Saturday, 17 June 2017

The political Entity of Idlib calls on two military factions to implement seven items

The political Entity  of Idlib calls on two military factions to implement seven items

 'The political body in the province of Idlib on Friday, called for the movement of Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to implement seven items, to stabilize the liberated areas.

 "In keeping with the aspiration of the Syrian people for greater freedom and security, arrests of activists and members of the Free Syrian Army continue to be carried out by Ahrar al-Sham and HTS Organization as well, amid a clear absence of independent judicial courts," the statement said.

 The entity called on the factions to stop the arbitrary and indiscriminate arrests, to release the detainees immediately, reveal the disappeared persons, open all cases before an independent judicial court, to immediately apply their last amnesties and to allow human rights and medical committees to visit prisons.

 It is noteworthy that dozens of activists and media individuals have launched a media campaign last month, calling on the military factions to "whitewash" its prisons, release all of the detainees of the youths from the Syrian revolution, but not those involved with the blood of the Syrian people, where the movement of Ahrar al-Sham responded to the campaign, and a number of judicial and Shari'a authorities in the province, and called for a general amnesty for all those who spent half sentence era.'

The political Entity  of Idlib calls on two military factions to implement seven items

Friday, 16 June 2017

Assad Still Must Go

 Michael J. Totten:

 'Like it or not, the United States is getting more involved in the Syrian war despite President Donald Trump’s promise to stay out of it.

 First, on April 6, after Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad again massacred civilians with chemical weapons, Trump ordered two American battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean to strike Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase with Tomahawk missiles. According to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the U.S. damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s air force in ten minutes.

 Then, on May 18, American warplanes bombed a vehicle convoy belonging to a pro-government militia that encroached upon a restricted area where American and British soldiers are training local fighters to battle ISIS.

 America’s Syria policy is just as incoherent now, though, as it was when Barack Obama was president. In August of 2013, the former president refused to enforce his own “red line” when Assad murdered over 1,400 people and wounded thousands more in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with chemical weapons. He meekly called for Assad’s removal but did virtually nothing to bring it about, choosing instead to lift sanctions against Assad’s staunchest ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in exchange for a temporary halt to its nuclear program.

 The Trump administration hasn’t figured out what to do either. “Our priority,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in April, “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said more or less the same thing at the same time. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” he said, “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

 Both reversed themselves within a week. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson later said, followed by Haley who said, “It’s hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”

 Since then, though, little has happened and less has changed. Like the Obama administration, the Trump foreign policy team recognizes that Assad is bad news but is unwilling to do much more than talk about it. At some point, though, we’re all going to have to come to grips with an unpleasant truth: If the invasion of Iraq proved to the American public how dangerous intervention can be, the Syrian apocalypse should have proven by now to the American public that non-intervention can be equally perilous.

 Eventually, one way or another, Assad has to go.

 One could make the case on humanitarian grounds. Assad, after all, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. One could also make the case on geopolitical grounds. The Syrian war, after all, triggered the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The strongest case, though, is on national security grounds. Whether or not most Americans realize it, replacing the Assad regime with just about anything but a radical Islamist terrorist state will make the U.S., Europe, the greater Middle East, and even most of the world safer places than they are now.

 Destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria is our first priority. That’s not going to change. ISIS has conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks on every inhabited continent except South America, and that’s without factoring its brutal conquest of Syrian and Iraqi cities; its medieval punishments such as amputation, crucifixion and stoning; its cultural and historic erasure of ancient sites like the Roman-era city of Palmyra; and its genocidal extermination campaign against Iraq’s Yezidi minority.

 The last thing the U.S. should do, though, is partner with the Assad regime. Never mind the fact that Assad is allied with Iran, America’s principal foe in the Middle East, and with Russia, America’s principal geopolitical foe. ISIS itself is a creature of Bashar al-Assad.
ISIS didn’t exist in its current form until 2013, two years into the Syrian war, but Assad’s culpability goes back more than a decade.

 After the U.S. demolished Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, both the Syrian and Iranian governments had excellent reasons to fear that they might be next. For decades now, Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime has been the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the Arab world while the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the entire world. If moderate governments were to arise in Tehran and Damascus as well as in Baghdad, the number of worldwide terrorist attacks would likely plummet substantially.

 So Syria and Iran needed to ensure that regime-change followed by nation-building in Iraq failed spectacularly. The Iranians did so by funding and arming Shia militias like Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah, while Assad facilitated the rise of Sunni terrorist organizations, especially Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.

 In their book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan quote former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who freely admits that “[Assad] started to work with the mujahideen” after the fall of Saddam. Assad dispatched Syria’s resident jihadists to fight American soldiers and Iraqi Shias, and most of them signed on with al-Qaeda. With one diabolically brilliant move, Assad managed to purge Syria of his own potential enemies while teaching the entire world a terrible lesson. Regime-change and democracy in an Arab land can be as dangerous as Ebola.

 The rationale was so obviously cynical that even those Assad used knew what he was up to and why. “Syria wanted to prolong the Iraq war and the attacks on U.S. forces,” former Syrian Islamist fighter Anas al-Rajab told Roy Gutman at The Daily Beast, “so that the Americans couldn’t come into Syria.”

 Everyone knows what happened next. Iraq was consumed by blood and fire. Arabs from one end of the Middle East to the other looked at the poisoned fruit of regime-change and shuddered. The American public entirely lost its appetite for democracy promotion abroad, and not until Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in a relatively peaceful revolution in early 2011 did Middle Easterners themselves believe that an internally-driven regime-change was either possible or desirable.

 The Iraqis partnered with American forces under the leadership of General David Petraeus and destroyed al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. Hardly any members of Zarqawi’s organization even survived. The few who did hid in the shadows for years.

 When the non-violent protest movement against Assad began in 2011, inspired by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, his security forces opened fire with live ammunition and ludicrously claimed they were waging a war against terrorism. The entire world knew they were lying, but Assad had to say something. The West was still busy bombing Moammar Qaddafi in Libya and, once again, Assad had plenty of reasons to fear he might be next. The only thing he could do that might save him, he wagered, was convince the West that he really was fighting a war against terrorism, that beyond him was the abyss. The only problem was that he was not fighting terrorism.

 So he created a terrorist menace to fight.

