Thursday, 30 June 2016

Obama proposes new military partnership with Russia in Syria

 'The Obama administration has proposed a new agreement on Syria to the Russian government that would deepen military cooperation between the two countries against some terrorists in exchange for Russia getting the Assad regime to stop bombing U.S.-supported rebels.

 The United States transmitted the text of the proposed agreement to the Russian government on Monday after weeks of negotiations and internal Obama administration deliberations, an administration official told me. The crux of the deal is a U.S. promise to join forces with the Russian air force to share targeting and coordinate an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is primarily fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

 “One big flaw is that it’s clear that the Russians have no intent to put heavy pressure on Assad,” said former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. “And in those instances when the Russians have put pressure on, they’ve gotten minimal results from the Syrians.”

 There’s not enough reliable intelligence to distinguish Jabhat al-Nusra targets from the other rebel groups they often live near, Ford said. And even if the Syrians agreed not to bomb certain zones, there would be no way to stop Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups from moving around to adjust. Moreover, increased bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra would be likely to cause collateral damage including civilian deaths, which would only bolster the group’s local support.

 Kerry has been threatening for months that if Assad doesn’t respect the current cease-fire, known as the “cessation of hostilities,” that there was a “Plan B” of increasing arms to the Syrian rebels. But the White House has now scuttled that plan in favor of the proposed Russia deal, which could actually leave the rebels in a far worse position.

 Because most Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are fighting Assad, if the plan succeeds, Assad will be in a much better position. Meanwhile, the other Sunni Arab groups that are left fighting Assad will be in a much weaker position, said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The strategy could allow Assad to capture Aleppo, which would be a huge victory for his side in the civil war.
 “If the U.S. and Russia open up on Jabhat al-Nusra, that changes the dynamics on the ground in Aleppo and Idlib,” he said. “It would definitely benefit the Assad regime and it could potentially benefit the Kurds and ISIS.”
 If the price of getting Russia on board with the Syrian political process is to further abandon the Syrian rebels and hand Assad large swaths of territory, it’s a bad deal. It’s an even worse deal if Russia takes the U.S. offer and then doesn’t deliver on its corresponding obligations. The Obama administration is understandably trying to find some creative way to salvage its Syria policy in its final months. But the proposal that Obama offered Putin will have costs for the U.S. position vis-à-vis Russia as well as for the Syrian crisis long after Obama leaves office.'

Time for US to act in Syria

Civilians inspect a burnt car at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel-controlled city of Idlib, Syria June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

 "Left unchecked, Syria’s war will continue for another five to 10 years at least, with a full breakdown of the remaining national order. Syria will become a patchwork of villages ruled by competing warlords, without national institutions to govern and provide services. It will continue to export human suffering, refugees, and virulent ideologies like sectarianism and the Islamic State’s version of takfiri jihad.

 President Obama tried to steer a middle course, backing away from direct intervention, despite initially drawing a red line if Assad used chemical weapons. While seemingly every country with a finger in the Middle East has funneled weapons, trainers, or fighters into Syria, the United States has spent billions of dollars on humanitarian aid and has provided just enough military assistance to the armed opposition to prevent it from being wiped out. But it has studiously avoided any action that would topple Assad.

 Nearly a year ago, in September, Russia stepped into the void with a major military campaign to help Assad reclaim territory he had lost. Even Russia’s massive aid has failed to restore the regime’s position from a few years earlier, despite indiscriminate bombing of civilians in rebel-held areas and a systematic campaign to destroy hospitals, clinics, and other key infrastructure.

 Furthermore, the United Nations has strained under the pressure of the Syria conflict, which officials describe as the greatest challenge in the UN’s history. UN officials have chosen to partner with Assad’s government, allowing it to block access to areas inhabited by rebel supporters. As a result, the supposedly impartial UN has become party to starvation and siege tactics employed by the government to force rebel communities to surrender.

 Even with a history of failure and seemingly endless complications of future engagement, America can still positively shape the situation. It’s time for more action — humanitarian, military, and political — in order to reduce the catastrophic human toll, contain the strategic fallout, and reduce the chance of Syria becoming a fully failed state.

 If we stay on the same course, Syria is guaranteed to collapse with even more of the toxic consequences we’re already suffering — the Islamic State, refugee flows, violence spreading into neighboring countries that are allies. It might already be too late to prevent a full meltdown, but if the United States doesn’t try to stave off the collapse, a vacuum is guaranteed."

Activists: Regime Targeted Rebel-held Jobar With Poison Gas

Activists: Regime Targeted Rebel-held Jobar With Poison Gas

 "The Jobar Media Center reported that regime forces targeted the district of Damascus with poison gas from the direction of the southern highway Wednesday, June 29.

 A member of the media bureau of the local council in Jobar, Mohamed Abu al-Yeman, told Enab Baladi that the bombardment caused nine cases of asphyxiation with gas including four serious cases. All victims were militants.

 Regarding the nature of the symptoms that the victims were suffering from, Abu al-Yeman noted that they included shortness of breath, asphyxiation, and red eyes, adding that the cases were distributed throughout two medical points in the district.

 The Jobar district of Damascus is under the control of armed opposition factions and is considered the gate to the eastern suburbs. Assad’s forces have tried to storm the district from the area of the southern highway continuously but without success."

The Uncertain Future of the Syrian Revolution

Fighters from the 101st Infantry Division. Picture used with permission from the Division's media office.

 "The Syrian Regime is willing to remain in its current position for years, as long as it does not pay for this time with the blood of its own fighters, but rather with that of foreign militias and Syrian loyalists whose lives are worthless to the Regime. Most often, the Regime pushes forcefully enlisted fresh recruits to their front lines, as sacrificial lambs, while wearing down the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with daily shelling, killing its finest fighters and media activists who are the well-known targets on the front lines.

 The Regime has no problem with continuing in the current situation, as long as the loyal coastal cities and the capital remain under its control, as every day its enemies turn into friends and allies. Washington has shifted its prompt calls for Assad's overthrow to fighting terrorism, while its military operations moved to Pentagon to fight Daesh (ISIS) alone. The tactic is to fight and defeat FSA divisions one by one in order to create new units supported by the Pentagon to fight Daesh in Deir al-Zour and Northern rural areas of Syria. Other units seek to join the Pentagon program to receive extra funding in exchange for sending troops daily to fight Daesh, in what seems to be a failed strategy with no significant  advances on defeating the extremist organization for over a year now.

 With the increasing influence of the Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces in the north and their attempts to take leadership of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan Province) by controlling the cities of Manbij and Jarabulus, there will be new fronts for FSA to defend against such attempts to appropriate Syrian territory. This pits the FSA against the Syrian Regime, Daesh and the Syrian Democratic Forces, not to mention the back-stabbing by Islamic battalions close by. So, what will the FSA do?

 The FSA now enjoys relatively easy movement in northern Syria without being under siege, as is the case in Homs city or Eastern Ghouta in Damascus. However, despite this freedom of movement over large areas, the FSA is caged within the boundaries of international red lines which can’t be crossed. “Nubl and Al-Zahraa” is a red line. “Al-Fu'ah & Kafriya” is a red line. Coastal areas are a red line. People Protection Unitsareas are a red line. Crossing these lines could result in attacks, possibly from the very parties supporting the FSA.
 In Southern Syria, in Daraa province, the FSA military operations have been on hold for nearly a year, except for several battles against Daesh divisions. The FSA lost its momentum in rural areas of Damascus and Ghouta. It is fighting alone and under siege against al-Qaeda, its eternal enemy, in addition to defending the large fronts with the Regime to prevent any advancement. And it is unable to break this siege whether in Darya, Ghouta or rural Homs as it has been left alone in these areas without any back-up or support.
 The main purpose behind containing the opposition in the Geneva talks for eight months was to force the FSA to stop fighting and drain its support while continuously arming and fortifying Regime areas. The alleged truce is proof of this. It was imposed by Russia and the US on parties in Syria and included demands to constantly fight against Daesh and Al Nusra Front, while giving legitimacy to aerial bombardment closing in onto FSA controlled areas, and validity to the presence of Hezbollah, Iranian and Iraqi militias by including them as parties to the truce. The aim is to create dissent and send a threatening message to the FSA through the use of internationally prohibited weapons like phosphorus and cluster bombs, which gives the green light for Russia and Assad to wipe out any area they want while the US and Europe turn a blind eye.
 The FSA will be held accountable not only for what it has done, but also for what it should have done when the need arose. FSA leaders residing in Turkey, Jordan, and Europe are ready to give up certain of their battles, and even the basics and fundamentals of the revolution, in order to strengthen international relationships that support their current authority and give them hope for the future. If the FSA’s on-the-ground soldiers had dismissed their leaders, renounced external support and returned to the principles of the revolution as it was in 2012, when the FSA would self-arm from the gains of successful battles against the Regime, the situation would have been much better for the fighters, despite the fragmentation of loyalties.
 The decision of the FSA’s 101st Infantry Division, operating in northern Syria, to abandon international support that came at the price of silence regarding the administrative and financial corruption of their allies, is a first step towards demonstrating the possibility of returning to the revolution’s independence. But are other divisions willing to follow the example, or will they just carry on?"

