Saturday, 11 March 2017

Rebels vow to defy Assad in Homs, Syria


 'Bombs rained down on the Al-Waer neighborhood in western Homs in Syria six times one recent day. As they fell, Abu Mahmoud remembered how his 13-year-old son, Mahmoud, and brother-in-law, Hotheifah, 22, died in a similar barrage.

"I was next to them in the house," said Mahmoud, 35, a farmer. "They didn’t have time to run away."

Al-Waer is the last rebel holdout in Syria’s third-largest city. It became a battlefield last month when Syrian President Bashar Assad launched an assault, hoping to score another victory like the fall of rebel-held east Aleppo in December. According to UNICEF, as of January, there were 15 rebel holdouts — enclaves of people living in besieged areas. Mahmoud lives in one of those 15. He moved from his home in southern Homs to Al-Waer when war broke out. In the wake of anti-regime uprisings, Assad’s Shiite Muslim forces brutally repressed the area's largely Sunni community. Mahmoud and his family were part of that community. Mahmoud's youngest child escaped harm in the airstrike in February that killed his 13-year-old. His wife and middle son were injured.

 "We needed a big wasta to let them out," he said. "Wasta" is an Arabic term meaning an inside connection.

 A friend spirited them through government lines to a hospital elsewhere in the city. They were released three days ago and live in a regime-controlled part of Homs.

 Mahmoud vows to defy Assad until death. "We are not leaving," he said. "We will stay a thorn in the regime’s throat. God gives, and God takes."

 Al-Waer was under siege long before the latest assault. United Nations humanitarian aid convoys have kept residents alive for more than three years. The regime blocked the last U.N. convoy from entering Al-Waer late last month, threatening 75,000 people with starvation. Similar blockades have gone up in other rebel-held pockets around Homs.

 "What has changed in recent weeks is the intensity of the siege and bombing," said Ayoub Shabil, 47, an agricultural engineer in Ar Rastan, a small town 15 miles north of Homs. "You can’t imagine how small these houses are compared to the size of the rockets hitting them. Three rockets destroyed 12 homes here on Monday. The siege is getting worse."

 Mouhannad al-Khaled, 25, a photographer and activist in Al-Waer for three years, said that when he arrived in the neighborhood, it was almost empty and full of new buildings. Today, those streets are mostly lined with rubble or buildings severely damaged after years of airstrikes and fighting. Residents who remain share the few habitable buildings still standing. Mohammad al-Hosami, a former Red Crescent activist living in Al-Waer for five years, said rebels and the regime signed a cease-fire March 6 set to last 10 days. The two sides have begun negotiations on evacuating the neighborhood. Those who stay must give up their weapons. The Russians are there to ensure the agreement. It's anyone's guess if it happens, residents said. Al-Hosami said he expects most to evacuate because the conditions are becoming unbearable and people are losing hope.

"Sadness is prevailing in the streets," he said. "Al-Waer was the last holdout for rebels in Homs. If its residents leave, it’s the end for the revolution in the city." '

Meet the women risking their lives to save civilians in Syria

Image result for Meet the women risking their lives to save civilians in Syria

 "Amidst all the death and destruction in Syria, there is one organisation which exists solely to protect civilians. They call themselves the White Helmets and they’re made up of over 3,000 volunteers, 100 of whom are women. Before the war they were in normal civilian jobs – teachers, bakers and tailors. Now, they specialise in saving lives, every day.

 Gardenia, 33, was studying English in Damascus when war broke out. She joined a network of humanitarian volunteers that crossed between the regime and opposition areas to help people – each time risking arrest. Now she is a full-time volunteer with the White Helmets. ‘When bombs strike, most of the victims lose their clothes,’ she says. ‘One of our roles is to keep the dignity of the human being.’ Training even extends to midwifery: ‘Even in a war zone, life goes on. Women are still having babies, and there are no doctors to help them – someone has to.’

 Manal, 45, was an accountant in her former life. She volunteers as a White Helmets in Daraa, the site of anti-Assad graffiti by teenage boys in 2011, which is often said to have sparked the Syrian revolution. Daraa has suffered siege and heavy aerial attacks since: ‘All the medical staff and doctors in Syria have either been injured, killed, detained or had to flee. Someone had to bridge that gap and act to protect civilians, so we had to do it.’

 The White Helmets have rescued over 85,000 people since the war broke out. Their work led to a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. An eponymous Netflix documentary about them won Best Documentary Short at this year’s Oscars.

 How do they feel, risking their lives on a daily basis?

 ‘We live in a war zone,’ Manal tells us. ‘We are risking our lives whether we choose to rescue people or not – so it’s better to help people.’

 ‘Syrians are exposed to death on a daily basis,’ Gardenia adds. ‘It’s an indiscriminate bombardment – you’re danger just being in your home.’

 The White Helmets are supported by a mixture of international government and private funding, including the Jo Cox foundation – the late MP was a champion of the organisation during her career.

 New volunteers first attend training sessions in either Turkey or Syria where they are introduced to ‘urban search and rescue’ techniques. They are also trained to deal with trauma injuries and removal of UXO’s (unexploded ordinances). In addition to this, they conduct emergency burials, repair roads, and provide warnings and advice to civilians.

 Yet as well as all this, the female White Helmets are helping to change the perception of women in their country. ‘Just by being a part of the civil defence, it shows what women can do,’ says Manal. ‘If women can face this, they can face anything. It turns the role of a woman from victim to someone with power.’

 However even with their extensive training, they can still find themselves out of their depth.

