Tuesday, 2 March 2021

'This is the price we had to pay for freedom'

 












 'Ghayath Abou Ahmed, 30, freelance journalist:

 "I was a student when protests broke out in my hometown Darayya. I watched from a distance with my camera, taking pictures of scenes I never imagined would have taken place in Syria. We were inspired by protests in Tunisia and Egypt, but never thought we would dare raise our voices too.

 Sadly, our dream was short-lived when hundreds in Darayya were killed in August 2012. I lost so many of my friends and neighbours in just two days. That was the most difficult time for me in the whole of the last 10 years. That was the moment, fear had a full grip on all of the young people in Darayya. Nobody could go out of town again to protest.

 For four years, we lived in isolation under siege. I felt bitter every time I looked at the horizons to see how Damascus was all lit brightly while we lived in complete darkness. My heart ached at how they moved freely while we couldn't even get food or medicine.

 I was completely lost when I was forcibly evacuated from Darayya to Idlib in 2016; I felt like a fish taken out of water.

 My parents were detained for a while and my brother was killed. This is the price we had to pay for freedom. I never regretted participating in the revolution. If I went back in time, I would do it all over again. I never blamed the revolution for my loss, I only blame the Syrian régime which committed unforgivable crimes.

 It is true that the revolution has not succeeded yet, but we have achieved some freedom that we had never enjoyed before. There was always one voice that nobody dared contradict. Now I'm a freelance journalist, I write my thoughts and share them with the world, something I could have never done if it wasn't for the revolution."



 Nour al-Sham, 28, humanitarian worker:

 "I used to live in a house with my family, but now I live in a tent in northern Idlib.

 We lived in southern Idlib in a house where we had everything we needed except for our freedom. Now I suffer in a primitive tent in a barren land with hundreds of other tents which in winter turns into a big mud puddle and in summer is infested with insects and covered in dust.

 I have no dreams for the future or for my son's future. I try my best to distract him from life in the camp. I tell him nothing about the war so he doesn't get burdened at such a young age. My husband had to leave us to work in Turkey and I don't get to see him anymore.

 I had a dream to finish school, but it's impossible now. I was a student in Aleppo University when I took part in the protests there. I had to leave the university few months after that because of threats by security forces.

 I started helping out people and joined the humanitarian relief effort. In 2019 I escaped the shelling on our neighbourhood with my husband and our child and ended up in a refugee camp in the northern Idlib countryside.

 I lost two of my cousins when their homes were bombarded. My brother was arrested in 2012, and we don't know where he is until now. But I never regretted that we had a revolution. We hoped we'd get rid of the oppressive régime."



 Fadi Mosilli, 40, Red Cross employee:

 "By the end of 2012, I realised I couldn't stay in Syria anymore. I felt threatened after my close friends were arrested. I was afraid for the safety of my children. I was afraid I'd be just another man killed and forgotten like the prisoners of Caesar prison.

 I found my way to Turkey then to Germany.

 Probably being abroad helped make our voices heard. I've always participated in protests in Germany to call for the rights of Syrians and defend Syrian refugees. I even joined a political party. I dream of a similar democracy and free elections in Syria.

 We took to the streets to call for freedom only for the régime to retaliate with bullets. People were brutally beaten and killed in front of my eyes.

 The last 10 years of destruction took their painful toll on me, but I still have hope that one day we'll enjoy freedom and put those accountable behind bars. Seeing Syrians getting killed and displaced every day is heart-wrenching for me. The whole world was watching and did nothing to stop the killing.

 I live as a body without a soul. I miss my life in Syria, I miss my family and my friends, the trees and the street where I lived. I look at pictures of Damascus where we used to live and I cry. It breaks my heart that I couldn't even visit my mom's grave after she passed away a couple of years ago."



 Harun al-Aswad, 33, journalist:

 "On June 24, in 2012, I was watching on television how Egyptians achieved victory by announcing Mohammed Morsi a president for their country. I was inspired by the Egyptian revolution, dreaming of a happy ending to our struggle. On that day, I left my house [in Damascus] to participate in a protest, but my hopes were soon crushed when I got arrested.

 For a year, I was tortured brutally. I was deprived of food and water and using the bathroom. I was beaten daily and mocked for the jailers' entertainment.

 Sometimes I wished I could just die; and I think if I lost hope, I would have been dead.

 I've always had a passion for telling stories, something my father warned me about. He said journalism in this country will get you in trouble one day. There were times when I thought about his words while fleeing one place after the other to avoid getting arrested.

 I live in Turkey now close to the Syrian borders where I continue to do more journalism and tell the world about the atrocities committed against the Syrian people. I still have hope that Bashar al-Assad and his régime will be held accountable for his crimes against the Syrian people.

 Our revolution was not Islamic. The rallies moved to mosques just because they were places of gathering for us on Friday. Moving in crowds gave us strength and eliminated our fear. We never called for sectarian demands, we only called for freedom, justice, and an end to the emergency state.

 We have won after all, because it was us versus powerful countries and we still managed to overcome our fear and break the deafening silence of decades of oppression exposing unspeakable atrocities.



 Safia, 45, housewife:

 "I escaped from Homs with my husband and our four children one year after the revolution began. We have always thought we would be back once the régime stopped its attack. But we couldn't come back.

 We were moving in a pick-up truck amid heavy fire from one town to another heading to safety in the north. Whenever we imagined we were finally safe, the sound of shelling would bring us back to reality. Death was close but it was better than being arrested.

 The most difficult time for us was living under siege in Eastern Ghouta. The régime was hitting us with everything, airstrikes, artillery, mortars, cluster bombs. They denied us medicine and basic food supplies. The only thing we could find to eat was cabbage leaves. I was dying inside when my youngest son woke up hungry in the middle of the night asking for food and I couldn't get him anything. Many terrible things happened to me that I wish could be erased from my memory.

 My husband and three of my sons were tortured by Turkish security for being journalists when we tried to escape from Idlib to Turkey. I was screaming at the officer "leave them alone". I don't know how I got all this strength. I used to be terrified of any officer. I probably exploded after all the injustice and humility we'd seen.

 The Turkish authorities apologised to us later, saying it was an individual mistake.

 We were allowed in Turkey, stayed for few months then moved to France.

 I have no hope of seeing my family again. My father died and I couldn't see him one last time. But I still believe that the revolution was something that was meant to happen. We were silent for so long. People were even scared to talk inside their homes. But enough was enough." '



Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Extracts from Civil War in Syria by Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro and Arthur Quesnay


 


















  ‘The economic interests of military actors are not enough to create the necessary conditions for a stable division of the territory and its resources, which confirms the criticism levelled at theories that reduce civil war to the predatory exploitation by violent actors who avoid, or at least, minimize confrontation. On the contrary, anticipation of a durable reconstruction of the state brings with it an intensification of violent competition for control of territory, state institutions, and international recognition. The development of a bureaucracy is a key element in this struggle, since the ability to accumulate resources strongly impacts the probability of an armed group’s survival.’

