Monday, 29 February 2016

The Morning They Came for Us review – unsparing account of Syrians’ suffering

Homs, Syria, one of the many flashpoints in a protracted and bitter civil war.

 'When I chaired an English PEN committee that campaigned on behalf of imprisoned writers, I heard first-hand about the torture that went on in the country’s prisons. One of the most notorious jails was close to Palmyra, where opponents of the government had their joints ripped apart on a horrific instrument of torture called the “German chair”. I used to wonder what would happen when decades of this brutal repression became intolerable and ordinary Syrians rose against Assad.

 The answer turned out to be an extraordinarily savage civil war. It is a story that encompasses a massive refugee crisis and a whole series of war crimes, including rape of the regime’s opponents, male and female alike, and the use of chemical weapons. Now Russia’s entry into the conflict appears to have turned the odds in President Assad’s favour, while causing significant civilian casualties.
 What life is like for ordinary Syrians who have stayed behind is the subject of Janine di Giovanni’s heartbreaking book.
 A young woman called Nada, who carried medical supplies to opposition fighters and broadcast reports calling for a democratic Syria, describes how she received a panicked phone call from a friend, telling her he had been arrested. “Can you get here right away?” he begged. “They want to talk to you, too.”
 It was a pre-arranged signal, giving Nada time to run, but she had nowhere to go. She destroyed anything that might incriminate her, but it made no difference when the knock came in the early morning, two days later. Nada spent the next eight months being tortured and made to listen as other prisoners were stripped, beaten and forced to drink urine. She was also raped, something confirmed by one of her friends, although Nada herself is unable to talk about it.
 Di Giovanni confronts the nightmarish subject of sexual violence as a means of terrorising prisoners early in this extremely harrowing book. Her account of rapes in Assad’s prisons is unsensational but unsparing, a tone she maintains when she meets Hussein, a student. Hussein was never a fighter but that didn’t stop him being arrested and his story about being tortured by men who described themselves as doctors is too graphic to repeat. He survived only because another doctor took pity on him, certifying him dead so he would be taken to the morgue, where a nurse helped him escape.'


A boy describes the barrel bomb attack on Ansari mosqueA boy describes the barrel bomb attack on Ansari mosqueA boy describes the barrel bomb attack on Ansari mosqueImage result for A boy describes the barrel bomb attack on Ansari mosque

 'The sound of the azan marked the end of fasting and the beginning of the barrel bombs. Throughout Ramadan the crude bombs—oil barrels packed with explosives and metal—had been dropped from helicopters at the start and end of each day’s fasting, intending to strike while people gathered. One night, a barrel bomb hit while people were gathered at the Ansari mosque. Fifteen people were killed and several wounded.

 One day we met the First Brigade’s media activist at his home. First Brigade was one of the largest and most powerful Free Syrian Army brigades in Aleppo. On the floor was body armor, torn to shreds. The media activist who had once worn it survived the bullet to his torso, but not the one that hit him in the face. At least six Syrian citizen journalists had been killed over the last few days, either on the front or from barrel bombs. The body armor would be refitted and reused again by another media activist or fighter.

 Jaysh al Fatah (“The Army of Conquest”), a large rebel operation, had conquered Idlib, a large city west of Aleppo, and were swiftly moving south towards Latakia and Hama, where Abdul happened to be working in the operational command based in a hospital in Jisr Shughour, a nearby town. Seeing another opportunity to flee, Abdul escaped and began negotiations with the rebels for his surrender. Al-Nusra Front accepted him, and he was able to contact Nasser and his family who lived on the rebel side of Syria. After a month of detention, Nusra decided that Abdul could return to his family.

 It was rare, after years of war, for people to stay positive. Wiam, on the other hand, bore a streak of cynicism. She was Kurdish, from Homs, and was there during the early days of the war. She documented everything with her camera. She started with the early protests, and then when everything went to shit she found herself filming the regime firing mortars into the crowds.

 When Homs fell, she was invited to speak in France and elsewhere about what was happening. Everything seemed to fall on deaf ears. Wiam disliked the Islamists because they were obliterating any sense of freedom in her country. Women in Syria had been able to choose whether to wear a headscarf or not. They could choose to work or study. Now Wiam was often told to wear a black abaya. She refused.

 The orphanage was huge, home to more than 800 children. Most of the orphans’ fathers had lost their lives fighting with the Free Syrian Army. One of the first trips I made to Syria was to find an Australian kickboxer named Roger Abbas, who had reportedly been killed in Aleppo by a regime sniper. As I followed his trail, I learned that he had been working in the camps of Baba Salam before joining the fight in Aleppo with the FSA. When you see the living conditions of the children here, the hundreds of refugees fleeing, the bombings, it seemed to me that it would be easy to pick up a weapon and fight.

 We made it to Kafranbel on a Friday. Helicopters were in the air, so the protest was on hold. We made it to the radio station and met the organizer of the protest. He showed us the posters and the banners, which ridiculed the regime, ISIS, and American policy. One featured Assad feeding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, drawn as a baby drinking from a milk bottle filled with the blood of Syrian civilians.

 On the way back to Idlib, I fell asleep in the back of the pickup and woke to the sight of regime flags. The pickup stopped at the front of a government office. It was an empty husk of a building. A large, torn poster of Assad flapped in the wind. The battle had only lasted a week, and the government was driven out. Jaysh al Fatah now controlled the city.