 ‘A bomb fell near my house, and I didn’t have my equipment with me.’ says Manal. ‘I was with my family at the time. I looked outside and I saw that my neighbour was lying in the street – heavily wounded. I rushed out and tried to stop the bleeding. I screamed for help but no one could hear me – all the defence teams were scattered around, responding to different attacks. I kept on talking to my neighbour, asking him to stay conscious. Finally a car came and transferred us to the hospital. It was only when I came back home that I realised my one-year-old niece, who I was holding in my arms when the bomb fell, had also been injured – I was holding her and I didn’t even see that she was bleeding.’

 Thankfully, both Manal’s niece and neighbour survived the attack, but there are many who haven’t, and won’t, if the war goes on.

 ‘There is no international will to end this war,’ says Manal, ‘everyday we are losing friends, neighbours and loved ones.’

 Gardenia nods, ‘We don’t want to pull people from under the rubble any more.’ "

Friday, 10 March 2017

On 6th anniversary of Syrian war, education remains a casualty

 'Imad Barq has a doctoral degree in education and was a professor at Al-Baath University in Homs. In 2013, he was detained by the Assad regime and forced to leave the country to Turkey. The Syrian interim government formed its “Ministry of Education” in 2013 as a “national committee for education” that was under the supervision of the Syrian opposition coalition. In May 2014, the ministry was officially established in Turkey, and Barq was elected to oversee the operation out of Gaziantep. But in May 2015 he shifted the headquarters back to Syria, and despite ongoing unrest decided to manage the education crisis inside the opposition-held areas. For him, the only way to monitor the volatile education landscape was to be in his ravaged country. Barq was able to return by road to opposition-held areas. He currently resides in western Aleppo.

 "As the minister of education, my duty is not to speak about the politics within the coalition, but to put all focus on education matters. We work independently of all of that. I am working in my technical capacity and as the education minister, I am not involved in the politics of the coalition. As a technocrat, I don’t belong to any political party and am only focusing to work on this huge challenge — the education challenge that is an incredibly difficult task. I don’t even draw a salary as a minister and take my salary from my work teaching at the University of Aleppo. This is a duty to my country.

 You have to understand that inside Syria we have areas held by the Kurds, we have areas under the control of IS, areas controlled by the opposition and then areas under the control of the regime. We control the opposition and neutral areas across nine provinces. Today, there are around 4.5 million school-aged children inside Syria. Over 1.5 million of them live in the opposition areas and out of that number only 750,000 children are in school.

 One may think that expanding the regime-held areas helps stabilize the situation for families, but it is actually hurting the situation. Because when the regime comes to any area, the people in that area leave and become IDPs. They will move to another place; so when the regime expands into an area — like eastern Aleppo — that area automatically becomes empty. Until now, eastern Aleppo remains empty; even the supporters of Assad are gone. After Assad got control of eastern Aleppo, most of those people moved to northern Aleppo.

 The targeting of schools is a tragedy. We have the majority of the attacks against our schools. The regime and its supporters deliberately attack schools. Today — even now as we are speaking — one attack happened in Homs, but no one is reporting on it. No one reports on these issues anymore. It has become normal for the world and that is a shame. 

 The West knows what’s going on in Syria. They have their satellites, their people on the ground, so they can see what’s going on, but there is no willingness to support the people. When the Assad regime attacks our schools, he does it with a big intention. He wants to displace these children and leave them in a hopeless and vulnerable position so that they would be forced to join radical groups. He wants to show people that if he is gone this is what will happen. He wants to show the rest of the world that Syrians are terrorists — but we’re not. There are close to 5,000 schools in the opposition-held areas, and the regime systematically attacks them. They never shell the schools in the IS-controlled areas. Why? Why is it that they only shell our schools?

 There are a total of 17,000 schools inside Syria and 5,000 of them are in the opposition areas. Almost 2,800 schools have been shelled and are completely destroyed. The schools that are left are all targets. So due to these fears we are providing informal schooling in private homes, basements and areas that we think the children are safe in. In many areas where shelling is frequent and heavy, we have the kids stay inside and the teachers go to them. No child should endure this — to get education under the fear of dying.

 Before the war, 5% of students were disabled, today we have over 15% of children with disabilities and special needs. In total, we have around 275,000 teachers in all of Syria, and in the opposition areas there are only 75,000 teachers left. Out of that number, only 13,000 of them are getting a salary and the rest don’t work or are volunteers — there is no funding to pay these teachers and that is a tragedy. From the 25,000 teachers that are available in our system [work under the umbrella of the Education Ministry] now 14,000 of them don’t have a degree in higher education and only have a secondary education degree. Because of that, these teachers themselves need some support. We are fighting this fight because we are not just fighting to save education for these children — we are fighting the regime’s intentions of destroying our future generation.There is no budget! There are NGOs supporting us, but the whole system is losing funding. The ministry has no budget. Even the University of Aleppo is getting its support from other NGOs.

 The world does not care because the regime is still being supported. The world has no heart and we are losing an entire generation. The Syrian people know that they are alone. Even our supporters and friends are reducing their support. Funds are decreasing and their backing is weakening. Our team works under shelling and everyday we are facing death. Even I, myself, have escaped death and continue to face it every day.

 We need funding to be sustained — all in an effort to build upon what we are doing. Those remaining in Syria will never leave — we will stay — even if we are working voluntarily. If we leave, there will be a demographic change in our country and we can’t let that happen. That change is what the regime wants. We prefer to die inside Syria than to leave.

 It is so difficult for me to see Syrian children live without education and have their future and potential wasted. I can’t see them just sit while being left behind doing nothing. I have to work to serve this community and my country. If I were to leave, and if people like me continue to leave, Syria will be left with no qualified person and that will be an irrecoverable disaster. This is especially critical in the field of education. I have no plans to leave Syria. Syria is my home, my country, I will never leave. We will work inside Syria until the last breath." '

Demonstrations across Syria today under the banner: Revolution until Victory

"Here in Douma."

