Wednesday, 5 May 2021

A Revolution Imprisoned by Assad


 Wafa Ali Mustafa:

 'My name is Wafa Ali Mustafa. I’m a Syrian journalist and activist from the city of Masyaf in western Syria. Thirty years ago my dad gave me the name of the news agency of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. With this, he marked me and shaped the entire identity I built afterwards.

 I went to my first protest with my dad at the age of ten. My dad started this journey that lasted for years that included traveling for hours every week to the capital of Damascus to participate in protests in support of different causes like solidarity with Palestine and Iraq. I still remember being at one of these protests in Damascus when I was fourteen. The régime’s forces attacked the protest. The image that is stuck in my mind is of when my father was beaten with a wooden stick and just told me to run. And I ran.

 My dad raised us, my two sisters and I, to be political, to ask questions, to always get involved, and to work very hard for our communities.

 In 2011, I was protesting in front of the Libyan embassy. Many people were there in solidarity with protesters in Libya, but we were also there for us and for Syria. People started chanting “a traitor kills his own people.” And then the security forces of the régime knew that we were there for Syria too. And so, they attacked the protest and arrested many people.

 On that day, the journey my dad began took a different turn when an officer of the Syrian intelligence slapped me and said, “You Palestinians shouldn’t be involved in internal Syrian affairs.” The reason for this slap was a necklace of a map of Palestine I had worn for ten years. After that I had to take it off.

 So when the revolution started in Syria, being a part of it wasn’t a question for me. It’s not as though I sat down and thought: “Shall I participate in this or not?” It was just a sense that it started, so I should be there. And I believe this was the case for many others.

 I was detained with my sister, my cousin, and two of my friends in September of 2011, when I was in the middle of my third year of university, studying journalism and media in Damascus. At the same time, my dad was arrested in another city, Hama.

 We were all released later. However, on the 2nd of July, 2013, my dad was forcibly disappeared by the Syrian régime again, this time in the city of Damascus. Today actually marks 2,829 days since he was taken from us. As in the case of many other Syrians, we haven’t seen him since, and we have never been told why he was taken from us or what he was charged with. Unfortunately, it is a bitter truth that the disappearance of my dad, Ali, is far from an isolated case. More than 131,000 people are still under arbitrary arrest or enforced disappearance by the Assad régime, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

 The régime worked, and still works more than ever, to win—not just the military war but also the war over competing narratives. We’ve all seen how the story around Syria has slowly shifted. The discourses surrounding Syria now revolve around fear-mongering, presenting the narrative of the crisis both nationally and internationally as another “war on terrorism,” rather than a struggle for freedom.

 In light of this situation, many of us have been asking ourselves: How will the narrative of the revolution be remembered in the coming years? How will it be remembered by Syrians and also by the international community? How will the spirit of the revolution be kept present, in line with a history of peaceful uprisings?

 After ten years of the revolution and almost eight years of my dad’s enforced disappearance, I’ve realized why the régime—or any régime—uses detention and enforced disappearance against its own people: Because by detaining someone they not only silence and disappear those in prisons and detention centers, but they also break their loved ones, their families, and their communities.

 However, years ago I chose to resist this forgetfulness that the régime has imposed on me by disappearing my dad. I have chosen to resist it with my memory and thus contribute to shaping a counter-narrative to that of the régime and its supporters. I’ve been trying, on a daily basis, to tell the whole world what it means to wake up one day and realize you have lost your dad or a loved one. The high price that people, not just in Syria but in many other places too, are paying for only demanding basic human rights should not be normalized or denied.

 With many others we campaign for the freedom of our disappeared loved ones, in Assad’s and all other prisons in Syria, and for justice for Syria and Syrians. Everything I do today is to secure my dad’s freedom, so that one day we might have the chance to protest together again for a better Syria. There are many of us who still believe our hope is not an illusion and that change can happen. We all know freedom is difficult and slow, but it’s not impossible.'

Monday, 3 May 2021

Turkish-backed FSA soft power initiative includes libraries


 'The areas controlled by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the countryside of Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, recently witnessed a remarkable cultural movement, manifested in the growing number of public libraries, initiatives and various cultural activities, such as book exhibitions, plastics art showcases, theatrical performances and other exhibitions for different age groups.

 On April 23, the Syrian Rebel Youth Association inaugurated its public library at the association’s headquarters in the city of Azaz, north of Aleppo. This move aims to encourage young men, women and students to be more interested in reading and scientific research. The opening of the library took place on the sidelines of the association’s regular meeting in Azaz. It defines itself as a civil nongovernmental organization (NGO) working to reactivate and revitalize the civil status to recover the spirit of the revolution.

 Mohammed Ibrahim, head of the Syrian Rebel Youth Association, said, “The main purpose of opening the library is to encourage the youth to read and research, and to provide a space for reading. We want books to have a place in the lives of Syrians because this would help create an educated and conscious generation that can overcome the difficult stage and build a modern Syria. The library is a forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions between young men and women; we believe it will contribute to spreading the culture of dialogue and accepting other people’s opinions.”

 He said, “The library currently includes 960 books on history, politics, science, civilization and archaeology, as well as some university research material and books on Arabic language and literature. The library also has a reading room that allows anyone to sit in it and read whatever they want. We are now discussing establishing a mechanism for lending books.”

 Speaking about where the books came from, Ibrahim explained, “The books were collected in cooperation with members and friends of the association. The books are entirely individual contributions since the Syrian Rebel Youth Association is financially independent and does not receive any support from internal or foreign bodies. Our expenses are covered by the monthly subscriptions of our members.”

 Bassam Rahim, deputy head of the Syrian Rebel Youth Association, said, “Building individual tools and skills for young people cannot only be achieved by reading and research. Young people need various cultural, political, social and literary activities, and others focused on beauty, creativity and art. This is what the association strives to implement by creating the appropriate environment for that through the various actions and activities that it will undertake during the coming period.”

 Rahim said, “The association was established on Oct. 10, 2016. We now have 200 members, most of whom are young men and women who support the Syrian cause and the goals and values of the revolution. The association has organized many cultural events in the presence of many influential opposition figures.”

 Mohammed Baqai, a researcher at NMA for Contemporary Research, an independent organization that provides specialized studies and consultations in the scientific field, based in the countryside of Aleppo, said, “There is a direct relationship between cultural activity and stability in opposition-held areas. As the index of stability and calm rises, cultural movement increases.”

 Speaking about the public libraries in opposition areas, Baqai said, “The library established by the Syrian Rebel Youth Association in Azaz is not the first. Many libraries have emerged over the past couple of years in major cities, such as al-Bab and Azaz. For example, NMA for Contemporary Research has a library full of books, the University of Aleppo affiliated with the opposition in Azaz has opened a library as well, and so has the International Sham University in the countryside of Azaz.

 Baqai added, “The cultural movement in the area is not limited to the libraries and encouraging the youth to read more; there is also a remarkable interest in theater, painting exhibitions, literary and poetry evenings. I believe that the cultural movement is heading in the right direction, but we hope that it will receive greater support from the authorities, such as the opposition’s interim government, for instance.”

 In late 2019, the University of Aleppo affiliated with the opposition announced the opening of the university library, which includes 7,000 books of various academic specializations, after a six-month funding campaign to secure the books. Besides, several school and university libraries were opened in the FSA-controlled areas with the support of the Turkish government.

 Abdul Aziz al-Daghim, president of the University of Aleppo, said, “The university contributes to cultural activities in the area, and backs efforts aimed at spreading public libraries to popularize the reading habit among Syrians. The university also supports [writing] books. For example, a month ago we held a book signing ceremony for author Walid al-Nayef, which was titled ‘Whiffs from Palmyra Prison.’”

 He noted, “I encourage students at the university to go to the university's library and expand their scientific and literary specializations.”

 Speaking about how the university secured the books for its library, Daghim said, “We contacted 10 study centers and universities in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and Qatar, and they donated a large number of books for the library, and many have promised to send more books soon.”

 On July 25, 2020, the Qeam Foundation, an independent educational NGO in the city of al-Bab in the countryside of Aleppo, announced the opening of Raqem Cultural Cafe, which has an extensive library and provides other services such as an internet connection for online research, quiet reading corners and rooms for discussions and cultural seminars.