 Civilians were returning to Idlib. A coffee house was being built and the marketplace was being stocked. A Corolla taxi rolled into town with bedding and luggage attached to the roof. With so many leaving Syria, there were still a few returning to their lives at home. The battle in the city was rather quick, and the visible damage wasn’t as bad as Aleppo.
“We will stay,” a man who had returned to the city with his wife and children said to me as they were unpacking. “There might be nothing left. We might be bombed. We might be gassed by chemicals, but I would rather be home than to be miserable without my homeland. We live and die in Syria.”
 We spent mornings monitoring the helicopters. We heard radio reports of the neighborhoods they flew over. Each helicopter could carry two or three barrel bombs, depending on the weight. The larger ones were about 500 kilos of packed explosives and shrapnel. Between 6 a.m. am to 10 a.m. they would do two or three runs. The White Helmets sat ready and waiting for the reports to come in. Several bombs dropped, but there were no casualties; some didn’t explode.
 Most of the medical equipment at the hospital was from the 1970s. It had been targeted several times before and had to constantly change its location. Many of the doctors had fled Syria; the few who stayed could now be counted on two hands. They worked tirelessly with the wounded.
 “The regime punishes us. It makes us want to flee Syria,” a surgeon told me as he prepped for another patient. “If we leave, we never want to come back. There is nothing left for us.”
 Later, we went to the blood bank. It had narrowly avoided the wrath of a regime barrel bomb, and a large hole now took the place of a window. The manager was happy to see us, so happy that he set us up to give blood while giving an interview. “If I had a message for the West but also the whole world: If you have the power to stop the war in Syria, do it,” he said. “If you can’t, please do not fan the flames of war.”
 The next day we visited a school. It was hidden away in the marketplace. The classes were filled and the teachers running it were women. Zeina, the head principal, allowed us to walk around and see the classes, each filled with children.
 “At first, we were too afraid to send our children to the schools because of the barrel bombs,” she said. “But now we send them. Bashar al-Assad, he wants the next generation to be ignorant, illiterate. He bombs us into fear, he makes us flee, we lose our heritage, we lose our culture, we lose our religion. The fear we have is ingrained into our children.” '

Friday, 26 February 2016

General Ahmad Rahal: “There are some 12,000 Russian troops in Syria now, complicit in the genocide of the Syrian people”


 'I’d like to point out that many of the soldiers and officers who left Assad’s army did it for moral and ideological reasons. They did so in an effort to put an end to the injustice, havoc, and murders in Syria rather than because of hunger or lack of money. These officers swore an oath of allegiance to their fellow countrymen and remained true to that oath, taking the side of the Syrian revolution.

 When Assad’s army started to crumble, Assad had to form the so-called Shabiha squads. Shabiha were not proper military; they were armed gangs killing Syrians. When Shabiha could no longer hold back the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime invited mercenaries from abroad. First, they invited Lebanese Hezbollah; later, they brought Iraqi brigades and invited Qasem Suleimani with the Iranian Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IRGC) and the Failak Al Quds corps. They also released and trained convicts from Tehran’s jails to send them as mercenaries to Syria. That was how control over the military passed from Bashar Assad into Iran’s hands, with  Qasem Suleimani becoming Syria’s supreme warlord.
 But even after the Hezbollah and Iranian-Iraqi incursion, Assad continued to lose ground, having to seek the backing of the Russian air force to continue the extermination of the Syrian people. Today, Russian warplanes bomb Syrian civilians under the pretext of combating ISIS. Over 95% of all air strikes are made against Syrian civilians and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
 Assad’s regular army is history now. Let’s count foreign mercenaries. Hezbollah: 15 to 20 thousand fighters from Lebanon.
 Iraqi mercenaries: the al-Nujaba militia, Abu Fadl Al-Abbas, and others (approximately 36 Iraqi brigades), 20 to 30 thousand men, all Shiites.
 Iran sent IRGC’s advisors Failak Al Quds: the so-called “army of volunteers” who “volunteered” to fight in Syria. Iran also sent Afghani convicts and junkies. All in all, 20 to 30 thousand people.
 There are also mercenaries from Chechnya, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. 3 more thousand people have been recently brought from Nigeria.
 All in all, there are about 100 thousand people fighting for Assad. This is not counting the Russian troops.
 On 12 February, we captured 3 towns in the Turkmen Mountain area; the week before, we recaptured 7 villages near Aleppo. None of it was mentioned in the media. Not a word will ever be said about Russian casualties or Hezbollah fighting in Aleppo. That is, the Russian media deliberately and consistently misinform both their fellow citizens and the whole international community.
 As soon as Russian air strikes end, we will take back all the areas seized by the regime’s fighters under the cover of the Russian air force. Assad’s mercenaries can move forward with the backing of the Russian aerospace forces only; they cannot retain those areas on their own.
 We do not have anti-aircraft missiles at the moment, and we did not have them previously.  From the beginning of war, the Assad regime has moved all air defense systems to the main bases, since the FSA does not have airplanes, and so that the systems did not end up in the hands of rebels.
 The information about supply of air defense systems to the rebels is not true; we are not receiving these from any sources, because the US has imposed an embargo on such supplies from the very beginning of the revolution. From the start of uprising, everyone knows the ‘3 no’s’ of American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford: ‘no weapons supplies, no no-fly zone, and no military intervention’, and each of these 3 ‘no’s’ is in force at present time. Air defense systems are lethal weapons.  Syrian revolution will obtain no such support.

