Friday, 4 August 2017

Hezbollah: Then & Now

 'As the chaotic events continue to unfold throughout Syria, one militia in particular has been placed into the spot light; Hezbollah. The Shiite Islamic guerrilla movement, founded in 1985, has gained much popularity and support since then. With Lebanon’s diverse population a good one third of the nation constitutes an overwhelming Sunni Muslim demographic along with one third Christian, particularly Maronite Catholic, and one third Shiite Muslim as well. Due to much of the violence and political turmoil Lebanon has faced over time, Hezbollah sees itself as an emerging movement standing up for the oppressed and calling for national unity under the pretext of rejecting Israel’s occupation of both Palestine and Lebanon’s southern territories. Has this really been the case, however? Or has Hezbollah simply carried out Iran’s broader agenda in order to establish creeping Shiite hegemony throughout the region? Is Hezbollah’s rhetoric of so-called “unity” truly sincere? Or is it a misleading call to submerge others into their propaganda?

 In recent years the deployment of Hezbollah militants to Syria from Lebanon has only ignited sectarian tension since the beginning of the Syrian revolution which began in 2011. According to Hezbollah, it had initially presented itself inside Syria in order to protect revered Shiite shrines, or so they say. However, Hezbollah has begun to fan the flames of war thus accelerating and resurfacing the on-going political, and even Sunni-Shiite theological tension, within the region. Prior to the establishment of ISIS, Bashar Al Assad’s national Syrian Arab Army had massacred over 200,000 innocent civilians, with the assistance of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps under the pretext of fighting terrorism; a regime that was established by French imperialists and legitimized by Iranian Shiite clerics upon an overwhelmingly Sunni majority population. Although it may seem as if the militia’s alliance to Assad would strike national and regional unity, Hezbollah’s political and militant support for the regime has only brought about discord, a bloody massacre and deteriorating support from Sunni Muslims and Arab Christians alike.

 A significant characteristic of Hezbollah that should be highlighted is its complex history. Despite Hezbollah’s and Iran’s current anti-Israeli rhetoric, the Shiites of Lebanon were quite comfortable with Israel’s establishment throughout the 1982 Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon. The initial invasion of Lebanon was to root out the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) which was present in Lebanon at the time. When Israel decided to extend their presence in the Southern Lebanese territory, Khomeini’s establishment of Hezbollah in Lebanon turned into what is now known as the “Islamic resistance of Lebanon” against the Israeli occupation. Interestingly enough, Iran was a close ally of Israel prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution. So what changed? Shiite Islamists overtook what was meant to be a secular economic reformation in Iran leading to much enmity towards Israel drawing upon the sentiments of Shiite cleric Navab Safavi in 1954 towards the Palestinian cause. This seems to be quite hypocritical when taking the events of the Iran Contra into consideration. How can one oppose the United States and Israel chanting the “death to America, death to Israel” slogans in the streets of Tehran all when purchasing weapons from them? The events of the 2006 summer war between Hezbollah and Israel also indicate the hypocrisy of Hezbollah. Every so often, Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, will conduct speeches that seem uplifting and motivating in an attempt to mobilize and boost the morale of his supporters. After Israel declared a cease-fire that summer, Hezbollah proudly championed itself to the rest of the Arab world as heroes and liberators. Hezbollah also promised to retaliate against Israel with 30,000 rockets had it continued to attack Southern Lebanese territory or Palestinian territory. In late 2008 and early 2009, Israel carried out a series of aggressive attacks known as Operation Cast Lead on Gaza yet Hezbollah was nowhere to be found.

 So why are Hezbollah and Iran so adamant about their resistance against Israel? Frankly, it is simply a distraction from Hezbollah’s militant presence in Syria. Hezbollah desperately uses Israel as a distraction while in all actuality it cannot afford to fight a war on two fronts; one against Israel and one in Syria. The fact of the matter is, there is no purpose in Hezbollah reiterating it’s anti-Israel rhetoric to the rest of the Arab world considering the fact that the Sunni-Shiite tension has been ongoing for centuries whereas the Arab-Israeli conflict has only recently emerged within the last century. Shiite Hezbollah, as well as Iran, have only recently submerged themselves in the conflict within the past 38 years. Furthermore, the Arab-Israeli issue has been particularly a Sunni Arab-Israeli issue. So why get involved? To establish and legitimize Shiite regional hegemony, of course. Saudi Arabia, a major Sunni regional actor, is seen by many Arabs in the region as a disappointment due to the lack of aiding the Palestinian cause and its alliance to the United States. For both, Iran and Hezbollah, this is seen as the perfect opportunity to act as the upholders of the Palestinian cause and declare themselves as the heroes and liberators of Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites alike. Overtime, however, their true colors have emerged with their support for the tyrannical Syrian regime, their loyalty to Iran, and their militant activities within Syria. Furthermore, if the Assad regime falls to Sunni rebels, essentially this would mean the end of Hezbollah’s source of aid clearly displaying its dependency upon the Syrian regime. Hezbollah is now faced with difficult and complex circumstances that can no longer allow for it to defend a Sunni Palestine all while trying to maintain its support for Shiite Iran and Bashar Al Assad. Eventually, Hezbollah will have to sever ties with one or the other.'

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Free and just Syria for all Syrians

 'Mr. Staffan de Mistura
 United Nations Special Envoy for Syria
 UN Secretary General
 Members of the UN Security Council
 Envoys of the International Syria Support Group
 EU Ambassadors to the Political and Security Committee

 2 August 2017

 Your Excellency,
 Following the seventh round of peace negotiations, we write to you on behalf of the undersigned Syrian civil society organisations who work every day under unbearable circumstances to improve the living conditions of millions of Syrians. We represent the voices from the ground and our work across the country in the fields of medical and humanitarian assistance, education, freedom of expression, youth and women empowerment, and accountability and justice proves again the fundamental role Syrian civil society plays as a champion for a democratic and inclusive Syria.

 As a vital resource for the Syrian population trapped between a tyrannical regime and the brutality of extremism, Syrian civil society organisations strongly support any efforts to bring an end to the Syria conflict. This is why many of our representatives have participated in the intra-Syrian peace talks within the framework of the Civil Society Support Room and have been active in supporting the Geneva peace talks between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime.

 Sadly, the Geneva process has delivered neither peace nor protection to the Syrian people who are increasingly disillusioned with a process that continues to fail them. We are keen to reverse this trend as without the support of Syrian civil society no political deal will be either sustainable or legitimate, and right now the current process is losing our support. Syrian civil society’s priority is to achieve an inclusive transition to a free and democratic Syria. We are all united around this outcome which defines the basis of the Geneva peace process as set out by UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and as reiterated in your mandate as UN Special Envoy for Syria.