 For years Assad had been keeping radical Islamists quarantined in his jails, many of whom had fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq and came home, and in the most cynical “criminal justice reform” in history, he let them out of their cages. They did exactly what he knew they would do — coalesced into terrorist armies out in the desert.

 One of them was the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front and the other was ISIS, forged from the shattered remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq whom the world hadn’t heard from in years.

 After conquering some new piece of territory, ISIS fighters filmed themselves acting out in the most bloodthirsty and psychopathic ways possible. “Letting black-clad terrorists run around a provincial capital,” Weiss and Hassan write in their book, “crucifying and beheading people, made for great propaganda.”

 That propaganda now matched Assad’s earlier ludicrous claims that he was fighting a war against terrorism at a time when he plainly wasn’t. He finally had the war that he needed. He made himself indispensable by creating problems that only he could supposedly solve and removed himself from the West’s to-do list.

 And here we are. If it weren’t for Bashar al-Assad, ISIS wouldn’t even exist.
Assad is nothing if not a brilliant manipulator. Against all evidence, he managed to convince secretaries of state John Kerry and Hillary Clinton that he was a “reformer” at a time when he was precisely the opposite, and he managed to convince President Donald Trump that he’s fighting ISIS even though he and the Russians have spent more than 99 percent of their time, energy, and ammunition on every rebel army in the country except ISIS.

 He still has plenty of supporters in the West, though, because he’s “secular” and therefore preferable to Islamists. As an individual, yes, Assad is secular. The problem is, his chief political and military backers — Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — are radical Islamists. His own army has been reduced to a shattered husk of its former self and will likely never again be able to impose secular rule on the entire country.

 “After five years of war,” Tobias Schneider writes at War on the Rocks, “the government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords.” The country is awash with Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and Islamist militias consisting mostly of Iraqis and Afghans trained by Iran.

 Matthew DeMaio put it this way in Muftah magazine: “the Syrian regime is neither secular, sovereign nor independent.” His piece includes a telling photo of four banners that show who rules the city of Aleppo right now: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

 Look. It’s virtually impossible now for the 12 percent Alawite minority to subjugate the 74 percent Sunni majority without outside assistance, and until the Russians showed up in September of 2015, that assistance came entirely from the Iranian Islamists and their regional allies. Assad’s secularism barely warrants an asterisk at this point.

 Even if none of the above were true, if Assad hadn’t nurtured first al-Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS for his own nefarious purposes, if “government-held” territory weren’t under the control of foreign theocratic militias, Assad still could not be the solution to ISIS for one simple reasons — ISIS is the yin to Assad’s yang.

 Support for ISIS among the general public in the Arab world is in the low single digits, from 6 percent in the Palestinian Territories and 3 percent in Jordan to zero percent in Lebanon. The only reason terrorist armies like ISIS and the Nusra Front are tolerated by civilians right now in Syria is because so many perceive Assad as the greater of evils. Never mind his ideology; Assad is responsible for the overwhelming number of casualties and refugees. Hardly anyone in Syria would even temporarily support ISIS’s and the Nusra Front’s deranged revolution if there were no one in Damascus to revolt against. If these people weren’t under daily siege by Assad’s machinery of death, his barrel bombs and chemical weapons, they’d violently overthrow the Islamists just like the Iraqis did.
The real problem is larger than ISIS, though, and it’s larger than Bashar al-Assad.

 Syria, like Lebanon and Iraq, is fractured along sectarian lines. All three countries have suffered devastating and protracted civil wars, fomented in part by foreign governments, during the last quarter-century. The only reason Syria managed to hold itself together until relatively recently is because the Assad family effectively exported Syria’s own instability to its neighbors — which just so happen to be Lebanon and Iraq.

 “Syria before Assad was a playground of foreign intervention,” Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me after the crack-up of the country was well underway. “Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a regional player in its own right—occupying Lebanon, running his own Palestinian factions, and enabling Hezbollah. But now Syria has reverted to what it was before: a jumble of clashing interest groups and resentful sects pitted against one another, all seeking foreign backers who might tip the balance in their favor. In the long view, fragmented weakness may be Syria’s default condition, and the Syria of Assad père an aberration.”

 Assad relieved pressure from Sunni Islamists by dispatching them to Iraq to impale themselves on American forces and Shia militias. He relieved pressure from would-be Kurdish separatists by sponsoring the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (or PKK) against Turkey. And he justified his regime’s own inherent illegitimacy as a minority Alawite act ruling a Sunni majority by championing the Sunnis’ great cause and exporting terrorism in the form of Hamas and Hezbollah to Israel.

 Now that the jig is finally up, Syria is a net importer of terrorism rather than a net exporter. Yet the terrorists Syria does still export are striking targets as far away as San Bernardino and Paris rather than Tel Aviv, Beirut, and Baghdad.

 The case for keeping Assad in power requires one to believe that he can keep a lid on things if he wins the war. An iron-fisted regime can only keep a lid on things until it can’t, but the truth is that Assad never actually tried. Indeed, he and his father Hafez have been doing the opposite since the 1970s, and after more than 40 years there is no reason whatsoever to believe that government will ever change. Assad isn’t a force for stability — he’s a chaos engine.

 Syria needs a strong and politically moderate government — democratic or otherwise — where Sunni Arabs make up the majority and serve alongside non-token representatives from the Alawite, Christian, Druze, and Kurdish minorities. Under no other system can Syria be at peace with itself and with its neighbors.

 Eventually, however, one way or another, Assad has to go.'

Syrian children from Kobane in a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. [Photo: radekprocyk / 123RF]

Thursday, 15 June 2017

FSA Groups & Revolutionary Bodies in Deir Ezzor Announce Rejection of Iranian Occupation

FSA Groups & Revolutionary Bodies in Deir Ezzor Announce Rejection of Iranian Occupation, Emphasize FSA Role in Liberating the City

 'Representatives of armed opposition groups as well as civil and tribal bodies in the province of Deir Ezzor stressed that Iran is occupying Syria and has expansionist ambitions in the region.

