Saturday, 20 May 2017

Those with the regime are in living coffins

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 'Standing outside the UN's headquarters in Geneva, Amina Kholani chokes back tears as she relives the nightmare of visiting relatives in Saydnaya, one of Syria's most notorious prisons.

 The infamous centre was back in the spotlight this week after US claims that Damascus built a crematorium there to cover up thousands of prisoner deaths.

 The charges, based on satellite imagery released by the US State Department, have cast a shadow over peace talks hosted by the United Nations in Geneva.

 Relatives of detainees in Saydnaya and other government prisons protested outside the UN headquarters on Wednesday, demanding that the negotiations prioritise prisoner releases.

 Holding portraits of detained friends and relatives, they tearfully scribbled their names on two long strips of paper in brightly-coloured markers.

 "Those on the outside think a Syrian detainee is just living in a locked room with a bed and food -- but he's living in a coffin. He's a corpse, but he's breathing," Kholani, 42, said.

 The plump woman in a white headscarf is lobbying to free three relatives still held in Saydnaya, and her husband was held there for a year before Syria's uprising started in 2011.

 Squinting in the sun, she described the exhausting month-long process of paying bribes and calling in favours before finally getting authorisation to visit Saydnaya.

 "Even when you are inside, it's not a direct visit. There's a metal fence, and you stand on one side with a guard," she said.

 Her voice broke as she described the two occasions she saw her husband during his time in prison, dragged into the visiting room by two prison guards.

 "Sometimes he'd come out unable to walk from the lack of food, or from the torture and the blows," Kholani said.

 "You don't recognise him until the last minute. You don't believe that the person coming is your husband, or your son or brother," Kholani said.

 Conversations that extended beyond simple "how are yous" were immediately met with beatings, so instead, "you just stop asking. You just each sit there and cry."

 Thousands of prisoners are held at the military-run complex, 30 kilometres (18 miles) north of Damascus and it is one of Syria's largest detention centres.

 Amnesty International has accused Syria's government of carrying out a "policy of extermination" there by repeatedly torturing detainees and withholding food, water and medical care.

 In February, it said Syria's government had killed up to 13,000 people over five years in gruesome weekly hangings.

 And on Monday, the US said its satellite images showed melting snow on a rooftop and heavy-duty ventilation systems attached to the military complex, apparently supporting claims by rights groups that Saydnaya is an execution center.

 Syria's opposition has long called for the release of all prisoners held by the regime, a demand they made again as they met UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura in Geneva this week.

 De Mistura has said a deal on detainees was "almost finalised" without giving details.

 But Kholani was not very optimistic.

 "We don't have a lot of hope left in politicians or statements. A prisoner is worse off than a corpse," she told AFP.

 And HNC spokesman Yehya al-Aridi, who bent down to write the name of one of his own relatives outside the UN, said progress on the issue was being blocked by Russia.

 "The Russians are still talking about this as a prisoner swap. How can you swap? You have between 5 and 10,000 prisoners (held by non-regime groups) compared to 80,000 detainees with the regime," he said.

 According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, some 200,000 people have been detained by the government throughout the six-year conflict.

 "Those with the regime are in living coffins -- and the definitive proof is the presence of crematoriums for the prisoners," Aridi added.'
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To Assuage Russia, Obama Administration Backed Off Syria Chemical Weapons Plan

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 'Throughout most of his presidency, Barack Obama and his top advisors professed a desire to see President Bashar al-Assad’s regime held accountable for its crimes against the Syrian people.

 But the State Department’s top brass balked when staff at the U.S. mission to the United Nations drafted a plan in the fall of 2014 to point the finger at the regime for a series of chlorine attacks in Syria, fearing it might upend efforts to secure Russia’s support for peace in Syria and jeopardize an Iran nuclear pact, according to former State Department officials.

 In the following months, the State Department batted down repeated appeals from Wa’el Alzayat, a senior policy advisor to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, to endorse the proposal laying out a set of options for holding the Syrian regime responsible for its ongoing use of chlorine weapons. “My sense is we were being slow-rolled,” Alzayat said.

 In the end, Alzayat and a group of like-minded officials would prevail in a long and highly acrimonious internal State Department skirmish, but not before several months had passed. It would be nearly a year after Syrians first dropped a chlorine bomb before the administration agreed to press for a U.N. resolution aimed at holding the perpetrators accountable — and four more months before it would be adopted by the Security Council.

 The administration’s reluctance reflected concern that the initiative would place it on a collision course with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch ally of Assad, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was hoping to kick-start stalled peace talks in Syria and pursuing separate negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran, according to former U.S. officials. The Russians, some of the skeptics argued, would never support the plan, so why pick a fight over a lost cause?

 “The questions that kept coming back to me and others was: Why are you pushing this? Russia will veto,” said a former State Department official in Washington, who recalled pressing senior officials to confront the Russians at the United Nations on Syria’s ongoing use of chemical weapons with the Russians.

“They would say, ‘What would happen if we did something and it imploded the relationship we have right now with Russia — tank something else we have going on and to what end?’” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told FP.

The Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian chemical weapons file has come under renewed scrutiny since April 4, when a Syrian Sukhoi-22 jet fired a sarin-filled rocket on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing more than 85 people, many of them children, and provided the most compelling proof that the regime preserved a remnant of its chemical weapons program.

The episode highlighted the limits of American diplomacy in dealing with a regime that had agreed to eliminate its chemical weapons program only under the threat of military action — and that flouted its obligations when the threat was removed. But the Obama administration’s caution fits a broader pattern of conflict avoidance with Russia over Syria’s use of chlorine as a chemical weapon. In contrast with its previous efforts to isolate Moscow economically with sanctions following it annexation of Crimea, the Obama White House depended on Russia’s cooperation in ending the civil war in Syria and containing the regime’s chemical weapons program.