 We expect all parties in Geneva—including you—to work for this purpose and engage in serious negotiations. The time consumed on discussions around process and representation, at the expense of a credible and realistic political deal for transition towards democracy, is not only wasting precious time but it is also undermining the international community’s efforts to fight terrorism in Syria. Syrian civil society activities are essential in the fight against extremism. Moderate voices—as we represent—have the power to push back against the extremist forces and fill the vacuum on the ground. But to be able to do so, we need the international community to protect our ability to assist and serve our people. This is why we need the Geneva process to prioritise the protection of civilians and deliver meaningful negotiations that lead to peace for Syria.

 From the onset of the Geneva talks we have pressed for an active role in shaping the process given our links to the ground. As a result we continue to welcome efforts by the Syrian opposition to broaden its membership as long as it shares our purpose of achieving a political transition that is in compliance with international humanitarian law. But many members of civil society are troubled by some international actors’ attempts to dictate who sits around the negotiation table. For the Geneva process to be truly inclusive and Syrian-led it must serve the Syrian people’s aspirations first and foremost for a transition towards a democratic and free Syria. Allowing the priorities and direction of the process to be shaped by international actors has only weakened the process and diverted it from its central function.

 As Syrian civil society representatives, we therefore call on you to:

 1. Ensure that the Geneva process serves the interests of Syrians, first and foremost, and is not driven entirely by international actors. This requires a re-focus of the Geneva talks onto transition, as per UNSCR 2254. The international community, including the Permanent Five members of the Security Council, have confirmed the principal aim of the Geneva process is transition. To achieve this aim we call on you to use your authority to effectively hold to account any party at the negotiations that continues to stall and undermine the Geneva process.

 2. Draw from the legitimacy and unique contribution of Syrian civil society to ensure a sustainable political agreement for Syria. This includes using civil society’s expertise on the four baskets to unlock progress in the talks and move to concrete discussions towards transition. Only Syrian civil society can create the broad buy-in from the ground for any political agreement.

 3. Demand the enforcement of UNSCRs that call for the protection of civilians to make the Geneva process viable. To do so, we urge you to press the parties to the conflict and especially the backers of the Syrian regime to enforce a sustainable nationwide ceasefire with a UN-led monitoring mechanism and credible enforcement. This is clearly illustrated by the regime’s and Russia’s ongoing violations of previous commitments, including from Astana, as well as by the unlawful killing of civilians due to counter-terrorism operations of the anti-ISIS coalition. Civil society organisations active on the ground are ready to cooperate with a credible and impartial monitoring system but we need you, the UN, to assert your role and ensure the impartiality of the ceasefire monitoring.

 4. Ensure that concrete progress on humanitarian access, the detainee file and forced displacement is at the heart of the Geneva negotiations. In particular, we call on you to fulfil your mandate and ensure progress on the detainee file including by securing (i) a comprehensive plan for the release of detainees beyond small-scale prisoner exchanges; (ii) information about the fates of all Syrians forcibly disappeared; (iii) access by international monitors to all detention facilities; and (iv) a halt to execution orders, particularly in regime security and military facilities, as well as in those run by armed groups.

 As UN Special Envoy for Syria you can rescue the current failing Geneva process and compel serious negotiations that serve the needs and demands of the Syrian people. The undersigned Syrian civil society organisations stand ready to assist you in this effort, but we need you and the international community to implement a credible process that will enable us to build a democratic, free and just Syria for all Syrians.


