Saturday, 31 December 2016

Surrender or die: Syria's sieges are the difference-makers in the conflict

Image result for Surrender or die: Syria's sieges are the difference-makers in the conflict

 'Aleppo was not the first city to be besieged, nor will it be the last. On 23 December 2016, 12-year-old Mohamed al-Maleh in Madaya, besieged by the Syrian army and Hezbollah since June 2015, was shot in the head by a sniper while playing on the roof, severely injuring him.

 Al-Maleh is one of 1.3 million people trapped in besieged communities across Syria, primarily by the Syrian army and its allies. This does not include over 1.1 million others who are partially besieged or living in siege-like conditions, according to Siege Watch’s latest quarterly report on Syria.

 Prior to the Syrian government and its allies reclaiming eastern Aleppo, it has used similar tactics to win back opposition-held areas in and around other major cities in Syria, including the capital Damascus, as well as Homs, Syria’s third-largest city.

 Near the capital Damascus is the large opposition stronghold in eastern Ghouta. Though the siege of the area lasted for three years from 2013 and 2016, in a territory significantly larger than eastern Aleppo both in size and population, its complicated situation, both in terms of internal politics among the opposition factions, and the relationship between those besieged and government-held areas, kept it from taking centre stage in the media.

 Aron Lund’s analysis on eastern Ghouta for The Century Foundation indicates that several distinct features of this siege made it even more effective for the Syrian government and its allies.

 First of all, internal clashes between factions, including the notorious Salafi group Jaysh al-Islam, led to the fragmentation of opposition groups in the area. Moreover, the black market has been a major source of income for officials on the side of the Syrian regime, as smugglers and traders went in and out of the besieged territory from time to time.

 Outside of war strategy, this is an example of how the regime can benefit economically from sieges, as well as rhetorically; the Syrian government and Assad have been referring to the opposition as extremist Islamists and terrorists ever since day one, and the president has portrayed himself and his allies time and again as protectors of secularism and of ethnic and religious minorities in Syria.

 In Ghouta, over 200 civilians died due to lack of food or medical equipment between 21 October 2012 and 31 January 2015.

 While the lack of essential aid alone has caused deaths, the besieged territory is not without airstrikes and shelling from the Syrian army and its allies.

 On the morning of 21 August 2013, rebel-held Ghouta was on the receiving end of rocket attacks containing sarin gas. MSF reported that they received around 3,600 patients “displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours” that very morning. More than 1,000 civilians died.

 The siege of the Homs neighbourhood of Al-Waer came to an end with an agreement between the Syrian army and opposition forces on 1 September 2016, but not without years of suffering.

 In August 2016, warplanes dropping a flammable substance killed people in their sleep, including two siblings both under the age of three. Though their mother survived, she suffers emotionally and psychologically.

 One year prior to the Al-Waer agreement, during the truce negotiations, Al-Waer’s 75,000 residents, who have relied on growing their own food for some time, were astonished to receive “such a great quantity of aid”, which consisted of 14 trucks with food, blankets and clothes, and some basic medical supplies. The psychological impact of sieges drops the bar so low on what dignity looks like; after all, the two options are starve or surrender.

 The truce that ended the siege of Al-Waer involved the systematic evacuation - which resembles evictions, if anything - of civilians and fighters, including the injured, in exchange for the Syrian army to regain control of the area.

 Human Rights Watch Syria researcher, Hadeel al-Shalchi, has described these truces as using civilians as bargaining chips. In a phone interview, she explains the unethical foundation of these truces, saying: “The basis of these truces is using injured and sick people, dying people, as bargaining chips.”

 The lack of any meticulous monitoring has prolonged the sieges, and enabled those doing the besieging to impede aid deliveries.

 Reema Hibrawi, programme manager and analyst of The Syria Institute, says this is a cause for great concern: "If UN humanitarian aid is sent, it is insufficient. Few UN aid convoys go through Syrian government checkpoints and approvals, and the supplies support a fraction of the besieged population.

 "The majority of civilians do not have their basic needs met including food, medical or heating supplies. UN agencies are not monitoring and reporting aid inspection by the Syrian government which is limiting what people receive, and are not holding actors accountable for diverting aid."

 Indeed, we often read about aid from the UN, the ICRC, and Syrian Arab Red Crescent, but we never know what happens after those trucks arrive.

 Last September, in besieged Moadamiya, residents found their aid rendered unusable, as their food items were mixed with sand and glass by Syrian government forces, according to Siege Watch.

 Moreover, much of the aid that has come is not what the residents need. Residents in Darayya received a UN aid delivery, which included one bottle of lice shampoo for every two residents, and over a thousand sand-fly nets: items that are far from essential in a town devoid of basic foodstuffs and medicines.

 The sieges are thus prolonged, with a PR success for the Assad government, given the general assumption that (1) the aid being brought in is what the starving population needs, and (2) the aid is distributed equitably and the aid isn’t confiscated or tampered with.

 As besieged areas are attacked until its starving residents surrender, a new problem emerges. While the Syrian government with the help of Russia and other allies takes back areas they have besieged, its residents are being evicted under the guise of an evacuation, to Idlib, which is the remaining hub of the Syrian opposition.

 While the Syrian government has stated that it has been welcoming fleeing besieged residents with open arms, the UN reported that hundreds of men have gone missing while crossing from previously opposition-held eastern Aleppo to government-held Aleppo.

 There has been no guarantee from the Syrian government that the displaced will return to their homes, nor that those who flee to government territory will not be persecuted.

 Surely, such a situation can be described as a nakba - or catastrophe - equivalent to the one experienced by the Palestinians in 1948. And it doesn’t appear that this problem will be addressed anytime soon.

 Hibrawi from The Syria Institute does not expect this problem to be resolved, stating, "It’s difficult to see things ending well. Forced population transfers displaced thousands of people into Idlib province. Attacks continue to increase in Idlib along with Eastern Ghouta in Damascus countryside, Al-Waer in Homs countryside, and Aleppo western countryside. Lack of accountability also continues for the sieges across Syria and the recent forced population transfers."

 It would not be farfetched to say a siege of Idlib is in the works - an unnamed member of Hezbollah claims that the tactic will continue to be used, including in Idlib. So, let’s make it official: the deliberate starvation of people is a viable tactic in Syria, and there are no signs of it stopping anytime soon.'

Syrian activists languish in government jails

 'For the crime of providing food to displaced Aleppans, her friends say, activist Zilal Salhani became one among tens of thousands of political prisoners left to an uncertain fate in Syria's jails.

 Arrested at 19 by regime forces in Aleppo in July 2012, Salhani has now spent her university years in a series of shadowy government detention centres. She was convicted of supporting "terrorists", but according to friend Mohammad Shbeeb, Salhani was always peaceful.

 Before her detention, the Free Syrian Army had recently taken certain areas in and around Aleppo, prompting retaliatory government air strikes. Salhani, an engineering student who had been an active participant in civil demonstrations against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, took food to those displaced by the heavy fighting and helped them to find shelter, Shbeeb said.

 Noor, a former prisoner who was held in the same cell as Salhani in the overcrowded Adra prison outside Damascus for eight months before her release earlier this year, said conditions in the jail were unspeakable.

 "I cannot describe the injustices we faced in Adra," Noor, who declined to give her last name, told Al Jazeera.

 Noor, who now lives in neighbouring Turkey, was also held on "terrorism" charges after distributing food to displaced Syrians and handing out pamphlets in support of the country's civil uprising.

 "Civilian activists who took to the street at the beginning of the revolution were considered by the regime as very dangerous people, because they were against using weapons and tried to keep the resistance peaceful despite the regime trying to militarise it," said Kareem Hourani, a member of the Detainees Voice activist group.

 Noor said that Salhani's arrest had a significant effect on other activists.

 "Zilal was one of the first detainees in Aleppo, and other people joined demonstrations because of her arrest, so they are making an example of her," she said. "For us, it was a very big loss when she was arrested. We were so disappointed. She was so strong."

 Amid the appalling conditions in prison, Salhani's health had been suffering, Noor said. Breakfast, served at 10am, consisted of a slice of bread and either a segment of cheese or some jam, and the only other meal for the day, served at 6pm, was rice or bulgur with a potato or a tomato and a slice of bread.

 When the prison guards initially asked her to remove her niqab, Salhani refused, said Shbeeb, citing information from other prisoners. "It's bad for anyone to enter the prison, but it is even worse for girls. They looked at her like an animal looking at his prey."