 Mawia Shalar, manager of Raqem Cultural Cafe, said, “Raqem Cultural Cafe aims to increase cultural awareness by restoring people’s relationship with writers, and providing spaces for students, intellectuals and researchers. The cafe also provides a space for women to read, discuss and research. Our books cater to different tastes and suit all segments, as the library includes scientific, literary, Islamic and political books, novels and children's stories.”

 She added, “The cafe's turnout is excellent, especially among young people, particularly university students who want to gain more knowledge and benefit from books in their university research.”

 Speaking about the challenges the cafe faces, Shalar noted, “We had some issues in obtaining more books to enrich our library.” '

Friday, 30 April 2021

Syrians in régime-controlled areas turn to opposition

 'A growing economic crisis in the war-torn country and compulsory military service has led Syrians in areas controlled by the Bashar Assad régime to seek refuge with the opposition.

 Ali Tartusi, who fled the régime-controlled western Tartus province said that the economic crisis has reached a level where people cannot bear it anymore.

“The economic situation in the country is terrible. The people are struggling just to get a little bit of bread. The régime cannot find fuel for the people,” he said, adding that the régime also cannot pay the salaries of civil servants.

 “Most of the people live below the poverty line. Car owners wait in line at gas stations for 48 hours. The rich, on the other side, can get fuel through bribery. Poor families spend the winter trying to get warm under blankets,” Tartusi added.

 He called on the youth living under régime-controlled areas and said: “The future of the youth in the régime areas is lost because those who go to the military service cannot get their discharge papers. There are people serving in the military for 10 years.”

 Saying that this was one of the reasons why he sought refuge in an opposition-controlled area, Tartusi pointed out that he came to the northwestern Idlib province to save his future and complete his education.

 Idlib remains the last major opposition bastion yet is still frequently targeted by Russian-backed régime forces despite a March 2020 cease-fire struck between Ankara and Moscow.

 At least 75 attacks by the Bashar Assad régime and its allies have been recorded since the cease-fire, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said last month.

 Syria's war has devastated the country's economy since 2011, plunging 80% of its people into poverty, according to the United Nations.

 Much of the economy in régime-held areas shuttered to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The World Food Programme (WFP) last year said food prices had doubled in a year to an all-time high across Syria. Over that same period, people in régime-held areas have faced fuel crises, a plummeting Syrian pound on the black market and steep price hikes. Damascus has blamed Western sanctions for its struggling economy.

 Another civilian that fled the régime, Habib Yazen, stated that the harbor and sea in Tartus is controlled by Russia, while Moscow also established several observation points and controls the country’s trade.

 “Russia is using everything in Syria for its own interests. No one can accept its country being sold to another,” Yazen said, complaining about the régime.

 “Electricity comes only two hours a day. No one receives enough bread. Products are expensive and continue to get more expensive." '

Monday, 26 April 2021

Bashar al-Assad’s Pyrrhic victory and the arrogance of power


 'In early 2011, even after massive social mobilisation had overthrown two longstanding strongmen in the space of a few weeks, Assad stated that those events had no relevance for Syria. He told the Wall Street Journal that "Syria was stable". Referring to what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt, the president remarked that his country was "outside of this".

 A few weeks later, Assad was facing an uprising of his own, revealing how out of touch with reality he had been. A decade on, it is still legitimate to ask why the Syrian dictator overlooked the harbingers of his own vulnerability. Three mechanisms explain this disconnect.

 The first was that the Assad family was myopic about the fact that excessive control reduced its exposure to the true workings of Syrian society, hindering its foresight. Politics is a dynamic process that involves expression, negotiation, and conflict. By 2011, the Assad régime had imposed a tight and elaborate system of control for over four decades, with tentacles throughout society.

 In having tightened its grip on power structures, security agencies, political parties, and public space, the régime had placed nearly all visible aspects of politics under its stringent authority.

 The problem with this is that the Assads failed to realise that by placing politics in a strait jacket, they pushed it into murkier recesses, so that political opinion and contestation shifted from party politics, parliamentary debates, and media outlets into private conversations and subtle forms of dissent. Small facts speak to large issues – "winks to epistemology or sheep raids to revolution". as the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz once wrote. Under the Assads, ellipses of speech, allegorical phrases, nods of desperation, exhalations of anger, or even silence, spoke volumes about what was rankling the population.

 From his palace overlooking Damascus, Bashar al-Assad saw a different picture. Silence implied loyalty, self-censorship consent. The uprising in March 2011 showed how deeply he had misread reality.

 A second mechanism also explains why Assad failed to grasp the mood in his country. Not only had Syrians concealed their true preferences in response to political pressures, they also feigned many of their reactions and support for the régime. Economist Timur Kuran has called this "preference falsification". Privately, this may mean faking a smile or compliment in a social gathering. Under authoritarian régimes, however, the practice is more consequential.

 It is telling that for both those who supported the Assads and their critics, fear was the Syrian régime’s trademark. While critics called it a "republic of fear", the régime was fond of upholding the notion of "the prestige of the state", or haybat al-dawla, albeit blended with awe and dread. Between 1970 and 2011, the politics of terror had been institutionalised in Syria. As a consequence, people acquired a knack for survival. They would bend with the wind, withdraw into their shells, go into mental exile, or simulate devotion.

 An astute poet from the early Islamic era, Abu al-Atahiya, stated it well: "If life narrows on you, silence is wider." And so a spiral of silence pervaded Syria before 2011. Yet, silence is more often a mark of patience than a sign of fidelity. Nor, because it represents a burden for individuals, does it last eternally.

 Rather than reading between the lines of silence, the Assad régime had been busy constructing a personality cult around its leader and craving eternal rule: "Assad forever" or "Al-Assad ila al-abad" was a favourite slogan. However, it took no great insight to see that sycophancy had bred arrogance.

 Thirdly, time widens the disparity between reality and fantasy. The Assad régime suffered from its longevity, so that time had effectively caged it. Often, the longer an autocrat stays in power, the greater his propensity to rely on a small coterie of confidants who share his opinions and delusions. The leader’s inner sanctum limits his exposure, so that reality becomes "like a night in which all cows are black," as the German philosopher Hegel put it.

 By early 2011, the Assads, Hafez and Bashar, had spent 40 years in an ivory tower. A former advisor to Bashar observed that the president "lives in a cocoon". In fact, Bashar was probably never fully aware of the inner workings of his own state organs, particularly the unbridled security agencies. Becoming a family heirloom had turned Syria into a compartmentalised dictatorship in which personal fiefdoms had proliferated and public institutions had been emptied of all relevance.

The Syrian uprising took the dictator by surprise, stripped him of his aura, and demonstrated that politics could not be eliminated or buried forever.'

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Idlib refugees call Assad's upcoming elections 'illegitimate'

  'Forcibly displaced Syrians who took refuge in northwestern Syria's Idlib are denouncing the Bashar Assad régime's upcoming presidential elections as "illegitimate," underlining that it is unacceptable for someone who kills his own people and has displaced millions to hold polls in the country.

 "It is unacceptable that the régime that killed its people and displaced millions of civilians prepare to make an election. Assad is an enemy and murderer of the people," said Omar Shaban, a civilian who had to emigrate from the Saraqib district, in northeast Idlib.

 Abdullah Muhsin, who was also forcibly displaced from Saraqib, agreed with Shaban and underlined that the planned polls are not legitimate.

 Ismael Bitar, who left the province of Homs, emphasized the illegitimacy of the régime that killed his parents, imprisoned his brother and expelled millions of civilians from their homes.

 "Civilians living under régime control cannot meet their needs. The choice of people under pressure has no legitimacy," Bitar said.

 Forcibly displaced Firas Alivyi said: "Someone who murdered children with chemical weapons, forced his people to live in camps by displacing them by force is only a murderer. The Assad régime made all kinds of bombardments to suppress the people. It tortured civilians in prison."

 Muhammad Ubeyid, who fled the town of Telminnis in the south of Idlib, said that, "The elections of the régime which brought terrorists from Russia, Iran and all over the world to kill the people is not valid."