[Prolegomena, p15]


                                       *********************************************

  ‘The initial mobilizations were primarily the result of personal engagement and were relatively independent of social position and sectarian affiliations. Informal discussions triggered by events in Tunisia and Egypt were at the root of the mobilizations.’
[Introduction, p36]

 ‘Far from negotiating, ceding, or managing the repression a minima, the régime exacerbated the crisis with a strategy of unbridled violence. This polarizing approach was made possible by the coherence of institutions dominated by the security apparatus, which was tightening its grip on all fields. By designating the protesters as internal enemies, the régime legitimized its use of violence. Lacking any institutional relay and faced with increasingly violent repression, the protesters were forced into armed struggle.’
[p37]

 

 ‘The Syrian insurgency has one unexpected feature: the lack of exclusive control of territories by its armed groups. The coexistence of armed, nonhierarchically organized groups could have led to immediate fragmentation, territorial as well as political. Instead we observe the fluidity with which fighters shift from one group to another and the low incidence of armed conflict between them. Furthermore, these improvised units often merged to tackle more ambitious goals. The first explanation lies in the absence of political parties, that the protesters rejected as a source of division. Moreover the armed groups did not represent a specific community. Until the spring of 2013, insurgent groups advancing with the front line regarded themselves as the forerunners of a national army.

 A countervailing dynamic asserts itself as the advancing transnational movements, the PKK and the Islamic State, eliminate all competing groups from their territory.

 From the start, Damascus’ policy was to bolster the most radical groups (informal agreements with the PKK, the release of radical jihadists from the Iraq war) as a tactic for dividing the opposition.’
[pp37-39]

                                        *********************************************

 ‘In the 1990s and 2000s, those close to power took control of entire sectors of the economy. “The régime liberalized the economy sector by sector. That way its members were able to maintain control” explained a businessman from Aleppo who had fled to Turkey, “one family, one of whose members was the Minister of Health, was able to develop a large pharmaceutical company, because part of its revenue was diverted to the clan in power.” ‘
[Chapter 1, p47]

 A clique close to the régime purloined the national wealth. The inequalities were even more strongly felt, given the conspicuous consumption of the elite, and the increased access of the middle class to the Internet and mobile phone access to foreign media. On the one hand, the internationalized elites close to the régime had passports, studied abroad, and were free to purchase imported goods. By contrast, the children of the middle classes, often with diplomas but without economic capital, and the working class living in informal settlements, saw their standard of living fall.’
[pp51-52]

 

 ‘The security institutions remained in the hands of the Alawites, a community not able to betray the régime. Some Sunnis had command positions, but they were rather the exception, while the elite army units that protected the capital – the Special Forces Division, the Republican Guard, and the 4th Division – were in the hands of Alawites. Lower-ranking Alawite officers from the Secret Services or the 4th Division often had more power than a Sunni general. In addition, the régime actively encouraged Alawite populations to settle in certain strategic Damascus suburbs.’
[p57]



 ‘The régime manipulated the PKK to monitor Syrian Kurds and to destabilise Turkey. After leaving Turkey in 1979, the leadership of the party was based in Syria until the late 1990s. At that time, Syrian Kurdish organisations faced severe repression, but the PKK was free to recruit Syrian Kurds with the proviso that they would not act inside Syria itself. The presence of the PKK and its collaboration with the régime made any significant mobilization of Syrian Kurds difficult. “The PKK was working hand in hand with the régime. Instead of doing your military service for the Syrian state, you could serve within the ranks of the PKK. If someone was opposed to the régime, it was the PKK that denounced him and had him arrested.”

 

 In 1998, bowing to pressure from Turkey, the Syrian security services dismantled the PKK’s structures in Turkey. Despite the creation of a Syrian branch under the name PYD by 2003, the PKK was losing influence. This led to a renewed mobilization among the Kurdish population. The protest, which started in Qamishli, is emblematic of the rise of Kurdish protests in 2004. Faced with Kurdish demonstrators demanding civil rights, Damascus could stop the movement only with a brutal crackdown that resulted in dozens of deaths. The régime also relied on recently settled Arabs in Kurdish regions to attack protesters that were accused of holding separatist ambitions backed by the West.’

[p60]

 

 ‘After 2008, Bashar al-Assad’s régime would tighten its control over the religious field. Educational institutions directly controlled by the régime were created, and several religious leaders who had dared criticize the régime were jailed, among them the son of the former Grand Mufti Salah al-Din Kuftaro. How effective this strategy was became evident by the time of the protests in 2011: Most of the important sheikhs and imams from the mosques were now closely collaborating with the security apparatus.

 The régime had succeeded in producing a depoliticized society in which political organizations were disconnected from the rest of society. This created a gulf between the authorities – designated as they were by an opaque process – and the population. The elections in Syria were a formality, the Baath party allies being mere satellites offering no political alternatives. “In January 2011, just before the revolution,” confides a resident of Aleppo, “the mayor of Aleppo was suddenly changed, without anyone knowing why. But this type of event was not unusual; the political system was closed in on itself, and the people had very little information about its leaders.”

 The Baathist régime had in effect eliminated independent political movements. The repression was particularly successful, since, on the eve of the protest movement of 2011, no organised political opposition existed in Syria.

 The inability of the institutional actors to lead any form of protest had two consequences,: high initial costs for the protesters and the rapid spread of the unrest due to a lack of representatives able to articulate sectorial, negotiable demands.’

[pp63-64]


                                       *********************************************

 ‘On March 13th, 2011, fifteen teenagers from Daraa, a city in southern Syria, were tortured by intelligence services for having scrawled anti-régime graffiti. Peaceful protests that followed in the city spread quickly across much of the country.

 People often protested outside their home areas. Kurdish and Christian youth came to participate in protests in the governorate of Aleppo. Children of the bourgeoisie of Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs participated and, in many instances, played a crucial role in organising the protests. The few organisations that called for protest played only marginal roles and cannot be conceived of as responsible for the initial upsurge of protest. Syrian demonstrations, therefore, fall into a category of mobilizations without mobilizers.’

[Chapter 2, pp65-67]

 

 “The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen unfolded like a dream for us! When Tripoli fell, I said to myself that it’s possible! That we also had a chance against Bashar in Syria! The impossible became possible!”
[p71]

 ‘ “God is the Greatest” (Allah Akbar): this slogan was consensual in a country with an overwhelmingly Sunni majority and held appeal for the Christian actor Fares al-Helou, who, in April 2011, chanted it in front of the al-Hasan Mosque in Damascus. Other slogans explicitly referred to the unity of the religious communities: Sunnis and Alawites, united, united, united.” (Sunni w alawi, wahad, wahad, wahad). Similarly, the weekly slogan on Friday May 20th, voted on in Facebook and chanted by processions throughout the country, was “Azadi”, the Kurdish word for freedom.