 A former White House official recalled that Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, generally favored any diplomatic efforts at the U.N. designed to hold Syria accountable for its use of chlorine. But she was reluctant to maneuver the United States into a showdown with Moscow.

 “I never had Susan Rice tell me to ratchet back on that initiative,” said a former White House official. That said, “Susan’s attitude was, ‘We’re not going to throw up veto bait. If we think an agreement can be gotten, then let’s get it.’ But she had no interest in having a U.S.-Russian battle if the only purpose is to make the Russians look bad by vetoing something.” Rice declined through a representative to comment.

 The Syrian government began developing its chemical weapons program in the early 1970s to deter a possible attack by its militarily superior neighbor and enemy, Israel. By the mid-1980s it was believed to have the capacity to produce eight tons of sarin each month, according to a declassified CIA assessment in 1985. It was just a matter of time before they would develop the capacity to produce the deadlier VX, the CIA predicted.

 But until recently, the United States never felt the need to confront Syria. That changed on Aug. 21, 2013, when Syria launched a sarin attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, killing more than 1,400 people, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment, and triggering the threat of U.S. missile strikes.

 The strike was averted after Syria agreed in September 2013 to a U.S.- and Russian-brokered agreement that required Damascus to destroy a vast declared chemical weapons program, including production facilities, munitions, and tons of chemical precursors for sarin and mustard gas, and join the Chemical Weapons Convention.

 In the years following that agreement, U.S. officials vigorously defended the pact against charges that the president had squandered U.S. credibility by failing to carry out its threat to respond militarily to the Ghouta attack.

 Kerry, a frustrated proponent of military action against Syria, nevertheless boasted to NBC: “We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” of Syria. But he later acknowledged that Washington had “questions” about whether Syria had fully abided by its obligation to destroy its entire program.

 In a recent interview, Obama strenuously defended the chemical weapons pact, asserting that “99 percent of huge chemical weapons stockpiled were removed without having to fire a shot.” But he conceded that it was “an imperfect solution” because “now we know subsequently that some [chemical weapons] remained.”

 In hindsight, several former U.S. officials defended the pact, contending that it did more to neutralize Syria’s strategic chemical weapons program than U.S. military strikes would have achieved.

 “It was extremely effective,” said Andrew Weber, who served as U.S. assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs until October 2014. “We destroyed 1,300 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. That’s 1,300 tons they can’t use. It won’t fall into the hands of ISIS or other bad actors.”

 But critics inside and outside the Obama administration believe that the United States dropped the ball after it secured Russian cooperation in implementing the chemical weapons pact.

 Syria’s chemical weapons “dropped several rungs on the Obama administration’s priority list” after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) destroyed the bulk of Syria’s declared program,” said Gregory Koblentz, an expert on the Syrian chemical weapons program and director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University.

 “I think their reasoning was that if we could end the civil war then the chemical weapon attacks will stop,” he said. “So why take steps that focus on the symptoms at the risk of allowing the disease to continue or spread?”

 The deal did not, however, mark an end to Syria’s chemical weapons activities. On April 10, 2014 — months before the destruction of Syria’s declared program was complete — Damascus carried out the first of many attacks using chlorine-filled bombs in the town of Kafr Zita.

 In a midnight attack, a Syrian helicopter carried out the first of 17 chlorine attacks over a four-month period, killing two people and sending scores of choking and vomiting people to a hospital. Livestock, chickens, and pigeons also died. The leaves of exposed trees turned yellow.

 The initial response from Washington was measured.

 Kerry said that Syria would have to face unspecified consequences if it were found to have used chlorine. But there would be no threats of military retaliation. Chlorine, a common industrial cleaner, is far less deadly than sarin.

 Chlorine is not illegal for Syria to possess, though its use as a weapon is prohibited.

 The United States turned to the Hague-based chemical weapons watchdog to get to the bottom of it. Within weeks, the OPCW established a fact-finding mission to determine whether chlorine was used. The OPCW concluded that chlorine was employed. But it had no authority to say who it thought was responsible.

 Frustrated by the inability to blame Damascus, U.S., British, and French diplomats brainstormed about setting up a forum to assign responsibility for the crimes. But they knew they would have to get the proposal through the U.N. Security Council, where the Russians could veto it.

 Still, the White House tasked the U.S. mission in October 2014 to draft a concept paper outlining a strategy to confront Syria.

 But Power, Alzayat, and a group of other mid-level advocates scattered throughout the White House and State Department still struggled to get Foggy Bottom’s leadership to sign off on it, according to former U.S. officials.

 In February 2015, Bob Mikulak, then the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, met with representatives from Britain, Germany, and France at the Hague. There, they refined the plan for what would be called the Joint Investigation Mechanism, which would empower experts from the United Nations and the chemical weapons watchdog to name those responsible for the attacks.

 Power and Mikulak did not respond to requests for comment.

 The Hague meeting gave the initiative momentum and broadened institutional support within the State Department. Meanwhile, America’s closest allies, Britain and France, began to openly press the administration to pursue a push for a U.N.-sanctioned team with the authority to assign blame.

 But the push for accountability remained stuck.

 “The paramount objective was to avoid any confrontation with the Russians,” said a second former State Department official who worked on the Syrian chemical weapons file. “Kerry did not want these things to spoil his effort to reach a diplomatic settlement with the Russians.”

 Efforts to reach Kerry through a former aide were unsuccessful. But a former senior State Department official familiar with his thinking said any suggestion that Kerry tried to thwart action on Syria’s chemical weapons “is simply inaccurate.”