Maarat al-Numan:


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Assad is a long way from victory in Syrian conflict

Image result for assad is a long way from victory in syria reuters palmyra

 'The destruction of Syria, which began six years ago this month, shows limited signs of abating, even though Bashar-al Assad’s Russia and Iran-backed regime recaptured the rebels’ last urban stronghold of eastern Aleppo in December.

 A partial ceasefire is very patchy. A bewildering assortment of forces — including Russian, American, Iranian and Turkish as well as Kurdish militia and Iran-backed Shia paramilitaries — crowd the battlefield and episodically combine against Isis. Al-Qaeda can still strike at the heart of the regime, as it showed with a deadly attack on military intelligence in Homs last month. Mainstream rebels are regrouping to protect themselves. Talks about a transition out of war are going nowhere. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, whose air force was decisive in salvaging the Assads and which helped pound Aleppo into rubble, has decided this is the time to tell Europe to finance the reconstruction of Syria.

 No doubt the Kremlin sees signs the US under President Donald Trump has ditched any idea of toppling President Assad. In Europe, moreover, political panic about any further surge of migrants and refugees from the region seems paramount. Yet the confidence of Moscow — and Tehran — should not hide the fact that they have a real and costly dilemma on their hands in Syria. First, the extent to which the Assad government controls the roughly 35 per cent of Syrian territory it holds is moot. The manpower shortages of a minority regime have made it dependent on Russia, Iran and powerful paramilitaries such as Lebanon’s Hizbollah. Damascus has had to subcontract local control to a mosaic of warlords and militias, private armies and racketeers — all invested in the lucrative distortions of a war economy characterised by penury for the mass of Syrians, roughly half of whom have been uprooted. There is nothing stable about that.

 Second, to what extent are Russia and Iran willing to assist the Assads in breaking out of their mini-state and reconquering the rest of Syria? The Syrian state almost certainly does not have the numbers to retake and garrison eastern Syria. Look at how Palmyra in central Syria keeps changing hands — the regime has only just recaptured this Graeco-Roman jewel after it fell to Isis for a second time in December while the focus was on Aleppo. Palmyra, moreover, was taken back after US air strikes on Isis there. The Syrian conflict is protean and shape-changing, but President Assad would be unwise to bet the palace on the recurrence of such a weird coalition.

 Third, ostensible control of “useful Syria” is false comfort. Aside from the security fact that much of the rest is jihadi-infested, this implies the east is almost all “useless” desert. It is not. The resilience of the almost 50-year-old Assad regime required the energy resources and crops of the east. Raqqa, Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces produced 60 per cent of the country’s cereals, 75 per cent of its cotton, and all its oil and gas in 2010, before the rebellion. Far from useless, the east is essential to a regime recovering minimal self-sufficiency. Syria’s power-generating capacity, dependent on gasfields in the east, is about a quarter of what it was before the war.

 Russia and Iran would have to fight to retake all of Syria. That would be costly, in blood and cash. It would greatly increase the autonomy of Mr Assad, now a ward of two states. Yet their Syrian rump protectorate is already very costly. Arab securocrats say Iran alone had to spend $8bn a year in 2013-14. Russia and Iran are dependent on oil and gas at a time of depressed prices and both subject to international sanctions.

 True, Moscow has taken out long leases on Mediterranean port facilities at Tartus that it intends to expand, and an air base near Latakia. Tehran’s revolutionary guard — a business empire as well as expeditionary force — has secured potentially valuable mobile telecoms, phosphate mining, port and power-generation contracts.

 But the sort of money needed to reconstruct Syria is likely to be at least $250bn and maybe eventually double that. There will be no international queues to do it without basic stability and agreement on power-sharing. The “realism” taking hold in Brussels and Washington needs more input from reality. Europeans, in particular, desperate for anything that turns the tide of refugees back into Syria, should be clear that some of the demographic changes there are intended by the regime to be permanent. The regime’s patrons, too, will have time to reflect on the mess they own.'

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Assad's Control Erodes as Warlords Gain Upper Hand

Photo Gallery: The True Power-Holders in Syria

 'On a cool morning, an elderly man is standing at his espresso machine on a street in eastern Aleppo. It's shortly after 8 a.m., and this part of the city -- destroyed in the war and reconquered by the regime in December -- is waking up. Green grocers arrive and set out their boxes of produce on the rubble piled in front of their stores. Others are shoveling debris from the roads.

 The name of the man with the espresso machine must go unmentioned, otherwise he would soon be dead. A fire is burning in a metal drum next to his improvised coffee counter, and he is using it to periodically warm his hands. Several weeks ago, just after the neighborhood was retaken, he returned to the small workshop where he had run a motorcycle repair shop -- but it was already too late. He immediately saw that someone had shot open the lock.

 Inside, he found uniformed fighters from a militia affiliated with the regime. They were in the process, he says, of removing a motorcycle, his German tools and all replacement parts from the garage. Two of the militia members, he says, silently threatened him with their Kalashnikovs, leaving him no choice but to leave as the men loaded his belonging into a pick-up truck.

 As he relates his story, other civilians approach the fire and begin nodding. One of them, the owner of a general store, says that regular army soldiers had hardly left before militia members began emptying out his store. Another relates the story of how militia members murdered his brother. The brother had been lying wounded in bed when five fighters forced their way into his apartment. "Bring him out," the fighters ordered before claiming the apartment as their own. The man protested, saying his brother was unable to walk -- whereupon one of the militia members pulled out his gun and shot the brother in the head. Then the fighters looted the apartment.