 “Our slogans were fairly general to start with. It was only after several protests that we began to chant slogans against the régime.” “The people want the fall of the régime” (al-Cha’ab yurid isqat al-Nidham) and the vote on Facebook for “Leave!” (Irhal) as the weekly slogan for the week of Friday, July 21st, 2011 underscores the radicalization of the agenda.’
[p75]

 

 ‘The occupation of physical spaces was not a viable strategy due to the violence of the repressive machinery. One such attempt, on Clock Square in Homs, on April 17th, ended with dozens dead.’
[p76]


 “Each of our protests took place at a different venue. The protest only lasted a few minutes before we would disperse only to regroup elsewhere.”

[p77]


 ‘In the Kurdish cities (Afrin, Ayn al-Arab) and in the Kurdish areas to the north of Aleppo from September 2011 on, the PYD suppressed any demonstrations held there. Young Kurdish protesters therefore travelled into predominantly Arab neighbourhoods to take part in demonstrations there.

 Then there were the informants. So many were working for the régime that it became difficult to coordinate collective action without the security forces learning of it and making pre-emptive arrests. This accounts for why, at the start, no organizations, such as unions, associations or clans, were involved or played an important part in the protests.’
[p78]

 

‘The intensity of the discussions and the shared risk-taking caused an emotional community to coalesce. “The group to which I belonged quickly became a real family. I spent more time with them than with my own family. It’s with them that I feel happiest; everything that happened since 2011, I have shared with them.” Activism was experienced subjectively as altruistic as opposed to the instrumentalized sectarian membership in prerevolutionary Syria.’
[p80]

 

                                       *********************************************

 ‘The rising wave of violence served in the short run to reinforce the cohesion of the security institutions. The numerous war crimes committed by the security organs’ cadres further tied them to the régime. By turning the conflict into a sectarian one, the régime took the minorities hostage.

 Until early 2013, desertions by senior officers created the illusion of an imminent collapse of power, while in fact the central power was restructuring around the security institutions and benefiting from substantial foreign aid.’
[Chapter 3, p85]

 

 “In 2011, the régime’s rhetoric changed to propaganda that proclaimed ‘the national unity of the Syrians against radical Sunnis.’ The security services had begun to treat the population differently, singling out the Sunnis. Everything was done to reject us for being terrorists.”
[p86]



 ‘In the spring of 2011, the régime released Kurdish prisoners and concluded an agreement with the PKK that gave them informal control of Kurdish enclaves – Jazeera, Ayn al-Arab, Afrin, and the Kurdish districts of Aleppo, in exchange for bringing the demonstrators to heel.’
[pp86-87]


 ‘The régime encouraged the ideological radicalisation of the opposition by having moderates murdered or arrested while it released radicals from prison. These attempts to divide the opposition were secondary to the brutal repression intended to radicalize the opposition as much as serve as a deterrent. The régime evolved its economy of repression by making torture systematic. Starting in 2011, it arrested and tortured several hundred thousand people.
[pp88-89]


 ‘Unable to control the crowds in the streets, the security forces dispersed the protesters with brutality, and relied heavily on the militias (shabbiha). “As soon as we came out of the mosque to run away, the police ransacked everything. A militiaman was slashing people with a sabre, people right in front of me. One after another I saw them fall until the crowd pushed me against him.” In some cases the security forces hid inside ambulances to catch the demonstrators by surprise; the militia even hunted through hospitals to find the wounded. “The use of violence was systematic from the start of the movement, beatings outside the mosques or even inside, knife attacks and sniper fire into the crowd were commonplace.” ‘
[p90]

 

 ‘The régime deliberately escalated the crisis using shadow committees that reported directly to the head of state. Police General Ahmed Tlass explained:

 “There is another instance of decision. It does not officially exist. It consists of officers from different services, selected one by one, who work at the Presidential Palace.”

 He gave the example of the demonstration on July 1st, 2011 in Hama:

 “The protest happened in front of us without any incident. None of the protesters were armed. But when the crowd reached Orontes Square, about 300 metres from where I was standing, gunfire erupted. According to an investigation by the police to which I had access, it came from twenty people, 22 to be precise from the Military Security, who had been joined by one member of State Security.” ‘
[pp90-91]

 

 ‘The régime attempted to break the protest movement with militarized suppressive tactics that included bringing in the tanks, making extra-judicial arrests, and setting snipers on demonstrators or on neighbourhoods designated as hostile.

 In the first months, the régime endeavoured to replicate the strategic coup scored in Hama in 1982 by luring a large number of the opposition into the open before crushing them with the military. Due to the sheer number of protest hotbeds. Troops were often having to move out again after a few days to clean out another area where protests were underway.

 Daraa was occupied by the army, which entered the city on April 25th 2011, indiscriminately killing civilians. The Daraa operation lasted two weeks, then the army moved to attack the Sunni neighbourhoods in the city of Banyas, and a few days later to Homs. However in Homs the army failed to take control of the city.

 On August 13th 2011, the Navy shelled Sunni neighbourhoods south of Latakia. In July, the régime bombarded Hama and sent in the tanks. This operation left over two hundred demonstrators dead over the course of three days. In early 2012, tanks were sent into the countryside north of Aleppo, where they stayed a day or two in each town while the troops arrested the men and destroyed homes along the way.
 

 Limited resources forced the army to concentrate its resources.
In Rastan (north of Homs) and even in Ghouta (a suburb of Damascus), the army besieged areas held by the rebels with the objective of starving out protesters. The army, crippled by desertions, lacked reliable troops that would allow the retaking the cities. Shelling at first became the régime’s preferred method of attack, until February 2012, when aerial bombing became generalized.’

[pp91-92]

 

 ‘The progressive shift to an armed struggle grew out of local initiatives beginning only in late 2011. The first groups formed spontaneously to protect the marchers and neighbourhoods against snipers and régime militias. The armed protection gave a new impetus to the protesters. In Homs, in December 2011, the processions swelled with deserters from the army who had come to offer protection. In Hama, too, with gunmen protecting the rallies starting in late June 2011, the régime troops had to evacuate several neighbourhoods, letting the protests spread unchecked.

 Some protesters were dead set against any resort to violence; others were amenable to its limited use if it meant they could continue the protests: “We were against the move to armed resistance in Homs. But if we wanted the movement to survive, we had to have protection when we marched.”

  In Daraa, the question was in the air from the beginning, given the régime’s determination to crush the protest movement by force. In Damascus, “after the first protests, the youths would come with a family gun, saying that this way they could intimidate the security service agents not to fire on them. But they were immediately identified by intelligence services and executed even when these young people had dropped their weapons already and were begging for mercy.” ‘

[p94]

 

 ‘On June 4th 2011, at Jisr al-Shughur (in Jabal al-Zawiya near the Turkish border), the Syrian army suffered its first setback. When members of the security forces opened fire on a funeral procession, the protesters looted a police station, armed themselves and were quickly joined by deserters from a nearby military unit. The army responded with a sweep operation that provoked many more desertions.