 “Secretary Kerry favored doing more, not less, to hold the Syrian regime accountable, including for using chemical weapons,” the former official said. “At no time did he seek to de-emphasize that objective.”

 Meanwhile, staffers in the offices of Anthony Blinken, then deputy secretary of state, and Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, refused to approve the plan.

 The second State Department official recalled conversations with Blinken’s and Sherman’s staffers warning that the push for accountability would “undermine the political process in Syria, and that we have to take into account the nuclear negotiations with Iran.”

 “We fought tooth and nail and beat our heads against this immovable object,” the official said. “They basically refused to clear the paper and refused to engage constructively with the different stakeholders in the interagency process.”

 Other former officials argued that it made no sense for Kerry and his top advisors to suppress any effort to hold Assad’s regime accountable. The formal peace process, they noted, remained effectively frozen in late 2014 and most of 2015.

 But the second State Department official countered that Kerry was keen throughout the period to restart the peace process and reduce the violence in Syria. Russia’s cooperation was seen as crucial.

 Blinken declined a request for comment. But Sherman said any suggestion that she and Blinken were slow-rolling efforts at the United Nations to hold Syria accountable for chlorine use is “a little perplexing.”

 “I remember vividly our strong denunciations of the chlorine attack and our constant efforts to press Russia to denounce the attacks,” she said.

 There may have been differences over tactics, she added, and whether it made more sense to force the Russians into a veto or to pursue other means toward holding the regime accountable. “I don’t believe there was any stonewalling at all,” she said.

 Sherman challenged the “mythology” that U.S. diplomatic efforts in Syria were dependent on the potential impact it might have on the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.

 Among the arguments marshaled against the initiative was that punishing the regime for weaponizing chlorine, which was not classified as a weapon of mass destruction, was less urgent than ending a war that has left more than 400,000 dead. Indeed, the number of Syrians killed by chemical weapons — more than nearly 1,500 by the end of 2015, according to the Syrian American Medical Society — amounts to only a fraction of the country’s dead.

 But proponents countered that there were no signs that Syria would agree to a political transition, and that turning a blind eye to Assad’s use of chlorine would send a signal that the international ban on the use of chemical weapons would be undermined.

 “I’m not saying the Obama administration could have prevented” the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, according to the second State Department official. “But by never taking a strong position against the regime, never curbing its use of chemical weapons and other attacks against civilians, it has emboldened the regime to do whatever they want.”

 As reports of chlorine attacks increased, international inspectors suspected that Syria was cheating on its claims to have destroyed its chemical weapons arsenal. In its declaration to the chemical weapons watchdog, Syria denied it had weaponized sarin or had the kind of short-range rockets used in the Ghouta attack. Syria also denied that its premier center for weapons of mass destruction and missile technology, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, played any role in the country’s chemical weapons.

 Behind closed doors, the United States urged the OPCW to establish an elite team of chemical weapons inspectors — known as the Declarations Assessment Team, or DAT — to poke holes in the Syrian declaration. They quickly discovered the presence of warfare agents, including sarin, Soman, and VX, at two of the Syrian research center’s facilities in Barzah and Jamraya, where Syria had initially insisted no chemical weapons activity had occurred.

 But the findings only hardened Russian opposition.

 Russia and Iran effectively blocked the adoption of a measure that would have required greater access to those research facilities and placed controls on Syria’s access to chlorine stocks. At the Security Council, Russia threatened to veto any attempts by the United States and its allies to punish Syria.

 “They knew we weren’t going to enforce this in a military way,” a former White House official said. “They gambled, and appropriately so, that we were not going to send Tomahawk missiles in defense of the DAT.”

 In the end, the State Department and the White House gave Power the green light in the spring of 2015 to begin negotiations with Russia on a resolution establishing the new investigation team. At that point, the Obama administration had secured its landmark nuclear pact with Iran, easing concerns that the president’s crowning diplomatic achievement could get sidetracked.

 After months of negotiations with Russia, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution in August 2015 that established the new investigation team, some 16 months after reports of chlorine’s use emerged.

 “Pointing the finger matters,” Power said after the vote, arguing that it would deter attacks and ensure accountability for criminals.

 But holding Syria accountable for its crimes was another matter.

 Nearly a year after its creation, the joint body issued two reports in June and October 2016, saying that the Syrian government was responsible for three chlorine attacks and accusing the Islamic State of firing mustard gas rockets at the opposition-controlled town of Marea.

 Britain and France pressed the United States to move ahead with a follow-up resolution sanctioning Syria for using chlorine. But Power put on the brakes. This time around, Kerry was in the thick of talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, aimed at ending the siege of Aleppo.

 “There was always a reason to delay,” a former U.S. official said.

 It was not until the following year that the resolution, largely written by the Obama administration, was put to a vote by the Trump administration. Russia quickly vetoed it, potentially sending a signal to Syria that it could carry out chemical attacks with impunity.

 Within weeks, Syria upped the stakes, reintroducing sarin to the battlefield at Khan Sheikhoun. Only this time, President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at the air base where the chemical weapons bomber was launched, and warned that he would use force if it happened again. The strike inflicted limited damage to the air base, which continued to serve as a center for strikes against opposition-controlled towns. It has done little to stem the violence in Syria, but there have been no confirmed reports of Syria using chemical weapons since then.'

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Should Syrians be thankful to Trump for last week's airstrikes against the Assad regime?

 Malak Chabkoun:

 [Apr 11, 2017]
 'What I'd like to start out with is a disclaimer: I don't represent everyone who is against Assad and ISIS, and I do hope that my perspective is wrong, and this is the beginning of the end of Assad. But I have to say, I understand the people who felt a glimmer of hope after the strike. I can't fault them for that. A lot of them have lost their families, their friends, their homes, just for Assad to keep his seat. You have to note though, that even those who express hope, or they express happiness, at these strikes, and I'm talking about interviews with Syrians inside of Syria, a lot of them said that this would never be enough to get rid of this régime. They were hopeful, but they knew that this was just the start.