 IS, a terrorist organization, was developed by Assad guards, together with Russia, Iran, Iraq and some of western special service agencies. Russia subsidizes IS. IS does not fight against the regime, but against the FSA that has liberated the coast from IS, to the south of Aleppo and in Idlib. Now IS is located in the north-east of Aleppo. However, Russian jets do not strike IS. The question is why? IS has a line of contact with the regime troops, while Shia groups fight only against FSA. Why do they not fight against IS? They have a line of contact stretching 70 km, so what is the secret?
 These rhetorical questions demonstrate explicit cooperation between the regime and IS: they were provided large strategic warehouses in Palmira, their convoy, 3 km in length, travelled from Raqqa to Palmira in the open desert. Why was it not hit by an airstrike? They were given warehouses, 17-th division and an airbase in Tabqa. That is because both Assad and Russia realize that a demise of IS will lead to the fall of Assad regime. Why Russia is so opposed to the involvement of the Saudi and Turkish troops to fight IS? The reason is that IS serves as an excuse for the Russian intervention in Syria. Kremlin did not spend a single day or moment to fight IS.

 Definitely, the presence of Russia in Syria is a type of occupation. The actual military situation makes it clear that discontinuing Russian intervention would mean inevitable fall of the regime. For this reason, the regime is doing everything possible to please Russia. Introducing Russian music and language, Putin is enticing Russian businessmen to invest in Syrian coastal territories. These things are happening as part of the agreement between Assad and Russia, it is a degrading and enslaving type of agreement.
 There is unspoken agreement between representatives of the EU and the US on the matter, to not allow the unification of allied rebel forces, because the US has interest in continuing the war in order to weaken Hezbollah, Iran and Russia in Syria. Thus, any unification of all groups within a strong army would mean ruining these plans. Americans are playing their own game with their narrative about the disparity of rebel forces. In 2013 I visited Europe, meeting with politicians and explaining how their support in development of strong armed forces to fight Assad would guarantee the fall of his regime in half a year. We argued that their support in building up of a national army capable of wiping out the Assad regime over the 6 months, would be incomparable to their future losses, when Europe is faced with millions of refugees coming from Syria. Europeans agreed with our view, but the US blocked the creation of the armed forces.

 Fighting in the coastal area had a purpose to establish borders of the Alawite state; fighting on the northeastern side of Aleppo – for the Kurdish state; and the remaining territory, from Iraq to Idlib, is meant for the Sunni state. The international community may not agree with this approach, yet Russia aims to dictate conditions for keeping Assad in power – through the use of military forces, killing of civilians, destruction of infrastructure (8 hospitals, 25 schools, 20 humanitarian agencies) and bombings of refugees at the Turkish border. People of Syria will never accept this. Even if the whole country is occupied, there will be guerrilla resistance. There are 300,000 troops that will not allow neither Russians, nor Iranians, and especially Assad to stay on Syrian land. The international community is working to find a compromise, while Russia wants to grab the greatest share and assert control over our territory. Russia makes plans for a role in the future of Syria. Our country will have no military or economic relations with Russia.
 People of Syria view the Russian government as war criminals that utilize all types of means and weapons to fight against Syrian people. People of Syria will not forgive Putin for the mess he has created. There is one solution and that is the departure of Assad. In case the international community is not able to find political means to remove the Assad regime from power, then support should be provided to people of Syria in order to take down the regime. One way or another, the revolution will continue until it achieves its victory.'

Many top Russian generals reportedly killed by opposition groups in Latakia

 'Dozens of senior Russian generals were reportedly killed in a car bomb attack perpetrated by Syrian opposition groups Ahrar al-Sham and the Bayan Movement in the western Syrian province of Latakia on Sunday.

 Announcing the incident on Wednesday, the media office of Ahrar al-Sham claimed that the attack by the two factions was conducted with local insurgents on the Russian military base in the Snoubar Jabla neighborhood where they said they observed that senior Russian generals were holding a meeting there. In the statement the group said: "After weeks of hard intelligence work we were able to determine the location and time of the meeting and planted the car in the location. After the explosion several ambulances and Russian choppers rushed to the location and they were seen evacuating dead and wounded Russians to Latakia and Jableh hospitals."

 The reason of the delay in announcing the attack was for security reasons until the opposition fighters returned to opposition-held areas, the armed group's statement said.

 Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first armed groups that emerged to try to topple the regime and has been one of the best organized. It was founded in Hama and Idlib in early 2011 by former Islamist political prisoners and Iraq war veterans held in the Sednaya Prison north of Damascus after their release from jail in early 2011. The founders have a Salafist understanding of Islam but, as opposed to DAESH, were at peace with the traditions of people and other groups like Sufis. The group has never been a part of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), but has also not refused to ally with them. The group has never become a branch of al-Qaida and has said that their battle is limited to Syria.'

What Do Syrian Rebels Think of the Cease-Fire?

 'Abu Mohammad Aziz, the nom de guerre of a commander in the Levant Front, which is fighting in northern Aleppo province, doesn’t believe Russia or the regime will adhere to the truce, which is intended to redirect armed efforts at jihadi forces.

 “The Russians will continue to bomb us and claim they are hitting ISIS or Nusra. The regime can’t be trusted.

