Friday, 18 December 2015

My Family Will Never Recover From Being Refugees

 ' "You have five minutes to leave the house or we'll burn you in it."

 That was the warning the shabiha, thugs supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, gave to Salma* and her family in October of 2012. Salma, her husband, and their four children had been incarcerated in a relative's home for 10 grueling months, most of the time unable to venture into the blasted city streets even to get food. They had become trapped amid crossfire between Assad's army and the rebels while visiting Salma's brother, who lived just a short drive from their own home in Homs, Syria. But after the regime rolled tanks into the city and posted armed guards in office buildings, nowhere in Homs was safe. They fled to live among family in rural Damascus. From there, they began an arduous journey to Jordan, where they would attempt to rebuild their lives.

 Salma remembers precisely when her family's life in Syria began falling apart: March 15, 2011, the day that 15 students were arrested for writing anti-Assad graffiti in the southern province of Daraa. Three days later, peaceful protests began in Homs and other cities around the country. As Assad responded with violence, Homs became the stronghold of the opposition and the capital of the Syrian revolution. Salma remembers watching the weekly demonstrations from her kitchen balcony. She says that Addounia TV, the private station reportedly owned by allies of Assad, broadcast scenes of the protests. "Then, as soon as they finished filming, the cameras would be turned off and the demonstrators would be shot at by the regime," she said.

 Within months, quotidian tasks — going to the market, to school — became life-threateningly dangerous. A group of older boys armed with sticks began to escort Mariam and her classmates to the elementary school at the end of Salma's street. The violence was so indiscriminate and incessant that anyone could be killed or arrested at any time, Salma said. That fall, a rocket hit Salma's cousin's house. His wife, who had a habit of wearing lots of makeup, lost half her leg. His daughter was killed; his other daughter lost her eye. Salma recalls with horror that the regime-aligned media attempted to discredit the report. The media insinuated that a woman who looked so done-up could not possibly be injured.

 In January 2012, Salma and her family set out to visit Salma's brother, who was staying in another area of Homs, a 10-minute drive from her neighborhood. A two-day visit turned into 10 months, however, as going back home was too risky, and the fighting between Assad and the rebels intensified around them. Throughout a siege that left them without water or electricity for six days, Salma comforted her youngest, 4-year-old Bassema, by telling her they would go to heaven soon, where they would all be together and feast. "What can we do? We surrendered to the situation and waited. It was like waiting for death," Salma said. Thugs came and ransacked the town, now nearly empty. Two families who lived there disappeared. Then, in October, came the militiamen warning them that their house would be burned. Salma and her husband left with their children, heading south to rural Damascus. Her brother did not come with them.

 The various factions warring over Syria had by now divided the country into territorial lines like creases in a crumpled piece of paper. Every journey by car involved passing through security checkpoints, where armed guards would check their Syrian IDs. At one checkpoint, Assad's army accused Bassema's doll of being a bomb. Bassema became politically savvy: she'd tell Assad's guards she loved them and then, when they'd driven away from the checkpoint, she'd curse them, Salma said.

 Salma would later learn by word of mouth that her brother, along with her two uncles and their families, had been slaughtered and burned that winter.

 Salma and her family are doing their best to make a life for themselves in Amman, but they have limited economic means and almost no opportunities for work. Without the asylum seeker permits or government cards, they are barred from any aid or assistance from UNHCR or its partners, and are ineligible for the Jordanian public schools available to registered urban Syrian refugees. They are stateless and nameless in the eyes of the Jordanian government, and live in constant fear of being discovered as trespassers. Huda said her 17-year-old brother Mohammed has already been caught and let go twice by police officers who took pity on him.

 Salma's dreams for her children are more modest than they were in Syria. She wishes simply for them to be safe and secure, to have basic rights like health care and education. Though they have left the bloodshed and violence behind, the war has forever changed her children. Bassema, for example, plays by drawing pictures of tanks. She's now 7, and talks about violence like a hardened war veteran. "She's always swearing at Bashar al-Assad, saying that he is responsible for everything that has happened to her," Salma said. "She said, 'I want to take rockets and a tank, all the artillery, and go to Bashar and shoot him dead because he took our home.'" When Bassema's grandfather passed away due to health complications in October, Bassema said, "OK, so what? Everyone dies." She has become numb to death.

 While most parents can look forward to the successes of their children, war has suspended this natural order of progression. Salma and her husband rely on Mohammed and Huda for financial support, and Mariam and Huda told me they glean what little hope they have from their mother.

 "Because of what we have been through, we sometimes feel there really is no hope. No hope in anything whatsoever. We look around us and we can barely make a living and so we feel that's it," Huda said. "We tell her it is impossible for us to continue our studies and she says, 'No.' She always supports us and says, 'You know, there's always a way. God is great and capable of doing anything. You never know, you can always study and learn anything. If you can't continue education now, then you can do so in the future.'"

