Friday, 14 April 2017

‘I felt that my soul would leave me’: Evacuation feels more like eviction for Syrians

A convoy of buses drives into the besieged oppositon-held town of Zabadani in preparation for the town's

 ' “After four years of siege there was nothing to eat, no water, no gas - nothing at all,” says Dani Qappani, a Syrian activist from Moadamiyeh, Damascus. He was “evacuated” from the opposition-held town on October 19 2016, but says that the considers himself displaced because he had no other option.

 “There was no choice. You cannot chose to be with the side which has been killing your people with sarin, detaining and torturing them. You can’t be with that side. Your only choice is to leave.”

 It is a view shared by a photojournalist, Ahmad, who was besieged in Darayya, Damascus.

 “The news of the “evacuation” was really hard for me. It’s hard for someone to leave their city and its ruins, the grayeyard in which their friends are buried. On the day of the displacement I felt that my soul would leave me.”

 The organization Siege Watch, which tracks the numbers and conditions of Syrians living under siege, said in a report in March that 913,000 people were trapped in 37 besieged communities across the country. The majority were besieged by the Syrian government.

 Syrians trapped in besieged areas have been subjected to indiscriminate bombing and shelling, chemical attacks by government forces, and suffered starvation.

 “One employee of the UN said to me, “how do you live in this city that’s unfit for life?” And of course he only saw the ruins, not the terror of the barrel bombs or chemical weapons,” said Ahmad of the day he left Darayya.

 A series of so-called evacuation deals have seen opposition fighters and civilians leave previously besieged areas for opposition-held Idlib. The deals have been criticized by some Syrians and the international community for constituting forced displacement, a war crime under international law.

 The Syria Justice & Accountability Center said in a statement about the Waer deal that, “although the sign-up for the “evacuation” was characterized as voluntary, pro-government forces coerced people to leave, and civilians feared retribution if they remained in their homes. International law clearly prohibits involuntary displacement as a strategy of war.”

 “The regime was always saying that the wanted to kill all of us in Darayya. The options I had were to remain and die of hunger or from barrels of TNT - or to leave my homeland. All the options are hard,” said Ahmad.

 Qappani said that people who stayed behind in Moadamiyeh have faced conscription and detention, despite the Syrian government committing to a deal that prohibited such arrests.

 Despite the denunciations, however, the deals continue, with the latest expected today. Populations of two towns besieged by opposition forces in Idlib are being allowed to leave in return for the lifting of the sieges on opposition-held Madaya and Zabadani.

 “I was shocked when I watched the news of other displacements - it was the same exact situation, and the same exact deal: leave or be destroyed,” Qappani said

 The Syrian-British author Leila al-Shami has previously written that she sees the deals as part of a strategy on the part of the Syrian government: “The regime is re-conquering territory through evacuating a civilian population it can never hope to rule through consent. Through such demographic engineering the Syrian regime is attempting to ensure a loyal constituency in the areas it deems useful.”

 The areas in Idlib where people are being displaced to are not safe either, however. “The situation in Idlib is not comfortable, ever,” said Ahmad. “There’s always bombing from the air, there’s no security. There’s harassment from extremist groups.”

 “Either people are living in camps, in terrible conditions, or they must find money to rent a house. That’s difficult, and if you can’t find money then you have to join a military group to get it,” Qappani said of the situation in Idlib. (He is now in Turkey.)

 Ahmad said that despite the fact he saw Idlib as a “big prison” he did not want to leave Syria. “I don’t want to live as a refugee. I just want the international community to help us live in security.”

 Qappani said that the deals were a loss for the opposition. “We lost because we were forced to leave, and we won’t be able to return unless the Assad regime falls.” '
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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Assad must go, but support for transition is essential

Assad must go, but support for transition is essential

 Anisa Abeytia:

 'Last week, Trump made good on his campaign promise to maintain an "element of surprise" as a battle tactic in Syria, and stunned the world by authorising an attack on the al-Shayrat airbase in northern Syria.

 Trump's Syria policy remained ambiguous in the run up to the strike. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's comments contradicted statements made by Nikki R. Haley, American envoy to the United Nations, who, on 6 April warned the UN Security Council of a potential unilateral US attack against Syria's Assad.

 President Trump's remarks following the airstrike made it clear the attack was punitive and limited. There was no indication there was a push to unseat Assad, or that the strike was part of a wider policy and military trajectory change.