  Zachariah al-Sun, 36, sits next to his 23-year-old niece outside the Kilis hospital. Sun fled his northern Aleppo village before the regime advance at the beginning of February and made it to Turkey as a refugee before the gates slammed shut. A Russian bomb killed his brother, while his niece, who declines to give her name, narrowly escaped the bombardment and a YPG ground advance. She was able to come to Turkey for medical attention because she is pregnant and needed an ultrasound; most of her family members are stranded in camps on the Syrian side of the border.

 “There was bombing everywhere. Hospitals were destroyed and there was no food,” says Sun’s niece. “We tried to stay at first, but the bombing was too intense and everything was destroyed,” she adds, depicting scenes of panic as she and her neighbors fled. “We feel Aleppo is lost.”

 Zachariah al-Sun blames the Assad regime for his family’s dire situation. “With the will of god we will continue to resist, but who knows, with the current situation,” he says cautiously.

 Sun’s nephew, 26-year-old Mohammed al-Sun, the son of Zachariah’s dead brother, lies riddled with bullet holes in a hospital bed upstairs. Mohammed, a fighter with the Saudi-supported Fatah brigade, was shot in the back three times during an ambush by US-armed YPG forces amid intense Russian bombardment near the town of Deir Rafat in northern Aleppo.

 In a parking lot on the Turkish side of the border fence, a handful of FSA fighters and refugees trying to reach besieged family members wait to return to Syria. Among them is a 30-year-old machine gunner with the CIA-vetted and -backed al-Mutasem Billah brigades who calls himself Abu Mohandeseen. He whips out his phone and starts pointing to the different colors on a graphic of a battlefield map to show how his comrades are surrounded.

 To the west (highlighted in yellow), he says they face attack by advancing US-armed YPG forces. To the east (shaded black), they are clashing with ISIS. To the south (highlighted in red), they are under attack by regime forces. All the while, he says, there is constant Russian bombardment from the air.

 “The government, ISIS, and the [YPG] are all trying to finish us off before they start fighting each other,” contends the stocky militant. Abu Mohandeseen describes how his unit, which received US training and weapons primarily to fight ISIS, now finds that it is locked in a losing battle with both other US partners and Assad’s forces.

 Abu Mohandeseen also says that he has seen Russian ground troops in Syria and heard them on the radio. Although Russia is officially only engaged in an air-assault campaign, in January, Hezbollah commanders said that Russian special forces had boots on the ground in the northwestern province of Latakia.'

Defying the odds, Syrian refugees return to Aleppo

man standing next to ruins

Copyright: picture alliance/abaca

 'In addition to the cluster bombs from the Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes that indiscriminately strike civilians no matter how near or far they are from the front lines, economic opportunities inside Aleppo are shrinking, making it more and more difficult to live from day to day. With the last secure supply line into the rebel-held areas of the city cut, the city is effectively under a partial siege, making it more and more difficult to deliver supplies to those trapped inside. As the situation worsens, many are fearing a situation similar to that in Yarmouk or Madaya where a complete government siege completely cut off the town from any aid, including food, causing civilians to starve to death.

 "I don't know what I can do to help my family," Abdullah continues, composing himself. "But I want to be there anyway."
 Since the beginning of February, the Syrian regime has launched a major offensive on the opposition-held areas in the Aleppo province of Syria, a strategically important region that was once a stronghold of the opposition and that symbolized the revolution's success. However, as the most recent Russian-backed offensive re-captures surrounding towns, many are afraid that Aleppo will fall under control of the regime, shifting the tides of the war - perhaps permanently - in its favor.
 "Most of our fights are against IS, but recently the Kurdish forces have also been pushing against us," a Free Syrian Army fighter waiting at the border, who called himself Abu Muhidden, told DW.
 "But most of the refugees right now had to flee because of the Russian airstrikes," he continues. "The technology is more advanced than that of the regime, making them more deadly."
 While the United States and Russia have brokered a truce due to go into effect on Saturday, Abu Muhidden says that this is unlikely - and will not affect his brigade's fighting strategy.
"It's a war," he laughs bitterly, shrugging off what he sees as the latest in a string of unlikely promises from the international community. "We have to be prepared for the worst." '

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Syria’s Other Government


 'Eight months ago, the Douma local council—the body that has governed there since the fall of 2012—obtained money to expand the cemetery, from one tier to seven, and to hire new workers to bury the dead.