 Shbeeb was himself arrested for attending a demonstration in 2011 and held for seven hours, during which time he was beaten and tortured.

 "A lot of our friends are still in prison. Some of them have been killed there," Shbeeb said.

 Noor said that her conversations with Salhani focused on their fate in prison, and on the disappearance each week of three to six women from their block - although such "political" discussions were banned inside Adra, punishable by beatings.

 In an effort to silence dissenting voices, the Syrian regime has painted the entire opposition as "terrorists", despite the pacifistic beliefs held by many activists. Yahya Shurbaji, known as "the man with the roses" because he met soldiers with flowers in the initial days of the uprising in Daraya, has been in jail since September 2011. Another Daraya activist arrested with him has since died in prison.

 "I can mention many names ... who adopted the methodology of responding to violence by distributing flowers and water to Assad's soldiers," Hourani said. "The regime was afraid of them because they were refuting its claims of fighting terrorists and armed people."

 Syria's policy of political imprisonment long predates the civil war. In one case from 2009, blogger Tal al-Mallohi was arrested at 18 for her online writings, held without charge for years, and ultimately sentenced in 2011 to five years in prison for "spying".

 There have also been rare rays of light, including the release last year of prominent human rights defender Mazen Darwish, who had been held for three years in government jails. Hourani believes that his release was made possible through international pressure.

 "[The international community] stood up for their justified cause, confronted the regime and demanded a cease to its farcical trials of activists," Hourani said. "That concrete pressure is missing in the cases of the other detainees." '

Friday, 30 December 2016

Syrians want to change the régime

“Revolution Brings us Together” Tomorrow’s Motto for Massing Demonstrations across #Syria

 'Activists call for demonstrations tomorrow throughout the liberated areas of Syria, under the slogan of "Revolution Brings us Together" to demand the unification of military efforts of the factions and commitment to the goals and principles of the Syrian revolution.

 "Ahmed Abu Azzam" one of the organizers of the demonstrations stressed in comments to ElDorar news network that the goal of launching this label on tomorrow’s demonstrations is to deliver messages to the Syrian resistant people, that revolutionaries in all fields are to serve them, through the reaffirmation of the revolution’s goals.

 It also aims to deliver a message to the faction leaders that the revolution is larger than the factional considerations and those current factions exist as a result of the people’s revolution, then tomorrow’s demonstrations plan to deliver messages to the honorable people of the world, that the Syrian people are in the revolution of the right against tyranny, and another message to the aggressors (the Syrian regime and its allies) that their criminal acts will increase the people’s insistence.

 The Syrian Revolution is characterized since its launch with the participation of large numbers of people in the demonstrations, during its first year, where some Fridays demonstrations’ participants reached up to two million demonstrators, the most momentum was in the city of Hama and the province of Idlib , Rif Dimashq and Daraa province..'

‘Painting on Death': One Syrian Artist's Mission Under Siege in Douma

Akram Abo Alfoz decorates a Christmas tree in besieged Douma. December 24, 2016. Source.

 ' “We will stay here. Even if you scorch our land, we will stay in the cradle of civilizations to rebuild it again. We will make bridges from our bodies for the generations to cross to the future. We will build a new civilization from the ruins of our homes. We will make a Christmas tree from your shells and bombs, and light it for peace in our wounded Ghouta.”

 These are the words of Akram Suwaidan, or Akram Abo Alfoz as he prefers to be called. Abo Alfoz is a 37-year-old artist from the city of Douma, in the Eastern Ghouta region of Syria.

 Douma has been besieged by the Assad regime and its allies since the summer of 2014 (and partly besieged since October 2013) with an estimated 140,000 civilians still in the city out of a pre-war population of 500,000. In June 2016, some aid and food was allowed in, but the situation remains dangerous for residents, with one doctor telling the France-based international news agency AFP on October 3, 2016 that supplies were already running out.

 This has left many feeling like there's no hope. But Abo Alfoz chose to fight that feeling. Doing his part to tell the world of what is happening in Eastern Ghouta, Abo Alfoz paints on death, almost literally. He transforms objects of war into pieces of art.

 “Painting is a hobby that has been a companion since I was a child“, Abo Alfoz said. “It stays with me even when I get busy with other things. Before the Syrian revolution, I carried my paint with me everywhere. When the revolution started, I initially distanced myself from my art. But when it became an armed revolution, I tried to revive my inner olive branch to draw the world's attention to our culture, thought, love for life and hope. I wanted to draw the whole world's attention to what's happening in Syria in general and to my city Douma in particular. While the children of the world are waiting for their gifts and presents from Santa Claus our children are receiving their gifts from the Syrian Santa Claus in disguise, Russia, the Syrian regime, and Iran, and his sleigh in disguise of a Russian MIG aircraft. I wanted to show the entire world that we are people made to live and love life, and that our revolution is a revolution of thoughts and manners.

 The city of Duma was named the most dangerous city in the world in all aspects, the insane shelling by the regime and Russian air force claims the lives of many innocent people on a daily bases, beside the siege that has been ongoing since 4 years, and the power outage, water scarcity and communication outages in the city since that time in addition to becoming constantly psychologically overwhelmed, this feeling of psychological exhaustion that accompanies us through the difficulty of living.“

 The situation in Douma is indeed dire. With the fall of Aleppo to the Syrian regime being finalized, residents of Douma and the wider Eastern Ghouta region fear that they will be next. Tariq (not his real name), an English teacher in Douma, told Vice:

People are very afraid of obligatory evacuation, like what happened in other parts of the Damascus suburbs and now Aleppo.

 Asked if he had a ‘message to the world’, Abo Alfoz replied:

The world no longer cares for our messages. We are being slaughtered for the past six years in front of everyone and it did not move them. The entire world let us down. I direct my message to the people of my own country and to everyone with a conscience and tell them that we are a people who live in death but nonetheless carry hope with us and in the work that we do. There will come a day when we will gain our freedom and dignity. There will come a day when we will gain what we went out fighting for.“ '

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Assad, Hezbollah terrorists continue bombing Wadi Barada

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 'BACKGROUND: Wadi Barada is a collection of 10x villages scattered around the source of the Barada river in a valley that lies between two mountain ranges. These villages are ( Ain Al Khadra (Bassemeh), Ain al Fija, Daer Mkaren, Kafaer Azzeat, Daer Kanon, Alhuseineah, Kafar Alawameed, Burhlia, Efreh and Souk Wadi Barada)

 The area has been liberated and under opposition control since early 2012, though under an intense military situation as the regime controls the mountains around it.

 100,000 civilians have been besieged in this area for 3 years. Truces have been previously reached with the regime, but were breached 6x times in the past.

 CURRENT SITUATION: Regime forces recently initiated a heavy bombardment campaign targeting villages in Wadi Barada. Syrian Civil Defence views this campaign to be taking the same course as the Aleppo operation, an intense military escalation that will lead civilians to ask to be evacuated from their own home.

 The campaign started by bombing public institutions, mosques, civil defence centres, hospitals and medical points, putting them all out of service till the moment.

 On Dec 23rd, 2016, regime forces targeted Ain al-Fija village with more than 60x airstrikes and barrel bombs (including the use of incendiary munitions and thermobaric bombs) along with targeting civilians with SALW and sniper fire. 40x of these aerial attacks targeted Ain al-Fija springs (the source of the Barada River which supplies Damascus with fresh water) which caused diesel fuel to leak into water and also huge amount of chlorine substance (which is stored there to be used for purification).

 The campaign is ongoing at the moment, and communications with teams there is intermittent.'

Monday, 26 December 2016



 'In the wake of the most violent attacks on the city of Aleppo in six years, civilians who are now forced to leave their home behind weigh in on the experience and what it means to them. Residents who endured the incessant bombing and violence, such as Thaer al-Halabi, state that it is only a ghost town, filled with the “shadows of friends lost to war,” that remains.

 Halabi, who was born in Aleppo and lived in an old home that had a courtyard shaded by vines which his family had lived in for centuries before him, raised his family and built a career there. For the past four years, he held strong in the hopes that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would be taken down.

 “When we were forced to leave Aleppo it had already been destroyed completely. You didn’t see a city, only ghosts, in a ghost city,” said the 57-year-old engineer, who became a politician for the opposition, “I am very sad I have left our city, it’s at the centre of our hearts, part of our bodies. But because we need freedom we cannot live there.”