 A few days later, Ambassador Haley asserted in an interview there can be no political solution while Assad remains in power. So for the time being, Washington's intentions in Syria remain nebulous to outsiders, perhaps intentionally as an extension of Trump's expressed surprise battle tactic.

 "It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," Trump said.

 This marks a critical break with Obama's Syria policy, that refused to recognise the threat posed by the use of chemical weapons by Assad.

 Linking Assad's violation of international law to US security interests, as well as making it a point of contention worthy of action is tantamount to George W. Bush's stance on Iraq in the run-up to war. Saddam Hussein was removed as president of Iraq on the mere suspicion of stock piling weapons of mass destruction, while Assad has openly used them for years with impunity.

 Trump's post-strike comments, and subsequent remarks by his administration seem to be a nod in the direction of establishment republicans who are hawkish on Syria.

 Tillerson's comments at the G7 summit reinforce this interpretation, "I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end."

 Trump further stated, "As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilise, threatening the Unites States and its allies."

 These are the critical links Obama failed to make and his inability to contain Assad's genocidal tirade in Syria created a refugee crisis that allowed IS to gain power and territory.

 Assad is a threat to the US and its allies, Trump has made this much clear. The question now is, will Washington continue to retaliate against Assad, and will Europe adopt a similar stance?

 The European Union finds itself in a tailspin, dissolving under the weight of a refugee crisis created by Assad, Iran and Russia. Western democracies are now facing a crisis created by their inability to see the danger posed by a lackadaisical response to the war in Syria, and to Assad's Iranian and Russian allies. It is in their interest to remove Assad.

 Washington however, should not act unilaterally in Syria, nor without congressional oversight. In turn, the international community has an important role to play and it is time they recognised this.

 The Trump administration should now seek to remove the Assad regime, to end the bloodletting and to defeat IS. But in doing so, Washington and the international community must be careful to take steps to maintain stability in the country, in order to ensure the transition to a new, democratic government in Syria.

 The international community and the US should equip vetted factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), strengthen the governance structures of the Syrian National Coalition, and lastly seek to implement and enforce a ceasefire.

 Those arguing against the removal of Assad claim it would create a power vacuum for IS to fill, and cause a chaotic environment in which extremism would flourish. Iraq and Afghanistan are often used as examples.

 However, the context surrounding the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan differs substantially from that of Syria's popular uprising. The US invasion of both these countries received very limited support among the Iraqi and Afghani people.

 In addition, the liberated regions of Syria already have local governing structures in place. As well as the stabilising effect offered by Syrian Local Governing Councils (LGCs), the FSA and local law enforcement are local entities that are not imposed on communities by foreign governments.

 The FSA, particularly in Deir Az-zour - the region bordering Iraq - were an effective counter weigh to IS until they were castrated by the lack of US and international backing, contributing to the growth of IS. The FSA can be relied on as allies in the fight against IS, but the US needs to view them as such.

 The recent successful FSA offensive in Hama against Assad forces, and the rapidity with which a well-supplied FSA was able to liberate large parts of northern Syria early in the conflict, demonstrates their competency as a fighting force.

 The Syrian people do not require boots on the ground. The FSA successfully carried out a military strategy that prevented the rise of IS and dealt substantial blows to regime forces. The Syrians are more than capable of fighting their own battle, but they require supplies and air cover.

 Along with a successful military strategy, the Syrian people require the cultivation of strong governance structures to prevent the potential quagmire of another failed state.

 Cultivating democratic governance requires decades of dedicated coalition-building, and cannot be expected to occur spontaneously.

 The Syrian National Coalition has not enjoyed support from the international community. As a result, their bargaining power at the negation table was weakened, and their legitimacy diminished. They will require support and the space to evolve and transition into a democratic Syrian state.

 Currently the Syrian National Coalition's stated goal is the establishment of an executive branch. Yet, democracy is inclusive of three branches of government and neglecting to cultivate a legislative and judicial branch to balance an executive office clears a path to future despotism.

 Establishing a parliamentary structure should be a priority, championing inclusiveness - despite its difficulty - as the hallmark of democracy.

 War criminals and those who provided material support must be held accountable for their crimes, for revenge killings will only prolong the violence and instability.

 South Africa faced a similar challenge after years of brutal apartheid. When I meet with Patrick Chamusso, South African freedom fighter, member of the African National Congress and subject of the film, Catch a Fire, I asked him, "If you could give any advice to the Syrian opposition, what would it be?"

