Saturday, 22 July 2017

Inside Syria's militant-run prisons: Abuse, torture

 Loubna Mrie and Ahmad Zaza:

 'He was only 14 years old when he was first detained by the Syrian government for joining the 2011 protests against President Bashar al-Assad. When militants linked to al-Qaida began gaining ground in rebel-held Idlib province three years later, Jawdat Malas would once again find himself holed up in a dark and dingy detention room.

 The media activist from the Idlib town of Maarat al-Numan said that life in an al-Qaida prison comes with a cruel routine: For hours every day, he would crouch in a corner of a dark cell, where he would be tortured until his body was heavily bruised.

 "I reached a point where I was constipated. My whole body was dark blue," he said. "Other detainees were taking care of me. I had no idea what I did wrong. I was terrified."

 Malas says that he was arrested on charges of colluding with the Free Syrian Army, a confederation of nationalist forces fighting the Syrian government. He also says he was falsely accused of supplying video footage to the U.S.-led coalition fighting al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Syria.

 "They beat me up and terrorized me, asking me to give them the names of who I work with and whom I work for," he said. At one point, militants pressed a knife against his throat and shot a bullet on the ground to rattle him into submission.

 "I had nothing to tell them and nothing to confess. But they didn't care," he said. "If you are not serving their agenda and if you are not with them, you are their enemy."

 In rebel-held parts of Syria, Malas' story is not an anomaly.

 Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, civilians, activists and human-rights groups have consistently reported that non-state armed groups have subjected thousands of people -- including aid workers, doctors, lawyers, rebels and journalists -- to arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, unlawful detention and torture.

 Though pale in comparison to the number of people detained by the Syrian government, arbitrary arrests by armed militant groups is becoming a grave and often overlooked problem for Syrians living in rebel-controlled parts of the country.

 The exact number of missing and detained is unknown, but the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a local watchdog, estimates that more than 9,000 people, including at least 200 children, have been kidnapped or arrested by extremists, such as al-Qaida and IS, since 2011.

 Malas was eventually released by al-Qaida-linked militants after being detained for two months. He said that his captors had finally realized that he had no useful information to provide about either the FSA or the U.S.-led coalition.

 The media activist continued to document and track violations in Maarat al-Numan following his release, but this time his camera lens widened its focus beyond abuses carried out by the Syrian government.

 "This time I knew that I am not only fighting against Assad. I am fighting against all those who are trying to hide behind religion to dominate our struggle," he said. "And I have to document their violations like I do with the Syrian regime."

 In Idlib province, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaida-led alliance of insurgent fighters, has become a dominant force in the only governorate in Syria under near complete rebel control. The hard-line militant group has carried out several arrests against moderate Syrian rebels, activists, citizen journalists and even schoolchildren over the past year alone.

 An activist-run monitoring group sprung up roughly two years ago to document and track abuses carried out by HTS and its predecessor -- the Nusra Front -- in the province and nearby areas.

 One of its founders, Assem Zidan, who lives in Turkey because he is wanted by the group, says that it is difficult to provide accurate statistics on the number of people detained in al-Qaida jails. He says he believes, however, that the problem of arbitrary arrests in Idlib is only increasing.

 In one week this month, his monitoring group recorded the kidnapping of dozens of civilians in Idlib by HTS. On June 15, the monitor claimed that more than 50 FSA rebels were being detained in an HTS prison located in the northern Hama countryside, near Idlib.

 Zidan says that these HTS crackdowns and arrests target any individual or group that has a large following and is capable of "changing public opinion" in its respective area of control. These people are often presented with three options, he said: "detention, death or following their [HTS] ideology."

 Torture and arbitrary arrests have also rattled the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, which has been under the control of Jaish al-Islam, a hard-line armed opposition group, since late 2013. The city of nearly 140,000 people, has seen the arrest of women and children as young as 10 years old at the hand of the radical armed group. The Jaish al-Islam group is also accused of kidnapping and arresting Razan Zaitouneh, Wa'el Hamada, Nazem Hamadi and Samira Khalil, four human rights activists who were abducted in Douma on Dec. 9, 2013.

 Tellingly, the al-Tawba (Repentance) Prison, which is supervised directly by Jaish al-Islam, is one of the most infamous institutions in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, notorious for its abuse and torture methods.