 I also have to say that I don't share the sentiment of the anti-war groups in the US and Europe, who for some reason seem to have woken up just now after the US bombed a régime airbase. I have to ask myself, where have these people been for the last six years? Where have they been as the US-led coalition bombed civilians to death, not only in Syria, but also in Iraq, in the name of fighting ISIS? Where have they been as the US supported groups in Syria, logistically and with boots on the ground, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, and that group is accused of human rights violations against Syrian civilians? And why haven't these people protested Russian intervention and Iranian intervention in Syria, as strongly as they are protesting this unilateral single strike on a military base?

 I'm not optimistic about these strikes on the Shayrat airbase. I'm not optimistic at all, to be honest. I don't want to thank Trump for this crumb that he's thrown to the Syrian people. First, he needs to realise, as do others in his administration - I mean if you saw the Sean Spicer press conference yesterday, it was clear that there is confusion in the Trump administration about exactly what is happening in Syria, and what is happening to the Syrian people. Syrians are not just being killed by chemical strikes. As we speak now, 50,000 people or so in a town in the countryside of Damascus called Barzeh, are facing starvation, by the Assad régime. The Assad government is bombing them from the air, and preventing all food and medical supplies from reaching them. In 2016 alone, more than 10,000 people were arbitrarily arrested by this same régime. Also, the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, the attack said to have prompted Trump's unilateral strike, is not the first chemical attack that has taken place under his administration.

 I'm not going to go into all the chemical attacks that happened under Obama, even after his red line was drawn in 2013. There was an attack on Harasta, which is a town also in the countryside of Damascus, which mainly affected women and children, in which chlorine gas was used. Another attack on Latamneh, which is in Hama, on 25th March. Also chlorine gas was used. Civil society groups in that area actually tested the contents of the barrel bomb that was dropped, and it was indeed chlorine gas. And the intensity of attacks by both Assad and his Russian allies have not been affected. I mean, since that strike on the airbase, 13 people were killed on the next day, by Russia and the régime. Yesterday, on April 10th, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented at least 11 people killed, civilians, killed by Assad and Russia. And since that strike also, white phosphorous and napalm have been used in attacks against civilians. So it seems the Assad régime and Russia are not deterred by this one-off strike.

 When we're talking about the opposition, there's the armed opposition, there is what you could call the civil society part of the opposition, there is the political opposition, some of which is truly an opposition, in exile from Syria, some of which is like what you would have to say is an opposition allowed by the régime, so the régime is OK with that kind of opposition. So, of course, talking about the opposition which is really against Bashar al-Assad, I think that those members of the opposition are suspicious of Trump and Russia's respective endgames in Syria. They've made that clear through their remarks, in public, after the attacks. They know that this could just be a one-time thing, particularly given the Trump administration's actions and policies so far, but if this is ignored, we face a very undesirable transition when Assad is ultimately removed. Because I think that at this point in time, Russia and Trump are still friends. Sean Spicer said yesterday that he considers Russia an ally, or the US considers Russia an ally. So I think that their alliance will be stronger than any push for justice in Syria, and it's stronger than their attachment to Assad.

 So there are a couple of possible scenarios here, and unfortunately I don't see any taking into account what in my opinion is the most important part of the Syrian opposition, and that's the civil society of Syria. The opposition right now has to keep that in mind. In a lot of places where the régime is no longer there, the areas that we call liberated areas; electricity, water, trash pick up, educational services, health services, and so on, are actually being provided by this civil society opposition. Initiatives that these members of civil society took in order to provide services that were no longer there, because the régime is not there. They have to work around the other groups in the liberated areas, but they are doing the heavy lifting. The opposition that is negotiating on behalf of the Syrian people must recognise that Trump and Russia and Assad do not have the best interests of these people at heart. This could result in a partition of Syria or worse.

 Since this strike happened, Trump, his administration, and even members of his family, have been using it as so-called "evidence" that there is no improper or otherwise relationship between Trump and Putin. And so it's quite upsetting as a Syrian-American to watch how this strike is being used for Trump's own popularity at home.

 As an observer, I don't know if I can say if Obama's Syria plan was completely comprehensive, but I'll say that it was aimed at something else, it was a so-called comprehensive plan to take out the Islamic State group, and it wasn't aimed at taking out Assad. I think that's a very important distinction to make. Obama is at fault for a lot of the missteps in the US' Syria policy, but I have to say that the international community has not had this idea of removing Assad from Syria on the table for a long time. The idea of régime change was kind of pushed to the side; particularly since 2014, it's been a comprehensive Take Out Daesh policy. It's been an international community very focused on the idea of the Islamic State group, on whether it's growing in Syria, growing in Iraq, how they can rid of it. It's been a largely airstrike campaign against the group in many cases.

 Obama is not the only one who was complicit in this tiptoeing around Assad atrocities, and giving speeches about liberty in the Middle East or the Arab world without ever really doing anything about it. The UN, over and over, has covered up the régime's crimes. There is evidence of this, they have actively aided the régime in crimes against civilians, for example in many areas of Syria people were forced to leave their homes. Forced displacement or forced migration is considered a war crime. Instead of truly punishing the régime for the rounds of this forced displacement, the UN is often right there as a facilitator for this process. 