 He replied, "Unity, purpose and perseverance." Chamusso explained that Syrians face a challenge similar to South Africans - the ability to remain united. "Without unity, you won't succeed," he said.

 The African National Congress was a diverse organisation whose members had roots on three continents and various faith traditions. They did not share a common culture or history. Their commitment to a shared purpose kept them united; their cause was their bond.

 All Syrians have an interest in the future success and rebuilding of their country, but this will require a bond that transcends political divisions.

 Establishing a cease fire is now a foundational requirement for initiating a transition to a new government, and would mark the international community's firm commitment to a process.

 Though a cease fire without the capability and will to enforce it, will be futile. An enforced cease fire would signal to the Syrian regime and its handlers the US coalition's commitment to the removal of Assad, and the coming of a transitional government. In addition the US coalition could be instrumental in delivering Assad and his supporters to The Hague for trial.

 The African National Congress did not succeed on its own. Many historians assert that it took a large and well organised boycott of South Africa by individuals, organisations and celebrities to finally inflict a fatal blow to the apartheid government.

 It was not only the actions of nation states, but the actions of people of conscience who used their purchasing power. However, it was ultimately the South African people who ended the apartheid system when they voted to end it on March 17, 1992.

 The Syrian people have learned to not rely on the support of the international community, and to respond to promises made by western governments with a healthy dose of skepticism.

 Washington's Syria policy remains undefined, but in the long term, it will be the Syrian people who must decide the trajectory of their country.'

Syria: World 'watched us die and did nothing', Madaya doctor says ahead of evacuation

Mohammad Darwish stands next to a fence.

 'When the Syrian revolution began, Mohammad Darwish was a young dentistry student in Damascus.

 For the past two years, the 26-year-old has been one of just two "doctors" treating about 40,000 residents in his hometown of Madaya — where children were famously starved to death as a tactic of war.

 Dr Darwish and hundreds of other residents are due to evacuate the besieged town after months of negotiations.

 "No matter what words I use, I still can't tell you enough about what we endured in this town," Dr Darwish said.

 A mountainous village about 40 kilometres from Damascus and close to the Lebanese border, the rebel-held town of Madaya has been cut off from the world since June 2015.

 Surrounded by Syrian Government forces and their allies, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, the town's residents have had little chance to escape and no way of bringing food in.

 "It's a very tight siege, the town is completely sealed. Checkpoints were closed. No-one was allowed in or out — no civilians, no-one," Dr Darwish explained.

 "During the days of the starvation, almost no people were walking on the streets, people had no energy to walk or to stand up.

 Dr Darwish was part of the town's medical team that sent photos and videos of emaciated, starving children to ABC News in a desperate attempt to inform the world of their plight.

 "Shelling, shooting can hit or target some people, but starvation … it targeted all the residents of the town," he said.

 After global outcry over the images, the Syrian Government was forced to allow a UN food aid delivery to the town, but not before 28 residents, including six babies, starved to death.

 "The UN Security Council and the other UN bodies are only names and slogans, they are not effective on the ground," he said.

 "Remember it was only after the regime and its militants were forced to give the OK did they supply aid, food for people who were dying from starvation."

 For Dr Darwish, the hardest part in the past year was knowing the world was aware of their plight — but nothing changed.

 Despite intermittent aid deliveries, residents continued to starve to death and to die from preventable conditions he and his team did not have the facilities to treat.

 "Because of the lack of food, 81 people died," Dr Darwish said.

 "And that doesn't include the people who tried to break the siege and went to leave the town to look for food and they died because of landmines or snipers."

 He's bitterly disappointed in the international community and the United Nations.

 "It's shameful, they let us down," he said. "Specifically us the people of Madaya and the Syrian people in general.

 Shelling and sniper attacks on the town in recent months have created near daily casualties for the exhausted and under-resourced medical team in Madaya.

 "We as doctors, we also starved," Dr Darwish said. "During the shooting and shelling, we had hard casualties to treat.

 "We had internal injuries, nerve system injuries, so we had to try out best to operate on these patients, because we couldn't refer then outside.

 After months of trying to secure an evacuation deal, Dr Darwish and hundreds of other civilians, as well as opposition fighters and their families, are due to leave Madaya.

 The Syrian Government has struck numerous local deals with besieged rebels under which they leave for insurgent-held parts of northern Syria that border Turkey.

