Saturday, 1 June 2019

The blood of Idlib’s people speaks

 'It isn’t true that victory for the Assad régime is an inescapable certainty. It has never been true since the start of the revolution. The evidence for this is the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who held fast in the face of death for many months in 2011; as well as hundreds of subsequent military battles, such as the battle for Daraa City last summer, which demonstrated how the régime would not have been able to re-occupy the Hawran region were it not for agreement between the United States and Jordan, and the contribution of these two, along with Israel and the Gulf states, to nipping the revolution in the bud, in exchange for understandings with Russia that no one deigned to bother explaining to Syrians themselves, the luckless victims of all such agreements.

 Today, Idlib too speaks volumes, with the battle for the town of Kafr Nabuda on the province’s southwestern fringes telling us the same thing. The régime that has succeeded in taking over so much rebel-held territory with such speed has now spent a full month unable to break past a small town in the plains of Hama’s northern countryside, simply because this time there exists the will to fight on the part of the rebel factions, and a bit of ammunition and weaponry thrown in by their international backers.

 The régime’s previous victories haven’t been possible because its opponents are farmers and dentists, as Barack Obama said in justification of his refusal to rein in the régime’s brutal killing machine. They’ve been possible because the régime commits atrocities on a scale and frequency unprecedented since the Second World War; atrocities executed with industrial efficiency, as Zygmunt Bauman said of the Nazi’s Holocaust machinery.

 Nor has the régime succeeded in the past due to any military or political genius guiding its actions, but rather because international and regional circumstances have permitted it to practice unlimited barbarism and undeterred violence. The point of saying this is not self-consolation, or a desire to cast blame on others in self-victimizing fashion. Indeed, the régime’s victories are also attributable to the internecine conflicts between the Syrian opposition’s political forces, and their failure at every level; and to the inept leadership of most armed factions, and their dependence on outsiders, and lust for power, and widespread crimes and violations of their own. Still, at every turn one finds a thousand indicators that the régime is too weak to win, and too worn-out to rebuild itself, and that it and its allies would be incapable of military victory were it not for the international community permitting them to slaughter Syrians, and keep their extermination possible at any moment. This, indeed, is a cornerstone of Syrians’ relationship with the world.

 We say with the world, and not merely with the régime, because Syrians see with their own eyes that the entire world is a partner to this annihilation, or consents to it, including all the officials who put out angry statements after each massacre, while at the same time appearing as witnesses in the background, declaring a truth about which nobody can do anything, making it all the more oppressive.

 At the heart of this annihilation are the régime’s chemical weapons, the use of which Western leaders invariably warn will be met with an “appropriate response” next time. Syrians have by now seen this “appropriate response” on numerous occasions, from the 2013 chemical deal to the theatrical strikes following the massacres in Khan Shaykhun and Douma. Today, the chemical issue has become a media farce, with Russia repeating its talk from last year of “provocations” being prepared by “terrorists in partnership with the White Helmets” in Idlib. Syrians know full well the meaning of these words: they are a direct threat of the régime using chemical weapons once again.

 The atrocities arising from the régime’s and Russia’s systematic bombardment are intended to play a role beyond the mere course of the battle on the ground. This has been evident in the current campaign, which has brought about the displacement of the residents of Hama’s northern and western provinces along with Idlib’s southern and western ones, leaving these territories practically empty of inhabitants; deserts of cement dust kicked up by barrel bombs. Should the régime turn out to be able to invade and seize control of these areas in the coming period, the displacement of their residents will make things easier for it, since it will have no need to keep in check people who have mastered the art of rebelling against it for many years. On the other hand, if international power balances and the determination of rebel fighters prevent the régime from advancing, it will nonetheless have left these areas uninhabitable for a long time to come, and have made of them an example etched into Syrians’ memories—yet another instance of the régime’s favorite slogan, “Assad or we burn the country.”

 Given the images of the children killed in Idlib, it’s not for the sake of pelting accusations at random that we say everyone is a party to this massacre: the diplomats who laugh derisively at requests for international protection; the leaders of Syria’s neighbor states who see the bloodied bodies of Syrians as a path to greater regional influence or political gains; the states which viewed Syrians as “threats to national security,” prompting them to assist in their killing on the pretext of self-defense; the warlords and militia leaders whose enthusiasm for killing us never wanes, and those who fund them with equal enthusiasm as a means of dueling with their competitors; all the international policies that see nothing to concern them in our slaughter except “security requirements,” and the “War on Terror,” and “stemming the influx of refugees;” the deals and arrangements reached in the dark, the bloody costs of which are paid in broad daylight.

 While marketplaces, hospitals, schools, and civil defense centers are targeted by the party with overwhelming military superiority and an absolute monopoly over the skies, world officials have no compunction speaking of “exchanges of fire” and the “mutual violence” that must be stopped in order to protect civilians in Idlib. This at a time of an unceasing stream of horrifying images and videos coming out of the area, the briefest glance at which suffices to tell one that what’s happening is no “exchange of fire” but rather the dictionary definition of a massacre, with no doubt whatsoever as to the identity of its perpetrators.

 And yet, even after all this, the régime and its allies remain incapable of attaining their desired victory. This is because the latter doesn’t end at settling matters militarily, which the régime does appear capable of if the “friends” and “guarantors” of the opposition keep to their current course. Rather, the victory to which the régime aspires consists of no less than the spreading of “politics” through the corpse of the régime casting its weight across the country. This “politics” requires the régime’s opponents not to disappear, but instead to be involved themselves in accordance with the Russian vision. It is this that does not look to be possible without nominal concessions from the régime; concessions which the régime’s make-up doesn’t allow it to offer up.

 Russia seeks to drag the régime’s opponents to the negotiating table bound in chains, and the political and military bodies representing these opponents may no longer have the energy or ability to resist after all that has happened. Yet the recent battle of Kafr Nabuda demonstrates that they do in fact have this ability, if and when a bare minimum of support and assistance is made available. Since the agreements made by the “guarantors” are secret, with details unknown until they’re implemented, Idlib and its people have no alternative left but to present their bare flesh as a witness to the way the international community works to turn a rotten corpse into an ostensible political régime by the force of fighter jets and chemical weapons.'


Friday, 31 May 2019

Assad's régime scorches agriculture in Idlib after losing ground

Syria Weekly: Assad's regime scorches agriculture in Idlib after losing ground

 Paul McLoughlin:

 'Farmers' fields were reduced to ashes in Idlib province this week as the Syrian régime carried out a deliberate strategy of scorched earth on agricultural areas. This comes after a number of losses on the battlefield, civil society groups have said.