 While there is a large network of activists in the area, there are no accurate statistics on the number of detainees in the jail. Abu Khaled, a 31-year-old media activist from Douma, says he is surprised by the absence of such reports since arbitrary arrests by the militant group have proven to be a serious problem in rebel-held areas east of the capital.

 "Random arrests take place all around Eastern Ghouta. Some former prisoners who had been detained by Jaish al-Islam have spoken of the abysmal conditions in Jaish al-Islam's prisons, and especially in al-Tawba prison," he said.

 "These prisons are as bad as those of the Syrian regime, and, according to former prisoners, many detainees stay in prisons for months without trial."

 Firas, a 32-year-old resident of the suburb was detained in the facility for a month in the summer of 2016. Unlike other prisoners who were accused of spying for the government or colluding with rival rebel groups, the Douma native says he was thrown into jail for raising a complaint against a well-connected neighbor who had links to the hardline Jaish al-Islam group.

 "I talked to my neighbor many times hoping that he could find a solution for the loud noise made by his generator, but he never responded," said Firas, who works at an Internet cafe in the suburb. "I finally decided to go to the police, but it was me who was arrested after they claimed I attacked my neighbor and destroyed his generator."

 Firas was confined to a small cell for one month, where he was subject to "torture and humiliation" by armed militants. He said, however, that he had to "overlook these abuses" because the militant group could easily accuse him of colluding with the government and end his life.

 He was eventually released from prison after agreeing to drop his complaint.

 "When I left prison, the generator was still in place. A little while after that, my house was hit by a shell and my neighbor's generator was destroyed in the attack. Now neither my house nor the generator is there," Firas said.

 Abu Muhammad, a 42-year-old father of three, was held for a month and a half by Jaish al-Islam in Douma last year on charges of colluding with the Syrian government. "I found it ironic to be detained by Jaish al-Islam [on charges of collusion] when I was one of the first in my town to join the Syrian revolution," the vegetable vendor said.

 Abu Mohammad described the torture he faced in the Jaish al-Islam prison as "brutal." He said that he was surrounded by dozens of other prisoners who also had no idea why they were being detained. He would eventually be released after residents connected to the group vouched for him and pledged to keep him out of trouble.'

Friday, 21 July 2017

Idlib is Green

Robin Yassin-Kassab:

'The people of Saraqeb, Idlib, a couple of days after holding a free election for their local council, push HTS (ex-Fateh al-Sham, ex-Nusra, ex-alQaida), out of town. Idlib is Green.'

 Raed Fares:

 'So she lured me this picture and I couldn't resist the magic to spread it.

 I tried to grow her up repeatedly to keep track of the cars, how they felt and what they were thinking.
 Strangers even though they're from the city, but they're strangers, strangers to their religion, their parents and their childhood dreams.
 Strangers from the garden of their grandfather, strangers from their past, their present and their future, strangers from life after they painted the lines of their west.
 Who are you to judge a gun? Who are you to stop a frenzy that has erupted in their chests seven years ago?
 Who are you? And how did you come? And who sent you?
 Leave and take with you my fear of you and take with you the idea that we are ad, and to learn very well that who broke the barrier of oppression and fear in 2011.'

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Thursday, 20 July 2017

As Trump Shores Up Assad's Genocidal Regime, America's Hard Left Is Cheering Him On

The U.S. far left and far right have found love in common: Assad and Putin. Max Blumenthal tells Tucker Carlson on Fox News "Russian hysteria has buried the Left". 17 July 2017

 Oz Katerji:

 'Prominent left wing blogger and self-declared "anti-imperialist" Max Blumenthal was recently the special guest of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. Blumenthal took to the airwaves of a hard-right, Islamophobic propaganda network to rail against sanctions and dismiss irrefutable accusations of collusion between Donald Trump’s election campaign and the Kremlin.

 Normally a situation in which the far-left find kinship with the far-right would raise more of an eyebrow, but in the world of Trump-Russia it barely registers anymore. This is because these voices have found ideological bedfellows on the Western far-right.

 Blumenthal’s appearance on Fox wasn’t an anomaly, for the editor of the 'Grayzone Project’, supposedly dedicated to "combatting Islamophobia", has long been at the forefront of a group of Western bloggers, pundits and academics promoting pro-Kremlin propaganda and regurgitating widely debunked Islamophobic conspiracy theories about Syrians.

