now we do not have the gas to be able to light the stoves. So we cook on heaters and fireplaces using sticks, wood and garbage that we collect from the streets every day. We’ve forgotten the taste of meat and our famous dishes. Our main meal consists of rice or bulgur. Our biggest feast now is a siege version of al-mujaddara, which is different from the ordinary one since we make it without onions, which should be sprinkled on the top”, said Eman.

 After years of siege, the lack of means of earning a living has occupied the women of al-Waer and changed the old traditions of Homs such as “al-sobhiyya” (morning gatherings), which have become a thing of the past, according to Zainab Jalal, one of the neighborhood’s residents.

 Zainab told Enab Baladi, “As you see in Syrian soap operas, the women of the neighborhood used to gather regularly in one of their houses each morning and spend wonderful moments around a cup of coffee and breakfast that we prepared together. We would talk about different topics and about the latest news in our families, discussing all the little details. Life is different now, we have become pre-occupied by the difficulties of daily life. The barriers and obstacles have pushed us to give up this habit, which was very common.”

 The difficulties of life and, for some women, losing their husbands, have made women responsible for doing the job of men, such as providing for their families and all their needs, as well as doing the housework. According to Zainab, “The war has not been easy in any way. It is rare to see a house without a ‘disaster’ that has changed its residents’ lives forever, and it is difficult to find men, since most were either arrested, martyred or gone missing. This pushed women to take on their role as father, mother and wife”.

 Zainab lost her husband after he was arrested by regime forces four years ago, making her both father and mother to their four children. Despite that, she did not let go of her morning habits but instead of spending it at home, she spends it on the street.

 “Despite the additional responsibilities that life has forced on us, it also made us share our stories and our responsibilities in the streets of the neighborhood. My friends and I go out in the morning to collect what we need. We also talk about life and the latest developments through the whole journey but the only difference is that we don’t make any coffee”, added Zainab.

 The medical and relief activist, Yasmine Umm Jihad, told Enab Baladi that these issues have not prevented women from following the revolution and contributing to it, as they see it as the only way to get rid of the regime and its oppression. “Women have become prominent in various domains such as the medical, humanitarian relief and media fields. Women are also active in education and have been able, through their persistence, to participate in leading society as a mother, wife, educator and worker all at the same time”, said Yasmine.

 She added, “Women have continued this work in spite of attempts to stop them out of fear that they will be arrested. This work is part of sustaining the popular mobilization, which men cannot do alone. One hand alone cannot clap. All Syrians must work to get rid of this regime that has filled our lives with pain and loss and proven to be the most murderous in history.” '