 More than 200 durums of wheat were eaten away by fires over the past few days, according to the White Helmets, as rescue workers try and halt the devastation on one of Syria's main breadbasket.

 The use of incendiary bombs on agricultural areas that lack any other discernible target have coincided with régime retreats from parts of Hama and Idlib. The White Helmets say this constitutes an act of collective punishment against the civilian population after recent defeats to rebels. Others believe the arson is part of a wider régime strategy to starve Idlib, although few disagree on who started the fires.

 "The main reason for the fires is direct targeting by régime and Russian airstrikes," the White Helmets media office said.

 "We know this because messages were sent to the civilians residing in those areas saying that burning the fields is an act of revenge for the recent counter-attack in the Hama province and the fact that it has been circulated through pro-régime social media channels also proves this point."

 The White Helmets have put out 38 fires that have broken out following the bombing of some of Idlib's richest agricultural lands over the past weeks. Rescue teams are working with farmers to cordon off farmland to stop their spread and then extinguishing the blazes, but even when fighting the fires they face danger from the air.

 "Our teams have been attacked in double tap airstrikes in empty fields. There has been the direct targeting of firefighter teams and vehicles, with one fire engine destroyed, in addition to unexploded ordnance spread across the land that usually explode during [White Helmets'] operations or when farmers' harvest their fields," he added.

 The White Helmets warned that the régime's apparent strategy of scorched earth in Hama and Idlib could have a dire impact on the already critical humanitarian situation in opposition areas, which have endured weeks of airstrikes devastating civilian infrastructure.

 Control over food supplies has been an underreported but hugely significant aspect of Syria's eight-year war. Syria is among the countries suffering from one of the world's worst food shortages with the loss of arable land, infrastructure, markets and workers all contributing to a decline in food production, UK-based charity Human Appeal said.

 Before war broke out, Syria's centralised food industries gave the régime enormous leverage and tied farmers, bakers and consumers to Damascus through a system of subsidies, nationalised industries, logistics and other mechanisms.

 When parts of Syria broke away from government control, crops, silos and bakeries became prime targets for the régime, while crippling starvation sieges have forced some rebel enclaves into submission.

 Emma Beals, an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on Syria's food crisis, said that the eventual success of farming and food supply networks in opposition areas became a source of ire for the régime.

 "With farming, civilians in opposition areas have a degree of self-sufficiency, but if the crops are destroyed and food supplies are low then they can't feed their children and the population only has the option of whether to flee or capitulate."

 Burning crops became a regular tactic employed by the régime throughout the war, with farmland in Eastern Ghouta, Darayya all targeted as a way of tightening the screws on the opposition areas.

 "Burning crops has been a part of the Syrian government's overall military strategy and what we are seeing in Idlib are not isolated incidents. They have done it time and time again, to reduce the agency of the people and force them to flee," Beals said.

 The most recent targeting of crops in Idlib and Hama has been in conjunction with a devastating air campaign against hospitals and schools, which has forced 200,000 people to flee from their homes. Since the takeover of Idlib by the hardline Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-affiliated Salvation Government earlier this year, some aid agencies are wary about operating in the province or have been hit by aid cuts from Western governments.

 Turkey has meanwhile closed the border, effectively trapping Idlib's civilians who have come under repeated Russian attacks despite a truce for the area supposedly being agreed between the two countries in September.

 Tens of thousands of civilians from affected areas in southern Idlib have been forced to move deeper into the province, causing further strain on aid workers and authorities. The migration of Syrians from former opposition enclaves recently recaptured by the régime has seen Idlib's population double during the war to around three million, many living in camps and reliant on bread and wheat.

 "Overstretched services and supplies in Idlib will pile further hardships on the civilian population and they might start pressuring the armed groups to come to some sort of deal with the government if they can't find food. The bombing of crops could have an impact on food supplies in Idlib in the future and this will increase the dire humanitarian crisis and the chance of illness, death, or surrender," Beals added.

 Despite this, there has been cooperation between the régime and rebels on food issues in some parts of Syria, Beals said.

 Grain has been transferred out of opposition areas to be processed in plants situated in régime territories, before returning back minus taxes or a portion of the goods. This was not the case in enclaves under siege although some civilians still managed to smuggle in wheat seeds to grow food on their own allotments.

 Beals added that the problems rebel groups faced during the early stages of the war in keeping bread supplies running following the breakdown of the government's top-down model of management paved the way for extremist groups to exploit shortages of food.

 "The rebels were initially very bad at running services and weren't able to provide adequate bread to the population," Beals said.

 "Jihadi groups entered areas with wheat supplies as part of their hearts and minds campaign. With their disciplined approach they got bakeries running again and it left a favourable opinion on the civilian population, who became more inclined to keep quiet about the way jihadi groups governed their areas."

 Control of food will continue to play a critical role in the war, Beals added, while markets and bakeries have been targeted by Russian and régime forces throughout the war, with the central bakery in Idlib's Khan Sheikhoun destroyed in March.

 "Wheat has been used as a weapon to control the population in negative and positive way by all actors. If you destroy crops you gain control of the situation and force people to do what you want."

 With hospitals, crops, and schools taken out by suspected Russian bombers and civilians fleeing in their thousands, there will be added considerations for HTS and rebel groups in Idlib besides the battlefield. A major humanitarian crisis would impact on neighbouring Turkey and inevitably Europe, if the millions flee the last opposition stronghold.

 "If you remove food from the equation then you have a perfect storm that could lead to further resentment towards the rebels and put pressure on them to surrender or compromise," Beals added.

 With civilians out of options on where to flee to and vital agricultural land being destroyed, the régime's weaponising of food could have a devastating impact on Idlib unless the world acts.'

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'Brute, Naked Fear.' How Bashar Assad Is Using His Family's Old Tactics to Regain His Grip on Syria

A picture of Syria's embattled President Bashar Assad sprayed with red paint lies on the ground next to a Russian flag about to be set on fire by protesters opposed to the Syrian regime during a demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Beirut on February 5, 2012.