 The politician recounts how he had been imprisoned on three occasions by the government before the war, which caused him to turn against Assad when the uprising in Aleppo occurred and rebels took half of Aleppo. Halabi states, “We had freedom for four years.”

 Aleppo had once been the cultural and economic stronghold in Syria before the conflict beginning. Citizens note that in the early years of the fighting, it was not all devastation, horror, and violence in the rebel-held portions of the city.

 “Life went on amid the bombing,” said Sara, a 47-year-old teacher who also stayed in Aleppo until the enclave’s final days. “There were schools, businesses, shops, there were goods and people, entertainment, everything.”

 Young civilians, in particular, were able to experience liberties they had never once been able to during the period that portions of Aleppo were under rebel control. Activist journalist Rami Zein, who is also Halabi’s son, spoke about differences that existed in the government held and rebel-held regions of the city.

 “On the other side of the city was regular Syrian government that block everything they don’t want. On our side of the city it felt like you are in a place open to the world. Before the siege it was a great city, you had everything you need, could bring everything you need from the border [with Turkey], all kinds of trade, everything was there.”

 Once the war began to intensify, death and destruction became the norm. The city became the target of barrel bombs that were constantly dropped from helicopters onto civilian areas by the Assad regime to instill fear and force compliance.

 Soccer player Mohammed Khalifa’s sister was one of the earliest victims of the violence. The family moved from their house to get away from the heavy gunfire in their neighborhood, which was near to the front line. It was a barrel bomb that killed his sister, and the same bomb seriously injured his daughter who was then rushed to Turkey by ambulance for treatment. Once Khalifa reached the hospital, carefully making his way so not to become a target himself, a doctor at the facility mistakenly told him his daughter had also died.

 “I raced in to try to see her body,” he said, “and they told me she actually was alive but had serious head injuries. She survived, thank God, and is with me now.”

 The barrel bomb had also annihilated the business he and his family had set up, a small shop, but even though they experienced great loss and hardship, Khalifa’s family decided not to leave despite the intensification of violence.

 “I wanted to stay in Aleppo because of my commitment to the revolution and its principles; I started that way and won’t change until I finish,” said Khalifa stated, who was a member of the national soccer team, prior to the war beginning.

 The constant violence and bombing forced a sea of individuals and families out of the city to various refugee camps while those who stayed faced steady tragedy and loss.

 “We lost so many people not just to bombs and other weapons, but also because of displacement,” said Sara, who has three children.

 “We cannot talk about the war because our friend may be in danger, only hello, how are you and a few words, because Assad is watching everything,” said Halabi.'

Friday, 23 December 2016

What will happen if the revolution is defeated

Basheer Nafi: 

 'The Syrian revolution, just like other Arab revolutions, began as a peaceful and popular uprising. No one within its ranks wanted to resort to arms. Syrians were forced to defend themselves and their loved ones by the failure of the world to deter the regime and stop its bloody persecution. The Syrian revolution turned into an armed confrontation only after many months of mass rallies in March 2011 and only after army officers and soldiers began dissenting and forming the first Free Army cells for the sake of protecting the popular movement. The revolution was not a civil war and this is not what the Syrian people wanted it to be. It was never meant to be one segment of the people mobilising against the other.

 The revolution was, and it continued to be so for years, an expression of a big and wide popular movement aimed at building a new Syria, at regaining the freedom of the entire Syrian people and at establishing a democratic and just system. However, the revolution did become an armed national liberation movement and a civil war and the regime bears the primary responsibility for this. It vowed from the start to crush this popular movement with armed force and refused to meet the people half way. A meeting was held toward the end of March 2011 in the office of President Assad in Damascus. In that meeting, which was attended by a senior Hezbollah official in addition to Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, the Iraqi minister of national security and the President’s brother Maher al-Assad, Assad said: “We taught them a lesson at Hama that silenced them for 40 years and I shall teach them a lesson that will silence them for 100 years.”

  Should the revolution be defeated and the status quo be accepted, the rule of the Assad regime will continue and the country will remain occupied by the foreign powers and militias. The Syrian majority will have to suffer under a regime that will be much more vicious and oppressive than it was before the revolution in the spring of 2011. The regime that perpetrated all these massacres will not commit to any genuine reforms. In other words, if the revolution stops, Syria will turn into a country of hell for the majority of Syrians, a hell that is more oppressive and much uglier than anything the Syrians witnessed over the past six years. The refugees will not return to their homes and Syria will witness an unprecedented sectarian demographic re-engineering process, something it has never before experienced. Even before the revolution came to an end, some circles within Hezbollah and inside Iran are already talking about the Shiite identity of Aleppo and about displacing the Sunni population from the west of Damascus to the Lebanese borders. Instability will not be confined to Arab countries but will also touch Turkey, which will find itself faced with a sectarian wall that will isolate it from its Arab neighbourhood in the south and with a Russian aerial siege that begins from the air bases in the south of Russia, the north of Georgia and the Crimean Peninsula all the way to the Russian control of the Syrian airspace.

Continuing the revolution is not therefore a futile act, nor is it fighting on for the sake of fighting. With some patience and steadfastness, this revolution can still win. In fact, it has been standing on the verge of winning. The regime is living through its weakest moments since the eruption of the revolution, whether in terms of its military and economic capabilities or in terms of its control over the country and its aptitude to express the sovereignty of the state. This regime exists in no more than one third of the country and in that third it shares control on the ground with Shiia militias that poured in from several countries in addition to Iranian and Russian units. Even with all the support it receives from its allies, the regime is incapable of fighting two major battles at the same time. Tadmur illustrates the actual military power of the regime. It is not true that the Afghan militias alone undertook to protect the existence of the regime in Tadmur because the city had within it Syrian regular troops and Russian units as well. According to Russian reports, as soon as IS began its onslaught on Tadmur, the commander of the region’s forces and most of his troops fled. As a result, the Russians needed to launch an air strikes campaign that lasted for several hours just to secure the withdrawal of their own troops.

 Syria today is what Vietnam looked like in the early 1970s or Afghanistan in the mid-1980s. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the regime seized control of the country’s capital and ran a quasi-state and what may resemble state institutions. It spoke in the name of a small minority of the people and its existence was secured and protected by the presence of a massive foreign power. In both cases, there was no need for inflicting a decisive military defeat on the foreign forces; it was sufficient to exhaust them and make their presence unbearable, either as a result of the losses sustained continuously or as a result of the reaction of public opinion in their own countries. Unlike the situation in Syria, where revolutionary forces control vast stretches of land across the country, the resistance forces in those two cases were not able to secure their presence in tangible areas in South Vietnam and in Afghanistan until quite late in the war.
There is no ambiguity or confusion about the options of the Syrian people, even in the aftermath of the occupation of Aleppo: either return to the life of enslavement and fascist minority rule or continue the revolution until victory is achieved. Victory is not only possible; there should be no doubt whatsoever that it is inevitable. Yet, the first condition for achieving this victory is to rebuild the military arm of the revolution under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and the emergence of a united political leadership with a clear vision for the future of Syria and its people.'

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Syrian station Radio Alwan defies war to continue broadcasting

A woman in a scarf touches her headphones as she speaks into a microphone.

 'Putting a radio program to air is challenging at the best of times, but imagine putting a program to air from inside a war-torn country. That's exactly what the independent Syrian station Radio Alwan manages to do every day.

 "It started in 2013, after the revolution," Radio Alwan's deputy chief executive Sami al Joundi said. "We are the radio station for the Syrian people. We needed to cover what was really happening inside our country because the Syrian regime media was not correct."

 While Radio Alwan used to have offices in Aleppo and Idlib, it is now far too dangerous to operate in most of those regions.

 "It became very dangerous operating from inside Syria," says Mr Joundi. "Syrian regime and radical groups were targeting us. Al Nusra and other groups were attacking us. We wouldn't be able to continue if we stayed in Syria. We had to move our main office to Istanbul so we could continue doing our work."

 Mr Joundi said they try to speak with their staff every day to make sure they're alive and safe, but sometimes making contact with them is unnervingly difficult.

 "We call them every day," he said. "Sometimes we can't get through because the bombing has destroyed phone and internet lines, so it can be very nerve-racking."

 Radio Alwan covers news and current affairs. It hears from experts in psychology to give Syrian parents information about how to care for their children during the war, and technology experts who explain about how to get mobile and internet coverage during the fighting. There is a women's program, made by a Syrian woman in Idlib, as well as drama and comedy shows.