 "Our future is unknown and bleak," Huda said. "We don't how it's going to end." '

Writer in Exile: An Interview with Yasmin Merei

Writer in Exile: An Interview with Yasmin Merei

 "Now, it is every side is killing people. But if we want to talk about the first three years, no! Only the regime was killing then. It is very clear for us, as Syrians, the people who are against the regime are still against the regime, whether they are inside or outside. I am a member of the revolution since 2011, and I still am. Because day after day, when you learn how savage this regime is, you cannot change your mind.

The magazine, Sayyidat Suria, talks about Syrian women’s issues. We have five offices inside Syria. They are not in the areas of the regime. In the area of the regime, you cannot work.

My family moved to Suwayda because my city of Homs was bombed heavily. When they were bombing the city, my father always said to my mother, “I want to leave; I don’t want to be killed by a bomb.” We moved to Suwayda because I had a brother working there. But my father was killed by the torture. [she starts to cry for a moment … then regains her composure.]

 It was very difficult to leave a city [Homs] that is still 100 percent ruled by the regime you are struggling against. Do you understand me? You are against this regime and you are escaping from his bombing and shooting but you’re going to a city — Suwayda — that he is also ruling. It is protected by him. So you feel you are leaving from him but going to him.
 A lot of activists there were doing relief work, and I was working with them and so, after awhile, somebody reported me. They took photos of our small relief group and they started asking, “Who is this veiled woman from Homs who is working for the refugees?” And within 18 days of when they asked for me, my father and two of my brothers were arrested. For my mother, it was impossible to think of me being arrested. I have four brothers and they took two of them and two of them remained at home. My mother pointed to her two sons still in the house. She said to me, “Do you see your two brothers?” And I said yes. She said, “I would agree with them if they take these two in addition to your father and your other two brothers, but I cannot think that you would be arrested. They would take you.”
 You see, everybody feels afraid if a woman, a girl or a wife — would get arrested … because they think about rape. Because the regime did that a lot. So for my family, it’s better to be dead than to be raped. Not for only my family, but for everybody, even maybe for me. I escaped, left my country, only because I was afraid of being raped. For no other reason. Because when I went with friends to demonstrations in Homs, they were shooting at us. We knew there was a possibility of being killed.

 My father was in prison for 50 days. And my brothers they kept for six months and after that, they escaped to Lebanon. And earlier this year I went to Lebanon to see them. They told me a lot of things. The guards knew they were a family, so every time they brought them to the cell where they tortured my brothers, they forced my father to watch. They always said, “We are happy to welcome you as a family.” Always they made them take off all their clothes.

I feel, well, I am an activist. Maybe some of the Syrian people did not want the Revolution to start. But we wanted it. We said, we have to do it. This dictator should leave. Now I am out of the country, and, because I am working, I can help my family. If I was still inside Syria, we would have nothing. When you are inside Syria, you feel that everyone is thinking about us, everybody is interested in listening to what is happening. But when you leave — you are shocked, because people are not."

Book review: Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad – a must read that untangles the web of militant groups

Book review: Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad – a must read that untangles the web of militant groups

 Robin Yassin-Kassab

 'Security discourse dominates the international chatter on Syria. Most Syrians see Bashar Al Assad as their chief enemy – he is, after all, responsible for the overwhelming proportion of the dead and displaced. But the Syrian people are not invited to the tables of powerful states, which are in agreement that their most pressing Syrian enemy is “terrorism”.

 There is no question that the moderate Syrian opposition exists, in the form of hundreds of civilian councils – sometimes directly elected – and at least 70,000 democratic-nationalist fighters. In a recent blog for The Spectator, Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label “expert”, explains exactly who they are.