Life In Berlin: A Magazine Makes Syrian Women's Voices Heard

Cofounder Yasmine Merei of the Syrian women's magazine "Saiedet Souria."

 'Yasmine Merei was about to start her master's degree in linguistics in Syria when the revolution began. The ongoing bombing destroyed her hometown Homs and forced her to move to safer areas inside Syria.
 "We started moving from a city to another and I needed to do something in order to earn money in one way or another," says Merei, "so one of the friends who I met when I started moving, he called me and said, 'Yasmine, there is a magazine, a local magazine and I think you can work as an editor because you are specialized in Arabic language, what do you think?' And I said, 'For sure.' "
 "We decided on our audience who are the women in the liberated area - what we call it - which is the area not controlled by the regime anymore. In these areas you don't have electricity, so you don't have Internet access, so they are not connected to the world at all. So you feel that you are responsible if you are able to keep giving them the information and the knowledge about life and about what’s going on outside Syria and also give them the feeling that you are interested in what’s going on with them," she says.
 "During the last months, we worked on the women who are living under the control of ISIS. We worked on a file about women who lose parts of their bodies because of shelling and then how they are able to continue to live their lives." '

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Hind Gunship Is One of Syria’s Worst Terror Weapons

 'For three weeks starting in early June 2016, the Damascus suburb of Darayya was exposed to merciless aerial bombardment carried out primarily by Mil Mi-25 — NATO code name “Hind” — gunship helicopters belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force.

 The Hinds dropped no fewer than 564 bombs over this period, underscoring the Mi-25’s reputation as one of Syria’s worst terror weapons.

 Hinds deployed in combat starting in June 2011, in central Idlib Governorate. Through 2012, reports began to circulate that the regime in Damascus had ordered all SyAAF squadron commanders to bomb civilians in insurgent-controlled areas. Damascus instructed all commanding officers at first, and then all officers in each operational unit, to acknowledge the order with their signatures.

 Although a majority of SyAAF pilots at that time were Alawite — there were by then very few Christians, Druze and Sunnis left with the service — the order met with strong dissent. Pilots who refused to obey the order disappeared. A few re-appeared after a week or two in prison, where torture was not uncommon. Others were never seen again.

 This mistreatment led to surge in defections — not only by Sunnis, but foremost by Alawites. Tragically, regime agents retaliated against many defectors by kidnapping their families. Learning from this lesson, other aircrew continued to serve for a few months longer, preferring to find various excuses not to fly while searching for ways to bring their families to the relative safety of refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan prior to their own defections.

 Nevertheless, a majority of Alawite pilots — raised to hate the Sunnis — continued serving and thus became involved in the regime’s campaign of annihilation targeting all opponents.

 Contrary to standard practice in any other air force on the world, Syria’s notorious air force intelligence branch suppresses reporting on all incidents resulting from poor maintenance. After five years of intensive operations, the SyAAF’s Hinds and other aircraft are, once again, worn out. In recent months at least two air force helicopters literally disintegrated from vibration damage. It’s obvious that only the most fanatical supporters of the regime continue to serve.

 Under such circumstances, the tactics of Syrian Mi-25 crews are unsurprisingly conservative. Instead of operating at low altitudes and combining the effects of their machine guns and unguided rockets to saturate air defenses in the target zone prior to deploying bombs, SyAAF crews are dropping their bombs from altitudes of more than 1,500 meters.

 Because the air force has run out of stocks of conventional bombs, nowadays its Mi-25s often carry so-called “barrel bombs.” These are improvised explosive devices filled with nails and various metal trash — and TNT.

 Few crews have extensive flying experience. Some managed to teach themselves how to operate their helicopters without the benefit of standard tactical manuals. Some use Google Earth for navigation.

 Target selection is ad hoc. After five years of war, crew have abandoned all pretense of “precision.” In the words of several of SyAAF pilots, there is no other priority but to — literally — “cause mass destruction” and “burn Sunnis.” '

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Russian air strikes target Aleppo rebels

Syrians make their way through debris as they leave for a safer place part of Aleppo in this January 2016 file picture

 "Despite recent efforts to calm the situation and introduce temporary truces, the battle for the city seems to be intensifying, correspondents say."

 Stuff the BBC. The temporary truces were a trick by the Russians because Assad's forces are now so weak they can't fight on multiple fronts, and the headline should read, "Russian airstrikes indiscriminately burn Aleppo babies". It depresses me what a distorted view of this assault on humanity provided by our national broadcaster.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Prominent Syrian activist Khaled Issa dies after blast hits his home

 'Khaled Issa, an independent Syrian photojournalist – known for his activism, has died late Friday in a hospital in Turkey after he was severely wounded following a blast that targeted his home in the Syrian city of Aleppo, medics said. The 25-year-old, who originally hails from Kafr Nabil – a town in the northwestern province of Idlib, was sharing accommodation with Hadi Al-Abdullah, another independent journalist and activist, in a residential building in Aleppo’s Shaar neighborhood.

 The two were severely wounded after an explosive device targeted their home on June 17. While Abdullah sustained his injury and he is now in a stable condition in a hospital in the Turkish city of Antakya, Issa was declared dead on Friday. The two’s main media activism work was to document crimes committed against the Syrian people.

 “Without Khaled; many insights into the brutality of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad would not have been possible,” Salim Salamah, a Syrian-Palestinian blogger wrote in tribute of Issa. “Without him, as well, many insights into the beauty of Syrians and their resistance would not have been possible.” He added: “Syria today lost another young man who had a lot to live for.”

 Reporting from dangerous conflict zones, Issa has sustained previous injuries during the past five years of his work as a photojournalist activist. Activists have blamed Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Nusra Front for the targeted killing. They said Nusra Front eliminated Abdullah for his increased criticism of the Al-Qaeda group.'

Friday, 24 June 2016

Water reaches Syrian refugees after Jordan border closure

 'Syrian refugees stranded in the desert along the border with Jordan lined up for water Thursday, two days after Jordan sealed off their two encampments in response to a deadly attack on its troops in the area. The two tent camps house about 64,000 Syrians who fled a five-year-old civil war and are waiting to be admitted to Jordan. Many have been stranded in the desert for months. Before the border closure, the refugees received food and water from Jordan-based international aid agencies. Refugees would climb over an earthen mound, or berm, that roughly delineates the border, and pick up supplies on the Jordanian side. Earlier this month, aid groups said Jordan agreed to expand the distributions on its soil, near the berm.

 Such plans were frozen after Tuesday’s attack killed six Jordanian troops and wounded 14. There has been no claim of responsibility, but Jordan says it has evidence of a significant presence of the extremist Islamic State group in the camps. Jordan has sealed the border area and signaled that aid groups will have to find alternatives to sending supplies from Jordan.

“It’s a closed area,” said government spokesman Mohammed Momani. “Yet it does not mean that international organizations cannot find different ways and means to get aid to the people there.” '

 Jordan's Pragmatism in Syria

'In early 2015, however, the Syrian regime's critical lack of manpower began to show. Assad's forces in the north were defeated on multiple fronts by a coalition of Salafist rebels that included Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's Syrian branch. The trend was paralleled in the south, where the Southern Front--at times with the force-multiplier of Nusra's suicide tactics--took much of the countryside around the provincial capital of Dara'a, including the economically vital Naseeb border crossing that connects Damascus to Jordan and the markets of the Gulf. At this, Jordanian policy makers had reason to worry, as the closure of the highway cut overland shipping to markets as distant as Russia. Even more problematic was the Southern Front's failed attempt to storm Dara'a City against the advice of their Jordanian advisers and Western paymasters. The debacle of Operation "Southern Storm" in summer 2015 proved an embarrassment but did little to dent the growing international enthusiasm for the Southern Front as the only palatable force that could take the fight to Assad.
 When Russian intervention in October 2015 checked the opposition's momentum across Syria, Jordan was quick to view the new dynamic as an opportunity rather than a threat. High-level visits to Moscow by the King and the Jordanian chief of staff set a cooperative tone. Indeed, such visits may have empowered a silent majority of top Jordanian ministers and security officials to act on longstanding agnostic--and, in some cases, positive--attitudes toward the Assad regime by encouraging further contacts.