 And then, lest we just blame Obama, there are also the Arab states, particularly the Gulf states that have been more vocal about this. Rather than insisting on Assad's removal before participating in this international coalition to take out Daesh, they let the US push around their own policy. At the forefront they had all made the statement that yes, the Syrian people deserve freedom from Assad, they deserve freedom from dictatorship, but when the US gave them the signal that the Islamic State removal was more important to them, they all kind of followed suit. So, to be honest, let's not just put this on the US. If there isn't an international and comprehensive approach that fulfils the approach of first removing Assad, and then second forming an acceptable transitional government, one that is based on the needs of the civil society that has already paid so much, not just fighting against the régime, but also fighting against other groups that have popped up to take away their freedom, like ISIS, like al-Qaeda in Syria; then these non-comprehensive approaches are going to fail again and again. 

 We have another example. Russia, awhile back, tried to propose a new constitution for Syria. Well, I'm sorry, Russia shouldn't be writing a constitution for Syria. Syrians could be doing that for themselves. At the end of the day, peace cannot come in Syria from people who really do not value this idea of freedom, whether they are Arab, or they're Western. I can't expect a country that does not value freedom, or where the leaders don't value freedom -I won't say the country because the people are different from their leaders - how can we expect them to implement any sort of justice in Syria?

 Syrian voices are constantly trampled on. Syrian civil society has been very active, and has been very vocal. Unfortunately, their voices and their narratives are often trampled upon. Like the simplest things. Media outlets continue to call it a civil war, taking away the value of the idea that there was a revolution in Syria, and in many places, there continues to be, on a smaller scale, revolution in Syria. And so not acknowledging their narratives, the people living inside of Syria, and their needs and their wants, is then problematic. And they're not giving that narrative back. The international community needs to help, the media needs to help with that, you need to listen to Syrians, that's all I'm trying to say.'

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Hoping for justice

 'Abir Farhud speaks mechanically. It's not the first time she's told the story of how the head of department 215 at the military intelligence service in Damascus commanded each and every woman to come to his office. Like all the others, she was also made to undress and he groped her breasts. That was December 2012. The 30-year-old Damascus art school graduate had taken part in a peaceful demonstration, smuggled medication through checkpoints and concealed loud-hailers in rubbish bins to amplify revolutionary songs in public spaces. "It was a great time," she recalls.

 Until her arrest. While the other women in her cell were tortured with blows and electric shocks, Abir was subjected to psychological torture. "They put me out in the corridor naked in front of the soldiers and threatened to test my virginity, because they said I was a whore of the Free Syrian Army," says the activist. The humiliations and insults were such a violation that she sometimes wished she could have been beaten with a stick rather than attacked with words, she adds.

 Abir is currently relating what she experienced over the course of 33 days and 11 interrogations to Germany's Public Prosecutor General. She is one of nine Syrian witnesses to file criminal charges in Germany against leading members of the military intelligence service.

 Victims and suspected perpetrators are Syrians, the crimes occurred in Syria – but the case could nevertheless be heard at a German court. This is because Germany recognises what's known as universal jurisdiction, whereupon the magnitude of some crimes is deemed to be so great as to be of concern to the entire world. These include war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

 If these are not being pursued through the courts either in the country where they occurred or internationally, national courts can intervene. This is exactly what is happening in the case of Syria. Because Russia is using its UN Security Council veto to block the path to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, savvy lawyers are now bringing these cases in European courts.

 This represents a breakthrough for Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni. A policy of impunity has been in place in Syria for 50 years, he says and these charges are finally putting an end to this situation. Al-Bunni hopes to be able to obtain arrest warrants for the perpetrators – to force notorious secret service chiefs such as Ali Mamluk, head of the National Security Bureau, into hiding forever.

 The Syrian lawyer is working in close co-operation with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which filed the charge with the federal prosecutor in early March. The prosecutor is now hearing evidence from the first witnesses – a positive signal after just two months, says ECCHR lawyer Patrick Kroker. Karlsruhe has been conducting a structural judicial enquiry into the situation in Syria since 2011 and now specific investigations against the accused and international arrest warrants should follow, demands Kroker.

 In Spain, cases have already been brought against nine members of the military intelligence service for the crime of state terrorism. The case rests on photos by the military photographer "Caesar", who photographed 6,786 dead prisoners for the Syrian regime and smuggled these images out of the country. Emaciated, mutilated bodies. British lawyer Toby Cadman, who interviewed "Caesar", says he has never seen anything so terrible. "The industrialised torture of children, women and the elderly – these weren't terrorists, just normal people," says Cadman.

 People like the 43-year-old truck driver Abdul, who died in a Damascus detention centre in 2013. His sister, who lives in Spain, recognised him in the photos and filed the charge. As she is a Spanish citizen and in Spain the relatives of disappeared persons are themselves regarded as victims, a Spanish court can get involved. "We're not arguing that a man was indiscriminately arrested, abducted, tortured and executed, but we're instead talking about a state policy agreed by the heads of the Syrian government," explains Cadman, who is looking after the case.

 This system is the main difference between the crimes of the Assad regime and the atrocities of other conflict parties in Syria. Rebels also torture detainees, IS also kills arbitrarily and civilians die in US air strikes. But Assad's violence is institutionalised, an entire apparatus is focused on the destruction of civilians.

 James Rodehaver, co-ordinator of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, speaks of an "institutional structure with clear practices of serious abuse, the refusal of humanitarian aid and inhumane conditions of detention, all of which fulfil the offence of mass extermination." Rodehaver says this means the crimes of the regime are among the worst committed against humanity.

 There is sufficient evidence, also in written form. The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) has secured around one million Syrian documents that provide proof of chains of command and responsibilities. The "Caesar" photos also lead directly to members of the regime. Numbers have been written on the corpses of detainees. The former head prosecutor at the International Criminal Court for Rwanda Stephen Rapp finds this "unbelievable". "We didn't have any evidence in document form like we do in Syria," says Rapp.