 Ubeyid called on civilians living under régime control not to participate in the elections.

 Yamin Rahim from Idlib also said that Assad should leave the country.

 Rahim said, "The Assad régime forcibly displaced civilians. He massacred the children. He destroyed the country's infrastructure. He is a murderer. He is an enemy of humans. Therefore, we are against the elections to be held."

 The Assad régime, which announced that the presidential election will be held on May 26, has held elections six times during the civil war that has just marked its 10th year.

 While intense efforts have been made to end the crisis since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the Assad régime undermines these steps at every opportunity.

 As of 2012, the Assad régime, which adopted an uncompromising attitude during negotiations for the end of the civil war in the country and the formation of a temporary government, often held "show" elections in the regions it controlled.

 Last year, the Assad régime once again demonstrated its opposition to the political process by holding parliamentary elections, despite the protests of opponents, low participation and international objections, during a series of talks by the constitutional committee.

 The talks of the Syrian Constitutional Committee under the supervision of the U.N. are also at a deadlock due to the attitude of the Assad régime. As a matter of fact, the fifth round meeting of the committee, which came together on Jan. 25-29, was unsuccessful due to the irreconcilable attitude of the régime.'

Sunday, 18 April 2021

When the protests began in Syria, everything was ready for the bloodbath - a former officer of the Free Syrian Army relates

 'When the protests against the Assad régime began in Damascus on March 15, 2011, the officer Ahmed al-Matar did not know what to believe. Around 200 young people gathered peacefully in the Syrian capital and shouted: "Only Allah, Syria and freedom." But Matar and his comrades were not allowed to leave their barracks and only learned what their superiors were telling them: "They told us that foreign terrorists had penetrated to kill and destroy the country," says Matar, who is now in exile in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli.

 By then, the spirit of freedom had been around Tunisia, Egypt and Libya for months. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was warned and decided to crush any protest by force of arms. As early as December, the régime warned officers across the country against attacks by radical Islamists. The régime even described peaceful demonstrators as part of a foreign conspiracy.
The brutality of the insecure régime was evident in the southern city of Daraa. Inspired by the uprisings in Tunis and Cairo, teenagers sprayed on a wall in their schoolhouse: "You're next, doctor!" That meant Assad, a trained ophthalmologist. On March 6th, several teenagers were handcuffed and severely tortured until they confessed to the crime in the school yard. The security forces are said to have told the parents: “Forget your children. Go home and make more of them. If you can't do it, bring your wives and we'll do it for you."

 State violence against the youth drove thousands into the streets in Daraa, and people were soon protesting in many other cities as well. The security forces opened fire repeatedly. By the time Assad gave a speech in parliament on March 30, over a hundred people had already been shot. But the president showed no remorse: “According to the holy Quran, riot is worse than murder. Anyone who participates, with or without intent, is destroying their country," said Assad. “So there can be no compromises. The homeland is at stake, there is a great conspiracy. "

 Officer Matar was given leave for the first time three weeks after the revolution began. He used it to find out the truth in his hometown of Homs. In his neighborhood too, people took to the streets every week after Friday prayers. Dressed as a civilian, he mingled with the crowd. He immediately recognized with his own eyes: "Everything I was told in the army was a lie." There were no firearms, no knives, and no terrorists. The violence emanated from the state: "Soldiers at a checkpoint opened fire and killed thirteen people," recalls Matar in an interview in his run-down apartment in Tripoli.

 Homs was soon to prove to be the "capital of the revolution". Because its Sunni majority population had long harboured a grudge against Governor Iyad Ghazal, a personal friend of the President. “He wanted to destroy the market in the old town and build it with high residential towers and shopping centers,” says Matar. «But who did the market belong to? The Sunnis. "

 The gigantic development project was called "Homs' Dream" and wanted to transform the historic city into a small, faceless Dubai. Shop and landowners have been pressured to sell their property below market value. The construction project was soon popularly dubbed "Homs' nightmare". The governor's goal was not only to earn a lot of money, but also to bring about demographic change, says Matar with conviction. "Alawites would have settled in the new apartments in the city center."

 The Alawites are the religious minority in Syria, including Assad. For centuries, the Alawis, who are close to Shiite Islam, have been ostracised and marginalised in the Middle East by the Sunni majority. It is not for nothing that their traditional settlement area is located in the coastal mountains. With the influx of people from the countryside, Alawite districts only emerged in Homs in the past two to three decades.

 But with the coup of 1970 by Hafez al-Assad - Bashar's father - the social hierarchies changed. Assad senior was the first non-Sunni president. In order to secure his power, he relied more and more on Alawites in key positions in the military and the secret service. Especially after the armed uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, the Syrian surveillance state took on Orwellian features - with fifteen different secret services. The régime ended the uprising itself with a massacre that killed up to 25,000 people.

 "I was discriminated against in the army because I am a Sunni," says Matar. "The Alawites were something better." They would have enjoyed many privileges such as a car, more troops or better opportunities for advancement. “The voice of an Alawite was heard, even if he was of a lower rank than me. My vote didn't count."

 Religious resentment, however, was not in the foreground at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. As in the other countries of the Arab Spring, poverty, corruption and lack of freedom drove people onto the streets. Matar remembers the demonstration on April 18, 2011 in the clock tower square in Homs. The whole city was on its feet. "A large group of Alawites also took part."

 The organisers had ensured with checkpoints at all entrances to the square that no armed people mingled with the crowd. The speakers on a small stage were not Islamists, but the intellectuals of the city. The protests on Tahrir Square in Cairo were the model, says Matar. Thousands of demonstrators wanted to hold out around the clock tower in Homs until Assad resigned. As in Egypt, they chanted: "The people want the régime to be overthrown."

 However, Assad did not consider resigning. The Interior Ministry described the events in Homs as an "armed uprising" by Islamist groups. Terrorism cannot be tolerated. "At 2 a.m., troops came from the market and opened fire," says Matar. According to the human rights organization Human Rights Watch , at least seventeen people were killed.

 The violence of the "Alawite régime", which had lasted for weeks, soon led to counter-violence: practically at the same time as the protests in April, the Alawite general Abdu Telawi, his two sons and a nephew were murdered in Homs. The perpetrators mutilated the bodies. The state television reported extensively on the funeral, at which the angry crowd chanted "Only Allah, Syria and Bashar". This was also a turning point for many Alawis in Homs who sympathized with the revolution. "The Alawites are a minority here, the Sunnis want to drive us out," said an Alawite officer from Homs in a study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. "It's not about Assad's person, but if he goes, the Alawites are in danger."

 Right from the start, the secret services mainly mobilized unemployed young people in the Alawite districts of Homs. They sent them to Sunni neighborhoods to demonstrate for the régime. Just because of this, the resentment between the religious groups grew. At the same time, the régime recruited paramilitary thugs and murder squads, the so-called Shabiha, from among the Alawis. In July, three mutilated bodies of Shabiha fighters were found in Homs. Alawis then set fire to Sunni shops and committed revenge killings. Among the victims was a mother of three.

 Assad sent tanks to Homs in May. Like many other Sunnis, Matar deserted the military in early summer and joined a unit of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Their goal was initially only to protect peaceful demonstrators. "If they came under fire, we opened fire too so they could run away." However, since the régime did not give in, the armed opposition soon launched its own attacks. By March 2012, around 60,000 soldiers had deserted from the army.

 But not everyone has joined the FSA, says Matar. "Not all could kill." At the latest, however, the Karm el-Zeitoun massacre in March 2012, which he himself witnessed, made killing easy for him. Shabiha drove in three buses to the district of Homs to indiscriminately kill civilians. A whole family with twelve members was slaughtered. "They stabbed a pregnant woman, cut off her stomach and the head of the six-month-old baby." He arrived at the scene shortly afterwards: “When I saw that, I almost lost my mind. It made me mad."

 After that he no longer saw any fellow citizens in his enemies. "They are not Syrians. The Alawite régime is an occupying power, an Iranian régime. Had Assad been an honorable man, he would never have let it get that far. If he were a Syrian, he would not have invited the Russians, the Iranians and the Lebanese Hezbollah to kill his own people. If I have a house, who do I leave it to? Strangers or your own children? Your own children, of course."