 The insurgency conquered few territories through frontal assaults. The rebels mostly seized areas that the security forces had withdrawn from. From mid-July 2012, the régime abandoned most towns north of Aleppo. “In the spring of 2012, we had to flee from our village when the régime sent in the tanks,” recounted a resident of Maraa. “We waited at the Turkish border. Three days later we returned. The army had left, not before pillaging our houses. From this moment on we took up arms.”

 Starting on July 15th 2012, thousands of rebels infiltrated Damascus and took control of several neighbourhoods. On July 19th 2012, the same scenario was repeated in Aleppo, with the eastern half of the city falling into rebel hands. The Battle of Damascus came as a result of the insurgents’ pleas for Arab and Western support based on the belief that, with a concerted push on the capital, they could bring down the régime. In contrast the attack on Aleppo was launched with little external support. 

 By late summer 2012, it appeared the régime was on the brink of losing the war. At this point the rebels lost the initiative. They were bogged down in the old city of Aleppo and unable to seize the Southern neighbourhoods of Damascus. During 2013, they kept advancing in the east, with the capture of the city of Raqqa and most of Deir Ezzor, but no cities fell on the decisive fronts to the south and north.

 The lack of training and organization as well as a lack of ammunition for the frontline fighters explains why the insurgent groups rarely manoeuvred far outside their home base area. The units had a few Kalashnikovs, little in the way of heavy weaponry, and no anti-aircraft defence systems. They were incapable of launching a frontal attack against the régime military with its heavy weapons, aircraft and armour. The revolutionaries might on occasion profit from superior local knowledge of the terrain but, lacking technical expertise, they regularly suffered significant losses during poorly staged operations.’
[pp95-98]


                                       *********************************************

 ‘The first months of the uprising saw the various military units coexisting peacefully. The fighters saw themselves as belonging to a new Syrian state. In this sense, although organised in small units and in part self-financed theirs was not a local vision nor did they represent opposing communities. The absence of any political affiliation also limited fragmentation; the pre-existing opposition parties were exiled from Syria and only played a marginal role.’

[Chapter 4, p103]


 ‘ “I did not participate much in the demonstrations,” said a former resident of Damascus. “it was very dangerous to take to the street. But then the régime began bombing out neighbourhood. We fled our building to take refuge in the suburbs of Damascus. Being in the movement or not made no difference. The repression, the risks, we were all in the same boat. That’s how I joined a group in Ghouta [near Damascus.” ‘
[p104]



 “I was an artillery man, operating near Idlib up until my desertion in September 2012. At first to abandon my station seemed a crazy idea. Our officers were watching us very closely and wouldn’t hesitate to hit us. We had no contact with the outside world. We were given the coordinates of positions to shell and that was it. But gradually, there were more and more refusals to obey orders. I sabotaged our shells so they didn’t explode when they forced us to shell a village. In September, I realised that out of 1,500 men in my brigade, only a thousand were left, the others had deserted. I decided to do the same. I managed to get a phone from which I called my family who put me in touch with a friend, now fighting in the Kata’ib al-Faruq. He told me to join him in Homs. I managed to leave the camp in the car that went into town for provisions. Once in Homs, I discreetly disappeared. My friend was waiting for me in the government zone with some other men. They gave me civilian clothes and paid for the taxi to take me to the liberated part of the city of Aleppo. Everything was planned. I spent a week there at the Revolutionary Security office, which gave me my papers attesting to my desertion and some money so I could pay for the trip back to my family.”
[p105]


 ‘The revolutionaries and deserters were concentrated in rural areas, between Azaz and al-Bab (north of Aleppo), between Saluq and Tabqa (Raqqa province), in Jabal al-Zawiya (Idlib province), in the mountains to the east of Latakia and in the Qalamun mountains on the Lebanese border. “I was arrested at the end of the summer of 2011 for protesting,” said one Aleppo revolutionary. “When I was released in February 2012, everything had changed. Most of the people I had protested with had taken up arms and gone into hiding in the countryside in Anadan or Maraa. I went to join them.”

In the cities, on the other hand, the insurgent neighbourhoods were generally the poorer ones, because it was easier to protest there than in the more affluent areas where the security forces were in tighter control. The areas where most of the events played out became real battlefields and the massive repression left the inhabitants with only two options: fight or flight. “Believe me, in Latakia, if you were living in a poor neighbourhood, you did not really have a choice, we had to take up arms.” Without enough troops to control the entire territory, the army made the decision to bomb inaccessible neighbourhoods.’

[pp106-107]


 ‘ “In 2012, there were several Druze and Alawite deserters in our group,” a Daraa revolutionary told us. Similarly, Kurds, Christians, Arabs, and Turks were still fighting in Aleppo in the summer of 2013 under the FSA umbrella. In Tabqa and the east, recruiting for the armed groups reflected tribal affiliations but without causing any noticeable friction. Gradually, however, a sectarian dynamic began to intrude; Alawites were de facto excluded from the insurgency, while Christians increasingly organised their own self defence groups.’

[p108]


 “After a few months with al-Nusra Jabhat I was tired of the strict rules they imposed on their fighters. So, I left to join Ahrar al-Sham, one of the biggest units in northern Syria. We are as well-armed there, but above all, free to go home whenever we want.”
[p109]


 ‘ “We were fighting with one weapon for three,” said a fighter from Daraa. “Buying new guns was too expensive, so we used second-hand material taken from our enemies.” ‘
[p111]


 ‘On April 1st 2012, the International Conference of the Friends of Syria promised to pay every fighter joining the FSA 150 dollars, the equivalent of a month’s salary of an average official. Pay was a crucial issue in ensuring the loyalty of the fighters to the central command. However, a lack of follow-through from the West and the Gulf States meant that after the spring of 2013 the pay stopped.’
[p117]


                                       *********************************************

 ‘ “When we took control of the first villages and towns, the issue of justice was raised quickly,” explained Sheikh Hossein, one of the first of the insurgency’s judges in Aleppo province. “We were fighting against the most terrible dictatorship of the region; our goal was to bring freedom to the region and allow justice to reign once again.” ‘
[Chapter 5, pp118-119]

 

 ‘Starting in late 2012, a police force was established in each city at the instigation of the National Coalition, the Governorate Councils, and the professional association of former police officers. The template for this project was provided by the creation of the Free Police of Aleppo (Shurtat Halab al-Hurra) in October 2012. “The creation of the police must release the combatants of the insurgency to fight against the régime. We remove their responsibility towards the civilians, which they willingly accept.” ‘
[p124]


 ‘From December 2012, two processes, the emergence of local institutions and the attempt to coordinate them from above, converged in elections held in Turkey. The National Coalition instructed consensual personalities to select hundreds of delegates from the insurgent-held parts of the Idlib governorate. This electoral body then met in Reyhanli (Turkey) and elected the Governmorate Council and then the City Council of Idlib three months later. The same process was repeated in Aleppo with elections at Gaziantep (Turkey) in March 2013. In the summer of 2013, this push to install a hierarchy and central administration continued with local elections held in sixty-five insurgent neighbourhoods of Aleppo. The same process was duplicated in Raqqa in January 2014, in the south in Ghouta in January 2014, and in the rest of the Damascus periphery during the following months.