 Lister’s book-length study The Syrian Jihad: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, on the other hand, focuses on those militias, from the Syrian Salafist to the transnational jihadist, which cannot be considered moderate. It clarifies the factors behind the extremists’ rise to such strategic prominence, among them the West’s failure to properly engage with the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011 and 2012.
 Then, on August 21, 2013, a year-and-a-day after United States president Barack Obama declared a supposed chemical weapons “red line”, Assad’s regime killed 1,429 people with sarin gas. The West’s failure to act, even over this atrocity, destroyed any residual rebel faith in western-backed structures. In September, 11 powerful groups renounced the authority of the West-friendly coalition. In the same month the CIA delivered arms to select FSA factions for the first time – a case of too little too late.
 Largely as a result of its engagement by foreign states, Ahrar has moderated its discourse. It and Jaysh Al Islam (another IF militia) signed the May 2014 Revolutionary Covenant, calling for a unified and “diverse multi-sectarian” Syria which would respect human rights and reject dictatorship. This commitment, however cosmetic, marks a clear distinction from the monolithic intransigence of the transnational jihadists. So these are not moderates, but Salafist Syrian pragmatists who can and must be involved in a final settlement (as must regime-loyalist Alawi communities), lest they act as spoilers.
 Lister warns that Russia’s bombing of moderate opposition forces is inevitably driving them into closer coordination with Nusra. “Rather than fighting jihadist militancy,” he writes, “Russia’s military intervention [is] fuelling it like never before.”
 Increased and improved supply has had the effect of amalgamating FSA groups into larger, better coordinated units. If this effect were magnified and spread, the FSA could again dominate the field, an outcome which would produce global benefits – because the only effective long-term strategy against jihadist extremism is consistent support to the democratic nationalist forces whose aims most closely align with the Syrian people’s.
Presently, however, there is little sign of sense prevailing. No powerful state has a serious strategy to stop Assad’s war. So the jihadist threat will grow, despite the bombs thrown at it. Politicians should therefore arm themselves with a copy of The Syrian Jihad – at once the definitive guide to such groups and the most comprehensive blow-by-blow military account of the war thus far.'

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Ready to go


 John Kerry: "We absolutely agree that ISIL/Daesh and al-Nusra are absolutely outside this process, no matter what...With regard to the announcement or proclamations of the people who came together in Riyadh [that Assad must go now], that is not the position of the International Syria Support Group, it is not the basis of the Geneva communiqué, it is not the basis of the UN resolutions; and we are assured by the members of the International Syria Support Group who were attending that meeting, and helping at that meeting, and hosting that meeting, that that is not in fact the starting position, because it's a non-starting position, obviously."

 Kerry thinks he has successfully bullied the states opposed to Assad and the Syrian opposition into accepting a deal the Russians can live with. You could get people to reject al-Nusra, you can insist that Assad is staying, but you can't do both. For more on the US' double-dealing, see here.*


Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Syrians say the Free Syrian Army 'does exist'

Syrians say the Free Syrian Army 'does exist'

 'Following comments from Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate that the Free Syrian Army 'does not exist', a campaign was launched by Syrian activists to highlight the wide-reach the moderate rebel group has inside the country. Jolani's remarks were strikingly similar to those made by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who described the FSA as a "phantom group". 

 All through the Saturday night, Syrians took to social media to counter Jolani's statement with slogans such as "the Free Syrian Army represents me" and "we are the free Syrian army" widely used. One widely shared photo on social media showed a wall with graffiti reading: "The Free Syrian Army, I know them and who they are, but who are you? The revolution continues". Another Syrian activist using the name Mohammed said, "The Syrian revolution is the pride of our people and the pride of the Syrian revolution is the FSA."

 Ana Press took the campaign further still and went out onto the streets of Aleppo to find out from resident if the Free Syrian Army did exist. "There is an FSA and they are our brothers," one man told the reporter. Other residents of the war-torn Aleppo said that the FSA had a strong presence in the north Syria city.

 In response to the campaign, Nusra officials said that that they did not deny the organisation's existence and even commended their work in the "Hama tank massacre", where the defending FSA fighters managed to block the regime offensive and destroyed 15 armoured vehicles.  

During a later press conference, the Nusra leader backtracked on his earlier remarks and said that he had only implied that the FSA was not "one faction".'

Monday, 14 December 2015

Syria’s local councils, not Assad, are the answer to Isis

Syrian children wait to receive food in the rebel-held side of Aleppo

 'While we bomb Islamic State and Boris Johnson advocates supporting Assad for the sake of stability, we ignore the people who right now are running the only version of Syria that is neither a dictatorship nor a murderous caliphate, and that embodies a riposte to them both.

 In the “free areas” of Syria loosely held by the moderate opposition, there has been essentially no central government since the revolution four years ago. In this vacuum grassroots local councils have emerged and are providing essential public services such as water, electricity, education and healthcare.

 In the struggle to assert legitimacy, both Isis and Assad single out the councils for attack. An NGO official who works with the councils told me about persistent assassinations and proudly said they were “number two on Isis’s hate list” behind the US-led coalition. A councillor in Deraa, in the south of the country, told me about regime forces trying to bomb their meetings, saying, “I was there when it was targeted by air-bombing, not once, not twice, but more than 10 times. Luckily, if it doesn’t hit you exactly in the head, you will be safe.”

 To end the chaos, what is needed is infrastructure, public services and effective government. That may lead people like Johnson to look to Assad as the person best placed to offer a stability that does not involve Isis. But what a betrayal it would be of the things we believe in. Not least because these local councillors will presumably be put up against a wall if the regime ever gets its hands on them again.'