1. Syrian American Medical Society
2. Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression
3. Shaml CSOs Coalition
4. Kesh Malek Organisation
5. Women Now for Development
6. The Syrian Network for Human Rights
7. Violations Documentation Center
8. Baytna Syria
9. The Day After
10. Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations
11. Syrian Legal Development Programme
12. Syrian Nonviolence Movement
13. Watanili
14. Jasmine Dream
15. Start Point
16. Sawa Foundation
17. Sawa for Development and Aid
18. Basamat for Development
19. The Working Group for Syria
20. The Working Group for Syrian Detainees
21. Rethink Rebuild Society
22. Albab Coordination
23. Local Development & Small Project Support
24. Foundation of Syrian Civil Society Organisations
25. Syrian American Council
26. Zaytoon
27. Zaad
28. Mohamed Khalili
29. Free Syrian Lawyers Association
30. Badael Foundation
31. Sonbola Group for Education and Development
32. Najda Now International
33. Noha Alkamcha
34. Alaa Basatneh
35. Sana Mustafa
36. Peace and Justice for Syria
37. Syrian Association of Yorkshire
38. Syria Solidarity UK
39. Scotland4Syria
40. Doctors Under Fire
41. Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers
42. Ministry of Local Administration
43. Council of Free Quneitra District
44. Council of Free Daraa District
45. Union of Free Economists in Daraa
46. Directorate General of Civil Status in Daraa and Quneitra
47. The Free Directorate of Real Estate in Daraa
48. The Free Directorate of Transportation in Daraa
49. Directorate of Family Affairs in the Southern Province
50. The Free Directorate General of Irrigation in Daraa and Quneitra
51. Union of Free Engineers in Quneitra
52. The Free Lawyers Union in Daraa
53. Syrian Women Association for Development in Quneitra
54. Office of Documentation and Civil Status in Bosra
55. Union of Agricultural Engineers in Quneitra
56. The Free Lawyers Union in Quneitra
57. Office of Documentation and Civil Status in Swisah
58. Office of Documentation and Civil Status in Hieran
59. Directorate of Enkhel
60. The Revolutionary Council in Enkhel
61. The Enkhel Judiciary
62. Office of Documentation and Civil Status in Nawa
63. Office of Documentation and Civil Status in Tafas
64. Association of Enkhel Ajyal Schools
65. Office of Documentation and Civil Status in Hirak
66. Office of Documentation and Civil Status in Al-Jiza
67. Local Council of Enkhel City
68. The Public Institute for Grains – Free Daraa Branch
69. Syrian Women Dawn Association – Hawa’
70. Voice of Women Association
71. Syrian Women Peace Association
72. Office of Documentation and Reparations (Destroyed Houses)
73. Free Doctors Union in Daraa
74. Ghadir Al-Bustan Council
75. Al-Rafid Council
76. Al- Bouweidah Council
77. Nab’ Al-Sakhr Council
78. Al-Qasibah Council
79. Swisah Council
80. Kudnah Council
81. Beer Ajam Council
82. Jabbatha Al-Khashab Council
83. Council of Displaced Persons of Quneitra from Damascus
84. West Daraa Council
85. Al-Kahtanya Council
86. Um Batneh Council
87. Masehara Council
88. Juba Council
89. Al-Coum Council
90. Khan Arnabeh Council
91. Haoud Al-Yarmouk Council
92. Moukhayam Daraa Council
93. Kanaker Council
94. Council of Sa’sa’ in Damascus Countryside
95. Al-Mal Council
96. Deir El-Adas Local Council
97. Kafr Shams Local Council
98. Local Council of the Occupied City of Sheikh Maskin
99. Local Council of the Displaced from Haoud Al-Yarmouk
100. Saida Local Council
101. Deir Maker Council
102. Dourin Council
103. Ghassem Local Council
104. Msikah Local Council
105. Mahja Local Council
106. Da’el Local Council
107. Nassib Local Council
108. Akraba Local Council
109. Karak Al-Sharqi Local Council
110. Al-Boeer Local Council
111. Nimer Local Council
112. Ayb Local Council
113. Council of the Lajah and Houran tribes
114. Tafas Local Council
115. Al Faqi’ Local Council
116. Nawa Local Council
117. Local Council of Sharae’ Village
118. Jabal El-Arab Tribal Council
119. City of Azra’ Local Council
120. Town of Heit Local Council
121. Elemtaih Village Local Council
122. Al-Sahwah Local Council
123. Al-Na'imah Local Council
124. Deir Al-Bakht Local Council
125. Almah Town Local Council
126. Al-Jiza Local Council
127. Umm Al-Ausaj Village Local Council
128. Jebab Local Council
129. Al Sheikh Saad Local Council
130. Ibte' Local Council
131. Kfar Nasig Village Local Council
132. Al-Ghariyya Al-Sharqiya Local Council
133. Zamrain Village Local Council
134. Melihah Al-Atash Village Local Council
135. Enkhel Local Council
136. ‘Odwan Local Council
137. Al-Bakar Local Council
138. Syria Relief Network
139. Civil Defense in Nawa City
140. Security Office in Nawa
141. Kahil Local Council
142. Local Council of the Northern Lajah Sector
143. Jassem Local Council
144. Namer Local Council
145. Al-Malyha Al-Gharbiah Local Council
146. Al-Aalya Local Council
147. Al-Taybah Local Council
148. Naheta Local Council
149. Busra Al-Harir Local Council
150. Revolution Command Council in Enkhel City
151. The Free Directorate of Religious Affairs in Daraa
152. Directorate of Family Affairs in Daraa
153. Union of Veterinarians
154. Syrian Center For Arbitration & Conflict Resolution in Nawa City
155. Al-Omariah Commission for Transitional Justice
156. El-Shaheed Khalaf El Kharsan Hospital
157. The Free Syrian Teachers Union
158. The Syrian Commission for Media
159. Al-Jebayya Center for Studies in Nawa
160. Agricultural Engineers Union in Daraa
161. The Free Engineers Union in Daraa
162. The Free Directorate of Health in Daraa
163. The Free Directorate of Education In Daraa
164. The Free Directorate of Statistics in Daraa
165. Nawa Media Institute
166. Bidhrat Nama’ Institute
167. Center for Legal Consultation in Daraa
168. Revolution Command Council in Daraa
169. Abna’ Al-Shuhadaa School in Nawa'

We have the right to be free

Oum on the right at a rally in East Aleppo

 'Late last year, the BBC's Mike Thomson received a desperate call from a bomb shelter in the Syrian city of Aleppo. It came from head teacher and mother of three Oum Mudar, who pleaded for help getting her terrified family out of the rebel-held part of the city. When Thomson was unable to make contact again, he feared the worst.

 "The worse thing is the night, it's so long," Oum tells me, speaking after an especially heavy air attack last October.

 "All the time there are rockets, helicopters, bombs. I'm so afraid for my children. I can't sleep until 5am. Before then, I just pray."

 The oldest of her three children, 12-year-old Wissam, then reveals his own technique for getting through the night.

 "I sometimes manage to sleep when there is bombing at night by putting my fingers in my ears. When that doesn't work I place a pillow over my head," he tells me.

 But soon, as pro-government forces close in and the bombing raids get heavier, neither pillows over heads nor fingers in ears are a passport to sleep any more. What remains of rebel-held territory in East Aleppo is being pounded with unparalleled ferocity.

 Just before 8pm on Tuesday 18 December, my mobile phone pings. It is a voicemail message from Oum.

 "Please, please help us get out of Aleppo by safe corridor," she pleads.

 "Me and my family and my neighbour… we are terrified… please help us."

 Oum is a dedicated supporter of the anti-Assad revolution who has sworn to never leave Aleppo, so I know things must now be really bad.

 Finally, I get through. A distressing cacophony of crying children and babies comes on the line. Then I hear Oum's clearly petrified voice. She is speaking from an overcrowded basement bomb shelter, packed with distraught people, many of them children. We manage to have the following very brief and harrowing conversation.

 "More than 100 people, more than 50 of them children… orphans… orphans. Their parents were killed by bombing while they were out buying food and they are all alone here."

 I remember conversations in which Oum made clear that she did not expect her family to get out of East Aleppo alive. Take this chilling text message she sent me last November after a night of heavy bombing:

 "We do not want anything just let us die silently .. the last breath taken out now.. we are last message."

 Oum and her family are now living in Gaziantep, in the south of the country, close to the border with Syria. There, in a quiet suburb of a city that is now home to more than 300,000 Syrian refugees, I am greeted by Oum's husband, Salim, an artist. He guides me through a large ornate metal door to a bright, modern-looking ground-floor apartment.

 The lack of obvious decorations or pictures on the walls suggests that either the family have not lived here long or are not planning on staying.

 Oum, wearing a blue denim jacket and traditional black headscarf, greets me warmly and soon begins to talk about conditions in the basement where the family was holed up the last time she spoke to me from Aleppo.

 There were more than 100 people without food or water, she says, young and old, babies crying, bombs crashing to earth nearby. There was the fear of arrest once government troops arrived, and for women the fear of rape.

 Zane tells me that the room next door was on fire and buildings outside were collapsing. It was terrifying, he says.

 Zane's older brother, Wissam, had his own coping mechanism.

 "I just closed my ears to everything and did lots of drawing," he says. "When I am drawing I forget everything around me. So I forgot the bombs, I forgot the shelling, I focused only on my drawing."