 The opposition calls it a deliberate policy of demographic change to forcibly displace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's opponents away from the main cities of western Syria.

 Residents of two pro-Government Shi'ite towns, al-Foua and Kefraya — which have been besieged by opposition fighters — are also due to be evacuated.

 Despite the horror Dr Darwish has experienced, he said he was heartbroken to leave Madaya.

 "I'm leaving my homeland, my childhood place, where I grew up," he said.

 Dr Darwish said he would never forget what he and others went through in the town.

 "I will remember them one by one, forever and ever, the people who suffered with me at the same time," he said.

 "Those who lived with me during the hunger, during the shelling and the suffering, who helped the patients with me, these are the people who I'm going to miss most."

 Dr Darwish cannot believe six years after daring to dream of a free Syria, this is where he is today.

 "I'm leaving with nothing on me, without any achievements of the goal we've aimed for from the beginning," he said.

 It has been nearly two years since Dr Darwish has eaten meat and fresh vegetables, but he said it was not food he is allowing himself to dream of.

 Escaping safely is his only concern, he said.

 "I lived on oats and rice," Dr Darwish said. "We had days where we had nothing to eat, only water and weeds or leaves or water with spices. This is how we survived and stayed alive." '

Starving boy in Madaya, Syria

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Assad Used Nerve Gas Because He’s Desperate. Expect Worse to Come.

 Roy Gutman:

'Not long after U.S. cruise missiles tore into the Syrian air base that apparently served as the launch point for a chemical-weapons attack, the Syrian army’s chief of staff arrived to inspect the damage and commend the pilots.

 They were the same pilots who flew their warplanes to the town of Khan Sheikhoun, where more than 100 civilians died.

 Embracing the base pilots, presumably including those responsible for the chemical attack, Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayyoub praised the “high morale and fighting spirit” of the officers and soldiers at the Sharyat base. They in turn pledged to continue “rooting out terrorism wherever it exists in the homeland,” the official SANA news agency reported in a video.

 In actual fact, Syrian forces probably carried out the gas attack out of desperation, according to U.S. military officials and Syrian rebel officials. And morale among regime forces may have hit a new low.

 Since the attack, the Syrian air force has moved warplanes from several bases to the Russian-controlled Hmeimim base near Latakia, and Russia has taking over most air operations in central and northern Syria, according to rebel plane-spotters who monitor regime and Russian air movements.

 These sorties included at least seven assaults against civilian targets on Friday alone, and as many again on Saturday. In a Russian air attack Saturday on Urom al-Joz, a small town in Idlib province, 20 civilians were killed. Khan Sheikhoun was targeted as well both days.

 Regime forces have been plagued by desertions at every level since 2012, but ever since Russia’s air intervention began in September 2015, the government has managed to recapture rebel-held territory. It achieved its biggest victory in December, when forces led by Assad’s Iranian and Hezbollah allies expelled rebel troops and much of the population from east Aleppo.

 But morale plummeted again a few weeks ago when U.S.-backed rebel forces, supported by Islamists the U.S. view as terrorists, scored rapid advances in Hama province. U.S. officials and rebel spokesmen say the dramatic advances are probably what prompted the Syrian military’s turn to chemical weapons.

 “The Syrian regime has been under intense pressure,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters in Washington on Friday. He said rebels in an advance last month threatened to capture the Hama airfield, a key base for helicopters and a suspected barrel bomb manufacturing facility.

 Barrel bombs, consisting of shrapnel and metal scraps packed into a barrel with explosives, are dropped routinely from helicopters over residential areas in rebel-controlled zones throughout Syria.

 Losing the Hama base was a “significant risk” to the regime and U.S. analysts judged that the use of chemical weapons was “linked to a battlefield desperation decision to stop the opposition from seizing those key regime elements.” The official could not be named under the rules of the briefing.

 A Syrian rebel spokesman spoke of enormous government losses on the ground since the offensive began March 21. Hours after the battle began, the U.S.-supported force captured more than 20 towns and villages, as well as 50 military outposts in the Hama countryside, said Lt. Mahmoud Mahmoud, spokesman for the Izza Army, a moderate rebel group, in a WhatsApp conversation. Regime forces “withdrew without showing any resistance,” he said, and rebels advanced to within a few miles of the military airport, which is about 50 miles northwest of Shayrat.