 In short order, a covert cell of Russian and Jordanian officials was reportedly established in Amman to guide the Russian air campaign in Syria's south. Under Russian air cover, pro-regime forces made grinding progress, conquering the strategic crossroads at Sheikh Miskeen in January 2016 and securing their hold over the majority of Dara'a City. Politically, battlefield advances brought deepened contact between the Assad regime and Jordanian government. (These ties had never been completely severed, and regime personnel have continuously staffed the Syrian embassy in Amman.) Multiple reports of Ali Mamlouk's, one of Assad's top security advisers and enforcers, visiting Amman to discuss southern Syria have surfaced in Jordanian media and in the Amman rumor mill. These visits fueled speculation that Jordan was preparing to cut a deal to hand parts of Dara'a province back to the regime. The Southern Front likely believed that it was being sold out.

 And it was--to a degree. The King and his security advisers were demonstrating that their interests, not their alliances, were fixed. As the Southern Front became less able to play the role of buffer in the south, Jordan had no ideological qualms about keeping channels open with the party that might replace it. Tellingly, Jordanian officials were quiet about the Russian bombing of its proxies; it later emerged that Russia had informed Jordan early on of its intention to scale back its operational tempo once the regime's position was stable. This is not to say that Jordan cast its opposition proxies aside. They remained preferable to the grim alternatives of jihadist factions such as Harakat al-Muthanna and the (formerly Southern Front but now ISIS-affiliated) Liwa' Shuhada'a al-Yarmouk. Rather, Jordan made clear that it had other options, and its proxies would therefore have to toe the line.

 And they have obeyed. The Southern Front has ceased offensive operations against the regime and is focused on consolidating its areas of control in the Dara'a countryside while combating ISIS inroads. There is little talk now within the Southern Front of being a "revolutionary" force. Senior figures in the group have quietly accommodated themselves to major elements of the Assad regime that would remain in place in a future settlement. This outlook is echoed on the ground, with foot soldiers having concluded that the fight is futile. Particularly in the wake of last summer's failed effort to reclaim Dara'a City, many fighters have fled abroad rather than continue to fight the regime. Those who remain, despite Southern Front messaging, are divided among themselves according to village and tribe and are unlikely, now or in the near future, to mount the type of coordinated offensive being dreamed up in Western think tanks. Some kind of de facto reconciliation with the regime appears plausible in the not-too-distant future--exactly, it is likely, as Jordan hopes.

 At this juncture, there is something of a tacit convergence of Jordanian and U.S. interests in Syria. Both U.S. and Jordanian policy makers are constrained by public opinion. Both have reason to doubt that even massive amounts of arms can unify the fractious Syrian opposition and that, even were this possible, Assad's removal would pave the way for the emergence of moderate forces. As one top Jordanian policy maker put it, both "saw a stalemate coming" from the very beginning. This is not quite correct, at least as a characterization of views in Washington in 2011, but it contains more than a grain of truth in 2016. What is undeniably true is that Jordan, once again, has figured out how to pantomime collaboration while carefully protecting the interests that these whims would undermine.'

Regime's Phosphorus Bombing Turns Night into Day in Aleppo Countryside

 'Russian warplanes have begun a campaign of heavy bombardment on the towns and villages of the northern Aleppo countryside, some points of the western countryside, and Castillo Road, using internationally banned munitions in dozens of air raids causing major material damage and sparking massive fires.

 Activists said that towns and villages in Aleppo’s northern countryside were subjected to more than 50 air raids with incendiary phosphorus, causing large fires to break out, turning night into day, while warplanes bombed the outskirts of the al-Malaah area, the city of Andan, and the villages of Kafar Hamra, Babees, Maarat al-Arteeq, Tel Maseebeen, and Heyyan.

 Russian warplanes meanwhile bombarded the Castillo Road, “Aleppo’s online lifeline,” with phosphorus bombs, while the route was hit by heavy artillery shelling, with about 50 artillery shells hitting it over a short time. In the western countryside, warplanes dropped phosphorus bombs on Jameet al-Hadi.

 The city of Aleppo and its countryside have witnessed an extreme and barbaric bombing campaign throughout recent months, with Russian warplanes and helicopters carrying out thousands of raids using all types of weapons, including vacuum and cluster bombs, leading to massacres and leading to hundreds of deaths and injuries among civilians. Vital facilities have been targeted, as well as civilian assemblies and medical facilities.'

 'Earlier this week analysts found that RT, a government-funded Russian media company, edited out footage that initially showed Russian jets in Syria armed with incendiary munitions. The original clip was restored after RT said it had deleted the footage out of concerns for the pilot’s safety.

 Recent clips posted to YouTube show a number of strikes in the suburbs of Aleppo, where Syrian government forces have fought for months in an attempt to take the city from opposition forces. The footage, taken mostly at night, shows streaks of what looks like fireworks blossoming downward and erupting into flames on the ground. According to Mary Wareham, the arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, the type of incendiary munitions seen most frequently in Syria appear to be thermite-based weapons, and are often misidentified as napalm and white phosphorus. Similar in purpose, napalm and white phosphorus have checkered pasts that began with their use by the United States during the Vietnam War.'

 'The Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) called on United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday to launch an investigation into its accusations that Russia has repeatedly used air-delivered incendiary weapons in Syria.

 "Russian air forces have repeatedly deployed incendiary weapons and cluster munitions to kill, main and terrorise Syrian civilians, including in at least 10 documented incidents," Riad Hijab, coordinator of the opposition HNC, wrote to Ban.

 "They have violated the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and breached international humanitarian law," he wrote.

 Hijab alleged that "thermite, which ignites while falling, has been likened to 'mini nuclear bombs' and was deployed repeatedly by Russian forces in residential areas." He also accused Russian forces of using cluster munitions.

 State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington that the United States was not in a position to confirm the allegations by the Syrian opposition, but that the claims were taken very seriously.

"Regardless of what weapons they're using, (the Russians) shouldn't be striking groups that are committed to the counter-ISIL fight or civilians," he added. "Russia and the Assad regime need to be more careful about distinguishing between terrorists, civilians and parties to the cessation of hostilities." '

Kenan Rahmani:

 'The U.S. continues to give incomprehensible legitimacy to the Russian offensives in Syria which clearly deliberately target civilians and civilian infrastructure. This is a quote today by John Kirby, Spokesperson for the Department of State saying that "Russia and the Assad regime need to be more careful."

 Russia and Assad are deliberately targeting civilians, not terrorists. Russia's use of cluster bombs and incendiary bombs is not an accident, but rather a coldly calculated move knowing that Obama will not ask them to stop.

It's time to stop misleading the American people about the intentions of Russia and Assad. It's one thing to oppose the kind of military enforcement needed to protect civilians. It's another to lie to our faces.'

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Starting Over In Brazil, This Syrian Refugee Opened A Restaurant In Sao Paulo

 'In November 2012, the 31 year-old Syrian man Mohammad Hamwia left his home, in the city of Homs, Syria, for the last time.

 The frequent bombings, the deafening noise of the machine guns and the blood-stained streets had already forced his mother Hana, his three brothers and three of his four sisters to seek refuge in Denmark, Dubai and the United States.

 In Syria, months after the beginning of the revolution, the refugee says he witnessed the repressive forces of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime turn stray cats into victims: “The government snipers shot the cats, saying they needed to practice,” he said.

 “If the police captured someone, they tortured them until they snitched about someone else. The prisoner eventually disclosed the name of some acquaintance that also opposed the government, and he got killed. That’s how they kept capturing other people. And others. And so on,” Hamwia said.

 Hamwia holds a BA in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. He says he spent his final days in western Syria delivering milk and bread to children and babies — an activity that had become incredibly difficult due to the siege.

 “We had food suppliers, but they couldn’t get where we were. So we had to go to these dangerous zones, get some food, and go back,” recalls the Syrian. He reenacts the moves he used to dodge bullets, as if he were recounting a scene from an action movie. His friends were getting arrested, disappeared or killed.