 In a joint statement issued on Tuesday, the FSA groups as well as civil and tribal bodies said that Iran is exploiting the “de-escalation zones” agreement and has deployed its militias to take control of Deir Ezzor province. They stressed that Iran is seeking to link Arab cities and capitals with Tehran to achieve its "expansionist ambitions” having deployed militias in the eastern Qalamoun area, the Syrian Desert, and on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

 The statement stressed the groups’ outright rejection of "the Iranian occupation" in all its forms, underscoring that the local FSA groups in Deir Ezzor and its tribes are the "sole and legitimate representative" of people of the province with the exclusive right to recapture the province from the ISIS extremist group.

 The recent advances by the Iranian-backed militias towards Deir Ezzor “complicates the efforts to combat ISIS, threatens civil peace and risks undermining efforts to reach a political transition," the statement added. Signatories called on the political, military, and civilian forces in Deir Ezzor to form a unified political and military leadership to defeat ISIS and thwart the Iranian plans in the province.'

Aleppo's Warlords and Post-War Reconstruction

 Tobias Schneider:

 'Six months after the heavily publicized defeat of Syrian rebel forces in Aleppo to the Assad government, the once magnificent metropolis and largest city of northern Syria is still reeling from the consequences of years of violent conflict. The elaborate communal, economic and material threads that for centuries had made up the social fabric underpinning the city’s wealth, as well as its physical and societal integrity, may have been irreparably damaged. Today, much of the city lies in rubble and many of its once proud inhabitants have been reduced to abject poverty. The immediate challenges of post-recapture life, from reconstruction to the Assad government’s attempts to restoring services and order, may give us a first glimpse into what Syria would look like after a complete regime-recapture.

 The most visible injury to Aleppo’s splendor has been the material damage suffered in more than four years of near-constant fighting. So vast is the destruction that it is most efficiently surveyed by satellite imagery. An initial damage assessment combining both geospatial and ground-level qualitative analysis commissioned in the second half of 2016 estimated that at least one-third of housing units across the city have either suffered significant material damage or been destroyed entirely. These numbers are from before the worst onslaught in November and December.

 Months after the fall, international aid organizations and local authorities are only slowly foraying into these “newly accessible neighborhoods,” as the U.N. terms them. Many roads leading into the rubbled quarters remain damaged, blocked or degraded. Restoring the more than 70 kilometers of streets in need of urgent repair alone is estimated to cost more than $1 billion. A similar sum should be required to restore Aleppo’s single large thermal power station, the country’s most important electricity production facility that, prior to the war, covered 60 percent of the governorate’s needs. By comparison, the Syrian government’s entire 2017 budget amounted to no more than $5 billion.

 While state media has been busy highlighting the occasional symbolic reopening of plazas, shops, and restaurants to project a sense of normalcy, the reality for Syrians in the area is far from ordinary. Only a slow trickle of civilians has returned to the once densely inhabited popular quarters of the east. As of last month, the U.N. registered 153,012 individuals as residing in the “at best damaged” formerly rebel-held communities. They are essentially functioning almost entirely without services and highly dependent on aid. Many are returnees, as well as the poorest of the poor overflowing from the overcrowded and strained eastern districts, whose population had almost doubled with IDPs during the height of the conflict.

 Reflecting the unequal firepower of the warring parties, as well as the indiscriminate tactics employed by the Assad regime during the fighting, the destruction is very much unevenly distributed. Entire neighborhoods in formerly rebel-held quarters, such as al-Amerriyah, Tal az-Zarazir, Old City, and Karm al-Jabal, with all their accompanying infrastructure, have essentially been razed to the ground, while government areas only suffered sporadic damages. The city’s water and electricity infrastructure is largely defunct, and rationing remains in place for all essential goods and services.

 The socio-economic, and thus political, implications of this are especially noteworthy. Most accounts of the outbreak of fighting, and the subsequent division of the city, stress the initial class divide between the more urbanite loyalist quarters in the west and popular neighborhoods to the east. While the more affluent residential areas in the west suffered mostly sporadic damage from indiscriminate rebel artillery fire, around 58 percent of popular (sha’bi) residences, primarily in the rebel-held east, have been assessed to be damaged or destroyed. Together with Assad’s notorious Presidential Decree 66— which allows for the expropriation and re-development of destroyed and “informal” settlements—this could potentially open the doors for a more permanent re-engineering of the city’s demographics by the regime.

 The close interlinkage of political, economic and military power among regime militants further complicates the issue. War in Aleppo had always had a local dynamic to it, with fighters on both sides of the front lines hailing primarily from the city and its immediate environs. Among the defenders of West Aleppo was a varied medley of militia groups: Hilal al-Hilal’s Baath Brigades as well as the National Defense Forces led by former businessman and land-holder Samy Aubrey recruited from the city’s own youth.

 Indeed, following a 2013 presidential decree that permitted the raising of militias for the protection of capital goods, some of the richest men in Aleppo, such as industrialist Mohamed Jemmoul, have moved into the burgeoning militia sector. With Aleppo’s industry in ruins (a famous amusement park owned by Aubrey became a notorious battle field), war profiteering is the last remaining profitable sector in Syria. Thus, after years of conflict, a new politico-economic constituency has emerged in the city.

 For example, with no more than two hours a day of electricity from the public grid, more than 100 privately owned neighborhood generators have sprung up across the Western part of the city. Experience from Lebanon and Iraq show that such opportunistic entrepreneurs can quickly become a political force. This, and similar business models, are a new vested interest with which any reconstruction plan for Aleppo must contend. Rebuilding the destroyed metropolis without buy-in from loyalist powerbrokers who arose in the vacuum of war appears an unlikely prospect, especially considering the central government’s inability to curb their power and reach.

 Since the recapture of the opposition-held pockets, long-standing but previously muted grievances by local residents against the armed men fighting for Assad have increasingly burst out into the open. Journalists, activists and local officials accuse the “armed gangs” of robbery, looting, murder, infighting, and especially checkpoint extortion, leading to increased prices and further humanitarian suffering inside Aleppo, as well as creating anxiety about the business environment. Reda al-Pasha of the Hezbollah-friendly Lebanese Al Mayadeen TV station was notably barred from reporting in Syria after he criticized criminal elements among the regime’s forces (especially the Tiger Forces of General Suheil Hassan, who has since risen to chief of the powerful Air Force Intelligence Directorate in Aleppo).