 The surprise attack threw regime forces off-balance, and at one point regime warplanes were bombing regime positions, Mahmoud said. He claimed the regime lost more than 700 fighters. He said rebels have documented the capture or destruction of 40 regime tanks and armored personnel carriers, the destruction of 13 tanks and a great many artillery pieces.

 Mahmoud said Syrian conscripts fighting for the Assad regime appeared exhausted, and commanders judged that government-sponsored Syrian militias do not have the will to fight. The only force that moderate rebels have to reckon with is the Lebanese Hezbollah and other militias Iran has shipped into Syria from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.

 The U.S. had cut support to the rebel fighters late last year when the latest cease-fire went into effect, but Mahmoud said rebels began receiving TOW anti-tank missiles and other small weapons after they regrouped and established a new joint operations center in Hama province.

 Within days of the setback in Hama, Syrian regime forces began using chemical weapons.

 On March 25, a date also confirmed by the senior Pentagon official, a regime helicopter dropped a barrel bomb full of chlorine gas on a medical center in the town of Lataminah, north of Hama, killing two people, injuring 30 and putting the medical facility out of service. The next day a second barrel bomb containing chlorine was dropped on an Izza Army position in the same town, and at least 20 fighters reported difficulty breathing.

 On March 30, additional barrel bombs containing chlorine were dropped on Lataminah and a nearby village, causing vomiting, dizziness, and breathing difficulties. Then on April 3, a barrel bomb was dropped on the town of Habit, south of Khan Sheikhoun, causing at least 20 people to experience difficulty breathing.

 The munitions had the intended impact. “With these weapons in use, we thought it a big mistake to hold the ground, especially because so many of our fighters were affected by the gasses,” Mahmoud said. “We were forced to withdraw to rear locations.” He said the regime’s gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun was clearly “revenge against civilians” for the rebel advances.

 “The regime was simply trying to press the rebels to stop their military advance in north Hama,” he said. “They think the rebels’ morale will be destroyed by the attack on Khan Sheikhoun and other places. But we have simply become more determined and we will continue our battles,” he said.'

Syria: Chemical attack survivors vow to fight for justice

 'Last week, Abdul Hamid al-Yousef lost the loves of his life.

 His wife Dalal and their nine-month-old twins, Aya and Ahmed, were among the dozens killed as a result of a suspected chemical attack on the Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun - a tragedy Abdul Hamid still cannot fathom, and a trauma he says he will never overcome.

 "It was a huge disaster," Yousef says, before emotion overtakes him.

 In all, more than 20 members of the Yousef family died on April 4 - a day in which horrific images like the ones showing Abdul Hamid cradling the bodies of his dead children shocked the world.

 Speaking to Al Jazeera from Reyhanli, Turkey, Yousef, who blames the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the attack, said his pain is unrelenting.

 "I'm going to try, as much as possible, to fight the regime through the media," he said.

 "I'm not going to abandon my country. God willing, I'll return to Syria - because we started our revolution six years ago and we still demand freedom and justice." '

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Monday, 10 April 2017

Top Syrian Army defector not surprised by chemical attacks, says toxins still hidden despite Russia agreement

Brig. Gen. Zaher al-Sakat, once the military's chemical weapons chief in charge of such scientific operations for the Syrian Army, says the alleged sarin attacks are no surprise.

 'Appalling images of Syrian babies gasping for breath and others foaming at the mouth after the Damascus regime hit a rebel-held town with chemical weapons has stunned the world. But people were almost as stunned last week that Syria still had chemical weapons because the Kremlin in June 2014 had vouched publicly for their complete eradication.

 One man who certainly wasn’t stunned that Syria had such weapons and would use them was Syrian Brig. Gen. Zaher al-Sakat, once the Bashar regime’s chemical weapons chief in charge of such operations.

 Sakat remains steadfast that there is no way his former boss, Syrian President Bashar Assad, would ever "completely give up" his arsenal. Sakat said that in 2013 he was ordered -- from the top -- to use chemical weapons, phosgene and chlorine, on three separate occasions.

 “I just could not gas my people,” he said, adding that he replaced canisters with water and a benign bleach. That ruse worked at first, but internal suspicions grew. "They arrested my son, a lieutenant, without reason to force me to submit. I feared for my life."

 This, Sakat noted, led him to defect and flee Syria in April 2013. He claims to have survived two assassination attempts in Turkey since his defection. Now he resides in Europe where he continues to document war crimes from connections inside and outside the war-torn country. He said that the military has been developing deadly agents since the early 1980s and has the ability to deploy both mustard gases and neurotoxins like VX and sarin.

