Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Syrian revolution: Between negotiating and being used as a bargaining chip

The Syrian revolution: Between negotiating and being used as a bargaining chip

 Khaled Khoja:

 'Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry announced this week it will host a meeting of the Syrian opposition later this month. The meeting, which will be held in Riyadh, aims to bring together opposition factions and form a joint negotiating delegation ahead of a new round of UN-brokered peace talks with the Syrian regime set for 28 November.

The Riyadh meeting allegedly comes at the request of the Syrian opposition, according to the ministry statement, which failed to make any mention of the umbrella body representing the Syrian opposition - the High Negotiations Committee [HNC] - despite initial recommendations to increase its members in order to enhance its negotiating powers.

Failure to mention the body in its foreign ministry statement on the Riyadh meeting has meant the end of the role of the HNC and the birth of a new body that will bring together parties from the Cairo and Moscow talks.

 The move should not be suprising following regional and international pressure on the Syrian opposition to be "more realistic" in their political demands and to keep up with recent international developments. This became clear following a joint statement between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the APEC summit on 11 November.

 The statement - which was a clear indication of Trump's alignment with Putin on Syria - reduced the conflict there simply to "a war on terror" and found that the only political way forward is through constitutional reforms followed by elections, for which dictator Bashar al-Assad will be allowed to run.

 The joint statement also makes no reference to the UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which calls for a political transition and the establishment of a transition governing body as a fundamental starting point for resolving Syria's political crisis - and so effectively renders previous statements by the US administration that there is no role of Assad in the future of Syria as useless.

 This notable shift in position will undoubtedly become the basis of any future negotiations for a political process under international auspices.

 This became particularly evident when the UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced earlier in his briefing to the Security Council that the 28 November talks will address constitutional reforms and an election in Syria, marking no real difference between the Geneva talks and the conference Putin plans to hold in Sochi.

 During the meeting, the request to have Assad removed will be overlooked and a political solution will be based on constitutional reforms and participation in a general elections, The outcome will be pre-determined - all of which were attempts previously rejected by Syrian opposition forces.

 Recently, the Syrian revolutionary and opposition forces have garnered huge amounts of international attention, particularly after the emergence of the Friends of Syria Group.

 Since the establishment of the Syrian National Council -through to the formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the HNC - intensive efforts were made in regional and international capitals to gather support for the demands of the people of Syria.

 Diplomatic efforts were based on their legitimacy due to the popular uprisings and revolutionary forces on the ground in Syria.

 However, with the emergence of support for Assad's counter-revolution, cracks began to appear over the intentions of some states within the Friends of Syria Group. This included five Arab states - Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar - as well as the US, France, UK, Italy, Germany and Turkey. It was followed by the occupation of Syria by Russian forces, which some saw as an opportunity to weaken Iranian influence in the region.

 Based on these mistaken assumptions, efforts were made to "alter" the revolution - reversing the balance between diplomatic efforts and the influence of the opposition on the ground.

 This meant that regional countries worked to link the legitimacy of the opposition with international recognition and containing the rebel forces on the ground.

 The revolutionary momentum has helped political bodies involved in the movement overcome recent dilution - beginning with the Ford-Seif initiative that was signed by the former US Ambassador Robert Ford - and the current head of the coalition, Riad Seif.

 This was aimed at ending the National Assembly, and limiting the influence of the Syrian opposition in Doha, including local councils and national figures and components to the National Council.

 Furthermore, there was also the expansion that was imposed on the coalition, including the introduction of the Ahmed Jarba bloc and his inauguration - and then subsequent overthrow - as the head of the coalition.

 This was then followed by the resignation of most members of the bloc, as well as the formation of the HNC at the Riyadh conference, which saw Russia introduced as a key international player in the Syrian conflict for the first time.

 Over the past five years the revolutionary forces on the ground in Syria have lost the majority of its military leadership. The political bodies abroad and the internal revolutionary movement have also lost influential members, and the burden of the revolution has become greater on those who seek its victory. In what seems to be apparent infiltration attempts, some corrupt individuals are making crucial decisions on behalf of the revolution.

 It is also worthy to note that the role of UN envoy Steffan de Mistura in contributing to the gradual dilution of the opposition and transforming the Geneva talks from negotiations formed on the basis of Security Council resolution 2118 into somewhat useless dialogue between the HNC and delegates formed by de Mistura and his team in Moscow and Cairo.

 This includes the meetings in Geneva and Lausanne - a move that was presented as a political consensus among all parties, including the opposition.

 It is remarkable that most of the characters who emerged from the political stampede between the revolutionary demands and international pressure were invited to participate in the new opposition conference in Riyadh.

 This meant that the new engineering output of the opposition would fit the new international framework in an unprecedented manner. But is this the way to solve the crisis?

 Dictator Bashar al-Assad began his campaign against the Syrian people's movements and demands for dignity with mottos including "None but al-Assad" and "Without al-Assad, the country burns".

 Today, the scene in Syria shows that Assad has indeed lost the basic elements of the state, which are represented in land, people, and institutions. Meanwhile, killings on the land and from the air continue, despite agreements to reduce the escalations in violence across the country. There is no longer a Syrian army, but an out-of-control group of foreign militias and mercenaries killing in its name.

 The guarantor in any agreement is the Russian occupier itself, which continues to violate the sanctity during every round of talks, whether in Geneva or Astana.

 Political realism stipulates that the political solution should root out the cause of the disaster, which in this case is Assad himself and the vicious circle of peers surrounding him. As long as the dictator Assad remains in power, the killing will continue. After Assad cut off the cord that once connected with the people, there is no longer a system that can be rehabilitated.

 Now, it is a gang run by a dictator under the supervision of the Russian occupier, which sees no solutions to a political crisis but burning land as was the case in Grozny, or agents like the President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. In short, the country has been divided into areas of influence among countries that Putin has no power to remove.

 The Syrian revolution was a natural response to a region-wide revolution calling for restored dignity and it is has changed the course of history and altered the geopolitical map of the world.

 Despite this, it is a unique case that no force - no matter how large and mighty - can contain or handle it. The most powerful element behind the revolution is the general public, despite the considerable difference in power when compared to the Russian aggressor.

 But the current approach - which largely ignores the roots of the catastrophe in Syria - will only help spread the chaos and may accelerate the collapse of the region. No solution can be imposed on the ground if it is dismissed by the general public.

 The Syrian people, who sacrificed money and self to enjoy future generations of freedom and dignity continue to repeat the same lines that have echoed since the beginning of the revolution: "The people want to overthrow the regime." '

Image result for Syrian National Coalition President Khaled Khoja

Assadist Regime and its functions, IRGC's Financing, and Troop Strengths

 'Assadist System of Rule:

 Nominally, Bashar al-Assad is still 'President of the Syrian Arab Republic'. This title has all the top executive powers. The result is that Bashar's personal authority is the same like state authority and all of his powers are derived from it.

 Further down the chain of command, civilian authorities of Syria are divided into 14 governorates; the governorates are divided into a total of 60 districts, which are further divided into sub-districts.

 A governorate is governed by a governor, which is appointed by the President (and only nominally approved by the 'Syrian government'). The governor is responsible – only to the president – for administration and public work, health, domestic trade, agriculture, industry, civil defence, and maintenance of law.

 Each governor is assisted by a local council, which is elected by a popular vote for four-years terms: each council elects an executive bureau from its members, which works with district councils and administers the day-to-day issues.

 Nominally, district councils were administered by officials appointed by the governor. These officials served as intermediaries between the central government and traditional local leaders (village chiefs, clan leaders and councils of elders). After six years of war, the reality is dramatically different.

 Before the war, local councils were dominated by members of the Ba’ath Party. Meanwhile, and especially in northern Hama, there are also representatives of the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP); in Aleppo and Homs there are Hezbollah/Syria, etc., etc., etc..

 Now, the essence of understanding the current system is knowing - and understanding - how it came into being. The background of all the militias (some are still naive enough to call them 'NDF') fighting 'for Assad' is the same. As the war erupted and then spread, Ba'athist local councils began organizing their own militias. About 50% of staff of these were members of the Ba’ath Party with a minimum of military training, and armed by the regime already since earlier times (early 1980s).

 The importance of militias continued to grow with the dissolution of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA): more than half of its staff defected by spring of 2012, while a quarter was already lost in combat. The remaining units disintegrated through the orders to secure over 2,000 checkpoints all over Syria. In the course of this process, local militias absorbed all of the police and most of SAA’s functions (which was necessary due to massive defections). Correct me if you like, but AFAIK, no description of this - extremely complex - process is available online. The only description providing minute details for every single of 20 SAA's divisions is this one: Syrian Conflagration.

 Concluding that local militias are more reliable and combat effective than the SAA, Iranian officers of the IRGC-QF (IRGC's Qods Force, i.e. 'Jerusalem Corps') then decided to expand and provide 'proper military training' (that's really a relative description) to units in question, and formalize their status. Additional militias came into being, most of which...nah: nearly all of which were recruited, established, trained and armed by the IRGC-QF. Initially, the system worked with help of local criminal networks. See so-called Shabbiha. Contrary to original militias of the Ba’ath (staffed by unpaid volunteers on temporary basis), these groups were staffed by so-called Shabbiha that served as professional militiamen. Regardless of their backgrounds militias took over the tasks of the police and began providing security.

 The status of such militias was formalized through the establishment of the National Defence Force (NDF), in November 2012. There was never any kind of trace of doubt: the 'NDF' was established by the IRGC. Every single of its units. But mind: the IRGC never established a centralized command of the NDF. Instead, it dealt - and continues to deal - with every single of militia originally established as 'NDF' as a separate entity.

 Ever since, militias are bolstered through intentional criminalisation of remaining SAA personnel: these are paid wages that make them unable to support their families, prompting continuous defections. In turn, militias are offering much higher wages and full amnesty from prosecution (whether of prosecution for defection or any other crime).

 How is then the Assadist regime controlling this situation?

 In a very simple fashion: through control of supplies. Then, as every stupid studying wars should know: supplies are the essence of war. No supplies = no war.

 In Syria, all the stocks of food (including state-sponsored grain and egg-imports), fuel, electricity, arms and ammunition, public transport, telecommunications (Syria Tel), and water supply for large cities, are controlled by:

 The president,

 His ‘Inner Circle’ (Maher al-Assad, Mohammed Makhlouf, Rami Makhlouf, Havez Makhlouf, and Thou al-Himmah Shaleesh), and

 The ‘Confidantes’ (Ali Mamlouk, Abdel Fattah Qudsiya, Jamil Hassan, Mohammad Nasif, Rustom Ghazaleh, Rafiq Shehadeh, Ali Younes, Mohammad Deeb Zaytoun, and Bassam al-Hassan).

 Persons in question are in control over a conglomerate of major companies, some of which are in private hands (like Syria Tel, owned by Makhloufs), while others are state-owned. Control over all of related companies is exercised via intelligence services responsible directly to the President (Air Force Intelligence and Military Security Intelligence). Therefore, the President, members of the ‘Inner Circle’, and the ‘Confidantes’ are in control over the water supply, bread supply, electricity supply, phone and internet services, and fuel and fertilizer supply.

 This means: anybody who wants to fight there - no matter for what reason - is dependable on the president, the 'Inner Circle', and the 'Confidantes' for arms, ammo, food, water, electricity etc. If these do not provide, the militia in question can't fight.

 ...which brings us to the topic of financing. This is a very complex issue, and I've discussed it already about a dozen of times (at least; the last time in the thread here). So let me just summarise it as follows: Assad regime is bankrupt since November 2011. Ever since, it's living from loans from Tehran. As of 2015-2016, the situation reached a point at which Tehran had to provide for up to 60% of Assadist budget. Nowadays, it's probably more. There is clear evidence for this and this is available online (can provide all the necessary links, if somebody is curious to pursue that story further).

 With other words: the IRGC finances the president, his 'Inner Circle', and the 'Confidantes' - in turn making them able to exercise control over various militias (for which fools in the West still think are 'NDF').

 The system of that control - exercised through such gangs like Quwwat Nimr - and distribution of supplies, is the essence of what is nowadays the 'SAA'. Means: there are 'divisional headquarters', based and still designated on old divisional designations of the SAA. Each of these is responsible for specific geographic area - and thus for supplying militias in the given area. That's why not only the Assadists but the Russians too have it as easy to claim, 'SAA' is doing this, and 'SAA' is doing that.

 Is that all really that hard to understand...?


There are few basic laws about any armed conflict. Primary of these is that MONEY is the essence of every war. The party that has the money can pay its combatants and buy their arms, ammo and other supplies. The party that has no money, can't do that. Long wars - like the one in Syria - are gulping money at incredible rates.

I'm now lazy to search for older links, so let me just observe that the Assadist regime went bankrupt already back in November 2011. It survived 2012 thanks to billions in fresh money printed in Russia, and the first few Iranian loans. Since 2013, Assadist regime cannot provide for more than 50% of its annual budget. Ever since, the situation is only getting worse. The last annual budget I attempted to reconstruct was the one for 2016, and it showed that the Assadist regime can't cover more than 40% of its (i.e. 'state') expenses. 

 The Assadist budget is in constant decline - from US$ 15 billion (real value) in 2011, to US$ 5.67 billion in 2017. During the same period, the World Bank's estimates for regime's reserves dropped from US$ 20 billion to US$ 700 million (by the end of 2015).

 With other words: under most favourable conditions, as of 2016, the Assadist regime was only able of buying food, fuel, electricity, arms and ammunition, public transport, telecommunications, and water supply for - at most - 40% of troops nominally fighting for it.

 Actually, that's the most enthusiastic assessment. Reason? Matter of fact is that the Assadist regime is NOT spending 100% of the money it earns for its military. On the contrary, it's unlikely to spend more than 50% of its money for the military, and this despite the war. This means that the regime can - at best - provide for something like 10-20% of troops nominally fighting for it (for number of troops in question, see below).

 This is imposing the question: who is then paying for the survival of the Assad-Regime?

 Answer: Tehran.

 Tehran has never published official figures for its spending for war in Syria - and is unlikely to ever publish anything of that kind. The only way to find out the approximate amounts of money Iran is spending there is 'circumstantial', i.e. with help of reports like this one:

 Iranian Economy, 2015 (PDF file)

 (Note: I'm sure there are going to be readers screaming, 'not the NCRI again!' I'll agree with them: anything from the NCRI must be enjoyed with a truck-load of salt. However, in this case the report in question is little else but a word-by-word translation of the Iranian budget law for 2016, with some commentary. I.e. no matter what's his motivation, the author couldn't do anything wrong, insert any fake figures or anything of that kind.)

 Under point 4 of the latter, you can find details on the Defence Budget. From what can be read there, it is obvious that this is gulping massive 23% of the entire national budget. Specifically:

 MOD gets US$ 5.2 billion

 IRGC gets 4.188 billion

 Army/Air Force/Navy are getting 1.9 billion

 JCS gets 0.6 billion

 Internal security services are getting 1.7 billion

 MOI and other intelligence services about 0.6 billion

 Construction projects related to security 0.4 billion

 'Subventions for loyalists' cost 3.8 billion (!)

 Spread of Islamic fundamentalism costs 1.5 billion.

 Note that the IRGC gets more than two times the budget of the entire conventional military. And that's not to talk about various intelligence services, 'subventions for loyalists', and even less so on IRGC's income from the Iranian, Iraq and (meanwhile) Syrian economy - which is no part of the Iranian budget, first and foremost.

 And then: this is still not all Iran is spending for defence: there are separate budgets for 'security issues', nuclear program (supposedly 'only' US$743 million; actual costs of the program between 1986 and 2013 are estimated at between US$100 and 170 billion!!!), missile program (alone the acquisition of North Korean know-how from 2009 cost Iran no less but US$ 11 billion!), Qods Force (IRGC-QF) etc.

 With other words, real spending includes the published budget + extra budgets for specific projects + secret budget + IRGC income (from parts of economy it owns) + subventions provided directly from the budget of the 'Leader of the Islamic Revolution'...

 Now, considering the IRGC and the IRGC-QF have no major arms acquisition projects running, while nuclear- and missile-related projects have their own budgets - question is: what for do they spend 4.188 billion from their official budget? Not to talk about: what for do they spend from their unofficial budgets...?

 Considering how much is the IRGC spending for 'unknown' purposes, I would say that the answer is crystal clear.

 Troop Strength:

 Estimates were ranging between a minimum and maximum of following troops:
 Assadists: 50,000-80,000
 Russians: 4,751-10,300 (here my estimate is slightly different; for details, see below)
 Hezbollah: 5,000-10,000
 IRGC: 13,000-16,000 (Iranian troops)
 IRGC: 40,000-47,000 (non-Iranian troops staffing various of IRGC's, Hezbollah/Syria's, Hezbollah/Iraq's and other allied formations).

 This meant following totals: - Assadists: 50,000-80,000 - Foreign Troops: 62,751-83,300


 1.) IMHO, the figure of 4,571 Russian troops in Syria can be seen as something like 'average' and 'conservative'. That number is based on the number of Russian citizens eligible to vote in Russian elections - i.e. at one, certain point in time. There are times when this number is much higher. For example, back in October 2015, up to 20 battalion-sized task forces of the Russian Army were identified as deployed in the country (I provided a detailed ORBAT for Russian ground formations in period October 2015-March 2016 in the thread here). Depending on its type, a battalion of the Russian army has between 360 and 700 troops. That would mean anything between 7,200 and 14,000 troops. Then add their two-regiments-sized aviation group to that figure - and you've got the picture.

 2.) Considering the average rate of about 450 casualties a month (based on people monitoring related reporting in the social media on Assad-controlled territories) - and that for Assadists alone - these figures are meanwhile obsolete. I.e. Assadists have lost about 5,400 KIA (just KIA!) over the last 12 months, and are thus at anything between 45,000 and 75,000 troops.

 3.) Unsurprisingly (because of Assadist losses), and considering [reports of this kind](), alone the IRGC meanwhile has 80,000 troops in Syria.

 4.) Finally, majority of Syrian nationals considered as serving for Assadists in these estimates are actually not serving in Assadist formations any more. On the contrary, as can be read here, no less than 88,723 Syrians nationals are serving under IRGC's control, meanwhile.

 Changes in Demography:

 For anybody who might be 'surprised' by conclusions and figures posted above, and especially for all the characters who are now going to scream and cry 'don't believe', 'nonsense' and anything similar... well, sorry: this is just showing the extension of parallel universe in which you live. Namely, widespread practice of mis-reporting about this war by the msm but especially by the social media - resulted in creation of an alternative universe in which the Assadist state and the military are fully intact. Actually, they are not the least: they are only 'nominally existent' - because they're serving Iranian and Russian interests.

The dissolution of the Assadist state and military is a direct result of the popular uprising of 2011-2012, then the provocation of a sectarian and religious war by Assadists, 2012-2013, and then the Iranian military intervention launched in late 2012.
 Conclusions about Troop Strength and Composition:

 Assadists have far less than '50,000 troops' mentioned above: the figure is unlikely to be higher than 30,000.

 The IRGC-QF is likely to have up to 160,000 combatants under its control in Syria, of which roughly 50% are Syrian nationals, and 50% foreigners.

 With other words: numbers alone are making it clear that there's not only no SAA any more: they're making it clear that there's no 'Assadists' to speak about any more. The entire 'Syrian Army' story is a scam of epic proportions.

 Correspondingly, anybody discussing terms like 'the Syrians who support Assad' is actually talking about figures that are not comparable even with with the pre-war population of Tel Rifat any more.

 Assadist Authorisations for IRGC-QF's Commanders:

 Of course, there are still going to be characters denying even the possibility of all of this happening - although it should be more than well-known, meanwhile, that the IRGC-QF's commanders have received sweeping authorisations from nobody else but Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, a summary of everything above should make it crystal clear: it's the IRGC-QF that has the final word in Assadist-Syria. Assad and his 'Inner Circle' are little more but 'puppets' or 'useful fools' nowadays.

Obviously, in a country hamstrung by a regime as oppressive as that of Assadists - and then since 40+ years - nothing of that kind is possible to happen without an official approval, i.e. Assad's orders to 'his' commanders to listen to the IRGC-QF.

 The situation in which the Assadist regime, its warlords and their 30,000 troops are supported by up to 160,000 IRGC-QF-controlled combatants is absolutely no surprise. On the contrary: it's a logical result of years long and very intensive conversion of the Assadist state into an IRGC-QF's fiefdom.'

The shifting red sands of Idlib

The city centre in Idlib becomes a hub of activity at sundown with people from all walks of life converging around the clock tower for shopping and socialising.

 ' “I’m afraid we have to end this meeting now,’’ said a rushed and exhausted Mohammad al Shaikh.

 It was two in the afternoon in Idlib city, where Shaikh was meeting tribal elders from Hama province, a one-hour drive away from the Turkish border. Fifteen men with sunburnt faces sat on two tables facing each other, with Shaikh and his associates seated in the centre.

 It had been a friendly exchange between Idlib’s newest leader of the ominously named Syrian Salvation government and the men whose support he desperately needs to execute his plans. And the tribal elders were well aware of their importance.

 “If you want to come to a place and lead then you need to have legitimacy with the people, the tribes, the community and the families,” said a middle-aged elder with jet black hair, whose eyes were made more intense by his red headscarf.

 It was at this moment that Shaikh asked, politely, to end the meeting.

 “They’re telling me there are planes in the air. Listen. We have to go,” he said.

 As Shaikh was meeting the tribal elders, suspected Russian fighter jets were honing in on a target a few kilometres away. Sixty-four people were killed in the attack on a street in Atarib – a border town between Idlib and the western Aleppo governorates.

 The attack threatened to break a fragile ceasefire, which was the result of an agreement reached in Astana between Turkey, Russia and Iran on May 4. The idea was to set up four so-called de-escalation zones across Syria, including Idlib.

 Turkish armoured vehicles and soldiers crossed the border in Hatay into Idlib on 13 October. Their mission was to build at least 14 checkposts in Idlib to monitor the ceasefire, as well as keep tabs on the PKK-linked YPG terror group in neighbouring Afrin.

 The YPG – flush with US weapons and air support – made significant gains across northern Syria, capturing tens of thousands of kilometres from retreating Daesh fighters. US support for the YPG had continued, despite Daesh’s defeat in Raqqa and elsewhere. It had raised Turkey’s concerns about the YPG attacking Idlib, further extending the terror group's reach along the border.

 "The truth is evident. Our strategic partner, the US, carried out the Raqqa operation with the YPG despite our objections,”said a disappointed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For months, he’d been raising the alarm against the YPG with his American NATO allies, but Erdogan’s words were met with silence.

 “The Americans said the YPG and the PKK were not the same. The US delivered more than 3,500 truckloads of weapons to the region. We know where they were used," he said.

 “There could be a more dangerous project of dividing Syria. For this very reason, our task is to revive the Syrian revolution by giving it the momentum it used to have in its first days,” Shaikh said at an undisclosed location soon after his meeting with the tribal elders. Our journalists have been among the few international teams able to enter Idlib city since 2014.

 Our trip had been made possible with the willful retreat of Hayat Tahrir al Sham – formerly called Al Nusra Front and later Jabhat Fateh al Sham, which had been in control of Idlib since 2016. Despite controlling the area, the group had largely stayed clear of providing locals with essential services.

 It had led to the rise of neighbourhood or local councils. They worked much like co-operatives elsewhere, from collecting trash to supplying water to installing and maintaining community-run generators.

 Muhammad Mahfuz Qalaa, who was an engineer before the Syrian war started in 2011, had become one of the local council leaders as the regime cut off essential public services.

 “During the revolution and people started to migrate to northern Syria, especially to towns across Idlib,” Qalaa said.

 "My area’s infrastructure was built to handle only 20,000 people. But now there are one hundred and 20,000 people living there,” a frail-looking Qalaa said.

 Idlib province in northern Syria had an estimated population of one million Syrians. But now an estimated four million people are residing there. Many are escaping the regime and YPG-held territory to Idlib city, which is one of the last remaining major urban centres left in the hands of the opposition.

 “There is a serious need to renovate the infrastructure including the public water system, the sewage system, waste management and the electricity grid,” Qalaa told us, adding there were very limited resources available to do this.

 “Hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in Idlib are jobless. There is no income. We have to work on creating income sources for this poor people,” said Shaikh.

 He seemed relaxed despite the suspected Russian attack on Atarib earlier, which had forced his early exit from the meeting with the tribal elders.

 “Of course it is a very hard mission to be carried out by the Salvation Government. Our work is born in a very critical phase in terms of political situation and services. I mean the global political reaction to the Syrian cause. There is a kind of push to end the Syrian revolution and shore up the Assad regime,” he said.

 The regime of Syrian leader Bashar al Assad had been making steady progress against enemies of all stripes. It had retaken territory from Daesh as well as from Syrian opposition groups. With the help of its Iranian and Russian-backed forces, Assad had exhausted countless ammunition halos, killings hundreds of thousands on his way to victory. So-called “siege and surrender” tactics had enabled Assad to starve out any remaining opposition to his brutal rule. And his regime had smartly used international reaction to pictures of starving children to generate a global outcry which then would be used by Assad and his allies to force the surrender of opposition groups in besieged areas.

 It had happened in places like Madaya and Zabadani and had silenced what had remained of the opposition fight in Aleppo. Millions of people had been displaced and the majority had made their way to the remaining opposition pockets in Azaz and Idlib.

 And neither were these pockets of resistance were not spared. The attack in Atarib earlier that day was one of hundreds of aerial attacks carried out by suspected Russian warplanes across Idlib. Markets, schools and hospitals were bombed. It had forced people to take essential services underground – literally.

 “Before the (de-escalation zone) ceasefire came into effect, there was heavy shelling on Idlib.

 Hospitals were heavily targeted. We had to move locations four times due to the continuous targeting of medical facilities. We are now underground and surrounded by earth embankments and sand sacks,” Hussain Yasin said from a location inside Idlib city. He was nervous about sharing details of the location for fear of being identified.

 “The Russians use spies to locate a hospital and then bunker buster missiles, that turn these underground facilities into compact graveyards’’, he said. As he spoke the doctor was interrupted by a rush of stretchers being brought into the emergency room. “Can you please step aside”, he asked us politely and then rushed in their direction.

 “Most of the cases we treat are either gunshot or shrapnel wounds”, said Dr Mohammad Abrash, the medical director of the undisclosed and underground Idlib Central Hospital. The facility was being funding and supplied by the Syrian American Medical Society, even then there was a shortage of almost everything.

 “We need beds, we need medicine, but most important we need a proper facility. Look at our working conditions. And the number of people being bought here keeps on increasing”, said a concerned Abrash.

 “The first thing is to be establish security and safety”, said Shaikh, the leader of the Syrian Salvation government. “We want to restore the security through the Ministry of Interior affairs. Seven years have passed without security. Cars are without tags. People are without IDs. So our main concern now is to restore security. Justice comes after security. Any government has to establish security and justice.”

 Shaikh was elected through the local councils soon after Turkish troops entered Idlib. Now meeting us in the shadow of fighter jets hovering the skies over Idlib, Shaikh was aware that his fortunes were inevitably tied to Turkey’s interests in northern Syria.

 “We will succeed if we build a strategic alliance which binds the pro-Syrian revolution people on one side and the Turkish government along with its people on the other,” he said.'

Several dozen health facilities have been bombed by the regime and its Russian allies in Idlib, forcing hospital emergency services to go underground.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Assad Regime Warplanes Bomb Vital Humanitarian Aid in Ghouta

Assad Regime Warplanes Bomb Vital Humanitarian Aid in Ghouta

 'The Syrian government and allied Russian warplanes strengthened their heavy bombardment on the Eastern Ghouta this week, destroying a food warehouse in the city of Douma three days after its stock was delivered, while heavy clashes continue to take place in the Adarat al-Marakabat (Vehicles Administration) in the city of Harasta.

 The head of the town council of Douma, Iyad Abdulaziz, said that the Assad regime forces had on Wednesday bombed a storehouse containing food aid for the residents of the Damascus Ghouta, who are suffering from a severe humanitarian crisis. He added that the humanitarian groups had distributed two thirds of this aid before the distribution process was suspended due to the heavy fighting which broke out in the area.

 According to the local Red Cross, Douma saw last Sunday the entry of an aid convoy of 24 trucks carrying food and medicine needed by 21,500 people in the besieged city. The delivery was the first of its kind in nearly three months.

 "There was a strike on the warehouse — two rockets. A third of the aid was still in there," Abdulaziz told AFP, adding: "The guys picked up as much [of the remaining aid] as they could, and we moved it to a different location."

 Because of the ferocity of the bombardment on Wednesday, schools shut their doors out of fear for the students as warplanes targeted residential areas and regime forces bombed cities and towns of the Ghouta with rockets.

 Douma is one of the biggest cities in the Eastern Ghouta controlled by the opposition. Regime forces have imposed a total siege on it, with Assad’s army and Russia continuing their bombardment despite Douma being part of the de-escalation zones agreement which was reached between Iran, Russia and Turkey, and implemented since July 2017.

 This comes as heavy clashes continue between Syrian opposition fighters and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces at the Adarat al-Marakabat in the city of Harasta, which neighbors Douma in the Damascus countryside.

 The Ahrar al-Sham rebel group published a video clip of the heaviest fighting which is occurring at Adarat al-Marakabat, with the video showing the moment of the clashes and the entry of the opposition forces inside the building and seizing of weapons which they captured after killing regime forces members.

 Opposition forces are imposing a media blackout on the events of the battle likely for military reasons, and to preserve the secrecy of the details of the fighting.

 On an official statement on Wednesday, Ahrar al-Sham announced the beginning of the battle, “They Have Wronged,” to take control of the Adarat al-Marakabat.

 According to the statement, which Alsouria Net gained a copy of, “The battle comes amid the worsening humanitarian situation in the Eastern Ghouta and the repeated targeting by regime forces of the cities and towns of the Eastern Ghouta despite the fact that it is under the de-escalation zones [agreement].”

 The statement said that “the battle achieved its first stage successfully, with its aim to take full control over the Adarat al-Marakabat, in addition to Rahba 446 adjacent to it, as it is a strategic area for the regime in terms of its logistical role and the positioning of Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah militia forces in it.”

 According to photos published by the Harasta Coordination Council, after taking the building, opposition fighters recovered aid stolen by the Assad regime. The council said that “regime forces acquired U.N. aid in the military Adarat al-Marakabat, including oil packets, rice and bulgur packets, while the Ghouta residents have been forbidden a grain of wheat or rice.” '

"Rebels storming Assad regime positions at Harasta. Rebels have captured many buildings, killed Assad fighters and seized weapons, ammunition and food."

The UN Secretary General Report on Children and Armed Conflict Doesn’t Accurately Reflect the Atrocious Reality in Syria

The UN Secretary General Report on Children and Armed Conflict Doesn't Accurately Reflect the Atrocious Reality in Syria

 'The Syrian Network for Human Rights has stressed in a report released today that the U.N. Secretary General report does not accurately reflect the gravity of the atrocities of the Syrian crisis.

 The report, entitled: “Syria is the World’s Worst Country in Terms of Child Mortality” notes that the U.N. Secretary General report has shed light on the toll the armed conflict had on children, and included the violations by the parties to the conflict -government forces, and other pro-government groups or anti-government groups- against children in a number of countries in 2016 including Syria.

 According to the report, the U.N. Secretary General report comes in light of a significant escalation in offensives and indiscriminate attacks that are being perpetrated by the parties to the conflict in Syria – most notably aerial bombardment by the Syrian-Russian alliance and the warplanes of the international coalition in the governorates of Idlib, Raqqa, and Deir Ez-Zour governorates. As most of the victims of the conflict in Syria are civilians, among these civilians were children who were, and are being, killed, disfigured, and displaced. Syria needs generation to redress the humanitarian and psychological disorders that have befallen those children.

 The report stresses that there is a vast difference between what the U.N. Secretary General report said and what SNHR has been able to document. While the U.N. verified the death of only 652 children, SNHR has documented, by names and details, 3,923 children victims in 2016 alone – six times more than what the U.N. verified in Syria. This reflects a blatant carelessness in documenting children victims, and the violations in Syria in general. This is can be owed, according to the report, to the shortage of manpower in the team working on Syria at the U.N., as the OHCHR website has completely stopped counting the victims of the armed conflict in Syria in 2014, without establishing any alternative option to separately document the death toll for each new year.

 The report highlights the extraordinary importance of the report that shed light on the catastrophic reality of childhood in Syria, as the report highlighted a remarkably important point, where the report notes in most of the violations that the major perpetrator is the Syrian regime (which truly reflects the nature of the incidents and events, and is corresponded by statistics).

 Furthermore, the report notes that its sole objective is to outline some notes, where, hopefully, they are addressed in future reports through greater coordination and collaboration with the national institutions that work on documenting and archiving violations of human rights.

 The report says that no less than 251 cases of arrest made against children by Syrian regime forces have been documented in 2016 compared to only 12 cases documented in the U.N. Secretary General report.

 According to the report, the U.N. Secretary General report holds armed opposition factions as the party most responsible for recruiting children, which contradicts the incidents monitored by SNHR that monitored no less than 1,926 cases of children being conscripted by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, trumping all other parties in that respect.

 The report also stresses that the U.N. Secretary General report has failed to address the toll of children victims who were killed chemical attacks carried out by Syrian regime forces that resulted in the killing of 21 children and injured 35 others in 25 different chemical attacks carried out by Syrian regime forces in 2016 alone. Additionally, the U.N. Secretary General report didn’t address the children victims who were killed in attacks by government forces and their Russian allies in which cluster munitions and landmines. There has been, according to SNHR report, no less than 171 attacks using cluster munitions by Syrian-Russian alliance forces that resulted in the killing of 113 children.

 The report calls on the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict to coordinate and work with Syrian human rights groups who are active in the field of documenting and archiving violations in Syria, in order to contribute to and assist the U.N.’s efforts for the sake of obtaining more comprehensive and accurate information and data on Syria.

 Also, the report emphasizes that the team working on documenting the violations in Syria at the OHCHR should be expanded, and called for Issuing immediate statements in the event of massacres against children in Syria, which was the case, for instance, in incidents where schools and kindergartens were directly bombarded by the Syrian-Russian alliance.'

Syrian rebel leader Abdul Qader Saleh dies of injuries sustained in airstrike

Image result for Abdul Qader Saleh

 Four years ago.

'To the extent that Syria’s leaderless revolution has any leaders at all, Aleppo’s Abdul Qader Saleh was one of them, perhaps the only figure to have emerged from the chaos of the uprising who could claim a broad and genuine following.

 His death over the weekend from injuries sustained in a government airstrike came as a bitter blow to a rebel force struggling to hold its own, not only against a reinvigorated government army but also the growing challenge posed by al-Qaeda-linked radicals.

 As the military leader of the Tawheed Brigade, the biggest rebel battalion in the northern province of Aleppo, Saleh oversaw at least 10,000 men, making him one of the most powerful military commanders in the country. He had also emerged as its most potent leader.

 A warlord who wore a hoodie and walked with a slouch — unlike some of his more swaggering peers — he was not without critics. But he was also a charismatic figure who seemed to inspire a level of devotion among his supporters that has been rare in the ranks of the chronically divided opposition.

 As tributes to his heroism and humility flooded Twitter and YouTube, opposition supporters in Aleppo fretted about what may follow now that his unifying presence is gone. “Any defection might happen, or the brigade could even collapse after the shock of his departure,” said Rifai Rifaat, an Aleppo journalist. “Or the same shock might strengthen the brigade, which is carrying the biggest burden of the current battles in Aleppo.”

 Saleh’s death could hardly have come at a more difficult time. The rebels are suffering setbacks nationwide, and the capture of the strategic town of Safira last month by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad signaled rebel vulnerability in the one part of the country where it was assumed they were secure.

 The setbacks, accompanied by a surge of rebel infighting, prompted the resignation this month of another key Aleppo military leader, Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, whose rivalry with Saleh was renowned. Akaidi hailed Saleh on Monday as “an icon of the revolution, a role model that is rarely seen” and described the slain leader as “a friend and dear brother.”

 “At a time when the Syrian regime is advancing on Aleppo, Saleh’s death therefore is very bad news for the opposition,” wrote Aron Lund, an analyst based in Sweden. “Even if the front holds, Tawhid could be drained of cohesion, and end up losing subunits and fighters to other groups.”

 Saleh was also a key figure in an ongoing effort to bring greater national cohesion to the rebels by uniting the bigger Islamist brigades under a single umbrella. Though a devout and conservative Muslim, he was regarded as a moderate who bridged the expanding gulf between the original revolutionary goals and the more radical form of Islamism accelerating through the rebels’ ranks as they lose hope of ever receiving Western support.

 Some of the laments posted online reflected the sense of wider loss.

 “Abdul-Qader Saleh is our revolution, his face is its beauty, and his blood its hope and its light,” an activist called Diana al-Jabri wrote on her Facebook page.

 Indeed, his death marked a watershed of sorts. At a time when attention is focusing on beheadings, lashings and other outrages perpetrated by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and the foreign jihadis who lead them, Saleh seemed to symbolize an earlier era of the war.

 A prosperous agricultural merchant in the small, rural town of Marae, Saleh was one of the earliest leaders of the protest movement that erupted in March 2011 among ordinary Syrians seeking new freedoms from a regime they had endured for 40 years.

 After the demonstrations failed and the opposition took up arms, he was among the fighters who surged into the city of Aleppo in July 2012, the biggest rebel offensive of the war. Nicknamed Haji Marae after his home town, he was one of the founding members of the Tawheed Brigade, formed to bring unity to an assortment of armed groups, and he quickly won widespread recognition, sleeping with his troops on the ground, regularly visiting the front lines and scrupulously attending to the well-being of his men.

 In one famous incident captured on YouTube, he barely flinched as warplanes struck nearby, declaring: “Nobody dies until God gives him his life and his date of death.”

 Saleh’s critics point out that he did little to rein in the banditry and looting that marred the first months of rebel control in Aleppo; the chaos helped build support among frustrated ordinary residents for rival Islamist groups. Saleh seemed more focused on military strategy and taking care of his men than on forging the wider political alliances that might have helped avoid the disarray that is now threatening the rebels’ military gains.'

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Revolutionary military forces refuse Red Crescent aid to approach northern Aleppo

Revolutionary military forces refuse Red Crescent aid to approach northern Aleppo

 'Revolutionary forces announced on Friday that they would not allow the Syrian Red Crescent organization to enter northern Aleppo, "the areas of the Euphrates Shield", and infiltrate the area under the pretext of the distribution of international aid, considering that the organization is an intelligence institution led by the regime.
 "The Syrian regime tries to fish in troubled water through its (Red Crescent) intelligence agency," Hour Killis operations room said in a statement , adding "The regime is seeking to infiltrate the Euphrates Shield area under the pretext of bringing international aid to al-Bab city, in an effort to highlight itself as a" needs supplier for the people before the international community. "

 The commander of the military council of al-Bab city, "Abu Ibrahim al-Taweel" told AlDorar AlShamia network : The Syrian Red Crescent has been in contact with the local council in al-Bab, in order to introduce humanitarian aid from the town of Tadef, which was rejected directly.

 Al-Taweel added that, the city of al-Bab in particular and the region in general definitely need assistance, especially with the presence of thousands of displaced, but the areas of the eastern Ghouta and besieged towns in Homs and Damascus come in the first place. However, if the Red Crescent is sincere in its intention to provide assistance, it must enter the Turkish territory through the crossing points between the two countries.

 For its part, Hour Killis operations room considered that the region does not need this aid, and the Red Crescent has to send such supplies to the besieged areas in the eastern Ghouta and the countryside of Homs and trapped people in Deir al-Zour and desert camps.
For several days, the Syrian Red Crescent has been trying to communicate with local councils and civilian bodies in northern Syria in order to obtain information on the population numbers and details of their lives, on the pretext of preparing lists for submission to the Red Cross for international assistance.'

Revolutionary military forces refuse Red Crescent aid to approach northern Aleppo

 "An example of the trouble with aid organisations in a one party state, a Hama based coordinator for SARC on site and in her private life. When the aid agency's staff is dominated by openly partisan people in such a brutal war, aid deliveries can become another instrument of war."

Former Syrian prisoners are firing back at the Assad regime

Syrian activist Yazan Awad, 30, was tortured for over four months in various prisons belonging to Syria's Air Force Intelligence Directorate. David Crossland for The National.

 'Yazan Awad, an engineering student, was 24 when he was imprisoned in a Syrian jail in November 2011 for taking part in more than 100 protests against the regime in Damascus and helping fellow activists who had been forced out of the country. Guards broke his jaw in a beating as soon as he arrived to the prison. He received no medical attention, and other inmates had to pre-chew his food for him.

 For 137 days he was held in various prisons belonging to Air Force Intelligence Directorate, regarded as the most brutal of Syria’s four intelligence agencies. He was beaten with cables and with wooden poles that had nails embedded in them.

 His wounds turned septic but, again, he received no medical care. He was given electric shocks and hung from the ceiling by his wrists which were tied behind his back — a technique which puts massive strain on the shoulders. On some days he was tortured for up to 10 hours.

 The 36th day was the worst when he was repeatedly sexually assaulted with the barrel of a rifle, causing such damage that he ate only small amounts of food on alternate weeks because using the toilet was so painful.
 Yazan believes his unshakeable insistence that he had no information about other activists saved his life, along with testimony from fellow activists who denied any knowledge of him — and the large bribe his family paid to secure his release. “When I got out of jail I was so thin. I was about 32 kilos, and when I went in I was 109 kilos,” Yazan said. Now 30, he is bespectacled, strongly built and speaks in a quiet, measured voice.

 “My family wanted to send me out of the country but I didn't have the strength to walk. I couldn’t even hold a spoon to eat and my mouth was always open because it was damaged from being hit.”