 He insists on showing us some pictures on his cellphone of his hometown across two different time periods. He pulled up pictures from before the war — populated with impressive and elegant buildings. The pictures of Homs today, however, are of a fallen city. “Half the population left the country. The remaining people are still there, dying gradually,” he said.

 He says he would be homesick if his hometown was still intact. “My city is much prettier than Itaim Bibi [an upper class district in São Paulo]. But everything I saw when I was a little boy is now destroyed,” he says.

 Besides his family, with whom he communicates over WhatsApp, he misses his old friends. But Hamwia doesn’t know if they are still alive. He says that those who stayed behind reached a point where the odds of staying alive were 50/50.

“There are people who get used to this situation and await death. How are they going to die? When are they going to die? Nobody knows,” he says.'

Finding refuge: Syrian family settles in Lacombe

The Al Omar family arrived in Lacombe on May 26 from Syria after five years in Lebanon. From left to right: Naeema, Mohamed, Bashar, Ibrahim, Jouliet and Ghazeye Al Omar.(John Hopkins-Hill, Lacombe Globe)

  'Bashar Al Omar was born in Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria, and met his wife, Naeema, while serving his compulsory military service near the Syrian capital of Damascus. He worked in construction, building cement houses, following his service. The couple started a family and began their lives together.

 Everything changed, however, in 2011 during the Arab Spring when protests began in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad. Military troops cracked down on protesters, killing opposition members in hopes of quashing the revolution. The conflict escalated and government-backed forces began bombing campaigns that included not just conventional bombs, but flechette shells, those filled with projectiles designed to maim and kill anyone within the blast radius, and chemical weapons. The majority of those killed by the chemical weapons were nursing babies according to Al Omar. 

 “People were wishing for death,” says Al Omar, through a translator.

 Al Omar knew then that his family had to leave Syria, the only home they knew, and try to find safety somewhere else. He left Syria five years ago with only the clothes on his back, moving to the mountainous northern region of Lebanon.

 Lebanon wasn’t a solution to their problem.

 “We suffered a lot in Lebanon too. The only difference between Syria and Lebanon was the fact there were no people dropping bombs,” says Al Omar.

   Many of the same dangers exist in Lebanon for refugees as they do in Syria. At any time kidnapping and murder are a real possibility. Idlib was a focus of the rebel groups in the opening stages of the war, and as such Al Omar was painted as a rebel, a terrorist, by those in Lebanon and other neighbouring Arab countries simply because of his birth place. Whenever a member of Hezbollah in Lebanon was killed, the blame was placed on the refugees. Tents were burned, regardless of who was inside, and refugees were killed. Additionally, refugees leaving Syria for Jordan and Lebanon slowly died from exposure and ultimately many turned around.

 “We might as well go home and die at home on our own soil,” was the prevailing thought process, Al Omar explains.

 Even now, making phone calls to family and friends is dangerous. The government monitors communications and often planes will begin to fly overhead as conversations continue. It’s typical for two to four flyovers to take place during a one hour call, and often these flyovers lead to the end of the call, as there is a fear the planes may begin bombing.

 After four years in Lebanon, the family had a meeting at the Canadian embassy and were asked the critical question: “Would you like to migrate to Canada?”

 Al Omar credits the Canadian government for opening the doors of the nation to refugees.
“The Syrian refugee is welcomed here warmly and generously. It is a great experience for a Syrian refugee to come to Canada.” '

Tuesday, 21 June 2016


 'In the first weeks of March, 2011, the start of the insurrection in Syria, the security forces of President Bashar al-Assad detained and tortured children who had drawn anti-regime slogans on a wall in the southern city of Dara’a. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, and on March 22nd Assad’s forces stormed into the city hospital, kicked out the nonessential medical staff, and positioned snipers on the roof. Early the next morning, the snipers fired at protesters. A cardiologist named Ali al-Mahameed was shot in the head and the chest as he tried to reach the wounded. Thousands of people attended his funeral, later that day, and they, too, were attacked with live ammunition. For the next two years, the snipers remained stationed on the roof, “firing on sick and wounded persons attempting to approach the hospital entrance,” according to the U.N. commission.

 As protests erupted all over the country, government-run hospitals basically functioned as an extension of the security apparatus, targeting demonstrators who dared to seek treatment. “Some doctors manage to treat simple cases and manage to let them flee without being seen or registered,” one doctor said, in testimony collected by Médecins Sans Frontières. “But if an admission is required for the patient, then the administration of the hospital is notified, and therefore it reaches security.” Pro-regime medical staff routinely performed amputations for minor injuries, as a form of punishment. Many wounded protesters were taken from the wards by security and intelligence agents, sometimes while under anesthesia. Others didn’t make it as far as the hospital; security agents commandeered ambulances and took the patients straight to intelligence branches, where they were interrogated and often tortured and killed. M.S.F. concluded that, for Syrians who opposed the President, the health-care system was “a weapon of persecution.”

 In the first year of the uprising, Physicians for Human Rights documented fifty-six cases of medical workers being targeted by government snipers; tortured to death in detention facilities; shot and set on fire while driving ambulances; and murdered by security agents at checkpoints, in their clinics, or at home. Several were killed while treating patients. In July, 2012, the regime enacted a new terrorism law, making it an offense to fail to report anti-government activity; according to the U.N. commission, this “effectively criminalized medical aid to the opposition.”

 By late 2012, a number of Syrian expatriates had established medical charities. Although they sent aid and ambulances from Turkey into Syria, they rarely coördinated their efforts. “It was really chaotic,” Roberts said. “You would turn up at a pharmacy with a kit of antibiotics to donate and find that they already had massive quantities of the same drug. And then you would go to another hospital and realize that they had practically no help at all, because the hospital manager didn’t have experience working with international organizations.” At that point, she said, the facilities that received support were “the ones that were shouting the loudest.”

 To handle the logistics, Aziz, of Light of Life, formed a group called the Aleppo City Medical Council. There were eight main medical facilities, and, with only twenty physicians and a handful of surgical specialists in the opposition-held half of the city, the staff used walkie-talkies to coördinate the distribution of patients. To evade detection, the doctors established sequential code names for each hospital, M1 through M8. Most of the staff had little, if any, formal training.

 Eventually, the doctors built other medical centers and gave them random names, like M20 and M30, to obscure the actual number of targets. According to Aziz, the best location for a medical facility is on a narrow street, flanked by tall buildings, so that, after an air strike, helicopters and jets have difficulty tracking the movement of wounded civilians. Ambulance workers were routinely targeted by snipers and helicopters, so many of them removed sirens and medical logos, and coated their vans with mud. At night, they drove with the headlights off.

 In early 2013, David Nott gave a presentation at the Royal Society of Medicine about M.S.F.’s work in Syria. After the lecture, he sat with Mounir Hakimi, a doctor who is the vice-chairman of a charity called Syria Relief, based in Manchester. Nott and Hakimi had met once before, at Alpha hospital, in Atmeh: when the Syrian doctor who had donated the villa was wounded by shrapnel, Nott treated him in his own former kitchen, and Hakimi came to pick him up. But, because Hakimi wasn’t a patient, Nott wouldn’t let him inside the operating theatre, and they got into a shouting match. Now, at the lecture, Nott said, “I realized he was quite a nice chap.” Hakimi, who had befriended Aziz, suggested that Nott travel to Aleppo with Syria Relief.

 Outside the entrance to M1, there was a large decontamination tent fitted with showers to rinse off victims of chemical attacks. A few weeks earlier, Syrian government forces had fired sarin-gas rockets into densely populated neighborhoods of Damascus, killing some fourteen hundred people; Western governments spoke of retaliation, but they quickly retreated, and since then the regime has habitually used chlorine as a weapon. On roads leading to the hospital, signs on lampposts listed chemical-attack survival tips. Aziz drove Nott to Aleppo, and introduced him to the medical staff at M1, where he lived for the next five weeks.

 Some surgeons at M2 and M10 travelled to M1 for Nott’s evening lectures. At the end of each class, the Syrians discussed the cases that had come in that day—“who lived, who died, and why they lived, and why they died,” Nott said. “And then, because we’d get air-to-ground missiles after dark, we’d still have patients coming in. I’d carry on operating until midnight. And it would go on like that every single day.”