 On February 14, three of those newly hired graveyard workers were killed by a regime shell as they buried another local man who himself had been killed by regime shelling. Two days before, two of the children of one of the graveyard workers, ages seven and nine, were killed by a shell on their way to school. The local council has a photograph of them; the council keeps as much documentation as it can of atrocities against its citizens in hopes that the perpetrators will one day be brought to justice.
 Extended families no longer attend funerals in Douma. With the possibility of shelling, it is considered too dangerous: people are afraid of having their whole families killed at once if they are shelled. Only two or three family members come to oversee the burials. Ahmed Taha, one of the founders of the Douma local council, now its representative in Turkey, says the regime doesn’t care about targeting funerals: “Those who shell people in the market don’t have a problem with targeting a funeral.”
 In October of 2012, after Bashar al-Assad’s forces withdrew completely from the town of Douma, there were no more municipal services. Trash began to pile up. “We got together and decided we had to do something about providing services to people,” says Taha, a former Douma resident who was once a mechanical engineer, in his Spartan office in Gaziantep in Southeastern Turkey. Along one wall are images of children, dozens of them, one with her face painted the colors of the Syrian flag. All but one of the children in the photographs are dead. Most were from Douma. The Douma local council has offices that deal with the basics: water and electricity, health and education, agriculture, legal affairs, civil records, sanitation, subsidies, women’s affairs, employment, media and the cemetery.
 Notably, there is no department of religious affairs. All the mosques are controlled by the Salafis of Jeish al-Islam, whose name translates to the Army of Islam. This group took over Douma in November of 2014 and arrested all the imams who didn’t share its hardline beliefs, says Taha. Before the revolution, the state controlled the mosques. Jeish al-Islam tried to take over the council too but soon gave up. “They knew they would fail if they put their sheikhs in charge,” says Taha, who says most of the council’s members are technocrats: engineers, lawyers, members of civil society.
 “Since the siege, no one has worked in their original jobs,” he says. He and many of the others on the council identify as socialists but there are also a number of members from the Muslim Brotherhood. Taha says they work well together, and even some Salafis joined the council eventually.
 There are 416 local councils across Syria in areas not controlled by the regime or the Islamic State, and eight provincial councils. Many hold elections, some popular, others by representative bodies. In Douma, the council holds elections on an annual basis.
 The council doesn’t have a prison, but Jeish al-Islam, responsible for military activities in the area, does. Taha says when you have an armed group take over an area, a prison is usually the first thing it builds. Taha himself was jailed more than two decades ago by the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
 “In 1991 I was jailed for a year for writing a statement against the regime. I spent a year in solitary confinement. For a year I saw no light. But a year is nothing for Syrian activists.” This is a common sentiment among Syrians, many of whom don’t even bring up their detentions if it was a few months, thinking it not significant enough to mention in the face of the hardship of those who spent decades behind bars under the Assad regimes.
 “In Douma there are no days that pass without shelling; sometimes it’s light, sometimes it’s heavy,” says Taha. “Before the Russian intervention, the night was safe. When it rained, when there was fog, it was safe. After the Russian intervention, there is 24 hours of danger. Their planes aren’t affected by these things.”
 Life in Dareya takes place almost entirely underground: the field hospital, run by the local council, is in the basement of an apartment building—it’s the only hospital left in Daraya, the schools too and most families have moved into the basement of buildings to escape the shelling. Here the local council is doing what it can—the biggest needs civilians face are money, medicine and fuel. The council also tries to work with refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) inside Syria. For a month, the city has been completely cut off, even from adjacent towns from which residents would normally pick up the aid they’re able to get. In this video, children of Daraya describe the food shortages under the siege: they ask their mothers for food and the mothers tell them to eat olives, it’s all they have left.
 “If the Syrian Democratic Forces [a largely Kurdish entity that also includes some Arab, Turkmen and Armenians as well as some free Syrian army units who, according to recent evidence, are likely coordinating with the regime and the Russian air force] and the regime take the area [referring to Aleppo and the countryside around it] then all of our work will be for nothing because they consider the local councils to be a part of the revolution,” says Dr. Diaa Abdallah, a former member of the Aleppo City Council, “there is the choice of the revolution--those who reject both the regime and Daesh. It’s the Free Syrian Army and the local councils. The local councils are the civilian side of the revolution... It’s like a civilian and a military wing, a Ministry of Defense and a Ministry of Civilian Affairs.”
 “We are trying to have an alternative organization to govern the city because Assad’s propaganda depends on the narrative, ‘only I can control Syria and if you throw me out, Syria will burn,’” says Tarek Matarmawi, a member of the Daraya local council. “The local councils offer a real alternative to Daesh and Bashar,” Matarmawi says, but he worries that the West has already decided to back the dictator. “They think, if you leave Bashar, yes, it’s bad for Syria, but at least you won’t have bombs in Paris.”
 Taha says the regime is particularly threatened by the local councils: “The regime targets us a lot because they see it as a logical alternative, it’s local governance,” he says. “It’s a scary future and these latest developments with Russia are a catastrophe. If it continues, the regime might take Damascus, Homs and the coast. If that happens, there will be a campaign against Douma and Ghouta [which are liberated areas] and there will be an independent Kurdish state. In the end, the US left it all to Russia.”
 Ahmed Taha finds it difficult to be in Turkey, away from his home town. He says he feels guilty for leaving. He left Douma in order to get medical care for his son. He sent his family ahead of him. Two days after they left, his son’s school was bombed. He realized it was time to go.
 Now, in Turkey, he has other frustrations:
 “The Muslim Brotherhood control the curriculum because of their relationship with Turkey. They keep telling my son about djinns and hell. In Douma my children were scared of planes, now they’re scared of djinns!” Says Taha, “he comes home at seven o’oclock, then I have to stay up until midnight undoing all their brainwashing!” '

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Sectarianism in Syria (Survey Study)

Attitudes towards sectarian pluralism in Syria

 'Most respondents recognized the seriousness of the sectarian situation in Syria and are aware that its causes are linked to the state and political authority. Most respondents (65.3%) still call for a State based on citizenship and equality and deem it the optimal solution to overcome the sectarian problem. This study also demonstrates that the Syrian government and its institutions constitute an essential source of sectarian discrimination, spread and development of feelings of injustice, and distrust among individuals of different sects.