 Blumenthal, along with his colleagues and frequent Russia Today contributors Gareth Porter, Benjamin Norton & Rania Khalek have spent the best part of the last 18 months publishing smear attacks against NGOs, medics, journalists, first responders and Syrian civil society groups.

 Virtually any group that speaks out on the Assad regime’s campaign of systematic slaughter have been targeted by this coterie with the express intention of defending a regime guilty of human extermination. This work is focused squarely on painting any grassroots opposition to the Assad regime as either the work of U.S. imperialism or borne from violent Sunni extremists. Blumenthal and his crew have also positioned themselves as the enemies of truth, by frequently using their platforms to deny or dismiss the war crimes of the Assad regime.

 The irony is that Blumenthal used his appearance on Fox to dismiss the credibility of irrefutable Trump-Russia connections on a supposed lack of evidence, whereas in Syria, Blumenthal and his AlterNet Grayzone colleagues have repeatedly ignored evidence in favour of fact-free war crimes denial narratives, even when those narratives contradict each other.

 But those who have followed Blumenthal’s evidence-free approach to Assad should not be shocked by his desire to jump into bed with the pro-Putin right-wing chorus.

 Take for example the Assad regime’s air strike on the Ain al-Fijeh water springs in the Damascus enclave of Wadi Barada. When the spring was bombed, temporarily cutting off fresh water supplies for large parts of Damascus, the regime claimed that the rebels poisoned the water supply with diesel fuel. Despite there being no evidence of this, Blumenthal ran with this lie. Following a UN investigation that found the Assad regime responsible for the war crime, not only did Blumenthal fail to retract the lie, his colleague Rania Khalek rejected the UN investigation and again mouthed the regime line.

 The same thing happened following the regime’s bombardment of the Aleppo aid convoy in September 2016. Again, AlterNet writers started pushing the Kremlin line and, following the United Nations conclusive report finding the regime culpable, they refuted the conclusions of the investigation in favour of Russian claims. This has been repeated time and time again by these bloggers, whether dismissing recorded attacks against field hospitals or outright denying regime culpability for chemical weapons attacks based on claims from one anonymous source. The reality is these pundits aren’t interested in the veracity of evidence when it comes to using fabricated claims to defend Russia or Assad from allegations of war crimes, even following conclusive independent United Nations investigations.

 This evidence-free, propaganda heavy position on Syria has been fawned over by the far-right. Blumenthal’s work has received gushing praise from America’s leading racist commentators including Ann Coulter, Pamela Geller and former KKK leader David Duke.

 Earlier in July this year in an interview Blumenthal declared: "The [American] national security state has completely abrogated what should be its top mission, which is to take on these [anti-Assad] Sunni jihadist organizations which have repeatedly attacked soft targets in the West and caused chaos. They should be fighting them."

 Blumenthal is conflating all anti-Assad forces with ISIS and Al Qaeda, as he has frequently denied the existence of any moderate Syrian rebels, a frequent trope to delegitimize all anti-Assad forces.

 These are the words not of a Leftist or "anti-imperialist", but of a Westerner fully embracing the expansion of Bush, Obama and now Trump's 'war on terror’, with a specific remit to target Sunnis. With a healthy dose of sectarian hypocrisy, a longstanding defender of the designated Shia terrorist organisation Hezbollah has openly called for the expansion of Trump’s bombardment of civilians in the Middle East.

 What Blumenthal fails to disclose is that this campaign is already firmly under way and has already seen civilian deaths jump from 80 per month under Obama to 360 per month under Trump. As well as openly supporting the Russian-backed offensive against Aleppo, which was labelled a war crime by the UN, it seems Blumenthal is not opposed to the bombing of Syria as long as Assad’s enemies are the target.

 The U.S. is bombing Syria, and the thousands of coalition air strikes carried out against ISIS in favour of pro-Assad militias around Palmyra or Deir ez-Zour or against al-Qaeda-affiliated opposition militants in Idlib or Aleppo prove this, however Blumenthal’s loudest protests are saved for Assad’s air bases, not Trump’s coalition bombing civilians in mosques. It is no coincidence that during the campaign trail Benjamin Norton endorsed Trump’s foreign policy, sentiment that was also echoed by mainstream backer of AlterNet’s pro-Assad crowd Glenn Greenwald.