 M1 is in the neighborhood of Bustan al-Qasr, a few hundred yards from the only crossing point between the rebel and the regime sides of the city. (The route has since been closed.) Each day, thousands of locals crossed from one side to the other to buy food, visit relatives, and take school exams. Corrupt fighters on the rebel side extorted those desperate to cross; snipers on the regime side used the alley for target practice. Bystanders who dared to retrieve the victims were often shot, too.

 “Every day, we’d receive about twelve to fifteen sniper wounds,” Nott told me. Many of the victims were children, and the patients coming in from the crossing point arrived with eerily consistent injuries. “It was very strange,” Nott said. “You’d know that, at the start of the day, if you got a patient shot in the right arm, you’d have six or seven more shot in the right arm. And if somebody got shot in the abdomen you’d have six or seven shot in the abdomen.” Nott suspected that snipers were targeting specific areas of the body, as part of a sadistic game. He consulted with Aziz, who claimed that the gunmen were making bets over whom they could hit, and where. Aziz told me, “We used to sometimes listen to the walkie-talkies of the regime. And they used to listen to us.” One day, he said, “we heard a man say, ‘I bet for a box of cigarettes . . .’ ”

 Even pregnant women were targeted, the doctors suspected. “This is a pregnant lady who’s just about to deliver,” Nott explained, in London, as he clicked through a series of ghastly photographs on his laptop. “She was forty weeks pregnant and was about to have a breech delivery, and was shot in the uterus.” A Syrian physician filmed Nott performing an emergency Cesarean section. Only the mother lived; an X-ray of the fetus showed a bullet lodged in its skull.

 Nott returned to M1 in September, 2014. Every hospital in the opposition-held eastern half of the city had been attacked. At M10, pieces of ceiling, glass, and concrete covered broken beds in a former ward, while a leftover bag of serum dangled near an electrical outlet. Medical staff at both facilities crammed equipment and patients into the basements and stacked sandbags around the entrances. The upper floors were deserted, serving only as shields against bombardment.

 For almost a year, Syrian government helicopters had been lobbing barrels filled with shrapnel and TNT onto markets, apartment blocks, schools, and hospitals. Welded tail fins guide the barrels to land on top of an impact fuse. The methods of targeting are so rudimentary and indiscriminate that, in Aleppo, many residents have moved closer to the front lines, risking sniper fire and shelling, because the helicopters don’t drop barrels near government troops.

 When a large bomb explodes, it destroys bodies in consecutive waves. The first is the blast wave, which spreads air particles at supersonic speeds. This can inflict internal damage on the organs, because, Nott said, “the air-tissue interface will bleed. So your lungs start to bleed inside. You can’t breathe. You can’t hear anything, because your eardrums are all blown out.” A fraction of a second later comes the blast wind, a negative pressure that catapults people into the air and slams them into whatever walls or objects are around. “The blast wind is so strong that in the wrong place it will actually blow off your leg,” Nott said. He showed me a photograph of a man on the operating table, whose left leg was charred mush and mostly missing below the knee. “It’ll strip everything off your leg. And that’s why people have such terrible injuries. It’s the blast wind that does that, followed by fragmentation injuries,” from bits of metal shrapnel that rip through flesh and bone, and the flame front, which burns people to death.

 In the aftermath of a barrel-bomb attack, Nott said, “as you walked down the stairs to the emergency department, you just heard screams.” Barrel bombs blow up entire buildings, filling the air with concrete dust; many people who survive the initial explosion die of suffocation minutes later. Every day, patients arrived at the hospital so mangled and coated in debris that “you wouldn’t know whether you were looking at the front or the back, whether they were alive or dead,” he said. “Every time you touched somebody, the dust would go into your face and down into your lungs, and you’d be coughing and spluttering away as you were trying to assess whether this patient was alive.”

 Since Nott’s last trip to Aleppo, Syrian government forces have dropped barrel bombs on all three trauma hospitals in the city. In separate missile strikes, they killed several of Nott’s friends, including an anesthetic technician and a paramedic. Physicians for Human Rights has catalogued and corroborated three hundred and sixty-five attacks against Syrian medical facilities, more than ninety per cent of which were perpetrated by Syrian and Russian government forces. Many of them are “double-tap” strikes: around twenty minutes after the first bomb falls, a helicopter or a jet returns to the scene and blows up the rescuers.

 In the first week of June, Syrian and Russian aircraft carried out more than six hundred air strikes on the opposition side of Aleppo, and Assad vowed to take back “every inch” of Syria. The next day, pro-Assad warplanes bombed three medical facilities, including a health center for newborn babies, in the span of three hours. M2, M3, M4, M6, M7, and M9 have been destroyed.'

Monday, 20 June 2016

Daraya rebels lift the siege on their town


 Kenan Rahmani:

 "Despite relentless aerial attacks, the siege of Daraya has been broken--not by the UN, but by Syrians--and the town is now connected to Moadamiyah."

The US has only one good option in Syria’s conflict

The US has only one good option in Syria’s conflict

 'Last week, news emerged that 51 officers at the US State Department signed an internal memo urging a more muscular approach in Syria. Without action, the diplomats warned, the regime of Bashar Al Assad will have no reason to abide by the cessation of hostilities or negotiate in good faith. And to stem the appeal of extremists, the US should recognise that Mr Al Assad is responsible for the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of victims in this conflict. The call comes amid a desperate situation for the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front in Deraa, arguably the only place where the US policy deserves true praise. The one-eyed policy of focusing on extremists and neglecting the regime is quickly eroding what was a successful effort. Whether the rebel coalition will overcome the brewing crisis there will hinge on whether the diplomats’ advice will be heard.

 The rebels are under pressure from the US-led Military Operations Command (MOC) in Amman to focus on fighting ISIL in Deraa. As The National’s Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh reported last week, the MOC suspended a shipment of arms and payments scheduled for the rebels the previous week. Delivery of arms and money will be contingent on the rebels’ military delivery against ISIL.
 The arms-twisting policy comes amid enormous popular pressure and criticism levied against the forces of the Southern Front. Over the weekend, the opposition circulated documents signed by 50 highly influential members of the opposition – including military commanders, activists and religious clerics – which urges the Southern Front to stop sitting idly by while the rest of Syria is being pounded by the regime and its backers. Such criticism emanates from the perception that the Southern Front is a puppet of foreign countries. The state department’s memo rightly states that Syrians continue to see the Assad regime as their primary enemy, and the only way to rally everyone against this organisation is to put an end to its flagrant abuses.
 There is almost a consensus inside Syria that rebels in the Southern Coalition are prohibited by its backers from advancing into sensitive regime bases near the capital. The rebel coalition’s credibility is already in question throughout Syria, and increased pressure on the rebels to focus even more on ISIL will undoubtedly weaken it. The MOC’s threat to withdraw support if the rebels do not advance against ISIL adds insult to injury. By pressuring the rebel coalition in the south to shift attention to ISIL, the US is concurrently weakening the coalition and strengthening ISIL. The Southern Front is now facing a more organised ISIL force in Deraa after three local forces merged under a coalition loyal to ISIL last month.
 Besides the MOC, opposition activists and ISIL, local families are also asking armed groups to sign truces with the Russians. Such demands might not be critical for now, but it adds to the pressure and shows that the relevance of the Southern Front is increasingly questioned by both hawkish opposition and ordinary people. The precarious situation of the Southern Front is real. If it opts to please its foreign backers by focusing on ISIL and neglecting the call by influential civil, military and religious activists, its position will be weakened in the eyes of ordinary people.
 The anti-ISIL policy in Deraa is clearly misguided. It is consistent with the broader policy to stem ISIL, often by relying on forces perceived suspiciously by locals. In the south, there are no such forces on which the US-led coalition can rely to fight ISIL, unless it wants to work with Mr Al Assad. That leaves the US with one good option – to listen to the sage advice of the 51 diplomats.'