 He stressed that these can be deployed as barrel bombs from aircraft, or launched in missiles or cannons from the ground.

 It is not yet confirmed exactly what substances were used in last week's attacks, which killed at least 86 people and wounded hundreds more. Yet expert analysts with the World Health Organization said preliminary tests by the Turkish Health Ministry and statements by U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all point toward a deadly nerve agent such as sarin.

 According to the general, processes were in place to move large volumes of toxic substances to inconspicuous locations amid civilian areas near the Syrian coast and were also moved to the hands of allied Lebanese militia Hezbollah. He also insisted that Iranian experts, closely allied with Syria, have long been assisting development of chemical weapons inside the country.

 "In 2006, there was an explosion killing 20 Iranian experts in Aleppo and dozens of Syrians," Sakat said. "But there was a media blackout on the news."

 The Khan Sheikhoun attacks also raise questions about how much Moscow knew about Syria’s chemical stockpiles. After the 2013 Ghouta chemical attacks, in which U.N. investigators found "clear and convincing evidence" that sarin had been delivered by surface-to-surface rockets, then-President Obama sought congressional approval for military action against Syria. But this request was withdrawn after Syria agreed to destroy its chemical arsenal under Russian supervision and became a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention in October 2013.

 Meanwhile, a source closely tied to Damascus operations said it is likely that Syrian forces loaded weapons systems with the deadly agent, effectively hiding those chemicals prior to signing the Chemical Weapons Agreement. Sakat, too, said of Syria’s chemical weapons, "There are munitions ready."

 Nerve agents like sarin have a relatively short shelf life, usually no longer than five years. That means that this year or next year are ideal times to deploy chemical weapons that were stored in 2013.

 However, not all experts think the five-year limit is an absolute rule. John Gilbert, senior science fellow with the Center for Arms Control and Non Proliferation's Chemical and Biological Arms Control Working Group, said sarin "can be stored in loaded munitions for decades if it is properly purified and stabilized."

 "It is certainly possible that the regime could have hidden sarin, as well as other chemicals, in a variety of locations prior to signing on to the Chemical Weapons Convention," he said. "It is also possible that Syria retained or reconstituted a sarin production capability that could have been used to produce the recently-used sarin."

 Zakat said that last week's attack was spurred by "international silence" and was a "re-testing" of how works powers like America would respond. While he now "thanks hero Trump" for firing back at the government, he believes earlier statements made by U.S. government officials that leadership change was no longer the objective sent a message of impunity to the regime.

 The government-connected source also indicated that further large-scale – potentially chemical – attacks were also in the pipeline for the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta region in a quest to take back the area once and for all. But in the wake of the U.S. retaliation, there is now a sense of fear and uncertainty as to what to do next. Ghouta, located on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, was the site of the 2013 sarin attacks in which more than 1,000 people were alleged to have died. This incident led to the Geneva agreement that the Damascus regime signed.'


Sunday, 9 April 2017

'Do you only care how we die?' Syrians ask why gas is the only red line

 'As US cruise missiles struck a Syrian airbase in Homs on Friday, the government was going about its usual, deadly business: Syrian or Russian bombs were at the same time falling on the Idlib suburb of Baldat Heesh, destroying several homes, killing eight people including three children, and injuring 10 others.

 Baldat Heesh is a short distance from Khan Sheikhun, where more than 70 people were killed in a chemical attack on Tuesday. And while the focus remains on that attack, and the US response, the people of Idlib cower in their homes as barrel bombs continue to fall.

 Such is the twisted reality after six years of war, some rationalise and decide they would rather be gassed to death than eviscerated by high explosives.

 Um Ahmad, a mother from Khan Sheikhun whose three-year-old nephew was gassed to death, said "The world is shocked by the chemical attack and yet they do not understand.

 "To us who have lived through six years of siege, forced starvation and incessant attacks by both Russia and the Syrian regime, this is simply another other way to die, no more and no less," she said.

 "It does not matter that it is forbidden internationally or how it kills, in the end, the result is the same. We die. And we continue to die. Do you only care how we die or that we are dying?

 And in a chilling reflection on the reality of war, Ahmad said: "We prefer death this way. We can bury our children in one piece and not have to search for their parts among the rubble and shrapnel."