 The sectarian rot of these bloggers isn’t even particularly well hidden, as evidenced by Benjamin Norton’s faux-media outrage over the use of the word ‘stronghold’. When it comes to Beirut and Hezbollah, Norton is enraged by the use of the word stronghold to describe areas under its control, however in Idlib, the entirety of the population is reduced to a ‘stronghold’ belonging to a terrorist organisation.

 This kind of language is deliberately used by these bloggers exclusively to dehumanize Syrian civilians, and on this issue, these far-left activists have found ideological kinship against "manufactured liberal hysteria" with the most reactionary elements of the far-right.

 While these supposed leftists continue to present themselves as "anti-war" or "anti-imperialist", they are in fact acting as full-time advocates for Russian and Iranian military imperialism in Syria and to provide them immunity in the American public square from war crimes charges. This American far-left: far-right coalition on Syria looks set to keep flourishing, on the backs of millions of almost exclusively Syrian Sunni Arab victims, whom they’ve thrown to their eager Assad-supporting predators.'

Syrians memorialize victims of a a suspected toxic gas attack on Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, reported to have killed 88 people, including 31 children. July 12, 2017

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Putin, Trump

 Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 'In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

 To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

 The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

 Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

 Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

 Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

 But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down.

 The United States has also struck Iranian-backed columns in the southeast of the country three times in recent weeks, as well as destroying at least two Iranian drones. The Shiite militias were advancing near Al-Tanf, where Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. From the Al-Tanf base, the U.S. military has supported local rebel groups as they won large swathes of the southern desert from ISIS, and from here it hopes to drive ISIS out of the Euphrates valley. But as the rebels advanced eastward against Sunni jihadis, Iran’s Shiite jihadis came from the west and claimed the newly liberated territory.

 After six years, and the interventions of a myriad of states and organizations, each with competing agendas, the war in Syria is immensely complex. This doesn’t stop people reaching for simplistic total explanations, both ethnic and sectarian.

 Some in the region will frame the intensifying tensions as the U.S. siding with Sunni against Shiite Muslims, a perception reinforced by President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and the multibillion-dollar arms deal he signed there. Likewise, President Barack Obama ignoring the Iranian build up in Syria, and the disappearance of his chemical “red line” in August 2013 when Assad gassed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburbs, led many to believe then that America was siding with Shiite over Sunni Islam.

 Many in the West too—politicians, academics and journalists as much as anyone else— assume that the Middle East’s current wars are symptoms of ancient, unchanging enmities. Obama, evading his own share of responsibility, asserted that regional instability is “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” In other words, in “ancient sectarian differences.”

 But it’s not “the Kurds” occupying Arab-majority towns; it’s one political party-militia claiming to speak for the Kurds. Likewise, ISIS in no way represents Syria’s Sunni Arabs, though it says it does. Neither does the externally based Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has proved incapable of recognizing Kurds’ right to autonomy in areas where they do form a majority. And Iran’s goals are strategic, though it exploits sectarian identity in order to achieve these goals.

 Proponents of the “ancient conflict” thesis are unable to explain why religion matters in politics in some moments but not in others. The main cleavage in Lebanese politics, for instance, appears today to be Sunni vs. Shiite, but during the country’s 1975-90 civil war battle, lines were drawn between Christians and Muslims. Similarly, Sunni and Shiite communities in contemporary Iraq seem largely closed to each other, but before 2003, a third of Iraqi marriages were made between sects.

 Any serious analysis of these shifts and reversals must pay attention not to theology but politics. A new book—Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, a collection of essays focusing on crises from Pakistan to Yemen—does just that. The introduction (written by editors Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel) defines sectarianization as a deliberate policy pursued (or perpetrated) by authoritarian regimes, the better to divide and rule. By this reading, the problems of the Middle East arise from tyranny and political underdevelopment, not from inherent cultural divides.

 In its early stages, the Syrian Revolution was explicitly anti-sectarian. Protesters hoisted such slogans as “My sect is freedom” and “The Syrian people are one.” Christians attended mosques so they could join the demonstrations after prayers, and Arabs chanted azadi—the Kurdish word for “freedom.” As land was liberated, Syrians of all sects cooperated in elected local councils. How did this promising start degenerate in six short years to today’s seeming tangle of ethnic and religious wars?