 Even some of the most prominent regime figures in the city have added their voices in complaint. Firas Shehabi, a member of parliament and head of Syria’s Chamber of Industry, recently uploaded a video to his social media presence railing, Kalashnikov in hand, against the extortion system. An initial decree issued by Major General Ziah Saleh, head of the provincial security committee, in February aimed at expelling militias from the city, appeared to have had little effect. Recently, and following Shehabi’s intervention, Damascus is said to have intervened against the road taxes on trucking into Aleppo. The underlying power dynamics, however, remained unchanged.

 Beyond local warlordism, Iran’s influence in the city continues to grow as well. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has not only consolidated its already formidable network of foreign Shiite militias, but also expanded and formalized its role among Syrian nationals across Aleppo province. Formally outside the Syrian command structure, the so-called Local Defense Forces brand, an umbrella for Iranian-controlled groups such as Liwa Imam al-Baqir, has grown to almost 26,000 militants in Aleppo province alone.

 Having been exempted from Syrian army conscription and regulation, the Iranian umbrella provides opportunities, and crucial humanitarian, social and veterans services to otherwise economically destitute Aleppines. During the fall of the opposition-held eastern pocket, besides fighting on the front lines, Liwa al-Baqir ran the most important exit checkpoint for civilians fleeing the fighting. More recently, their officers have advertised themselves negotiating re-entry of displaced into the eastern districts, and leading offensives deep into the country’s interior.

 In absolute terms, the reconstruction of Aleppo is clearly beyond Iran’s financial means. Still, the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah have gained tremendous legitimacy among loyalists for their role in the recapture of the city, and they appear willing to leverage this popularity into more permanent influence. In January, in the wake of the collapse of the rebel pocket, Damascus and Tehran signed five memoranda of understanding, pertaining primarily to economic investment. Aleppo governor Hossein Diyab stressed that Iran was going to “play an important role in reconstruction efforts in Syria, especially Aleppo.” While details of the arrangement are still hard to come by, the so-called “Iranian Reconstruction Authority” has publicized its first initiatives, most prominently the renovation of 55 schools it plans to restore across the Aleppo province. While the project name is clearly reminiscent of the “Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon” established after Hezbollah’s the 2006 war with Israel, the degree of Tehran’s actual commitment to rebuilding this very Sunni city is still unclear.

 More than four years of fighting and war economy have left Aleppo a destitute city and its social fabric in rags. Considering the regime’s limited capacity and fiscal bind, the ancient metropolis is unlikely to be rebuilt, and the suffering of its citizens not permanently alleviated without international assistance. However, any eventual donor should remain conscious not only of the scale of the reconstruction problem itself, but also of the complex local political, economic and military environment, so as to not reinforce or reward the Assad regime’s absolutist aspirations.'

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Regime's Current Strategy to Ending the Revolution

 Ghaith al-Ahmad:

 'The Syrian regime and its allies did not hesitate to use military force to suppress the popular uprising that began in March 2011, nor have they hesitated to obstruct the negotiations taking place in Geneva under the umbrella of the United Nations to reach a political solution that would end the crises affecting the Middle East and the world – including the refugee crisis and cross-border terrorism.
This comes amidst declining US and coalition support for the Syrian opposition, the prioritization of the fight against terrorism represented by the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, the ongoing fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, and its components’ inability to agree on a unified vision for the future of Syria.

 The regime is attempting to play on the international margins, especially among its main supporters, Russia and Iran. While it may be leaning towards Tehran, whose designs are tied to the long-term survival of President Bashar al-Assad and a number of other leaders in the army and security apparatus; it knows full well that Moscow entered Syria with several objectives, including securing its place within the international community. But the Kremlin is also looking to take advantage of the global community's need to limit the influence and interference of Iranian militias inside Syria’s state apparatus, in return for a trade-off on other outstanding issues with the EU and the US, in particular those revolving around Ukraine and natural gas.

 After having paid large sums to support him, particularly in matters related to the military operations that led to the retreat of the armed opposition away from Damascus, Assad seeks to leverage Moscow’s need for him at the present time by rejecting any agreement in which power is shared with the opposition, according to the Geneva Communique or UN Security Council Resolution 2254, particularly under the current circumstances when the opposition is beset by division.

 The regime is exploiting the support provided by Tehran and Moscow, in the form of money, weapons, and men, to achieve important military victories at the expense of the Syrian opposition, which receives support from Turkey, the Arab Gulf states, the European Union, and the United States. The success of regime forces in expanding their control over the entirety of Aleppo in December 2016 was the culmination of their growing strength in recent years, giving the regime hope of returning to the international community and once again controlling all of Syria.

 The regime recently seized the opportunity to reach the outskirts of the Euphrates River for the first time since 2013. Its forces reached the western outskirts of Manbij in an agreement with the YPG dominated US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to prevent Syrian opposition forces, supported by Turkey in the “Euphrates Shield” zone, from advancing towards the city.

 In order to present itself as an international partner in the fight against terrorism, the regime has recently taken advantage of the “de-escalation” agreement signed by the guarantor states Russia, Iran, and Turkey in the Kazakh capital of Astana. The signed agreement was in the presence of the regime and opposition delegations and established four de-escalation zones in Syria. This agreement allows the regime to make use of a large portion of its troops in preparation for a new battle and opening the way to Islamic State-controlled Deir Ezzor in the east; which contains significant oil, gas, and water resources including the largest gas plant in the Middle East, the Conoco plant. At his press conference from Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Al-Muallem, announced that, “the primary goal of the country’s forces is to go to Deir Ezzor,” which would seemingly come with the goal of connecting the Damascus-Baghdad highway.

 In the vicinity of Damascus, the regime has adopted a military tactic that differs from those used in its battles elsewhere in Syria that focused on dividing and preventing communication between opposition areas to relieve pressure on itself in the capital, and over time creating fully-enclosed areas under siege.

 After years of siege and shelling, targeting health facilities and preventing relief teams/first responders from providing humanitarian and medical aid, the regime began signing so-called “reconciliation agreements” with representatives of these areas, demanding that opposition fighters hand over their weapons in exchange for the Syrian government’s guarantee that they can remain, while transferring anyone who rejects to the agreement to Idlib or Turkish-controlled areas in northern Syria.