 Sam Dagher:

 'I felt like there wasn’t a sufficient understanding of this family’s role in the Syria story. People got into the Syria story through the Arab Spring and the revolt but it was a very simplistic narrative: it happened in Tunisia, it happened in Egypt, now the Syrians are rising up and when the régime refused to go so it became a civil war. Then attention shifted to ISIS and the refugee issue. What was missing was a deeper understanding of why Syrians rose up in the first place, how this family ruled over them for 50 years, and the role of its allies, particularly Iran. I felt there was a need to step back and look at the whole picture if we wanted to address the problems emanating from Syria.

 Western countries relationships with Syria have largely been driven by whatever interests they had in the region at any given moment. During the Cold War, the U.S. agenda was how do we get Hafez Assad on our side? When the civil war started in Lebanon, the Americans wanted him to protect the Christians. And in the early 1990s, the American agenda was to amass this coalition to go after Saddam. Bashar was cooperating with the U.S on intelligence sharing before the invasion of Iraq, after 9/11. But when he realized they might be going after him he calculated that he had better start a pre-emptive war in Iraq to protect the régime. American calculations changed again because they needed to save face in Iraq, so there was a re-engagement period between 2007 and 2010. The Assad régime knows how the West deals with this part of the world and it can wait because it figures it’s not going anywhere. I’m not advocating military intervention to topple the régime. I’m just saying that all these countries have to take history into account when they decide to engage with Syria.

 Bashar is trying hard s trying hard to rebuild his image, but it’s going to be difficult. The régime understands there’s only so far it can go with rehabilitating Bashar’s image, even domestically. What they’re doing instead is relying on their old trick: brute, naked fear. I’ve heard from a number of Syrians that the régime’s message to them is “we’re on top of you again.” They’ve re-instated a lot of the statues of Hafez, the Mukhabarat [secret police] is telling people we’re back, you’d better watch what you say. In terms of the West, some countries have re-engaged with the régime but it’s mainly intelligence sharing at this point. I don’t see Bashar and Asma being able to pull off a rehabilitation of their image.

 People are making pragmatic choices but I don’t think that tells the whole story. You have to remember that half of the population is either internally displaced or abroad and most of these people do not support Assad. Inside Syria, the Alawites [ a minority sect to which Assad belongs, whose faith derives from a strain of Shi’a Islam] sacrificed the most for this régime in terms of providing the fighting forces to defend it and they openly support Assad. But for many, they were not defending Assad, they were defending themselves against an existential threat. The same applies to other minorities: many Christians and Druze [a religious minority] sympathized with the protesters and took part in at least the peaceful period of the protests before they realized, yes, the régime may be awful but look at the other side. Even the Sunnis came to that conclusion—but it was more like resignation than support. A lot of urban Sunnis are now questioning the benefits of Assad’s victory and starting to have second thoughts.

 The leverage the likes of Assad have is terrorism and refugees: always reminding Europe and the U.S. that if you come after us it’s going to be the refugees and the terrorists again. So, these countries calculate that they had better just shut that door. You hear statements from Europe like, let the Syrians figure it out for themselves, it’s not our problem. With Iran and Russia behind him, Bashar’s grip on the country is too tight for that to work, unfortunately.

 I first met Manaf Tlass in Paris in 2014 for an article I was writing for the Wall Street Journal. I was aware he was a controversial figure but I think he offers invaluable insights into the régime. The Tlass family, alongside the Assads, helped build the régime that has been at the helm of Syria for 50 years. It was certainly a difficult process. Manaf sees himself as a hero who was misunderstood and wasn’t given a chance by the West, somebody who challenged Bashar and refused to participate in the killing of Syrians. He thought the book was going to help people understand his motivations. I made it clear that I would be looking at the full picture rather than trying to clear his family name.

 The Assad family’s atrocities and crimes concern the whole world not just Syrians. The most important element for me is the similarity between what Bashar did and what his father did. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism Hafez massacred civilians in Hama in 1982 and later Bashar used the same excuse to go after those who were defying him. Both went after the peaceful activists first, vilifying them and putting them all together in the same category as terrorists, then there was the collective punishment. It’s the same playbook. Even the torture methods were similar. So were the reactions of some other countries. During the Hafez era the U.S. was saying, OK, this is an awful régime, look at what they’re doing to their people, they’re sponsoring terrorism abroad, but we have all these other problems to deal with so maybe we shouldn’t make as much of a big deal out of it. We heard variations of this after 2011 especially as the conflict became bloodier. The book also helps people understand the methodology behind the régime’s image-making, the tools of its deception. I think that aspect is not well understood—how they have gotten away with murder so far.'

Image result for sam dagher assad or we burn the country

How One Man Survived Syria’s Gulag

  'One morning in early June 2015, Omar Alshogre was taken from a cell in Sednaya, a military prison just north of Damascus, and thrown, shackled and blindfolded, into a van. The van drove down the side of the mountain, stopping at a clearing off the main road. The 20-year-old was thrown on the ground facedown. He could hear the soldiers behind him speaking in low tones. The firing squad came closer. A voice cried out, “Load!” and then “Fire!” “I just heard ‘boom!’—and then a loud humming sound,” recalls Omar. “For a moment, I thought I had died and gone on to the next phase.”

 One frigid evening in late January 2019, a youth in a half-zip polo sweater, with pushed-back hazel hair, stood on a street corner in Harlem. “It’s a lot colder in Stockholm,” he said in a Nordic accent. Omar looked around, impressed to hear that the imam of the West African mosque on 135th Street was educated in Damascus. He walks into Shrine, New York’s top Afro-Beat club, his eyes scanning the space as a bare-chested Prince impersonator groans and writhes onstage. We settle down to talk at a nearby bistro. A few hours later Omar will board a train to Washington to meet with members of Congress and National Security Council officials to talk about the 100,000 Syrians who have disappeared into the gulag of their country’s prison system.

 A lot has happened since the mock execution and Omar’s release after three years of imprisonment. In July 2015, he left Syria for Turkey and then made his way on a boat across the Aegean Sea; from Greece he followed the human tide as far north as possible, settling in Sweden, where he gained residency. Today this 23-year-old has emerged as the most visible and vocal witness of the Assad régime’s system of torture and industrial-scale brutality.

 Omar was born and raised in the village of Bayda, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. He recalls a simple childhood, playing on the shore with his cousins and raising birds (his favorite is the yellow-vented bulbul). The Arab Spring reached Bayda in mid-March 2011, days after protests erupted in the southern city of Daraa. Fifteen youths had been arrested and tortured for scrawling graffiti on a school wall in Daraa in support of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. “It’s your turn now, Doctor,” read the graffiti, referring to Bashar al-Assad, who had been an ophthalmologist before succeeding his father as ruler of Syria in 2000. When the régime fired on the demonstrators, protests spread from Daraa across the country, including to Bayda and the nearby city of Baniyas.