 Oum remembers, around this time, seeing other families running towards government-controlled West Aleppo to escape the bombing, and trying to warn them that they might be arrested or killed.

 "I shouted, 'Why do you go to death?' They said to me, 'Here is also death.' So, we have no choice."

 In the end, on 22 December, she and her family left too. They were among the last 200 people to be evacuated from East Aleppo, under a deal agreed between the rebels and the Syrian government.

 Before they left, Salim remembers, they burned all of their possessions they couldn't take.

 "These were our memories and we didn't want the Syrian regime to take them or abuse them," he says. "All we had left was the clothes we were wearing."

 The evacuation bus took them all to Idlib. From there the family made their own way north towards Turkey, where Oum's mother had already fled. But they had to spend five days on the border, in the cold and rain, waiting for a chance to cross.

 "We tried three times and each time we were caught by police," she says. "Finally we made it over the border and after three hours' walking we got to my mother's home."

 Om tells me how all of them were covered in mud from head to toe and were put straight into a hot shower by her mother. A few days later, clean and refreshed, they travelled on to Gaziantep. Here, thanks to her teaching experience, Oum got a job researching children's programmes for a local television channel.

 So things worked out so much better for Oum than I had feared. The family is safe, well-fed and well-clothed - which makes me unprepared for her next statement.

 "This is not my country. I can't live here, I can't," she says.

 "So we decide, my husband, even my kids. We hold a meeting and make a decision to go back to Syria. There are so many kids that need me there. I still am strong. Here I'm weak. If I come back to Syria I will be more strong."

 "I am not happy here because all of my memories are in Aleppo," says Wissam. "So I'll be happy to go back because at least I will be in my country."

 He then adds: "To die in my own country is better than living outside of it."

 Oum tells me how she has brought soil with her from the graveyard in East Aleppo where some of her relatives were buried. She plans to use it to plant "Aleppo trees" when they get to their new home from home in Idlib.

 "We don't want anything impossible, just our freedom, social justice and liberty. We have the right to be free." '
Salim Mudar painting in East Aleppo flanked by son and friend

Two American presidents have now undermined Syria's revolution

Two American presidents have now undermined Syria's revolution

 'America's allies in Syria cannot count on their friends. That's the message sent by the White House.

 It emerged last week that the United States will shutter a CIA programme to equip vetted rebel groups. These groups were America's allies and assets on the ground in Syria.

 Some rebel groups, after extensive vetting, have been given a small number of American weapons. They have been given American small arms, as well as TOW missile systems, with which they have ceremonially destroyed some enemy vehicles.

 But this flow of arms, never strong, is to be shut off, meaning that all support, stated or tacit, from the United States cannot be counted on. This rift is serious and it looks to be final.

 Donald Trump's Syria policy remains deeply confused, and this latest development can only exacerbate this confusion, which breeds dysfunction, and threatens to render ridiculous America's entire Syria policy. This is a failure of action but also of messaging.

 One message is imparted with real force. America abandons its allies. It ditches its friends. It sells those who are no longer immediately valuable down the river.

 In a way, this is of a piece with previous US policy in Syria. This move was always coming. And yet it is still a shocking betrayal, a fact which cannot and must not be overlooked.

 Syria's rebels - and the broader opposition to Assad - share stated American goals. They are fighting for their freedom and for the future of their country. This ought to be something with which the United States, at the helm of the free world, can make common cause.

 But this argument seems not to have been received. Or if it was, it can only have been rejected out of hand, disregarded deliberately by successive administrations.

 Trump's break with Syria's rebels is not all that new, despite his claims to political novelty.

 After all, starving rebels of resources is a continuation of President Obama's policy of half-supporting the Syrian opposition, a policy which never genuinely approached regime change and which essentially confirmed the Assad regime in power.

 Far from supporting democrats in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Obama administration was obsessed, eerily echoing Trumpian rhetoric, with deals.

 Obama himself joked about wanting "a few smart autocrats" to run the region. And in Iran's theocracy, he must have thought he'd found a solution of sorts.

 Iran gave succour and support to the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad. It backed up the latter's slaughter of civilians and crushing of protesting crowds. Iranian officers and officials organised the regime's lines of defence and supply, creating and animating sectarian militias which now make up the bulk of the pro-Assad coalition.

 Obama, nominally opposed to Assad and apparently horrified by his crimes, knew this all along. And yet, in pursuit of a deal with the Iranian state over nuclear weapons, the Americans did not act to present a serious challenge to Assad, Iran's client in Damascus.

 Assad was allowed to get away with massacres and war crimes and mass executions. He was allowed to turn state prisons into death camps complete with crematoria for disposing the bodies of those executed en masse.

 Compared to this, perhaps, Trump's policy contains less moral hypocrisy, but it is still incoherent and chaotic in the extreme.

 Trump claims to care about Iranian influence in Syria; and he has shown that he is prepared to act to prevent Iranian-supported militias from attacking a base manned by American special forces and Syrian rebels in al-Tanf. Trump's April strike of the al-Shayrat airbase punished regime war crimes and possibly deterred more uses of sarin gas.

 But Trump, at heart an inconsistent man, is incapable of following the logic of an isolated good deed such as this. He is governed by his unstable temperament and worried by changeable, mob-like public sentiment at home.

 He conjures great avatars for him to fight. IS, though it is now on the back foot in Syria and Iraq, serves this purpose. Accordingly, Trump says he wants to defeat IS quickly and comprehensively.

 This objective, and arresting Iranian influence are both incompatible with withdrawing support for Syria's rebels. They are fighting the regime, which is increasingly becoming an Iranian-controlled operation, incapable of recapturing the rest of the country.

 To weaken this bulwark against an Iranian client state would give a shot in the arm to Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force, which conducts external operations for the Iranian state.

 Soleimani and the IRGC–QF have played a key role in running things in Syria for years. They will be empowered and strengthened by any collapse in support for Syria's rebels.

 At the same time, the remnants of the Assad regime will be emboldened by this move. And every time Assad feels emboldened, he launches attacks on rebel areas and commits more war crimes, often using chemical means.

 Trump publicly deplored the murder of "beautiful babies" by sarin gas. This policy, however it is phrased, can only assist their murderer.

 Finally, the rebels Trump wishes to weaken have fought and will continue to fight IS. They have done so with some success. Without them, IS will take longer to defeat, and may be replaced by a successor organisation which will feed on the sense of betrayal felt by Syria's Sunnis.