 More and more men from the neighborhood assemble at the coffee machine and tell their own stories of looting, but suddenly, the men at the fire fall silent. A militia fighter can be seen walking down the street with a golden hawk on his uniform, the emblem of the Desert Hawks, one of the two most powerful militias in the territory controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

 For months, Assad's army has been on the advance across Syria. But its military success has only been possible due to the significant assistance the dictators' troops have received from Iran and Russia -- and from local Syrian militias. Now, these fighters are taking over control in many areas, committing murder, looting and harassing civilians. And nobody can stop them, not even Assad himself. Indeed, the militias are now more powerful than even the country's dictator and have become the real holders of power in Syria.

 Even long before the Syrian revolt of 2011, Assad depended primarily on the loyalty of his fellow Alawites in the top ranks of the armed forces and intelligence services. But the religious group only makes up between 12 and 15 percent of the Syrian population. In 2012, Assad's position became even more tenuous as the army began shrinking rapidly: Tens of thousands of soldiers deserted, conscripts failed to show up for duty and many of those who did fight ended up dead. In September 2015, when the Russians joined the war, the Syrian army only had 6,000 soldiers who were fit for active duty, according to Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington. He bases his estimate on confidential testimony of Russian officials.

 To preserve its regular troops, the regime was forced to make a Faustian bargain, allowing armed loyalists to form their own militias. In many cases, the leaders of smuggling rings or criminal gangs became local kingpins, who were then able to expand their business empires unimpeded in exchange for loyalty to Assad. The two largest militias, the Desert Hawks, headquartered in the northern port city of Latakia, and the Tiger Forces from Hama, each have between 3,000 and 6,000 armed fighters. Additionally, there are hundreds of smaller pro-regime militias.

 Bread, gasoline, medication -- there are shortages across the entire country. And those who control the distribution of these goods can profit handsomely, enabling them to purchase more weapons and hire more fighters. As a result, the warlords have replaced the state security apparatus in cities and in entire regions.

 While the Syrian army, in its desperation, has been forced to combs jails for recruits, fighters join the militias of their own free will. Some of them, after all, pay up to three times the salary earned by regular soldiers and they have a lot more freedom. They can, for example, extort duties at checkpoints, sell drugs of their own accord, smuggle gasoline and loot conquered towns and villages.

 Assad is nevertheless dependent on them. When his troops, supported by Russian units, took eastern Aleppo in December 2016, the Syrian soldiers featured prominently in front of the television cameras. But the actual fighting was conducted by Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese mercenaries under Iranian senior leadership -- and by the pro-regime militias, who also secured the conquered territory once the fighting had ceased. And they plundered it.

 Hama is a veritable warlords' el Dorado. In 1982, troops loyal to Hafis Assad, the founder of the Assad dynasty, brutally crushed an uprising, killing more than 10,000 people in just three weeks. More recently, the city is where the Tiger Forces were founded, formed out of a loose network of officials from the feared air force secret service, local tribal leaders and criminals. They gathered around an Alawite officer and helped crush the anti-regime rebellion in the province of Hama in 2011. Now, the militia has bases and networks in several parts of Syria.

 The two most important sub-commanders in Hama are Ali Shelly, a well-known criminal, and Talal Dakkak, who keeps a pet lion. It is said that Dakkak enjoys feeding his victims to animals. The two of them have people arbitrarily kidnapped, they steal, and they smuggle oil and gasoline, which they even sell to Islamic State (IS), against which Assad's army is officially fighting.

 In summer 2016, for example, an army unit intercepted several tanker trucks filled with gasoline. The column was travelling on behalf of Dakkak and the fuel they contained was apparently meant for IS units. The soldiers didn't dare confiscate it for fear of Dakkak's revenge and the gasoline was turned over to the local air-force secret service -- which is closely linked with the Tiger Forces. It didn't take long before the tankers could continue their journey.

 In a village in Assad-controlled territory, a doctor and his wife are sitting on their living-room sofa staring into the smartphone they are using. The woman's voice trembles in fear as she speaks: "It was here in our village. Uniformed men forced their way into a woman's house. They tied her up, stole her money and tortured her until she revealed where her husband's money was hidden. When the men had the money, they disappeared again."

 Her husband adds: "Two days ago, a merchant was kidnapped here." And several weeks ago, he says, friends of his were robbed on a highway. They were stopped at an improvised checkpoint and dragged out of their car before militia members climbed in and sped away.

 Farmers wanting to pass such checkpoints must pay a levy on their harvest. If they don't, the entire harvest may be confiscated. In several villages, citizen defense leagues have formed, patrolling at night to scare off plundering militiamen. The doctor says that the division of labor between the two Tiger leaders is clear: Most of the kidnappings can be traced back to Talal Dalakk, he claims, while the smuggling is more likely to be the work of Ali Shelly.

 At times, the army or the military intelligence service has tried to come down on the warlords. But such attempts have always ended in fiasco. In March 2016, Assad units arrested the leader of a powerful Christian militia from the north of the province following an exchange of gunfire. But his followers violently protested and the man was soon freed.

 "Yes, we have problems," says Hussein Dayoub, head of the Assad's Baath Party in Hama. Sitting in his wood-paneled office beneath a portrait of the president, he admits that militia members have set up checkpoints and extorted tolls. He also says that smuggling and kidnapping is a problem, but adds that he doesn't know who is behind it.

 In theory, Dayoub is a powerful man, head of the local chapter of the governing party. But even he is apparently afraid of falling into disfavor with the militias, the true rulers of Hama.

 The largest rivals of the Hama-based Tiger Forces in the battle for smuggling profits and power can be found in Latakia, the coastal city in the Alawite heartland. Rain is beating down as low clouds move in from the sea. The steel factory belonging to Mohamed Jaber is located among the fields south of the city. Where T-beams were once manufactured for building construction, rockets are now soldered together and armor is mounted on pick-ups. This is where the Desert Hawks have one of their bases and their weapons factory.