 "Our comedy show is being written, acted and edited from inside Syria," Mr Joundi said. "They make us laugh, we make them laugh, and we are able to broadcast this to our people in Syria."

 Radio Alwan's most popular drama series is called Sad Northern Nights.

 "It's a story about a Syrian family which many people can relate to," Mr Joundi said. "The main character is a single mother with her son. Her husband was killed during the revolution and she's trying to flee the country. Throughout her journey from the southern part of Syria she passes through many different locations and meets lots of different people. It's the same thing you hear in the news but in a different way — a less brutal way."

 Mr Joundi said it was difficult to remain hopeful considering what was happening inside his country.

 "The real story is being lost. People have started to forget why the Syrian people went out and started the revolution demonstrations in the first place. Instead, it's shifted to extremism. We're trying to not miss any details of what's happening in Syria and be on the side of the people only." '

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Message from Syria to the United States: We’ll never again believe your lofty rhetoric

Image result for Message from Syria to the United States: We’ll never again believe your lofty rhetoric

 Abdulfattah Alkhaled:

 'The United States representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power, gave an impassioned speech last week asking Russian and Syrian representatives whether they felt “any shame at all” for their actions in Aleppo, and whether there is “no execution of a child that gets under [their] skin?” For Syrians, these statements were infuriating. Americans should be asked the very same questions. You, too, have blood on your hands.

 Over the past few years, you have deceived us with your empty promises. From the first day of the 2011 revolution to the most recent breakdown of a life-saving evacuation effort, the killing of Syrians has been met with consistent U.S. inaction, or worse: U.S. acquiescence to Russian aggression. While the Assad and Russian regimes are responsible for the vast majority of Syrian bloodshed, by no means should you feel entitled to lecture the world based on your supposed “moral superiority.” You have let us down again and again.

 After Rwanda and then after Srebrenica, you said, “Never again.” After Gaza you said nothing at all. Today, you can no longer rest on your hollow rhetoric celebrating freedom and equality. Today as Syrians, watching you glibly condemn a catastrophe that is partly of your own making, we ask if you feel any shame at all for your inaction.

 President Obama, you declared that if President Assad used chemical weapons against his enemies, he’d be crossing a “red line.” You watched him cross it. Aren’t you ashamed? Ashamed that your concern and care for the Syrian people evaporated at the first sign of difficulty and complication? Are you not embarrassed that “strategic overseas interests” trumped your willingness to take any and all steps necessary to stop the wanton death of hundreds of thousands?

 Do you and your spokespeople at the U.N. and beyond look in the mirror and think, “We encouraged the Syrian people to rise up, and then watched impassively as they were slaughtered for it”? Do you not feel cowardly for refusing to engage and confront Russian aggression beyond shallow public condemnations?

 And President-elect Trump, have you no shame in your public affirmation of Russia as the U.S.’s strategic partner in Syria? The same Russia that has joined the Assad regime in massacring the Syrian people. Are you not uncomfortable with stating publicly that the Assad regime is fighting Islamic State despite the evidence suggesting that Assad has actually facilitated the growth, expansion and survival of Islamic State?

 President Obama and President-elect Trump, your silence is deafening and has set a dangerous global precedent. You should be ashamed.

 Now it is our turn to lecture you. Next time you trumpet the American commitment to human rights, remember how far you have fallen. In the early days you claimed to support our protests as legitimate expressions of the desire for change. But you only supported us with words, not actions, and now activists in Aleppo are sending their final goodbyes before they’re executed, forcibly displaced, raped, tortured, or killed in an airstrike.

 The fall of Aleppo is only the beginning. Russia and the Assad regime have a far more ambitious end goal: complete military victory at any cost. The atrocities committed in Aleppo this week will undoubtedly be followed by similar cleansings in other areas.

 In the past, I might have ended such a letter by making specific demands for U.S. action and leadership. But now I know better. All I can do is loudly proclaim that Syrians are no longer blind to the emptiness and cruelty of U.S. foreign policy.

 This is your legacy, Obama, one that Trump seems happy to continue. Is there nothing that can shame you? Are there no acts of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?'

Priority revenge

 Bente Scheller (photo: Stephan Rohl)

 Bente Scheller:

 'What happens if Assad falls? In discussions on this question, politicians and experts have occasionally raised the question of what an Islamist rebel victory might mean for Syria's ethnic and religious minorities and whether the Alawite minority – President Assad has an Alawite background – should then be protected from acts of vengeance.

 But unfortunately, the counter-question has been posed all too rarely: what about acts of vengeance carried out by the regime, should Assad win? Right from the outset, Assad's war against the protesting Syrian people has provided a foretaste of this. Long before it was clear how the conflict with the revolting Syrian population might end, the regime had already begun taking revenge. Whether it was the shots fired at peaceful demonstrators at the start of the conflict, the blanket deployment of barrel bombs, the massacres, or the arbitrary arrest of thousands still missing to this day, many of whom have been tortured to death: the violence of the Assad regime has targeted broad sections of the Syrian population.

 The regime arrested those injured during the demos while they were still lying in hospital beds. It continues to pursue Syrian doctors who remain true to the Hippocratic oath and treat the wounded regardless of their political views, while also targeting hospitals. All of the hospitals in eastern Aleppo have been destroyed, without exception. At the same time, the regime has cut off hundreds of thousands of citizens from receiving any kind of supplies or treatment, as the Syrian and Russian air forces inflict an unrelenting bombardment on those left trapped in the city. The message "surrender or starve" became "give yourselves up or die".
 The regime could not have made it much clearer that this was not about military gain and certainly not about tackling the much-talked about danger posed by the so-called Islamic State, but about teaching the civilian population a lesson that should be as painful as possible. That greater numbers of people did not give up as a result of the devastating conditions is because there was often no real choice: those who gave up risked being arrested or killed anyway.

 This can currently be seen on a large scale in Aleppo. The regime arrested men fit for military service after their escape from eastern Aleppo and took them to camps. It is thought as many as 2,000 were captured in the first two days of the latest major offensive alone. The Syrian civil defence force reported 45 deaths, shot by the regime as they fled. It is therefore absolutely outrageous that Germany, among other countries, this year began granting only subsidiary protection to refugees from Syria – protection that is only valid as long as the general war situation continues – because those affected are not being "individually persecuted". But it is clear that the regime does, if not exclusively, also pursue individuals. If your ID card states that you were born in a stronghold of the resistance this can be enough to get you arrested. Many are arrested to exert pressure on other family members – or simply, to give the regime more bargaining chips for a prisoner exchange.
 The West is already not that interested in the minutiae of the horror machine. This is partially due to a deep-seated cliche here of what persecution looks like and the common misconception that threatened minorities are always the victims. But that a well-armed minority with massive troop and weapon support from Russia and Iran wants to bomb and murder into subjugation – this is a scenario we struggle with. After all, while all this is going on, Europe's general line is (still) to demand Assad's resignation – and a helpless UN issues ever more urgent appeals to Assad and Russia to protect the civilian population. Geneva III, the international process to find a political solution, appears to have failed, as Assad and his allies are clearly pushing for a military outcome. But if the regime declares victory without negotiations, this will not be the end to violence in Syria.
 The Islamic State group still exists and will continue to flourish in view of the fact that the West permits Assad to remain in power. And if the regime unleashes its power on those that have opposed it over the years, this could be far more deadly than a potential guerrilla war waged by the extremists. Such a situation will not only affect those living in recaptured areas, but also refugees who are sent back to Syria. There are more than a million Syrian refugees stranded in Lebanon, who are tolerated but not recognised as refugees because Lebanon has not acceded to the relevant UN convention. The internal political pressure to be rid of these people is immense. Should Assad declare the war at an end, this could serve as a welcome pretext for deportation – in Europe too. So Syrian civilians will continue to die. Just out of the public eye.'

How will Syria's revolution be told?

How will Syria's revolution be told?

Mat Nashed:
 'Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad wants the world to believe there are only terrorists in Aleppo. On Wednesday, he told Russia Today - the Kremlin sponsored news network - that the "West" was telling Russia that they are going "too far in defeating terrorists". He said that international pleas to stop the violence in Aleppo were merely western schemes to rescue terrorists. People from across the world have absorbed his propaganda, but civilians trapped in the conflict are telling a different story.