 They didn't even have it in Nuremberg, he adds. "The Nazis didn't daub numbers on the corpses so that it could be determined who they are and where this had been done to them. In order to then find out who was responsible for that particular place," the public prosecutor explains. "This regime thinks it will nevertheless get away with it."

 But this is exactly what must not be allowed to happen, says Rapp. Because otherwise, the system of international laws and safeguards, built up over decades, will lie in tatters. "There are rules, for example that you can't attack hospitals," the lawyer says. "In Syria they aim at medical facilities." If such crimes go unpunished, other rulers elsewhere might be encouraged to do the same. "Injustice in one place threatens justice everywhere," warns Rapp.

 Justice is a goal of the Syrian revolution, says Khaled Rawas, another ECCHR witness. The engineering student organised protests and was detained twice. He also ended up in department 215, one year before Abir – then his fellow activist, now his wife.

 Khaled suffered maltreatment, but the worst thing for the 28-year-old was having to witness the torture of two inmates. "They beat them with a chain with a hook on it, so that scraps of flesh were ripped from their bodies," he recalls. The screams and the images will stay with him forever.

 Many of their old friends are dead, disappeared or in jail, says Abir. Those who could fled to safety and left Syria. There are few opportunities for civil activism within the country itself, she says.

 For Khaled, filing the case in Germany is part of a healing process that gives rise to hopes of justice. For Abir, it is the continuation of the revolution with legal means. "We still exist, the peaceful civil movement," she insists. And this movement continues to demand freedom and the rule of law for Syria.'
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 In Tartous, Syria, Women Wear Black, Youth Are in Hiding, and Bitterness Grows

Tartus, Syria

 'When Syria’s national uprising began six years ago, and young people everywhere else in the country were calling for the overthrow of the regime, up to a thousand loyalists would march in the streets of Tartous in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

 “Al-Assad! Or we burn the down the country,” chanted the regime elements among them.

 Tartous has the biggest concentration of Syria’s Alawite minority and is the heartland for Assad’s Alawite-dominated government. So when the regime summoned the sons of our sect as backup forces against what it called a terrorist threat, Alawite families willingly sent their men and boys.

 Today Tartous is in mourning, with as many as 100,000 dead from the fighting and well over 50,000 wounded, out of a population of 2 million in the province. Women in black fill the streets of this city of 800,000, grieving for their sons and husbands, and a dozen or more coffins arrive every day from the front. Many of the young men of Tartous are now in hiding—by some estimate 50,000 of them—and the government has to conduct house-to-house raids to find recruits.

 This is no longer a city of fools. A small minority still believe that Assad is fighting terrorism, but most people I know think Assad has cheated his own people by sending them into an endless, pointless war.

 Tartous today is a city of the poor. The province is packed with 1.2 million displaced civilians fleeing active war zones, but with the exception of one camp for 20,000 internally displaced people, or IDPs, they’ve been left to fend for themselves, driving up the cost of housing.

 The Syrian pound has collapsed, and costs for staples have doubled, while salaries have gone up just a fraction. The only meat most families consume is chicken, and that’s once a month. Even heating fuel for the winter is a dream for most—it will cost half your salary. Utilities are the worst ever; we have electricity six hours a day.

 Tartous is also a city of the intimidated. The security forces, always heavy-handed since Assad’s father took power in 1970, spun off the National Defense Force, widely known as the Shabiha, and together they have arrested most of the political opposition as well as civil-society activists—anyone opposing them. Regime intelligence circulated “black lists” of those supporting the revolution, and most were beaten up, expelled, or killed. Today no one can voice his thoughts, even to a family member, even less to a neighbor.

 The exception is at funerals, where families of the dead often curse Assad and the regime. When a cousin of mine died in the summer of 2014, the family was in a state of rage. His mother collapsed, his father seemed bewildered. An honor guard brought the coffin but wouldn’t allow the family to open it and see the body. His mother started cursing Bashar al-Assad and “his damned war.”

 Almost every family has a tale of losses. Rihab, a 40-year-old widow I know, is typical. Her husband, an elementary-school teacher, volunteered for the National Defense Force militia in late 2011. “He wanted to write his own story of patriotism. He thought it would be an easy task, and the terrorists were weak foes that he and his comrades could crush without difficulty,” said Rihab, which is not her real name.

 During an attempt to storm the Waer neighborhood in Homs early the following February, he was felled by a mortar. “All I got from the regime was some empty words and a small sum of money,” she said. (Families of fallen soldiers receive a lump sump equal to $1,000, and half-salary, which amounts to about $30 a month.)

 The bigger calamity occurred the following September, when her eldest son began his compulsory military service. “We let him join his friends, thinking they would not put him in a dangerous place because his father was a martyr,” she said. But he was sent to Tabqa air base near Raqqa, in northeastern Syria, which the Islamic State extremists captured in August 2014. Two days before the base fell, most of the officers were airlifted to safety, leaving behind hundreds of common soldiers and a few officers who were captured and beheaded by ISIS.

 “The image of my son never leaves my mind, except when I remember my husband dying of a mortar shell, his limbs flying in the air,” she said. “I envy those who lost a loved one in this war, for I lost two, my husband and my son.”

 The call to patriotism lost its impact years ago, so the regime tried to replace it by putting the economic squeeze on Alawites. Economic pressures were easily brought to bear, because a great many Alawites are on the state payroll, either in the security forces or as government employees. I know many who enlisted in the military reserves only after they were threatened with the loss of their jobs and income.

 The privileges that Alawites enjoy are deceptive, for the regime’s motivation in granting them is to secure control. Even the Alawite faith, a Shiite offshoot that borrows from other religions, has been corrupted by regime appointments of retired army officers as sheikhs in the faith. Of the five clerical sheikhs in my village, three are former army sergeants. This has added to the loss of a moral compass among so many Alawites.