 “I first joined the protests for fun,” says Omar, “I was also annoyed by the corruption—I remembered that when I was 12 years old, my father had to pay a bribe of 5,000 lira to build a greenhouse.” On April 12, 2011, as people marched through Bayda, thousands of police descended on the village. “We could see them coming down the mountain, like ants—and they started shooting at us,” recalls Omar. The soldiers ordered everyone to the ground and began beating the protesters with metal pipes. Footage from the protests—uploaded by régime officials—shows the 15-year-old Omar lying face down in a mass of bodies, hands tied behind his back. Omar’s father, Ahmed, who knew local police commanders, negotiated his son’s release.

 While visiting American campuses and news organizations in early 2019, Omar was invariably asked if he had seen Capernaum, a Lebanese film then in Oscar contention, about a 12-year-old boy trying to survive in the slums of Beirut, hoping to escape with his sister to Sweden. All kinds of calamities almost befall the young protagonist—but his life is spared, and while he ends up in prison, the film has a happy ending. And in real life, the illiterate boy who plays him—Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee from Daraa—has been resettled in Norway with his family. Omar Alshogre’s story is indeed reminiscent of this film, but unlike Zain in Capernaum, every misfortune seems to have befallen him, before he and surviving members of his family ended up in Sweden. “My story is not a movie,” he says, laughing, “but I’m hoping for a happy ending.”

 In Omar’s case, the violence came quickly. Upon his first arrest, he was beaten and tortured with electric shock. “During the first arrests, they know they’re going to release you, so they don’t leave too many marks on your body—which is why they prefer electric shocks.” Omar would be arrested six times. “As soon as I was released, I returned right back to the protests,” he says, smiling. With each arrest, the torture got worse. In early 2012, an officer would tear out Omar’s fingernails one by one with a pair of pliers, asking, “How many officers did you kill? None?” while a second policeman held Omar’s head forcing him to look. “With each torn nail, you start saying yes to what they’re saying,” he notes. If the early abuse was meant to extract confessions, the later rounds of torture were meant to produce expressions of loyalty to the régime. “Who is your God?” the guard would shriek in between whips with a belt and electric shocks. “Bashar is your God!”

 In November 2012, Omar was detained for the seventh time, this time with his maternal cousins, 17-year-old Noor, 20-year-old Rashad, and 22-year-old Bashir. They were moved to detention centers around the country—in Baniyas, Tartus, and Homs—before being dropped off at Branch 215 in Damascus in December. “As soon as we arrived at Branch 215, we [the boys] were taken downstairs and stripped naked,” says Omar. “It was an unbelievable sight—people barely alive were lying in the corridor. Blue, red, and yellow welts on their bodies. They were starving, they had lost their teeth, you see just black inside their mouths. There was dry blood on the floor, in their hair. People had wounds that weren’t treated, maggots were eating their flesh.”

 Omar, Bashir, and Rashad were then taken to a lower level of Branch 215, while Noor, their female cousin, was taken to the sixth floor. “We walked over dead bodies in the hallway, until we arrived at Room No. 8.” As the boys peered into the darkness, a guard shoved Omar in with his foot. “The prisoners stared at us; we were still pretty then,” chuckles Omar. “And they looked like monsters—the biggest person was maybe 35 kilograms. I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll look like them one day.’”

Branch 215 is a prison facility renowned for its notorious torture techniques. Human Rights Watch has documented torture methods such as “The Flying Carpet” (busat al-reeh), in which a detainee is tied on a flat board, sometimes in the shape of a cross, and then beaten; sometime the board is outwardly folded, severely stretching and dislocating the detainee’s limbs. Detainees are suspended for days by their wrists, while being burned, electrocuted, and whipped with steel cables. The guards at this facility are also known for administering a process of slow starvation. It’s not for no reason that detainees nicknamed Branch 215 “slow death.” Upon arrival, Omar was asked specifically about his cousin Noor. “‘Where does she make her bombs?’ they asked. I couldn’t answer. I can give a false confession for myself, but not for my cousin.” Some days later, a guard had Omar strip naked, suspended him from the ceiling by his wrists, and tied a string tightly around his penis. “All day he kept forcing me to drink water and eat handfuls of salt—and in the evening he sent me to pee.” This was how guards could make a detainee urinate blood for weeks.

 Omar spent a year and a half at Branch 215. And from what he has recounted to human-rights organizations in Europe and to Arabic news outlets, the level of sadism is astounding. “I witnessed horrible torture. People starving to death, men forced to rape other men, victims dying after sexual assaults.” As infection and disease spread in the prison cells, already filthy and overcrowded, guards reluctant to touch the naked prisoners would force older men to assault younger detainees. Omar recalls the case of Ibrahim Adnan al-Qadah, a 14-year-old boy and the youngest detainee in Branch 215. “One day a guard walked into Room No. 8 and ordered the biggest guy to rape this 14-year-old. ‘If you don’t do it, I’ll rape you and kill you.’ Ibrahim was raped, he stopped eating, and sat in a corner until he died.”

 More than any film, Omar’s story is reminiscent of Erika Riemann’s harrowing prison memoir The Bow on Stalin’s Mustache (2003), about how the author spent her teens in an East German prison during the early Cold War. The systematic torture and depravity that Omar and other teenage prisoners in Syria suffer is reminiscent of the Stasi’s practices, as is the Syrian régime’s meticulous and extensive record-keeping.

 At Branch 215, Omar would be assigned the task of moving 30 to 40 corpses daily to the “isolation room.” He had to write a number on the victims’ foreheads, and on a piece of paper the number and name of the prison facility where the victim had perished. “The bodies had often been dead for seven or eight days and were decomposing before we had to move them. Sometimes we would take two arms, two legs, the torso, or one piece at a time.”