 Lina Shamy, an activist in east Aleppo, has uploaded several videos pleading the international community for help.She recently noted that Russia's initial failure to uphold their promise to evacuate civilians is just another example of why they can't be trusted. Activists like her have been targeted by the regime since the popular uprising started in March 2011. Medics also fear they will be killed for their commitment to saving lives. Four years ago, the Syrian government passed a new terrorism law that criminalises anyone who aids the opposition.

 Doctors have since been punished for treating anyone living in rebel held areas. Some have disappeared while others have been killed by snipers and security agents. The regime has further set ambulances on fire and systematically targeted hospitals, as reported by the Physicians for Human Rights, a non-profit in the US. And then, there are the White Helmets, a group of volunteers who have risked their lives to pull survivors out from under the rubble. The group tweeted Monday that the streets were mounting with dead bodies. They also pleaded for safe passage out of Aleppo, terrified that they would be executed if seized by the regime.

 Bashar al-Assad and his allies have stolen a page from America's foreign policy play book and performed it to perfection. They have used the label of terrorism to group civilians, opposition groups and extremists all under one umbrella. Assad and his supporters simply can't see civilians because they don’t want to.

 Syria's growing civil society has received little attention during five years of conflict. Local councils - created and run by activists - worked together to provide basic services to civilians living under rebel controlled areas. Teachers worked without salaries to give children a semblance of a normal life, and doctors stayed behind to provide urgent care to the injured. These were the sacrifices that thousands of people made in the pursuit of freedom.

 That said, it can't be ignored that rebel groups have also committed a myriad of human rights abuses. Foreign journalists have not been able to report in rebel held territory since 2014 due to the danger of the conflict and risk of being kidnapped. But the Syrian regime has committed war crimes on a systematic scale, all the while empowering extremists. So how will the history of the Syrian revolution be told?

 Popular opinion in the United States tends to assess the conflict as a battle against the Islamic State. The regime and their allies, of course, frame the conflict as an existential battle against terrorism. Self proclaimed anti-imperialists across the globe have read the conflict as an American plot to impose regime change - a perspective that is simply untrue when assessing US ambitions in the conflict. Experts may even refer to the Syrian war as President Barack Obama's greatest foreign policy failure. But what about the voices of civilians and activists who are dead or still trapped in Syria: Will history remember what they stood for?'

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Forced to Leave, Aleppo Evacuees Tell of Their Pain

 'Death in Aleppo was personal for Modar Sheikho. He lost his sister to government bombing early in the revolt. His brother was killed last month. And as they looked for a place to bury him, another airstrike killed his father. Still, Shekho held out in the besieged city as long as he could. When he finally was forced to evacuate Friday, he made a video bidding farewell to the city.

 "We were asking for our freedom. This is what we get," he said against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings and thousands of people waiting for buses to take them away from Aleppo.

 But even in his first hours of exile, the 28-year-old nurse longed to return.

 "My soul is torn out more with each step away from Aleppo."

 Of the more than half-dozen residents and activists that AP has maintained regular contact with in recent months, only one said he felt disillusioned with the rebellion. Most seemed haunted by the city's struggle, saying they can't let go of their dream to create a Syria without Assad. They said they will continue their anti-government activities somehow from wherever they end up.

 One gynecologist who had refused to leave her patients said her husband forced her to flee to a government-controlled area for safety. Farida said she could not stand living for even two days in the government-controlled sector and fled to the countryside, where the rebels are in control.

 "Despite how hard it was under siege and bombardment, I was at peace with myself," she said. Farida's husband, also a doctor, followed. But she is still angry at him for forcing her to leave, adding: "I can't continue my life with him."

 Sheikho left on the first day of the evacuation, which was monitored by the Red Cross. He and thousands of other holdouts boarded green government buses with portraits of Assad in the windshield and were taken to rebel-controlled areas.

 "It is very painful that I separate from my city of 28 years," Sheikho said. "I hope it is quickly liberated so I can return to it."

 On the first day of the government's big ground offensive three weeks ago, Sheikho and his family sought a new home to avoid intense bombing. Like many others, his family was caught on the road by the bombardment, and his brother was killed on the spot. He and his father had to search for a cemetery because Aleppo was running out of burial space. In the process, his father — a prominent professor of Arabic — also was killed.

 Four years earlier, an airstrike killed his sister outside the hospital where she worked as a nurse.

After mourning his father and brother, Sheikho had told the AP: "We are all on the road to death. May God accept them as martyrs." '


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Syrian refugee Hicham Jansis tops his HSC course

Syrian refugee Hicham Jansis came  first in Arabic Extension in the HSC.

 'A teenage Syrian refugee who topped one of his HSC courses was told on the morning of his last exam that his uncle had been killed in Aleppo.

 For Hicham Jansis, his path to finishing school has been full of jarring contrasts, from fleeing Homs when he was 14, languishing in a refugee camp at 16, to taking out top honours in an HSC subject. But the destruction of his homeland has inspired Hicham, who wants to study medicine after what he witnessed during his family's desperate flight.
 "That is why I want to be a doctor. When I was in Jordan and Syria there are a lot of volunteer doctors who helped the injured people, my dad was injured and only had a few minutes to be dead."

 "School was for two hours per day," he said of his education in Syria. "You don't think about education, the basic things you think about, food, water, money. It's not normal to have your country at war while you are studying. You can't concentrate when your city is being bombed, when your relatives are killed or being arrested by the regime."

 "Today I'm so happy because of this celebration," he said. "Yesterday I was crying because of the field executions that are happening in Aleppo, because of all the bombing, the air strikes."

 But even that horror fuels the young man, who can see himself one day helping people going through the same thing he has.

 "Maybe one day I will be the one to help the refugees," he said. "To help the people who have no one to help them." '

Global shows of solidarity over Aleppo

Activists hold banners during a candlelight gathering in solidarity with the people of Aleppo, in light of recent developments reported on the besieged city, in Douma, East Ghouta area, near Damascus,

 'In cities as far apart as London, Sarajevo and Amman, protesters poured on to the streets to show their anger at the events in the rebel-held areas.

 Some were burning pictures of President Vladimir Putin, angry at Russia's role in the fall of east Aleppo. Others held up pictures of injured, dead and dying children to illustrate the cost of the battle to the most innocent.

 In Syria itself - torn apart by more than five years of civil war - people came out, holding candles and signs in a peaceful protest in Douma, a town near Damascus held by the rebel Free Syrian Army.'

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Goodbye Sadiq al-Azm, lone Syrian Marxist against the Assad regime

 'Professor Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, a Syrian Marxist by his intellectual employment and a democrat by his politics, who created a storm when he published his Naqd al Fikar Al Dini in 1969, died on Sunday in Berlin.

 In Sadiq Jalal al-Azm’s intellectual and activist life, one can read the story of betrayal of Arab and international Marxists, who sided with a tyrannical regime and justified everything to which Marxists had been hell bent opposed in the past. But Professor Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, despite being a Marxist, despite being one of the harshest critics of Islamists, honoured the principles and values he believed and advocated for his entire life.