 Without the support of Russian fighter pilots and Iranian militias, the FSA might have defeated the régime. In this way, however, Assad was able to bring the large cities in central Syria back under his control and, through mass displacement, bring about a demographic change that he would hardly have achieved with building projects such as "Homs' Dream". In Homs alone, around a third of the once 800,000 inhabitants were displaced. Few have been able to return so far, and new laws allow Damascus to expropriate refugees with great ease.

 However, the armed opposition also bears a responsibility for this tragedy, as Matar admits. "In the beginning, the wealthy businessmen in Homs financed us." But many of these donors have fled abroad while their combat troops have grown larger and larger. "We needed foreign supporters. But their agenda did not always coincide with our goals." States such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia also pursued conflicting interests. "There were commanders who put money above the matter and sold themselves to the highest bidder."

 Matar may never see his hometown again either. In the winter of 2012, a machine gun bullet hit him in the thigh, and fragments of a nail bomb dug into his stomach and hand. Six months later he came to the Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli. His injuries are still not completely healed: "I need an artificial hip joint." But there is no money for that. The former lieutenant tries to keep himself and his family of five afloat with odd jobs. He offers small goods transports with a pick-up. "I owe $4,000."

 Sometimes he received calls from former Alawite service comrades in the army. "We'll find you and kill you," they threatened him. Once he was almost kidnapped by Hezbollah people. Despite his predicament, he still believes in the revolution, in a free and democratic Syria. The tide could turn against Assad again at any time. "If I didn't have this hope, I would have to regret everything." '

Idlib program offers vocational training for women

  'The situation in Syria’s opposition-held areas continues to improve day by day. In the absence of a regular authority and job opportunities, residents of these areas have had to find alternative solutions to secure their livelihoods.

 Women have grown significantly more empowered during the last years of the Syrian revolution. Hala Ibrahim, a lawyer and rights activist in Idlib, said, “The presence of women in the workforce is now recognized. The community has begun to accept the idea of women being in the community as rights activists, [in the] media and carrying the Syrian revolution's message like men.”

 She said that women have been forced to fight for their place in the community and after it lost so many men. "As women, we have a responsibility to provide for our families.”

 On April 8, the nongovernmental organization Barkat Amal for Women (A Glimpse of Hope) in Idlib held a graduation ceremony to conclude its vocational training for young women on mobile phone maintenance, electronic marketing and producing food for sale.

 Director Susan Saeed said that the project trained 20 young women from Idlib, saying, “This is our first major economic project. We opened a vocational training center in an Idlib neighborhood and have trained several nurses. We opened a center in the slums of Idlib to provide marginalized families there with services without making them travel for it.”

 Barkat Amal for Women empowers women to engage politically and economically through its projects. Saeed said, “We have faced many challenges from the community during the implementation of our projects because [most work] was exclusively for men. However, we are still working and trying to change these ideas through dialogue with the community itself. We aspire to empower women politically because of women's lack of representation in the political process.”

 Bayan Dardoura, a young woman who completed the mobile maintenance training, explained that she participated “to gain experience that might secure her a job in the future.”

 She said that women prefer for their devices to be fixed by other women, citing security and privacy concerns when it comes to photos, for instance.

 Dardoura added, “Now I can fix whatever malfunction is on the mobile. … We live in a conservative society where women would rather men don’t access their information.”

 Dardoura noted that she faced criticism for attending the course, explaining that society rejects women who work. Although these challenges persist, they have made women determined to succeed.

 Ferdos Abdulkareem, who completed the training in electronic marketing, said that the course will help her reach financial stability working remotely from her home in Idlib.

 She said, “We first learned how to manage projects, prepare a budget and then market that project in a profit-generating way, and even though our training has ended, we still can contact the consultants if we have any difficulties in the future.”

 Dardoura and Abdulkareem agree that education is priceless. Dardoura said, "Other training workshops must be set up to provide the knowledge needed for women in Syrian society to ensure their economic self-sufficiency. We aspire to offer future training courses in other sectors, such as graphic design, for example.”

Saeed said that her center is currently working on its next project to support the independence of women in Idlib.'

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Is Bashar al-Assad really the guardian angel of Syria’s minorities?


  Diana Darke:

 'Look at the imagery in this poster plastered on a wall in bombed-out Homs. I photographed it on a visit in April 2018. Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, sporting dark glasses and military fatigues, looking resolute and determined, appears in the heavens opposite the Virgin Mary, floating above the head of a martyred soldier. Bashar, on a par with the Virgin Mary, is presented as the guardian angel of Syria’s Christians. The message is spelled out even more clearly in war slogans liberally scrawled by régime militias on the walls of buildings everywhere, even on mosques — “There is no god but Bashar” and “Do not kneel for god, kneel for Bashar.”

 Since the start of the current war, Bashar al-Assad, in power since 2000, has consistently sought to promote himself as the protector of Syria’s minorities — be they Christian, Alawi, Shi’i or Druze — from Islamist extremists. Many Western audiences have been seduced by his smart casual look and by his increasingly prominent, beautifully turned-out British wife, Asma. With presidential elections due to take place, under Russian auspices, in the coming months, in which Assad is widely expected to run, his claim demands close scrutiny. What has happened to minorities over the last 10 years of war and how does that compare to their treatment historically inside Syria?

 Syria’s constitution is secular, but states that the president must be Muslim. When Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in 1970, he was the first Alawite to become head of state. Alawites were considered by mainstream orthodox Sunni Muslims, who make up around 75% of Syria’s population, to be an heretical offshoot of Shi’a Islam, so Hafez engineered a convenient fatwa from Musa al-Sadr, a respected Shi’a cleric, declaring Alawites to be “within the fold of Islam.” Before the current war, Alawites accounted for about 10% of the population. Precise figures today are notoriously difficult to assess but most experts think the proportion may now have risen to something closer to 15%, partly because the majority of the many millions who have left Syria as refugees have been Sunni Muslims. Christians account for around 10% of the population, while Druze and Ismailis (further offshoots of Shi’a Islam) together represent about 5%.

 It is a common misperception in the West that sectarianism in the region is some ancient phenomenon rooted in age-old feuds. The Assads know this and understand only too well how to play on Western fears of Christian persecution by Muslim extremists, especially after the rise of ISIS and its public beheadings of Western Christians. But such divisions as existed between people were as likely to be found within the plethora of Christian and Muslim sects historically represented, and still present, in Syria as between the different religious communities themselves. One colorful story told to me by a Syrian dentist who grew up in a majority Orthodox Christian village in Syria’s Wadi Nasara (Valley of the Christians) described how his church felt so upstaged by a fancy new Evangelical church built with money brought in via the Allied army after World War II that the rival church was blown up! Syria’s Christians are not one homogenous group — there are many internal divisions, just as there are within Muslim and indeed Jewish groupings. The root of the problem is often economic inequality, rather than religious difference.

 A striking historic example is the 1860 Damascus massacre of thousands of Christians. Covered in the European press at the time as a sectarian event, it triggered outrage and public sympathy, followed by the dispatch of French troops in what was labelled the first humanitarian intervention in defense of minorities. Yet the problem was never sectarian — it originated within the silk industry of Mount Lebanon. The Maronite Catholics were commercially closest to the French and many lived in socially-isolated grandeur, rich from the privileges awarded them by Western powers seeking to gain new markets at a time of European recession. As the Ottoman grip on its empire weakened, a feeding frenzy began in its provinces, with foreign interests competing for the spoils. The result was not only the ensuing inter-confessional violence among communities that had lived together largely peacefully up to that point, but also the complete undermining of the regional silk industry. It was gradually bought out by foreigners, mainly French Catholics, leading more and more locals to lose their livelihoods.

