Thursday, 25 January 2018

Not to fight the Kurds, but to save them from the YPG

Azad Sabu, commander, Free Syrian Army: "I'm taking part in this offensive, not to fight the Kurds, but to save them from the terrorism of the YPG. They planted terror into the heads of our youth."

 Refugee in Azaz: "The Kurdish militia stole our villages, killed our young people, and displaced us Arabs. God should bless the military offensive."

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

In Douma women model resilience

 'The sound of female laughter and the cheerful beat of an Arabic goblet drum pierce the walls of a ground floor apartment in the rebel-held Syrian city of Douma.

 Such sounds seem incongruous in the city, where food is scarce and bombing attacks routine, and in a region the United Nations envoy for Syria has described as an “epicenter for human suffering.”

 Indeed, how to feed their children is just one of the extreme challenges faced daily by the women who gathered at the apartment recently to support one another and choose to be happy.

 To carve out moments of joy for Douma’s women takes a unique brand of courage and creativity. Yet Sabah, a charismatic mother of five who hosted the recent gathering, has it in spades.

 “We are the privileged ones,” says Sabah, who like others interviewed for this story spoke under a pseudonym out of concern for the safety of her family. “I am sad for the younger generation who were born during the siege and remember nothing but war. We have memories, and these memories give us strength.”

 Sabah left behind a husband and a luxurious life in Abu Dhabi to join the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in her native Douma. She recalls a time when seaside trips were snap decisions taken with the morning coffee. Now she can barely find coffee at a premium price, and leaving town is not an option.

 Douma, a conservative middle- and working-class city just 10 miles northeast of Damascus, has never been a base of enthusiastic support for Mr. Assad or his father and predecessor, Hafez. In 2011, the primarily Sunni community was at the forefront of weekly demonstrations calling at first for reform and then the ouster of the Assad regime. Forces loyal to Assad have laid siege to the rebel-held town since 2013, limiting the movement of people and the entry of food, fuel, humanitarian aid, and medical supplies.

 Last summer Russia, Iran, and Turkey brokered a de-escalation deal that included Eastern Ghouta, where Douma is located and where an estimated 400,000 people remain trapped, but residents say that days without heavy artillery and aerial bombardment remain the exception.

 Her own home reduced to rubble, Sabah converted her parents’ apartment in Douma into a safe haven for women, a place to gather and forget, even if just for a moment, the suffocating siege and seemingly endless war. She works with a charity supporting widows, divorcees, and single young women.

 Women of all ages stream into her cozy living room at the recent gathering. Small coffee tables offer plates of cookies and popcorn. Carpets cover the floor in a bid to trap the heat emitted by a stove burning coal and dry wood.

 The older women squeeze together onto wooden-based sofas, while the youngest stand to make room. They discuss political developments, fluctuating prices at the market, and swap recipes inspired by the limited produce of a city under siege.

 And they worry about how to feed their children in the Syrian city with the highest rate of malnutrition. According to a UN survey, nearly 12 percent of children under age 5 in Eastern Ghouta are acutely malnourished, about a third experience stunted growth, and mothers struggle to breastfeed.

 The impossibly slender fingers of Shams drum away at the derbake.

 She met the host back in 2011 while collecting medical supplies from Sabah. It was a year when the women of Eastern Ghouta came together to organize demonstrations, ferry medicine to field hospitals in their handbags, and distribute food aid to families in need.

 Before that, says Shams with laughter, life had been “simple, with no action.” She lived with her parents and divided her days between social activities and making tablecloths. Politics did not concern her until she witnessed indiscriminate security raids in her neighborhood.

 She describes as “good fortune” the night when a security officer turned a blind eye to her twin cousins – who lived in the same building and were old enough to be taken for military service – during a massive security sweep. Other young men were beaten and loaded into cars.

 “At that point, I knew that they (the regime) are treating us not as humans, and we saw them for who they really are,” she says.

 The indignities grew in scale and severity. A soldier setting up a machine gun at a checkpoint told her mother to run, warning that the weapon could “go off” by itself.

 “Imagine telling just anybody you are a target,” Shams says via a messaging application, the means for interviewing the other women in this story. “You cannot bear this, nor can you bear the fact that these people are the ones ruling your life.”

 In between uplifting moments of song and dance, memories bitter and sweet, the women share their present fears. These range from going out for an errand and never coming back to, even worse, returning to a home that has collapsed and crushed their relatives inside.