 Unbeknownst to the 17-year-old was that on the other side of Damascus, at military Hospital 601, a forensic military photographer was photographing, for the interior ministry’s records, the corpses that Omar had numbered. But the photographer, who would document 50 bodies a day, was also working secretly with an opposition group, the Syrian National Movement. Starting in May 2011, “Caesar,” as this dissident would come to be known, began making duplicates of the photos he took and then sending them on a thumb drive to a relative overseas. In August 2013, fearing for his safety, Caesar fled Syria. His images—more than 50,000 of them—would form the basis of the 31-page “Caesar Report,” released in January 2014, which details the “systematic killing” of some 11,000 detainees by the Syrian government in one region from March 2011 to August 2013. The images of 10,000 dead produced by Caesar would be examined by former prosecutors from the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, and would be declared the “smoking gun” that the Syria régime had committed crimes against humanity. In 2014, Caesar testified before Congress, showing the graphic images and describing a highly bureaucratic system of killing. His statement would inspire the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016, legislation calling for new sanctions on the Syrian government and possibly a no-fly zone as well.

 Caesar fled Syria just as the war was entering an even more brutal phase. The darker the war became, the darker Omar’s descent in the prison system. On March 15, 2013, Omar’s older cousin Rashad died in Branch 215. “His ribs were broken from the beatings, he had difficulty breathing—his hair was burned, he had burn marks everywhere,” recalls Omar. “He died in his sleep, sitting in the fetal position.” In June 2013, a detainee arrived from Omar’s region and told him (incorrectly, it turned out) that his entire family had been killed in a government assault. In early May 2013, the Syrian government forces had stormed Bayda and Baniyas, killing, according to the United Nations, an estimated 300 to 450 people. “I suddenly realized that all I had left in the world were my friends at Branch 215 and my cousin Bashir,” says Omar. “But then even my friends began dying—my closest friend, Yaqub Al Hariri from Daraa, was executed, then Baraa, then Mohammed, then Mustafa.”

 In early 2014, Bashir fell ill with tuberculosis. “He lost weight, he lost his hair, he was coughing blood,” says Omar. “He wouldn’t eat. I would hit him so he’d eat something; ‘Do it for your mother!’ I’d say.” In Branch 215, inmates were allowed one visit to the washroom per day, and they would rush down the 35-meter hallway to the restroom as guards beat them with pipes. Each inmate got only 10 seconds on the toilet. “Bashir became very weak, very small, he couldn’t walk—I would carry him to the toilet in my arms like a baby. One day I put him down on the toilet. I could hear the guard counting down 10-9-8-7.… I leaned over to pick up Bashir. I was so tired. I started walking with him down the hall. People started shouting, ‘Stop, stop, look down—Bashir has died.’” Omar pauses, eyes welling up. “I had seen thousands of dead bodies already, but Bashir was closer to me than my brother. He was all I had in the world and he died in my arms.” The inmates washed the 23-year-old’s body. They laid him out in the center of the room and prayed the janazah funeral prayer for him. “He had such a beautiful smile on his face. He was finally free,” Omar says. Omar then carried his cousin’s body to the room of corpses and wrote a number on his forehead. “I told him, ‘I’ll never forget your number; one day I’ll tell your mother your son that died was prisoner No. 3,532.’”

 Omar was transformed—even unfettered—by his cousin’s death. “I suddenly became stronger, more desperate. I was scared other prisoners would kill me for my food, for my space. I was alone in the world, but I also had no more responsibility. I had to survive, nothing else mattered. I forgot my family and became mentally strong.”

 In August 2014, after 19 months in Branch 215, Omar was transferred to Sednaya, an even more infamous military prison located on a mountaintop north of the Syrian capital. By all accounts, this facility represents the peak of the Syrian régime’s degeneracy and violence against political opponents, as many of the detainees are professionals, writers, and prisoners of conscience. According to Amnesty International, thousands of detainees have been executed extrajudicially at the “human slaughterhouse” of Sednaya, at a rate of 50 executions a week, often more. (In the spring of 2017, the US State Department alleged that the prison even had its own crematorium, supplying satellite photographs as evidence, though a spokesman acknowledged that they were not definitive proof.)

 New arrivals to Sednaya were greeted with a “welcome party.” Omar chuckles as he recalls his welcoming hafla. Branch 215, he has said, was heaven compared to Sednaya. Upon arrival, prisoners were stripped naked, and the torture started immediately. Omar was struck across the face with a metal bar. “Why are you bleeding?” the guard screamed into his bloodied face. “I had been in prison for two years and knew the game,” says Omar. “I said, ‘I fell on the stairs on my way up here.’ The guard said, ‘OK then, you can go.’” After a quick, five-second trial, Omar says, he was declared guilty of terrorism. “I realized in Sednaya torture was not to make you talk, but to make you go silent—permanently.” He was then taken to the third floor, where the guard explained the golden rule of Sednaya: “You don’t mention God here; he won’t hear you. God is locked up in cell No. 27. Here you don’t pray, you don’t fast, you don’t say God’s name.”

 Sednaya’s attempt to ban faith and the very mention of God may seem like an obvious policy for a secular dictatorship that has long battled an Islamist opposition, but it’s actually a fairly recent measure. In the Middle East, régimes pondering how to deal with Islamist detainees have banned extremist literature, but they have generally seen access to the Quran as key to deradicalization; in some cases (Saudi Arabia and Dubai, for instance), inmates can receive reduced sentences, even amnesty, for memorizing the Holy Book. (In Guantánamo, American prison officials would also as a matter of policy ban prayer, desecrate the Quran, and force-feed prisoners during the daylight hours of Ramadan as part of an “omnipotence” or “debilitation” tactic meant “to reduce the detainee’s ego.”) Sednaya banned Qurans only after prison rebellions broke out in 2008, leaving dozens dead (including 45 military police). The first rebellion, in March 2008, grew in strength when detainees began shouting “Allahu Akbar!” and banging on metal doors. During another riot, in July 2008, security guards would trample copies of the Quran, causing inmates to rush to rescue the books. The guards would open fire, killing nine prisoners. God would thereafter be banned from Sednaya.

 In this mountain prison, death is meted out for the tiniest infraction, for any and no reason; inmates are put to death for talking, for making eye contact, for not holding on to the inmate in front when lining up, or for sitting too close to the door of the cell. Inmates are confined to a space of 40 square centimeters (roughly 16 square inches). Guards dole out daily whippings with a belt made from a tire. Guards would deprive inmates of food and/or water for days. “One day they took 12 of us down to a small underground cell,” recalls Omar. “We spent 10 days there with no food but were given water—three glasses a day. On day six, they suddenly cut off the water. By day seven, everyone is tired. By day eight”—he widens his eyes freakishly—“everyone is going crazy.” He continues, “They then had us all pee in the same bucket—and we just drank our collective pee.”