 As a result, the regime has been able to empty a large number of areas around Damascus and Homs, a corridor for Hezbollah, linking Lebanon to Syria, the most recent being the al-Waer district in Homs and the Damascus suburbs of Tishreen, Qaboun, and Barzeh. In doing so, the regime seeks to replace the residents of these areas with families loyal to it in order to ensure its security and stability.

 After convincing the United States to support their fight against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Kurds have become a de facto power in northern Syria. The Syrian regime has welcomed this new reality and dealt with the Kurds cautiously, courting Kurdish leadership and building a network of common interests in order to isolate the Syrian armed opposition and exclude it from any role in the future of Syria, particularly in light of its intransigence towards fighting the regime rather than reasoning with it to find a political solution in accordance with UN resolutions.

 The regime has crafted a number of understandings with the Kurds on the basis of partnership rather than animosity, through which the authority of the state and its institutions have been maintained in those areas far from Damascus that still fly the flag of the regime and recognize the legitimacy of its existence. Pledging to continue paying the salaries of employees working in public institutions, the regime has given the Kurds the freedom to partition and manage their areas as a type of administrative decentralization to which the ethnic minorities that make up the majority of northeast Syria aspire. The regime also allowed them to speak Kurdish (which was previously forbidden) and integrate it as the primary language in schools.

 The regime sees its participation in the Geneva negotiations as an opportunity to restore credibility lost on the international stage and to emerge as the reasonable party, taking full advantage of Moscow, its most powerful ally, over the course of these negotiations in light of the US retreat. At the same time, the regime is carrying out radical reforms within the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, spearheaded by President Bashar al-Assad since 2000. The party led the country since 1963 and these reforms have affected all of the party’s leading figures, known as the “old guard.” Newspapers loyal to the regime indicate other changes, even those affecting the party slogan, from “unity, freedom, socialism” to “one nation, bearing an eternal message.”

 Observers believe that by making such a move, Assad is preparing for a possible election battle, particularly as Moscow insists that he remain in power during the transition period in which parliamentary and presidential elections will take place, giving him the right to participate in any future elections.'

Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS

 Louis Proyect:
' “Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is now the third full-length documentary I have seen on Syria and the one I now regard as the best introduction to the conflict. Unlike “Return to Homs”, “City of Ghosts” and “Last Men in Aleppo” that were directed by Syrian partisans of the revolution, “Hell on Earth” is co-directed by Sebastian Junger, an American, and Nick Quested, a Briton whose emphasis is primarily on the humanitarian disaster but within the context of a powerful attack on the Baathist dictatorship. They made the wise choice of drawing on analysis from Robin Yassin-Kassab who offers a running commentary in the film on how Assad used extreme violence and sectarianism to help subdue a popular movement. Yassin-Kassab co-wrote “Burning Country” with Leila al-Sham, a book that is the film’s counterpart. If I were asked by someone trying to puzzle out the six year war in Syria, I would recommend both “Burning Country” and “Hell on Earth”, a film that is now available as VOD (sources at the end of the review.)

 The film provides extensive evidence of the mass character of the protest movement in Syria that began in March 2011, with a close look at the victimization of 15 teenage boys who were arrested after painting graffiti on the walls of Daraa, a city widely viewed as the birthplace of the revolution: “As-Shaab / Yoreed / Eskaat el nizam!”, which means “The people / want / to topple the regime!” One of the youths walks through the streets of Daraa showing where they had used spray paint to demand Assad’s fall. He, like the others, had been tortured in jail for a month and then released to his parents who were part of the Sunni tribal network that was the sinew of Daraa. Their suffering, including having their fingernails torn out, incensed their parents and most of the city’s residents who began to protest in the streets raising the central demands of the movement: for justice, for dignity and for freedom. As could have been expected, Assad’s snipers began firing on the demonstrations, footage of which is included in the film.

 This pattern was repeated across Syria–in Homs, in Aleppo, in Hama and in the suburbs of Damascus. Continued armed attacks on peaceful protests finally reached the breaking point when soldiers began to defect and form militias to defend the people both in the streets and in their homes. We hear from a number of the men who helped to form the FSA in 2011, an armed movement that had no political agenda except to “topple the regime” as the 15 boys from Daraa had hoped.

 Within two years, the regime had adopted genocidal-like tactics including barrel bombing and other forms of aerial attacks against which the rebels had no defense. Syria was rapidly becoming a hell on earth, as Yassin-Kassab put it at one point in the film, hence its apt title.

 In August 2013, the dictatorship used sarin gas against the people of East Ghouta, a Damascus suburb composed mostly of the Sunni working poor, many of whom were formerly small farmers driven to leave drought-stricken land when government support dried up as well. The film takes a close look at Obama’s failure to take action against Assad despite his “red flag” warnings. While it is reasonable to assume that Junger and Quested would have agreed with John McCann and Dennis Ross, who are among the film’s imperialist-minded enemies of Assad, that Obama betrayed the Syrians by not following through with a military intervention, there was likely little chance of this happening. By this point, Obama was well on his way to developing rapprochement with Iran and the last thing he needed was to deploy American power on behalf of the “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists” he derided. All that was really needed was to remove the CIA agents from the Syrian border who had been stationed there to prevent the shipment of MANPAD’s from Libya to the rebels who needed them desperately. I am sure that a pharmacist with sufficient training could have put a Russian-made SA-7 to good use taking down the helicopters that were dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, schools, apartment buildings and everything that moved in places like East Aleppo.

 What sets “Hell on Earth” apart from the standard Frontline type documentary on PBS is the inclusion of two brothers and their families who had fled East Aleppo to get away from the constant onslaught of Syrian and Russian aerial bombardment. Radwan and Marwan Mohammed were given video cameras by Junger and Quested so they could describe what it was like to be part of the half of the Syrian population that had been displaced from their homes. Crowded into what looks like a concrete shed, they are caught in limbo since they are now in ISIS territory. Like the Syrian refugees in “Lost in Lebanon”, they are motivated primarily by the need to survive rather than to take part in an armed struggle. (The film explicitly refers to the war as a necessary step taken by Assad to preempt the possibility for peaceful reforms.)