 The Syrian Arab Army ranked first in being responsible for sectarian discrimination, 60% of respondents mentioned it, followed by the intelligence services (55.3%) and government departments (52.8%). The least mentioned contribute to sectarianism was the FSA (14%).
The majority of respondents, which amounts to 67.6%, said there is one or more particular sect that benefits from the political authority than others. Nearly all respondents referred to the Alawites and Shiites.

 The answers provided by Sunni respondents demonstrate a near-consensus on supporting the 2011 demonstrations of the opposition, whereas Alawites’ and Shi’a’s answers demonstrated a position against them. More than half of Christian respondents and the largest proportion of Murshidis support them (48.4%) whereas a very considerable proportion of Druze and Ismaili respondents opposed them.

 About three-quarters of respondents said they had been subjected to sectarian discrimination (personally or a family member or relatives), and only 28.5% said they have never been exposed to it.

 Only 13.6% said they do not approve of the following statement: “Sectarian discrimination was a main impediment to the achievement of my most important aspirations” and Sunnis’ responses formed the highest approval percentages (93.8%) while it hit its lowest level at the responses of Alawites and Shiites.'

The international betrayal of Aleppo has global implications

The international betrayal of Aleppo has global implications

 Sam Hamad:

 'As I write this, the apocalypse, namely an Iranian-led pro-Assad ground force, encircles Aleppo - the largest and most strategic rebel stronghold, while Russia rains death upon it from above. There is nothing "post" about this "apocalypse".

 Last week in Munich, the great powers sat down in a Syrian-free environment and agreed not to a ceasefire as was first announced, but rather a "cessation in hostilities", as John Kerry was quick to correct. The agreement allows Russia to continue its attacks on what it determines to be IS and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, which, as everybody knows, means continuing its attacks on the rebel-held areas on behalf of Assad.

 The US, of course, knows that Russia has overwhelmingly not attacked IS or Nusra, but has rather targeted any armed Syrian opposition to Assad.

 What this agreement means is the possibility of some aid reaching starving Syrians - something again that will be in the hands of the regime - while Russia continues its bombardment of Aleppo with the "official" acquiescence of the US and the rest of the "International Syria Support Group".

IS, whose entire raison d'etre is based on capitalising on sectarian slaughter and the notion of a war against Islam, can only be empowered, as it has been at every stage of this war, by the destruction of free Syria and millions more lives cast into precariousness and touched by brutality.

 It's a recruitment dream for IS.

Europe, in all its grubby privilege, will continue to cry about a "refugee crisis", often allowing far-right forces to determine the narrative, while supporting a policy of pure appeasement that allows refugees to be made on a titanic scale. Apologists for Putin, Iran and Assad will no doubt accuse those of us who call for aid to the rebels in Aleppo of "warmongering", but the war is already here and has been for five years.

 Those who wonder precisely what we mean by aid to the rebels, might consider the fact that so far, according to the US, 250,000 Syrian lives aren't worth a single anti-aircraft weapon - weaponry which would allow Syrians to defend themselves from aerial assaults.

 In the 1930s, those who claimed the mantle of democracy and liberty, undertook a policy of appeasing forces of fascism in Spain, Italy and Germany - it was this passive policy, far from warmongering, that led to one of the darkest periods in history. It's the same darkness that now threatens to further engulf Syria. Those who think that it will be confined there are living in a fantasy world.'

Monday, 22 February 2016

Ex-UK student clocks up air miles on mission to rebrand Syrian Islamists

An image posted on Twitter last year of Ahrar al-Sham fighers

 'Labib al-Nahhas is the “foreign affairs minister” for Ahrar al-Sham, a group that has fought in alliances with al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise. His role sends him around western capitals arguing that his group is an ultra-conservative but legitimate part of the opposition, using his own European roots to reach out to diplomats wary of the group’s history and beliefs.

 “From the ideological point of view, I am an Islamist of course; if not I wouldn’t be in this movement. But the difference, what enables me to do my work better, is that I understand both worlds and not only from a theoretical point of view,” he said in an interview about his role in the group and its new positioning. 

 “I had an immense affinity to Syria, and specifically to Homs. Homs, which is my father’s city and where I grew up, is like the ultimate place for me. I have lived in the best cities of the world, but I could never settle down,” he said. “I kept changing places because I never found peace of mind away from Homs.”

 He had not been there long before the Arab spring swept through the region, and he joined local street protests that were the first stirrings of revolution. They went on to move from peaceful protests to violent rebellion, as founding members of a rebel group that later merged with Ahrar al-Sham.