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Spain and Syria: Beyond Superficial Comparisons

 I have a lot of respect for Paul Preston. One of my friends was a student of his at the London School of Economics. When I was at the LSE, I took the European Civil War class that he designed. I even rescued a copy of his biography of Franco that had fallen on to the railway track at the local station once. While I spent my teenage years reading a number of the anarchist and Trotskyist accounts of the Spanish revolution, I defer to Professor Preston’s much greater knowledge of Spain.
 However, I feel the reverse is the case with respect to Syria. Having spent the last 51 months following events in Syria on a daily basis, but reporting and analysing the experiences of Syrian revolutionaries, I think he falls for many of the false generalisations our media has made about Syria; that the opposition are undifferentiated jihadis, that the extreme jihadis of ISIS are the opposition to Assad, that the Assad régime is secular, that the West has been supporting the opposition.
 “It is impossible to generalise with any certainty about what has motivated the bulk of the jihadist volunteers from Western countries.”
 Certainly without asking them. Let’s give that a go.
 “It was the pictures everywhere, on Sky News that he was watching, of people being raped and children being killed, which inspired him to go,” said Mrs Sarwar. “These images were everywhere. He went to Syria to help the Free Syrian Army.”
 ‘Many British Muslims share Hussain’s view that Syria’s jihad has blurred lines. Al-Qaeda linked groups are involved – but many people believe that the conflict is closer in character to the civil war in Bosnia. Some compare it to the Spanish Civil War in which international brigades of young men fought against General Franco.
“My brother was not a terrorist. My brother was a hero,” says Hafeez Majeed. “If I could put it like this, if my brother had been a British soldier and there were British people in that prison, I know he would have been awarded the posthumous Victoria Cross.”‘
 “Parliament decided not to intervene, but it’s within this context that the two British men I’ve spoken to took it upon themselves to do, they say, what the government couldn’t, to defend the people of Syria. Now they’re back in the UK and living in fear of arrest.”
 ‘Similar motivations led Ibrahim to travel to Syria. He recalls being “horrified by the attacks carried out by the regime” when he saw images of dead civilians and crying children broadcast on the news, and claims that it was his duty to go there to help, because “if you had the means to go and help the oppressed, then you should”.’
 “They did not attack unarmed civilians.”
 I can only find one account of British volunteers participating in atrocities, but fighting for ISIS against Free Syrians.
 ‘In a letter to The Times, Brig-Gen Abdulellah al-Basheer of the Free Syrian Army asks for help in curbing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
He claims the group attacks opposition forces, not the Assad regime.
“We the Syrian people now experience beheadings, crucifixions, beatings, murders, outdated methods of treating women, an obsolete approach to governing society. Many who participate in these activities are British. The UK and US governments must support us to defeat terrorism in Syria and prevent it from being exported to Europe and the US.”‘
Which brings us to the second point.
 “The rebels are the disparate and fragile coalition.”
 Let’s be clear. ISIS are not a part of that coalition, but are a fifth column used by the Assad régime to undermine the revolution. Here is Nicolas Hénin, who was held as a hostage by ISIS.
 'Take for example, the number of times the Islamic State has actually fought the Syrian army over the course of the bloody war:
The ISIS fought the Syrian army when they seized the Menagh air base.
They also fought the army when they captured Division 17 in Raqqa (now capital of the declared Caliphate). Here they also captured a neighbouring airport.
The IS has also taken part in small-scale battles near Aleppo, Lattakia and Al-Qamishi.
This is the comprehensive list. And for a war that’s claimed 200,000 lives and displaced half the country, the number of battles remains suspiciously small.
 In fact, as of 2014, ISIS was earning $3 Million every day in the form of oil revenues. And a large portion of this oil is, to this day, sold to Assad. This complicity may be surprising. But it is not necessarily illogical. Because Assad stands to gain from the existence of the ISIS. It legitimizes his position as leader of the Syrian people. The “Assad or chaos” slogan is one he manipulates and brandishes with much success. The ISIS is the bogeyman. And by focusing on the malaise that is the ISIS, we are playing right into Assad’s hands.
 The Syrian people, as well as the Iraqis, would never accept the leadership of the Islamic State. It is an organization fraught with infighting and deceit. It cannot provide a viable Government in either country. It simply does not have the structural efficiency to. Additionally, the fear of the ISIS seems more potent than it is because of their ingenious PR campaign. We find ourselves shaken by their videos. We replay them time and again on television, further feeding into the deliberately cultivated fear. We are concerned that a future fighter of the ISIS may be among us. And in all this, we fail to recognize the sporadic, disorganized violence for what it is.
 The real threat remains Assad. In his absence, the Sunni majority will not feel compelled to align with the fanatic jihadis. The moderates will rise again. The conflicts will begin to resolve themselves. But the first step is to dethrone the ISIS from the status of “super-terrorists”. It’s what they want. And they are not a credible threat to the world.’
 Or more concisely from Murhaf Jouejati:
 “Assad has done much to prop up ISIS, first by releasing hard-core jihadis from his prisons under the guise of presidential amnesty to political prisoners (many of them now constitute the leadership of ISIS), then by aggrandizing ISIS financially through government purchase of oil from the fields ISIS controls (the Assad regime currently purchases electricity from ISIS), and now by concentrating most regime fire, in concert with ISIS, against moderate, secular rebels. In return, ISIS largely abstains from battling Assad’s forces.Without a strong moderate Syrian opposition, there is no way to defeat ISIS in Syria or force a real transition in Damascus.”
 Or Youssef Seddik, director of the press center of Aleppo.
 “There is a secret agreement between the Assad clan and Daesh. Assad leads imaginary battles against Daesh, he leaves arms dumps to them without a fight, as we have seen in rural areas near Homs, and Palmyra. In return, Daesh do not attack Assad’s forces and even blew up Palmyra prison, a symbol of the tyranny of Assad: it had no interest in documenting this and thus erased all trace and record of the torture practiced here for years by the regime.”
 Here is the former attorney-general for Tadmur, where the historic ruins of Palmyra are located.
 ‘ “A month before the city fell to Daesh, we had received information that Daesh was planning to attack Tadmur and the adjacent city of Sukhna. We conveyed the information to Assad himself,” said Mohamed Qassim, who formerly served as attorney-general in Syria’s central city of Tadmur. “But instead of laying out a plan to defend the city, Assad ordered military forces to vacate Tadmur in hopes of tempting Daesh to fill the vacuum,” he said.
 According to Qassim, Assad had wanted to give the impression that Daesh had captured Tadmur, from which the group hoped to advance on the central city of Homs to kill Alawites and Christians. “[Assad was confident] that the destruction of ancient monuments in the city would anger world public opinion and thus demonize the revolution,” he said.
 When he was serving as the city’s attorney-general, Qassim said, he had discovered scores of bodies of political detainees in regime-run prisons. “These people’s crime was to oppose the criminal Assad regime,” he said. Qassim added that political detainees had been subject to horrific forms of torture. “Many were beaten, burnt, tortured or crucified to death,” he said.
 “There were atrocities and crimes committed by Russia and the Assad regime that the world never knew about,” he said. He asserted that most of the city’s monuments, for example, had been destroyed by Russian airstrikes or barrel bombs dropped by regime aircraft. “Russian bombardments and regime [attacks] don’t target Daesh; rather, they are killing civilians, rendering thousands of the city’s residents homeless,” he said.
 Qassim went on to note that Russia — which began striking opposition forces in Syria last September — never attempted to retake Tadmur from Daesh. “It’s destroying the city and killing its people and is ultimately working to obliterate Tadmur,” he said.
 Qassim said dozens of Russian military experts had arrived in Tadmur when he was still serving as the city’s attorney-general. “These experts visited oil and gas fields to carry out maintenance and repair operations under the protection of Daesh militants,” he said.
 Qassim went on to disclose that regime forces were selling weapons to Daesh militants, asserting that a Syrian officer — named Mohamed Gaber — had been responsible for selling weapons to the militant group. “He [Gaber] smuggled weapons at night to Daesh militants and was paid by middlemen,” he said. Providing a glimpse as to how the weapons were procured by Daesh, Qassim said Gaber used to order extra weapons at one of the army checkpoints under his control. “[Shortly afterward] Daesh militants would attack the checkpoint, from which Gaber would order his troops to withdraw — leaving the weapons to the militants,” he said. “After the militants withdrew from the checkpoint, Gaber and his forces would return to find it emptied of weapons,” Qassim said.’
 “Others still are driven by the linked issues of inter-Muslim Sunni versus Shia conflict.”
 It is the Assad régime that has made the conflict sectarian. Here is Robin Yassin-Kassab, co-author of Burning Country, the best account of the Syrian revolution and Assad’s genocide.
 ‘Assad has deliberately started this war, he has deliberately made the thing militarised, and he deliberately made it sectarian.