 Sarah, an unmarried 27-year-old teacher, works at a local elementary school, which, like much of the rest of the city, gets underway early to get as much done as possible before warplanes hit the skies.

 Lessons start as early as 6 a.m. In her class of 30 first-graders, some are so traumatized that they have learning and speech difficulties. An alarm system has been developed so that the children and teachers can shelter underground when there is shelling or air strikes near the school.

 “I go to work not knowing if I will come back or, even worse, if I will find my house standing and my brothers alive if I do make it back,” she says. “When the bombardments happen at school, my anxiety is double. It is terrifying because we worry about the safety of the children and how they will get home.”

 Before the war, she says, it would never have crossed her mind to live away from her father. Society in Douma is relatively conservative, with most women wearing the headscarf and girls living with their parents until they marry. While the new millennium brought with it increased educational and employment opportunities, few strayed beyond nearby Damascus to work or study.

 Sarah could have carried on teaching and living in relative safety in Damascus with her elderly father. Instead, she chose to live with her two brothers in Douma and care for the youngest, who was seriously wounded by shrapnel.

 Sarah says the lack of empathy among people in the government-controlled capital for those suffering in Douma, her hometown, contributed to her decision to move back in 2015.

 “Here we are home,” she says. “The people around me feel my pain, because we are all living the same conditions.”

 These friends could talk for days about their shared traumas: the first time their home was raided, the first time they crossed a checkpoint or saw someone shot by a sniper, or how they took tunnels to get out of Douma to bring supplies or visit loved ones, before the underground passages were destroyed by the regime.

 They’ve learned how to navigate life under siege. Sabah says half-jokingly that the strength and resilience of women in Douma is the outcome of dealing with stubborn and hardheaded men on the home front. It is also the outcome of being an integral part of the local economy. In the past, when Douma was mostly farmland, women tilled the land alongside men and made textiles when it wasn’t harvest season. Today, despite the siege, they are just as active.

 Sabah feels privileged for having access to generators that are strong enough to keep the lights on and electronic devices charging at night, even if they are too weak to keep a refrigerator going.

 Fuel might be scarce and costly, but Sabah doesn’t hesitate for a second to dedicate the little she has to power speakers and a phone to play songs that get the women dancing. She knows that good memories are not enough to sustain them. They must also make new ones.

 “If Sabah tells me right now that there is a gathering at her place, I will go over there immediately,” says Sarah speaking over the sound of bombing. “Life must go on.”

 Bombardment, siege, loss, and death, she adds, became “normal.”

 Her favorite memory of life under siege is the wedding of Lama, Sabah’s daughter, which took place last year on a day of intensive shelling and aerial bombardment.

 As the bride did her hair, first responders put out a fire sparked when a missile hit the building next door. Warplanes screeched overhead as Lama was driven to the wedding venue. A flat tire created further delays. Lama thought she would never make it but was overwhelmed with emotion when she reached the wedding hall and found it packed with people.

 Al-Hesba, a committee that oversees the application of Sharia law as Islamist rebel factions are the dominant force in town, did not permit the groom and his friends to join the celebration in the hall. They only allowed them to be at the main entrance. Undeterred, the men and women crammed into the designated space and broke out in song.

 “It was amazing!” recounts Lama in a later interview. “We danced and they sang for us. We had balloons filled with glitter, and they popped the balloons so all of us were sparkling.”

 Each in their own words, the women explain how if they wait for the “right” moment to be happy there will be none. The future does not carry with it the promise of immediate relief. Death is always at their doorstep with the regime closing in.

 Sabah, who is a regular participant in public meetings about negotiations between the regime and opposition, remains defiant and says there is no turning back. “There is no way we can accept Assad as the president anymore or to be back under the control of the security forces.”

 The women had a fright early one morning last week in what appears to have been another chemical attack. Half asleep and unaware of what had happened, Sabah opened her bedroom window, letting in toxic fumes. Her friends had to rush her to hospital for oxygen treatment, but she is now on the mend.'

Syrians are looking for democracy, looking for their freedom

Syrian trauma surgeon Dr. Mahmoud Hariri will speak Wednesday at 8 a.m. at the UVA Health System’s McKim Hall.