That these institutions survived in the face of relentless, brutal bombing can partly be explained by the fact that they were financed from the outside. Yet, as this external aid remained sparse, the coordination between municipal and national organisations (the Syrian National Council, the National Coalition) was limited. What funds the Western and Gulf countries provided flowed sporadically. Thus teachers with salaries, amounting to 25 dollars a month, in Aleppo were rarely paid. In the absence of a reliable flow of money, city councils continued operating thanks strictly to the volunteer efforts by thousands of employees.’
[pp130-131]


 ‘City councils endeavoured to keep medical and educational services functioning. Hospitals were set up in secret locations to keep them from being bombed. The same problem arose with the schools, which were also targeted by the régime’s bombs, and so had to be clandestine and mobile.’

[p132]


                                       *********************************************

 ‘From 2012 on, the Obama administration refused to support the insurrection militarily in its fight with the régime. The American authorities wanted to avoid anything that could lead to “boots on the ground.” The chemical attacks against civilian populations in Ghouta in August 2013, which caused between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths, later revealed the equivocations of the American government. This attack directly called US credibility into question: President Barack Obama had publicly drawn a “red line” against such attacks in a speech a year earlier.

 The military victories of the Islamic State forced the United States to reenter the war with targeted bombing, Special Forces deployment, and military support for the PKK/PYD. While Obama had ruled out the possibility of a no-fly zone in Syria, the United States proceeded to set one up for the Syrian branch of the Kurdish movement that first shielded it from the régime when they clashed over control of the city of Hasaka in August 2016 and, next against the Turks advancing on Manbij in September 2016. Yet the PKK mainly used its weaponry in the service of creating a unified Kurdish territory from Afrin to Manbij.’

[Chapter 7, pp149-150]


                                       *********************************************

 ‘In Aleppo and Damascus, Kurds generally mobilised within the same networks as the Arab revolutionaries. “I went to my first demonstrations with my university friends, including several Kurds,” an Arab resident from Aleppo explained. “We got together the day before to finalise our itinerary and choose our slogans. We were united.” Kurdish demonstrators saw themselves as an intrinsic part of the opposition, campaigning for the creation of a democratic state. “During the first months of the insurrection, we chanted the same slogans as the rest of Syria: ‘Down with the régime.’ We protested on Fridays about the same issues as the other protesters.”

 When the régime launched attacks against rebel districts in Homs and Hama, protests erupted in the Kurdish regions. “In Aleppo and Damascus, Kurds mingled with the Arab population daily. The demonstrations were mixed. There were many Arabs in the group of friends I demonstrated with. Sometimes, cousins from Jazeera would come to visit us in Damascus. They gave us advice on how to deal with the police, how to disband after a demonstration.” ‘
[Chapter 8, pp165-166]


 ‘In 2012, the régime’s alliance with an external actor, the PKK, meant that Kurdish enclaves were definitively separated from the rest of the insurrection. From the summer of 2011, the PKK succeeded in negotiating with Damascus a gradual return to the three Kurdish pockets on the Turkish border (Afrin, Ayn al-Arab and Jazeera). In exchange, it would subdue the Kurdish protesters and refrain from aligning with the FSA. In Syria, PYD militants, who had been arrested in the 2000s were released, and the party formed a militia to bring the Kurdish region under control. It marginalised other Kurdish parties through targeted violence, including assassinations.

 “Our group of young people was formed in April 2011. We were able to protest for several months without any repression from the régime. Doubtless, it had the means. Then everything changed when the PYD arrived. Our funding was cut off. Almost all of us were arrested and interrogated by the PYD. Some of us were tortured. They told us to stop protesting.”

 Under the deal, Syrian security forces no longer intervened in the three Kurdish enclaves,. The army remained in its barracks until July 19th, 2012, when the FSA’s seizure of a large part of the north caused the régime to withdraw from the Kurdish zones. The régime’s place was immediately taken by the PYD.

 “PKK militia were in Ayn al-Arab for several months,” reported a city resident. “You could not go out and protest without the risk of being arrested. From May on, the régime’s security forces were no longer to be seen. The PKK enforced the law on the streets. On July 19th, we saw army convoys leaving the town, just like that, without gunfire. When I went out, all the official buildings were occupied by the PKK. They had even taken possession of the police cars. The police had handed over the keys before taking off.”

 This carefully planned transition was carried out in a day. PYD militants took control of administrative buildings and positioned themselves as the official authorities in the Kurdish enclave.

 Once in command, the PYD made Kurdish identity the touchstone for belonging to its politically distinct society with its own territory and institutions. PYD, as the local branch of the PKK, is part of a transnational party, working to form an independent Kurdistan. The PYD thus openly positioned itself against the thrust of the national protest with the aim of pulling Kurds and Arabs apart.’

[pp167-169]


 ‘In the Kurdish territories, the setting up of a coalition, the TEV-DEM (Tevgera Kurden Demokrat – Democratic Kurdish Movement) allowed projecting a pluralistic image for the benefit of external observers and the Syrian population. In reality, the PKK remained the true authority behind the diverse activities of the individual TEV-DEM bodies. “No one knows who holds power in the TEV-DEM,” a notable from Ayn al-Arab and cadre of the KDPS(Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria) explained. “The PKK created many fictional parties and associations to give it the appearance of a popular movement. But the decisions are not made there. They do not ask our opinion. In the same way, the PYD in Ayn al-Arab is a mere façade. It has a few poorly educated members and they certainly weren’t behind the creation of such organisations.” ‘
[pp169-170]


 ‘In October 2015, the Syrian Democratic Forces (Hezen Suriya Demkratik, SDF) were set up. This organisation’s conflicted character  manifested itself when the PKK’s cadres, with their Marxist-Leninist background, ordered the Sunni Arab combatants to fight in the name of  Öcalan (leader of the PKK) and of Allah at the same time. Asx a Sunni Arab fighter in the SDF put it: “I joined for two reasons. One, because our group of friends had no other alternative for countering the Islamic State, and, second, fighting on the side of the PKK meant fighting on the side of the Americans from then on.” ‘

[p176]


                                       *********************************************

 ‘The common language in the Syrian demonstrations was Islam, and its metapolitical nature let Islamist, secular and leftist discourses coexist. During the peaceful stage, the historically transgressive nature of Sunnism – the denomination of an overwhelming majority of the population – against the Bashar al-Assad régime made Islam a legitimate and effective language of protest. In the first demonstrations, (regardless of political agenda), references to Islam included slogans (Allah Akbar), places (mosques), and days of protest (Fridays). “I am not a practising Muslim, but Islam has become a unifying element,” a revolutionary told us. Meanwhile, the narratives of secular protesters, notably from the Marxist left and liberals, failed to take root and, consequently, so did their political agenda.’
[Chapter 9, pp179-180]



 ‘The inclusive use of Islam was in phase with a feature of the Syrian revolution’s initial stage: the rejection of political parties. Not only did parties represent a threat to the unity of the revolutionary movement, they also risked precipitating fitna (rifts in the community of believers). Invisible in the protest movement, they also did not participate in the armed struggle, in part because they had relatively few militants inside the country. Thus the insurgents could chant “Syria is united and the Syrian people are one.” “We are a united movement, we put our political differences aside,” as the mayor of Aleppo explained to us.