 In the essay on Syria in Hashemi and Postel’s book, Paulo Hilu Pinto identifies four channels of division: “top-down (state generated); bottom-up (socially generated); outside-in (fueled by regional forces); and inside out (the spread of Syria’s conflict to regional states).”

 The most significant is top-down. From the start of the revolutionary challenge, the Assad regime made “strategic use” of visible state violence against Sunnis while mobilizing minority groups to police their “own” revolutionaries. To shore up minority support, and to pose to the West as the lesser evil, the regime helped create a Sunni-jihadi opposition by organizing massacres of Sunni civilians (in 2012) and releasing thousands of extremists from prison (in 2011) even as it rounded up, tortured and murdered democrats.

 Greater division grew out of the trauma of war. Rumors, jokes, songs and media platforms expressed a sense of communal victimhood and demonized the other side. The chief regional forces contributing to the broth were ISIS—an Iraqi Sunni organization—and Shiite-theocratic Iran. Both broadcast their presence in April 2013. Iran did so through its Lebanese client Hezbollah, which recaptured Al-Qusayr for the regime. In the same month, ISIS declared itself a “state.” At this point, some Sunnis came to believe that Iran’s Shiite International was attacking them not because they had demanded democracy, but simply because they were Sunnis. And some non-Sunnis came to believe the regime was the only alternative to annihilation.

 Both ISIS and the Assad-Iran alliance have practiced sectarian cleansing. ISIS does it for ideological and propaganda reasons. Assad does it more politically, to clear rebellious populations from strategic points and often to replace them with loyalists. To a lesser extent, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also contributed to communal hatred, through propaganda and by funding Sunni-identity militias.

 But Saudi Arabia’s divisive influence, as Madawi Rasheed’s essay shows, is most pronounced at home. There’s a long history to this, but most recently the Arab Spring, and the specter of a national opposition movement, “pushed the regime to reinvigorate sectarian discourse against the Shiite.” Just as Iran portrayed Syria’s uprising as a Saudi plot, so the Saudi Arabians described their restive population as a tool of Iranian imperialism.

 Shiite Muslims form a majority in nearby Bahrain. Toby Matthiesen’s essay remembers that the country contained an active workers' movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The (Sunni) al-Khalifa royal family responded by banning unions, disbanding parliament (in 1975), building an exclusively Sunni security service (staffed by foreign mercenaries) and promoting Islamist parties. In February 2011, in response to pro-democracy protests, Saudi troops moved into Bahrain, supposedly to foil an Iranian-Shiite plot.

 Today the U.S. maintains a naval base in this dictatorship. When Trump told the Muslim dictators massed in Riyadh to drive out extremism, he missed the main point. Dictatorship is the problem. The long-term solution to extremism is democracy. Sectarian division is just one of the obstacles that dictators deliberately throw in its way.'

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Two Testimonials Shed Light on Syrian Life and Death

 ' “I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood,” the writer Svetlana Alexievich said in her 2015 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “We were taught death.” Alexievich was speaking of Belarus, where she grew up and where, during World War II, 2.2 million people died — nearly one person in four. The scale of this suffering seems impossible to fathom, numbers so large that the mind snaps shut. Yet one needn’t cast back in history for such figures. Since the war in Syria began six years ago, 6.5 million people — more than one in three Syrians — have been internally displaced, and another 470,000 are dead. Now, as the war grinds into its seventh horrifying year, literature written in English and borne out of the conflict is finally beginning to reach the rest of the world.

 Alia Malek’s memoir, “The Home That Was Our Country,” is one of the finest examples of this new testimonial writing. Born in Baltimore to Syrian-American parents, Malek is a journalist and attorney who landed a job in the civil rights division of the Justice Department less than a year before 9/11. Unable to endure the political climate under President George W. Bush, she quit the United States for the Middle East, where she traveled and taught human rights for the better part of a decade. Her political and cultural fluency, as well as her deep familiarity with the landscape, allow her to become “a human ear” as Svetlana Alexievich calls it, recording the tragic absurdities of daily life that give way to dark humor. On an earlier trip, she had visited southern Lebanon and toured a prison that was recently closed. Her guide, a former inmate, instructed the group’s members to cover their noses and mouths, “so as not to inhale the germs of diseases that he was convinced still lingered.” The disease that lingered, of course, was despair. She spotted a sign for the “suffering yard” — suffering, she writes, “was their translation for torture.”