 Dr. Mahmoud Hariri:

 'So many people don’t know what’s happening in Syria. I hope these talks will help people know what’s happening on the ground and to see if there is any way for help – to help the Syrian doctors, to help the Syrian patients, and to help the Syrian people in general.

 What’s happening right now in Syria has become a global issue, not only a Syrian issue. We have to look for solutions because it will affect the world, not just a small area.

 There are so many doctors right now working inside the country under very intense situations. It’s our duty to help the innocent people who need help.

 Almost 90 percent of doctors fled the country. It’s a very difficult situation. There are some besieged areas with very few doctors who have to serve a large number of people. … But when you have a patient who survived after very hard and tough injuries and says, “Thank you, doctor,” I think that’s enough. I think that’s enough.

 There is some psychic effect on the human being when you are feeling that you are under attack. Many times our hospital has been targeted. My room itself almost collapsed. There was one facility that was targeted 25 times during this war. My hospital was targeted seven times. Two of the times I was in the hospital and fortunately survived. Part of the hospital collapsed.

 We tried to maintain the building and were underground in the basement, working in that area. To some extent, you feel you are safe, but actually it’s not safe because if the whole building collapsed, nobody would be able to get you out.

 I think the media is getting bored. The first day you see a lot in the news, the second day less, and then less day by day. So what about seven years [later]?

 We need to raise awareness. And I prefer to raise awareness slowly and constantly – by giving lectures, by telling stories. There are different ways to keep people aware about what is happening. When 9/11 happened and we say 3,000 people have been killed, it’s a number? No, those are people. Each one has a large number of people who loved him. So when you’re talking about 500,000 who have been killed in Syria – at least – that means all of the country has been affected.

 We have a large deficiency in the number of doctors. We believe establishing a university and school of medicine can help, so we started with this project. We have very few labs and not very much equipment, but we’ve started and now have third-year students and will hopefully have a next generation of doctors.

 There is hope. There is always hope. Syrians are looking for democracy, looking for their freedom.

 It’s difficult to have your freedom easily. You have to struggle for it. You have to work for it. You have to maybe risk your life for it.'

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The never-ending siege on Eastern Ghouta

Image result for The never-ending seige on Eastern Ghouta

CJ Werleman:

 'The Damascus suburb has been under siege by the Syrian regime since 2013. It is an ongoing humanitarian disaster that could become the next Aleppo.

 A siege is a military operation in which attacking forces encircle a territory, cutting off movement and supplies, while using all means of warfare to force the surrender and capitulation of those inside, including civilians. The use of terror to break the will of a hostile population is one of the oldest forms of warfare, and best exemplified in the biblical story of Jericho.

 After surrounding the walled and ancient city for seven days, located in what is now present-day occupied Palestine, Joshua commanded the Israelites to kill “every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys,” according to the Bible (Joshua 6:21).

 Four thousand years later, the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta has been under a similarly brutal siege, but from the Assad regime since mid-2013.

 In May of last year, however, Turkey, Russia, and Iran agreed to a cease-fire deal in Syria, one that marked four zones in which Assad’s forces and opposition groups would cease “hostilities.” These “de-escalation zones” or “safe havens” were an attempt to reduce the violence, particularly by grounding Assad’s air force from flying over and dropping ordinance on the designated areas.

 Despite the agreement reached in Astana, the Kazakh capital, the Syrian regime has not only continued to attack civilians and rebels in the de-escalation zones, but also escalate its medieval siege of Eastern Ghouta, a siege that includes round-the-clock shelling, mortar fire, air-strikes, and unimaginable human suffering.

 The rising civilian death toll is shocking, and the methods deployed by the Assad regime are far crueler than anything described in the Bible.

 Last week, the United Nations human rights chief condemned Syrian regime forces for the upsurge in civilian casualties, and its increasing use of airstrikes and artillery shelling of the besieged suburb, observing that more than 100 civilians, including 21 women and 30 children have been killed since the start of 2018.

 This coming on the back of intensified Assad regime attacks on Eastern Ghouta during the last six weeks of 2017. The World Health Organization reported that 84 civilians were killed and 659 injured in a three-day period in November alone, and added that more than 200 mortar shells fell on heavily populated areas from 14 to 17 November.

 “The suffering of the people of Syria knows no end,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.

 Evidently, the moral depravity of the Assad regime knows no end, either. On Monday, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces released a statement claiming the regime attacked civilians in Eastern Ghouta using chlorine gas on January 22.