 “But my father is a dentist so he repaired my jaw," he added with a laugh.

 Now, he wants justice and has testified with 13 former prisoners in two criminal complaints filed to the German Federal Public Prosecutor last week.

 Compiled by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the complaints relate to crimes against humanity and war crimes by the government of president Bashar Al Assad.

 They name high-ranking officials, including National Security Bureau chief Ali Mamlouk, Air Force Intelligence Directorate chief Jamil Hassan, defence minister Fahd Jasim Al Furayi and military prosecutor Mohammed Hassan Kenjo

 “What has happened in Syria is a case for humanity, not only for Syrians,” said Yazan. “You too are related to our case because you are human.”

 It took two-and-a-half years for him to recover physically and mentally from his ordeal.

 “The first year I was always dreaming that they are coming to take me again, and the screaming of my friends was always on my mind," he said. His parents also sought help for him from seven psychologists.

 A year after his release, he fled to Egypt with his family but decided not to stay because he was unable to get a job or marry. He moved on to Turkey, where he joined the multitude of refugees making the dangerous, illegal sea crossing to Europe in November 2015.

 He now lives in Germany with his wife, a fellow refugee.

 Germany, which has taken in more than 600,000 Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the conflict in spring 2011, is taking the lead in efforts to collate evidence and launch investigations that could one day trigger war crimes prosecutions against the Syrian leadership for the systematic torture and killing of civilian opponents.

 “Almost everything happening in Syria is taking place systematically by hierarchical state organisations, especially the torture policy, which has been part of the DNA of the Assad regimes, both father and son, for decades,” said Wolfgang Kaleck, a lawyer and co-founder of the ECCHR.

 Amnesty International estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 people have been executed in the notorious Saidnaya military prison outside Damascus and a further 18,000 have died in other prisons.

 “All sides in the Syrian conflict have committed human rights abuses, but we believe the Syrian government is responsible for by far the biggest part of them,” said Rene Wildangel, an Amnesty International expert for the Middle East. “Up to 75,000 people have disappeared in Syrian prisons with no access to families or lawyers or to the outside world.

 “Most victims are members of the civilian Syrian opposition, convicted on the basis of forced confessions in front of military courts in a matter of minutes. Many experts describe the human rights abuses as the best documented crime since the end of the Second World War.”

 At present, war crimes trials against the leaders of the Syrian regime appear to be a distant prospect at best. But activists said the opening of formal legal proceedings was a crucial first step that could give comfort to the victims, highlight their suffering to Europeans opposed to taking in refugees, deter the perpetrators in Syria and eventually trigger prosecutions.

 “When Spanish lawyers filed complaints against [Augusto] Pinochet they didn’t foresee that he would be arrested while shopping in London three years later,” said Mr Kaleck, referring to the former Chilean dictator detained under an international arrest warrant in 1998 for human rights violations.

 Syria’s leaders were dreaming of a future in comfort in Europe, said Syrian lawyer Anwar Al Bunni, who helped to compile the complaint.

 “They think that after a political solution they will run away to Europe. They will not run to Iran or Russia because they don’t like it there, they will run to Europe with the money they’ve stolen from the Syrians and come to live here as kings,” he said. “But we are sending a message to them: there will be no safe place in the whole world that will accept you.”

 War crimes must be addressed in the forthcoming eighth round of Syrian peace talks due to open in Geneva on November 28, said Mr Al Bunni, who also spent time in a Syrian jail.

 “Justice is like life. It is very important for rebuilding the peace in Syria. Without justice, people won’t feel safe, they will feel they could be a victim at any time,” he said.

 So far though, all international efforts to launch prosecutions have failed. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague cannot act because Syria is a not signatory, and China and Russia have vetoed the UN's attempts to allow the ICC or a special tribunal to proceed.

 That leaves Germany, which is rigorously applying the principle of universal jurisdiction that allows national prosecutors to pursue people accused of international crimes even if they were committed in another country and neither the accused nor the victims are German nationals.

 Germany is one of only three European countries (with Sweden and Norway) applying universal jurisdiction over war crimes and was one of the first to incorporate universal jurisdiction — which is enshrined in the ICC’s statute — into its own national criminal code in 2002. It set up a war crimes unit at the federal prosecutor’s office in 2010 and opened up two general investigations into Syrian human rights abuses and ISIL in 2011.

 The system works. Germany first applied the principle of universal jurisdiction in the trial of two Rwandan rebel leaders who were sentenced by a court in Stuttgart to long jail terms in 2015.

 “There is no German interest, no German victim, this is for the Syrians, this is the first time we feel that somebody, some country, someone else respects our need for justice only because we are human,” said Mazen Darwish, a Syrian human rights activist and journalist who was imprisoned in Syria.

 “This means a lot. Somebody cares. And this makes a difference to each Syrian, especially those refugees in Germany. Again, Germany is taking the ethical leadership in justice after the ethical leadership in the refugee issue,” he said.

 He said the country’s experience in dealing with its Nazi past helped explain the role it was taking now.

 “They understand from their own history that you can’t build a sustainable future without dealing with the past," said Mr Darwish.

 The two complaints filed last week supplemented another one brought in March by Syrian survivors of torture living in Germany. The prosecutor’s office has started interviewing witnesses.

 In addition, in September, photos of thousands of victims in the so-called Caesar Report — taken by a photographer known only as Caesar whose job was photographing killed detainees for the Syrian military police — were submitted to the federal prosecutor, who has commissioned a forensic report on the images.

 “This means Germany is playing a leading role in securing evidence and is ready to share this evidence with other European justice authorities and in the future with international tribunals. That’s very important fundamental work for the future,” said Mr Kaleck.

 The plaintiffs are confident that their cases will soon be formally investigated. So far, German justice authorities have focused on indicting low-ranking former members not of the regime but of ISIL and Al Nusra in cases linked to terrorism offences. The federal prosecutor has launched proceedings against 28 people to date.

 “We want cases to be directed against the most senior people responsible for the torture crimes,” said Mr Kaleck. “We want Ali Mamlouk and Jamil Hassan to be on the cover of those files in future.”

 Yazan, the torture victim now living in Germany, says he wants to return to rebuild his homeland one day. He has forgiven the men who tortured him.

 “They are tools for the regime, so I don’t care about them. I care for Jamil Hassan and Bashar Al Assad. I believe in justice and that it will happen in the end but it needs time. I am speaking out to make it happen faster.” '

A satellite image shows Syria's military-run Saidnaya prison, located 30 kilometres north of Damascus. CNES and ASTRIUM / Amnesty International via AFP

UN allowing Assad government to take lead in rebuilding Aleppo

People walk past the old customs buildings (L) and Peoria restaurant (R) near Aleppo's historic citadel, in the government controlled area of the city, Syria December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki - RC1A5D700FD0

 'The United Nations is rebuilding the devastated city of east Aleppo under the direction of the dictatorial Assad regime that destroyed it, according to U.N. planning documents.

 The plans, coordinated by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Syrian Government's Ministry of Local Administration and Environment, underline the extent of control the regime continues to exercise over the ostensibly neutral humanitarian program in the country.