 That sense of betrayal will not be entirely illegitimate.

 Two American presidents have undermined Syria's revolution. The first by starving it of resources and secretly dealing with a state essential to the survival of the Assad regime; the second by rendering such cloak and dagger stuff public for the first time and using it as a basis for official policy.

 If Trump has any sense, he will rethink this move before it has disastrous consequences. But sadly, this seems one Obama-era policy he is more than happy to follow unthinkingly, even into the moral abyss.'

Wednesday, 2 August 2017


Image may contain: text

 Rami Jarrah:

'Basically a warning that if al-Nusra remain an apparent force in the Syrian northern city of Idlib, the US may not be able to convince international parties not to take military action.
 Sounds legitimate, only this is the opening grounds for a complete and utter bloodbath. Such a warning is illegitimate only because those that were resisting against the Islamic extremist groups have been abandoned and now face the choice of either deserting the lands they once defended or becoming part of the "Terrorist" equation.

 The coming days are sure to be of the ugliest we have seen yet from the conflict in Syria.'

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

US military threatened to bomb our headquarters but why?, an Official of Shohadaa al-Qraiteen Brigade says

US military threatened to bomb our headquarters but why?, an Official of Shohadaa al-Qraiteen Brigade says

 'The US troops in the Syrian desert region warned the
 Free Syrian Army that it would bomb its positions and military headquarters.

 According to Abu Omar al-Homsi, head of the media office of Shohadaa al-Qraiteen Brigade, the US-led coalition threatened to bomb their positions in the Syrian desert if they refused to hand over heavy weapons taken from the coalition earlier.

 The threats came as a result of the battle launched by the brigade on July 17 against the Hezbollah militia and the Syrian regime forces, which managed to control the mountains of "al-Ghorab and al-Halba". This angered the coalition, which refuses to open any battles against the Syrian regime in the region, al-Homsi added.

 Al-Homsi confirmed that the brigade's leadership will not return arms back, consisting of "Toyota cars, medium weapons, light weapons and a number of lorry vehicles to the international coalition, and will continue to use them against the Syrian regime."

 Shohadaa al-Qraiteen Brigade announced a few days ago it had stopped receiving support from the international coalition because of the latter's refusal to provide ammunition and weapons in the battles against the Syrian regime, and only to provide it in battles against ISIS.'


Image may contain: 1 person, selfie, beard and close-up

 Rami Jarrah:

 'Sad to say it comes as no shock that the Syrian regime have put Bassel to death in an underground execution process that was hidden from the public in Syria.

 Those closest to Bassel have received confirmation through sources, that what was once something they suspected and feared was in fact true and that he is no longer with us today.

 On the 15th of March 2012 he was detained by the Syrian regime and spent the next three and a half years in Assad's prisons. In October 2015 news arose of his disappearance after a final phone call he was allowed to make to his wife. It was in fact this moment that he had been sentenced to execution and that outrageous sentence was soon carried out.

 For almost two years since then his family and loved ones have broken all barriers in order to get any information on Bassel's whereabouts only to come to what has now been presented as confirmation that Bassel is in fact dead.

 Bassel was a dedicated Palestinian-Syrian activist who lead most of his older years as a software developer, he was widely recognised for his role in helping open up the internet in Syria and contributed to many crucial online information platforms. Bassel was a peaceful activist who worked hard on ensuring internet freedoms for simply believing in every humans universal right of access to the free flow of information, these are the reasons that he has been relieved of his right to live, not terrorism, not violence but because of peaceful resistance against tyranny.

 So to his murderers a message: You have killed no ordinary man, watch now as the world rumbles for Bassel, for the man who brought the truth to his people justice will surely be gained one day, and on that day Bassel's name and his message will ripple above your graves.

 We will never accept you sick people in power.'

How did al Qaeda get to where it is in Syria today?

Photo by: AP

 ' “How did Ayman al Zawahiri’s deputy end up in Idlib [Syria]? Did he parachute in?”, asked Special Presidential Envoy to the anti-Daesh coalition Brett McGurk at a recent panel in Washington D.C.

 A diplomatic uproar ensued when the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a strongly worded demarche to the US government pushing back against insinuations that McGurk had made that suggested that Turkey was solely to blame for the rise of an al Qaeda affiliate in north western Syria.

 Frustration with the special envoy had long been simmering as he is viewed as the primary cheerleader for the Syrian Kurdish separatist People’s Defense Forces (PYD) fighting Daesh, who nonetheless maintain ongoing ties with the designated terrorist group the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

 McGurk is viewed as having been a central architect in developing the US government’s partnership with the PYD in battling Daesh in northern Syria. He has constantly referred to the PYD, which at the behest of the US military rebranded to the more innocuous sounding Syrian Democratic Forces SDF, as America’s only reliable local partner in Syria in the fight against Daesh extremists.

 But the friction between Washington and Ankara on this matter can really be traced back to the Obama administration’s rejection in 2015 of a comprehensive plan proposed by Turkish President Erdogan that would have both protected Syrian civilians from the Assad regime’s rapacious war planes and established safe zones, that in conjunction with a plan proposed by General John Allen – McGurk’s former boss and predecessor – would offer the requisite space and a conducive operating environment to train and arm Syrian opposition forces. These forces would in return enjoy both US and Turkish close air support to clear extremists from the northern Syrian-Turkish border.

 At the time, Daesh was expanding at a rapid pace but had not yet consolidated its recent military gains – thus they were more vulnerable to a determined counter attack. General Allen, who understood the complex mechanics of insurgency and counterinsurgency from his time commanding Marines in western Iraq, had long been sympathetic to the importance of empowering local Sunni Arab fighters.

 Allowing the PYD to monopolise US military support in the fight against Daesh was not a fait accompli – Daesh had already been pushed out of northern Latakia, Idlib province, and western Aleppo province by Sunni Arab rebel forces.

 Unfortunately, Obama reneged at the proposal to establish a full no-fly zone that would’ve provided air cover for northern Syria in its entirety, to include Aleppo city which at the time was facing horrific bombardment by Assad’s forces and the newly arrived Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah reinforcements.

 Obama saw such an effort as being overly militarily taxing and geared towards toppling Bashar al-Assad – a goal which Obama believed to be distracting from the fight against Daesh.

 Obama’s advisors claimed that such a no-fly zone would prove difficult as it would entail having to neutralize the Syrian regime’s integrated air defense system, which Obama was unwilling to authorize even though by all accounts Assad’s air defence network by 2015 was functionally hollowed out (as multiple Israeli Air Force attacks deep into heavily defended Assad controlled territory would prove since).