 Mohamed Jaber and his brother initially became rich from smuggling. In the 1990s, they began by spiriting oil into the country from Iraq before investing their millions in the steel industry. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and international sanctions isolated the Assad regime, they were asked to use their smuggling contacts to bring in badly needed oil and gasoline.

 To protect their convoys as they drove through the desert, the Jabers recruited hundreds of former soldiers -- and criminals. In August 2013, Assad signed a decree allowing private businesspeople to maintain their own security forces, thus paving the way for kleptocrats in his favor to become warlords.

 Jaber, though, says he isn't interested in either power or money, claiming he already has enough of both. Rather, he only wants to help the great President Bashar Assad. When the war is over, he'll lay down his weapons he says, before adding a bit later: "We could control over 60 percent of the country, if we were allowed to."

 The Russians have a pragmatic approach to the militias: Depending on the situation, the local warlords are given weapons, medals and selfies with Russian officers. But privately the Russian generals complain about the shocking state of the army and about the militias.

 If the warlords become more powerful, Assad may soon become little more than a figurehead, surrounded by a coterie of robbers and smugglers. And the militias are also gaining political influence: In parliamentary elections last spring, candidates from the old ruling class didn't do as well as they had in the past. Instead, candidates affiliated with the warlords emerged victorious.

 Elections in Syria, of course, don't reflect the will of the electorate. They only show who has the power to get his candidates elected. It is often said that, while Assad might be dreadful, he is the last remaining state authority in the country. But the strength of the militias shows that he lost even that authority long ago.'

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Syrian revolution: The military performance and political solution

DAMASCUS, SYRIA: Syrians stage a protest against the Assad regime's violation of the ceasefire after Friday prayers in Damascus, Syria on 3 March 2017. [Yusuf El Bustani/Anadolu Agency]

 'With the approach of the Syrian revolution’s sixth anniversary, the fourth Geneva negotiations seem to be closer to a mockery than a solution given the military developments. We must ask ourselves, once again, what the reasons behind the crisis’ intractability thus far.

 Perhaps the military aspect of the conflict in Syria would have ended years ago if it weren’t for the direct intervention of regional and international forces. One of the most prominent admissions of this may be the statement Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued last month regarding Damascus being only two or three weeks away from being toppled before Moscow’s intervention.

 If this had happened and the Syrian capital had fallen under opposition control, then negotiations regarding the overthrow, ousting and prosecuting the president would have been easier. However, this did not happen. Contrary to the situation in Libya, where the military intervention by the NATO, led by France, rescued Benghazi, the revolution capital in March 2011, the intervention of Iran and Russia, as well as non-governmental armed organisations (Sunni and Shia) from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, rescued Bashar Al-Assad numerous times.

 However, rescuing the head of the regime does not necessarily mean the rescue of the regime itself, as Al-Assad’s forces lost over 100,000 individuals, a similar number of wounded and paralysed, and tens of thousands of pro-revolution fighters. All of these losses were suffered by an army consisting of 320,000 soldiers in 2010. Hence, Al-Assad is depending on more than 120,000 soldiers and fighters from foreign countries and militias to control less than 25 per cent of Syria’s territories. Regardless of the definition of the term “regime” in political science, this does not apply to the military entities controlling parts of Damascus, the coast, and other provinces. In other words, the revolution broke Al-Assad’s regime militarily without any aerial support in its favour.

 The revolutionary factions have grown close to military victory numerous times in the past six years. The first time was in July 2012 when the rebels stormed Damascus and took control of over six southern and eastern neighbourhoods, as well as attacking the regime’s national security building, resulting in the death of Al-Assad’s senior military officials, including foreign minister Dawoud Rajiha, deputy foreign minister Assef Shawkat, director of the National Security Bureau of the Regional Command Hisham Ikhtiyar, and chief of crisis operations Hasan Turkumani (this military/security authority was the highest authority combatting the revolution).

 This was followed by the rebels’ progress in the northwestern part of the country, specifically in Aleppo, Homs and Idlib, but this progression ended in late 2012 and early 2013, with the escalation of the direct Iranian military intervention, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other non-Syrian armed organisations.

 The revolution forces pushed the pro-Assad forces to the verge of military defeat once again in July 2015 when the opposition forces gradually gained control of the strongholds of the regime’s remnants along the coast in the suburbs of Latakia. Two months later, on 14 September 2015, the opposition forces from Duma and Ghouta came close to isolating Al-Assad’s forces in Damascus from the northern part of the country by taking control of strategic hills overlooking the capital and hindering the international motorway. However, Russia’s military intervention and air raids during the same month stalled this progression.

 Comparatively, the military performance and capabilities of the Syrian revolution is much better than other similar cases of rebellion against colonialism, tyranny, or both, including the Libyan revolution and the revolutionary forces loyal to the republicans in Spain in the 1930s. However, the dilemma that lies in transforming this enormous military effort into diplomatic and political gains that bring the revolution closer to achieving its goals. The failure to do so has led to an interesting combination of facts, variables and new alliances.

 At the end of 2016, there were five military alliances working inside Syria with contradicting goals: Al-Assad’s forces and allies, the opposition forces with Arab leaderships (with various ethnicities and doctrines), opposition forces with Kurdish leaderships (also with various ethnicities and doctrines), Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front and the Syrian wing of Al-Qaeda) and Daesh. The goals of the latter two, despite fighting Al-Assad forces, contradict the revolution’s goals both secretly and publically.

 These five alliances have not only fought each other, but also fought within themselves. This includes clashes between Al-Assad’s forces and its affiliated militias, as well as clashes between Daesh’s units. With the Turkish-Russian ceasefire initiative and the Astana negotiations in February, the level of tension and “repositioning” between the opposition forces and Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, especially in Idlib, the opposition’s stronghold that is full of displaced Syrians and Al-Assad’s victims and that is targeted relentlessly by air raids carried out by various international parties, increased.

 On the back of such developments, Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham integrated with four local organisations active in northern Syria, namely the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement, Liwa Al-Haqq (the Truth Brigade), Jaysh Al-Sunna, and Jabhat Ansar Al-Din under the alliance Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. This alliance attracted a number of factions from the Ahrar Al-Sham movement, which some have estimated make up a quarter of the movement’s forces in northern Syria. This includes former head of Ahrar Al-Sham, Hesham Al-Sheikh, who is the current leader of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.

 Almost at the same time, five other military formations, most importantly Suqour Al-Sham Brigade, Jaysh Al-Islam (the Idlib wing), and Levant Front (Jabhat Al-Shamiyah) joined Ahrar Al-Sham in order to avoid joining Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham or taking control of its resources. The new head of the Ahrar Al-Sham alliance is Ali Al-Omar.

 These developments in the opposition structures reflect the calculations of the balances of power and survival more than ideological similarities. Some believe that integration and repositioning is a tactic to reduce the danger of drone bombings and aerial assassinations (especially in the case of Fatah Al-Sham/Al-Nusra front) or to reduce the potential of one faction joining another by force (in the case of the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement, and others). While the Al-Ahrar alliance sees the need to accept parallel paths of diplomatic and military work against Al-Assad the Tahrir alliance believes military work alone is enough to eliminate the regime’s remnants and expel the foreign forces loyal to the regime.

 The vision of both sides reflects the strategic impasses experienced by most armed revolutionary forces in modern days. Some have overcome the impasses while others have failed to do so. Al-Ahrar’s main impasse is represented by the inability to invest military gains in diplomatic negotiations and this is due to the lack of a central military leadership and an ideology that adopts sectarian aspects. It is also due to the fact that the other factions with military weight have not agreed to accept both paths and the lack of clear plans for the medium and long-terms.

 As for the Tahrir alliance, it has a much bigger problem. Disregarding the classification of its hitting force (Fatah Al-Sham/Nusra Front formerly) as a terrorist organisations (some countries may negotiate, agree, reconcile and ally with terrorists if they have enough military force and political flexibility, as we have seen in the past) and disregarding the fact that their military capabilities do not match their aspirations (as surprises could happen and other parties that are militarily weak and internationally shunned have been victorious before) and disregarding its ideological and sectarian extremism and rejection of most revolutionary forces, and Syrians in general, the Tahrir alliance’s problem is basically the lack of an executable strategy.

 One of the basic rules of a strategy, according to prominent German strategist, General Carl von Clausewitz, is that war is a tool of politics and military efforts must serve the political goal, or else the effort itself will become “the noise before defeat” according to a strategist from another continent and century, Chinese General Sun Tzu.

 In light of the conflicting priorities and goals amongst the regional forces, the almost absence of serious guarantees and commitments to a ceasefire, and the regime remnants’ desire to thwart any change process, even if it is gradually reformative, the opposition, including its right and left wings, need to rethink their strategy, resources and internal conflicts. This is because it is very likely, given the current variables and data, that there will unfortunately be another round of open war in the revolution’s sixth year.'

Lessons from Syria on women's empowerment during conflict

A gathering of Women from Women Now network in besieged eastern Ghouta in Solidarity with Daraya women campaign (April 2016)

 ' “I risked my life to participate in demonstrations against dictatorship and the oppression of Bashar Al-Assad. I’m not afraid of anyone, anymore. I’m a free woman.” (Syrian woman activist from Women Now’s network, 2012).

 In this quote you hear the voice of a capable and strong woman. Yet both in regime-controlled areas and in other regions of Syria, women’s rights have become instrumentalised by political forces seeking legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. From prior to the deterioration of the crisis until the present day, there have been commentators who have focused on the ‘Western’ and apparently ‘emancipated’ personality of Asma Al-Assad and other women associated with the regime, or the recent nomination of a woman to the head of the Syrian Parliament. Likewise, the women fighters of the Kurdish forces have also been the subject of significant attention by the Western media. Much of the media coverage of these women plays into longer-term romanticized and orientalist tropes. Meanwhile, the demands of thousands of Syrian women activists are being routinely ignored. How are we here and what is to be done?

 The Assad regime has long instrumentalised women’s rights to legitimate its dictatorship in a way similar to other regimes in the region. The Assad regime’s discourse has major blind spots. For example, according to a report published by the UNFPA in November 2011, one in three women living in Syria has suffered domestic violence, with the prevalence of domestic violence in 2005 one of the highest in the world (with a percentage of 67%, Syria is second after Ethiopia 71%, and before Bangladesh 53%). These figures were gathered before the conflict in Syria and reflect phenomena hidden behind state propaganda pre-2011 which instead trumpeted the participation of elite women in the political sphere.

 Moreover, several Syrian laws contain discriminatory provisions against women, for example the penalty for honour killing is still softer than for other kinds of murder and no legislation specifically prohibits gender-based discrimination. Indeed, the discrimination of ISIS against women is rooted – at least in part – in the Syrian family code.

 An international approach to women’s participation that really listened to women would help them through the protection of basic human rights and to support their demands, as should have happened during the Daraya campaign. By the end of March 2016, the siege of the city of Daraya was in its worse stage. Women in our network told us that they had not been able to eat in the past 48 hours, that their children were surviving by eating grass soup. Shocked, we shared this information in all our centres, presenting videos and organizing Skype calls with women in Daraya to understand what was happening there.

 A women’s group in the city wrote a letter to demand the end of the siege and the letter was diffused throughout all our centres. Women organized gatherings and wrote and signed in English and French, taking advantage of what they had learnt in our centres. They spend days and nights working to prepare the gatherings as documented in their diaries. Some of them wrote long letters which were sent to EU parliamentarians. Then on 1st June, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) announced its intention to send aid.

 The women felt that for the first time, their voices had been heard.

 Unfortunately, two months later, the women of Daraya were forced to send another letter about the use of napalm by the Syrian regime against their city. The letter remained unanswered as on the same day a decision was made to evacuate the civilian from the city opening the door to a new episode of Syrian tragedy: the forced displacement of population.

 Syrian women have shown incredible resilience and commitment to sustaining civilian activities, including the pursuit of peaceful livelihoods and education. Even as the bombs have rained down on the districts in which they live, women have continued to attend training to empower themselves. After one of the Women Now For Development centres was relocated due to the horrific deterioration of attacks in that area, we were contacted by one young woman asking us to maintain its presence, explaining that it was her one lifeline to education and hope: ‘Please keep it open, it’s my only way to replace my university studies’. Another young woman in a northern area of Syria under daily Russian airstrikes shared with us her happiness at winning a book-reading contest – having read twenty books over the previous two months.

 Syrian women will be the pillars of any future democratic process in Syria. Women have been at the frontline of confronting violence, corruption and fundamentalism. They have organized against each of these at the community level and have issued statements with detailed recommendations on how to tackle them. Their efforts deserve support from national and international actors.'

Monday, 6 March 2017

In Syria, the extra weak link of women’s health

 'Fatima, 25, was at her home in eastern Aleppo with her three children when the first barrel bomb struck. Her husband, who was at work at the time, heard the explosion from his office. He knew instantly the sound had come from the direction of his house. He waited for the “double-tap” — the second round of barrel bombs that would drop from the Syrian and Russian warplanes — before sprinting off towards home. He arrived in time to watch a third round of bombing decimate his family.

 The While Helmets rushed Fatima and nine-year-old Mammoud to hospital, but Mammoud’s twin brother, Abdo, and their three-year-old sister, Eilaf, were found dead beneath the rubble. Fatima, who was three months’ pregnant at the time of the bombing, suffered a miscarriage and internal bleeding, leaving her in critical condition and on life support.

 Dr Zaher Sahloul, Fatima’s critical-care doctor, uses his patient’s story to illustrate how the conflict in Syria is crippling maternal health care, with thousands of women suffering as warplanes systematically wipe out medical facilities, and blockades leave hospitals with almost no equipment or resources.

 Sahloul, a Syrian-American trauma specialist, and Chicago-based paediatrician John Kahler arrived in war-torn eastern Aleppo last year as members of the medical charity Syrian American Medical Society (Sams). They flew to Syria in June 2016 to spend five days working in hospitals that were bombed daily.

 Doctors in besieged areas of Syria have been struggling throughout the conflict to provide proper medical care to those in need. Syrian-Russian government forces have specifically targeted health care workers and hospitals, killing more than 750 health care providers and bombing 265 medical facilities throughout the country. When Sahloul and Kahler arrived last June, only 30 doctors were left to treat eastern Aleppo’s 300,000 civilians.

 Farida, who, for safety reasons would only allow her first name to be published, was the last obstetrician-gynaecologist in eastern Aleppo until she was evacuated to Idlib at the end of last year. While in Aleppo, she worked at Omar Ibn Abdul Aziz hospital, code-named M2 by doctors in a futile attempt to protect its coordinates from bombings by the Syrian regime.

 Farida’s voice is high and urgent as she describes what she witnessed in Aleppo, describing widespread malnutrition among women in besieged areas. She says basic food such as meat, vegetables and dairy products are unavailable. “Most of the women are anaemic with decalcification in their bones ... there are no vegetables,” she says.

 The vice-president of Sams, Dr Basel Termanini, travels to northern Syria every six months to provide medical care. “I have seen mothers who really don’t even know how to describe an orange to their children, because their children have never seen one before. People are really deprived,” he says.

 Malnutrition has a devastating impact on prenatal and neonatal health, leading to a host of problems, including low birth weight — “Most of the babies being born are under six pounds,” says Farida — and an inability to produce breast milk. In northern Syria, aid organisations prioritise the delivery of baby formula, as many mothers can’t breast-feed their babies, says Termanini. In places where fighting and blockades make it impossible for aid deliveries to get through, even formula feed isn’t available. Asked what mothers in eastern Aleppo feed their babies when they are unable to breast-feed or buy formula, Farida says: “Nothing. The baby eats nothing.”

 Doctors across besieged areas of Syria have reported an increase in the number of deliveries by caesarean section, which they also attribute to the constant bombings. Knowing that hospitals are targets for air strikes, women are often too frightened to visit doctors for prenatal screenings, says Termanini. Many don’t find out about serious conditions during their pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia, until it comes time to deliver their babies, which can result in the need for emergency C-sections.

 Many pregnant women also choose to have C-sections so they can plan to deliver their babies at night, when bombings are less likely. It’s a decision doctors say is understandable but risky. “It is an unnecessary surgery that is not appropriate as it increases the risks of complications and future complications related to pregnancy,” says Sahloul. With hospitals in parts of Syria being targeted by air strikes on an almost daily basis, Kahler confirmed that there are no longer any working medical facilities in Aleppo. Sahloul says that during his last mission to Syria, every few minutes the government would detonate bunker-buster bombs and barrel bombs in the direction of hospitals. “These things happen all the time in Syria,” he says.

 And that means health providers have had to adapt in ways they never imagined. Farida recalls one incident when M2 hospital was bombarded as she was performing a C-section. The explosion caused parts of the ceiling above her to cave in, and crumbling debris dropped into her patient’s open abdomen. As the bombings continued, Farida asked nurses to remove the rubble from inside her patient and clean her abdomen with saline. “We finished the operation, and in the end, the patient [survived] and was very good,” Farida says.