 They also stoke fears that the rebuilding program, part of the next phase of a multibillion-dollar humanitarian response plan for Syria, will entrench the displacement of tens of thousands of Syrians who fled Aleppo before it fell to Assad’s forces in December 2016.

 An official working on the Syria response, who asked to remain anonymous, said the plans are “not practical and don't take into account the refugees from eastern Aleppo.” The official added the plan had the potential to “cause social problems due to its inequitable planning priorities.”

 East Aleppo made headlines last year, as a months-long siege and savage military and air campaign by the Syrian Army, backed by Russian warplanes and Iranian-trained militias, led to a forced evacuation of the last supporters of the armed opposition.

 The attacks included air assaults and poison gas attacks on hospitals, schools and food markets, as well as forced deportations.

 The U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic stated that from July to December 2016, parties to the conflict committed “serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes.”

 That was only the crescendo of disaster for East Aleppo, which was bombed into ruins for the two previous years, and saw a huge drop in its population as a result.

 In planning to rebuild and repopulate the city, two parallel processes are now taking place: an internationally-supported humanitarian plan to deal with the needs of Syrians living in, and returning to, east Aleppo; and a much narrower development plan focused on reconstructing the historic Old City at the center of town.

 A document outlining the broader, multi-agency humanitarian response, specifies suburbs that the Assad government and the local municipality have earmarked as priorities for returnees.

 According to the internal document, the process for deciding on how to rebuild east Aleppo started with the government outlining 15 priority areas in the city for population returns. These were mapped over 10 U.N.-designated “Shelter Cluster” priority areas, chosen after the humanitarians assessed the security, practicality of allowing refugees to return, and needs, in each of the areas in the city. The mapping exercise then compared the lists and identified eight areas that appeared on both lists as the focus of rehabilitation resources.

 A “multi-sector” pilot project is then identified within three of these neighborhoods, as a further initial target for rebuilding resources.

 Matching up the planning documents with U.N. press releases issued throughout 2017 reveals that such projects as school refurbishment, health center repairs and new community centers in Aleppo fall almost exclusively within the priority areas of the city outlined by the government.

 In fact, even though 52 east Aleppo neighborhoods were returned to government control by the time east Aleppo fell, some of the eight identified neighborhoods defined as priority areas by the regime and included in the U.N.’s own plans are not in eastern Aleppo at all. They fall instead in the west and center of the city in neighborhoods that were not part of the months-long siege and military campaign in 2016.

 A leaked draft of the U.N.’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2018 outlines that risks within the shelter cluster include “the potential for aid diversion, corruption and empowerment of parties to the conflict, which should be addressed by all partners through their intervention design, management and monitoring systems.”

 The draft goes on to say that rehabilitation plans “must include an understanding of context-specific Housing, Land and Property issues.” These risk assessments and mitigations, intended to ensure U.N. plans do not contribute to the possibility of displaced persons being permanently forced out of their homes, do not appear to have been factored into Aleppo plans.

 The UNHCR document does not address expansive areas of improvised and unofficial housing further east in the devastated city, which tens of thousands of refugees fled to escape the violence inflicted on the area. In other words, those people may now face the very real prospect of permanent displacement.

 During the conflict, more than 30,000 of Aleppo’s property records were destroyed, the majority of which related to properties in the east, and in the Old City. Without property records, residents may be unable to prove ownership of their home, or even access compensatory payments or services.

 Aleppo’s historic Old City has been separated from the broader humanitarian planning process, and is under the supervision of a so-called “National Higher Steering Committee for the Restoration of the Old City of Aleppo.” The most recent meeting of that committee, publicized on Nov. 2 by the Syria Trust for Development, a non-government organization associated with Syria's first lady, Asma Assad, was hosted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

 Asma Assad, and the charity she founded, are longtime partners of the U.N. in Syria. They are undertaking a large amount of relief and development work throughout the country using U.N. funds.

 The Old City reconstruction plan is led by the Syrian Government's Ministry of Culture, and works closely with the Ministry for Public Works and Housing, and the Ministry for Tourism, as well as UNESCO and the UNDP, along with other government bodies and NGOs.

 The Old Aleppo program is similar in design to that used in the rehabilitation of the Old City portions of Homs, a city south of Aleppo, which began in 2015 and continues today. There, too, the neighborhoods chosen for rebuilding appeared to prioritize the government's plans for the city, rather than any form of neutrality.

 The Syria Institute and PAX for Peace, advocacy organizations that have worked together to monitor sieges and forcible displacements in Syria, heavily criticized the U.N.’s interventions in Homs. Their report, titled No Return to Homs, detailed a series of interventions by the U.N. and the Assad government which, the report charged, would prevent refugees from Homs who fled the city, and others forcibly displaced from the Old City in 2014, from returning -- in effect, a political form of social engineering.

 According to No Return to Homs, the process to establish priorities for Homs rehabilitation, and to decide which properties could be restored vs. which would require demolition, has been opaque, and has not included any persons not currently in the city itself. “None of the displaced participants reached for this study had been contacted by any organizations or agencies regarding the property they left behind,” the report noted.

 Rather than acknowledge those failings, the Aleppo planning process uses Homs as an example of how best to proceed with assessing damage and reach out to the beneficiaries of rebuilding relief. And it states that the terms of reference for the Aleppo plan are “endorsed by Homs Governorate.”

 The executive director of the Washington-based Syria Institute, Valerie Szybala, charges that “the U.N. agencies engaging in reconstruction work in areas like eastern Aleppo are -- at least publicly -- maintaining a willful ignorance, putting on blinders to the fact that the Syrian regime is taking very real steps to prevent many civilians from returning to their homes," she says.

 UNHCR declined to answer questions about the decision to put at the top of the list the Syrian government's priorities in Aleppo. But that hasn’t stopped them undertaking a heavily criticized social media campaign aimed at fundraising for their work in the city.

 UNHCR also has press releases about its work in east Aleppo stating that “For those that have chosen to return to Aleppo since the fighting stopped, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners are providing assistance to help people get back on their feet.” They have backed this up with a supplementary funding request to donors for $156 million for the last quarter of 2017.

 In an October report on Aleppo’s new political and social order sponsored by Germany’s Friederich Ebert Foundation, Kheder Khaddour, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, observed that many east Aleppo neighborhoods were previously populated by “poorer new migrants from the countryside” who continued to identify with their home villages or other parts of the country while working for factory owners, often independent of the regime, who lived in the wealthier western portions of the city.

 Those communities have now been savagely disrupted, including their entrepreneurs and, as Khaddour puts it, the conflict “has reshaped the balance of power between Aleppo and the regime in Damascus.” A “new class of war profiteers are the new power network Damascus is using to dominate Aleppo today, and the regime intends to use this network in ruling post-conflict Syria,” he says.

 If rehabilitation is truly intended to offer hope and recovery to the displaced populations who now face this social divide, Khaddour says, “reconstruction aid should be provided only on the condition that no security restrictions will be placed upon the return of refugees and IDPs, and that independent Syrian technocrats should be involved in the reconstruction process in an oversight function to its spending and management.” '

Residents walk near damaged buildings in the rebel held area of Old Aleppo, Syria May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail/File Photo - RC1FE5D0C050