 The celebratory Marxists, always Western, Slavoj Zizek and Noam Chomsky can be easily seen undermining the gravest human rights violations by the Assad regime and its allies. Zizek went on to advocate for restricting the contours of the Syrian struggle to a struggle for social and economic justice. His position against Arab immigrants was as alarmist and perhaps xenophobic in its outcome as the position of any right-wing intellectual could be.
 Subscribing and endorsing all the Iranian narratives of the Syrian crisis, Noam Chomsky branded the entire Syrian opposition spectrum as jihadists in his Harvard lecture in 2015. Here one will be surprised that the leftist forces who opposed the American “war on terror” have conveniently and blindly endorsed the same erroneous logic for Russian war on terror in Syria. 
 Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, unlike most of Western and Eastern Marxists, stood alone in defence of the Arab uprising and subsequent Syrian revolution which he believed was a continuation of Damascus Spring of 2000.
 His support for the anti-Assad revolution was not just based on his affiliation with the Syrian opposition. He had problematised the entire crisis and concluded that democratisation, both theoretically and normatively, requires an inclusive politics in which the Assad regime and his allies seriously disbelieve.
 He never subscribed the term “civil war” for the Syrian crisis, but rather explained it’s a one-sided war against the opposition. Syria, in which most groups have stayed united against the Assad regime, is completely different from what happened in the Lebanese civil war where each faction and ethnic groups fought against each other.
 To al-Azm, the Assad regime was “a highly militarised minoritarian regime depending on a strong form of sectarian solidarity which has a lot to lose, if they are out of power which is suppressing a revolt of the numerical majority which is Sunni".
 The Damascus Spring 2000 initiative onwards, he remained consistent in his belief that Islamists should not be excluded from joining a secular democratic process anywhere from Palestine to Egypt to Syria. At the same time, he remained a staunch secular who believed that religion should not dictate politics.
 Al-Azm expressed his opinion about how and in what context the electoral victories of Islamist forces in Turkey, Egypt or elsewhere might not necessarily be dangerous. Knowing very well that the Muslim Brotherhood is still a dominating political and religious faction against the Assad regime, the left movement and left-affiliated civil society gradually abandoned the cause or rather joined the anti-revolution politics. For al-Azm, this was an opportunism embraced by the Left everywhere after the politics of the Cold War.
 Al-Azm strongly disagreed with the argument that the Arab revolutions can not be supported because they have been hijacked by Islamists. Rather, he stood strong and unapologetic in his defence of the Syrian revolution against Assad.
 "Why would I not align with this overwhelming popular revolution against this form of tyranny and oppression, regardless of the nature of the convictions that I hold whether they be leftist, Marxist, moderate, or even right-wing?" he said.
 Sadiq argued that the Left that used the argument of anti-imperialist conspiracy has “no problem with sacrificing Syria if it leads to a victory being handed to their international camp and 'geopolitics' that wants a global victory in the 'game of nations'. Their first priority is not Syria or its people in revolt to restore the republic, their freedom, and their dignity, but the game of nations at the global level of analysis and the side that they want to win".
 Why did the Left choose this way? Sadiq traced the reason to the end of the Cold War when most of the leftists and their political parties reverted back to "their primordial and more primitive loyalties, especially the religious, confessional and doctrinal ones". As a result, they responded to the Syrian revolution, al-Azm argued,  by calling it "an imperial plot against the only regime that still stands up to Israel and remains an obstacle to Western domination of the Middle East". 
 They go too far in their theory of “the game of nations” that they end up with having developed “the same nature as that of the Taliban-Jihadis or dogmatic closed-minded sectarians, or even that of terrorist 'Bin Ladenites', in its blind defiance of the West, global capitalism (a global capitalism that Russia and China are now a part of) and imperialism". He pointed out that they are the most hostile to the Syrian revolution and the closest in their defence of the “tyrannical military-security-familial regime”.
 Al-Azm's biggest intellectual success and contribution to the cause of the Arab democratic process is that he rescued secularism and democracy from being hijacked by fundamentalist secularism practiced by Joseph Stalin, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Habib Bourguiba and the Assads of Syria.
 Hopefully, he will be remembered and revered equally by his secular friends and Islamist opponents for clearly defining secularism and “democracy as a neutral ground for the meeting of the various religious doctrines and beliefs where they are allowed to interact in the public space, the national arena, and the political landscape”.'

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Doctor reveals horrific torture in prison as Amnesty International estimates 17,723 detainees killed

Image result for Doctor reveals horrific torture in prison as Amnesty International estimates 17,723 detainees killed

 'Bashar Farahat, a 32-year-old doctor, was working in a hospital in Latakia province when he was arrested by officers from Syria’s notorious Military Intelligence Directorate in July 2012.

 “The minute you get in the car you disappear. You don’t know anything about the world outside and the world outside doesn’t know anything about you. Once you are detained you become the property of the guards and the interrogators can do anything to you to get a confession.”

  Mr Farahat believes he was reported to the authorities for supporting anti-government protests and treating those injured in the ensuing regime crackdown.

 The trainee paediatrician was taken to the headquarters of the Military Intelligence branch in Latakia and subjected to a so-called “welcome party”, where new arrivals are beaten publicly by groups of officers armed with metal bars and electric cables.

 “They hit you with whatever they want, whatever they have – I arrived alone, so I had a full party,” he said, with a bitter laugh.

 Mr Farahat would go through a fortnight of torture at the hands of government interrogators, who were searching for the names of other suspected revolutionaries to hunt down. Unsatisfied, officials transferred him to the much larger headquarters of Military Intelligence Branch 291 in Damascus.

 “I was blindfolded and they handed me over to an officer who started insulting me,” Mr Farahat recalled. “He said: ‘I will make sure you will never, never see the sunlight again.’ I thought it could be true.”

 He was put in a cell measuring just five by six metres that contained more than 100 men, mostly suspected of conspiring against the Assad regime.

 “I just don’t remember how I survived,” Mr Farahat said, describing horrific conditions during his four-month imprisonment including extreme heat, a lack of water and food, and dire sanitation.

 He shared a 30cm by 150cm patch of concrete with a cellmate, taking turns to stand and sleep to gather their strength for endless rounds of questioning and beatings. The prisoner witnessed seven people die during his detention, hearing tales of many more.

 “Some people were beaten to death during interrogation,” Mr Farahat said. “The torture is to make people confess but it’s also a method of punishment so they will never, ever think of joining the revolution. This has been going on for 40 years in Syria. Others died from illness or weakness – a small injury can become life-threatening because of the conditions in the cells and lack of medical supplies. I would try to help the injured people and knocked on the door asking the guards for medical supplies, or to be allowed to take them outside for fresh air,” Mr Farahat said. The guards would come to the bars and tell me: ‘Knock on the door when they die.’ It became a famous saying.”

 His account has been echoed by numerous other prisoners, including a man jailed at the Syrian capital’s Military Intelligence Branch 235. Ziad said dozens of people suffocated to death when a ventilation system stopped working in their cell. He added: “The guards began to kick us to see who was alive and who wasn’t. They told me and the other survivor to stand up - that is when I realised that I had slept next to seven bodies. Then I saw the rest of the bodies in the corridor, around 25 other bodies.“

 Mr Farahat was eventually moved to another prison in Damascus and tried by a “terrorism court”, which freed him after finding no evidence to support his continued detention. But he returned to his hospital to be refused work, having been blacklisted by the authorities, and had his dream of qualifying as a paediatrician within months dashed. While continuing to seek medical work, he was re-arrested with a group of friends in April 2013 as they ate at a restaurant.

 When he was freed for a second time six months later, he received a conscription note for mandatory military service and fled to neighbouring Lebanon illegally to avoid border checks.

 “I only told my parents when I had arrived in Lebanon but I wasn’t completely safe because there were spies for the Syrian regime,” he said.

 Using the testimony of dozens of torture survivors, Amnesty International has chronicled massacres at facilities including the notorious Saydnaya Military Prison, on the outskirts of Damascus.

 One man told researchers a prisoner was forced to rape another man by guards or be killed, while a jailed lawyer said 19 detainees were beaten to death after they were found to be learning martial arts.

 “They beat the Kung Fu trainer and five others to death straight away, and then continued on the other 14,” said Salam, a lawyer from Aleppo. “They all died within a week. We saw the blood coming out of the cell.” '

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Aleppo under Siege: Interview with Suqour al-Sham- an Islamist Rebel Perspective

 'Western media rarely gets an insight into how Islamist battalions work and think especially within the rebel operation room, Jaysh al-Fath, the Army of Conquest. This is a coalition of seven Islamist rebel groups including Jabhat al-Fateh al-Sham (JFS), Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham. They remain the most effective and cohesive rebel force currently fighting in Aleppo. Whilst much is known about JFS and Ahrar al-Sham little is known about Suqour al-Sham or the Sham Falcons.

 Suqour al-Sham was formed in 2011 after peaceful demonstrations failed and became a fully fledged armed rebellion. Its founder Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh or Abu Issa formed the battalion after the death of his two brothers by the regime. He belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood as were many opponents of the regime in the eighties, and had been imprisoned several times by the regime but not as is often assumed, in Seydnaya prison where Islamist prisoners were kept. Through the merger of local groups in the Idlib province Suqour al-Sham became a powerful opposition group. In its heyday it expanded as far as Damascus and Aleppo province. It was instrumental in forming the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front but left in 2013 to join the Islamic Front which was more in line with its vision. In fact, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh became the leader of the Islamic Front which was able to field an estimated 40 000 to 70 000 fighting men.

 Whilst Suqour works with AQ affiliated groups it has always felt uneasy about them. The group does not adhere to suicide operations or use terror tactics associated with AQ affiliates.