 “The transformation was because they did not leave us any other option; it was in our own defence in the face of the passivity of the international community,” Nahhas said. “When every demonstration becomes a question of life or death, you hold on to what allows you to continue, what is worth dying for, and in our case it was faith, and the idea of freedom and dignity which united us.”
 “We don’t see any conflict with most mechanisms used in democracy in electing people’s representatives and leaders; it is a clear principle in Islam that the nation has the right to choose its leadership,” he said.
 The group’s progress in winning some cautious endorsement for engagement from figures like former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford encapsulates the strategic dilemma the west faces as opposition to Assad fragments and radicalises. A group like Ahrar al-Sham would once have been anathema to Washington, with its commitment to “moderate” opposition groups.
 But as Russia doubles down on its ally Assad, Washington is forced to choose between uneasy allies or no allies on many areas.
 “Our refusal even to talk with groups like Ahrar further reduces the little influence Americans still have in Syria,” Ford and Ali el-Yassir said. “The administration keeps trying to lead the opposition from behind, hoping for an opposition white knight to appear. Instead, because Islamist groups like Ahrar strongly influence decisions about the fate of Syria, Washington will be left behind.” '

Friday, 19 February 2016

Russian Airforce Targets Those Who Fight Against Daesh

 "Russian airstrikes have avoided so far locations where Daesh are, and concentrate on rebel-held areas where they hit civilian neighbourhoods indiscriminately. Russia is backing murderous dictator Bashar Assad, and is not slowing down its campaign of bombing civilians until they reach a result favourable to their interests. While Iran deploys every sectarian militia at its disposal to save the murderous tyrant, including Lebanese Hezbollah. Meanwhile, there is complete inaction on part of the world community."

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Iran no friend of Syrians nor defender of Shia

Iran no friend of Syrians nor defender of Shia

 Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 'During the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fled south Lebanon and south Beirut – the Hizballah heartlands where Israeli strikes were fiercest – and sought refuge inside Syria.

 Syrians welcomed them into their homes, schools and mosques. Several thousand were sheltered in Qusayr, a Sunni agricultural town between Homs and the Lebanese border. It made no difference that most of these refugees were Shia Muslims. They were just Muslims, and Arabs, and they were paying the price of a resistance war against Israeli occupation and assault. That’s how they were seen.

 Summer 2013. Throughout May, hundreds of Hizballah fighters led a devastating assault on Qusayr. Because they were local men defending their homes, the Free Syrian Army were able to resist the onslaught for weeks, but were finally defeated. A Shia flag was allegedly hung over the town’s main Sunni mosque, if true, a signal of sectarian conquest.

 Various excuses were offered up: to protect the Lebanese borders, or to protect the shrine of the Prophet’s grandaughter Zainab outside Damascus. None of them explained Hizballah’s participation in battles as far afield as Hama or Aleppo. Why would Nasrallah choose to infuriate Lebanese Sunnis, to make Lebanese Shia targets of sectarian revenge attacks, to deplete and downgrade his anti-Zionist fighting force?

 Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, who led Hizballah between 1989 and 1991, blamed Iran: “I was secretary general of the party,” he said, “and I know that the decision is Iranian, and the alternative would have been a confrontation with the Iranians. I know that the Lebanese in Hizballah, and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah more than anyone, are not convinced about this war. ... Iran and Hizballah bear responsibility for every Syrian killed, every tree felled, and every house destroyed.”

 This is something that leftists, when they were internationalists, once understood: states are designed to protect the property, position and privilege of the various elites which run them, not to safeguard the interests of ordinary people. This means Iran is not the protector of the Shia, Saudi Arabia is not the protector of the Sunnis, and Israel is not the protector of the Jews. 

 Need it be said that the Assad regime is the deadliest enemy of Alawis?'

How Syrian Activists in Raqqa are Resisting ISIS

 'Incredible footage obtained by Sky News shows how Syrian activists are resisting ISIS in Raqqa, the city that was dubbed ‘the capital of ISIS’. The activists are part of the group ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently‘ (RBSS), a loosely-organized group of activists, described by the New Yorker as “as kind of underground journalistic-activist enterprise”, who have been struggling against both Bashar Al Assad's regime at the start of the revolution and then, when the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-held city fell, ISIS.

 We learn of Abdulaziz Al-Hamza, a Syrian activist who is now in exile in Turkey due to his sympathies towards the FSA and co-founder of RBSS. Al-Hamza met another activist, Sarmad Al Jilane, also in exile in Turkey and, along with 15 other people, they set up RBSS in the hope of facilitating the transfer of images and videos taken by anti-ISIS activists still residing in the heart of the terror group's ‘capital’, which controls territory across parts of Syria and Iraq.

 RBSS was honored with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’ 2015International Press Freedom Awards for their journalism. In his acceptance speech, RBSS’ spokesperson said:

 "I speak today on behalf of millions of Syrians who are looking for a free, democratic and united country.

 I am deeply sad for my beautiful country. It is suffering greatly from regime fever and the cancer of terrorism, so greatly that I fear its spirit will melt.

 We are caught between two aggressive and brutal forces. The first is a criminal regime, obsessed with power, claiming to fight against terrorism by killing children.

 The second spreads evil and injustice, and paints our nation black.

 Each of them considers us criminals because we are disclosing their actions to the world. Now the mere mention of the name of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” has become a crime punishable by death." '

Monday, 15 February 2016

A letter from under Russian bombs in Aleppo

Aleppo Syria Bombs Russia Rebels

 "We haven’t seen a good day in years. The shelling never stops, even for an hour or two. Life has changed, all the places you remember are gone: forget them, it is too painful. The bombs dropped by the regime are indiscriminate, destroying everything in their path. Everything is changed, destroyed or deserted, without life.

 Even in our dreams we no longer know what “safety” means. Every time you open your eyes you don’t know if it the last time you will see your kids.

 It is not just fighting on the front lines, it’s not just the continuous bombing. There are snipers hidden in every corner on the way out of the city.

 We are constantly adapting our lives. Schools have had to move underground, and medical centers have to manage with limited supplies. We tried to build new democratic institutions: we elected new leaders. Everything has been a struggle.