 In April 2011, Malek moved to the Syrian capital of Damascus to report in secret for The Nation and The New York Times. The country was in the initial throes of what many hoped would become a democratic uprising born out of the Arab Spring. Yet there were already terrible signs that the regime of Bashar al-Assad wasn’t going to give up without bloody reprisals. In February, his security forces had rounded up and tortured at least 15 children for anti-Assad graffiti in their town of Dara’a. Ordinary Syrians, long oppressed by two generations of the Assad family’s brutality, were taking to the streets in protest. In an attempt to quell reports of dissent, the regime banned many foreign journalists. Malek went to work anyway. As a cover story, she tells her Syrian cousins that she’s writing a book about her maternal grandmother, Salma, the daughter of a Christian businessman, Sheikh Abdeljawwad al-Mir, born in the Ottoman Empire in 1889.

 Her cover story wasn’t entirely false, as that book becomes this one, and Malek grounds her narrative throughout in her grandmother’s story. Salma, a charismatic and embittered matriarch, grew up as the chain-smoking daughter in a family that prized only men, and after suffering a stroke, spends the last seven years of her life in her Damascus apartment, “locked in” her body, paralyzed yet alert, able to communicate only with her eyes. When Salma dies, she leaves behind a chic flat for Malek’s family, which, after decades of feuding with a hostile tenant, they succeed in reclaiming.

 As Syria burns, it falls to Malek to renovate the flat — haggling for light fixtures from the Electricity Souk during a blackout, and keeping an eye on a corrupt contractor while the Assad regime gasses its own people, drops barrel bombs — oil drums loaded with shrapnel — from helicopters, and disappears thousands to be tortured in underground prisons.

 Malek observes almost none of this firsthand. Instead, her war is largely made up of what she can’t see. She lives day to day under the cloud of claustrophobia and menace that dominates the Syrian capital, where her presence poses a significant risk both to herself and to her Syrian family. Attempting, at one point, to communicate to Malek the kind of danger she’s putting her family in, a beloved cousin grabs her own hair, imitating the treatment the security forces mete out upon women, which can include gang rape. “That’s what they will do,” she tells Malek. “They will take all of us if you do something.”

 Although it becomes increasingly clear that her family would prefer that Malek leave Syria immediately, she stays on for two years, conducting clandestine interviews with ordinary Syrians undertaking extreme acts of courage — from those shuttling medical supplies to besieged areas to others launching ingenious and nonviolent protests against the regime. Some have survived unspeakable horrors in the basement of the nearby office of the security forces. Malek often walks past “with a shudder.” Its cells, she learns from torture survivors, are smeared with blood.

 This office dominates her waking life, as Malek, both insider and outsider, is forced to pass it most days, thinking about much that others would rather ignore. In her neighborhood, as elsewhere, she realizes, the proximity of the mukhabarat, as the security forces are called, has a double purpose. Their nearness terrifies local civilians into submission. “But most insidiously, no matter how much we averted our gaze, the fact that we knew what was happening inside and yet went about our lives made us complicit.” This quotidian collusion takes a moral toll. By the time she leaves for good in May 2013, she realizes that, whether she likes it or not, she too has become an unwilling collaborator: “By going about our lives, we had become bit players in the regime’s effort to maintain that everything was normal.”

 By contrast, “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” chronicles Syrian lives that are anything but normal. In it, Wendy Pearlman, a professor of politics at Northwestern University, collects the accounts of refugees, most of whom have fled the brutality of the Assad regime. Pearlman speaks fluent Arabic, and between 2012 and 2016, she travels to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Europe to record their stories.

 Many of these voices render themselves unforgettable. A doctor named Annas tells Pearlman during an interview in Turkey how he and others found unconventional ways to treat protesters gassed by the regime: “People were choking on tear gas and we’d pour cola on their faces, which counters the effect of gas. Their faces were sticky and glistening.” Another, Adam, a media organizer interviewed by Pearlman in Denmark, debunks facile Western talk about ancient religious divisions in Syria: “Our children are in prison ... and you’re talking about Shia and Sunnis?”