 For a start, it hasn’t become completely jihadised, or Islamised. That’s been overdone. It’s been dramatically overdone in a rather Orientalist way, by commentators of left as much as right. Because there are still all of these democratic councils on the ground, self-organised communities, Free Army militias which a lot of journalists claim don’t exist, but clearly do. So that’s not the whole story. But how did it happen? Well, Assad deliberately provoked a war, because he knew that he couldn’t survive a genuine reform process, that one thing would lead to another, and he and his cohort would end up, at best, in prison, and stripped of their wealth. So as they wrote on the walls, “Assad or we burn the country,” they decided to burn the country, because the people didn’t want Assad. They did this because it worked before.
 In the late 70s, there was a movement of Islamist, nationalists, leftists, Communists, against Assad. Not a massive popular movement like 2011, but a movement nevertheless. It was so ruthlessly suppressed, that by 1982, all that was left of that movement was the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Which then out of idiocy or desperation staged an armed uprising in the city of Hama, at which point the Assad régime said, “Great! They’ve brought guns out, it’s a war situation.” They went in and flattened the historical centre of that ancient city, and killed somewhere between ten and forty thousand people, we don’t know how many, and that kept Syrians terrified and silent for the next decades until 2011. It worked. Then the Algerians did something similar in 91/92, and are still there, that régime is still in power. The Russians did it, from Chechnya I to Chechnya II, you see the same thing.
 Assad, at the same time that he was locking up and torturing to death tens of thousands of peaceful non-violent non-sectarian protesters, he was also releasing salafist jihadists from prison, and a lot of these people went off and founded these organisations, Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and even worse, went of to join the upper ranks of the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra (the al-Qaida franchise) and so on. He did this deliberately, he organised a series of sectarian massacres in 2012, on the plain between Homs and Hama, because he wanted a sectarian backlash. In order to terrify two constituencies. Firstly minorities in Syria, religious minorities, bourgeois secularists in Syria, who may have sympathised with the aims of the revolution, but when they saw angry Sunni Muslims threatening vengeance, as you do after massacres and children being tortured to death and a mass rape campaign, they suddenly thought, well if the alternative to this guy is people who may kill us just because of who we are, just because we aren’t Muslims in the way they are, then we have no choice but to stick to this guy. And secondly, the West. He’s done it very effectively. He’s convinced people that don’t know much about Syria, or don’t want to know much about Syria, in the West, that yes, this guy is the lesser evil. But he’s actually the source of the problem, him and his backers.’
 “Estimates vary wildly, although it seems clear that in Syria more foreign Sunnis are fighting with the rebels than there are foreign Shias fighting in defence of the Assad regime. Franco made an absurd claim that there were no foreigners among his troops.”
 This is absurd. Foreigners fighting with the non-ISIS opposition number a few thousand at most, Assad’s forces have almost entirely been replaced by transnational Shia jihadis.
 Ahmed Rahal:’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 the other side, the rebels’ secularism and ecumenism has been hidden.
 “By 2012, the Assad regime intensified its armed crackdown against the unarmed protesters in Daraya. A terrible massacre occurred there on Aug. 24, 2012, as Assad’s regime sent troops, secret police, and members of the elite 4th Division to prevent residents from fleeing the city by any means necessary. Families were executed in their homes, whole buildings of women and children were machine-gunned in the streets, and residents were even decapitated — long before the so-called Islamic State even existed.
 The state-run media launched an aggressive propaganda campaign claiming Muslims were massacring Christians, aiming to stoke fear of the opposition in the Christian community. As regime soldiers went door to door, searching for people to murder, it was the Christian community of Daraya that opened theirs to protect those fleeing the atrocities. One Catholic church treated the injured and prepared food for them.”
 “I am afraid for no one,” he said. “It’s the people’s revolution, we are one people. The Christians are our brothers.”
 ‘If most rebels acted out of religious zeal, how did they earn support from members of Syria’s minorities? Salamiya, a majority-Ismaili Shite town of105,000, which held its first protests against the Assad regime in April of 2011, has hosted massive anti-regime protests deep into the Revolution’s armed phase. The Free Syrian Army head in Salamiya is himself Ismaili. Is he acting out of Ismaili religious zeal? Syrian Christians have also established multiple anti-Assad brigades . Did they raise arms out of passion for Jesus? Just two weeks ago, a group of 30 armed Alawi draft-dodgers urged others to join them because “We are shooting at [other sects] for Bashar al-Assad…Enough.” Were they acting out of love for Ali?
 We know why Syrian Christians, Ismailis and even Alawis have taken up arms against Assad, because they tell us why in their defection videos: the regime is “corrupt” and “tyrannical.” It “perpetrates massacres” and “destroys houses onto the heads of children.” These were the same reasons given by most Syrian Sunnis who defected. They are related to simple dignity and humanity, not religious zeal.’
 It is suprising that Syrians have not become more sectarian, given the sectarian murder the régime has rained down on them.
 ‘ “The regime wanted me to use excessive and unimaginable force against unarmed civilians and innocent people. … I felt I could not protect my family anymore… That is the reason why I defected and I’m proud of it. I refuse to kill my own people and destroy my own country.
Sectarian hatred was evident from the beginning of his superiors’ involvement: “The Alawite pilots often bragged [openly] during my time at Ksheish and Kweiress airport about how they dropped bombs and killed ‘Dirty Sunnis’. Sometimes we’d ask them: ‘Did you hit the target (rebels)?’ He’d say ‘No, I dropped it on a village or on fishing boats….who cares they’re all Sunnis let them burn.’ I swear on everything valuable that was their response.” In another instance, when a Colonel from Homs did not react to a newscast with screams of ‘terrorist,’ “he was handcuffed and a bag was placed on his head in front of me by the moukhabarat. He was then taken and tortured for a week before he was returned.” ‘
 “And now in Syria, shifting international allegiances and diplomatic hostilities between the many countries engaged in the conflict, along with the hesitant and indecisive role played by decision-makers in Britain, France and the United States understandably concerned only with their own foreign policy goals, has further inflamed an already volatile situation.”
 This hesitant and indecisive sentence tells us nothing about the reality of foreign intervention in Syria. What has happened is that the Russians have provided billions of dollars worth of weaponry, the Iranians tens of thousands of troops, while the West has provided little other than rhetoric in support of the opposition; and yet Assad is still losing, as he has lost all support in the country, and now rules only by fear and by the consent of his patrons.
 ‘President Obama: “It would be a mistake for the United States, or Great Britain, or a combination of Western countries to send in ground troops and overthrow the Assad regime. But I do believe that we can apply international pressure to all the parties, including Russia, and Iran, who are essentially propping up Assad; as well as those moderate opposition that exist and may be fighting inside of Syria, to sit down at the table and try to broker a transition.”
 It’s a straw man. Nobody asked President Obama to send in ground troops to overthrow Assad. The only variation he allows for in this schema is that other countries might also invade. There are other options. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg¹ he mentions that John Kerry asked for missiles to be fired at specific régime targets. Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination to be the next president has come out in favour of a no fly zone, while Bernie Sanders is opposed. He could have called for the Syrian National Coalition to be recognised as the legitimate government. He could have supported the establishment of the FSA as the national army. He could have exerted diplomatic pressure on Iran and Russia to give up support for Assad and his régime, and pressured them to allow an immediate transition to a democratic and accountable government.
 Instead he did none of those things. He recognised the SNC as the “legitimate opposition”, allowing the US to pretend to be a friend and keep its leaders beholden to the West. He sent the CIA to Turkey’s borders to act as gatekeepers to ensure that weapons that might stop Assad’s massacres like anti-aircraft missiles were kept out, and the flow could be shut off if it looked like the rebels were advancing too fast. This isn’t an inevitable policy for the US, but it is one that the dead weight of their previous choices has tied this administration to.’
 ‘Two Syrian aid workers said they approached Kerry at a donor conference drinks reception and told him that he had not done enough to protect Syrian civilians. He then said they should blame the opposition.
“He said that basically, it was the opposition that didn’t want to negotiate and didn’t want a ceasefire, and they walked away,” the second of the aid workers told MEE in a separate conversation and also on the basis of anonymity.
 “‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?’” the aid worker said Kerry told her.
 Both aid workers said Kerry told them that he anticipated three months of bombing during which time “the opposition will be decimated”.’
 Robin Yassin-Kassab:
 “One reason the rebels, the opposition militias have collapsed recently, is because the Americans have told the Saudis and others to stop delivering weapons. Not one anti-aircraft weapon, which is what the civilians need to defend themselves from this scorched earth and depopulation, not one of them has come through. So the Americans, who present themselves as Friends of Syria, certainly aren’t friends with the Syrian Revolution. They’ve just done a deal with the Iranians, at the same moment the Iranians are sending Shia jihadist militants to Syria and Iraq, which is making the Sunni Islamist backlash so much worse. When the Russians wanted to bring their own opposition team, so-called opposition team, to Vienna, the Americans said that’s OK. When the genuine Syrian opposition team said they wanted United Nations resolutions, that the Americans and Russians had already agreed on, implemented; for example, a ceasefire, and end to the aerial bombardment in civilian areas, John Kerry told the opposition that this was a precondition they shouldn’t be talking about at this stage. So whatever the rhetoric coming out of the Americans, their actions suggest they have handed this over to Russia and Iran. So in the name of disengagement, the Americans, back in 2013 when sarin gas was used, Obama’s red line over chemical weapons disappeared, they in effect handed Syria over to Russia. It hasn’t brought about stabilisation, it’s brought about an absolute disaster. It has dragged the West back in. This year, the pressure of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean, it will be more than last year, and I wish the Europeans would stop waiting for the Americans, for American leadership on this, because it clearly isn’t coming.”
 ‘Kerry has specifically adopted Moscow’s two primary positions:
The First, making the “war on terror and extremism” the basis of any international approach in Syria. The Second, putting off for the time being any discussion of the fate of Assad, rather than making it the first step in any discussion of a political settlement, as the Syrian opposition has been demanding since day one. Kerry has now made it clear Assad does not have to leave anytime soon when he said: “It doesn’t have to be on day one or month one. There is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved.” ‘
 ‘When the first attacks occurred in March, Mr. Kerry issued an angry statement declaring that “the international community cannot turn a blind eye to such barbarism.” But the Security Council, paralyzed by Russian obstructionism, has taken no action. And Mr. Kerry and his spokesman made it clear that the Obama administration has no plans to do anything other than remonstrate with Vladi­mir Putin’s powerless foreign minister.
 It is well within the power of the United States to put a stop to the horrific attacks. It could impose a no-fly zone in northern Syria, where Idlib province lies, or simply shoot down the slow-moving Syrian helicopters carrying out the attacks. As former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford testified to the House committee, a failure to act won’t affect only Syria: “The international consensus against CW use forged after the horrors of World War I is being eroded with each new chemical attack,” he said. “This is a risk to our own soldiers’ safety and our broader national security.”
 No matter: “I don’t have any specific measures here that I can lay out for you” to stop the chlorine attacks, said State Department spokesman John Kirby. Tell that to the families of the children whose lungs are being burned away.’
 “After all, from September 1939 onwards, despite the class prejudices of the ruling class and senior military officers, the fight of the volunteers in Spain had become was the fight of the majority of British and French citizens. There will be no equivalent whatever the result of the war in Syria.”
 That’s a shame, because it there is much to support in the Syrian revolution, and it is the right-wing forces in Europe that benefit from stigmatising the refugees and those still fighting for their freedom.
 Robin Yassin-Kassab:
 “Living conditions are absolutely unbearable, in some places people are actually starving to death. There’s constant barrel bombing, etc., etc., chemical weapons, and so on. Having said that, the inspiring thing, and the thing the media really hasn’t covered very well, is that there are over 400 democratically elected local councils in Syria.
 Now this is something that is quite amazing, and I can’t understand why we’re not talking about it much more, because in the previous decade the West was invading the Middle East, to bring them democracy supposedly, on the back of tanks, and that didn’t really work out. Now, out of necessity, in places where the state has collapsed, or has been driven back; people have got together, they’ve organised elections, and they’ve got local councils that are trying to keep life going in the most difficult of situations. These people should be part of the solution.
 They’ve done it in different ways in different places, but in some ways they are elections as we would recognise here. So, for example, in the south, where the dominant militia is the Southern Front, a group of Free Army militias, they have refused to enter into alliances with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida group, they have had no problem at all with people organising elections in the south. The leaders of militias were not allowed to stand, so we’ve got civilian councils.”
 “Well, there’s something really beautiful about Manbij and many other cities like it in Syria in that the people have a sense of responsibility that has been pushing them to organize the city for almost- Manbij has been liberated for a year and three months almost – right now. And you find people in local councils, people in the police force, for example, the brigade and other organizations that are working completely without pay, without any form, not even a political agenda. It’s just that feeling of duty towards the country that’s keeping them there. Manbij has changed in many ways; we’re free. For the first time ever, the Syrian people are experiencing this freedom where they’re allowed to be politically active, where they’re allowed to look at the future from a completely different angle.”
 “While traveling with some of these Free Syrian Army battalions, I’ve watched them defend Alawi and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups. They’ve demonstrated a willingness to submit to civilian authority, working closely with local administrative councils. And they have struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society. One local council I visited in a part of Aleppo controlled by the Free Syrian Army was holding weekly forums in which citizens were able to speak freely, and have their concerns addressed directly by local authorities.”
 Kenan Rahmani: ‘The “free” in “Free Syria” was palpable: talking to kids in the street, or to armed rebels who were protecting the city, or the representatives of the local administrative councils.’
 “Something struck me almost immediately about these two men; both broadcast something like hope. As we talked further, I realized it was something deeper than that; pride. A pride that I have never experienced. When they speak about their journey to Europe and of their brushes with death, they do so knowing that they stood on the right side of history, that they did exactly what they would want themselves or anyone to do in their situation; they stood and pushed forward when the Arab world was trying to rid itself of the regimes and dogmatic political doctrines that oversaw the repression of their generation.
 Though they carry trauma and scars from Syria, and while their families and friends are scattered, dead, or in prison, neither regret their role in the Syrian revolution. But Sami and Tariq have hope as well, a hope in knowing that perhaps the revolt in Syria will be a building block toward some better future. It had to happen, they stress, and once it had started, they had to push it as far as they could.
Such hope does not come from blind faith, but from knowing that something could work, from a sense of potential and possibility. That is what Tunisia and Egypt taught the world in late 2010 and early 2011, and it’s what drove people like Sami and Tariq to the streets of Damascus a month later. They live now knowing that they were among the millions who tried.”
 ‘As in a number of Arab countries, many of Syria’s women were largely confined to traditional roles before the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the outbreak of war. Now, however, more and more women are at the forefront of new efforts to solve local problems and counter the death and destruction that has engulfed the country.
 One of the ways they’ve done this is by starting their own independent magazines and radio stations, such as Jasmine Syria, Sayedet Souriya, Radio Souriyat and Nasaem Radio, which focus on highlighting the daily struggles of Syrian women amid the conflict.”The stereotypical image of women presented in media reflects a patriarchal society,” said Reem al-Halabi, director of Nasaem Radio, which is based in the northwestern city of Aleppo. “Women’s interests are not limited to fashion, beauty, cooking, family and children. This image does not reflect the real interests or concerns of Syrian women or how hard they are working to take part in building their country.”
 More women are also launching community initiatives, such as Women Now for Development, a center formed by women in 2012 in the besieged town of Hazza in the Damascus countryside to provide training in new skills. The initiative focuses on young women who have had to quit school due to the security situation and widows who need to generate income to support their families. Layla, the manager of Women Now for Development, said the conflict had paradoxically “opened new horizons” for some Syrian women. “They are more self-confident and not afraid to express their opinions anymore, and this is reflected in the way they raise their children and deal with their husbands and the society around them,” said Layla, who asked that her real name not be used for security reasons.Layla added that Women Now’s workshops about women’s rights have contributed to increasing the number of women who voted in local council elections in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus.’
 ‘They beat me. They beat me with a strap, kicked me with their boots, they beat me with everything they could. They broke my fingers. I am a surgeon and they broke all my fingers. They would lift me by my shoulder and leave me hanging like this for 3 hours. But the worst of all the torture I endured was cold (it was wintertime and I had no clothes on) and hunger: we were starving; they would not let us eat. They tortured me mentally threatening to rape my mother and daughter; they humiliated me as a human being and as a doctor. When they questioned me, I was standing before them stark naked, blindfolded, with my hands tied. It all lasted for 7 months.
 All this will end if the whole world continues its pressure and starts using all available means to stop the dictator, the murderer.
 Even if the regime succeeds in making Syria fall apart into several states, this will mean nothing: we will continue to fight no matter what. We’ll fight for a hundred years if we have to. Syria must be one country. After Assad goes, we will start building a new, free Syria: a democratic, multi-ethnic, and multi-confessional country.’