 The two brothers are probably like most Syrians today, people longing for peace and normalcy. In choosing to impose the law of the jungle on a preeminently civilized and peaceful society, Assad has nearly won but at what price? He has carried out what Tacitus once described: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

 The second half of the film deals with the rise of ISIS and is exceptionally good. It is the first attempt I have seen to describe the origins of the death cult in terms of the persecution of Sunnis in Iraq. “Hell on Earth” comes pretty close to the version of events presented in Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s book on ISIS.

 If the beheadings carried out by ISIS in the Middle East and the knife attacks by its supporters in Europe lend themselves to hysterical news reports in the West, the film reminds us that torture and ghastly executions took place in civilized England as well. If you were convicted of treason in 13th century England, punishment took the form of hanging (almost to the point of death), emasculation, disembowelment, beheading and being chopped into four pieces. The remains of the body were often displayed on London Bridge. Maybe that’s where the ISIS supporters got the idea for stabbing people at random on the same bridge.

 Drawing upon ISIS’s own recruitment videos, “Hell on Earth” makes it clear that the message is much more evocative of video games and Hollywood action movies than Wahhabist theology. In fact, even though the film does not specifically state this, you can only conclude that the jihadists must have studied the recruitment commercials for the Marines that crop up on professional sports shows on TV. For an 18 year old man, testosterone speaks much louder than longings for a Caliphate.'

Syrian doctors plead for help, fearing the world is 'bored' with their conflict

 'A group of Syrian doctors based in rebel-held provinces said on Tuesday that aid had dropped markedly over the last two months because donors were losing interest, a factor that will make it harder for them to handle government assaults.

 Tens of thousands of displaced Syrians have found refuge in the northern province of Idlib, which borders Turkey. It is a stronghold of opposition forces, including Islamist-led rebel groups.

 "The situation in Idlib is very bad because many organizations have stopped their support," said Dr Farida, the last obstetrician-gynecologist to be evacuated from rebel-held eastern Aleppo to Idlib earlier this year. The doctors did not use their full names to protect their families from retaliation.

 "Many hospitals are closing because their supporters from outside are bored now because it's the seventh year of the revolution. Many of them don't want to come in anymore," she said. She estimated some 3 million people now lived in the area.

 The three-doctor delegation from the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation (SAMS) was in Paris and will travel to the Netherlands and Luxembourg to get commitments for medical assistance in the region.

 John Dautzenberg, an advocacy manager for SAMS, said it was clear the new U.S. administration's current rethinking on how to distribute aid was affecting other governments and making it more complicated for non-governmental organizations to get funding.

 "The biggest threat ... from their policy changes is scaring away the money as people think that the U.S. is not going to meet its humanitarian financial-assistance commitments so everyone else thinks we don't have to give as much either," Dautzenberg said.

 Russia and Iran, which back the Syrian government, and opposition supporter Turkey, agreed in May to arrange and monitor "de-escalation zones" in Syria to ease the fighting.

 Government bombing of rebel areas in the north has eased, but the Syrian army and Iran-backed militia forces have escalated air raids against a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, a possible prelude to a large-scale campaign to take full control of the city.

 The doctors said they feared that the northern respite would only be temporary and that the region was under-equipped medically to deal with a wave of air strikes.

 "They gathered all the people in this area. We don't expect that they will leave us alone," said Dr Abdulkhalek, a former director at an eastern Aleppo hospital.'

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


 Yassin Swehat:
 'In early 2016, during a ceremony by the National Commission for the Syrian Science Olympiad at the Opera House in Damascus, Mrs. Asma al-Assad gave an enthusiastic speech about the progress of the educational initiative she has sponsored since 2006, concluding that this progress inspires optimism and shines a light into the prevalent darkness. Thanks to her vaunting phrase “Where we were, and how far we’ve gotten,” footage of that speech went viral. The phrase was subject to many satirical videos that ridiculed its rosy rhetoric and willful indifference to the disastrous reality of millions of Syrian children, who are deprived of science and scientific Olympiads, let alone the very basics of decent life.

 A few weeks ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) decided to “search for Syria” through a website developed in partnership with Google. After an introduction to the supposed situation in Syria before “the war,” it starts providing figures on the suffering of the Syrian people and the extent of devastation that has befallen their country over the last six years. A visually impressive website, Searching for Syria appears to be searching for the same Syria that Asma al-Assad, Rami Makhlouf and the rest of the “Syria Holding” kleptocratic society are similarly lamenting. The first few slideshows reference a formerly vibrant country, where “[m]any led lives similar to people in other developed countries – with music, fashion and sport among the most popular pastimes.”

 The first section, which is supposed to tell us what Syria looked like before “the war,” concludes by referencing 2010 top searches in Syria: Arab Idol, Bodybuilding, Summer Fashion, and Miley Cyrus. In its fervent searching, the UNHCR did not come across any information about the numerous websites that were censored in that year, including Facebook, YouTube and Blogspot (two Google-owned services, by the way), not to mention other forums and websites belonging to Syrian and international human rights organizations, in addition to any Syrian opposition webpage of course. Neither did the UNHCR find that international organizations concerned with freedom of expression, such as Reporters Without Borders, have repeatedly placed Syria at the lowest ranking according to freedom of the press, freedom of expression and access to information, alongside the remaining “honor roll” members at the bottom of the list: Burma, Laos, Sudan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran, Cuba and Somalia. The UNHCR failed to find the names of dozens of journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens who were imprisoned on charges relating to writing or online activity, under absurd legal articles such as “the dissemination of false news that undermine the spirit of the nation and weaken national sentiment” (Syrian Penal Code, Article 286). Some of these prisoners received sentences of up to seven years.

 In 2009, for example, Syrian authorities arrested Tall al-Malouhi, an 18-year-old female Syrian blogger. Her whereabouts have since remained unknown, with no concrete information beyond speculation and rumors.

 Following this piece of information about the top 2010 searches, the websites continues shedding light on the reality of Syria before “the war,” emphasizing on Syria’s status as a center of art and culture since 3,000 BC, referencing the honoring of Damascus as the Arab Capital of Culture in 2008, the concert by British band Gorillaz at the Citadel of Damascus in July of 2010, and the flourishing tourism sector throughout the 2000s. It invites us to meet Nadia, whose family owned an orchard of fruit and nut tree.

 Additionally, the website goes on to explain that videos of FC Barcelona were popular on YouTube among Syrians. The fact that YouTube itself was officially blocked in Syria, and that those wishing to access it relied on proxy and VPN software, simply goes unmentioned.

