Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Syrian Journalist Hiba Barakat Explains How Women Are Finding Ways to Survive the War

Image of a bombed out bus being used a clothesline for drying laundry

'Though I am only 23, I have lost so much of what I love to war.

I was born in northwest Syria, in the Aleppo countryside, where I lived with my parents and eight siblings; I was the third child. Both my mother and father were uneducated, but they were more open-minded compared with other parents in our conservative community. They encouraged all of us to read and work hard so we could get a decent education. My father had a huge library at home, with books on science, literature, philosophy, and religion, which I still read today.

I remember how my dad used to read to us every night when we were kids. He started a poetry contest in our house, where we’d split into two teams, one with him and one with mom, and we’d challenge one another to see who could come up with a line of poetry that began or ended with certain words. I really miss those times. My mom used to help us with our homework; today, we all have good writing skills because of her.

Growing up, my dream was to become an architect. To meet my goal, I had applied to study the scientific baccalaureate when I was starting high school, something I’d need to pursue a degree. But in 2011, when I was just 15, the Syrian revolution began. Our hometown was liberated by the opposition, but the shelling, conflict, and insecurity forced us to flee to east Aleppo. There I had to study literature because it was easier to manage and didn’t require full school attendance. This was the first love I Iost to the war: a passion for architecture and my zeal for studying it.

In 2014, realizing that I would never be an architect, I enrolled in an Arabic literature degree program at Aleppo University. Not long into my studies, I received a phone call that my brother had been arrested by the régime while he was taking a law school exam. The régime had arrested him for participating in peaceful protests, something they did to so many innocent people.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, nearly 128,000 detainees remain missing, believed to be dead or still in prison. My sister and I knew that the régime would likely come for us, too, so I dropped out of college and headed back with her to our family. That day, the war took my education, but it also took my brother, who I’d never see again.

After I moved back home, I knew I wanted to do something to help other people. I started volunteering with local groups providing education and psychological support to those in need. But when I was 19, my parents arranged a marriage for me, and I lost all that I had accomplished when my husband moved us to Turkey in 2015.

I enrolled in college there, again to study literature, and tried to rebuild my life. But normality proved impossible.

One year into my new life in Turkey, my family was told my brother had died in régime detention. Two months later, my father, who was the head of a small town’s chapter of the Syrian Red Crescent, a medical-aid organization, died when an aid convoy he was leading was targeted by Russian airstrikes. For two hours, the planes had targeted the convoy, killing 20 civilians and aid workers. In the space of a single season, I lost my brother — again — and my father to the war.

By 2017, I felt like I had fallen apart. I was struggling with losing my brother and father. I was also dealing with what felt like my husband’s overwhelming attempts to control me, to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do. Eventually, I decided to get a divorce, to leave college again and go back to my family in Syria, though I felt, deep inside, that I had lost every reason to live.

Despite all the shocks I had endured, I was blessed to have the most wonderful mother, who kept encouraging and empowering me. I realized that I needed to embody her strength and not give up, though that’s all I wanted to do. I challenged myself to pursue a career in journalism, and to follow my passion for photography. After I went back to Syria, I resumed my former work volunteering and providing psychological support, and I began working as a freelance journalist.

I published around 35 articles in different local and regional newspapers and blogs. A year later, I enrolled in a photography workshop, learning how to produce filmed news reports. I love to capture human stories with my camera, to show my community and reflect their suffering.

Though I am now making a living as a journalist, my life has been forever altered by the horror of the Syrian conflict. Many of the Syrian women I know have faced what I have faced, or worse, and have experienced other yo-yo effects of leaving and coming back.

I have a friend who used to live with her husband and their little girl in Raqqa, under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS). Tragedy struck when her husband and father were killed in a car bombing; around the same time, her daughter died from an illness. She lived in the utmost misery, but refused to be beaten.

When a relative of hers who had joined ISIS tried to force her to remarry, she refused, despite witnessing firsthand the horrors the group inflicted on people who disobeyed it. She fled to Turkey with her brother to start a new life. But it didn’t last long, and she found herself in the middle of the war again after her new husband moved them back to Syria for work.

