Saturday, 16 April 2016

‘Accountability and Transitional Justice’ Seen Key to Sustained Peace in Syria

 'The solution to the situation in Syria should include a comprehensive process for accountability and transitional justice, according to Mazen Darwish, President of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

Darwish noted that at the Geneva talks, everyone is going “around the main topic, without discussing the real solution.” He stressed that there is no easy way to reconciliation. “You cannot press end to this conflict and then expect everything to be right again,” he added.

 In order to have real solutions and to prevent the resurgence of another civil war, questions regarding the Kurdish population, political transformation, accountability, and reconciliation need to be addressed, according to Darwish. If these underlying issues remain unaddressed and “do not take into consideration the transitional justice, then we will just have ticking bombs for the future,” he said.

 He stated that the only way to protect the Syrian minorities is to hold the regime accountable, “not by extermination of the majority or by rewarding those who committed crimes against the humanity and letting them go with those crimes.”

 “Putting the Syrian people in front of only two options, dictatorship or terrorism, is unethical, immoral and unacceptable,” said Darwish. He highlighted the importance of peace in Syria for Europe and the international community: “This world won’t be alright without peace and development in Syria. Even here in the US, or in Europe, or in any place in the world, we need democracy and peace inside Syria to have democracy and peace in the whole world.”

 According to Darwish, if the Syrian citizens who are looking and willing to fight for freedom and democracy for the future are defeated, then everyone will be defeated. “No one would benefit from that except for terrorism.” As such, the removal of dictators and the defeat of terrorism are linked. “If we are really serious to fight ISIS and its ideology, we should guarantee that dictatorship should be defeated first,” he said.'

Thanks to UK and US intervention, al-Qaeda now has a mini-state in Yemen. It's Iraq and Isis all over again

Image result for Thanks to UK and US intervention, al-Qaeda now has a mini-state in Yemen. It's Iraq and Isis all over again

 Patrick Cockburn shows more clearly than ever that he prefers dictators to popular revolution. It would be nice if his admirers, from Noam Chomsky to Jeremy Corbyn, would acknowledge this. There is extreme dissonance if you say, "I'm not saying things were better when Gadaffi was in power, but...", or "I'm not pro-Assad, but...", and then promote a man who is saying precisely that, that it is better when the tyrants are in charge, that the people love them, that the opposition is just a Western-backed illusion that paved the way for dangerous extremist Muslims.

 "There was the same lethal pretence by Western powers in Libya and Syria that the rebels they backed represented the mass of the population and were capable of taking over from existing regimes. In reality, the weakening or destruction of central government created a power vacuum promptly filled by extreme jihadi groups."

 It's noticeable that in Yemen, Cockburn presents everything as being the fault of Saudi Arabia - and the West that should be backing dictators, though not the Saudi ones for some reason. He refers a couple of times to suggestions that the pro-the previous dictator and Houthi side has any Iranian backing as inaccurate labelling and having little evidence for it, but gives no reason why we should take his word for it. And this feels a bit like traditional stereotyping of Arabs:

Yemeni politics is exceptionally complicated and often violent, but violence has traditionally been followed by compromise between warring parties."

 In truth it is allowing Assad to proceed with his genocide against Sunni Muslims that has wrecked "
a whole country and enable al Qaeda and Isis to use the chaos to establish safe havens." The Institute For War & Peace Reporting* shows how much there is nothing but a barbarous kleptocracy where the Syrian state once was, where it hasn't simply handed over parts of the country to Iran. There can be no end to ISIS while this cancer persists, the very disease Cockburn wants us to preserve.

My family and I fled Syria on January 24, 2012. Too many of us had already been arrested and it was no longer safe.

 The government had eyes and ears everywhere. Young men were being paid handsome amounts of money to join the ranks of the shabiha paramilitaries. They were on every corner, in every neighbourhood. They were the worst kind of human beings, with no moral scruples.  
 My family and many others suffered a great deal because of the shabiha. They detained people for trivial reasons without a second thought as to what would become of them. They didn’t care if the person was a man or a woman, young or old.
 We fled our country because of these villains.

 One woman told us how she had been detained in al-Qusur street. She was carrying a laptop the shabiha probably wanted for themselves. They accused her of participating in terrorist activities and threw her in jail. When her youngest son went to the local intelligence headquarters to ask after her, he too was thrown in one of their cells. The woman was later released, but her son remained in prison for two years. He was tortured until he died.

 A friend of mine from a village in Latakia’s countryside also suffered at their hands. “They took my husband and held him for three years, following which they executed him. He died before meeting his youngest daughter. He was an aircraft engineer and was caught while sabotaging one of their military aircrafts.”
 Then there was the woman from the village of al-Bayda in Banyas. The village was one of the first in the governorate of Tartus to announce its support for the revolution. The woman I met told me about a massacre in May 2013 in which at least 250 people were killed as a punishment for the uprising.
 “They divided the men, women and children into separate groups, then killed them in the ugliest of ways. It was indiscriminate murder. Neither gender nor age mattered to them. They even set the wounded on fire. When they left, those of us who had survived gathered the bodies of the dead and buried them in mass graves. Then more than 500 families fled, and we were amongst them,” she said.

 The woman’s elderly father-in-law was slaughtered along with his two sons, while his third son watched in horror. That third son was her husband. The couple sold their house in Banyas for a fraction of what it was worth to fund their journey to Turkey and then to Europe where they hoped to find medical care, jobs and a future for their young children.

 Umm Mohammed last saw her son Mohammed on November 6, 2012. That day, the government launched a major offensive on her town of Saraqib. Mohammed’s wife was martyred. When they found her she was still clutching the loaf of bread she had gone out to buy for her children. Umm Mohammed searched amongst the bodies of the martyrs for her son, but she could not find him. She took his children and fled to Reyhanli in Turkey where she how lives with her daughter.'

Friday, 15 April 2016

Labels Do Matter: It’s a Revolution, Stupid.


 Maryam Saleh:

'Since day one, there have been various competing versions of events: the Syrian people’s narrative has been of a movement seeking freedom and dignity, the Assad regime’s rhetoric has been of terrorists, infiltrators, and foreign conspirators, and the initial U.S. discourse was of support for the people.

In 2012, even as the Syrian opposition began to take up arms, it was abundantly clear that the government, propped up by Iran and Russia, was the unlawful aggressor, and the defenseless people were desperately trying to protect themselves and their communities.

Gradually though, the narrative in mainstream media and among policymakers shifted. Conflict or civil war, not revolution or popular uprising. Rebels or insurgents, not revolutionaries or freedom fighters. Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra— an enemy of the revolution — somehow became synonymous with it. ISIS, which waged war on anti-Assad Syrians nearly a year before it began threatening the West, took center stage and became a primary global concern, eclipsing any discussion of the Assad regime’s ongoing wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people.

I grew tired of explaining to anti-interventionists that my people deserved to live without constant fear of barrel bombs, and that either a no-fly zone or anti-aircraft weaponry (or both) was necessary to accomplish that. I no longer wanted to explain that President Barack Obama’s August 2011 call for Assad’s departure did not transform the “revolution” into a U.S. ploy to effectuate regime change reminiscent of Iraq; that a popular revolution born in the streets of Syria was invariably different from a foreign occupation planned in the White House and Pentagon; and that President Obama’s policies (especially his appeasement of Iran and his chemical weapons “red line”) breathed life into Assad’s killing machine.

I became more cynical, angry, and jaded than I ever could have imagined, and I knew that if I spoke of al-thawra al-sooriyyeh to anyone watching mainstream media in 2015, I would come off as a lunatic. So I too began referring to Syria as a conflict, not a revolution.

Late last month, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) negotiated a shaky (and extremely flawed) “cessation of hostilities“ in Syria. Syrians felt free to protest en masse for the first time in years. On March 4, a Friday named “The Revolution Continues,” Syrians held 104 peaceful protests throughout the country, renewing their basic demand for Assad’s departure. On March 11, protesters once again came out to “Renew Their Vows” to the Syrian revolution. And on March 15, Syrians celebrated the fifth anniversary of the start of the protests.

History will not be kind to those who abandoned the Syrian people, and the Syrian people will not look favorably on those who conveniently and lazily reduced their revolution for dignity to a civil war. Revolutions are messy, and they parry with counterrevolutions such that they often descend into war, but the war in Syria would not be without the revolutionary spark that ignited it. So I have resolved to stop being stupid. From today onward, it’s a revolution, never a conflict.'

Monday, 11 April 2016

The Assad Files

Some half a million people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. An additional five million have fled, emptying the country.

 'After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war. In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities.

 The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty. Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. Stephen Rapp, who led prosecution teams at the international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone before serving for six years as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told me that the CIJA’s documentation “is much richer than anything I’ve seen, and anything I’ve prosecuted in this area.”

 On March 30, 2011, Assad addressed the nation from the rotunda of the Syrian parliament building. He had just sacked his cabinet, and many people expected him to announce liberalizing reforms. Instead, he declared his intention to suppress dissent in the brutal tradition of his father, Hafez al-Assad. “Syria is facing a great conspiracy, whose tentacles extend” to foreign powers that were plotting to destroy the country, he said. “There is no conspiracy theory,” he added. “There is a conspiracy.” He closed with an ominous directive: “Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty, and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it.” He emphasized, “There is no compromise or middle way in this.”

 Two days later, protests across the country grew larger. Assad had already formed a secret security committee, called the Central Crisis Management Cell, to coördinate a crackdown. Its chairman was Mohammad Said Bekheitan, the highest-ranking official in the ruling Baath Party, after Assad; the other members—who were all Assad-dynasty confidants—were routinely shuffled among the top positions in the military, the ministries, and the security-intelligence apparatus.

 The group decided to hire someone to process all the paperwork. One of the applicants was Abdelmajid Barakat, a twenty-four-year-old with slicked-back hair. Early in the unrest, he had joined one of Syria’s first organized revolutionary bodies. Now, in the regime’s haste to make the Crisis Cell more efficient, it was employing a member of the opposition to process confidential security memos from all over the country. At the end of each meeting, the Crisis Cell agreed on a plan for every security issue. Then Bekheitan, the chairman, signed the minutes, and a courier delivered them to Assad at the Presidential palace. Barakat learned that Assad reviewed the proposals, signed them, and returned them to the Crisis Cell for implementation. Sometimes he made revisions, crossing out directives and adding new ones. He also issued decrees without consulting the Crisis Cell. Barakat was certain that no security decision, no matter how small, was made without Assad’s approval.

 Shortly after Barakat began working for the Crisis Cell, he started leaking documents. Though the regime publicly claimed that it was allowing peaceful demonstrations, security memos showed that intelligence agents were targeting protesters and media activists, and shooting at them indiscriminately.

 Mazen al-Hamada was born in 1977, the youngest of seventeen children in an educated, middle-class family in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. His siblings grew up to be pharmacists, teachers, and lawyers, and he became a field specialist at Schlumberger, the international oil-services company, which operated in the rich oil fields around Deir Ezzor. Members of Hamada’s family were outspoken critics of the government, and even before the revolution they were routinely followed and periodically arrested. They were especially outraged by the government’s failure to do anything about the widening gap between the rich and the poor. “It was all organized to benefit the élites,” Hamada told me.

 Hamada and his friends were excited by the prospect of revolution, and every Wednesday they began meeting inside the neighborhood mosque, the Othman bin Affan, to organize protests that would take place after Friday prayers. “It was a logistical issue,” he told me. “Everyone went to the mosque on a Friday, everyone came out.” He laughed, and added, “If we could have come out of churches, we would have come out of churches!”

 Hamada often videotaped protests as well as the security response. The regime had cut off the Internet in his neighborhood, so he uploaded the videos to YouTube at a relative’s workplace. Some of them ended up in Arabic news broadcasts. To counter such activities, the governor told the security committee, “We should nominate Internet experts among our comrades to deal with hostile Web sites spitting out their venom in the country, such as Facebook.”

 On the evening of August 5, 2011, the Central Crisis Management Cell held its usual meeting at the Baath Party Regional Command. In five months of revolution, the protests had spread to several more provinces, which members of the committee attributed to “the laxness in handling the crisis,” according to documents captured by the CIJA. They blamed “weak coördination and coöperation among security bodies.” That evening, they devised a plan to target specific categories of people.

 First, all security branches were to launch daily raids against protest organizers and “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media.” Next, “once each sector has been cleansed of wanted people,” security agents would coördinate with Baathist loyalists, neighborhood militias, and community leaders to insure that opposition activists could not return to those areas. Third, they would “establish a joint investigation committee at the province level,” made up of representatives from all of the security branches, which would interrogate detainees. The results “shall be sent to all security branches, so that they can be used in the identification of new targets that need to be prosecuted.”

 Mazen al-Hamada’s name soon appeared on an arrest list in Deir Ezzor. Two of his brothers were also wanted, as was one of his brothers-in-law. One day in March, 2012, a doctor asked Hamada if he would smuggle baby formula to a woman in Darayya, a rebellious suburb of Damascus. He and his nephews gathered fifty-five packages of formula, hid them under their clothes, and travelled to meet her at a café. As soon as Hamada handed over the bags, security agents handcuffed him and his nephews, pulled their shirts over their heads, and shoved them into an S.U.V. “I had no idea where we were going,” Hamada said. “The whole way, they were telling us, ‘We’re going to execute you.’ ”

 Two weeks later, in the Air Force-intelligence branch at al-Mezzeh Military Airport, the prisoners were put in a small hangar, a little more than forty feet long and twenty feet wide. A hundred and seventy people were packed inside, their arms wrapped around their legs, chins on their knees. “You’re rotting,” Hamada told me. “There’s no air, there’s no sunlight. Your nails are really long, because you can’t cut them. So when you scratch yourself you tear your skin off.” The prisoners weren’t able to wash themselves or to change their underwear. The sores of scabies and other skin ailments covered their bodies. