Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Trump Administration Responds to Syria’s Assad with Missiles


 Muhammad Idrees Ahmad:

 'On Thursday night, hours after U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis had briefed him on military options, President Trump ordered the launch of fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean at Syria’s Al Shayrat air base south-east of Homs City.

 This is the same airfield from which the Assad regime on Tuesday launched an Su-22 that dropped four bombs on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria, killing eighty four civilians, including twenty-seven children and nineteen women, and leaving 546 injured.

 Doctors Without Borders medics who treated the survivors and the World Health Organization found the symptoms—dilated pupils, muscle spasms, foaming mouths, breathing difficulties, violent convulsions and involuntary defecation—“consistent with exposure to neurotoxic agents such as sarin.”

 The regime denied responsibility; and Russia, in line with its post-truth public diplomacy, tried to absolve the regime with an absurd counter-thesis that the source of the chemical exposure was a warehouse in the same town targeted by Syrian forces. But U.S. central command monitored the attack unfolding in real time, the flight paths of the planes were recorded, and people on the ground identified the make of the plane—only the regime flies the Soviet-built Sukhoi Su-22.

 A day earlier, three air raids had struck the Maarrat al-Nu'man National Hospital that services the southern Idlib countryside where the targeted town is located. Shortly after the chemical attack, one of the makeshift hospitals treating the survivors was also struck.

 The United States has been militarily involved in the Syrian conflict for more than two years; it has frequently bombed not just ISIS, but also Assad’s anti-ISIS opponents; it even provided air support to the regime and Hezbollah in the recapture of Palmyra. But this is the first time the U.S. has directly confronted the regime—which according to the Violations Documentation Centre and the Syrian Network for Human Rights is responsible for more than 90 percent of Syria’s civilian deaths.

 Tuesday’s attack from Assad on his own people was set apart not in scale, but in political implications. Like the August 2013 chemical massacre, this was a deliberate provocation. Part of the agreement in 2013, when Barack Obama accepted the face-saving device of a Russian deal to avoid enforcing his own red line, was a threat of punishment should the regime engage in further chemical attacks. The regime continued undeterred during the rest of Obama’s tenure. It was clearly testing the new administration’s resolve.

 It got an answer.

 In its earlier overture to Assad, the Trump Administration had made explicit a policy that Obama had implicitly pursued—regime preservation. Thursday’s actions mark a major, and for Syrians a welcome, reversal. Many have suggested cynical motives. But that is a trivial point.

 The architect of this policy shift is not Trump but his national security advisor H.R. McMaster. (Before the shift, McMaster also ensured that expulsion of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council principals’ meetings.) And the administration’s motivations are less political or humanitarian than an attempt by McMaster and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to restore deterrence. In this they have succeeded.

 The strikes were tactical and punitive, but they have redrawn a line on the use of chemical weapons that Obama had allowed to be breached. The strikes were certainly not humanitarian, since most Syrians are still killed by conventional means. No red-lines have been drawn to prohibit the use of barrel bombs.

 The consequences of today’s actions are likely to be far-reaching, in spite of the Administration’s intentions. Anticipation of the military strikes had already softened the Kremlin’s stance, with Vladimir Putin’s spokesman indicating that Russian support for Assad was not unconditional. Turkey, which had joined Russia in an uneasy detente, may also reconsider its position. Among other things, the strikes exposed the limits of Russia’s power in Syria. The regime has lost part of its impunity.

 This is in contrast to 2013, when following a much larger massacre, Obama retreated from his own red line. (The “red line” on the use of chemical weapons had been issued in August 2012, at a time when none were being used; it was in effect a green light to conventional killing). The regime’s response was telling: it killed almost four times as many people in the two years after the chemical attack as it had in the two years prior.

 Trump’s new national security advisor, General McMaster—who led the counterinsurgency campaign in northern Iraq, successfully recruiting local tribes to drive out the Islamic State of Iraq (the forerunner to ISIS)—understands that there can’t be any hope of stability without buy-in from the majority community. Granting Assad impunity in 2013 alienated Syria’s majority Sunnis, with the regime’s sectarian strategy contributing to its radicalisation and its escalating violence precipitating a mass exodus that has yet to abate.

 The way many Syrians see this, the United States has been bombing Syria since September 2014; this is the first time it hit the right target. For the first time since the beginning of the war, the regime has suffered consequences for its crimes. Survivors of Tuesday’s massacre and residents of Khan Sheikhoun welcomed the strikes. Whatever the administration’s motives, it worked for Syrians—at least for now.

 How should progressives respond? Many have understandably reacted with revulsion at Assad’s crime, and compassion for the victims. The “anti-imperialist” left, however, remains perplexed. It is “anti war” but not against the war that Assad has been waging on his people since 2011.

 The only time during the past six years that the anti-war movement was stirred into action regarding Syria was in August 2013, when, after a chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta killed over 1,400 civilians, it came out not to protest the atrocity but to reject any attempt to hold the perpetrators accountable (the British “Stop the War Coalition” banned Syrians from its platform, though it made an exception for a regime representative). Indeed, prominent left-wingers showed greater alacrity than the Kremlin in trying to absolve Assad, blaming victims, fabricating evidence.

 Four years on, there is little sign of contrition. Even as the smell of sarin lingers over Khan Sheikhoun, former U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich is in London making a case for rehabilitating Assad and writer and activist Phyllis Bennis is casting doubt on the regime’s responsibility—not just for this attack, but also for the one in 2013. Small wonder that few Syrians see the Western left as allies in their struggle for justice and self-determination.

 For the left to become relevant again, it will need to revive an old principle: “no justice, no peace.” Without accountability for war crimes—rebel or regime—there is no hope of ending the carnage. And without Assad’s removal, half the country will remain displaced. It is time to put civilians, not states, at the center of our concerns.'

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Statement of the people of Mahrada

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 'The Syrian Christians of Mahardah (Hama area) just released this statement protesting the criminal Assad regime, Hezbollah, and Iran from occupying their town. This is contrary to the Assadist propaganda being put out. These are Syrians who reject Assad and all his foreign militias! It doesn't matter whether they are Muslim, Christian, no religion. Syrians want Assad to go!'

Survivors of Syria Chemical Attack Grapple With Fallout

The Associated Press

 'Three days after it was engulfed in toxic gas, the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun is a place of ghostly desolation, its streets empty and its mourning tents packed with weeping survivors.

 More than 80 people were killed in the attack Tuesday on the opposition-held town, a massacre that has been widely blamed on Syrian government forces. Residents and doctors say many of those who fled have yet to return, fearful of lingering fumes or another attack. The dead have been buried in trenches.

 One of the few survivors in a house close to the epicenter of the attack, Fatima Alyousef is haunted by images of her cousin and aunt, who died in her arms as she tried to save them.

 She broke down as she recounted how she tried to help her aunt, who was gasping for air, to the roof of their two-story house to escape the fumes.

 When she couldn't lift her aunt up the stairs, she urged her uncle to come down and help. He too ended up dead, next to his sister. "I tried to lift her, I couldn't. I am frail," she said by phone. She took her 17-year-old cousin to the bathroom to splash her with water, but to no avail. She also died in her arms.

 By the time the attack had ended, 25 members of her extended family were dead.

 The 24-year-old Alyousef is now staying with a family she hardly knows, away from the contaminated area. She says she still feels ill from the gas, but the town's only medical facility was destroyed on the day of the attack in a separate airstrike.

 Alyousef has been left behind before, when her mother and three siblings migrated to Germany through Turkey, braving a perilous crossing by sea.

 "I sacrificed my life and stayed behind for them to go to Germany because they didn't have enough money for all of us," she said, choking back tears.

 "Now, if I don't join my family, I will die."

 Three days after the attack, Alaa Alyousef's vision is blurred and he struggles to sleep.

 He knows he is lucky to have survived, but says he is worried about the long-term impact of the attack.

 "We don't know what will happen to us. Is the impact over? Are the babies going to be OK?"

 The 27-year-old says his cousin, Abdel Hameed, who lost his wife and 9-month-old twins, suffered a nervous breakdown overnight and is also experiencing vision problems.

 "His condition is bad, bad," he said.

 Alyousef says he is haunted by memories of relatives killed in the attack — their jokes and laughter. His cousins died near the soccer field where they used to play, joke and stay up all night.

 "Now, it has become a field for our bodies," he said.

 Mohammed Abdel Moein was in Bab al-Hawa, a Syrian town on the border with Turkey, when the victims started streaming in, including his Uncle Jalal.

 "When he came here he couldn't see. His mind wasn't all there because of the chemical gas. Thank God he has come to and he's talking a little," the 19-year-old said from a hospital in Hatay, in southern Turkey, where he is staying by his uncle's side.

 Jalal remembers being shaken out of bed by an explosion that blew out the doors and windows. It had happened many times before, when the government carried out airstrikes, and after years of war residents had grown used to racing down to their underground shelters.

 But this time was different.

 "All of a sudden my head started to ache, and I realized that the strike contained a poisonous chemical," he said. So he ran for the roof instead.

 As the severity of the attack set in, he realized that even the roof would provide no safety. Relatives came over from next door, and he ordered everyone to get in the car.

 "As my family was getting in, I started throwing up," he said. "I said to my family 'If we don't die, we'll make it to the hospital,' and I started driving."

 The surgeon, originally from Khan Sheikhoun but now based in Turkey, raced across the border and headed to his hometown as soon as he received word of the attack. Aircraft were still circling overhead.

 "It was a ghost town," he said. The calls for ambulances kept coming in, as paramedics raced to the stricken area to remove bodies from underground shelters or provide aid to people who initially seemed alright but then showed symptoms.

 A family with six children was brought to him shortly after he arrived. All of them died.

 "The foam filled their mouths, their eyes were red, and they were bleeding from the nose," he said, speaking from a town near Khan Sheikhoun.

 Birds and cats also perished in the attack, he said.

 He and other doctors and rescue workers have gathered evidence from the site to deliver to international bodies investigating the assault.

 "The killing with chemical gases is not any worse than killing with barrel bombs, or vacuum bombs or killing in detention centers," said the doctor, who has provided aid in other war-ravaged areas in Syria.

 "There are many causes of death, but in the end, Syrians are increasingly dying and the international community isn't caring," he said.'

The Coalition and the Russians… Violations that hinder the Humanitarian Laws and reinforces injustice in Syria


 'It is obvious that the residents in the areas under ISIS’s control in Syria, consider the international coalition led by the United States, as an aggression that is not less brutal than the heads of the alleged caliphate. Perhaps the victims questioned the purpose of the military actions that killed the civilians under the pretext of “fighting against terrorism”. Therefore, in its broad and international sense, terrorism has become an umbrella which allows killing innocents.

 The International Coalition claimed that it executed raids that killed Syrian civilians on several occasions, and said that it will investigate other facts. However, it denied the accusations of committing serious massacres. One of them happened recently, at the beginning of March in the village of Al-Mansoura in the western countryside of Raqqa, when activists documented that tens of immigrant civilians were killed by an air strike, which the American General Stephen J. Townsend described it as “a clean strike”.

 The “clean” strikes that has been recently and notably escalating that were aimed to “fight against terrorism” and “promote democracy and civil peace”, according to the American concept of violations, were concurrently executed along with similar strikes in terms of the declared goals and objectives of Russia, the Syrian regime’s ally. According to local and international human rights organizations, Russia has hindered international humanitarian laws in Syria and reinforced the oppression of the Sunni citizens. This may have a negative impact on the region and may be the reason for the emergence of new extremist organizations since “Killing innocent people is like upbringing wolves”, according to a tweet of a Syrian journalist in Twitter.

 Local and international human rights organizations of the International coalition, and Russia were accused of committing six massacres against civilians in different parts of Syria in less than a year (as an example and not in total).

 A separate human rights sources accused the International Coalition of carrying out raids on the town of Tokhar Kabir located in Manbij district in the eastern countryside of Aleppo on July 19, 2016. Activists said 125 people, mostly women and children, were killed, while ISIS said there were more than 160 victims.

 Local human rights sources accused the United States of carrying out a massacre of civilians in the village of Al-Jinah in the countryside of Idlib, on March 16, 2017, which killed between 47 and 49 people, according to the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”.

 Local human rights sources accused the International Coalition of carrying out raids that targeted a school that was sheltering immigrants in the town of Al-Mansoura in the western countryside of Raqqa, on March 21, 2017, which killed around 33 to 53 civilians, including children, according to separate sources.

 Activists from human rights organizations, including the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”, accused The Russian Air Force of carrying out a massacre in the city of Idlib, on February 7, 2017, in which 28 people, mostly civilians, were killed.

 The Syrian opposition and Western countries, including the United States and Britain, accused the Russian air force of targeting an international relief convoy in Western Aleppo, on 19 September 2017, which caused the death of 32 people, including 12 Red Crescent volunteers, according to the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”.

 International organizations, including the “Atlantic Council” in Washington, accused the Russian Air Force of destroying three hospitals in Aleppo in an air campaign that lasted from September to December 2016, which caused the death of 440 civilians, including 90 children, according to “Human Rights Watch” organization.

 Fadel Abdul Ghani, director of the “Syrian Human Rights Network”, said “We have issued several reports about massacres that are committed by the International coalition forces against the civilians, and we have twice recorded their shelling of the armed opposition”.

 He also pointed out that “There are many massacres that were committed against the civilians and we said that they amount to war crimes, because the coalition forces entered Syria because of the conflict, they have to abide by international humanitarian law, and distinguish between military and civilian targets”.

 Concerning the coalition’s attempts to justify its mistakes under the pretext of “wrong information”, Abdul Ghani said: “We do not care about the details about the coalition getting the wrong intelligence information from their allies, the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces or the (Syrian Democratic Forces), must be fully responsible”.

 Munif al-Taei, director of the Urnamo Organization for Justice and Human Rights in Syria, considers that the international coalition “does not care about the law of war”.

 In an interview with Enab Baladi, he said: “The international coalition is composed of around 60 countries that classify themselves as human rights defenders. They do not care about the law of war that states that civilians must be neutralized from conflicts”. He called on the United Nations to force these countries to “strictly abide by the neutralization of civilians”. He also warned that repeating the massacres “undermines the credibility of the coalition in the war against ISIS”.

 The massacres committed by the coalition forces against civilians can only be considered as “crimes”, according to the Syrian writer and political researcher Sasha Alaluo, who explained that the United Nations must intervene to limit these crimes. Alaluo opened a serious investigation concerning the nature of those “crimes”, especially that they were concurrently committed between Mosul and Syria in a suspicious manner, and caused a very large number of victims, as he described.

 The social media were flooded with photos of the victims of the massacres attributed to the International Coalition in the areas of ISIS, or the American raids on Northern Syria. This has led to a significant hatred against the Western countries in general, which not only let down the Syrian revolution, but also contributed to the murder of civilians, according to their views.

 Fadel Abdul Ghani, considered that hostility “is measured by the amount of damage caused and who made it. There are multiple factors and different elements that are involved in interpreting the hostility and its degree, this needs to be separately analyzed”. He added: “But the biggest degree of hostility, according to facts and not aspirations, is still against the Syrian regime since it is considered as the first culprit of the massacres, which brought all these authorities as a result of its repression and brutality.

 Abdul Ghani categorized the “ISIS” as one of the most prominent enemies of the Syrian people, as it is considered as “very nihilist, brutal and expiatory and it is impossible to coexist with it. And perhaps if it owned the state’s institutions and capabilities, it would be more deadly and bloody than the Syrian regime”.

 The Syrian human rights activist pointed out that the Russian forces occupies the third rank of hostility, as it is clear that they were deliberately bombing schools and hospitals, and stood by the Syrian regime logistically and politically. He also criticized the United States of America by saying: “it may be held responsible on the other hand, because its president announced, in July 2011, that Assad must leave, took no action to make him leave, bypassed the red lines, including the chemical issue, and repeatedly let down the Syrian people”.

 The Syrian researcher Sasha Alaluo stated that: “If we logically categorize the enemies of the Syrian people, we will label at least half of the world including the international community, regional groups and the Syrian regime, as well as the local factions allegedly belonging to the revolution. The issue reaches beyond the enemy, as the Syrian people are victimized by more than a rival. Thus, asking for retaliation is a challenging task. Thus, like in the incident when the tribes unified, each using its own tools and techniques, to kill the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wasallam)”.

 Fadel Abdul Ghani considered that “ISIS is taking advantage from such massacres and the oppression against the Sunnis which is considered as one of the reasons of its emergence and the high levels of extremism and exaggeration in religion expressed by its members”. Hence, he added:” There is tyranny, repression and a lack of justice in society. The oppressor is expanding dominion and barbarism further which generates a sense of injustice and an envy to burst. As such, alliances for the aim of taking revenge are to be formed raising religious and ideological slogans justifying its existence”.

 Mr. Abdul Ghani also talked about the circumstances of al-Nusra Front’s access into Syria, saying:” the number of Syrians admitted into al- Nusra was limited. The youth joined the movement as a result of the disastrous situation in Syria and the constant killings. Hence, the same reasons brought other Syrians to join ISIS”.

 The head of the “Urnamo” organization, Munif al-Taei agreed with Fadel Abdul Ghani and considered that “one of the most prominent causes of the emergence of ISIS is the regime’s excessive use of violence against the opposition at the beginning of the upheavals in Syria. Nonetheless, the justifications of many people who took parts within terrorist organizations consisted mainly of their feeling of oppression being provided with no sense of justice in this world. As such, they deduced that revenge is the sole path to be taken”. Al-Taei also clarified that: “if we want to eliminate these phenomena, we need to initiate a phase of transitional justice in order to secure even a little sense of justice for the victims’ families”.

 The researcher Sasha Alaluo also deduced that “it is natural that these crimes and violations serve the propaganda of ISIS and increase feelings of oppression and injustice among in the Sunni Arab component sensing that it is specifically targeted from various quarters, whether its partners in the homeland or ISIS. In fact, until this day ISIS violations are committed only within the Sunni Arab segment in which the terrorist organization was born. On the other hand, the Global Coalition attacks this segment under the pretext of being part of ISIS, which may generate cases of extremism in different directions. Such cases will increase with the fall of each victim and grow inside the refugee camps to be bore in the memories of children”.

 During the last year, the European countries have witnessed attacks of a new kind, done by young Muslims of different nationalities, who have been labeled as “lone wolves”. They attacked civilians in public squares, public transport stations and nightclubs under the slogan of supporting “the Islamic State” and fighting “crusaders in their own homes”. Thus, many researchers assumed that most of these people were attached emotionally to ISIS and not physically, which is referred to as a sign of ISIS’s success in transferring the oppressed Sunnis’ message to Europe.

 The report of the Syrian Human Rights Network stated that: “For the first time, the global coalition forces killed more civilians than the Russian forces in January 2017. The United States must take the necessary measures and precautions to ensure that no civilian casualties will occur under the laws of international war in the future”.

 The Syrian media, journalists, and human rights groups have to document these attacks as accurately, neutrally and fully as possible. Also, they are required to communicate with the victims or their families and to preserve their testimonies as well as the harms they have suffered from, including the material damages.

 They also have to resort to domestic and international human rights organizations to file lawsuits and demand the prosecution of the perpetrators of the crimes if proven. Hence, material and moral compensations must be provided to the injured in addition to treatments.

 These measures should be taken against all the alleged perpetrators of crimes in Syria like the global coalition against ISIS, the Russian forces, or the Syrian armed groups etc.'

‘They Burned Everything': Iran, Hezbollah, and War Crimes in Syria


Shlomo Bolts & Mohammed A. Ghanem:

 'The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its affiliated foreign fighters have long been the true drivers of Bashar al-Assad’s war against his own people.

 When pro-regime forces launched an assault in 2013 on Homs, then the “Capital of the Syrian Revolution,” Hezbollah led the charge. When Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels threatened the capital Damascus in March 2015, Iran-backed foreign fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon beat them back. When the FSA along with Sunni Islamist factions launched an assault near Assad’s heartland of Latakia a few months later, Hezbollah stepped in to counter them. The horrific slaughter in Aleppo late last year was only made possible after the Iran-backed Iraqi Nujaba Movement, which mirrors Hezbollah ideologically and operationally, turned the tide in Assad’s favor.

 Given the Assad regime’s history of fanning sectarian tensions and turning a blind eye to extremists, its claim to be running a “secular” model of government was always largely propaganda. But Iran-backed foreign fighters dispense with that pretense completely. As Phillip Smyth notes in “The Shiite Jihad in Syria,” Iran-backed foreign fighters in Syria are recruited with the stated purpose of defending Shiite Muslims and Shiite holy sites. Smyth also details how this recruitment is heavily linked to Shiite religious scholars who preach vilayet e-faqih, the ruling ideology of the Iranian regime, which holds that the only form of legitimate rule is that of Islamic jurists.

 Political and operational ties between Iran and its foreign fighters in Syria are quite clear. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated openly in August 2016 that “Hezbollah’s budget—its salaries and expenditures, its food and drink, weapons and missiles—are from the In January 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that the IRGC recruited thousands of Afghanis to “defend Shia sacred sites” in Syria by offering various material incentives. And the spokesman for Nujaba said in 2015, “We are all the followers of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and will go and fight to defend the holy sites and Shiites everywhere.”

 Furthermore, evidence suggests that Iranian oversight of its proxies in Syria extends to the highest levels. Only two months before Hezbollah began its assault on Homs in 2013, top IRGC commander Hassan Shateri was killed on the Syrian-Lebanese border. IRGC head General Qassem Suleimani appeared on the front lines of the crucial battle for Damascus in early 2015. Both the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War believe that, around this time, the IRGC took direct command of operations by its foreign proxies in Syria, allowing Iran to “implant military leadership over a base of irregular fighters that it organizes, funds, and equips.”

 General Suleimani also surfaced multiple times in the greater Aleppo area during the regime’s takeover of the city late last year. The National Council of Resistance to Iran believes that the bloody takeover was executed under the direct command of the IRGC, specifically commander Javad Qadiri, who was headquartered alongside commanders from Hezbollah and Iran-backed Iraqi militias at the Behuth fort south of Aleppo. It should be noted that the United States Institute of Peace previously observed that IRGC proxies in Iraq were under the direct command of Suleimani himself. In all, at least 17,500 foreign extremists—and possibly up to 60,000—are now fighting in Syria under IRGC command.

 Iran-backed foreign fighters, and in particular those of Lebanese or Iraqi nationality, are guilty of numerous war crimes against Syrians that are likely prosecutable in international courts. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had the authority to prosecute those guilty of “willful killing,” “torture or inhuman treatment,” “extensive destruction and appropriation of property,” rape, and “persecutions on political, racial, and religious grounds” in connection with the Bosnian genocide. In Syria, Iran-backed foreign fighters have committed many of the crimes in these categories.

 At times, the abuses committed by Iran-backed foreign fighters have plumbed the depths of degeneracy usually associated with ISIS. This includes burning civilians to death, mass killings, systematic rape, torture, and the deliberate killing of children. Yet while ISIS crimes are roundly and rightfully condemned, the crimes of Iran’s proxies are frequently neglected, ignored, or downplayed by Western governments and commentators, to the point that many analysts even regard these groups as potential partners in an anti-ISIS coalition.

 Such ideas need to be exposed in order to ensure that Iran and its proxies are held accountable for their atrocities in Syria. In what follows, we will demonstrate that Iran-backed militias are responsible for six different types of war crimes: mass murder, rape as a weapon of war and intimidation, torture, mutilation, appropriation of property, and collective punishment. These six categories directly parallel the prosecutorial focus of the ICTY described above.

 Iran-backed militias in Syria have committed numerous acts of mass murder throughout the war. The most notable massacres took place in the towns of al-Nabk, Rasm al-Nafl, and Mazraa. They included the targeting of children, the burning of civilians to death, and slaughter with knives.


 Iran-backed militias carried out massacres in al-Nabk, an opposition-held border town directly across from Hezbollah’s Lebanese stronghold of Baalbek.

 The battle for the town took place between November-December 2013 and was interspersed with the slaughter of civilians as pro-regime forces advanced. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, local residents identified an Iraqi militant group called the Thu al-Fiqar Brigade as responsible for the bulk of the massacres. The brigade overlaps with another Iraqi militant group, the Abu Fadel al-Abbas Brigade, which is identified by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium as the “primary front group for Iran-backed combatants and organizations based in Iraq.”

 The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the deaths of 210 civilians at the hands of Thu al-Fiqar from December 7 to 27, 2013 while the pro-regime coalition moved into al-Nabk. Among the dead were at least 56 children and 55 women. In the aftermath of the massacres, residents found numerous burnt or carbonized bodies and reported widespread looting by the invading forces. Among the most notorious incidents was the mass killing of the Hassoun and Moussa Hassan families, in which 45 people, including 30 women and children, were “burned to death and then sprayed with a chemical substance.”

 Rasm al-Nafl

 In early June 2013, fresh from a string of victories near the Lebanese border, thousands of Hezbollah fighters massed outside Aleppo in an effort to push deeper into Syria. Regime officials announced on June 17, 2013 that an offensive against the city was imminent. On June 21, Hezbollah fighters seized Rasm al-Nafl, a rebel-held village along the main regime supply route to Aleppo. A brutal massacre quickly followed.

 Testimonies collected by the Syrian Network for Human Rights suggest that the slaughter of Rasm al-Nafl residents was carried out in a particularly sinister fashion. First, large numbers of civilians were concentrated in a few houses and provided with false assurances that they would be safe. Then, these structures were bombed, killing nearly all of those assembled inside. As one survivor testified, “Many families gathered in one house, about 56-57 residents were there, they asked them to enter the rooms of the house and then they bombed the house and killed them all.”

 A second survivor gave a more detailed account, including of the false assurances provided by Hezbollah: “A Syrian regime-affiliated militia … told us that we have nothing to worry about and we can come back to the village. Some of the residents returned to the village, they gathered most of them in three houses and told them to wait until they can search them. Afterwards, they bombed the houses and killed all of them and collected the ashes.” The massacre, which was reported by multiple Syrian opposition sources, killed some 200 civilians, with some being slaughtered with knives as well as bombs.

 While Hezbollah appears to be the primary perpetrator of the massacre, some sources mention an important role for the Abu Fadel al-Abbas Brigade, also backed by Iran.


 Only weeks after the Rasm al-Nafl massacre, Hezbollah and the forces fighting alongside it advanced to the nearby village of Mazraa and carried out similar acts of slaughter. A survivor of the attacks testified to the Syrian Network for Human Rights that “we recognize [Hezbollah] from their dialect, clothes, and flags.” Opposition media sources also reported Hezbollah involvement in the attack. Similar details were reported by both the Syrian Network and Syrian Revolution General Commission.

 As Hezbollah and regime forces moved in, residents of the town initially tried to escape, but they were prevented from doing so by deliberate shelling that blocked the exit roads. Regime troops and Hezbollah fighters then gathered remaining residents in a central square. A commander—belonging to Hezbollah in some accounts and the Assad regime in others—shouted out, “Bring me the youngest child!” When a child was brought forward, he was promptly killed in front of his parents and siblings. Somewhere between 45 and 75 residents were then blindfolded and thrown inside a well, where all but one of them perished. An additional 25 people were herded inside a house and burned alive. The final death toll was reported to be in the range of 70-100 people.

 Additional incidents

 The above cases constitute only the most notable examples of mass murder by Iran-backed forces in Syria. But there are many other cases, such as the massacre of 69 civilians in the village of Malkiya in March 2013 and the summary execution of 26 young men in Khanasser in February 2014. Iran-backed foreign fighters were also essential to the regime’s capture of Aleppo in December 2016, and some activists hold them responsible for mass killings that took place. Iranian Major General Rahim Savafi openly boasted that Russian airstrikes on Aleppo were based on targeting information from the IRGC, Hezbollah, and Assad forces. These airstrikes were so ferocious that rescue workers stopped providing casualty figures because they could no longer count the dead.

 Over the last two decades, rape has increasingly been established as a war crime under international law—further recognition that violent conflict exposes women to grave additional risks simply because of their gender. UN Security Council Resolution 1820, passed in June 2008, states that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”

 Iran-backed militias in Syria have committed numerous acts of rape during the conflict. As human rights and international organizations have observed, rape in wartime is often an intentional policy to create shame and disrupt cohesion within the society of the victim group. Rape carries a tremendous stigma and even more so in conservative cultures such as Syria’s. As such, there are likely many Syrian rape victims of Iran-backed militias who have not come forward.


 Yalda is a fairly populous opposition-held town located just north of Sayda Zeineb, the main Shiite shrine in Syria, and Yarmouk, which is the main Palestinian refugee camp in the country. According to the United Nations, a number of Palestinian refugees live in Yalda as well. The Pal Iraq website, which tracks Palestinian refugees in the Levant, records that Palestinians were among the victims of a major atrocity.

 The Syrian League for Defense of Human Rights called the events outside Yalda on January 5, 2014 the “largest instance of mass rape” to have occurred in the Syrian conflict. The Iraqi Abu Fadel al-Abbas Brigade appears to bear primary responsibility, with some accounts indicating involvement from Hezbollah as well. At the time of the incident, Yalda and its neighboring towns had been under a suffocating siege for six months.

 The League describes the circumstances leading up to the mass rape:
 The regime promised residents of besieged Yalda that civilians would be free to leave the town via a checkpoint controlled by the Iraqi Abu Fadel al-Abbas militias. On the morning of January 5, 2014, nearly 3,000 civilian residents gathered at that checkpoint. Checkpoint personnel allowed many residents to pass, as regime television channels filmed them “in good condition” and “passing into safety” while they received bread, water, and cigarettes. But the regime then closed the checkpoint and opened fire on those gathered, killing 10 civilians and wounding others, including women and children.

 [Abu Fadel al-Abbas forces] then separated the men from the women and children in a savage operation that included the severe beatings of many women. They confiscated [the women’s] identity papers and looted what they found in gold and money. They arrested 1,200 men and took them to an unknown location while the rest of the women, children, and elderly were forced to return to the besieged city. These events were accompanied by summary executions—both shooting and stabbing—of dozens of young men in front of their families. They also included the largest instance of mass rape yet. Some 40 women and girls were found in a catastrophic condition afterward.

 While the League only alludes to the mass rape, local activist Habib al-Amar provided a more detailed account to opposition media. He stated that the 40 women raped included elderly women and girls as young as 16. Most of the women bore signs of torture on their bodies, included an 80-year-old who had been violently whipped. After they were assaulted, the women were abandoned alongside the Barada River, where they were found by Yalda residents in a state of severe trauma.

 Tel Kalakh

 The town of Tel Kalakh lies on the northern border of Lebanon, and is therefore of strategic value to Hezbollah. The terror group joined the regime in attacking the town in June 2013, and both parties committed extensive abuses, including public acts of rape.

 Hezbollah and regime troops besieged Tel Kalakh on June 18, 2013 and stormed the town itself on June 22. The Syrian Network for Human Rights began receiving reports of rape inside Tel Kalakh on June 24, but firsthand testimonies were not available until refugees from the attack fled to Lebanon the following month, at which point one witness told NOW Lebanon,
 Regime forces had only just entered the city when soldiers began looting all the houses one after the other. Women were all put in one place and searched in a hurtful way. Some of them were exposed to rape in front of everyone. … When the city was stormed … regime forces and Hezbollah struck like lighting. They burned all houses they passed and stole all properties. Even children were killed after being crushed to death by military vehicles that zoomed past all obstacles without mercy.

 A second witness gave a quite similar account, specifying that the invading forces engaged in looting and burning before committing mass rape before large crowds.
After the Free Army in Tel Kalakh City withdrew from the western neighborhood toward the market, regime forces and Hezbollah began looting houses, burning them, and destroying them. They burned everything, including any items they could not loot. They separated the women and started raping them in front of their relatives as an act of revenge against city residents. They looted our houses, burned them, and murdered our men before burning them as well.

 The vast majority of Tel Kalakh residents fled and never returned. As of September 2016, only a few thousand residents remain in Tel Kalakh out of a pre-war population that numbered some 25,000 people.

 Homs City

 The city of Homs was known as the “Capital of the Revolution” and served as the center of Syrian opposition activity for most of 2011-2012. Starting in February 2012, regime forces began heavy bombardment, then besieged the city and expelled the remaining residents in a “ceasefire” in May 2014. While the role of Iran-backed militias was more limited in the regime’s reconquest of Homs, there are still numerous credible reports of rape by Iran-backed forces.

 In July 2013, BBC News talked to a Syrian refugee who escaped Homs in 2012 and recalled the horrors she experienced. She recounted how her teenage daughter had deliberately burned her skin black while sunbathing in the hopes that this would make her a less appealing rape target for pro-regime forces. Then she stated,

 "Iranian and Hezbollah fighters came into our neighborhood with their swords drawn. The women they found, they raped. They burned our homes. … I saw maybe 100 women stripped naked and used as human shields, forced to walk on all sides of the army tanks during the fighting. When their tanks rolled back into the [pro-regime] Alawite neighborhood, the women disappeared with them."

 A second woman who resided in Homs at the start of anti-Assad protests in 2011 also recalled the involvement of Hezbollah fighters and possibly Iranian military personnel in the earliest crackdowns on demonstrators that included the use of rape.

 "The army entered accompanied by members of Hezbollah—they had [distinctive] flags around their arms—and Iran. I could not understand what they were saying [i.e., they were speaking a foreign language, probably Farsi]. They lined up the girls, the women, the boys, and the men each by themselves. … The Iranians took [my daughters] and signaled to the army to slaughter them. … They put four or five men in a car and burned it. … They tied [the women] up by their hands while they were naked, started laughing at them, and killed them after [raping them]."
 The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as an act in which “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” The Convention further clarifies that inflicted pain is more likely to constitute torture if it is meant as a punishment, an intimidation tactic, or an attack on a group.

 In Syria, torture and mutilation are frequently employed by Iran-backed militias. In some cases, corpses are found mutilated after Iran-backed militias withdraw, and it is unclear if the victims were mutilated before their deaths—which would constitute torture—or afterwards.

 Torture of Refugees

 According to a set of interviews conducted by Lebanese news stations in September 2012, Syrian refugees were arrested by Hezbollah forces, tortured, and forced to “confess” to being affiliates of FSA rebels. The accounts of three refugees are excerpted below:

 Refugee 1: “Eight armed men appeared … they told me I was in the Free Army and that I was a supporter and organizer … for 15 days I was tortured. They broke me. They put me in a coffin … they isolated me, and electrocuted me.”

 Refugee 2: “They threw me in a car and took me to an unknown location … [they brought] accusations, all with no truth to them, such as ‘you are in the Free [Syrian] Army’ … on the first day, they hit me.”

 Refugee 3: “They hit me in the car … they caused me three separate wounds … they put me in solitary confinement until morning.” Then, this refugee was made to confess before pro-regime cameramen to being an FSA commander.

 Child Torture in Madaya

 The town of Madaya, 40 miles northwest of Damascus, has been under siege since June 2015, when Hezbollah defeated rebel forces in neighboring Zabadani and forced the vast majority of Zabadani residents to leave for Madaya. After they reached Madaya, Hezbollah forces besieged the town to the point that children were compelled to eat leaves from trees to survive. Some even attempted suicide in a final desperate effort to escape their surroundings. Hezbollah enforces the siege through sniper attacks on civilians who seek to flee, including a five-year-old boy and nine-year-old girl targeted in August 2016.

 Hezbollah also tortures individuals who are caught while escaping. One such victim was Mohammed Shaaban, a 17-year-old teenager from Madaya who died in April 2016 due to malnutrition and a spinal cord injury sustained while in Hezbollah custody. The opposition news website AllforSyria reported:

 "The child Mohammed Shaaban of Madaya town died Monday morning behind the walls of siege … he was afflicted with malnutrition and with a nerve injury sustained after his arrest by Hezbollah forces. His arrest by Hezbollah came during an attempt to rescue him after he had been injured by sniper fire … after 20 days, he was returned to Madaya with signs of torture clear on his body. … Since that time, his father says, “He walks the streets screaming in a loud voice. I don’t know was happened to him while he was arrested.” His father notes that his body was covered in bruises and open wounds and that his spinal cord was injured under torture. He was normal before, without any nerve damage."

 Further Torture in Qalamoun

 Madaya lies at the southern end of the Qalamoun Mountain Range, which abuts both the Lebanese border and Damascus. Additional acts of torture have occurred elsewhere in the Qalamoun area, particularly in the town of Yabrud, which was seized by Hezbollah in March 2014.

 The Syrian Revolution General Commission published a leaked video from a Hezbollah detention center in Yabrud two months after the area was seized. In the video, Hezbollah fighters are shown repeatedly slapping a blindfolded man in the face and near his eyes. The camera then pans to a second prisoner being verbally abused, beaten on the shoulder with a stick, and slapped in the face. A third prisoner is then shown being whipped, before the camera returns to the first prisoner in time to see him howl in pain as he is punched in the testicles. At least six prisoners are seen bound and blindfolded in the prison facility and they presumably all faced similar abuse.

 A second report from Yabrud last month records the arrest and torture of a refugee woman who attempted to visit her old neighborhood of Qaa. The woman herself, under the pseudonym “Um Ahmed,” tells her story:

 "I faced a large amount of psychological and physical torture because they charged me with being an information source for the revolutionaries in Jrud [al-Qalamun, a rebel-held town in the Qalamun Mountains]. … Therefore, they beat me violently, tortured me with electricity, and threatened me with rape unless I revealed information on individuals tied to the revolutionaries."

 Sources in the Yabrud Revolutionary Council reported last month that Hezbollah administers its own prisons in the Qalamoun region and can transfer prisoners to Lebanon and back without Assad regime approval.

 Torture and Mutilation in Aleppo

 The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented torture and mutilation by Iran-backed militias in Aleppo Province as early as winter 2013, when the “physical torturing [of] a number of people” was reported in the village of Malkiya on February 27. Hezbollah was reported to have “killed six young men from the village before they burned their dead bodies” in the town of Tel Shgheib on March 1.

 This was followed two weeks later by a gruesome video from nearby Adnaniya in which a number of corpses were shown burned and blackened, many of them with large gashes and wounds in the torso area—unmistakable signs of torture. Iran-backed militias, many of whom were shouting “For you Zaynab” (a tribute to the Shiite Sayda Zaynab shrine in southern Damascus) and “For you Hussain” (a reference to Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed and a key Shiite religious figure) were also reported to have burned a number of dead bodies in the town of Thiyabiya in October 2013. All of these incidents in the southern Aleppo suburbs were, according to the SNHR, perpetrated mainly by Iran-backed foreign militias.

 In November 2015, soon after Nujaba undertook a major redeployment to Aleppo on the grounds that “We are all the followers of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei,” a video surfaced of its fighters celebrating and chatting as an unidentified body burns behind them. Many of the fighters bore the circular yellow logo of Nujaba on their backs and/or the phrase “For you, Zaynab” written on their arms. The Syrian Opposition Coalition alleges that the civilian was burnt alive, and there is evidence for this in the video, as a Nujaba fighter at one point exclaims, “Wow, he’s alive! He’s moving!”

 In August 2016, rebels fighting in the “Great Battle of Aleppo” offensive, which sought to break the siege on the city, discovered a torture chamberbuilt by Nujaba fighters in Aleppo. A picture from the chamber published by the Coalition shows a bar with two armholes hanging from the ceiling, most likely for the purpose of forcing prisoners into the “Shabeh” torture position. As Aleppo fell to pro-regime forces last December, the Anadolu News Agency reported that Iran-backed militias “burned four women and nine children while they were still alive and killed 67 men with gunfire.”

 Nujaba was integral to Assad’s final successful conquest of Aleppo. Reports of the rape campaigns conducted by Nujaba and other Iran-backed fighters led many women and girls in the city to commit suicide rather than be brutally violated as pro-regime forces advanced.
Iran-backed militias’ use of mass murder, rape, torture, and mutilation are horrifying enough. But they are most likely a means to an end: the sectarian cleansing and appropriation of the property of vast swathes of the Syrian population as a means of solidifying Iran’s position in Syria through demographic changes. If we map out the most notorious war crimes carries out by Iran-backed militias in Syria, they appear to take place in areas that are of the highest strategic importance to Iran and its proxies.

 The mass killings in al-Nabk, the public rapes in Tel Kalakh, the torture of children in Madaya, and the abuses against detainees in Yabrud all took place in the strategic Qalamun Mountain Range that borders Hezbollah’s home base in Lebanon. The mass killings and mutilations in Rasm al-Nafl, Mazraa, Malkiya, and Khanasser occurred along the regime’s only ground route into Aleppo City, which is essential for a potential Iranian ground corridor to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran-backed militias might well have carried out the particularly egregious mass rape against Yalda residents because the town is the closest opposition population center to Sayda Zeineb, the main Shiite shrine in Syria.

 As we detailed in a recent report, “No Going Back: Forced Displacement in the Syrian Conflict,” Iran-backed militias are deeply implicated in the Assad regime’s program of population transfers carried out in order to further the strategic goals of both Damascus and Tehran.

 Hezbollah bombarded civilians for weeks in the town of Qusair in order to force the vast majority to flee, and turned the area into a ghost townbefore setting up a military base nearby. A Hezbollah military base is also under construction near Zabadani, from which Hezbollah displaced the vast majority of residents to nearby Madaya, which it then besieged.

 Similarly, even at the time the city was stormed, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported on sectarian cleansing in Tel Kalakh by Hezbollah. The vast majority of residents fled Tel Kalakh for good during the assault for fear that they would soon fall victim to the kind of mass killings and rapes reported in nearby neighborhoods. Since that time, Iran-backed militias have reportedly barred Sunni Muslims and ethnic Turkmen from nearby towns, prevented most former residents of the city from returning, and allowed Shiites and pro-Assad Sunnis to move in until they comprised the majority of the population.

 In Yabrud, which saw numerous acts of torture as Hezbollah forces rolled in, the central neighborhood of Qaa is now so packed with Hezbollah families that the area has been renamed “Zahra” after a Shiite religious figure. In the town of Maliha three miles north of the Sayda Zeineb shrine, Iranian buyers have purchased property on a massive scale—with Iranian regime encouragement—after locals were displaced and their houses looted by pro-regime militias. In Daraya, four miles west of Sayda Zeineb, fighters from Nujaba have moved their families in to replace locals who fled after a years-long siege.

 The list of towns taken over by Iran-backed militias continues to grow, and Aleppo could soon become their crown jewel. Nujaba has referred to Aleppo as a “Shiite city” in its propaganda. As civilians fled Russian airstrikes and the militia’s onslaught in the final days of the assault on the city, at least 800 people were detained, beaten, and stripped of their belongings. In a clear example of collective punishment, they were told that “this is payback” for supposed acts against Shiite towns elsewhere in Syria. An ambulance carrying a pregnant woman and her husband was detained. After the husband was shot dead, the expectant mother delivered a stillborn child before being kidnapped. Such atrocities will persist for as long as the international community continues to allow Iran-backed militias in Syria to operate unchecked. This could create thousands more innocent victims and a process of destabilization that may eventually consume the region.'

Assad Chemical Attack Perfectly Timed to Extract Further Concessions from the West

Jihad Yazigi

 Jihad Yazigi:

 'Today’s chemical attack by the Syrian regime is perfectly timed to highlight the impotence and weakness of the West and place further pressure on it to restore ties with Damascus.

 Early this morning, warplanes carried out airstrikes on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province using sarin nerve gas. Later, they fired rockets at local clinics treating the wounded, killing many more. At the time of writing, at least 58 Syrians are believed to have died.

 The attack occurred the day the European Union hosts in Brussels a large international funding conference for Syria – which was initially supposed to focus on reconstruction but was scaled down – and as the U.S. administration is sending mixed signals with regards to its policy toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

 In other words, while the regime is sensing a gradual shift toward a restoration of ties, it knows the West is not there yet.

 Thus, rather than making concessions or political gestures, the regime is further raising the stakes and the political cost for the West of not cooperating.

 Assad knows that he has nothing to lose from carrying out the strikes. The EU is not yet ready to resume its ties anyway, while the United States is still hesitant. As to the outcry over the attack, at most it will last a few weeks, as it has been the case since 2011.

 By committing large-scale massacres, the regime shows to the world the West’s impotence and weakness, delegitimizing all the political values it claims to be standing for. “You do not want to restore ties? I will kill more civilians and show the world how impotent and cowardly you are.”

 The more the attack is publicized the more the West is humiliated – hence the timing of the attack during the Brussels conference.

 As soon as the outcry fades, pro-regime analysts, bureaucrats and politicians in the EU and U.S. will complete the regime’s job and push for restoring ties and accepting the regime's blackmail “for the sake of protecting Syrian civilians and improving their livelihood.”

 Obviously, any restoration of ties and funding will not have much to do with the wellbeing of Syrians, but rather with the political credibility of the West.

 Since former U.S. President Barack Obama’s green light in September 2013, Assad knows that a large-scale attack against its civilians is a short-term public relations liability but a long-term political asset.

 In the next few months, as long as the West is not ready to acquiesce to the regime's demands, expect further spectacular massacres.'

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Assad has unleashed horror on Syria. The EU must not make a deal with him

Syrians carry an injured man following a reported government air strike on the rebel-controlled town of Hamouria

Raed Al Saleh:
'Today, European ministers meet in Brussels for a conference “to turn the page and start the political transition, the reconciliation process and the reconstruction of Syria”.

 Yet only this morning we have witnessed a suspected chemical weapon attack – one of the most horrifying in six years of this bloody conflict. At least 60 civilians were gassed to death and more than 300 are still being treated; many are in a critical condition. Members of my team sought to wash the deadly chemical from the eyes of the affected children. Soon afterwards our centre in the town was destroyed, along with all of our life-saving equipment. Then a local hospital where victims were being treated was also bombed. On Sunday, the largest hospital in the region was also bombed, again after treating children affected by Assad’s chemical attacks. Are there no red lines?

 No one wants to rebuild Syria more than the White Helmets do. When so much of our country has been turned into rubble, and almost half of our compatriots forced from their homes, of course we wish that the work to reestablish schools and hospitals and to build the peace in Syria could get underway. But how can it?

 The central architects of the destruction, the Assad regime, continue their bombing campaign against Syrian civilians. As humanitarians and civil society groups, we are targets, and often victims. In the last few days our colleague Dr Ali Darwish was among those killed as he treated the victims of an illegal chemical weapons attack in his hospital in Hama, and Sameer Algohoosh, a volunteer with the White Helmets in east Ghouta, was killed by an airstrike. Doctors, like the volunteer rescue workers from the White Helmets, are called “terrorists” and singled out by the regime. Their families face reprisals from the regime for working in areas outside of their control. Systematic torture programmes and extrajudicial killings continue in the regime’s network of secret dungeons where tens of thousands of our countrymen, women and children still languish. Residential areas are still pummelled with barrel bombs, missile strikes and repeated chemical weapons attacks. How can anybody seriously talk about reconstruction in Syria while all this is happening?

 The perpetrators of these war crimes and flagrant breaches of international humanitarian laws can never be credible partners in reconstruction. After all, these are the people who in all likelihood ordered the deliberate targeting of a UN aid convoy in October. The very same people who are currently blocking food and medical assistance from reaching more than a million of their own people, and who are criminalising our staff at the White Helmets for daring to treat the sick and wounded who live in non regime-controlled areas. The truth is that they should be facing prosecution, not the prospect of possible European taxpayer support.

 I am therefore horrified at reports in the news, and from personal briefings I have received, that certain leading European politicians want to consider a deal with the Assad regime. It is beyond belief that the perpetrators of most of the violence could effectively be rewarded, and even propped up, for their crimes.

 We – like other Syrian civil society and humanitarian leaders – will not have a voice at the Brussels conference, but if we were in the room we would tell European leaders they should not ignore Assad’s crimes, but instead stand up for basic principles of humanity.

 Until an inclusive political transition is underway in Syria, until the bombs stop raining down on schools and hospitals, until independent monitors are allowed unhindered access to the regime’s detention centres, and the violence, sieges and forced displacement are ended, Europe should not countenance offering a single euro of reconstruction funding.'
A mock cemetery set up by Save the Children in Brussels, as a reminder of the impact of six years of war on Syrian children

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Hospital treating patients for 'toxic gas' exposure bombed

 'A hospital treating the victims of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria has reportedly bombed. At least 58 people including 11 children were reported dead after the initial attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. Doctors said victims started to choke, vomit and faint with foam coming out of their mouths, showing symptoms of possible sarin gas exposure. Pin-point pupils and a lack of the odour associated with more commonly used chlorine gas was among the evidence cited for the nerve gas, which is banned as a weapon of mass destruction under international law.

 Turkey opened its border crossing at Reyhanli to allow victims through for treatment, with graphic footage showing convulsing and choking patients being doused with water and loaded into ambulances. Rescue workers from the White Helmets group were seen wearing gas masks to protect themselves while treating people lying amid rubble on the ground. Activists posted video online claiming to show the moment the bombs struck, alleging they were dropped by Syrian air force helicopters as clouds of smoke rose into the air.

 It came little over a week after another alleged chemical attack hit a hospital in the town of Latamneh, just 14 miles away. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which supports the facility, said a bomb dropped by a helicopter struck the entrance on 25 March.

 “Immediately after the impact, patients and staff reported suffering severe respiratory symptoms and burning of mucous membranes – symptoms consistent with an attack using chemicals,” a spokesperson said.

 The hospital’s orthopaedic surgeon was among two people killed in the attack, leaving just two orthopaedic surgeons for a population of around 120,000 people, and the clinic was put out of service for three days.

 “Bombing hospitals, although banned by international humanitarian law, remains common practice in Syria, and health services are severely affected by these repeated attacks,” said Massimiliano Rebaudengo, MSF’s head of mission in northern Syria.

 Over the past year, the charity has received reports of at least 71 attacks on 32 different health facilities it runs or supports in Syria.

 ​Bashar al-Assad's forces have been accused of repeatedly using the nerve agent during the six-year civil war, including in a massacre in Eastern Ghouta that almost sparked military intervention by the UK in 2013. A report by the UN's Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released last year concluded that Syrian government forces were responsible for three examined chemical attacks but China and Russia have vetoed sanctions.

 Khan Sheikhoun sits near the frontline between regime and opposition held territory, on a key motorway linking the city of Hama with rebel strongholds to the north. The alleged chemical attack came as world leaders gathered in Brussels for a conference organised by the EU and UN on “supporting the future of Syria”. Successive rounds of peace talks in Geneva have so far failed to produce a lasting ceasefire in the Syrian conflict, which shows no sign of ending in its seventh year of bloodshed.'

 'Another airstrike just now on Khan Sheikhoun. Friend there: "Pray for us. Tell the world the children of Khan Sheikhoun suffocated to death" '

In Idlib, Syrians find solace in soccer

 'Even as war looms all around them, young Syrians in areas outside the regime's control are able to participate in athletic competitions thanks to civil society sectors of the Syrian revolution.

 “We are now in the second week of the first- and second-division [soccer] competitions. All the teams are wearing the flag of the Syrian revolution on their shirts and playing under the name of the Syrian Football [Soccer] Federation," said Nader al-Atrash, federation vice president.

 "Despite the intense overflights by the Syrian regime and Russia in the skies of Idlib on most days, athletes are determined and adamant to keep going and complete the competitions. I wish them all the safety in the stadiums," Atrash said.

 The General Commission for Youth and Sports, a nongovernmental organization opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, began its work in Syria in March 2014 and organizes sports activities, competitions and festivals throughout Syrian areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an anti-regime faction. Some of these areas include the Waer neighborhood in Homs, the eastern Ghouta in Rif Dimashq, Daraa province, Idlib province and northwestern Aleppo province.

 The commission, which includes the Union for People with Disabilities, sponsors competitions in soccer, swimming, handball, backgammon, swimming, volleyball, judo, karate, wrestling, Lao Chi kung fu and kickboxing. Its teams have received medals in numerous competitions.

 “When you see a field, a crowd, billboards and advertisements on the pitch, two teams in different uniforms and a team of referees arbitrating the match, you feel life has returned to the liberated areas, despite the heavy bombing and massacres committed by the Syrian regime in areas outside its control," said Abdul Wahab Almkhozom, a soccer player and member of the executive sports committee for Idlib province.

 “The crowd's cheers for their teams reminded us of the old days when we would encourage our teams through the stands in the stadiums, which the Assad regime has turned into military barracks and artillery-fire bases that have nothing to do with life, sport and morals.” '

Monday, 3 April 2017


Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leads a concert in the amphitheatre of the ancient city of Palmyra on May 5, 2016. (AFP PHOTO)

 Abdulhamid Yousef:

 'We can hear the roar of helicopters this morning, as on most mornings here in the city of Tartus. A few people gathered in a small workshop are waiting for the power outage to end. One guy prays for the victory of the air force and the end of the “crisis.” A second guy laughs at his stupid friend, who seems to never learn or get bored, waiting for the other friend to also begin praying for the aircraft to beat the “terrorists and thugs.” The third guy, however, just nods at them with his head down: “Whatever… as always they claim they’re fighting terrorists… and at night we watch children being murdered on television.”

 This last man used to be an agent for one of the security agencies. As we looked at him in astonishment, he told us the story of how he was humiliated and beaten at a checkpoint for absolutely no reason, concluding by cursing the country, the regime, and the President!

 The majority of Syrian men had been trained to use Russian weapons during their compulsory or voluntary military service. Perhaps, in the beginning, this existing familiarity made people less than cautious about embracing Russia. But since the regime declared its bloodiest war against those who rebelled against it, leaving them with no choice but to resist, a more impactful Russian intervention began to happen. It was only after the degeneration of the Assad army and its supporting militias, which resulted in an expansion of the areas outside of their control, that Russia was involved most directly.

 Daily human and material losses on battlefronts has been leading many of the regime’s loyalists to go against its whims. But ever since Russia announced its support for the regime’s war, the latter has taken advantage of this support as a way to raise the morale of its social base. Security agencies began to promote false promises, such as an inevitable outcome, an immediate transformation, the end of the crisis… They also called on deserters to rejoin the Army, promising that they would put their status in order, just as they would put the whole country’s status in order following the success of the Russian intervention.

 Announcements were also made about an immediate return of the Syrian pound to its former value, and a speedy, gradual decline in the dollar exchange rate. This would change the nature of the battle and put an end to any “impending danger.” Rising prices are exhausting regime loyalists and negatively impacting the entire community under its control, which makes propagating the news that the pound is recovering its value all the more relevant. Economic frustration is one of the regime’s most effective tools for luring its supporters to join its war, either through the Army or the other paramilitary groups. These are often directly supported by Iran, and given their relatively high salaries, they strive not only to absorb deserters but to also attract non-deserters.

 Since Russia announced its entry into military battles, Russian aircrafts have been hovering almost daily at a low altitude over the coastal cities. Almost every morning, four helicopters fly directly over the cities’ buildings, roaring in the loyalists’ both ears and hearts. More than one observer has confirmed that they intentionally fly over the Industrial Zone, which contains large numbers of workers from all areas of Syria.

 Tartus Industrial Zone is populated not only by residents of Tartus, but also by large numbers of displaced people, most notably from Aleppo, but also from Homs and other places. It is where most places of business congregate, and where economic action is developed and encouraged by senior professionals, especially the Aleppans. In an attempt to satisfy factory demands and promote industrial and commercial activity, the authorities ensure the availability of electricity in the Industrial Zone from the morning until the afternoon, without any outages.

 As helicopters hover over the Industrial Zone, they leave everyone present horrified and observant of the horrors of others. Some of the displaced workers nod their heads, some even pray for the airborne Russians; maybe they will triumph and relieve them from this hellish displacement. The loyalists from Tartus are often comforted by watching such submissive reactions to the passing helicopters, which often get all the more exaggerated in front of their arrogant gaze.

 The helicopters continue eastward towards the countryside Homs. In videos taken in Ter Maaleh, Rastan, Talbiseh and other towns, one can clearly see them returning a few hours later with a lighter load. They have cast their missiles over the neighborhoods and civilians in those areas, their roaring filling up the air and the land so intensely that one thinks he can almost catch them if he jumps.

 In addition, clips were circulated last summer of Russian pilots teasing people on the shores of Latakia, flying their helicopters back and forth, up and down. Watching the admiring glances and prayers for victory, one can deduce that these low-flights are pre-meditated for their psychological impact. They cannot be simple entertainment, and of course, militarily speaking, they have no strategic benefit.

 Describing how his children are affected by the passing helicopters, one displaced man from Aleppo stated that the roaring scares them and reminds them of the sounds of shelling. They think that the aircrafts have returned to kill them, and they begin to scream and cry. Displaced people experience a similar situation due to the thunderstorms that proliferate along the rainy coast throughout the winter. The sound of thunder confuses children, who think they are hearing bombs terrorizing their nights. Some people here have developed a distaste for rain due to the intense panic that thunderstorms cause in the hearts of youngsters.