 In a rare and frank interview with Suqour al-Sham’s official spokesman Mamoun Mousa Hajj, Suqour gives its view on the current crisis. Mr. Hajj considers himself a revolutionary, he is a former student of agricultural engineering and Islamic law, and a graduate of communication studies. Although born in Jebel Zawiya, Idlib, he grew up in Aleppo and claims to have joined the revolution from its very inception. His political activities led to his arrest several times by the Assad regime. Instead of fighting however, Hajj used his specialism in the media to establish the Aleppo Media Centre and then moved on to being Suqour’s official spokesman.

 Q: Is the lack of rebel success in Syria because the Syrian opposition’s leaders are afflicted with a love for leadership and so the opposition cannot unify under one leader?

 Hajj: Our military leaders in all the revolutionary groups, have led from the front and are martyred every day. The reason is due to the lack of effective support from the Friends of Syria which is in contrast to the friends of the regime who have unlimited support and direct military intervention. The Russian role in Syria is immense- with the missiles that arrived recently and of course the air craft carrier that arrived carrying tens of air craft. It is unfortunate that the likes of Reuters report for instance that Grad rockets are reaching the revolutionaries but what is that in comparison? The missile was present since the second year of the Syrian revolution.

 Q: Despite support from the international community not forthcoming, don’t you think that after five years the opposition should be more united?

 Hajj: Of course to have one leader and every one fighting as one makes a difference, but with the character of the Syrian revolution, the regional situation and the international political climate, it is difficult. There is support for sectarian militias and the support for the regime is immense. With regards to the sectarian militias to say that they are united, in our experience is far from the truth as we have seen in Minyan, most of the criminal militias of the regime don’t stay long, only twenty percent remain. The battle is directed by Iranians and Russian forces and the sectarian Iraqi militias. We often hear of the problems they face when we intercept their communication systems, what happens to us they suffer twice over. The media has to be more accurate in this regard. Generally, more should be expected from the revolutionary groups and as I mentioned before, Suqour has been at the forefront of the unification process between the groups; the beginning was the formation of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front and then our merger with Ahrar al-Sham. Currently, I can inform you that there are organisational procedures on the way outside of the Army of Conquest operation room, which will bear its fruit in the near future, it will lead to further unification of arms and military effectiveness.

 Q: How long will the Syrian conflict last? Are you optimistic? Do you regret this conflict?

 Hajj: As long as there is international support for Assad and no clear support for the Syrian revolutionaries it means that the revolution will continue. We as people and revolutionaries don’t look at the result but at the price we have paid to defend ourselves, we have a right to defend ourselves. We don’t regret it because we were compelled to take up arms as I mentioned before… not because taking up arms was one of the choices… The Syrian revolution was an example to others and I believe that considering all the attempts to hamstring the revolution, the car bombs and so on, in spite of it, we remain such. If we compare our revolution to others the situation is still good to a certain extent. So we don’t regret it, now there is no solution left especially with the occupation of the Russians and the Iranians. We must resist them and hope to be successful like any other people that have been oppressed in the past.

 Q: What has been the impact of US forces in Northern Aleppo province? Is their presence a good development?

 Hajj: With regards to the help from Turkish air and land support this has had a positive impact. After the Turks became serious about entering the country, they cleared up DAESH in Northern Aleppo in record time. In contrast to the Coalition despite it consisting of more than fifty countries and were there before them, they have not realised anything on the ground unfortunately. And this makes us doubt the seriousness of the Americans over Syria and DAESH.

 Q: If you could advise Western policy what would it be?

 Hajj: Western politicians have not dealt with Syria in a humanitarian way. Sadly, they have thought about their own interest. Syrian revolutionaries and we are of them, welcome any attempt to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people whether that is logistical or humanitarian aid. We hope that they deal with Syria within the framework of human rights which is required of them. We hope that they will participate in the humanitarian aims effectively, for the friends of Bashar al-Assad help them in men, materiel, economically and politically…Despite the fact that the international community has agreed on international human rights, so far there has been no attempt to bring charges against Bashar al-Assad, at the same time we have seen tens of rulers being charged with war crimes even ten years later…

 Q: Syrians don’t seem optimistic about Western involvement- is it possible for the West to change their course after five years?

 Hajj: Of course this matter would probably involve a change in president or leader, it is not possible to change the general policies- but at the same time we hope from God to change the opinion of Western and other non-Western societies with regards to the Syrian revolution. We don’t hope for a change in President or Prime Minister but we hope that God opens up ways that can change the opinions of international leaders and community with regards to the Syrian people.

 Q: What is your message to the people in the West?

 Hajj: Our message to Westerners is this: just like the majority in your countries enjoy privileges, express their identities, beliefs and ideas and all the world’s governments respect this. As the majority our identity is Islamic and we won’t hide it. It is up to the world to respect our identities. Our revolution was not for one day a civil war but from the day it started in 2011 it was a popular revolt started by school children. The criminal regime smashed this freedom. We hope the people in the West pressurise their government to help the Syrian revolution and push the Security Council, United Nations and influential organisations to establish safe zones and support the revolutionaries through arms in order to stop the very epitome of terrorist- Bashar al-Assad. We hope that people in the West listen to us, not just about us.

 Q: After five years of fighting isn’t the solution now a political one, rather than a military one?

 Hajj: With open help both militarily and politically by the great powers spearheaded by Russia to Bashar al-Assad and his militia, and the weak aid rendered from the so called Friends of Syria to the Syrian revolutionaries, of course the solution is not going to be a military one. But the continuation of the war, I mean the crushing of civilians, and after the regime and its criminal militias used banned chemical weapons and breaching human rights a thousand times…the Syrian revolutionaries have taken the decision not to be subjugated to anything other than the five points outlined by the Syrian Islamic Council.

 Q: Surely you have to be realistic? There are two parties, one party is stronger and they have interests and so do you, granted they commit war crimes but is it not time to do negotiate, if only to end the bloodshed?

 Hajj: For us it is not a problem to sit down, we will sit down with any group that will meet the Syrian people’s demands and needs whether that be Russian or Iranian, but if we have to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad, the terrorist, this has to be done through a competent intermediate, even with the Iranians it needs to be indirect because we consider them an enemy of the Syrian people. We have demonstrated how in Zabadani, the Iranians mediated with Ahrar al-Sham who represented the Army of Conquest. So we don’t have a problem sitting down with any party that leads to the end of this criminal regime. But we haven’t seen any seriousness from any party. The Russians say that they are going to turn Aleppo into Grozny at the same time they are negotiating to get the injured out of Aleppo with out any guarantees.

 Q: The warming of Russo-Turkish relations will it impact Suqour al-Sham?

 Hajj: Turkey like any nation has a political leadership, it has priorities and national interests that satisfies its internal and external ambitions without loosing its principles. We as a part of the Syrian revolution have found our Turkish brothers to be helpful and supportive in our aims and issues after we left our families and relations. Up to now, we have not experienced a negative impact with regards to Russian and Turkish differences being resolved.

 Q: So far, what has been Suqour’s view of the UN’s role in Syria?

 Hajj: Unfortunately, in Syria we associate the United Nations and its slogans with demographic change and the impotence to stop the criminal Bashar al-Assad… even by international law, they can’t even protect their own people as the recent targeting of the aid convoy by a Russian air strike in Western Aleppo shows. Then their warehouse, their boss and thirteen employees were killed. They asked for help to create a humanitarian corridor with out permission from the Assad regime to get them out. But only a few days earlier their convoys were waiting in Bab al-Hawa [under rebel control] for several days to obtain permission to enter besieged Aleppo from the regime! And then they said they can’t enter proffering a number of excuses because the roads were not secure and they had all the means to get it done.

 The latest declaration by De Mistura supports Russian aims that wants to see the removal of the injured revolutionaries and civilians without any guarantees from arrest or death, this is what the Russians want from the siege in terms of demographic change and putting pressure on the revolutionaries. The revolutionaries showed the contradiction in that behaviour, they [UN] never honoured anyone like they honoured Bashar Jaafari [ the current Syrian Permanent Representative to UN who was honoured for ten years of service] very recently.

 With regards to the UN being ‘appalled’ by the bombing of civilians [in Western Aleppo] in our recent military campaign. The operation was in military areas only, there weren’t any civilians inside them, just because they are called Ma’mal Karton or Kindi Hospital does not mean that they are civilian, when we say it is a Suburb of Assad [Dahiyatul Assad] it doesn’t mean that it is a suburb full of civilians. We have seen a lot of buildings that serve as military quarters. Any one who lives nearby will tell you that.

