Saturday, 29 September 2018

“Our revolution will not stop before the release of all detainees”

Syrie: manifestations à Idleb pour la libération de détenus aux mains du régime

 'Several thousand people demonstrated on Friday in several cities of the Syrian province of Idlib (north-west), the last great bastion of insurgents in the country, calling for the liberation of prisoners in the prisons of the régime.

 Out in the streets after Friday prayers, the demonstrators chanted against the Assad régime, some waving the flag of the revolution and that of Turkey, in support of the uprising.

 They carried placards and banners, reading in English: “Our revolution will not stop before the release of all detainees”.

 “We call this Friday the Friday held to send a message to the world: our freedom will be complete only with the release of the prisoners in the prisons of the régime,” said Izz al-Din al-Idlibi, one of the organizers of the rally in the town of Maarat al-Numan.

 At the march in Maarat al-Numan, attended by women dressed in black, Abu Hassan carried on his shoulders his niece dressed in a blue dress and waving the portrait of his father, who was kidnapped five years ago.

 “We have joined this peaceful demonstration to demand the release of prisoners from the dungeons of the intelligence services”, he reiterated.

 Rallies were held in other towns of Idleb, as well as in the territories the rebels of the neighbouring province of Aleppo.

 “The detainees are our cause. We call on the international community to put pressure on the régime to free them”, said Mayssa Mahmoud, a protester in the city of Atareb.'

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 "If all of Syria was taken (by Assad) except for one inch, I would stand on that inch and scream.. Curse your soul oh Hafiz! The revolution shall continue!"

"ISIS is the Arm of Assad Regime, freedom for our kidnapped women in Sweida. From the liberated countryside of Aleppo."

"To whoever is betting on our fatigue after 8 years, we say to him do not test our patience, as God has given us the patience of Ayoub (Job)."

Friday, 28 September 2018

The last rebel stronghold in Syria has survived – for now


 'The doors of fear and hope have revolved again. For weeks, Dr Mahmoud would rush his daughters into the basement at night, or tuck them in a corner in the lavatory, improvised shelters against the impact of airstrikes by the Syrian government and its Russian allies.

 That is, if he was at home. For the future, his plan was to hire a smuggler and move them to Turkey.

 It would cost him between $500 and $2,500 each to transport them illegally across the border. The lower the rate, the bigger the risk of being shot at by the Turkish police. He had heard of some seasoned smugglers who had mapped out the few unmanned crevices on the sealed frontier and, unlike most civilians in northern Syria, he could afford the expense. As a cardiologist, he had managed to save some money.

 He knew he himself would stay back in Idlib. There is a shortage of doctors and he intended to stick by the people, helping them endure the attack, were it to take place.

 For now, though, he and his children are breathing more freely, and the evacuation plan is postponed. An unexpected deal between Russia and Turkey last week may have averted the catastrophe he feared: a full-blown invasion of his home in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel province. Nothing is certain and agreements have been made and broken with monotonous regularity in the past.

 But Dr Mahmoud – a pseudonym, for fear of future reprisals – is happy for now. “I think it’s a good deal,” he said.

The agreement calls for a 15-20km demilitarised zone to be set up by mid-October, which will act as a buffer between the forces of the Syrian government and the rebels. Until then at least, a military offensive has been halted.

Dr Mahmoud’s first feeling was relief. He had other feelings too – the rush of a tiny victory, the joy of being alive another day, a diminishing hope leaping and suffusing his heart with promise because the revolution hadn’t yet died. However, the sense that his family would not be bombed that night came before all of that. “My first priority was to save my family,” he told me.

Then there was suspicion. Would the deal work? Or was it a ploy by the Russians to appear sympathetic to the humanitarian cause, that would lead eventually to a resumption of the bombing?

 “We are people, just like you,” he told me in an attempt to counter the narrative of the Syrian government that Idlib is entirely inhabited by Islamists and jihadists.

 The last remaining rebel stronghold, Idlib is dominantly in the grip of a jihadist outfit now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or the HTS, infamous for its al Qaeda links. Yet their estimated numbers – 10,000 fighters in all, according to the UN – are a mere fraction of the people residing in Idlib.

 Dr Mahmoud, a practising Muslim, admits the province leans towards the conservative, but he insists that does not make him an extremist. The people of Idlib, he says, including him, back the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army, now rebranded as the National Liberation Front, and not the jihadists of HTS.

 “Most people want the Free Syrian Army, they don’t like the HTS,” he said. “We don’t want to be ruled by them because we want democracy and they have deviated from the path of the revolution.”

 Yet digging a little deeper reveals a relationship riddled with complexities. Whilst Dr Mahmoud doesn’t wish to replace the dogma of the Baath party with the hardline ideology of the HTS, he finds them useful in fighting the régime.

 “They are certainly better than Assad. We don’t dislike them as much because they are also fighting the régime,” he says. He draws a distinction between the group’s leadership and its foreign fighters, and the foot soldiers, who are mainly ordinary Syrian boys and hence by and large trusted.

 What civilians like Dr Mahmoud think about the HTS is crucial because the future of the Russia-Turkey deal hinges on the HTS backing off from the demilitarised zone and giving up its weapons.

 Dr Mahmoud says that if HTS shows reluctance to co-operate and move out of the buffer zone and Russia consequently uses it as an excuse to attack Idlib – as is feared – the people of Idlib will also hold the group responsible for squandering a shot at peace.

 “Turkey will make the HTS co-operate and if they don’t, all Syrians will blame the HTS. I think they will respond,” says Dr. Mahmoud.