 Another displaced person said, “due to our miserable state, we are just hoping that any party will take control. We want to return to our homes. Ever since they closed the Lebanese and Turkish borders in our faces, we have no way to leave the country. We often wish that the Air Force will triumph and that the claims being made by the loyalists around us will come true. Let anyone win, we do not care, but these helicopters remind us of our tragedy every day.” He concluded his statement by saying, “won’t there be a tomorrow to this everlasting day?”

 Russian control over the air and military information, as well as the minds and the destinies of people, goes hand in hand with control over land territories. The Russian forces took control of the Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia and prohibited the entry of any Syrian, regardless of their rank, without inspection or authorization.

 One scene drew a great deal of attention: normal Russian military vehicles were spotted driving away from Latakia on Damascus-Homs Highway, without any Syrian escort. There were no more than four trucks, all of their drivers and passengers were Russian soldiers, and there was no Syrian soldier or vehicle anywhere in sight. Russian soldiers come and go in their new trucks, sometimes wearing just their underwear, as if they are still inside their barracks, or on their own country’s land. They now know the way and need no directions from the Syrian Army.

 This behavior causes anxiety for many people, who begin to chatter, saying, for example, that the Russian officers like Hezbollah soldiers better than members of the Syrian Army, because of their skills on the battlefield. This is an initial justification that one might think of after witnessing such a clear disparagement of the Syrian regime’s authority and its army. At the same time, it also hints at a shared sense of uncertainty regarding the goals of Russia’s presence on Syrian ground.

 A private from the Military Intelligence spoke about how in the beginning he used to accompany Russian soldiers within Latakia, but that they went on to suddenly abandon all escorting agents. He concluded his statement by cautiously boasting that he became friends with many of them, adding that most of them are criminals, sentenced in their country with penalties ranging from life imprisonment to death. After a question about whether he was surprises that Russia has been unable to put a decisive end to the battles, the private shared that a Russian soldier told him “as a friend” that Russia is focused on Syrian ports; their real mission is only to protect them. The rest is just backing up the Syrian Army.

 On March 14th of 2016, Moscow announced that Russian forces had begun leaving Syria, and that the first aircrafts had already departed for their permanent bases. The next day, the Russian Ministry of Defense published a video clip of what they said was the first squadron of Russian aircrafts to leave the Hmeimim Air Base in Syria.

 It was clear from the way things played out on the ground that the decision was a surprise to everyone, including the Syrian regime. The story of imminent decisive victory with Russia’s help, a narrative that was promulgated by Assad and his supporters, was crumbling. It became apparent that the Russians were not after a decisive “victory.”

 The regime street was at a loss. Public debates between optimists and skeptics had become terrified anticipation of what might happen next, as well as fundamental disagreements about the importance of dealing with wars and battles. The Russians were abandoning them before any “front” was determined, and there is a great disdain for the regime. The true nature of the relationship between the Russian and Syrian regimes was exposed; it is the relationship of one regime with its underlings, not with its allies.
Confusion overwhelmed Assad’s loyalists. Its symptoms were clear and audible.

 The regime’s loyalists and fighters had arrived at unfavorable conclusions, which rattled them to their cores. The regime, therefore, had to transform the scene once again to its advantage. After less than ten days, the regime announced a battle to restore Palmyra, which had been taken by the Islamic State on May 21st, 2015. Some of the groups who took part in the battle, such as the Desert Hawks Brigade or the Tiger Special Forces Unit, called it the Palmyra’s ready-made and pseudo battle.

 The regime diverted everyone’s attention towards this battle, which would restore the ancient city of Palmyra after it was left to ISIS, or rather, according to a more probable analysis of the well-known facts, “given” to ISIS. This turned into a global issue, since Palmyra is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to its great archaeological importance. Time had come to win it back. After years of panicking ever since the first revolutionary cry was raised against it, the regime finally decided to provide the world with a practical lesson and proof as to who can really fight terrorism.

 Snippets of conversation from those who participated in the fighting confirm that the battle was a theatrical performance. There was no need for bombardment, because ISIS had promptly withdrawn, but the regime had nevertheless severely bombed the city. In addition, there were a number of Russian generals on the ground, commanding the operation and taking part in the counter-terrorism performance. It is worth noting here that, those who fought were paid $100, i.e. not in the Syrian currency, let alone the doors that were also opened wide for them to loot the city and rob its houses, in both the residential and archaeological areas. According to more than one fighter, the heavy bombardment exposed ancient rooms underneath the city, from which statues were haphazardly stolen. This looting of archaeological relics was not monopolized this time by the “competent authorities.”

 This performance overturned Russia’s image in the minds of the loyalists. In terms of manufacturing delusion and selling them, Russia became no different from the regime. The daily monologue that the loyalists repeated to themselves became more decisive. Regardless of whether Russians are present or the regime is by itself, the results are the same, and there is no place for asking questions. Over the course of these events, the internal plot to falsify facts has become too obvious. There is no more ambiguity about it. The forces at play are fully involved in theatrical performances. As long as there are benefits to be reaped, no objections are raised.

 On March 27th, 2016, the regime regained control over Palmyra, with support from the Russian Air Force, thus proving that the announcement of Russian withdrawal was a successful deception. Palmyra’s recovery was offered to skeptic loyalists and soldiers as a dosage of optimism: Given an endless amount of lies, you cannot give up hope that the regime will emerge victorious and will end the daily flood of deaths suffered by loyalists. Everyone has become well versed in curing themselves of doubt by colluding with the ready-made stories.

 Many of the regime fighters returned to their homes during the various stages of the war. The state that their wages are too low, that officers would abandon them at checkpoints, and that the regime is not so sincere in its battles. The regime had to make its supporters fight again, but it was not so easy to clash with them. Everyone had weapons and justifications; they needed to feed their families and protect their children. The Military Police made several attempts to arrest army defectors from their homes, but their patrols were often confronted with weapons. The regime began to rely on air patrols to hunt deserters at the intersections and entrances of the city.

 The regime decided to resolve the problem of army defectors by enlisting them into independent, paramilitary groups. One such group is the Desert Hawks, which is led by Mohamed al-Jaber and enjoys a great deal of support, including high salaries and distinctive uniforms that is heavily armed with individual munitions. From the outset, the Desert Hawks’ mission was to protect the road to Iraq, which is an important trade route that also constituted their main source of funding.

 The battles supported by the Russian Air Force were of great importance in attracting deserters. The presence of Russian fighter jets gave the impression of relative safety and offered a guarantee of achievement. But following the active return of Russian troops after their announced withdrawal, the hoped-for achievements changed: People are no longer waiting for an expedient triumph like the one they had expected at the beginning of Russian military intervention.

 It follows that the intended effect of declaring the withdrawal of Russian troops was to separate the varying goals of the allies from one another, without waiting for the achievement of desired results such as advancement whatsoever. In this way, Russia separated itself from the stated intentions of its intervention, as well as from the propaganda that had promoted it. Without that separation, Russia would have been forced to accomplish a thunderous victory that matches its power, status and equipment.
 The regime supporters now simply gaze at the low-flying helicopters with amazement and admiration, no longer feeling inspired to pray for them. It is as if the helicopters are crossing their sky just to pass from one country to another, or to go on a picnic every morning in order to say “hi” and see how they are doing. Now they live in a world where time is of little importance. There are no longer any promises in which to believe. There is nothing left but what they themselves call “pseudo battles.” They have no problem with this, so long as the roads from the coast to Homs and Damascus are secure.

 To summarize, after examining the stages of Russian intervention and its effects on the regime loyalists, we can say that the Russians are not just observers in Syria. They are active participants in everything, including manufacturing lies and delusion. More than mere back-up, they are a branch of the regime, influencing its behavior, methods, and news. They demand that the regime doles out lies in order to justify their actions. They know what is going on and they take advantage of the regional and international powers that stand with them.

 Perhaps a return to the first scene of our story is relevant here. The agent who arrived at the truth after being beaten and humiliated offers a clear representation of people’s knowledge about what is really going on. He is not the only example. Every time military gains decline, regime supporters start cursing the regime and its leaders, only to retract their words later.

 Two days after the incident of the humiliation of the agent that led him to speak poorly of the regime, he returned to his previous status, idealizing and praying for helicopters. Meanwhile, helicopters continue to cross over our heads, like a daily warning that “For good or bad, your space is captive.” '