Saturday, 25 May 2019

Syria’s Ghalia Rahal: Surviving War, Building Peace

Image result for Ghalia Rahal

 'Amid the traumas of Syria’s war, women like Ghalia Rahal are building an unprecedented role in peace talks over their country’s future. Rahal—the founder of a network of women’s centers in northwest Syria—has helped energize a Syrian women’s movement despite threats from extremists, attacks on her workplaces, and the assassination of her son, a journalist. Syrian women leaders say Rahal is one of many local activists who have enabled women to strengthen their representation in U.N.-backed negotiations for an end to the war. Now, Rahal and her women’s network in  in the hilly, fig-growing province of Idlib face an extreme threat—the Syrian government military offensive against the province that has killed hundreds and displaced nearly 200,000 people.

 “In Syria, Ghalia is creating a power base for women within a very conservative area,” said Mariam Jalabi, who in 2017 founded a Syrian Women’s Political Movement with Rahal and others. In the rural town of Kafr Nabl, Rahal ran a beauty salon and, amid the war, converted her business into a center to teach women and girls job skills, literacy and first aid. “Women come to her center for a class in sewing, but they discuss what they should do in the community, and they are empowered,” said Jalabi.

 Rahal’s work “is part of the foundation for what our national women’s movement has achieved,” including a growing role in the United Nations-supported peace process between Syria’s government and its democratic opposition movement, said Jalabi, who represents the Syrian democratic opposition at U.N. headquarters in New York. The Syrian Women’s Political Movement is pressing for further gains in women’s representation in peace talks and political processes that will define the future Syria.

 As a girl, Rahal loved cross-country running through the rocky farmlands and fig orchards of northwestern Syria, and she dreamed of becoming a champion. When she got married, she has said, “I gave up cross-country running because our customs and traditions wouldn’t allow it.” Still, as a mother and housewife, she continued to push the bounds of what society would permit a woman in rural Syria. She opened a hairdressing salon and became a driving instructor.

 In 2011, Syrians roseIn Syria as elsewhere, the transformation of political protest into bloodshed marginalized women, Rahal said. “I had a 200-square-meter basement where women used to come for shelter from air strikes by the regime. We would have a lot of women sitting together, sometimes for hours.” Rahal’s crowded bomb shelter became a venue for discussion of women’s roles in a future Syria. “We imagined the situation,” she said. “How would society be if women were not able to overcome many of the woes of war and its aftermath?”

 In that basement bomb shelter, Rahal heard stories of women who had lost family members and homes, a daily stream of suffering that changed her focus. “I think I became more caring toward other people, especially girls and women,” she recalled in a 2016 film by Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim. “Since the war erupted, I felt we all needed one another.”

 In 2013, Rahal converted her hair salon into a women’s center to provide women and girls with vital skills such as literacy and job training. The women named it Mazaya, meaning “advantage.”

 “We have lectures, vocational training, educational workshops, financial training” and other projects,” Rahal said. Hundreds of women and girls registered for classes—and others volunteered as teachers. A woman skilled in weaving taught her trade. A woman with medical knowledge taught first aid, which “was … necessary because of the many injuries caused by the shelling,” Rahal said. The women obtained a printer and began publishing a magazine to report “the difficulties facing women, news reports [and] humanitarian cases,” she said.

 Persuading women to participate in public activities despite traditions that confined them to their homes was difficult, Rahal said. “I had to make them trust and believe in our work, and bear the negative words and harsh criticism.” But with time, “I have seen how women started changing and coming out of the houses to help each other.”

 Women’s activism is discouraged in Syria by patriarchal social traditions, by habits bred under decades of oppressive, single-party rule—and by the rise of movements promoting a narrow interpretation of Islamic faith. “Our society did not accept the idea of a women’s center,” Rahal said.

 To overcome resistance, Rahal visited Kafr Nabl’s power brokers, who of course were men. “Typically, women do not approach these town elders, the sheikhs, directly. But Ghalia does it,” said Jalabi. “She explains to them that women’s education provides benefits to the whole community. She gives them a sense of co-ownership,” and shows local leaders that cooperation with her project can help them look better in the eyes of their own people. She has been “able to establish with them a social contract in which they protect her centers and her work,” Jalabi said.