Another woman I know from a nearby village fled the conflict more than four years ago, moving to Lebanon with her husband and two girls. Lebanese authorities arrested her husband, suspecting that he had ties to an extremist group. She waited a year for his release, until her family in Syria begged her to come home because they were worried that she couldn’t take care of herself independently.

Since her return, she has lost three brothers, one to ISIS and two to the régime. She’s now started her own small business in our village to support herself, her mother and her little girls, waiting for her husband to show up one day.

Another woman I know had lost her husband long before the 2011 revolution. Following the revolution, she lived with her four children in a village outside régime control, but she’d often go to visit her relatives in régime-controlled areas. When militias loyal to the régime learned that she was visiting from the opposition side, they reported her to intelligence officials. Days later, she was arrested by régime forces and accused of smuggling weapons to rebel fighters. She remained in prison for almost four years, during which two of her teenage boys, left with no one to take care of them, joined an armed group.

Her 13-year-old son was killed during a battle. When his mother received the news in prison, she had a breakdown. A while later, her 20-year-old son, married and expecting a newborn, was killed while fighting, too. Two months later, she was released with a pardon and returned to her broken home. Her community rejected her for being an ex-prisoner. Now, she has to look after her remaining children, her daughter-in-law, and her grandchild alone.

There are so many painful stories about young girls and women in Syria, I’d need a book to tell them all. The stories of Syrian women’s struggles are of the forced marriages resulting from wartime pressure, of loneliness and displacement, of having to leave school and abandon their dreams. This war is a curse that women have suffered from the most. It made some of us stronger, but it also broke many of us. I worry especially about the girls growing up now in northwest Syria, which is under heavy bombardment from the régime and Russia. How can they continue an education under such conditions? Already, White Helmet volunteers say the recent bombardments have displaced 300,000 people in northwest Syria alone, their lives in limbo.

I want to tell them, and every girl who’s been through the pain of abandoning her dreams or losing someone she loves, to try and turn the pain into inner strength. Despite the tragedy, there is hope, and you can overcome your sorrow. Though I am also living through the régime and Russia’s attacks, I refuse to give up on my hopes and ambitions. I will continue down the road I chose for myself and do the job that I love, no matter what comes my way.'

Image of two Syrian girls with bows in their hair they are both holding white protests signs with black letteringAn elderly Syrian woman in all black shields her eyes from the sun as she leans against a pile of rolled fabrics

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Coastal breakdown in Syria creates opportunities for Russia

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L-R) at the Russian Hmeimim air base.

 'Northern Latakia has long been an important junction in smuggling networks running from Turkey into Syria. When Hafez al-Assad came to power in the 1960s, groups that had been previously marginalized were now able to use their familial and clan connections to take advantage of and expand the smuggling networks. Today, these smugglers and other paramilitary groups, such as the National Defense Forces (NDF) and Coastal Shield Brigade, have been tasked with guarding the régime’s heartland.

 Until the past few years, the existential threat from rebel and Islamist fighters deterred pro-régime groups from openly defying the government. While the régime has permitted loyalist militia groups to profit off of smuggling into rebel-held areas and even from extorting local populations, it has consistently drawn a line against allowing them to use their weapons on the régime. Until recently it has been able to act swiftly and decisively against wayward groups, such as when it dismantled the pro-régime Desert Hawks militia in 2017 after the cousin of group’s head violently confronted the president’s motorcade in Qardaha. While it was considered an “elite” unit and deployed on special assignments, such an armed affront to the régime — and indeed the president himself — was beyond the pale and the group was disbanded and its leader, Ayman Jaber, sidelined.

 Fast forward to the past year and the balance of power seems to have shifted: There has been a marked increase in crimes reported in Qardaha and Latakia perpetrated by loyalist militias. Car theft and kidnapping for ransom both appear to be on the rise. In March, régime and Russian-backed Republican Guard forces attempted to arrest Talal al-Assad, cousin of the president and the leader of the local NDF. The reasons for his arrest remain murky but it appears he refused a direct order to send one of his subordinates to Damascus for investigation after he was caught smuggling drugs in the area. When confronted with Republican Guard forces, Talal escaped to Qardaha, where he expelled all other régime civilian and military personnel and proceeded to fire rockets down on Latakia city as a warning. To date, no loyalist militia in Syria has acted so brazenly against the régime — and remained standing.