 Inmates were reduced to bones, kept barely alive, and regularly terrorized psychologically. Guards would deliberately execute a prisoner right before serving inmates their only meal of the day, often placing the corpse’s head over the platter of food, so that it would bleed into the daily mound of bread and potatoes. Prisoners were liquidated in myriad ways—shot, beaten to death, strangled with an iron cable. Omar recounts how one day a guard brought a large pot of soup to serve the inmates. He then grabbed one detainee and shoved his head into the pot. When the man gasped his last breath, the guard had the naked prisoners drink the soup.

 At Sednaya, the authorities seemed to have one goal: the psychological destruction—what the East German Stasi called the “decomposition”—of inmates before execution. The jailers would use all kinds of psychological warfare, planting enforcers (sukhra) and informants (jawasis) in each cell to sow paranoia and moral chaos, and to prevent any bonds or trust from emerging among the prisoners. Thus, it’s particularly moving when Omar recounts how inmates tried to build trust and some semblance of moral order in the face of such nihilistic barbarism. Here belief in God—whispering the Quran to one another—was essential, helping inmates to survive and maintain a sense of sanity and selfhood. In a prison where God’s name was unutterable, inmates learned quickly to pray without moving their lips, in case an informant was watching. “You focus your eyes somewhere and imagine the verses passing inside your head,” says Omar.

 Faith shaped daily life in myriad ways. “I soon came to realize that there are two kinds of people in prison,” says Omar, “those who lose their faith—asking where is God?—and those who have faith. Those who have faith stick together; they are like a body. Those who don’t have faith will think of their families and lose hope. You see them crying in the corner; they would die psychologically and physically. So we set a rule at Sednaya. No one was allowed to speak of their family or of freedom. That was the rule. But the engineers kept talking about engineering, and how they would one day rebuild the prisons of Syria. So we moved them to a corner.”

Religious mores were followed as closely as possible. “We were kind to each other; the strong would give their food to the weak, the young would give their space to the old. We’re all on the edge of death; you could be killed off at any moment, and the last thing you do matters a lot for the afterlife.” Sitting in a windowless, dark cell for months on end, the Islamic calendar allowed inmates to tell what time of day or month of the year it was. The older prisoners could tell the time of day by listening out for the faint sound of an adhan from a distant mosque. “When eid came around, people would get very excited, hoping for a change, an amnesty maybe—but then eid would pass, and no one was released and people would die of agony,” says Omar.

 “After my third eid, I realized that the engineers were surviving the eids better—unlike the others—because their faith in science and imagination gave them hope. So we changed the rules; we allowed people to talk about freedom and family.” The inmates then created small groups whereby the professionals would move around: The doctors would speak to the other inmates about health, the lawyers about Syria’s legal system, the teachers about the educational system, and, perhaps most important, the elders who had memorized the Quran would transmit the verses to the young. “I literally learned hundreds of passages of Quran from the elders,” Omar said. “Syria’s most brilliant people are in prison, and the poor of Syria, or a village boy like me, would never get a chance to sit with lawyers and educators—but in prison we made it happen. I call it the university of whispers.”

 When he felt optimistic, Omar would engage in small acts of resistance. He would stand up and “exercise” (i.e., stretch his limbs) in his space—an act that could get an inmate tortured. He was still tagging bodies daily at Sednaya, and sometimes after an inmate died, he would write down in the report the name and number of a living inmate who had been forced to sign a confession and could be executed next, in the hope of sparing or deferring the latter’s execution. But perhaps Omar’s greatest act of resistance was that he began “writing”—that is, composing poetry and reciting the verses to himself and his friends. “For the first six months at Branch 215, I wrote about my family, but then after Bashir died, I began writing about imprisonment.” The writing was an act of political resistance, as he often wrote about the revolution in allegorical terms, where the revolution is an attractive woman, an object of love.

 Since his release, Omar has reflected often on why he survived. He’ll describe how his faith gave him strength and hope—and then he’ll mention Yasser. “The reason I survived is because there were elders in prison who protected me and wanted me to survive. And my greatest protector was Yasser al-Baridi; he saved my life so many times. When I was being tortured, he would throw his body on mine and receive the belts. And he taught me Quran, he was a hafiz.” Every prison cell had a leader of sorts, someone who would become the spokesman for the inmates, and the imposing, pious Yasser, who had been in prison “since before the Quran was banned in 2008,” was the leader of cell No. 10. One morning a guard came in and told Yasser that when he returned, he wanted him to have picked five men for execution. Yasser slowly selected four inmates, suspected “bad guys” (i.e., informants), and ordered them to the center of the room. When the guard came back, he peeked in through the door’s window and shouted, “I said five people!” Yasser answered in a mocking voice, “I know you said five. These four were praying together out loud.” Then, stepping forward, he added, “And I was their imam.” A silence descended on the third floor of Sednaya. The guards were aghast at this act of defiance and open devotion. They took Yasser and “tortured him to death, they destroyed his body, we recognized him only by his fingers,” says Omar, eyes tearing up for the second time.

 How to make sense of this carceral system, which combines bewildering depravity with obsessive record-keeping? Why endlessly torture and psychologically destroy individuals, including minors, who are already in a dungeon? Why keep them barely alive for months on end? Eliminating the hafiz, the learned Islamic figure, is actually reminiscent of colonial-era practices. In his exceptional book The Walking Qur’an (2014), historian Rudolph Ware notes that in 18th-century Senegambia, religious leaders who had memorized the Quran—who embodied God’s word, so to speak—were often the most vocal critics of the local rulers’ slaving practices and collaboration with European powers, so African monarchs would single them out for punishment. The enslavement of the hufaz would in turn trigger anti-colonial rebellions. (When Yasser died, Omar recalls, “We washed his body, and prayed for him out loud. When a good man dies, the guards don’t dare intervene in the prayer—they know we’ll do something crazy.”)

 Yet for all its proscribing of God, the Syrian régime in Sednaya and other prisons seems to have created a narrow space between life and death, eerily reminiscent of the Islamic concept of barzakh, that surreal place between the physical and spiritual worlds similar to the Christian idea of limbo. The Assad régime seems to have deliberately recreated that narrow “isthmus” between life and death that believers speak of. It’s worth adding that not all the memorizers of the Quran were executed. Many of those who fit the profile were released to replenish the ranks of jihadis, because the régime wanted to shift the struggle to the battlefield, where it had a clear military upper hand. Since mid-2011, Assad had begun periodically releasing hardened jihadis from prison to give the impression that the uprising was the work of violent extremists.