 Moaz al-Shami, a citizen journalist, echoed Ahmad's feelings in the the aftermath of the Khan Sheikhun attack: "Why has the world abandoned us and doesn't even look at us?" he said in a broadcast.

 "There is no type of death that we have not experienced! Death by chemical weapons, death by drowning, death by phosphorous, death by rockets, death by air strikes, buried under rubble, death by suffocation. Please answer me, what type of death have we not tasted yet? How many more ways to die are still left for us to face?"

 Mahmoud Othman, also of Khan Sheikhun, said "There are crimes you can see and other war crimes we face that are invisible to the eye. Both my brothers have been imprisoned by the government since 2013, we were told they died under torture, others say they may still be alive, we don't know. The world cannot see them but we know that this government is killing us in more ways than the world can see."

 Othman said the US strike in Homs gave the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, a red line, but it did not deter him from killing by other means.

 "The US strike only provides a red line to the Assad regime to not use chemical weapons. The message to us is that the US wants the Assad government to continue to kill us just not with forbidden weapons."

 Civil defence volunteers were among the first to arrive after the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun. They have seen much in the years of war, but nothing as profoundly shocking.

 Hamid Kutini, a White Helmets volunteer in the town, recalled the horror he witnessed on that day.

 "The first rescue team to arrive at the scene called and told us that they were starting to lose consciousness - they asked for back-up, but warned us to be careful as we may be affected by the gas. When I arrived people were everywhere, many had lost consciousness, many were foaming at the mouth. It was terrifying - you could see the souls leaving the people's bodies. My mind could no longer tolerate it. I started to feel the gas had affected me and I was afraid it would make me lose consciousness too."

 Kutini put the numbers of dead and poisoned in the hundreds.

 "We treated 300. The children and the elderly were harder to save, their bodies were weaker and could not tolerate it. As I began to take the children's bodies inside our office was targeted by about 10 air strikes. I cannot describe to you the second attack because what I had seen earlier turned my mind blank. Witnessing the chemical attack was harder than the air strikes that were targeting us for over 45 minutes. Some people that we had rescued from the chemical attack were killed by the air strikes."

 Kutini too seemed baffled by the idea that chemical weapons were any important than other forms of attack. "Is it acceptable for people to die with barrel bombs but not chemical weapons? Is that acceptable? This was the worst attack I have experienced because it took the largest number of lives. But this time we didn't have to search for the scattered parts of the victims bodies among the shrapnel and rubble as we do with barrel bombs. Every day there is blood, every day there is death, every day there is a massacre, there are strikes now as I am talking to you, I don't agree that chemical weapons should be the red line. No one has ever tried to stop the holocaust inflicted on us." '

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U.S. Attack on Assad Regime Brings Hope to Rebels: 'First Time Syrian Children Were Not Abandoned'

Syrian residents of Khan Sheikhuun protesting against the chemical weapon attack by the Syrian regime, April 7, 2017.

 'Even though it caused limited damage, the U.S. reprisal attack on a Syrian air base undermined the objective of Tuesday’s chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun – to break the spirit of the regime’s opponents. After two days of despair, distress and suicidal feelings, the American attack renewed the hopes of many Syrians in rebel-held areas, who now believe they will get some protection and perhaps even ultimately defeat President Bashar Assad’s regime.

 “With the help of a few missiles that silenced the warplanes of the criminal Assad, hope has returned to the Syrian people,” a photographer in the Free Syrian Army in Idlib told Haaretz via email, following Thursday night’s airstrike. Other Syrians posted half-joking posts such as “Thank you, Abu-Ivanka,” comparing President Donald Trump’s resoluteness with former President Barack Obama’s hesitancy.

 The Assad regime miscalculated what the U.S. response to the chemical attack in Idlib would be. The regime assumed that, as in earlier cases where it used chemical weapons, this time, too, its actions would go unpunished.

 Khan Sheikhoun, where over 70 people were killed last Tuesday in a gas attack, is far from the front lines. The chemical attack there killed civilians, not combatants. So it’s clear that purely military considerations were not guiding the regime when it targeted the town. The aim of the attack was to suppress the rebels and the population that supports them, increasing tensions between rebels and civilians.

 Such tensions have grown over the last year, following battlefield defeats, internal fighting, corruption and increasing tyranny, as well as the cumulative sense of battle fatigue and a wish to return to some sort of normalcy.