 One reason for Rahal’s success, Jalabi and others noted, is that she is—and is seen as—a deeply religious person who is drawing her ideas and language for change from her community’s basic religious principles. She wins respect from local leaders on both religious and social bases. “Ghalia has broken down many of the barriers against women with the strength of her personality and the respect she has earned from everyone, including men,” Jalabi said. “She has built a business, she is financially independent, and she is the mother of adult children who are also respected in the community.”

 One of the adult children who won respect for Rahal was her oldest son, Khaled al-Issa. He was active in the 2011 uprising, and became a locally prominent photojournalist. With a few colleagues—including one of Syria’s best-known dissidents, Raed Fares, he established a media center, including a radio station, in Kafr Nabl. They reported via news organizations and social media on the brutality of the war and attacks on civilians in northwest Syria.

 “My son, Khaled, told me, ‘Mom, you have started digging a road through all the thorns, and you are able to continue on with it. It is a revolution, my mother,’” Rahal recalled.

 Apart from the resistance by traditional conservatives, Rahal and her work have faced physical attack by extremists. While Kafr Nabl has seen the growth of a democratically oriented civil society, including its women’s movement, it also has a constituency that favors Islamist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front, affiliated with al-Qaida). In 2014 the Mazaya center was burned in an arson attack. Rahal and her allies rebuilt it. The next year, the Nusra Front attacked Mazaya and Khaled’s radio station. Residents of the town rallied in the streets in protest. In July 2016, Khaled was killed by a bomb planted in the home where he was living in Aleppo.

 Today, Mazaya is a network of eight women’s centers, plus five child-care centers, in Kafr Nabl and other towns across southern Idlib. The women’s centers provide nursing and vocational training, job placement and professional development services. The Mazaya organization now produces both a print and an electronic magazine that make the case for education and empowerment for women and girls. Amid new reports of bombing in Idlib, Rahal sent a text message to Jalabi on May 21 that she has had to close some of her centers for fear that they may be struck. Others are continuing to work, located in basements.

 “Ghalia has somehow been able to maintain a livelihood, swim against conservative and repressive social norms, survive the government’s relentless violence, and navigate and challenge the rise of armed extremist organizations—all while implementing her vision for a future Syria in which women are safe, empowered and free,” said Jalabi.'

Image result for Ghalia Rahal

Friday, 24 May 2019

Syrian doctor describes latest alleged chemical attack as US mulls response

Alleged chemical attack victim in Syria on Sunday

 'Just after 9 a.m Sunday, witnesses on the ground in the remote Syrian countryside near the border of Idlib province claimed they saw more than 40 rockets slash through the sky, along with three different-looking shells that landed in a thud of yellowish smoke. These were described as large cylinders that did not explode, yet produced a strong chemical smell.

 “On May 19, we received information about an attack using toxic gases in a fight between the Syrian military and ‘revolutionary’ military. I was informed to be ready. Four people came with red eyes, struggling to breathe, headaches,” Idlib-based Dr. Ahmad, who claims to have treated the wounded, said on Thursday. “We took off their clothes, put them in water, and gave them oxygen. They smelled of chlorine.”

 Doctors who supervised the treatment process recorded that the patients endured an array of other symptoms from severe coughing and watery eyes to wheezing and vomiting. The four alleged victims are said to be males under the age of 30. They were kept under observation most of the day, Dr. Ahmad claimed, and were discharged later that evening in a “generally good condition" around 9 hours after they were admitted.

 “We immediately got our emergency staff – who are trained for chemical weapon attack – ready for any inquiry or support,” concurred Nidal Shikhani, External Relations Manager at the Chemical Violations Documentation Centre of Syria (CVDCS), which has worked closely with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to document alleged chemical weapons use. “We were informed that there were four affected victims by chemical weapons toxic gas. They all received emergency treatment.”

 Images of the victims were provided to Fox News by CVDCS under the condition that faces and hospital logos were not shown. Medical centers have routinely come under attack throughout Syria's protracted civil war.