 One day in June 2015 (“I remember it was 10 days before Ramadan”), Omar was pulled from cell No. 10 and taken to another room. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s kind of a nice feeling, actually—you think you won’t have to worry anymore.” But instead, every hour a guard would come in and lean over the blindfolded inmate and ask, “‘Hey, how would you like to be killed?’ And I would say, ‘You can shoot me?’ The guard would say, ‘That’s boring—next option.’ I would say, ‘You can hang me? You can drown me?’” This continued hourly for two days, until the 20-year-old was driven out to the side of the road for a final humiliation—the mock execution. “I thought I was dead, but then I heard them drive off—and I realized they had fired onto the ground,” says Omar. “I turned my head, I looked up—and for the first time in three years, I saw the sky, the trees, the birds.”

 Barefoot, disheveled, and sick with tuberculosis, Omar made his way to Damascus. He spent the night at a bus station. The following morning, he stumbled around the city center; at one point he stood in front of a shop window, startled to see his emaciated face in the reflection. “I hadn’t seen my face in years,” he says. Some hours later he was approached by a stranger who asked, “Are you Omar Alshogre? I know your mother.” “I knew what ‘mother’ meant,” says Omar, “but I could not remember what my mother looked like. I had completely forgotten my family.” Omar would learn that in May 2013, his father, Ahmed, and his brothers Mohammed and Osman were killed by the régime’s forces, but his mother had narrowly escaped to Turkey with his other siblings. His mother had gotten wind that her son was in Sednaya and paid a $20,000 bribe for his release. The “stranger” was a middleman, who was to help get Omar across the border to Turkey. The next day, Omar Skyped with his mother. He couldn’t remember her, and she didn’t recognize her cadaverous-looking son. Before leaving for Turkey, Omar was taken to Damascus’s renowned Ibn al-Nafees hospital for treatment. As Omar lay in the examination chair, the doctor, aware that Omar was a former prisoner, backed up and smashed the heel of his shoe into the patient’s face.

 On June 21, after a 10-day journey through mountainous country, Omar arrived at the Turkish border. One final indignity awaited him on Syrian soil: Hearing his identifiably Sunni first name, the Alawi border guard began to beat the 20-year-old’s head with a rock. “He wanted to kill me,” says Omar. “The only thing that saved me was that I started coughing. I coughed blood on my hand and blew it in his direction, and then told him I was sick with TB.” The furious guard yelled, “Take that filth to Turkey” and shoved him across the checkpoint. “From then on, anytime I had trouble at a border I would cough and blow the guards a bloody kiss,” laughs Omar.

 He was soon reunited with his family in Turkey, but he couldn’t get medical treatment, and his mother feared for his safety. Syrian agents were eliminating political opponents, even in Turkey. “So my mother decided that my 10-year-old brother Ali and I would head for Europe,” says Omar, “but she kept Ali’s twin brother, Hamza, with her. In case we drowned, she didn’t want to be alone.”

 And so in early November 2015, Omar found himself facing another life-risking situation, boarding a dinghy with his little brother and 40 other refugees to cross the perilous, barzakh-like waters of the Aegean Sea, which has swallowed the lives of so many. The boat left from Izmir and sprang a leak, but after seven and a half hours, they arrived exhausted and shivering on the Greek island of Nira. Omar couldn’t get medical assistance in Athens, so he and his brother followed the human mass northward to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and finally to Malmö, Sweden, where he was able to get treatment. He soon moved in with a Swedish family, and as he regained his health, the memory holes began to disappear and the recollections came flooding back.

 In the three years since his release from prison, Omar has learned Swedish and English, graduated from high school, and seems keen to annex any language and identity that will allow him to disseminate his story. He has entered public-speaking competitions, where he has described his Dantean descent into Syria’s gulag. “It’s not fun,” he’ll grin. He’ll move audiences to tears talking about how he found footage of his father being shot and mutilated by the régime’s forces and why he needs to periodically watch the video. His TED Talk is more like a one-man show, where he crouches in slow motion to show the space inmates are confined to in Sednaya. His outspokenness and charm have made him a public figure in the Nordic countries; journalists will follow him with cameras as he strolls around a lake, birdwatching or reciting his poetry. He’s affectionately described as “Superguy” or “Arab Viking.”

 But Omar’s growing profile has also brought death threats. In January 2018, his cell phone rang. “I’m here in Stockholm. I miss my country, I love my people, I was so excited to see the Syrian number,” says Omar. “As soon as the caller said marhaba [hello], I knew who it was.” It was one of his torturers from Branch 215. “The voice had inhabited me for a year and nine months,” Omar recalls. “Suddenly I felt the lash of the whip on my back, I recalled Bashir being sick—and this guard pouring his medicine down the toilet.” The guard growled, “Why are you talking about me? Why don’t you keep quiet?” Omar chatted with his torturer for 90 minutes. The guard offered him money to keep quiet. “Don’t pay me money, just tell me what you get out of torturing people?” responded Omar. “He couldn’t answer. I could hear him breathing heavily. That’s when I realized I had won the confrontation—they had silenced me for years, and now I had rendered him silent.”

 Efforts are growing to bring legal action against Syrian officials for crimes against humanity. Russia and China, both allies of the Assad régime, blocked a request by the United States to bring Syria before the International Criminal Court in 2014, but in March of this year, lawyers in The Hague filed the first-ever case against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his government, on behalf of 28 Syrian refugees in Jordan who were forcibly displaced, some of them after being tortured. Omar, along with other Syrian ex-detainees in Sweden, is preparing a lawsuit, backed by Sweden’s War Crimes Unit, against 25 Syrian intelligence officers. As one of the few to survive the slaughterhouse of Sednaya, and as someone who has personally tagged over 8,000 bodies, who appears in various media and can rattle off the names and locations of multiple military prisons, including the brigadier general in charge of each facility and the names of deceased inmates and their hometowns, Omar is a formidable and feared witness. Hence the ongoing death threats.