 While Talal al-Assad and Ayman Jaber were both smugglers-cum-militia leaders, the former is a member of the ruling clan and the latter is not. Although members of the Assad family have always been untouchable to a degree, if Bashar is unable to rein in a rogue militia leader, what kind of message does that send to those looking to him to restore stability? Moreover, such open defiance could be seen by rival elites, some possibly within the Assad clan, as an opportunity to push Bashar aside.

 As Bashar tries to battle rebels and internal opponents alike, he is also struggling to balance the interests and objectives of his foreign backers, Iran and Russia, both of which have been instrumental in defending the régime. Their support, however, has come at a price. The régime has been forced to make economic concessions such as oil and gas exploration rights, preferential trade agreements in sectors such as agriculture, and contracts for reconstruction of war-ravaged areas. In addition, Iran and Russia have been seeking to expand their military footprints in Syria by building bases and fostering proxy forces. Iran has sought to create and support paramilitary forces in Syria, both domestic and foreign, to aid the régime and provide leverage for Tehran after the war concludes. Russia has provided air support on the battlefront and worked to professionalize the Syrian armed forces and (re)integrate paramilitary units into a formal military structure. The fight over the spoils of war has brought Russia and Iran into greater competition in Syria, with increasing direct confrontations — particularly in eastern Deir-ez-Zor Province — between their proxy forces.

 As both countries seek influence in post-conflict Syria, the growing insecurity in coastal areas presents an opportunity to exploit. Iran may look to empower the president’s brother, Maher Assad, who leads the army’s 4th Division and is known to have pro-Iranian sympathies. So far, Bashar has proven to be a useful and pliable ally for Iran, but doubtless they would prefer to have an alternative should he prove unreliable. Encouraging, or at least not actively discouraging, insecurity in Latakia and Tartous may be a way to empower Maher at Bashar’s expense. While Iran may not have been aiming for a palace coup, encouraging paramilitaries to act out could have been a means of applying pressure on Bashar as he wavered between Iran and Russia.

 If Iran’s intention was to draw Bashar closer, then the rug was pulled out from under it when Russian military police began to deploy across Tartous and Latakia to quell the rising crime and violence. Although Russia has positioned military police in Syria previously, this is the first time it has done so in an area not previously held by rebel forces. Often, Russian military police were seen as a more neutral security guarantor by civilians and former rebel fighters than régime or Iranian regular or proxy forces. The deployment of Russian military police across Tartous and Latakia demonstrates both the inability of the Assad régime to effectively police its own territory and the degree to which Russia will go to take over a basic function of the Syrian state. By being allowed to deploy Russian forces directly in the régime’s heartland, President Vladimir Putin has further reinforced the view that only Russia, and not Iran, can provide true security and stability.

 However, Russia’s move is certainly not wholly altruistic, as it has considerable investment in both the Hmeimem air base in Latakia Province — where it headquarters its forces for the whole country and from which it directs air campaigns — and its Tartous naval base. If loyalist militias, some of which are more partial to Iran than Russia, wrestle more power in these coastal areas, they could conceivable threaten two of the greatest geopolitical prizes Russia has won through its intervention in Syria. At the Hmeimem air base, Russia has deployed its advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which has a range sufficient to deny any NATO or otherwise unfriendly aircraft in the whole of the northeastern Mediterranean. In addition, Russia has signaled its intention to expand the Tartous naval base, which it leases under a long-term deal with the Syrian government and is its only warm water port. In short, Russia sees the security of these two military bases as a top priority and is willing to put its own forces on the line to safeguard them.

 The increasing lawlessness of loyalist militias in key areas certainly spells trouble for the régime. Unable or unwilling to act against Talal and his gang, Bashar called on Russia for help. Seizing the opportunity, Moscow deployed its military police to restore security and track down Talal, rather than letting the instability fester or orchestrating Bashar’s removal. The move both undermines Iran and reinforces Russia’s role as the régime’s protector while further indebting Bashar, from whom it can continue to extract economic and potentially military concessions.'

Image result for talal assad latakia