 A specialized team is said to have collected blood, urine, saliva and clothing samples from the injured to be tested, with the hope of starting a thorough investigation by OPCW.

 “We fear this will happen again and again,” Dr. Ahmad said. “They gave a green light to attack.”

News that the government of Bashar al-Assad may have used internationally banned substances once again has prompted a harsh, if confusing, response from the United States.

 “We continue to see signs that the Assad regime may be renewing its use of chemical weapons,” said U.S State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, cautioning that if the alleged actions by the Damascus government are proven, "the United States and (its) allies will respond quickly and appropriately."

 Later, the State Department’s leading diplomat for Syria, James Jeffrey, backtracked somewhat and told reporters that officials were “watching it closely” but could not yet confirm that the alleged attack had occurred.

 The U.S. has twice launched airstrikes in the past against Syrian military installations after verifying that chemical weapons were used against civilians.

 According to the most recent “credibly substantiated” data gleaned by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI), chemical weapons have been used at least 336 times since the war started in early 2011. The Assad regime stands accused of using the banned substances 98 percent of the time, while ISIS is documented as having carried out the remainder of all chemical bombardments on Syrian civilians.

 “Assad is once again testing President Trump, first by attacking Idlib despite the President’s clear warning, and now by using chemical weapons – violating the President’s bright red line,” said Jameson Cunningham, policy and public affairs strategist for Americans for a Free Syria. “President Trump has responded twice, and we urge him to take swift military action again to protect civilians and deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons.”

 Idlib remains the last major bastion of the war-embattled country that remains under the control of forces opposed to the Damascus regime. Ground fighting and bombing sharply escalated in the area earlier this month after a seven-month ceasefire agreement seemed to wither, with many fearing it will amount to an all-out assault by Assad's forces that could prove the deadliest battle in the war to date.

 Meanwhile, many in Washington have resumed their push to further punish the Assad government for its long-documented war crimes. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a bill which holds the Syrian leader and its Russian and Iranian allies accountable for the crimes and hampers their ability to fund further human rights abuses.

 The law is named after a Syrian who, under the pseudonym Caesar, took grave risks earlier in the war to smuggle out more than 50,000 images of civilians who were barbarically tortured and murdered in government prisons.

 The Caesar Act provisions include sanctions on anyone aiding Damascus in executing its barbarities, including construction sectors in the war-torn nation until Assad completely halts all attacks on civilians.

 “We have taken high risk for our lives and the lives of our families when we left Syria at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. We had great hope that the world that claims freedom and humanity would put an end to the bloodshed in Syria and work to stop the killing and torture inside the Syrian prisons,” “Caesar” – who remains in-hiding – said this week. “Especially that we have all the evidence and evidence that condemns the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad by committing the worst types of torture and systematic killing against the Syrian people inside the basements of the Syrian prisons and intelligence.”

 The whistleblower stressed the importance of his namesake legislation being put into full-force by Washington.

 “Caesar's law is a powerful message that justice will be handed to Bashar al-Assad and his oppressive regime." '

Medicines for those alleged to have been attacked by chemical weapons in Syria on Sunday (Provided CVDCS) 

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The Syrian régime’s slogan ‘Assad or we burn the country’ must not become reality

A civil defence member carries an injured girl following air strikes which hit Idlib, Syria 2 June 2016 [REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi]

 'The bombardment of Idlib by Syrian régime forces over the past few weeks has been relentless; the long anticipated offensive on the city in northern Syria has arrived with devastating results. A massacre of gargantuan proportions awaits as air strikes hit homes, schools and hospitals. More than 120 civilians in Idlib have been killed by Russian and Syrian régime air strikes over the first two weeks of the bombardment, and more than 180,000 have been newly displaced as they flee from barrel bombs.

 Idlib is currently a refugee centre within Syria; it has absorbed most of the internally displaced persons and provided them with new homes, with nearly 4 million Syrian citizens living there. People who have had their lives torn apart and have had to escape bombardment and bloodshed are already anticipating further violence, with some preparing to flee for the second or even third time in just a few short years.