 Obama’s decision would prove incredibly costly in the long run, leading to tens of thousands of civilians being killed or injured and tens of thousands more displaced – an environment that both Daesh and al Qaeda extremists were able to amply benefit from.

 That decision in 2015 coupled with the now infamous Obama ‘red line’ decision in 2013 that allowed the Assad regime to get away with a mass sarin killing of nearly two thousand civilians, is the real impetus behind why in 2017, al Qaeda affiliates are still active in northern Syria.

 Naturally, such introspection was not on display in Washington.

 The PYD’s dominance and self administrated rule in wide swaths of northern Syria, that include areas that are ethnically majority Arab, did not have to be a forgone conclusion had a comprehensive—and yes more politically difficult decision—strategy been agreed upon by the Obama White House.

 The same is equally true for al Qaeda’s cells in northern Syria which were able to gain dominance over the local populace for a time by offering essential services, security, and protection from Assad and Iran’s war machine.

 The reality is the US knows exactly how Zawahiri’s deputies arrived into northern Syria. US military officials have since 2006 complained of the free hand that the Assad regime had given to allow senior al Qaeda logistics facilitators tied to Atiyah Abdulrahman—a key Bin Laden lieutenant—to operate in eastern Syria.

 US diplomatic cables available on Wikileaks confirmed that the US was well aware that Assad and his senior officials – including his brother in law who was head of military intelligence until 2009 – were cognizant if not complicit in Qaeda’s operations on Syrian territory prior to the 2011 uprising.

 General Petraeus, at the time Commanding General of US led Coalition forces in Iraq even offered President George W Bush to personally go to Syria to convince Assad to cooperate and end his tacit support to al Qaeda.

 The head of Al Qaeda in Syria, Muhammad al-Jolani didn’t parachute into Syria, he was already present in Syria and likely had been released from detention by the Assad regime prior to the 2011 uprising. Even the Khorosan network, which the US views as a major national security threat as Al Qaeda’s international attack planning cell in north west Syria, was the original name of the Tehran based facilitation cell that Qaeda central leadership depended upon to facilitate movement of funds and personnel into Iraq and Syria.

 McGurk himself had on numerous occasions been confronted by Iraqi officials in 2009 complaining of the Assad regime’s facilitation of al Qaeda safe havens in Syria that were being used to slaughter and maim civilians in Iraq.

 So in sum, the answer to the question of how did al Qaeda get to where it is in Syria today is answered by connecting the dots that the US security and intelligence officials themselves have laid out over the years: Assad and Iran were the catalysts behind their rise and revival in Syria.

 We cannot relive history, but whitewashing the past to make geopolitical points against allies is a self defeating exercise meant to cover up one’s own tragic mistakes – that have proven beyond costly for everyone involved in Syria.'

Monday, 31 July 2017

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Syrian comedy troupe's brand of satire fails to amuse Assad government

Story image for syria from Los Angeles Times

 'Every time he gets the chance, Ayham Hilal, an Internet cafe proprietor in the Syrian city of Saraqeb, squeezes into a small community center with about 200 fellow theatergoers and loses himself in a comedy show.

 The sketches are productions of an all-volunteer performance troupe known as the Saraqeb Youth Group, which has been bringing its brand of satirical theater to the small city east of Idlib through the most brutal chapters of the country’s civil war.

 Sometimes the players perform at a community center, other times at schools and at camps for internally displaced people, and even on the street.

 The troupe formed in 2006, five years before the “Arab Spring” uprisings swept into Syria. Protests metastasized into a prolonged and bloody conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced.

 At the time of the troupe’s founding, Ahmad Khatab and Walid Abu Rashid were a pair of artistically inclined teenagers. Khatab played the oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument used in traditional Arabic music. Abu Rashid had ambitions of becoming an actor.

 Along with their love of performance, they shared a distaste for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

 With three of their friends, the boys began writing and performing short plays poking fun at Assad.

 Their audiences were amused, but the government was not. Soon after the troupe formed, Khatab said, security forces arrested him.

 “I was only 16 years old, and they hit me many times,” said Khatab, now a schoolteacher and father of two. “Every six months they took me to jail for four or five days, like, routinely.”

 Saraqeb — a primarily Sunni Muslim town of about 30,000 in northwestern Syria that is surrounded by farmland — became an early center of antigovernment protests during the Arab Spring. After the war began, it became a battleground between the Syrian army and Free Syrian Army rebels, but the troupe continued performing.

 Sometimes plays were interrupted by the sound of planes overhead and the audience and performers ran to take cover. Two original members of the group were killed, Khatab said. A third joined the exodus of Syrians fleeing the country.

 As the conflict escalated, the performers had to worry not only about the government but also about militant Islamist groups including Islamic State and the group then known as Al Nusra Front, which were fighting for control of the area and considered the performers to be unbelievers.

 After one performance, as the group members were breaking down the stage, Khatab said, someone lobbed a hand grenade at them. The grenade exploded, but the performers scattered and no one was hurt.

 “We don’t know who threw it — maybe Daesh,” Khatab said, referring to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.

 For a while, the group went underground, performing without using its name or advertising its shows. It reemerged publicly in 2014 and began posting videos of its performances on Facebook and YouTube (links in Arabic), as well as shorts the troupe produced for the Web. The sketches offered comedic takes on the daily struggles of life in wartime, such as food shortages and rising prices.

 In one sketch, Abu Rashid plays a man infuriated by the skyrocketing price of tomatoes. After the local produce seller tries to charge him $1,500 for slightly more than 3 pounds, the customer takes a potion hoping to travel back in time to buy the fruit at the old, lower prices, and return to sell them at the new price.

 Instead, he mixes up the potions and finds himself transported to the future, where his village has been destroyed by bombs, Assad has been succeeded by his son, prices have risen even higher, and the now-ancient former produce seller informs him that he died 20 years ago. In an attempt to return to the past, he goes back too far and finds himself in a tent full of irate tribal warriors in the year 620.

 The number of performers has grown to 12 from five. In addition to plays for adults, the troupe now puts on performances for children featuring players dressed as the cartoon cat-and-mouse duo Tom and Jerry. During the height of the fighting, when many schools closed, members of the troupe also began to run a makeshift informal school in Saraqeb.

 Khatab said he sees the effects of the war in his daughters, ages 1 and 3.

 “My daughter, even if we’re frying potatoes and it makes a noise, she sometimes thinks it’s an airplane and she runs to the bathroom, because this is where we used to hide,” he said.