 The drive to stir sectarian hatred is a different story. The stereotype is that Alawites have a great animosity toward Sunnis and vice-versa, but from my perspective, that of an Alawite dissident, that is not the case. When the revolution began, Alawite opponents of the regime took to the streets in Baniyas, a predominantly Sunni town just north of Tartous, and formed a Sunni-Alawite Local Coordination Committee. During the height of the revolution, there were never any hostile communal acts against Sunnis. We’ve received Sunni IDPs by the hundreds of thousands without problems.

 It was the regime that stirred sectarian hatred. Its propaganda machine constantly told Alawites that the Sunni majority wanted to topple the regime and take out revenge against them, and the Baath party apparatus constantly referred to “Sunni terrorist jihadis.” The rhetoric began in June 2011, when Sunni rebels attacked offices of the Alawite-dominated security headquarters in Jisr al-Shughur; the government circulated videos showing the violence. This sowed anger among young Alawites and helped the regime in its recruitment.

 With Iran’s backing, the regime gave the Shabiha a green light to attack Sunnis, leading to a massacre in Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. The regime ignited the killing spree when it turned over the body of a young Sunni man who died in prison to his family. When they saw the body and all the signs of torture, they got out weapons and fired in the air. This was the pretext for the regime’s order to Alawite militias to kill the Sunnis of Bayda and Baniyas and to burn down their houses. Regime intelligence members penetrated the militias and egged them on. Hundreds of Sunnis were summarily executed. But Sunnis did not exact revenge, and the sectarian propaganda slowly lost its effect. Still, the regime continued to demonize “Sunni jihadis.”

 This reached a high point in May 2016 with a wave of explosions that killed about 180 civilians. Four were in Tartous and five in Jabla, a city in the Latakia mountains—all occurring within a 15-minute time span. ISIS claimed responsibility on its website, but the regime blamed the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham rebel force. Many analysts suspect the regime sponsored the bombings in order to intimidate the population.

 Checkpoints surround both cities, and police patrol them day and night and raid suspected houses, so it would seem nearly impossible for anyone to carry out the attacks simultaneously and precisely unless it was the regime itself. And we all know the regime had staged incidents before this that it blamed on terrorists [high-level security officials who defected to the opposition say the regime staged a series of bombings of security installations from late 2011 to mid-2012 and blamed them on Al Qaeda, before the militants had set up a presence in Syria].

 Today the regime cannot make its case for Alawites to risk their lives, and all that’s left to it is forced recruitment. Early in March, security forces conducted raids in Tartous, gong door-to-door to seize youths for the military service. More than 600 were arrested and taken to join the fighting in the northeast.

 Alawite society, which once bought into the regime’s sectarian propaganda, now protects young men trying to evade military service. An acquaintance of mine named Ammar from the Qadmous area northeast of Tartous was arrested at a checkpoint in Damascus in May 2014. After his deployment to the frontline in Zabadani, a mountain town near Damascus, where he saw half his comrades die, he deserted his unit and is now hiding in a small village in the Tartous mountains.

 “I can’t work or travel. I can’t leave my village. But this is better than being in the army,” he told me. “I cannot choose death. For whom shall I die? And for what?”

 Today the anger is spreading even though it is largely muted and expressed in private. When Syria’s prime minister, Imad Khamis, visited Tartous last month, Ahmad K, a farmer, was entertaining guests at his home in the village of Himmin. For years Ahmad had tuned into state television for the news, but in the past year he’s switched to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network, and Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel.

 As they watched Khamis speaking on TV about the regime’s new projects for the region, as well as its drive against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate (which changed its name last year to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), and other groups, the guests started mocking the projects.

 Suddenly, Ahmad exclaimed: “There can’t be any terrorism worse than that. They kill the sons of the poor to keep the corrupt in their posts, at the top of which is Bashar al-Assad.” His guests, embarrassed, laughed into their jackets.

 But no one is ready to challenge the regime in the open.'

Monday, 15 May 2017

US accuses Syria of mass executions and burning the bodies

The State Department says about 50 detainees a day are being hanged at Saydnaya (Said-nay-ah) military prison, about 45 minutes from Damascus. It says the crematorium is being used to hide evidence of the extent of the killings. (Source: Raycom Media)

 'The Trump administration is accusing the Syrian government carrying out mass killings of thousands of prisoners and burning the dead bodies in a large crematorium outside the capital.
 The State Department says about 50 detainees a day are being hanged at Saydnaya (Said-nay-ah) military prison, about 45 minutes from Damascus. It says the crematorium is being used to hide evidence of the extent of the killings.
 The department is releasing newly declassified photographs showing what it says is a building in the prison complex that has been modified to support the crematorium.
 In presenting the photographs, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Stu Jones, said Monday that Syrian President Bashar Assad's government "has sunk to a new level of depravity" with the support of Russia and Iran.'
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Sunday, 14 May 2017

"Am I going to die in here?"


 'Mohammad Al Masalma is one of the 40,000 Syrian newcomers in Canada. It's important to hear Mohammad's story of how his country was taken away from him. He was a student at Damascus University when he joined anti-government protests to fight for his freedom during the revolution. It eventually led to his arrest and detainment by the Syrian regime. He was thrown in prison, where he was tortured, and nearly killed.

 But even before the Syrian revolution erupted, Mohammad's story really began in the old city of Daraa, with some wise, yet ominous words from his father.

 From an early age, Mohammad's dad always taught him to never trust the Syrian government. He was told stories about people that were jailed and killed for speaking out against the government. He learned about the 1982 Hama massacre, when the Syrian army killed thousands of people in order to quell the uprising against the president at that time, Hafez al-Assad. "Growing up, I was really scared of the government… Everyone was saying that the government has spies everywhere, so be careful, don't speak ill about the government," Mohammad remembers being told.

 Those talks with his father were eye-opening, and scary. Whether Mohammad was hearing stories of people being sent to prison for life, or the thousands massacred in Hama, his father's message was always clear -- no one opposes the Syrian government without paying a price. It was an important lesson in a country run by a dictator.

 But after three decades of ruling with an iron fist, that dictator died on June 10, 2000. It marked the end of a dark era for many Syrians. That culture of fear fostered by Hafez al-Assad was giving way to a sense of hope. Assad's 34-year old son was ushered into power.

 A doctor, with little experience in the military, Bashar al-Assad was seen as a progressive president, who was ready to lead a more moderate regime. The economy boomed, relationships with neighbouring countries formed, and the rise of the internet opened up communication with the world.

 But that newfound hope soon faded when al-Assad's family intervened to re-establish a heavy military presence with high security measures. By the time Mohammad got to high school, he became frustrated with the inability to voice his opinions. "Everyone will say 'Shhh, don't say anything, just whisper it, because the walls have ears. And they will hear you, and they will put you in jail, or even kill you,''' Mohammad said.

 Mohammad eventually enrolled at Damascus University to study English literature, where he thought that things would be different. He looked forward to meeting others that had similar aspirations, and engage with peers that shared his political views. But that wasn't the case. He quickly learned that the government had full control of the education system too. Only those affiliated with the government got high marks in classes.

 "With one phone call to the professor, and then, they would have the mark they want. And I was like, 'Seriously? I mean we are in university. This is like the highest educational institution you're going to get.' My friend was laughing at me, and he said, 'Welcome to Syria, my friend."

 For the next three years, Mohammad kept his head down, studied hard, and didn't rock the boat. But in that fourth year, everything changed. The Arab Spring was sweeping through the region. Democratic uprisings took hold in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Meanwhile, Syrians were quietly taking notice.

 "You can feel, like people are really cautious. Some of them are just at the edge of their seats, just waiting for something. And they just wanted someone to break that fear, and to do something. And they were like, look at the other countries… They made a change," Mohammad thought.

 After children were arrested and tortured for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school, the city of Daraa erupted in protests. At the time, Mohammad was just a few streets away in his family home, visiting for the weekend, when those peaceful protests turned into a massacre.

 "There is this huge river of blood pouring down the street of those people who are being killed. I was really shaking. I couldn't believe my eyes. What is this happening in my city? This is happening in Syria? What is going on?"

 That bloody day in Daraa will forever be etched in Syrian history. It was the day that families marched to protest the wrongful imprisonment and torture of 23 teenagers, and when security forces fired live rounds into the crowds, killing dozens of people. That day also sparked a revolution, and set Syria ablaze with anger.

 Mohammad didn't hesitate to join the protests. "It was the best feeling in the world while protesting… We have the freedom to say whatever you want. After like 40 years of oppression in Syria, this is priceless. This is the best thing that could ever happen to Syrians… We wanted freedom," he recalls.

 In those first weeks and months of the revolution, there was a strong sense of unity among the protesters. But shortly after a siege in Homs began taking countless lives, tanks and regime forces started rolling into Daraa. The city was put under complete lockdown.

 "You couldn't leave the house, ever. They allowed only women just to get out of their houses from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., just two hours, to go grocery shopping," Mohammad remembers.

 One day, during a neighbourhood sweep, military forces walked into Mohammad's family home, and accused Mohammad and his two brothers of terrorism. "They put us three against the wall, on our knees, and blindfolded us, and our hands cuffed. And then the soldiers put the guns to the back of our heads, and they said for the final time, 'Where are the guns?' "

 After being unable to provide any answers, Mohammad and his brothers were arrested and taken to a nearby prison, where they were interrogated and tortured. During the interrogation, officers continued to demand that Mohammad give up information. "He started to electrocute me. It feels like you put your hand in, the like, electrical socket. I remember I was, like laying down the ground shaking while he's just laughing and asking me 'Just tell me what I want to know! I won't stop until you tell me!'"

 Later that day, he was thrown into a tiny prison with 25 others. After weeks of being detained, he wondered if he'd make it out alive. "I was really devastated and destroyed. Am I going to stay here all my life? I started remembering those stories that my father used to tell me when that people stayed there for 25 years and some of them died in prison.... Am I that person? Am I going to die in here?" Mohammad wondered.

 A month later, Mohammad and his brothers were brought in front of a military judge, where the judge claimed that their arrests were a mistake. After an entire month of imprisonment and brutal torture, they were finally released. When Mohammad saw the light of day, he struggled to get his thoughts straight.

 "At that moment, I was thinking, are we that forgotten? I mean, are all the detainees and prisoners really forgotten by the people? And nobody was thinking about us? And then, I was like, okay, this is a chance for another life, I just got like an opportunity for a new life."

 Soon afterwards, Mohammad and his family fled Syria and found safety in Jordan, where they were placed in the Zaatari refugee camp. Mohammad was just one of the 5-million refugees that have fled Syria since the Assad regime began its ruthless crackdown six years ago. He spent three years in Jordan before discovering the World University Service of Canada -- an organization that sponsors young refugees and helps to provide them with a post-secondary education. And after being accepted into the program, Mohammad left his family and started a new life in Canada.

 Now, he's proud to be a new Canadian. It's something he doesn't take for granted, but he still hurts for his homeland, and the people he left behind. "I'm really sad about the people who are still in Syria, who can't leave - the people who are detainees in prison and have been tortured every day and nobody is thinking about them… Those are the people who we should focus the light on." '
Mo at the airport