 According to British surgeon David Nott who has visited northern Syria on multiple occasions for humanitarian reasons, 12 hospitals were destroyed in the first 10 days of May and there is considerable evidence that the Assad régime is engaged in the systematic targeting of hospitals and healthcare centres to terrorise and punish civilians who have fled areas controlled by Damascus. The destruction of any form of healthcare and emergency services is clearly the goal of the régime. Civilians who have “deserted the régime” can die of their injuries is Assad’s apparent rationale. The irony is lost on no one that Assad himself was once a doctor but is now more akin to a butcher, destroying hospitals as opposed to saving the people within them.

 The potential taking of Idlib would signify the régime’s re-conquest of the Western Syrian corridor and demonstrate Assad’s so called “victory”. This is a farcical, pyrrhic victory when the Assad régime currently just controls a “rump state” which is both smaller and weaker than the pre-uprising Syria and has in a way given up sovereignty to both Russia and Iran.

 Large swathes of Syria remain uninhabited with some areas in ruins and resembling ghost towns. The régime doesn’t even bother to repair the damage caused or rebuild the areas; it leaves them – for now at least – as the horrific, visible consequence of going against Damascus, and acting as a deterrent for anyone else. The slogan “Assad or we burn the country” which was scrawled in graffiti in many places by the loyalist Shabiha (state sponsored militias) during the early days of the uprising unfortunately rings true. Parts of Syria with revolutionary zeal have been obliterated with no immediate plans for rebuilding. This arrogant belief of Assad has led to untold horrors and the ruin of a nation yet he is still somehow viewed as the legitimate ruler of the country who unfortunately still enjoys the privileges of UN membership.

 A political resolution is impossible while the perpetrator and the root of the problem – Bashar Al-Assad – remains in power. The paralysis of the UN Security Council is nothing new. As long as Russia sees fit to back Assad then he is granted political and legal cover at an international level proving that international law has a long way to go before it is able to hold rogue régimes to account. Even former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that the Security Council has failed Syria. It is difficult to foresee Russia not using its veto to block any attempt to refer the Syrian régime to the International Criminal Court but recent developments in the case of Myanmar and the Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh offer a potential legal path to charge the Syrian régime with crimes against humanity.

 Idlib is holding out for now, but when considering the current onslaught by a régime that has been proven to use chemical weapons — and a report suggested that Assad used chemical weapons in northern Latakia as recently as last weekend — the worst is to be feared. If this slaughter goes on in Idlib, it will be a huge humanitarian disaster. The effects won’t be limited to the four million civilians in the city; it will lead to consequences as far away as Europe, with another wave of refugees potentially heading across the Mediterranean.

 The city of Idlib must not be allowed to fall to Assad, and every effort must be made to ensure that he and his régime are held accountable for the crimes committed against the Syrian people. We may one day view Idlib as a flashpoint within the Syrian conflict; it is imperative that history does not repeat itself as it has so many times within this eight-year conflict. The binary choice between Assad and burning the country must not be allowed to become an enduring reality.'

Graffiti Slogan saying 'Assad or we burn the country' in DamascusGraffiti in saying 'Assad or we burn the country' in Damascus, SyriaGraffiti in saying 'Assad or we burn the country' in Damascus, Syria

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Assad militiamen use chlorine gas in Latakia countryside

 'Assad militiamen used chlorine gas bombs in shelling the anti-regime factions in Latakia northern countryside on Sunday (May 19).

The Assad militiamen used the chlorine gas shells in the Kabina Hill in the Akrad Mountain in Latakia northern countryside after they failed to make any progress on the front, according to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's news agency (Ibaa).

The opposition defected brigadier, Ahmad al Rahal, confirmed the incident. "The Assad regime used chemical weapons (chlorine gas) in the village of Kabina on the coast front," he wrote on his Facebook page.

 The Acting US Ambassador to the United Nations Jonathan Cohen warned the Assad régime against using the chemical weapons during the Security Council session on Friday, adding that Russia and the Assad régime were responsible for the attacks on health centers. He said it was "most alarming" that several of the centres attacked were on a list created by Russia and the United Nations in an attempt to protect them.'


Results of failed SAA attempts to capture KbanaSAA losses: 85+ wounded soldiers 58+ KIA 1 BMP destroyed 1 UAV destroyed"