 The Muslim Brotherhood’s Syrian branch, driven out in the 1980s, did not recruit new members and initially made it official that it would hold off any involvement in Syria until Bashar al-Assad had been overthrown. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, in fact, probably corresponded to the leanings of a large portion of Sunni Muslim insurgents. On March 25th 2012, it adopted a charter espousing a charter espousing a “pluralist democracy in which all citizens would be equal, regardless of their race, religion, community or [political] orientation.”

 While talk of certain brigades being close to the Muslim Brotherhood (Liwa’ al-Tawhed, for example) was not uncommon, members of the former rejected the innuendo, revealing the extent to which displays of party affiliation were still not acceptable in revolutionary circles.

 In the end, armed groups were not formed along ideological lines and many ideological shades coexisted within them. The ranks of the larger military units established starting in the fall of 2012 (al-Tawhid in Aleppo, al-Faruq in Homs, Idlib and Raqqa, Suqur al-Sahm in Idlib) were generally filled with nonpoliticised combatants with diverse, mostly undefined leanings. Similarly the various national alliances of rebel groups that were created successively in 2013 (Syrian Islamic Front, Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, Islamic Front). Toppling Bashar al-Assad was their priority; the rest could wait. Secularist liberals were particularly well-represented in the insurrection’s civil institutions and in the armed units of the Idlib and Daraa governorates. But these activists did not coalesce into a party, because they lacked external resources and popular support.’

[pp182-184]


 ‘In January 2013, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham bal-Islamiyya was born of the fusion of various small Islamist groups that had formed by early 2012. It gained footholds especially in the Homs, Damascus, Latakia and Raqqa governorates and played a key role in seizing the city of Raqqa.

 Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya did not break with the other armed groups that grew out of the peaceful demonstrations and fought alongside these fellow insurgents. The movement agreed that defeating Bashar al-Assad before determining the nature of the régime that would follow. It let the civil institutions do their work and attended public meetings organised by Salim Idriss, the head of the FSA. Increased US pressure on the Gulf States to stop funding radical Islamist groups led Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya to sign a covenant with other armed groups on May 17th 2014. Its stated objectives were “the fall of the régime,” “territorial integrity.” “revolutionary work,” and “the rejection of fundamentalism and radicalism.” The group then explicitly positioned itself as a “moderate” actor between Jabhat al-Nusra on the one hand and the rest of the Syrian insurgency in the north on the other. In 2015 Ahrar al-Sham forced Jabhat al-Nusra to accept a civilian administration in Idlib when it was taken.’

[pp184-186]


 ‘From its creation on January 24th 2012 to the split in March 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham exemplified the first strategic attempt to implant the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra built its reputation on its military exploits, on fair treatment meted out to the (Sunni) civilian population and on their fight against crime. The movement served on the frontlines and attracted the most spirited fighters. “The Jabha men’s courage is unparalleled,” related one fighter, “one time the front line was pierced and, faced with the régime’s men, everyone fled. I was stuck with two other fighters in a building. We were about to be killed when two Jabha 4x4s counter-attacked, alone, and managed to extract us under fire.”

 Despite the insurrection’s general military inferiority, the Jabhat al-Nusra tactic of launching suicide attacks prior to an assault created a breach in the régime’s forces and could give it a decisive element of surprise. Only the Jabha plans suicide missions. Its combatants have no fear. They are all ready for martyrdom and they fight to the death.” Thus, when the US State Department listed Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation on December 11th 2012, most other armed groups and part of the population in the insurgent areas pledged their solidarity to Jabhat al-Nusra. Indeed, so as not to cut themselves off from the population, Jabhat al-Nusra proceeded cautiously in some matters. Although Salafist, and therefore ideologically opposed to the cult of saints and in favout of hudud (serious fixed punishments in line with Sharia law), Jabhat al-Nusra deferred the application of these matters pending the creation of an Islamic régime. A Jabhat al-Nusra emir thus explained in January 2013 that Syrians were not ready to vandalise the tombs of saints, these being pilgrimage sites.

 Another Jabhat al-Nusra hallmark was that it systematically circumvented the insurgency’s institutions. In Aleppo, the insurrection’s judicial apparatus was in direct competition with the Jabhat al-Nusra judicial committee created late in 2012 with the support of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Liwa’ Suqur al-Sham, and Liwa’ al-Tawhid. From the outset, it made secret arrests. “Since the Jabhat tribunal was created, its morality police have arrested revolutionaries. The trials take place behind closed doors, no one hears about them. At the beginning, there were rumours. Then some released prisoners have talked about incarceration. According to them, Jabhat is detaining dozens of people in its prisons.”

 After the split with ISIL in March 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra kept hedging its strategic bets by either building coalitions with the rest of the Syrian insurgency or going all out for a takeover. In November 2013, it announced a change of name  - al-Qaida in the Levant (al-Qaida fi Balad al-Sham) – to assert its legitimacy in the face of ISIL. In August 2014, a video leaked of Abu Muhammad al-Julani describing to its followers his project to set up an Islamic Emirate in Northern Syria. In October 2014, in Jabal al-Zawiya, it also attacked FSA-related groups (the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Movement of Steadfastness).

 Yet, under pressure from Turkey and the Gulf countries, and with the Islamic State advancing in Northern Syria, in the spring of 2015 Jabhat al-Nusra changed its strategy. In March, it entered into a new coalition with Ahrar al-Sham and former FSA units, the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fatah), and compromised on sharing the administration of Idlib city. In an interview in May 2015 with al-Jazeera, Abu Muhammad al-Julani declared, “Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the US or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the régime. Maybe al-Qaida does that, but not here in Syria.” Finally, in July 2016, faced with military pressure by the régime and its allies, by the PYD and Islamic State in northern Syria, the group officially broke off all ties with al-Qaida. It changed its name and became the Front for Victory in the Levant, which facilitated staging joint operations with other groups of the insurrection.
[pp186-191]



 ‘Before 2014, ISIL strategy was not directed against the Damascus régime. The objective of the armed operations ISIL took part in was to clear out the remaining government positions in northern Syria. What ISIL was really after was gaining control over resources in the northern rebel areas. Rather than seizing the border posts, it seized towns near them. Within a few months, ISIL was capable of choking off FSA supplies from Turkey.