 We tried to go north to different neighborhoods, but bombs were falling there. We could see the planes flying above us, they sometimes display Syrian flags, sometimes Russian, sometimes we don’t even know. It feels like they are following us everywhere we go.

 The surrounding communities of Anadan, Marah, Tal Refat, Hretan, Bynoon, Azaz are also suffering. These towns and villages started a peaceful revolution. They stood with Aleppo when Syrian government forces attacked civilians in the city. They took in people fleeing the bombs and the shelling.

 But what happened to them? They were bombed, every single day. People do not know who the planes are aiming for and whether they will be next to die. Tens of air strikes per day, for the last 120 days.

 And now it is time to leave. I didn’t ever expect this time would come, but I have to give up. I am leaving for a place I am not sure even exists.

 Aleppo stands in front of a big war machine armed only with small weapons. It is not just a geographical target. Aleppo is karama, it is dignity, it is the revolution against injustice.

 Goodbye Aleppo; my hometown, the place where I spent my childhood, where all my memories are.

 I hope to see you there again one day, my friend."

In Aleppo, one man's story of fear, defiance and survival

The 69-year-old's family fled fighting in Aleppo, but he stayed behind to care for his cars.

 'Karam al Masri is watching his city die. Or more accurately, he is watching the life gradually ebb from it. Masri is a 25-year-old photographer in Aleppo who documents the fatalism, fear and sometimes the defiance of tens of thousands of civilians who remain in rebel-held areas of the city now almost encircled by Syrian government forces and their allies.

 In broken Skype conversations across several days, Masri described how Aleppo's people are trying to continue their lives despite the bombardments. He says they have seen so much horror they are almost oblivious to it. Of course, the airstrikes are bad, he says, but in many ways the intense barrel-bombing of the past three years was worse -- more indiscriminate. As if delivering good news, Masri says only half of the recent airstrikes have killed civilians.
 Stallholders in the markets still offer their produce, though there is less of it and prices for many staples have doubled in a week. Children still go to school, though sometimes in makeshift underground classrooms. And the "White Helmets," the voluntary civil defense workers, race from one jumble of rubble to the next, though often only to retrieve the dead.
 Masri knows what it's like to be the target of the regime and its secret police. Before the uprising began, he was a law student at the University of Aleppo. He was active on Facebook and called for a revolution in Syria like those that had toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. One night in April 2011, there came the dreaded knock at the door. He was detained for a month and says he was beaten and tortured.
 On November 28, 2013, a barrel bomb targeted the Myasar neighborhood. Masri jumped in an ambulance with two friends, but they ran into an unexpected roadblock. Masked ISIS fighters stopped them, tied their hands and blindfolded them. Within hours, Masri and his friends were in a makeshift jail in an industrial area called Sheikh Najjar.
 Masri spent 45 days in an underground cell. His daily ration was half a slice of bread and three olives; some days there was no ration at all. He lost 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) in weight and often felt like he would die from starvation. He was not tortured, he says, but believes that's because his captors intended to kill him. He was, after all, a cameraman; there were few worse sins.
 Masri believes there were some 30 cells in that underground jail, holding men of the Free Syrian Army, activists and other journalists. As ISIS lost ground, the guards took their prisoners from one place to another, but every time they killed a few more of their hostages before herding the remainder onto buses. Masri saw the body of his friend Nour, the ambulance driver he had ridden with on that fateful day in November.
 While he had been in an ISIS dungeon, his family's apartment building had been hit by a barrel bomb. Unknown to Masri, his mother had been killed, along with several others in the building. His father, widowed and with no idea whether his son and only child was still alive, had left Aleppo and gone to Egypt.
 A few months later, Masri was injured in his left leg by a sniper's bullet. He spent three months alone in a small apartment, no mother and no aunt to visit and care for him. The loneliness of that time still haunts him.
 But when he recovered, Karam al Masri went back to roaming through rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo, taking his remarkable photographs.
 "I focus on characters who survive the pain and endure and find strength to stay in spite of the horror of war," Masri said.
 "I focus on the suffering of people and children, showing how they deal with this war, how they escape airstrikes and come out of destroyed buildings looking for their relatives."
 "I also like to show stories that demonstrate how beautiful Aleppo is and how it used to be before the war. I dream that one day the war ends and I can take photos of beautiful Aleppo and not only images of destruction and devastation."
 One of the characters he found -- and there is no shortage of them in Aleppo -- is 69-year old Abu Omar, who is a collector of vintage cars. His house was hit by a mortar and his wife and five children left the city. But he chose to stay, wiping the dust of war from his precious collection every day.
 Masri says that today, some people in Aleppo still urge resistance, futile though that might seem. There have even been small demonstrations urging the dozen or so fractious rebel groups to come together and form a "Jaysh Aleppo," or Aleppo Army.
 Masri does not believe the regime and its allies will try to reduce eastern Aleppo to dust in street-to-street fighting. They don't need to; they can just stop food and diesel getting in, he says.
 "There's not enough food stored for more than a month," Masri says. "If they force a siege for one month, people will die."
But he says he can't imagine leaving unless forced to by the Syrian army.
 "I can't leave Aleppo. My family was buried here, I can't go away and leave their graves; it would be a betrayal. My mother could have left and saved herself, but she waited for me. She died waiting for me." '