 The daily destruction also means that trauma care takes precedence over preventive or primary care. During times of bombardment, civilians only seek medical care if they are seriously injured, says Sahloul. Preventive care for women, such as mammograms and cervical screen tests, are nonexistent in Syria’s war-torn areas. “The last thing a person under siege will be thinking about is preventive measures of medicine,” he says. According to doctors in the country, if a woman is aware that she has a serious condition, such as a lump in her breast, she will not seek medical attention because she knows there are no oncologists or surgeons who can perform the surgery.

 As Syria and Russia continue to bombard Syrian citizens, women don’t have the luxury of thinking about their future health — they are focusing only on how to keep themselves and their children alive right now. Hana Dawood and her husband, Humam, are former residents of Moadamiya. With Humam acting as her interpreter, Dawood tells of how she had a baby boy in October 2016, at home and without the care of an obstetrician. Less than a day after she gave birth, Dawood and her family were loaded onto an evacuation bus bound for Istanbul. For 24 hours, she sat on a bus with no bathroom facilities, cradling her newborn son.

 Humam, a dentist who had to train himself to be an orthopaedic surgeon and anaesthesiologist because there was none in Moadamiya, says he was upset that his wife had to make the journey so soon after giving birth. “It was really difficult for her,” he says. “I can’t believe she was able to do that.” '

What Palmyra tells us about US policy in Syria

What Palmyra tells us about US policy in Syria

 Hassan Hassan:

 'When ISIL recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra on December 11, the Syrian regime and Russia were in the middle of a vicious assault to retake the eastern parts of Aleppo from the rebels. The diversion of regime resources left an opening for the militants to roll back into the city after they lost it in March. The loss of Palmyra happened despite a serious attempt by Russia to prevent it, and showed the regime was unable to defend all of its fronts as it sought to fortify critical strongholds in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.

     The recapture of Palmyra on Thursday, as with its loss in December, exposes the regime’s vulnerabilities. Damascus has Russia, Iran, Hizbollah and the United States to thank for the defeat of ISIL in Palmyra. The regime forces could not have done it on their own and the Russian air force may not have been able to expel the militants without the near complete destruction of the city.
     But there is something more telling about the recapture of Palmyra. The contribution of the US air force to the fight is a notable turn of events. In December, Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the anti-ISIL coalition, told reporters in Baghdad that the US would step in to strike against ISIL in Palmyra "if the Russians and the regime don’t strike it".

       "We’re just kind of staying out of it and watching it right now, and protecting our own interest, and letting the Russians sort that out, which I think is probably the common sense way to go about Palmyra," he said.
       The US did not stay out of it, however. It carried out dozens of air strikes against ISIL even though Russia and the regime did too. Regardless of whether the participation suggests a policy shift, the move points to a subtle change in the American behaviour in Syria. This change of attitude involves complete disregard for the conflict’s sensitivities.

         American officials involved in the fight against ISIL no longer seem interested in dealing with the political context of its operations in Syria. A de facto alliance with Iran, Hizbollah and Russia against ISIL in Palmyra would have been more eyebrow-raising a year ago. Today it is a passing event.
         This was not an isolated incident. The US has also insisted that Kurdish militias will spearhead the fight against ISIL in Raqqa. In arguing the case, officials seem to focus on Turkey’s objection to the Kurdish role, as if that is the only flaw in the decision. The primary concern for the lead role of Kurdish militias is local perception of these forces. It is what makes those battling ISIL "liberating" versus "occupying" forces.

           Gen Townsend dismissed the concern over how these militias are perceived locally by stating the fighters are from the wider Raqqa province. The statement suggests that the YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, are Raqqa locals, because the wider province of Raqqa includes Kurds. This ignores how people in Raqqa, and elsewhere, view the YPG militias and distinguish them from the Kurdish people in general.

             The statement also appears to avoid dealing with the question of keeping out militias viewed suspiciously by locals, a logic the US pushed for in Mosul. Gen Townsend’s remarks could indeed be a response to a statement by the Turkish prime minister that called on the US to follow the same logic it itself championed in Mosul in Raqqa.
             Another example of the disconnect is the move by the US-backed forces in Manbij on Thursday to hand over some areas under their control to the Syrian regime as a way to create a buffer zone between them and the Turkish-backed rebel forces fighting ISIL in eastern Aleppo. If the prospective role of the Kurdish-led militias in Raqqa was a bad idea, this move made it even worse. It has ensured that many more will see these forces as regime allies. Worse, the same US-backed forces allowed "humanitarian" convoys to enter the city of Manbij, which was liberated from ISIL in August. According to Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, the convoys included "some armoured equipment".

               For any Syrian opposed to the regime, these developments in Palmyra, Manbij and Raqqa point to an unsavoury US policy. After nearly two and a half years in Syria, American officials may have lost sight of such sensitivities but they should not.
               The regime’s ability to secure even the 35 per cent of territory under its control is limited. It is incapable of fighting on several fronts without risking the loss of territory, as happened in December in Palmyra. It is also incapable of securing its supposedly safe areas, as demonstrated by the sophisticated operation that Al Qaeda carried out in Homs last Saturday, in which five militants infiltrated two well-guarded neighbourhoods, stormed intelligence compounds and shot dead a high-ranking official and around 40 other security cadres.

                 The regime’s limitations mean proper investment in other forces to fight extremism elsewhere inSyria should be a priority for the US, if it wants to defeat extremists and keep them defeated. No matter where the US stands on the question of the regime’s legitimacy, it should understand that the regime is incapable of fighting extremism in the whole of Syria. And in order to invest in other forces to fill the vacuum, it has to stay focused on how its policy is perceived.

                   Unfortunately, the US seems to be developing more dangerous blind spots in Syria. This unawareness, or disregard, of the political context in which it operates will undoubtedly come back to haunt it in the future.'