 Throughout 2013, ISIL’s strategy led to regular clashes with FSA brigades. It directly attacked FSA groups, but in a way to keep them from forming a common front.

 After 2014, ISIL’s break with the insurgency was unmistakable. In January 2014, the necessity of the FSA groups securing their supplies of men, arms, and money from Turkey led to open conflict. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front were forced to take sides and took up the fight against ISIL. After a month of fighting in northeastern Syria, the fronts stabilised. ISIL withdrew from Idlib province and the surrounding areas of Aleppo, but tightened its control over the east, including in the provinces of Raqqa and Hasaka, where it had mostly driven out other armed groups.’
[pp192-194]



 ‘When the Islamic State captured Palmyra in 2015 and the insurgency took Kessab, Idlib and Jisr al-Shugur in the north and the Quneitra corridor, these setbacks laid bare the Syrian army’s steady disintegration. The régime survived thanks to its militias and the increased presence of Hezbollah and the Iranian Pasdaran, who relied on a strategy of massive indiscriminate shelling of areas held by the insurgency. Russia’s intervention in September 2015 marked a turning point in the war. The Russian air force concentrated its bombing campaign on the insurgents, allowing the régime to retake Homs in December 2015, to launch an offensive against Aleppo in January 2016, and to retake Palmyra in March 2016. In coordination with the Kurdish PYD, the régime cut the road between A|leppo and Turkey in July 2016 and besieged Aleppo’s eastern neighbourhoods. The insurgency’s offensive in the summer and fall of 2016 failed to break the siege of Aleppo whose defences crumbled in late November.’
[p198]


                                       *********************************************

 ‘During the early peaceful demonstrations, women did participate in marches and revolutionary groups Samia took part surreptitiously in the first demonstrations in March 2011, “For me, taking to the streets was very important, but I could not demonstrate. On one hand, there was the repression of the régime, but also because my family would have forbidden me to go there.” The conflict’s militarisation curbed participation by women in the public sphere, because women were barred from taking dominant roles, especially fighting ones. Still, the absence of men (casualties of war, away fighting on the frontlines, or living abroad) transformed many women’s lives. For some women from conservative families, it was their first time working outside the home.

 When Adiba decided to stay behind to provide shelter to FSA fighters on the eve of the battle of Aleppo in July 2012, instead of moving with her husband and her family to west Aleppo, she went against their wishes. “I believed in the revolution and I did not want to leave. My family threatened me, but I did not give in. This decision to stay changed my life.” ‘
[Chapter 11, p236]


                                       *********************************************

 ‘While in 2010 Syrian debt had amounted to only 23% of GDP, by the end of 2013 it had risen to 126% and continued to grow. Without aid from Russia and Iran, the régime would have faced collapse. The Syrian state lost revenues derived from hydrocarbon exports, customs duties and taxation. While revenues were reduced by three-quarters, spending had doubled. The régime imported nearly $500 million worth of oil each month and increasing spending on the military added another $8 billion to its deficit between 2011 and the end of 2013. To avoid total currency collapse, the Central Bank of Syria depended largely on Russian subsidies. Iran also lent the régime money: In 2013, it provided $3.6 billion for the purchase of petroleum products and subsequently disbursed a second loan of $1 billion to the régime. Between 2011 and January 2014, Iran reportedly sent aid worth more than $15 billion to Syria. Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq also sent in-kind aid in the form of combatants and weapons. In addition, the UN – and, therefore, Western donors – indirectly subsidised the régime. Humanitarian aid to Syria had to pass through Damascus until July 2014 because the Russians vetoed any resolutions allowing aid to reach insurgent areas from neighbouring countries. The régime thus controlled the bulk of humanitarian aid and distributed it according to a political calculus.’
[Chapter 12, pp252-254]




Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Sand art portrays suffering of Syrian refugees


























 'Using grains of sand, a Syrian artist depictures the suffering of the Syrians who had to take refuge in camps in Idlib province after being displaced from their hometowns in the war-torn country.

 Muhammed Saeed said that he had to migrate from the city of Maaret al-Numan in northwestern Syria to Idlib city 15 months ago.

 Through sand art, Saeed aims to portray the destruction of houses in attacks carried out by the Bashar al-Assad régime and its supporters, and the struggle for life by civilians, who took shelter in makeshift tents.

“Using sand art, I illustrate the migration of the innocent civilians into tents and their sufferings during the cold winter”, Saeed said.

The Syrian artist hopes to raise awareness about the pain of the Syrian people and their difficult living conditions in the tents.

“In one of my art pieces, I portray how régime warplanes were flying over a neighborhood in Syria. It shows how they were destroying residential areas and how civilians were dying”, he said.'


Thursday, 18 February 2021

Engage Assad?

 

 Frederic C. Hof:

 'There are calls for a Biden administration Syria policy centering on “engagement” with the Assad régime; engagement leading to diplomatic relations and American participation in Syrian economic reconstruction under the régime’s auspices.

 Advocates of engagement should, however, first answer a question: Would engagement really finish or reduce the involvement of the US, its allies, and its partners in the Syrian crisis? Put differently, would that crisis subside or end thanks to a process begun with engagement? Could Syria, under the Assad régime, successfully manage political and economic reconstruction, making Syria something other than a threat to regional and international peace; reconstruction that produces internal stability and political legitimacy, making it hard for extremists to thrive? Can a ruined country that has partially emptied itself onto its neighbors and into Western Europe be stabilized and rebuilt by Bashar al-Assad?

 “Legitimacy” involves nearly all citizens of a given country agreeing that the system governing them is worth supporting and defending, even if leaders sometimes make mistakes. Given the history of the American system it is not difficult to imagine the full restoration of political legitimacy. Yet one needs a very credulous imagination to envision such an outcome in Syria with Assad family rule in place.



 Even Syrians who still support Assad because they fear (or cannot see) alternatives have no illusions about the régime’s brutality, incompetence, and corruption. And what of those who have opposed the régime? Labeled “terrorists” from the beginning by their rulers, they have been subjected to nonstop terror including mass civilian homicide, illegal detention (featuring torture, rape, starvation, and murder), and sieges aimed at denying food and medical care. Are the millions of victims of the régime expected to endow legitimacy on it and submit if Washington chooses now to deem Assad worthy of engagement? Or would ongoing state terror be acceptable to engagement’s advocates?


 The international community has mandated full political transition as the pathway to political legitimacy and peace in Syria. This mandate is found in the Final Communique of the Action Group on Syria and in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. True: Russia has reneged on its commitment to Syrian political transition. True: Assad knows that yielding or sharing power starts his journey to The Hague, where he would be tried for crimes against humanity. But should the rest of the world, led by the US, abandon this mandate in the hope that Syria can be stabilized and rebuilt under Assad?