 In Damascus the predominantly Catholic wealthy quarter in the Old City was burnt and looted by a mix of impoverished Druze and Bedouin, while many indigenous Orthodox Christians who lived in poverty-stricken Midan outside the walls to the south were spared and protected by their Muslim neighbors. The same resentments based on privilege and inequalities are building in today’s Syria, as churches in Homs and Aleppo are rebuilt and refurbished while the vast Sunni suburbs and their local mosques remain flattened. Only the flagship Aleppo Umayyad mosque and the Homs Khaled ibn al-Waleed mosque are being rebuilt for show, as empty shells.

 The 1860 war, like the war that rages today in Syria, was often mislabeled a civil war. Episodes of persecution were frequently misread by Europeans as sectarian, rather than economic, in nature.

 But as with the current war, it only exacerbated the root cause of the grievances, deepening foreign interference. In the wake of French troops educational and philanthropic agencies began to arrive, often run by Catholic missionaries, founding orphanages, boarding schools, and dispensaries in which their own religion was privileged.

 Once the French took over Syria after World War I under their mandate, they continued their “divide and rule” methods by creating separate statelets, including for the Alawis and the Druze. But their attempts were resisted in the Great Revolt of 1925, which began in the southern Druze region. The Syrian people showed their innate pluralism by refusing to identify themselves by sect. Not until after the Ba’athist coup in 1963 did sectarian sentiment in Syria begin in earnest, when the sense of exclusion felt by many Sunnis led to the first real appearance of Sunni Islamist militancy in the 1980s, the trigger for the Muslim Brotherhood Hama massacre led by Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad.

 From 2012 onward “starve or surrender/reconciliation” deals were imposed on populations perceived to be disloyal. The first such deal was in Homs, where opponents of the Assad government were transported out in the famous “green buses” to the rebellious Idlib Province, whose population has now swelled to bursting with more and more displaced rebels, overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims. By late 2016, after half the Syrian population had been displaced and Syrian citizenship had been granted to tens of thousands of Iranian mercenaries who had fought to keep him in power, Bashar boasted to an American interviewer that “the social fabric is much better than before.”

 Demographic change continues to be engineered or precipitated in today’s war, as it has been throughout Syria’s history. Centuries ago Sayf al-Dawla, founder of the Hamdanid dynasty, relocated the entire Shi’a population of Harran (in today’s Turkey) to repopulate his capital Aleppo after it had been ravaged by a Byzantine attack. After the end of the Crimean War, the Russians, needing to create a Christian majority, brought in Christians and by 1865 had pushed over half a million Muslims out into the Ottoman heartlands. In 1939 the French separated the Sanjak of Alexandretta from Syria and ceded it to Turkey, triggering the exodus of thousands of Armenians and Arabic-speaking Alawi, Sunni, and Christian refugees into northern Syria. In 1967 after capturing the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, Israel began almost immediately to settle Israeli Jews there, before illegally annexing the territory in 1981. Israeli maps show it as Israeli territory, not as Syrian territory occupied by Israel. Official Syrian maps continue to show both the Golan and the Sanjak of Alexandretta (renamed Hatay by Turkey) as part of Syria. Future maps of Syria will no doubt vary depending on who publishes them.

 The ultimate irony is that within so-called secular Syria as represented by the nominally secular Ba’ath Party, in power under the Assads for the last 50 years, sectarianism has been consistently on the rise. The mentality has been you have either been a Ba’athist or not. You are either with us or against us. Loyal Ba’athists have been protected, be they Sunni, Alawi, Christian or whatever. Those perceived as disloyal to the Ba’athist Party have been punished, either through imprisonment, detention or torture.

 Before the Assads, religious identities were pluralistic, and were only relevant at the social level. They were not politicized or institutionalized. The Assad legacy is to have turned Syria into a sectarian society for its own ends, following the French mandate model, setting community against community. But once Assad and his dynasty are gone, the Muslim-majority Syrian society will, in time, revert to its natural state of tolerance and co-existence with religious minorities, given the chance. It is the default position of every Syrian I know. All of them mourn the current triumph of Assad’s mock-secular sectarianism and pray collectively for its speedy passing.'

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

How Syrian women are fighting a war – and patriarchy


 ' “As women, we didn’t only stand against the régime, we had a bigger battle because we had the patriarchal society, the armed groups or the extremists, and the warplanes of the régime and Russia,” explains Ghalia Rahal. The 47-year-old had to leave her home in Kafranbel, southern Idlib and now lives in the Barisha IDP camp in northern Idlib.

 She founded the Mazaya Centre in 2013, converting her hairdressing salon into a safe space to empower women through vocational training and support. It expanded into a network of centres, but several had to be shut because of heavy fighting.

 Rahal says every week some eight women who have been abused come to the Mazaya Centre looking for help. “Sexual harassment and abuse existed before the war and it is not only in Syria. But because of the war, it increased.”

 She says that widespread poverty has made women particularly susceptible to exploitation from NGOs and civil society organisations. “As a conservative society, we are still afraid to talk about this publicly, because it’s very hard for a woman to come forward and say I was abused or I was assaulted in exchange for a food basket or in exchange for a job.”

 She has experienced this firsthand. “A while ago I had a message on my phone from an unknown number. I think he had mistaken me for someone else. He said: ‘Hey, if you still want this job, just send me your CV and fulfil your promise to me and the job is yours.’ I wanted to find out what this man was talking about, so I spoke to him on WhatsApp and asked him ‘What promise? What do you want from me?’ And he said he wanted sex in return for getting me the job.”

 Rahal tracked him down and found out that he works at the local council and is responsible for distributing food baskets. “Just the idea of this man being in charge… What has he done to other women?”

 She reported him anonymously and an investigation revealed he had done something similar to another woman, so he was arrested. “I wanted to do more [about this man] but it’s really hard to find people who will support you.”

 She says the main problem in Syria is that men are in control of everything, from civil society to humanitarian organisations. This is why Rahal is trying to encourage women to take on more decision-making roles in society. It is not easy. She says her job is “exhausting” and she has had a lot of “bad experiences where I thought of suicide”.

 In 2016, her eldest son, a journalist, was assassinated and she has also faced threats from the hardline group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, which opposes her work and burned down the Mazaya centre in 2014.

 Despite this, Rahal will not stop fighting for women’s empowerment. “I do not fear anything,” she says.

 For Rabia Kusairi, “Fear has become a part of my life,” she says, “but I know that whenever there is a bombing instead of feeling this fear, I should go and help others and the fear will be gone.”

 The 23-year-old is one of 230 female volunteers who works for the White Helmets, a humanitarian rescue organisation well-known for being the first people on the scene after a bombing.

 She recalls her first time going on a search-and-rescue mission in 2020 after an intensive bombing in Ariha, a town in northern Syria near where she lives. She rescued civilians and evacuated them to hospital. She says although the war has not affected her physically, “something inside me has died”, adding she has lost her home, many of her belongings, and “I’ve seen a lot of death.”

 Kusairi is the leader of the White Helmet’s women’s centre in Shanam village, where they go house-to-house or tent-to-tent in Idlib administering first aid and providing essential medical referrals. She says being a woman in a Muslim community means they have better access to women in order to treat them as “it’s not easy for a woman to be treated by a male volunteer”. Despite doing this important work, “I face a lot of attempts to silence me or to reduce my role”.

 Part of this, she explains, is the conservative community’s disapproval of her being a single mother. She was a victim of early marriage, something that has increased since the beginning of the war, and was only 19 years old when she became a wife. It was her decision to divorce him. “When I started going to school [studying medicine] and then working, I realised that I don’t want to continue [with the marriage]. So I left and am now raising my daughter by myself.” Her three-year-old daughter is “the most precious thing” in her life and she hopes she “will have a better future”.

 Hasna Issa, 36, says she believes the youth of today will live in a free Syria.

 “We are planting freedom and dignity and one day the new generation, including my daughters, will harvest those fruits,” the Syrian activist says. Issa and her nine-year-old twin daughters have endured a lot. Her peaceful activism led to her being detained by the government in 2014, where she shared a two-metre-square room with 15 women.

 “There was no way everyone could sleep so we would sit down all the time and the bathroom was inside this room.” She says the officers gave them “very bad food” to eat and unclean water to drink, which caused disease. A pregnant woman miscarried inside the prison and Issa suffered internal bleeding. “I was interrogated and I got beaten, but luckily I didn’t get tortured as much as other women.”