 Amin, a physical therapist, shares an ingenious bit of activist tradecraft on how to elude security forces, who often dial the contacts in the phone of someone they capture in order to ensnare others. “If someone dies, don’t delete his number. Just change his name to ‘Martyr.’ That way, if you get a text from him, you know that someone else has gotten a hold of the phone.” He adds, “So I’d open my contact list, and it was all Martyr, Martyr, Martyr.”

 These oral histories aren’t dutiful case studies. Instead, Pearlman shapes her subjects’ narratives, winnowing interviews down to stirring illustrations of human adaptation. In a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Pearlman finds a woman named Bushra, a mother who has, five years into the war, raised her children largely on the move and out of doors by necessity. One day, she took her young daughter to a woman’s center, which was in an actual building. “After living in a tent, she was amazed by the real walls and real floors,” Bushra tells Pearlman. Astonished, her daughter exclaimed, “Take a photo of me next to the wall!”

 One slight issue, however, with these accounts: The more compelling they become, the more questions they raise about how exactly they were fashioned. Pearlman could tell us more about the process of deposition and translation. In the introduction, she describes working with more than 20 researchers to transcribe the interviews, which she then edited, she says, for “readability,” a word that calls for more explication. The stories would benefit from being framed by a detailed accounting of this process. In some places, their seamless beauty grows distracting, as we become unsure of where the speaker ends and where Pearlman’s editorial hand begins.

 Nevertheless, Pearlman’s oral histories, like Malek’s memoir, will remain essential reading in the emerging body of literary reportage from Syria in English. (Two other memoirs that will be published here this fall include the journalist Deborah Campbell’s “A Disappearance in Damascus,” and the photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie’s account of his captivity, “The Shattered Lens.”) What makes Pearlman’s and Malek’s books particularly necessary is their insistence on foregrounding the extraordinary heroism of ordinary Syrians — both those who remain trapped in the yoke of an oppressive regime, and those struggling to make new lives in unwelcoming places. Such stories couldn’t be more urgent. “I was writing history through the stories of its unnoticed witnesses and participants,” Svetlana Alexievich tells us. “They had never been asked anything.” '

Monday, 17 July 2017

US-Syrian woman keeps school going in al-Qaida-run region

US-Syrian woman keeps school going in al-Qaida-run region

 'When Syria's uprising broke out, Rania Kisar left her job in the United States and returned home to join what she dreamed would be the ouster of President Bashar Assad and the building of a new Syria. Her main focus these days has been to keep al-Qaida-linked militants from taking over the dream.

 Syrian-American Kisar runs a school in the last main enclave in Syria held by the opposition, the northwestern province of Idlib. The strongest power in the territory is al-Qaida's affiliate, and it is increasingly intervening in day-to-day affairs of administering the province. That means Kisar has had to become adept with dealing with them to keep her school running.

 Sometimes that means making concessions to them, sometimes it means pushing back. Throughout, she knows why the militants keep trying to get their way: "If they don't interfere, they won't be considered powerful."

 Al-Qaida's branch leads an alliance of factions known as Hayat Fatah al-Sham that dominates the opposition administration running Idlib. But the group has to tread carefully, balancing between its aim to control and its wariness of triggering a backlash from residents and other factions. So far, it has stayed relatively pragmatic: it takes every opportunity to show it is in charge but has shown no interest in a wide-scale imposition of an extremist vision of Islamic law.

 They halted public killings of criminals; there are no religious police patrolling streets, arresting or beating people — and they haven't forced women to wear the niqab face veil.

 That is a sharp contrast to the Islamic State group in the stretches of Syria and Iraq where the rival militant group has ruled the past three years.

 Instead, al-Qaida administrators and fighters try to enforce some rules on a smaller scale while avoiding heavy-handed confrontation and presenting themselves as the champions of Syria's "revolution" against Assad.

 Idlib now stands in a tenuous position among the international and regional powers that are effectively carving up Syria. Assad's Russian-backed military is focused on fighting Islamic States militants further to the east, as are the United States and its Kurdish led-allies. Turkey and its allies have seized a pocket of territory neighboring Idlib. Eventually, all these forces will turn their attention to the fate of the opposition enclave.

 In the meantime, Idlib, swelling with more than 900,000 Syrians displaced from fallen rebel enclaves elsewhere, is the refuge of an opposition movement that only a few years earlier appeared to have the momentum in the conflict.