 With regards to civilian areas we teach our fighters how to deal with them in urban warfare and the rules of war, the Syrian revolution remains innocent and doesn’t target civilians, rather they protect civilians, a few days ago we protected civilians using our transport vehicles because we know that the regime targets civilians deliberately.

 Q: Should there still be a no-fly zone in Syria?

 Hajj: To have a safe zone is a solution but it is not the comprehensive solution. The revolutionaries have asked the international community for no-fly zones, this is a logical step to protect civilians who have suffered immensely.

 Q: Is there still a Syria? Some analysts in the West have suggested that it be partitioned?

 Hajj: The Syrian revolution will not end in surrender or by being split up. The Syrian people will not accept Assad and Iran’s attempt at demographic change. Even those they got out from Darayya and Moadhamiyeh which was was unfortunately supported by the UN and benefited the regime.

 Q: How will the battle of Mosul affect Syria?

 Hajj: Half of the criminal DAESH is in Iraq and the other is in Syria, certainly to fight DAESH in Mosul is a serious battle, to destroy their power is a good thing but as long as it is not a game, if it is to weaken them so we can push them out. But if Mosul is about bringing them to Syria the matter will be far more complicated.

 Q: Western media has depicted Suqour al-Sham as a Jihadi-Islamist group which is not as extreme as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham [formerly known as Nusra Front], is this an apt description?

 Hajj: We are Syrian revolutionaries, all our leaders are Syrian revolutionaries and were part of the first peaceful demonstrations. We were compelled to carry arms. Western media has painted us as terrorists when in fact the biggest terrorist in the region is Bashar al-Assad, and so young Syrians joined the various groups and this contributed to the various problems that has hampered the areas where the revolution entered.

 Q: Many Muslims and non-Muslims are deeply troubled by the ideas of al-Zawahiri and his handiwork because they believe that it is extreme. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) despite renouncing Nusra Front still believes in some of his ideas. What is the position of Suqour in this regard?

 Hajj: After what the regime has thrown at the Syrian moderate revolutionary groups in reality the only choices was to become al-Qaeda, but they didn’t turn to them. It is proof that the groups are convinced that the way of al-Qaeda is not possible. Our aims are within our national borders and our aims are five which have been outlined by the Syrian Islamic Council and has been signed by all groups and activists. We are at the forefront of that.

 Q: Western fear of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is that a realistic fear?

 Hajj: We are interested in ensuring that our ranks are united against the enemy that are attacking us with all the means available to him. There isn’t a militia in the world that hasn’t sent its people to fight us and hide amongst the ranks of Assad. This is what concerns us above any other matter.

 Q: What is Suqour’s vision for Post-Assad Syria, will it be a secular or an Islamic one? If it is an Islamic one, how will it work and how is it different from that of ISIS’ vision?

 Hajj: In the beginning like in many countries, we wanted to express our identity which is Muslim, this is the right of all nations. DAESH came and showed it to be one of terrorism and blood thirstiness. Unfortunately, much of the Western media got to know Islam through the DAESHI definition of Islam. But Islam respects democracy, freedom of expression and the freedom of the individual. So what we are working towards is a Syria built on law, justice and a state that respects individual freedoms and rights; that this state is not drawn from our perspective but comes with the full consent of the Syrian people after the fall of the criminal terrorist Assad regime.

 Q: Why do you use derogatory terms for sects which prevent groups like the Druze and others from joining you?

 Hajj: We have dealt with the various groups without sectarianism. To prove it, today there was an encirclement of the revolutionaries in Deraa, after the filming of our martyrs we filmed one of the officers that represented the enemy and he was Sunni, not Alawi or Druze. Our issue is not Druze, Alawi and is irrespective of what goes on in every day life. We don’t take issue with the Alawis, the Assad regime doesn’t allow his own sect to retreat and they have Alawi opposition members to this day. With regards to the Druze, there was a problem with them and Nusra Front in Maharim, Lousa. Ahrar al-Sham negotiated a settlement. Our position was clear, there were negotiations and we overcame the challenges. We have no problems with any group as long as they don’t fight us. We don’t care what flag they carry, if they have a beard, no beard, clothes, colour or whatever. If they fight us they are our enemies.

 Q: There are many reports that there will be an intra-rebel civil war- for instance Ahrar al-Sham HQ was blown up recently and there are suggestions that the culprit is from the Syrian opposition? Could you comment?

 Hajj: What happened to Ahrar [the death of its leaders] was painful to the group. It was a heavy blow for the moderate opposition especially given their impressive record. Nevertheless, the opposition groups have been able to face the challenges and remain united. The Ahrar al-Sham investigation has not been able to come to a decisive conclusion as to responsibility. But it is likely that Syrian and foreign intelligence agencies were involved.

 Q: Why did Suqour leave Ahrar al-Sham and then join the Army of Conquest [Jaysh al-Fath]?

 Hajj: This is incorrect, we never left the Army of Conquest. We were one of the founders of this operation room from the very beginning before the battle and liberation of Idlib. The media, especially Western media, often view the Army of Conquest as a unified whole, but this is not correct. Usually you see the operations of Jaysh al-Fath being presented alongside JFS as if they are one and the same and this is incorrect because Suqour has also had a lot of military successes. The operations room consists of seven groups which, once the plan is set, each group has his independent axis where he operates in conjunction with the other partners. Suqour merged with Ahrar after the liberation of Idlib and its actions went under the name of Ahrar al-Sham, after the siege of Aleppo we returned back to the operation room. The merger didn’t succeed because of administrative and organisational issues.

 Q: How does the Suqour view the struggle between Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham?

 Hajj: Before the military operation against Jund al-Aqsa the revolutionaries used to belittle them by calling them Jund al-‘Afa [the Army of the Rotten] and Jund al-Daesh [the Army of ISIS]. If we return to Jund al-Aqsa’s formation who are they? How did they take over areas like Sarmin and Musaybin? All the areas that they took over belonged to the Dawood Battalion [a Salafi-Jihadi battalion based in Idlib] and other groups like Jaish al-Sham, not to be confused with the one in Aleppo of the same name. This group consisted of members who didn’t join ISIS directly but they wanted to be a type of mustering point for joining ISIS in Raqqa. So if anyone wanted to join DAESH they would go to the mustering point in Sarmin village in order to travel to Raqqa. Those who didn’t want to join ISIS remained with the Dawood Battalion and became Jund al-Aqsa which was lead by Saudis, Emiratis and Kuwaitis whose beliefs were different. Even Nusra Front didn’t accept them at first. They thought they were better than Nusra Front and in some aspects more correct than them. So what does that mean? It means that they have affinities to DAESH. There have been many investigations that have established this such as in Ariha where clashes occurred between them and Ahrar al-Sham.

 One young man from Ahrar was injured and went to Idlib hospital for treatment Jund al-Aqsa arrested him and treated him the way DAESH did with Abu Rayan. There were many incidents and car bombs on the road between Aleppo and Saraqeb where only the cars of Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham or ours would get hit but theirs wouldn’t be affected. In the recent incident one of their men kidnapped an Ahrar security officer at a check point because a few days before, it had been established that their men had been in contact with DAESH and there was conclusive proof that they were DAESH. This frightened the Jund al-Aqsa leadership and they used the battle in North Hama the same way the Shias defend themselves [against the charge of treachery] and they got away with it. But when they kidnapped him, beat his family and shot at some of them and gave them [Ahrar] the ultimatum: either you give us back these crypto-DAESH fighters in exchange of the man or he will die. So Ahrar took the decision to fight and Suqour and others joined them.

 For us however, any behaviour which is DAESHI we will deal with it as it is. It doesn’t matter what name you have. This is why we stood alongside Ahrar. The struggle between Jund and Ahrar al-Sham was not between revolutionaries but actually a fight against DAESH as has been shown by the assassination of its leaders. With regards to JFS taking them under their wing depends on how they deal with the issue and those who accept it- it will be in the interest of the revolution. As for those who work against it they will bear the responsibility, of course.

 Q: So the matter has not ended?

 Hajj: Absolutely, there are condition that they have to adhere to, the solution has been agreed to by all parties. And all the parties will side against the wrong doer whatever the flag or party.'

Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh or Abu Issa leader of Suqour al-Sham