 A few days before the deal came about, I had spoken via a translator to an HTS commander who goes under the nom de guerre Abu Abd al-Rahman. “We are not at odds with the National Liberation Front when it comes to knowing who the real threat to our revolution is, and that is what matters right now,” he said. “Whatever our differences may be, I believe we are capable of setting them aside. This does not mean, however, that either of us should merge with the other."

 The relationship between HTS and the National Front for Liberation (NLF) – which is a conglomeration of several rebel groups backed by Turkey including the Free Syrian Army – is now key to the deal’s implementation. HTS's demand for co-operation – subordination is what the NLF fears the jihadists mean – but no merger makes NLF leaders certain that some sort of clash is coming. The deal makes it more likely.

 I first met Faras al-Bayush two years ago. He was a leader with the then Free Syrian Army based in Iskenderun in Turkey and we have stayed in contact. Now he says that a fight with HTS is inevitable. “It is a matter of time,” he said.

 General Haitham Afisi, another senior leader of the FSA who collaborated with the US during the early stages of the war, and is currently the NLF chief of staff of the rebel armed forces, says HTS is a bigger threat to the revolution than even the régime. General Afisi’s son was kidnapped and tortured by the group and held in captivity for two years.

 “They consider us infidels, as ‘Murtadeen’: Muslims who are not practicing Islam,” he told me over a secure messaging app. “But our Islam is an Islam of love and forgiveness and we want elections, we want democracy. There is no doubt over us fighting them.”

 If Idlib falls to the Assad régime and the worst comes true, Dr Mahmoud will prefer to live in Turkey or Turkey-controlled areas east of Euphrates, should he survive.

 However, so long as the deal exists, it means that for now the revolution is not yet at its end, giving him room to dream. One day, when there are free and fair elections in Syria, he says he will revisit Aleppo and take his daughters to see the citadel and the old city.

 Not everywhere, though; there are places which will remind him forever of the deaths and mangled remains of the dead, children included. These are the places he never wants to visit, that he never wants to be in again, not even in his dreams.'

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Corpses left rotting under rubble in régime attacks on Ghouta

A child is treated following an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria. Pic:

 'The intensity of a Russia-backed assault on a former rebel stronghold in Syria using suspected chemical weapons and cluster bombs has been laid bare in a new report by the Atlantic Council, which said 16,934 strikes were documented in eastern Ghouta during a 49-day assault in April of this year.

 This amounted to an average of 345.6 per day. The heaviest day of bombardment was 21 February, with 1,658 attacks recorded, it said.

 "Locals reported that corpses and body parts were often left rotting under the rubble and even strewn in the streets due to the danger and difficulty in retrieving them," according to the report.

 "Multiple victims were buried in mass graves with merely numbers attached to their improvised shrouds, as relatives and friends were unable to reach the hospitals and morgues to identify their loved ones."

 The report counted "at least six suspected chemical weapon attacks, five of which were verified". The deadliest chemical weapons attack was on the besieged town of Douma on 7 April in which dozens of people died.

 The report said: "The régime's takeover of Ghouta… was the culmination of years of 'kneel or starve' siege tactics, indiscriminate aerial bombardment, cynical manipulation of truce and ceasefire, and the likely use of chemical weapons against population zones. The significance lies less in the régime using these tactics - it was reasonable to expect it would do anything it could to ensure its own survival-than in the fact that it not only went unpunished for, but ultimately was rewarded by, the fall of Ghouta."

 The Atlantic Council heavily criticised the international community for failing to respond to stop all of the other deadly assaults by Assad forces and their Russian and Iranian backers, below the level of chemical weapons.

 "Not once in six years of war in Ghouta was there a meaningful international effort to disrupt Assad's atrocities or exact a serious price for them," the report said.'

Monday, 24 September 2018

Exiled Syrian artist draws torture to "continue the revolution"

Image result for Exiled Syrian artist Najah al-Bukai

 'The characters drawn in black-and-white ball-pen by Najah al-Bukai look broken, left in pain and despair by the torture the exiled Syrian artist says he went through and witnessed when imprisoned twice in government jails.

 One drawing shows a group of half-naked men being beaten up. Another depicts a man bent double, lying on his back with his feet over his head, tied up between two heavy wooden boards.

 “We were around 190 to 220 persons in this room which was 16 metres long and 3 metres wide. This is where the questioning sessions took place, where the torturers were using different techniques,” said Bukai, who now lives in France.

 “But the worst was unloading corpses. Once we had to unload three corpses while another (day) we could have to unload 13. They were prisoners who died under torture during questioning or of diseases because of deplorable hygienic conditions.”

 Syrian government officials have denied past accusations of systematic torture during the country’s seven-year-long war and also denied accusations that authorities have carried out mass executions in jails.

 But after years of government silence about the fate of tens of thousands of people that rights groups say have been forcibly disappeared in the conflict, authorities have begun quietly updating registers to acknowledge hundreds of their deaths.

 “I feel like it is my duty to continue the revolution,” Bukai said in his home in a Paris suburb he would not name for safety reasons.

 “If I stop drawing on this topic, it means I have given up and I have said to Bashar al-Assad: ‘Yes, you won your war against us.’ ”

 Bukai said he was first imprisoned for 11 months in 2011, in camp number 227 near the Syrian capital Damascus. He was arrested after he helped organise a protest against Assad.

 In 2014, he was arrested again at the Syrian-Lebanese border as he tried to leave the country after two years of hiding at his in-laws’ house.

 Bukai returned to France, where he first lived as an art student in the early 1990s, 2-1/2 years ago with his wife, Abir, and their 16-year-old daughter.

 Art is a therapy for him. Haunted by his experiences, he has not been able to draw any other subject for years.

 “Each time I try to change topic and find another path into my drawing, an exit, a window, I finally come back to the same,” he said.'

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