 The Assad regime wanted to make it clear to people living in rebel-held areas that there was no hope the world would come to their aid, and that they have no choice but to surrender to the regime and agree to living under its rule – as happened recently with a string of towns across Syria, most of them taking the step after enduring lengthy sieges.

 According to rebels in Khan Sheikhoun and its southern outskirts, the decision to focus on their town seemingly stemmed from the fact that most of the fighters there had participated in battles initiated by the rebels against the regime in the northern part of the Hama district (a few dozen kilometers south of Khan Sheikhoun). Moreover, a major supply route of fighters and ammunition for these battles passed through the city.

 “The regime wants to direct citizens’ anger toward us,” said one rebel. The chemical attack and heavy bombardment that followed led to the displacement of most of the town’s residents.

 Immediately after the gas attack, civilians, activists and combatants in rebel-held areas expressed doubts regarding the ability to continue opposing Assad, due to his ability to perpetrate such horrific crimes without retribution.

 “For us Syrians, our blood has become cheap across the world,” said Ahmed, a Syrian human-rights activist from the Aleppo region. “Enough – let them kill all the people! Things will be solved and we won’t bother you anymore,” he added.

 The rebels did not believe the United States would respond, and that another war crime by the regime would be allowed to pass in silence. Hours after Tuesday’s attack, a rebel in the Free Syrian Army wrote: “I’m 24 but look 40. For six years I’ve taken part in the revolution, fighting the regime. We’re tired.”

 Others exhibited suicidal thoughts and signs of deep despair. A human rights activist in Idlib wrote: “Today my friend died, tomorrow my neighbor will die. After that I will die. That’s our life.”

 Trump’s decision to attack nullified the regime’s short-term victory to decimate rebel morale. Since the reprisal, the feelings of despair and fury among rebels have been replaced by optimism, even if it is a qualified optimism.

 “We’re very happy and hope these attacks continue and that this isn’t a one-time attack,” said the activist from Idlib.

 He reported that morale did improve somewhat and he feels better, as do many others. A cleric counselling rebels in the area almost sounded happy, saying that regime supporters are now the frightened ones. This came after his somber words following the gas attack when he declared, “We are waiting for the next deaths. We die a slow death and the world watches from the sidelines.” Over the last year, he had expressed a sense of despair with increasing regularity.

 Regime opponents attach significance to the limited reprisal because it is the first time during the civil war the regime had been bombed in retaliation for a war crime it perpetrated. The skies of Syria are full of warplanes – Syrian, Russian, American, Iranian and Israeli – and none of the thousands of bombing missions carried out across the country has ever targeted the regime, which is responsible for 92 percent of deaths in Syria since 2011, according to a Syrian human rights organization.

 An activist from Aleppo posted Trump’s picture on Facebook, jokingly referring to him as “truly the lion of the Sunnis” (a term used by supporters of Saddam Hussein), adding: “I know the attack won’t make a difference and it won’t prevent Assad from killing more Syrian people. But this is the first time in seven years that I feel the blood and soul of the Syrian children were not abandoned.”

 The feelings of optimism are qualified, in part because the Trump administration made it clear Thursday’s attack did not indicate a change in policy. A theater director from Aleppo, who admitted a few weeks ago that he believed the Syrian uprising had been crushed, wrote after the American attack: “I hope this is the beginning of the end for Assad, but I think it’s just a political game.”

 A rebel in northern Aleppo noted, “If they really didn’t want Bashar, they would give us anti-aircraft missiles.” And the combatant from the Free Syrian Army in Khan Sheikhoun expressed joy over the attack but added, “We hope that in the future they will bomb all the airfields, because otherwise the regime will take revenge, hitting us with even greater hatred.”

 The sense of abandonment and despair that the regime wanted to instill among its opponents was dissipated by the impact of the Tomahawk missiles hitting the Shayrat air base. The regime wanted its opponents to see that the international community would continue to stand idly by at the sight of its massacres.

 Crushing all hope for international protection was supposed to be the next stage on the road to eliminating opposition to the Assad regime. In despair, the rebels were expected to agree to a reconciliation with the regime or to flee the country. Instead, the attack contributed to shaking the widespread feeling among many Syrians that their blood is easily spilled. The attack, despite its limited aims, has renewed hopes among despairing regime opponents that their cause is not lost.'
A protester holding an anti-Assad placard during a demonstration in Brussels, April 8, 2017.