 With the plays, he said, “we have an obligation to change their lives a little and also to give them hope, maybe put a little smile on their tired faces.”

 There’s another purpose for the performances, Khatab and Abu Rashid said — to fill the children’s free time so that they don’t drift into armed groups, as many of their classmates did.

 Meanwhile, adults find catharsis in the plays. Hilal first saw the group perform in 2012, a year after the war began, in a cultural center that would later be destroyed in an airstrike.

 The play of the day was called “Everything Is Fine.” It was about a tribe of Bedouins who are visited by a television crew. The tribal leader, afraid of government security forces, tells the clan members to make no complaints and simply say, “Everything is fine.” Some of the tribe members instead demand electricity and water and sanitation and are taken to jail. Upon their release, the government promises they will get the things they asked for, but nothing changes. The play ends with a call to protest.

 Hilal was hooked. Now he never misses a local performance and sometimes travels to see the group perform in other areas. On the third day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, he and a group of friends from Saraqeb went to watch the troupe perform in Atarib, a town in the west Aleppo countryside.

 “What made it special was that they were dealing with sad topics like bombing and bloodshed and war — tragic topics — and at the same time they were presenting it in a satirical fashion,” Hilal said. “We used to laugh and cry at the same time.”

 The situation in Saraqeb has calmed — the latest cease-fire between the government and the rebel groups that control the area has held, and now, Hilal said, “for the first time in six years, we don’t hear planes.”

 But this month, clashes broke out between rebel factions in the Idlib area, including Saraqeb. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group based in Britain, one activist was killed and others injured in Saraqeb when forces of the Organization for the Liberation of Syria — an alliance that includes includes the group formerly known as Al Nusra Front until it renounced ties with Al Qaeda — opened fire on a demonstration against the rebel group. Recently, the group and rival rebel faction Ahrar al Sham announced they had once again reached an agreement to end the fighting.

 Over the years, Khatab said, he thought about fleeing the country, as some of his friends have done. But in the conflict’s early days, when it was still relatively easy to get across the border to Turkey, he still hoped that the government would be toppled quickly and the war would end.

 After Russia intervened in the war, Khatab said, he began to lose hope. But by then the border with Turkey had been closed and escape had become too expensive. To make the journey, he would have to sell his house and would not have a home to come back to.

 Abu Rashid, for his part, said he didn’t consider leaving.

 “Those who do similar work are very few,” he said. “If we all go to another country, who will be left?”

 Troupe members said there was never any question whether they would continue performing.

 “We believe in the power of the word,” Khatab said. “A rifle or a weapon can liberate a place, but the word can liberate the mind.” '

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Can refugees return to Syria, as many want them to?

A counter-protestor makes his voice heard as immigration activists march through New York to mark World Refugee Day on June 20 [Drew Angerer/AFP]

 Malak Chabkoun:

 'It is indescribably devastating to watch as the international community intensifies its push to normalise the occupied, murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. Major players in Syria are using Syrian lives as leverage and to signal they've had enough of Syrians and their "crisis".

 Recently, the UNHCR made an odd, somewhat troubling, statement. Based on figures from aid agencies, their spokesman said that 440,000 internally displaced Syrians - meaning Syrians already in Syria - have supposedly returned to their homes since the start of 2017 and that this was a "notable trend".

 He then went on to say that despite this, the agency wouldn't recommend or sponsor refugee returns given multiple risks that remain, and that Syrians seeking asylum in other nations needed to be given safe havens.

 There are two levels of frustration that come with such statements: first, that 440,000 IDPs are being presented as a "notable trend" in the context of over six millionSyrians displaced internally and over five million living as refugees in other countries; and second, such statements carry very little weight with an international community that has shown not only is it content with letting Assad and his allies continue creating refugees, but is also willing to join the "war on terror" perpetuated by Assad and his allies.

 When the UNHCR says conditions are not ideal for return, it means that Syrians, refugees or not, face risks with any movements they attempt to make, starting from the moment they stand in line at any given border to re-enter their country.

 Syrians I've spoken to tell me about abuse and corruption at the borders of neighbouring countries. One told me they had to pay bribes to border officials in Jordan to ensure safe passage back to Syria. Several have told me their passports were confiscated in Jordan and they were told to check in with Syrian intelligence branches upon their return to their hometowns.

 Others returning to Syria through Lebanon have waited for hours to be let back into Syria, fearing the worst as Lebanese and Syrian regime officials humiliated and berated them. That's aside from the money they've had taken from them at the borders, which is particularly painful given that most of these Syrians are already suffering financially. Then, there are those whose sons over 18 are immediately whisked off to forced conscription with the regime's army.

 This problem of forced conscription, faced mainly by young men, is a major risk not only at the borders, but also in areas under the control of the regime and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The Assad regime's ministry of defence has recently imposed new laws for punishing any men who attempt to evade mandatory service in the regime's army.

 Once Syrians make it back into Syria, they have to pass through checkpoints, risking detention at the hands of the regime or various armed militias. Syrians, both refugees and IDPs, tell stories of being questioned for hours by the regime's militias and seeing fellow countrymen killed at these checkpoints.

 In liberated areas, IDPs also face incidents of harassment and extortion and fall victim to infighting between armed groups. That is beside the continuing air strikes by the Syrian regime, Russia and the US-led international coalition that have killed, maimed and displaced thousands of innocent civilians.

 On World Refugee Day last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech in which he spoke about Turkey's generosity to refugees, telling the international community Turkey could help advise on how to permanently solve the Syrian refugee crisis. Earlier this year, Turkey and Russia, despite backing opposing sides in Syria, agreed to work together (with Iran) to establish de-escalation zones across Syria - a plan that never really worked.

 And despite the fact Turkey is host to the most Syrian refugees, it has sealed off its Syrian border with a massive wall built for security purposes and to stem the refugee flow. There has also been a growing number of incidents of Turkish border guards shooting at Syrian refugees trying to cross the border. NGOs operating in Turkey - some working with Syrian refugees - are also facing a crackdown by the Turkish government. As isolated incidents, these occurrences wouldn't mean much. But examined as a whole, it is clear refugees are paying the price as Turkey deals with its own internal affairs and attempts to clear out anyone it deems a threat.

 In Lebanon, three refugee camps were destroyed in a matter of days, two of them destroyed by fires and one of them raided by Lebanese authorities. Dozens of Syrian refugees were arrested in the Arsal camp raid in the name of "fighting terrorism", and at least five of them were returned as bodies, tortured to death in custody.