 “Credible reports indicated that the attack caused dozens of asphyxiation cases among civilians in the district of Douma and that most of the injured were women and children,” reads the coalition’s statement, a claim echoed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), who added that 21 people had been hospitalised as a result of the chemical weapons attack.

 Fewer than 400,000 Syrians reside in the Eastern Ghouta area today; a number that includes approximately 100,000 internally displaced people. When I asked Hassan Hassan, a noted Syrian born author and expert on the conflict, he said that the number of opposition fighters number only in the hundreds.

 “Assad has been focusing on this area as the strategic belt of Damascus. Ghouta also overlooks an important highway linking Damascus to Homs and other routes important for supply lines and access to hills on the way to Palmyra and the Syrian desert, where the regime has become a lot more active over the last year,” Hassan told me, adding that the regime has deployed various tactics to “neutralise” the outskirts of Damascus, “either through complete destruction, forcing mass displacement, or through local ceasefires.”

 Life under siege in Eastern Ghouta is every bit as horrific as one might imagine. “Shops are empty, streets are in ruins, the shelling rarely stops,” a 20-year-old resident told Syria Deeply. “Sometimes it feels like a Hollywood movie, especially when I learn what people are coming up with in order to survive.”

 Food and medical shortages are having a dramatic impact on the wellbeing of children, with UNICEF reporting that 11.9 percent of kids in Eastern Ghouta under the age of five are suffering from severe malnutrition.

 “This is the highest rate ever recorded in Syria since the conflict started,” the aid agency stated, a crisis exacerbated by the now unaffordable cost of whatever food remains on grocery store shelves, with the World Food Program observing that the typical price of a basket of food in the area costs 8 times the national average, amounting to a staggering US$521.

 Staples such as bread and rice are either unaffordable or unattainable for most residents, and images of starving children bring back memories of the world’s worst famines. A reminder that starvation is often the weapon of choice for attackers and tyrants who seek to break the will of a people they wish to subdue.

 “We are dying here. If dying from hunger doesn’t kill us, the bombs will, or the freezing cold will do it,” a 27-year-old aid worker, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of Assad’s security forces, told me.

 An absence of medical care is another killer. Attacking hospitals and medical facilities has been a tactic used by Assad since the conflict began five years ago. Not only has the regime struck more than 300 medical facilities, but also has “assassinated, bombed, and tortured to death almost 700 medical personnel,” according to Physicians for Human Rights.

 A doctor in Eastern Ghouta told Al Jazeera that babies are dying from a lack of access to routine medical care. “As a paediatrician, I feel that the children of the world are my children. I suffer for their suffering,” he said. “How do you feel if your child dies before your eyes and you cannot give him anything? It is something painful.”

 This human catastrophe, one of Assad’s making, is taking place in almost complete media silence. Simply, the world has lost interest in the lives of those besieged in Syria.

 Eastern Ghouta promises to become “the next Aleppo unless the international community increases pressure on besieging parties and their allies,” says The Syria Institute.

 More than 31,000 died in Aleppo, and the city was reduced to rubble. A similar fate awaits Eastern Ghouta if the international community, including the UN Security Council, fails the people of Syria again.'

The goal of the Free Syrian Army is to regain 16 Arab towns and villages occupied by the YPG

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army, FSA, fighters stand on the roof of a building with a poster of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hanging on it in the Syrian town of Azez near the border with Turkey, Jan. 19, 2018.

 'Many of the rebels fighting alongside Turkish forces in northern Syria this week in a military offensive Ankara has called Operation Olive Branch come from rural northern Syria. They see the battle to wrest control of the northern Kurdish enclave of Afrin and outlying Arab villages as vengeance for the coordination they allege took place in February 2016 between the YPG and Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an offensive to encircle Aleppo.
 That offensive saw the YPG grab the opportunity to seize a string of Arab villages and towns in northern Syria to the southeast of Afrin, including traditionally Arab Tell Rifaat.

 "The problem is not only that the Kurdish fighters cooperated with the Syrian regime and the Russians during the battle for Aleppo, but that the YPG burned dozens of Arab villages and displaced their inhabitants," said Gen. Salim Idris, a former rebel chief of staff.

 The loss of Tell Rifaat was a calamity for Syrian rebels, depriving them of the chance to establish a defensive line.

 "The goal of the Free Syrian Army is to regain 16 Arab towns and villages occupied by the YPG" in 2016, said Major Yasser Abdul Rahim, the commander of Failaq al Sham, a rebel militia.

 The Turkish offensive has the support, too, of the Syrian rebels' main political organization, the Syrian Coalition, which says it is backing Ankara's intervention. The coalition is urging YPG militiamen to "pull out of the towns and villages they occupied and from which they displaced their residents." '

Syrian opposition fighters backed by Turkey walk in front of Turkish troops near the Syria border at Hassa, Hatay province on Jan. 22, 2018.

The battle in Afrin has highlighted divisions even among those opposed to Bashar Al Assad

Turkish soldiers near the Syrian-Turkish border today as Operation Olive Branch ramps up. EPA

 Faisal Al Yafai:

 'To really understand how complicated the Syrian war is becoming, it is necessary to go back a week, to a meeting in Washington between US officials and the Free Syrian Army. Senior officials of the FSA were in the US asking for the CIA to resume its programme of military aid, which was suspended last year by Donald Trump. Without a resumption, they warned, Iranian militias would be free to expand and US-supported groups would diminish.

 A week later and the FSA is now fighting alongside Turkey to clear a northern Syrian town of a militia that is supported by the United States. So rapidly has the conflict morphed in unexpected directions, that even those who oppose Bashar Al Assad's regime are uncertain which side they should support.

 On the ground, Turkey, which was one of the first to explicitly support the Syrian revolution and call for Bashar Al Assad to step down, is fighting in Afrin alongside the FSA, who remain committed to ending the regime.

 For Turkey, the US-backed People's Protection Units (YPG), a mainly Kurdish militia in Afrin, are too close to the Kurdish insurgent groups inside Turkey that have waged a long-running war against the Turkish state. Ankara has noted that US weapons supplied to the YPG have ended up across the Turkish border.

 But the FSA's involvement in Afrin has more to do with Syria than Turkey. For them, the YPG, by carving out a space away from the regime, is trying to split Syria into several pieces. Many who support the revolution support the idea of maintaining Syrian territorial integrity – except that the Kurdish enclave in Afrin is also protecting Syrian civilians from the Assad regime.

 The FSA, in fact, has a broader disagreement with the YPG, one that goes beyond the specificities of this battle. The YPG want a Kurdish-majority region, even if that means pushing out Syrian Arabs by force. But one of the aims of the revolution, and of the Syrian opposition, is to move away from a Syria of ethnicities and faiths and towards a model of citizenship.

 Syrian civilians, Kurdish and Arab, now being attacked in Afrin, might well ask how that admittedly lofty goal is served by the FSA allying itself with a foreign power (itself allied with Russia, a sponsor of the regime) and attacking an enclave inside Syrian territory. The people being attacked in Afrin are, after all, Syrians, regardless of ethnicity.

 And they ask, with the Syrian regime now besieging the small district of Ghouta outside Damascus, with Russian and Syrian planes carrying out bombing raids, if attacking Afrin is really the most pressing issue the FSA have. The Kurds are right to feel hard done by. They have allied themselves with the US, only to find that, with troops on the edge of their territory, the US has turned away.

 Away from the ground, on the sidelines, on social media and in endless debates over the past few days, supporters of the revolution have turned on each other, unable to decide which side to back.

 The questions are posed like this. Does supporting the Syrian revolution mean being against everyone who supports or enables the Al Assad regime? In that case, removing the YPG from Afrin is a positive development, because it weakens the regime while opening up space for civilians to be autonomous.

 Or does supporting the revolution, which aimed to free Syrian civilians from the Assad regime, mean supporting Syrians to live peacefully? In which case, an attack on Syrian civilians – and, worse, by Syrian fighters from the FSA – is a betrayal of those values. Moreover, for a revolution that started from the premise of a Syria for all, setting up a conflict between Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds is counterproductive and will have long-term repercussions.

 As long as countries outside and armed groups inside Syria continue to play out their plans across its soil, there will be no long-term solution. Syria needs to be whole, secure and stable. It will not get there with Bashar Al Assad in charge and it will not get there when Syrian civilians are killed by Syrian fighters.

 The safety of civilians will always be a secondary priority as long as Syria is the backdrop for the ambitions of groups other than the Syrian people. And as long as civilians are threatened, regardless of who is holding the guns, the Syrian revolution cannot truly have been said to be successful.'