 Persistent reports indicate Assad’s political base is restive. While the régime falsely claims that US sanctions on its kingpins cause economic hardship for all, that base clearly sees the régime’s avarice and indifference as shortages take hold and Covid-19 spreads. Indeed, is there anyone inside Syria who has ever credited the Assad régime with good governance and effective economic management? Are there any Syrians beyond the régime who would not welcome an inclusive national unity alternative to a self-centered family and entourage; an alternative elevating citizenship over sect and ethnicity, pursuing reconciliation with transitional justice, and extending the protection of the state to all Syrians?

 The Biden administration would only further destabilize Syria by engaging with and sustaining a failing régime lacking in legitimacy. To facilitate the régime’s longevity is to extend Syria’s status as a fractured state; a Syria in which terrorists – Al Qaeda and Hezbollah – prosper while Syrians seeking dignity and opportunity leave. Under Assad, Syria can aspire to be no more than a Levantine North Korea.



 The Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran helped explain its refusal to use limited military strikes to defend Syrian civilians from the régime’s mass homicide. After all, for Iran Assad is vital. He alone is willing to subordinate Syria both to Tehran and its representative in Lebanon: Hezbollah. One prays, however, that the Biden team has learned that what happens in Syria does not stay there; that erasing red lines and assuring Iran’s Supreme Leader about the immunity of his Syrian client only broadcasts weakness and promotes instability around the globe.

 Has Assad “won?” He has not. To the extent Iran and Russia have rescued him militarily, perhaps a new definition of the term “catastrophic victory” has been created. Assad is supremely skillful in executing a survival strategy rooted in terror. Yet that strategy, compounded by régime corruption and incompetence, has rendered him illegitimate and incapable of governing effectively.



 A régime rescue mission in the name of engagement would fail. The US, its allies, and its partners have no business engaging the premier war criminal (to date) of the 21st century and the author of Syria’s implosion. Moscow and Tehran earnestly pray that the new administration will through a lifeline to their foundering client.

 Political transition alone will put Syria on the path to reconstruction while protecting the security of states – including the US – threatened by the consequences of Assad régime terror. Political transition – enabled by discipline and patience and accompanied by humanitarian assistance and protection for Syrians in need - should remain the bedrock of the Biden administration’s policy toward Syria. If engagement is what the régime wants, let it send an empowered delegation to the UN in Geneva to negotiate the terms of Syria’s political transition.'

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Has the UN simply failed in Syria, or is it complicit in the régime's crimes?

 

 'As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, the conflict rages on with no apparent end in sight. The role of the United Nations, the international organisation created to keep the peace and promote human rights in the world, has clearly been a dismal failure. Whilst no one claims that the Syrian conflict is the death knell for the UN, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine how the organisation can move forward from here. A litany of failures by the organisation has resulted in the Syrian people feeling abandoned by the international community. An argument could be made that the UN did not simply fail, but is complicit in the murder of Syrians on a huge scale.

 The recent revelation that the World Health Organisation, a body that feeds into the UN, has been using the Rami Makhlouf-owned airline "Cham Wings" to deliver aid to Libya from Dubai is deeply disturbing. Makhlouf is the maternal cousin of Bashar Al-Assad and has been on the EU as well as the Caesar Act sanctions' lists. He exemplifies the corrupt elite who have profited under Assad's two-decade rule and, up until very recently, has had vast influence within the régime. The UN should be held to account for using his company. Furthermore, on the issue of the WHO, its representative in Syria Elizabeth Hoff's appointment of Shukria Mekdad, the wife of the Syrian Foreign Minister, as a WHO mental health consultant for displaced persons was also a major concern. The lack of impartiality and the lack of qualifications on her part together indicate a lack of care towards the Syrian people.

 The fact that there has been no concerted effort by the UN to ensure that humanitarian and medical aid reaches opposition held areas has been catastrophic. There have been avoidable deaths in north-west Syria; deaths that need not have happened. With the race to deliver the new Covid-19 vaccines there are genuine fears that these areas will miss out whilst régime-held areas benefit. Withholding healthcare as a weapon of war has been a modus operandi of the Syrian régime, but the UN has done little to stop it.



 Whilst some may be inclined to avoid the UN because of the failings of the WHO, the failings of the former go far beyond this. The negligence of the organisation knows no bounds. The UN is known to have given Russia the coordinates to hospitals in the Idlib area in northern Syria; these coordinates have been used to bomb hospitals, which is a war crime. Ironically, UN committees have published reports that Russia has committed war crimes in Syria; before and after the coordinate incident. Moreover, UN aid programmes have directly funded régime figures. This begs the question, if the UN is aware of its own complicity in the mass murder of the Syrian people, how is it still powerless?

 Even the US, which did not veto resolutions condemning the régime, failed the Syrian people when it mattered most. Barack Obama was hesitant to act and dithered. The red line of which the US spoke meant nothing when Assad launched chemical weapons against his own people. The régime was emboldened by this empty threat, and that was a turning point in the conflict. Obama's failure stained his legacy. It can only be hoped that the Biden administration learns from these mistakes.

 The UN is essentially shackled by the original sin of its founding, which was to grant the permanent members of the Security Council the power of veto. An anachronism in 2021, it has nevertheless lasted from the birth of the UN itself and was in fact demanded by the permanent members themselves, lest the catastrophe of a weak League of Nations led to another world war, as it did in the 1930s with no US or Soviet Union within the organisation. The veto was the cost of American and Soviet participation in the newly-formed UN, which replaced the League. Systemic failures have led to a million people dying in Syria at the hands of the Assad reégime. The former Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon admitted that the Security Council had failed Syria. The frustration and exasperation of senior figures in the organisation was indicative of the uselessness and failures of the UN.



 A presidential "election" is meant to be taking place in Syria this summer. This election will, of course, be a sham. The only uncertainly will be what the margin of victory will be for Bashar Al-Assad's re-election. With the UN saying nothing about this yet, it has clearly abandoned the long agreed upon Geneva process which moves towards a transitional body. The agreement, it seems, is hardly worth the paper it is written on. The work on the Syria Constitutional Committee which seeks a political process will be obsolete if the UN does not block another "election" that Assad will surely "win".

 The UN is clearly responsible for a wide range of failures and owes an incalculable debt to the Syrian people. Lives have been lost. Livelihoods have been taken away. Life changing injuries and forced displacement have affected millions. All are a result of the Assad régime's impunity over the past decade, while the UN sits on the sidelines. After the incomprehensible failures of Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995 which left hundreds of thousands dead, it would be reasonable to expect the UN to have learnt a lesson. Syria proves otherwise. The Assad killing machine is still running, but the UN does nothing, and is complicit in the régime's crimes.'