 In the days after these incidents, Lebanon's prime minister, Saad Hariri, published a series of tweets, including in them a call to put pressure on the Assad regime to allow the UN to build camps on the Syrian side of the shared border as a means to better protect Lebanese interests.

 Hezbollah, a backer of the Assad regime and abuser of the Syrian people, is now brokering deals with various actors in Syria to force refugees back over the border from Arsal. Tension in Lebanon is at all-time highs, as is anti-Syrian refugee sentiment.

 And it is not just Syria's neighbours. In the West, the United States and France have been the loudest about their willingness to acquiesce to Russian demands in Syria. Furthermore, the US has already reached the 50,000 refugee resettlement cap set by the Trump administration, meaning that not only is it allowing abuses to be committed on its behalf in Syria, it is also actively blocking victims of its crimes in Syria from seeking refuge in the US. Syria is also one of the six countries included in Trump's travel ban, which is now being battled in the courts.

 In one way or another, all of these major players have contributed to Assad and his allies clinging to power and have obstructed the Syrian revolution. Yet, they now have the audacity to resent the presence of Syrian refugees within their borders.'

Syrian refugees rejected because of links to group that opposes brutal Assad regime

Khaldoun Senjab, right, with his wife and children were described by a Canadian official who interviewed them in Lebanon last year as a "beautiful family that will settle well." That was before he was deemed inadmissible.

 'Hooked to an artificial respirator, Khaldoun Senjab has been identified by the United Nations as a Syrian refugee for priority resettlement.

 A Canadian official who interviewed the computer systems programmer in Lebanon last year noted on the refugee sponsorship application for Senjab, his wife and two children: “Beautiful family that will settle well.”

 That’s why the family was shocked to receive a rejection letter from the Canadian visa post in Beirut in April, saying Senjab was inadmissible because of his work with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, an opposition umbrella group recognized by the United States, as well as countries in the Middle East and Europe, as Syria’s legitimate representative.

 “We escaped death and war in Syria to face a very difficult situation in Lebanon. Just imagine the situation for a woman with her ventilator-dependent quadriplegic husband,” said a frustrated Senjab, who is restricted to lying in bed after a serious diving accident in 1994.

 “The decision of the Canadian visa officer was absolutely unfair. They treated me like a criminal. I did nothing wrong. They didn’t only break my heart but they broke the heart of my tiny little family.”

 According to the Immigration Department, visa officials have rejected 381 cases, or 3 per cent, of the 11,333 Syrian private sponsorship applications received between Nov. 4, 2015, and July 20 this year. Of those, nine cases were refused due to the applicants’ alleged association with a group “engaged in or instigating the subversion” of a government.

 The Syrian opposition coalition was launched in 2012 with the goal of “overthrowing” the regime of Bashar Assad and building a democratic, pluralistic Syria. It works with the Free Syrian Army — made up of defected Syrian Armed Forces and supported by the United States, United Kingdom, France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — to protect civilians. Canada has not recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the country’s legitimate representative.

 “Although we cannot comment on a case, we can say that applications are considered on a case-by-case basis on the specific facts presented by the applicant,” said Immigration Department spokesperson Nancy Caron.

 “Admissibility decisions are made by trained officers in accordance with the criteria set out in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.”

 Since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, five million Syrians have fled the country, with another 6.2 million internally displaced, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The death toll is estimated at over 400,000.

 The Assad regime has been condemned by the international community for its brutal attacks on its own people and use of chemical weapons.

 Critics said supporters of the Syrian opposition are particularly at risk of torture and persecution if returned to the country from temporary shelter abroad.

 “It is preposterous that the Canadian government is refusing urgent refugee cases like Senjab’s, for any kind of remote connection to the Syrian opposition,” said Toronto lawyer Tim Wichert, who represents the family in asking the Federal Court of Canada to review the government decision.

 In his client’s case, Senjab said he worked as a freelancer through a friend on the web server for the website of the coalition, providing defence against web security attacks. He said neither was he a member of the group nor did he endorse any violent activities with or against the Assad regime.

 As of the end of March, almost 46,000 Syrian refugees had settled in Canada, including 23,975 sponsored by Canadian government, 17,705 by private faith and community groups and some 4,210 in the mixed stream.

 However, there are still 14,972 Syrians in 5,652 private sponsorship applications in process. Wichert fears immigration officials are trying to “find a simple solution to clear their caseloads” by using the inadmissibility on security grounds to refuse applications.

 “Immigration’s position seems to be that anyone who worked or volunteered with the coalition is inadmissible to Canada on security grounds for engaging in the subversion of a government by force or being a member of an organization that has engaged in the subversion,” said lawyer Pierre-Andre Theriault, who is aware of at least three such cases in recent months.

 “Over 80 countries around the world, including the European Union and the United States, recognize the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The discretionary, and discriminatory, application of inadmissibility provisions seems problematic to me.”

 Theriault’s client, Mohammad Waleed Taleb, received a “fairness letter” in June from the Canadian visa post in Turkey raising concerns that the Syrian refugee could be inadmissible “due to your past activities and past employment” with the coalition.

 Taleb, 32, said he volunteered to help with creating the media office for the opposition in October 2011, advocating for human rights and democracy for a new Syria.

 “I created the websites, social media, branding and e-marketing channels. I felt it was important to be involved in the movement for democracy in Syria because of the ongoing violence in Syria being committed by the al-Assad regime against civilians,” said Taleb, who is in exile in Turkey with his wife, Duaa Khiti, and children, Khaled, 7, and Lana, 4.

 “My role was very specific within the media office and I was not directly or indirectly involved in the promotion or implementation of any violence or war crimes.”

 Taleb said life has been tough for his family as they only have temporary residence status in Turkey and he fears for their lives there because he is known to members of Daesh, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in the country and has received threats.

 “Duaa and I are terrified to return to Syria. We know that the situation in Syria has deteriorated significantly and we believe that our lives would be at risk,” said Taleb. “There is no place in Syria that my family and I can be safe.”

 Jennifer Raine, of the People of the East End Refugee Support Group that is sponsoring Taleb and his family, said she understands the needs to properly screen newcomers for security threats but Ottawa’s broad stroke against anyone associated with the Syrian opposition does not make sense.

 “It’s not that hard to tell the difference between those who work behind the desk promoting democracy and those who have weapons in their hands,” said Raine, whose group was matched with the family in December 2015.

 “These guys can’t go back to Syria. Their status in Turkey is tenuous. What are they supposed to do?” '

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