 After spending a month in detention, her parents bribed someone to release her.

 The women she met during her detention spurred her in her work – she is a gender supervisor at a Syrian advocacy group called Kesh Malek (meaning “checkmate”, representing the removal of the king) – where she helps women of all ages to be better informed about their rights. “I believe that if women realise their rights, they will have more power to play their role and demand their space and to reach decision-making positions,” she says.

 For Issa, the hardest moment of the past 10 years was when her younger brother was killed in a bombardment in Eastern Ghouta. Her other brother lost both legs.

 “After eight years of continuous bombing and being under siege, we didn’t know whether we would live to the next day,” she says, running her hands through her dark hair. There were times when she could not find food for her daughters and when one of them fell ill she couldn’t get her treatment.

 After fleeing Eastern Ghouta three years ago, she now lives in the Turkish-controlled city of Azaz. Despite the suffering she has experienced, she does not regret being part of the revolution. She recalls taking part in the first protests in 2011.

 “I felt that before I was living in a cage and now I am free. I would go to the streets and demand my rights.” She says they protested in the “most peaceful and most beautiful way”, describing how young people in Western Ghouta protested, carrying roses and handing out bottles of water.

 Women are the “invisible warriors” of the revolution and the war, says Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian-American architect and co-founder of Karam Foundation. She describes hearing stories of how women would open their doors to protesters to help them evade régime soldiers and have food prepared and were ready to tend to wounds. She adds “in refugee camps, the women carry so much of the load and even outside of the camps they carry so much of the load of the workforce and of taking care of the children”.

 Karam Foundation works with young Syrian refugees to help inspire them and teach them that being a refugee is just a “circumstance – it does not define you or limit you”, says Sergie Attar.

 “I don’t know any child that hasn’t been affected by this war, whether it’s witnessing violence, experiencing multiple displacements, child marriages, or child labour, and it definitely affects girls more than boys, not being able to have access to basic human rights.”

 The foundation has two education hubs – called Karam Houses – in Turkey. She says the Syrian girls she meets there always amaze her with their “limitless belief in the possibilities for the future”.

 One of those girls is Eman, 18, from Idlib. In 2015, she moved to Reyhanli, a town on the Turkish border with Syria, from where she can sometimes hear the bombing in her home country. “It feels very scary that there is so much death right next to us,” she says. Karam House helped her to “know myself a lot better” and “made me feel like we are all part of a family”.

 Eman is currently studying tourism at a Turkish university but is also applying to US colleges to study modern languages. Her ambition is to show the world Syria’s “real culture and real beauty”.

 But, her ultimate dream – “like every Syrian” – is to live in a free, democratic Syria. However, she is doubtful this will happen in her lifetime. “Maybe my grandchildren will be able to live in a democratic Syria.”.'

Friday, 9 April 2021

Protesters commemorate anniversary of Syrian régime Douma chemical massacre


 'Wednesday marked the third anniversary of the devastating Syrian régime chemical attack in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, which left 39 civilians dead including many women and children. 

 Protesters gathered in the centre of Idlib, northwestern Syria, to remember the victims and call for the Syrian régime to be held accountable for the attack. 

 The city of Douma, in the Damascus countryside, was attacked with chemical weapons on the morning of 7 April 2018, as part of the Syrian régime's offensive to retake the rebel held area

 At an event in the centre of Idlib, protesters held signs expressing solidarity and reiterating calls for the international community to hold the Assad régime accountable for their crimes. 

 "Today, on the third anniversary of the chemical massacre in the city of Douma, we came to remind the world, the international community, the peoples of the world and human rights organisations about the crime of Bashar Al-Assad's régime and the forces supporting it," said Mohammed Al-Saleh.

 "Our demand is still one, which is to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable for chemical weapons. We call on the international community to translate the European Union's statements about the chemical attack on Douma with actions on the ground," added Ibrahim Al-Zeer.

 The protesters' calls were mirrored in a statement by the Syrian National Coalition released on Twitter.

 "The Assad régime's involvement in war crimes, crimes against humanity and the use of chemical weapons has been well documented and proven beyond any doubt. The international community and international actors much therefore punish the criminals through military intervention under Chapter VII of the UN Charter," they said. 

 A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights recorded that the 2018 Douma chemical attack killed 39 civilians, including 10 children and 15 women. Additionally, more than 550 other suffered injuries related to the attack.

 Following the attack in Douma, the rebels surrendered the area to the régime and successive resolutions presented to the UN Security Council regarding a response to the attack were vetoed by competing countries. 

 On 14 April, seven days after the attack, the US, UK, and France launch airstrikes on Syria, that targeted régime sites. At the time, it was claimed that the strikes ended Syria's ability to create chemical weapons, although subsequent evaluations have determined that Syria retains the capability. 

 Since the 2018 attack in Douma, the Syrian régime, aided by Russia and Iran, continued to recapture a number of areas in Syria, displacing countless people and killing thousands of civilians.'


Thursday, 1 April 2021

Syria ten years on: Everyone wants to go home


 ' “I hope that the world can do something in order for us to get back to our villages and homes…is that possible?”

 Ten years have passed since the spark of the Syrian revolution ignited, several pages have turned, each containing stories of pain and suffering. A people confronted with the bullets of tyranny, writing with blood the first words of the revolution's tale that narrates a struggle between right and wrong.

 On March 15, 2011, the Syrian people stood up to the face of tyranny and broke the bars of silence behind which their freedom was being held. The genie had been let out of the bottle and will not return.

 On March 15, 2021 in the centre of the Northern Syrian city of Azaz, people once again gathered on the streets to raise their voices and protest.

 Free Syria flags hung everywhere and those original revolutionary chants "the people want the fall of the régime" sung out in the air.

 Within days of the start of the peaceful movement, Bashar al Assad's prison cells were filled with hundreds of peaceful demonstrators demanding the restoration of their dignity and their right to human life.

 The decade-long war that’s followed has been brutal. Hundreds of thousands have died, were detained or disappeared.

 Still, in the early days of the revolution many Syrians dreamed of a breakthrough, a chance to see light at the end of the tunnel, but instead the Assad régime cracked down harder, putting people in prison for defying the régime and subjecting them to some of the most severe forms of torture documented this century.

 In Molham camp, not far from Syria’s Azaz, volunteers there are trying to provide better housing for Syrians displaced by war.

 To date, more than half the Syrian population has been displaced internally in Syria or had to flee the country and are now living abroad, often in dire circumstances.

 To get to Molham camp you drive past an endless sea of blue and white tents, that make up the vast majority of unofficial displacement camps in the area.

 We stopped along the way and met some of the children from the camps who were eager to tell us what they were learning at school and how they wanted to be teachers, one wanted to be a doctor another an engineer.

 Small children, in desperate circumstances, with big dreams.

 The accommodation in Molham is higher quality, brick walls and a roof over their heads.

 Ahmad Hamra lost both of his legs in a bombing in Aleppo four years ago. When we meet him, he’s cementing in a small plant in front of his new accommodation.

 “We are tired,” he says, “the régime have spent ten years of war and bombing. All my family were killed, all of them were martyred by war planes in Aleppo. My father, my mother and my only brother, all of them were martyred. I’m the only one left, but I lost my legs.”

 Ahmad’s story of loss is familiar to millions of Syrians who have faced a decade of bombardment, detention and siege.

 In over ten years of reporting the war, I’ve spoken to people who were starving and so desperate during the siege of Eastern Ghouta, they told us that they were forced to eat leaves.

 I’ve been inside Idlib and witnessed the terrifying silence that comes and how everyone looks to the sky when there’s the sound of an airplane overhead.

 To this day, Idlib comes under air attack by the régime and Russia.

 Futaim Hammadeh and her family fled Idlib “Our homes were destroyed by warplanes, when warplanes were roaring in the sky my son was a kid and used to shiver and cry from their sound. Many people were killed, all of them were tragedies.”

 But despite the well documented killings carried out by the Assad régime, effective intervention was absent from the start. Arab League Monitors, UN monitors, Kofi Annan’s peace plan - all failed.