 Now Kisar and others like her are trying to keep al-Qaida's influence at bay.

 "Everyone sold us out," she said in a recent interview in her office in Istanbul, where she regularly travels.

 Kisar said the international community's fear of radical Islamists taking over Syria is exaggerated and reflects a lack of understanding of the Syrian opposition. She and others argue that the militants are needed, they provide services and infrastructure as well as skilled fighters for now, but will not have support later.

 From the start, Kisar has been a true believer in the uprising. After the revolt began in 2011, she left her administrative job at a Dallas university and joined the opposition.

 She traveled with fighters on the front lines, helping displaced people. She organized services in opposition territories. Along the way, she survived an airstrike and lost a colleague who was kidnapped by Islamic State group militants and was later believed killed.

 Finally, she settled in Maaret al-Numan, Idlib's second largest city. It was one of the few strongholds of the moderate Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group for the internationally-backed opposition factions. In recent years, radical factions like al-Qaida have grown in influence and gained a foothold. But Maaret's residents largely continued to support the FSA. They held repeated protests whenever al-Qaida fighters went too far, arresting journalists or cracking down on opponents.

 In 2015, Kisar launched her foundation — SHINE, or the Syrian Humanitarian Institute for National Empowerment.

 It provides classes for adults in computers, programming and web design. Registered in Dallas and funded by donations from Turkey and private citizens in America and elsewhere, the foundation has so far graduated 237 students.

 Kisar takes great pride in the result: a "geek squad" of tech-savvy men and women who can fix smart phones and computers. That is vital in opposition-held areas, where there are no telephone lines and the population relies on satellite internet for communication.

 "There are no private institutes, no universities, there are no hospitals," she said. "It is us, a bunch of locals, volunteers, stepping forward and saying, OK, I am going to clean the street, I am going to go volunteer in a hospital and I am going to build a school. ... This is my part. This is my honor."

 Her first brush with the militants came when she had to explain her work to gain accreditation from the bureaucracy they control.

 She bickered with one official, arguing that armed groups should not control civilian affairs. He wouldn't look her in the eye since she's a woman. But "when he heard I am from America, he said: 'We have every honor that an American Muslim is here and wants to be here'," she recalled.

 Even in heated debates with the militants, she said, she has always kept a respectful tone, something that has helped keep her operating.

 It also helps that she is a woman. "I can get away with a lot of things," she said with her characteristic giggle. "There is a lot more leniency toward me because I am a woman."

 The ultraconservative militants were concerned that SHINE provides classes for men and women. So she kept it going by segregating the space — men on the bottom floor, women on the top. When airstrikes hit the top floor, she set up separate areas on the ground floor.

 Before graduation, an inspector told her not to play music at the ceremony. She argued back. Then on graduation day, the ceremony started with a nod to tradition with a Quranic recital in line with the inspector's wishes.

 But as the students filed out in front of an audience of relatives and local officials, Kisar played an anthem. It was a calculated gamble: she was betting the militants would not make a scene.

 "It was matter-of-fact. They did nothing," she said.

 Even as it interferes more in administration of opposition-held areas, al-Qaida's affiliate is struggling between its identity as a hard-line jihadi movement and its ambition to lead the rebellion with its variety of factions, wrote another Syria watcher, Mona Alami in a recent Atlantic Council article.

 When that balancing act breaks down, violence can explode.

 In June, Maaret al-Numan was shaken when pitched street battles erupted between al-Qaida militants and the FSA, bringing gruesome revenge killings and leaving at least six civilians dead. HTS fighters opened fire on residents protesting against their presence in the streets.

 For a moment, the chaos seemed to shatter Kisar's spirit. "It is going to break loose," she said over the phone at the time. "Everybody is fighting everybody."

 She left town for several days to "breathe."

 Eventually, calm was restored with a shaky reconciliation, though one that increased the militants' influence: the FSA faction running the town had to leave their offices, replaced by an agency linked to al-Qaida.

 Kisar resumed her work — and her own balancing act. This time, she was preparing festivities for local children to celebrate a major Muslim holiday.

 "You must check out the videos," she said, giggling. "It is like Disneyland. It is SHINEland. It is majestic." '

US-Syrian woman keeps school going in al-Qaida-run region