 In the United States, Omar has been making the media rounds, meeting human-rights activists, lawmakers, and members of the National Security Council. Those who meet him are struck by his powers of recall and zingy answers. (Asked what he thought of New York, Omar quipped, “I came to America for the conversations, not the tall buildings.”) American officials suspect that the Syrian régime is holding more US nationals than any other state or non-state actor, so national-security experts were keen to hear Omar describe the sixth floor of Branch 215, where English-speaking prisoners were kept. “Omar Alshogre is in Washington to raise awareness of the Americans captured and of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016,” says Mouaz Moustafa of the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force. But Omar has no policy prescription per se. When US officials ask him what they should do, the 23-year-old rather cryptically responds, “Just liberate one military prison like 215; in it you’ll find Syrians, Europeans, and Americans.”

 In Sweden, Omar had begun searching through Caesar’s online database and found photos of his cousin Rashad and his friends Baraa Mania and Mohammed Suleiman. Thus, one of the more emotional moments during his February visit to Washington was when he got to speak by telephone to Caesar. “If Caesar is the nameless, faceless symbol of the Syrian nation, Omar is today the very eloquent voice and face of the Syrian people,” says Moustafa, who connected the two. “They spoke casually, informally, for 20 minutes, like a nephew speaking to his uncle. Omar only appeared emotional after they hung up.”

 Omar has since been speaking to student groups on Ivy League campuses. Undergraduates will listen raptly (and then they will take him on a campus tour and urge him to apply, as he’s considering attending a US college). On stage he will stress how he survived prison because of the elders who invested in him, his positive attitude, and his faith. “I believe in God. There’s a reason for everything—everything. If I didn’t have TB, I wouldn’t have been able to cross to Turkey, or get to Europe.” Over the years, it’ll be interesting to see how this young man makes sense of why the other good people imprisoned with him—the believers, the scientists, the youngsters—did not survive. But his composure and mental strength are indeed awe-inspiring. Asked by one student how he felt, Omar replied, “I feel great, I have a great future,” and then, spreading his arms, added, “and all those people who died—Yaqub, Yasser, Baraa, everyone—I have them here within me.” '

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Monday, 27 May 2019

Idlib residents defy death to take a stand against Assad's assault

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 Zouhir al-Shimale:

 'Residents of Syria’s Idlib province are refusing offers of safe passage to government-held territory despite increased bombardment in recent days as the Assad régime intensifies its campaign to recapture the final rebel holdout.

 More than 200 civilians are estimated to have been killed and about 180,000 displaced since the government launched a Russian-backed aerial and ground assault on the north-western province late last month, prompting an international outcry.

 While many civilians fled towards the closed border with Turkey, others said they would stay put.

 “I will not let go of my land or home, or leave, not to Turkey and definitely not back to régime areas,” said Khaled Al Essa, 35, who lives with his daughter and parents in Khan Sheikhoun.

 Mr Al Essa dismissed the offers of safe passage out of Idlib through humanitarian corridors guaranteed by Russia and the government.

 “They keep repeating the same lie of a humanitarian corridor,” he said by phone, with explosions and the sounds of aircraft in the background.

 “If they don’t want people to die then stop the attacks, as simple as that. How could we feel safe to cross their corridors when they are already crushing us here?

 “I don’t want to die under an olive tree or be humiliated with my family on the border.

“I have nothing to lose or gain if my family and I are to die in this holy month. So be it, we will not run away from whatever is our fate.”

 The government offensive breaks a ceasefire agreed to in September last year by Russia and Turkey, which supports Syrian rebel groups, to prevent a humanitarian disaster.

 Idlib’s population has swollen to more than 3 million after fighters and civilians from other parts of Syria were given the option to move there from rebel-held areas recaptured by the government.

 Mariam Ghlo, 31, fled to the Harem mountains with her husband and three children two weeks ago, after their home in the town of Latamnah was destroyed by a barrel bomb.

 Along with dozens of other displaced families, they live in the open with scraps of fabric for shelter.

 “Even though we are destitute, homeless, with nothing, not even enough blankets, water or food for the children, I don’t want to go back to régime areas, nor does my husband,” Ms Ghlo said.

 “We learnt lessons from Ghouta, Deraa and other areas where the régime opened corridors for civilians to flee.

 “On arrival they go through security checks, the men get arrested then killed, imprisoned or forced to fight with them.

 “We would rather be here under this tree for a lifetime instead.”

 The offer of safe passage is a warning of worse attacks to come, said Jamal Barode, 30, a father of two who moved to Maarat Numan in Idlib from Deraa after the southern province was recaptured by the government last year.

 “Russia’s offer to open a passage for us to leave is a sign that a new escalation is ahead of us, worse than what we have had already,” Mr Barode said.

 “When the Russia-Assad régime make such an offer, that means a furious ground operation or chemical attacks will follow in the coming weeks.

 “This is what we were used to over the past years and the same formula is being used again here.

 “The Russians must be fooling with us. They know that the majority here have already accepted corridors out of Aleppo, Ghouta, Deraa ...

 “They chose to come to Idlib and now they are offering us a corridor to go back again? This is only a step towards another escalation.”

 Mousa Abdullah, a strategic and military expert in Istanbul, said Russia’s offer of safe passage was a diversion from an embarrassing reversal against the rebels in a village last week.

 “This comes after rebel forces recaptured Kafr Nabudah in less than 19 hours after it was taken in a fierce military campaign over 10 days,” Mr Abdullah said.

 But Syrian state media reported that government forces retook the village on Sunday from militant groups including Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the dominant insurgent force in Idlib.

 Mr Abdullah said Russia was aware that there would be few takers for its offer of safe passage even if régime forces seized large areas of Idlib.

 “Out of nearly four million, only a few thousand might leave,” he said.

 “The majority are former internally displaced people who refused to stay in régime areas when they could, whether in Aleppo, Ghouta, etc, so it’s unlikely they will use these passages.

 “Idlib, unlike those other cities, is a special area as the final frontline between the Assad régime and Ankara, which has supported rebel forces with advanced weapons to fight back in the recent offensive.

 “There are more than 20,000 rebel forces with plenty of weapons and ammunition. Many are militant groups who have nowhere else to go and will fight to the death,” he said.

 Death is also a very real possibility for the civilians who choose to remain in Idlib.

 “We just want safety here,” Mr Al Essa said. “We won’t leave for anywhere. We are not terrorists, we are the residents and the rightful owners of these lands.

 “I might not be alive in the next 24 hours, and may not be able to be heard again. The last thing I want the world to know is that you’ve got the Syrian people’s blood on your hands.” '

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