 Calls from Syrians and their supporters for serious intervention, after the chemical attacks on Khan Skeikhoun, demanded a no-fly zone over Idlib where today civilians are still at risk from the Assad régime's barrel bombs - all ignored.

 Yusuf Al-Hajjii expresses the anger many Syrians have at the lack of effective intervention, “the intervention of western countries wasn't enough, we saw nothing from the western countries.”

 There have been many complicating factors throughout the war in Syria.

 The rise of ISIS (Daesh), whose barbaric killings were stained in black ink on the bright pages of the revolution.

 But still, despite ten years of apathy from the international community, Syrians are calling on the world to intervene.

 “I hope that the world can do something in order for us to get back to our villages and homes," Futaim tells us, “is that possible?”

 In Molham camp and during the Azaz protest young children were making victory signs.

 Small moments of hope, yes. But it’s small victories like this that are a message to the Assad régime - you haven’t won yet.

 It was those voices that have proven to be Syrians' most effective weapon - words that shook a dictatorship and scared the régime.

 But the price paid by the Syrian people for demanding those basic human rights, freedom and dignity, has been a desperately high one.

 Bashir Abazid was one of the original group of boys that were detained by the régime accused of writing anti-régime graffiti in Daraa - ‘Your turn doctor’. He was just 15 years old at the time of his detention.

 Bashir tells us how detained in Assad’s prisons “we were statistics. We were identified by numbers, not names.”

 The conditions were so bad inside the prison Bashir tells us ‘I would have preferred to die than stay alive”.

 Put in solitary confinement he says “I didn’t want my captors to open the door, because that meant more torture, humiliation and beatings.”

 When Bashir was released, the story of what had happened to him and his friends (who have been called the Freedom Boys) had ignited the revolution.

 He says now “many Syrians ask me if I have any regrets after seeing what’s happened to the country. The situation there is dire. But what happened is not our fault. We regret nothing. The people took to the streets peacefully. We held olive branches and chanted for Syria and for freedom. The Assad régime fired live bullets at peaceful protesters. Those killers are the ones who should have regrets.”

 So many Syrians we’ve spoken to inside and outside the country have told us they still believe in the revolution, still believe the régime will lose and Assad will fall.

 But everyone, every single person we speak to, says exactly what Ahmad Anferse told us on the tenth anniversary of the war, “every person wants to go back home.” '

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

How Assad is preventing the return of refugees

  'The régime led by ruler Bashar al-Assad is seizing and expropriating the homes of those who have fled on a massive scale. The move appears to be linked to a targeted demographic policy. The régime clearly wants to be rid of a substantial segment of its population for good. A glimpse at the affected cities and districts shows that the intention is obviously that above all Sunnis – or members of the majority population – will lose their property. President Assad is a member of the Alawite religious minority.

 Aiman ad-Darwish fled to Germany in 2015 with his wife and four children. He comes from the world-famous desert city of Palmyra whose ruins were partly destroyed by IS. Aiman ad-Darwish now lives in a cramped refugee flat in the town of Osterode am Harz.

 In Palmyra, the family owned an impressive house: "312 square metres of living space and an Arabian courtyard with a pool and pomegranate trees," says Aiman ad-Darwish. He shows photos of the inside and outside of the property and a video of his children splashing about in the pool. "I worked and saved a long time for it," reports the interior decorator, "we moved there in 2009. In 2015, we had to leave this little fatherland."

 Aiman ad-Darwish is under no illusions. As he sees it, his house in Palmyra is lost forever, seized by the régime, essentially expropriated. "I'm in contact with my former neighbours, who fled to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They're all saying the same thing: access to the entire neighbourhood is blocked for former residents," he says. Aiman ad-Darwish, his neighbours and the overwhelming majority of the residents of Palmyra are Sunnis. "This expulsion policy is aimed at the Sunnis. Everyone knows that," says ad-Darwish.

 The first signs that the Assad régime planned to use the war for its demographic new order came in 2012. Even then, refugees were already being prevented from returning to their homes. When Assad recaptured the strategically important and predominantly Sunni rebel-held city of Al-Qusayr close to the Lebanese border with the help of the Shia Hezbollah in 2013, the Sunnis were banished from the city.

 Assad has made no secret of his long-term goal to permanently marginalise undesirable ethnic groups as a key outcome of the war. He made his intentions especially clear in a speech to parliament on 20 August 2017. For sure, the country had lost many of its "best sons" and suffered the destruction of infrastructure, he said, adding: "but we have gained something in return: a healthier and more homogenous society." Speaking in the same place back in 2015, he emphasised: "Living in a country or holding a passport does not entitle anyone to the fatherland." According to Assad, the way to earn the right to participate in the Syrian fatherland is to fight for it. Those who don't: "don't deserve any fatherland at all."

 Whenever he makes any statements on demographic policy, the dictator is always careful to avoid using the word "Sunnis". The régime continues to describe itself as "non-denominational" and committed to religious pluralism. It is indeed true that many Sunnis populate the middle and upper social strata, for example wealthy businessmen in Damascus and Aleppo who are loyal to the régime. And yet it is clear that the dictator's aim is to reduce the Sunnis' majority share in the population. Of Syria's population of over 20 million, some three quarters are Sunnis. The proportion of Sunni Syrians fleeing the country is even higher.

 More than 10 million Syrians are no longer living where they did in 2011, at the start of the conflict. Around half of all those displaced have found refuge in the few areas of Syria that the régime has not been able to recapture to date, primarily in the northwestern province of Idlib. The other half – around five million people – fled abroad. The régime wants to prevent their return.

 As well as strategically important smaller places such as Palmyra and Qusair, the expulsion and expropriation policies are affecting densely populated neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the large cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. These districts were home to a concentrated number of poorer Sunnis who moved to the cities' peripheries from rural areas before 2011. Over the years, neighbourhoods such as Goutha to the east of the capital Damascus grew to become strongholds of the rebellion against the Assad régime. Now that the régime has recaptured these areas, it plans to distribute the real estate among its supporters: officers, soldiers, militiamen, loyal members of the business community.

 The German government is aware of the Assad régime's purging policies. Several confidential Foreign Ministry reports on Syria from the years 2018 to 2020 provide evidence of this. Each of these reports has a separate section titled "expropriations". The Foreign Ministry refers to "credible reports" from returned refugees who were prevented from repossessing their property. Some were even "detained" as they attempted to do so. The reports claim that the expropriations took place "on a large scale".

 Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) addressed the issue in May 2018 during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Speaking at a press conference in Sochi, Merkel said that "Concern" is raised in particular by "Law Number 10 in Syria, which means that people not reporting to the authorities within a certain period of time lose their homes". The decree, she went on, is "bad news for all those wanting to return to Syria one day," Merkel emphasised that she would "ask Russia to do what it could to prevent Assad doing this."

 At the time, Putin was unmoved. He countered with the telling suggestion that the Syrian question should be viewed from "humanitarian standpoints". It was clear that Putin was demanding a price before exerting any pressure on his ally Assad. To date, there has been no progress. Putin is standing firmly by the Syrian leader and wants Europe to pay for the reconstruction of Syria. Europe is demanding that Assad surrender power as a precondition.'

Syrian Journalists Reflect on Covering a Decade-Long War

 ' “When the revolution started, I was in 10th grade,” Hiba Barakat, now 25, says. “I couldn’t participate in any of the peaceful protests that started in my village, but I would watch my brother go.”

 Her mother was an avid photographer who filled many albums with family pics. Inspired by her mother’s creativity and her parents’ love of reading, Barakat started painting and writing in school—poetry and stories—and in her teens she began documenting what she saw around her. After she and her husband, a journalist, divorced, she contributed to the Al Jazeera blog and other outlets. Her passion for photography didn’t go away. “I realized later that I can tell more stories and I can reach more people through photos instead of just writing,” she says.

 In February 2020, the photojournalist and her family were driven from their home in Urem, a village in western Aleppo, “because the régime launched this intensive military campaign against civilians in the province and our town.” They sought shelter in a nearby village, thinking it would be just a few days, but the bombing went on. About 10 days later, they took a chance and returned home. “I knew that this was the last time I was going to see home,” Barakat says. “We couldn’t take anything; we left all of our belongings at home. My mom was able to take only some of our photos.” She adds, “Our village was captured by the Assad régime forces four days later.”