 With the exception of Nadia, it appears that the UNHCR did not find in Syria before “the war” but an upper-middle class living across the wealthy neighborhoods of Damascus, attending Gorillaz concerts and enjoying five-star summer resorts under the patronage of crony capitalists. Is it impertinent to ask the UNHCR to check out the data of other UN institutions to arrive at a somewhat different reality from this sham rosy one? Perhaps they could present information more relevant to far broader segments of the Syrian population. I will mention, at the risk of audacity, two examples of where such data could lead.

 In 2010, a National Housing Strategy draft by the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) stated that informal housing in Syria has increased by 220% between 1994 and 2010. Three years earlier, the official Central Bureau of Statistics had detailed some of these figures in 2007, indicating that 50% of the housing in Syria is ghettoized, and that 45% of the residents of Damascus live in shanty towns, which applies to 35% of the residents of Aleppo as well. If we compared the maps of these slums to the maps of the areas most exposed to barrel bombing during the years of “the war,” we would find an almost perfect match. These areas, much like the barrel bombs, are apparently outside the scope of the UNHCR’s “searching.”

 The other example, which is related to the first, is the socio-economic catastrophe that hit the Jazira region between 2006 and 2009. Back then, harsh government measures towards agricultural and livestock sectors –in the context of the “liberalization” of Syrian economy– coincided with severe drought. Those measures had been favorable to the interests and aspirations of the ruling oligarchical class, focusing in its “reforms” on incentivizing private agencies, banks, insurance firms, holding investment companies, real estate ventures and luxury tourism projects. It was a perfect opportunity for a nascent kleptocracy to invest its outrageous wealth pillaged over the past decades, then concentrated in the hands of the sons of former officers and government officials. Before becoming a household name in the halls of the UN and World Bank, the then Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah al-Dardari had overseen the implementation of that “social market economy.” During his tenure, subsidies on fuel and feedstuff were lifted, which resulted in the effective doubling of their prices, leading to a fatal blow to agricultural activity and livestock breeding – according to UN figures. It should be noted that al-Dardari was recently appointed in an Advisory position in “reconstruction,” after serving as the Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).

 The disastrous consequences of these economic policies have affected all Syrians, but they have been particularly detrimental to the drought-stricken Jazira region, notably because of its deficient non-agricultural economic infrastructures. In the governorates of Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, more than 130,000 citizens were directly affected, and more than 80,000 lost their entire livelihood. Tens of villages and towns in these three governorates were completely desolated. Tens of thousands of their population moved into the poverty belts of Damascus and Aleppo, seeking refuge in tents, shanty towns or hastily built dwellings. The UN is certainly aware of this catastrophe, and the figures and data pertaining to the aid and food baskets distributed through its organizations are still available. By the way, government and party officials in the three governorates of Jazira shamelessly participated in distributing these aids as if it were in-kind prizes or royal largesse granted on a national holiday, all covered by the state media and kept in Syrian News Agency (Sana) archives – albeit less glamorously than the pictures and videos of the Gorillaz concert at the Citadel of Damascus.

 The reconstruction about which Abdullah al-Dardari is occasionally consulted is initiated by research that is not very different from the UNHCR’s oblivious search “for Syria.”

 After a proper introduction to the “pre-war Syria,” the website moves on to another section entitled “What is going on in Syria.” It begins with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stating that the Syrian crisis is “[t]he biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.” It then briefly elaborates by saying that what began as peaceful protests in 2011 quickly spiralled into deadly conflict. In light of what was just mentioned about the wonderful pre-war situation, and without any further explanation regarding the se “peaceful protests,” a visitor who is unaware of Syrian affairs, for whose sake the website was supposedly built, would not understand the reasons for these protests. Against whom? Against Nadia, whose family owned an orchard? Or against another family who assumed to own a farm spanning an entire country, with the majority of its population treated like serfs? Neither in the “historical” background nor in the “What is going on in Syria” section would that visitor find any reference to the reality of freedom and democracy in the country, to pillaging, to repression and arbitrary detention, to the deteriorating conditions of the working classes.

 The website then moves to show a chronometer that displays not only the years and months for which the war has lasted, but it extends to days, minutes and seconds! How could the UNHCR determine precisely at what exact second the “deadly conflict” began?

 The subsequent slides are intended to present figures and information about the magnitude of the urban and humanitarian calamity that has struck Syria. Such figures and information are important and daunting, but completely devoid of any context, as if the victims were claimed by a hurricane, an earthquake or a flood. There is no reference to chains of culpability, nor to systematic and intensified bombardment of civilians, nor prisons and death under torture, nor massacres, nor forced displacement.

 The following section begins by defining a refugee, with an elaboration of the scope of Syrian displacement. However, the website is quick to “reassure” us that a large portion of Syrian refugees are educated with professional backgrounds. Among them are web developers, microbiologists, and athletes such as Yusra Mardini. Then returns the High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, with a reassuring quote that the net contributions made by Syrian refugees to their host communities have always been positive. The section concludes with a statement that many refugees have achieved amazing things… such as Einstein!

 The next section denotes the destinations of Syrian refugees, primarily the neighboring countries. It delves into detail, arguing that a majority of Syrian refugees have resettled in urban areas rather than refugee camps, before quoting King Abdullah II of Jordan: “When a mother and child come across the border, what are we supposed to do?” No response is given to His Highness. The search for an answer in the daily life of Syrian refugees in Jordan, or of those stranded in Rukban refugee camp, does not fall within the scope of “searching for Syria.”

 In its fifth section, the slideshow concludes with an invitation to those who “found Syria” to contribute to the assistance of Syrian refugees through donations, advocacy or volunteering.

 In protest against the narrative perpetuated by the website, Syrian activists and civil society organizations sent a letter of protest to the High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, which was then opened to signature on Facebook.

 Well, at least the website did not tell us that Syria had such a young leader, who was educated in the West and speaks fluent English – as Western media outlets have been reminding us over the past years. Nor did it congratulate us on the great achievements of the First Lady in civil work, development projects and the promotion of science and innovation. They did not reach this extent, although it is difficult not to be reminded of the discourse behind “Where we were, and how far we’ve gotten” when browsing Searching for Syria. In fact, it would be more appropriate to borrow another quotation from another “remarkable” leader, Muammar Gaddafi, when he famously exclaimed: “Who are you?” '

Sunday, 11 June 2017


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 Rami Jarrah:
'Assad and Russian forces have escalated attacks on the southern Syrian city of Daraa with the city yesterday alone witnessing 86 barrel bombs, 19 air strikes and 90 surface to surface missiles on civilian populated areas.

 Over 65 people have been killed and hundreds wounded including around 20,000 civilians that have been displaced due to the ruthless campaign that started on the 1st of June just over a week ago, with Hizbollah a Lebanese Iranian backed militia also participating on the ground in this widespread assault.

 Activists are calling on communities across the world to shift their attention to the city of Daraa towards demanding for an immediate stop to the continuous murder of civilian livelihood regardless of whatever pretext.

 What should no longer come as a shock to anyone is that the Syrian regime intends to cripple any opposition to its power with whatever consequences and Russia is working ruthlessly alongside Assad's killing machine in making sure that task is carried out effectively and the loss of civilian life is not only the least of both their concerns, but in fact a necessity towards accomplishing their goals.

 Let us not turn our backs on the people of Daraa.'

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Surviving the horrors of torture in Syria

 'Mazen Al-Hummada set out to bring greater democracy to his Syria, but instead found torture and abuse at the hands of the ruling regime.

 At a forum titled Torture in Syria and the Caesar Files in Malaysia on Saturday, Mazen, the youngest of 17 children from a family he described as politically active, recounted a life of terror and repression under Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his predecessor and father, Hafez al-Assad.

 Inspired by the wave of protests in neighbouring countries dubbed the “Arab Spring”, Mazen said he began to organise peaceful protests with others to press for democracy, but felt the international community merely stood by watching as the regime allegedly used its “full military power” against unarmed citizens.

 The military slowly escalated in violence against Syria’s peaceful protesters and raided activists’ houses at night, at one point surrounding and shelling Mazen’s city with 400 tanks as well as bombing from air and destroying a mosque there, he claimed.

 Mazen, 39, said he was arrested thrice. The first time was on April 24, 2011 at the beginning of the peaceful protests in Syria, and the second was on November 2011.

 In the third arrest on March 15, 2012, Mazen and his two younger nephews were delivering 65 bottles of baby formula to a doctor when they were handcuffed and transported to the Air Force’s intelligence branch’s prisons.

 “Being arrested for milk, for them, is a bigger justification than holding a weapon… So anyone that relieved the pressure by the regime under siege by the regime, anybody doing humanitarian work was targeted in the first place.

 “Because the regime was fighting its people, the regime was trying to break the will of the people, so in a big part they wanted to stop things like that,” he said.

 Blindfolded and beaten upon arrival at the prison, Mazen claimed all detainees were then made to strip to their underwear throughout detention and squeezed into tiny cells measuring 5-sq metres and packed with 50 people forced to huddle.

 Some smaller 2-sq metres cells held up to 11 people who were forced to take turns every couple of hours to sit, Mazen said.

 Some were so cooped up that their skin began to rot, he added.

 Mazen told interrogators that he joined the protests, despite having a good job at a foreign oil company, as dignity could not be traded for all the money in the world.

 Asked to confess to being a violent terrorist and to name his weapon of choice, Mazen said: “Toshiba camera”.

 His interrogators responded with more torture.

 “They laid me on the ground on my back, they broke all my ribs, they flipped me over and then they started beating me. Four of them, gigantic men, they stepped on me,” he claimed.

 Insisting on his answer of “camera”, Mazen was then left dangling 40cm above the ground with his hands cuffed to a window.

 “It became so heavy because all the weight was on my wrists and you start to feel that all your arms are going to be cut off, and so you scream and they shove a shoe in your mouth and told you to shut up,” he said

 Cigarettes and hot iron bars were also used to burn his legs that still bear the scars now.

 Mazen said he gave in when the interrogators placed a metal clamp on his genitals and tightened it to the point he felt it was being severed.

 A metal rod was also inserted in his rectum, he alleged as he broke down from recounting the episode.

 Claiming that children as young as seven were also forced to confess to being armed terrorists, Mazen said he initially refused to confess as he believed he would be executed based on the the forced admission.

 He said he did not know at that time that there was a government order by 2012 for all arrested to confess to using violence in order to enable Syria to tell the United Nations that the detainees were terrorists.

 Tortured to the point that he started urinating blood, Mazen was taken to the hospital, only to find out that conditions there were no better.

 Chained with two other detainees to a bed and permitted toilet breaks every 12 hours, Mazen said they would run to and from the toilet with their hands shielding their heads from beatings.

 “You open the first bathroom stall, you see three bodies stacked on top of each other, lifeless. You start questioning: ‘Am I conscious? Is this real? Is this my country?’

 “You start thinking you are sick so you are hallucinating, so you close the door and you walk out,” he said.

 After five days, he insisted he was well and begged the doctor to send him back to the prison that he felt was more merciful.

 Mazen was released 15 months later, in June 2013, after being brought before a judge. He then returned to his city, only to find that it was now a “ghost town” and completely destroyed by the Syrian government in an all-out war during his detention.

 While he has now joined his sister in the Netherlands, Mazen still struggles with not knowing the fate of the two nephews who were arrested with him in 2012. There is also no news of his brother who was arrested while Mazen was in prison.

 “I try not to look back, I try to continue looking forward, looking backward is just carnage, I would go crazy, there would only be chaos, there would only be catastrophe, so I look forward. What I want is to pursue justice, I know justice is a very long and slow road,” he said, hoping that the “criminals” would eventually be held to justice by the international community and the courts.

 Mr Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of US-based advocacy group Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) who translated for Mazen, said the ongoing civil war in Syria, now in its seventh year, is conservatively estimated to have killed half a million people.

 He said 14 million or over half of Syria’s 23 million population have been displaced, including an estimated three million displaced internally while others have become refugees.

 “Tens of thousands, many of them women and children remain in Assad jails, these are not normal jails, you go and never return unless you are extremely lucky or by a miracle of god you are able to escape,” he said, adding that the Syrian government has not allowed the release of women and children despite it being non-threatening to national security.'