 For a while after the relocation to Idlib province, she couldn’t work. “I tried to talk to people and to report on this humanitarian catastrophe, but it was such a hard crisis that you don’t know what to say anymore,” she says. “I remember the last day I was in my village, Urem. I shot this selfie video where I talked about what happened and that the régime is forcing us to flee and to leave our homes, but that was the only thing that I could do.”

 Women have borne the brunt of this war, she says. “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 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 has made some of us stronger, but it has also broken many of us.”

 As for her mother’s hobby that started Barakat on this path, she says, “My mom lost interest and stopped taking photos since my brother was detained by the Assad régime in 2014. We haven’t heard anything about him since then.”

 Photojournalist Nabiha Taha is only 22 years old, but she has already lived several lives. “When the revolution started 10 years ago, I was only 12 years old,” she says. “When the régime invaded my city and started bombing it, there were a lot of injured people who needed help.” At 13, she learned first aid and worked as a medic. In that role, she did a few things that didn’t sit well with conservatives, like working in ambulances and field hospitals with male colleagues. “This was frowned upon by ISIS members,” she says.

 She also violated the ISIS-imposed dress code for women. One day, the jeans she was wearing under her black abaya cover-up were visible. A carful of ISIS members picked up Taha and a few friends. “They took us to their center. It’s called al-Hisbah. It’s where they do trials and they judge people,” she says. “They whipped us. Me and my friend got the most lashes. Our other friend who was pregnant got the lashes on her feet, and then they let us go.” She went right back to work at the hospital. At 18, she volunteered with the White Helmets. But after a year, she decided she wanted to be a journalist.

 Now she’s studying journalism and is scheduled to graduate from Syria’s Media Institute this year. She writes and produces reports for local outlets like Ayni Aynak (a.k.a. Women of Syria, a blog for female Syrian writers), online news platform Furat Press, and a humanitarian NGO. “Of course female journalists face so many hurdles that our male colleagues don’t,” she says, “especially in northern Syria because it’s a conflict zone; so many other groups are taking control of this area. We are always at huge risk—not just me, but all of my female colleagues. We face harassment in the streets sometimes. Also, because the community here is very conservative, it’s not usual for them to see a girl outside in the street holding a camera in her hand, so sometimes I face bullying or harassment. Someone once attacked me and tried to break my camera while I was working.”

 Kidnapping is a real threat. “When I want to move to other places that are controlled by extremists, it’s very dangerous for me,” she says. “I can’t go because there are checkpoints on the roads and I might be subjected to kidnapping or intimidation by those armed groups. Some of my colleagues were assassinated during the past years by those groups because they don’t want the truth to come out, but that didn’t stop us, and we continue to do our work.” She adds, “I hope that the U.S. and the international community will play a [bigger] role in protecting civilians and journalists. Because a journalist here in northern Syria is [not valued] and anyone can kill them with one bullet.”

 Ramia Akhras, 34, had a business and accounting degree when she was married, but her “very conservative” husband did not want her to work, she says. They lived in Kafranbel, a town in Idlib province known for its activism against the régime. After her husband joined the rebel army and was killed by a bomb in 2017, she says, “I had four children and I didn’t want to wait for charity or for help; I wanted to be financially independent.” She worked as a mosaic artist for a craft store. After the photos she posted of her creations received compliments, she decided to sign up for some photography and journalism courses.

 She has worked for the past several years for an online platform called SY+ that tells stories about Syria and Syrians using creative video. In 2018, she lost a son in a house fire; she and her other children had burn injuries and needed multiple surgeries. “All of my managers and my colleagues are my role models,” she says. “They’ve always supported me. And when I had the accident—the fire accident when I lost my son—they took me to Turkey to do the operations, and they stood by me, and they really took care of me, and I’m forever grateful for them.”

 The next year, a military campaign by Syrian forces forced her family to flee to a town in northern Syria, near the Turkish border. It’s harder for female journalists to safely get around, especially alone, Akhras says, but they do have access that men can’t have in the conservative culture. “Male journalists weren’t able to have access to the women in our communities,” she says, “so me and my female colleagues are able to go and meet more women and cover their stories and interview them.”

 Akhras often goes to the displacement camps for her work. “Everything I went though, from losing my husband to losing my son a year [later], I carry this pain in my heart,” she says. “And I always look for stories that I can relate to or I can share this pain with others. I think that I was blessed to get this job because it makes me forget a little bit about my suffering and think about other people’s suffering.”

 As a seventh grader, Sarah Kassim was living in Homs, the country’s third-largest city and the so-called capital of the revolution. “I was displaced from my city, but before I was displaced, I lived for two years under the siege,” she says. “I witnessed how the war planes were targeting us as civilians, without [being] careful of the children, women, or even the medical centers.” She and her family scrambled to find food and other basic necessities such as fuel, clean water, electricity, and medicine. Her school closed.

 Kassim, now 22, and her family went to Idlib, where she’s studying English literature. Her favorite book is George Orwell’s 1984. “The message that he has is the same that we have now. It’s about totalitarianism,” she says. Learning a second language has helped her journalistic work. She’s doing video reports on SY+, including an online discussion last July hosted by Kelly Craft, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., about the Security Council’s vote to consider cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid.

 Growing up under the shadow of war, she says, “was an awful experience for me.” But it taught her not to give up. “I have a message, and I have to share it, no matter what the difficulties I’m going to face or no matter what will happen.” She adds, “What I want you to know about me is that I am a person like anyone else, but a person who has witnessed the most painful tragedies and images, pictures of a war that feels endless. And this war, you know, no one wins.” Her message, she says, is “to keep fighting for the right things, and be a good example for society, and fight to change your society for the best. [It is] to be a good woman and not to give up your dreams, no matter the difficulties you have in your life, and to fight for freedom, fight for justice.”

 In Syria, going out to report on a story can get you arrested, abducted, or killed. But Yakeen Bido, 27, doesn’t let fear stop her. “I believe that even if I left journalism and just stayed at home like a lot of people want me to, any time a rocket or a missile can come and be dropped on my house and I could just die. So why sit at home doing nothing?” she says. “At least by my career in journalism, I’m an active citizen. I’m doing something. I try to leave a legacy. I try to make a difference in people’s lives and to elevate their voices and to tell their stories.”

 Reporting on scenes of war shocks some in her culture. “Sometimes I would report on battles, bombings, or massacres,” she says. “The community here is not used to seeing women as military reporters. Very few dare to appear in front of the camera on the spot where there’s a bombing or there’s a battle happening. So I think this is why there was so much spotlight on me.”

 Bido was the target of a smear campaign and anonymous threats last year. In early 2020, Assad’s forces launched a military campaign to capture the town of Saraqeb, strategically located on the Damascus to Aleppo highway. Saraqeb was under siege by régime forces when the rebels took it back briefly in early March 2020. “So the régime was trying to advance to this town, and they invaded this city for only like 24 hours. Then the rebels fought back and they got the city back. And during the early hours of when the rebels got the city back, I was able to go there, and I filmed myself in a video standing in the city center, saying, ‘This is our land; we want freedom. We are challenging the régime that’s using brutal force to kill us and to silence us, but we won’t be silenced.’”

 When the régime saw the video, “it blew their minds,” she says. “They couldn’t stand that a woman is challenging the Syrian régime from the middle of a city during a battle; the battle wasn’t even done.” As payback, she believes, a prominent official spread the rumor on social media that Bido was raped by extremists. And the next rumor was that when her father found out she was raped, he killed her. “So I was having breakfast with my friend and I started getting all these calls and messages from my friends saying, ‘Are you okay? Has something happened to you?’ And I couldn’t believe how low they went to attack me, because I’m a woman. What helped me to overcome all these threats and obstacles and challenges is that I believe that I have a goal. I won’t stop and just give up. I need to continue even though I know that the path of journalism, especially for women, is not an easy path, especially in somewhere like Idlib.” '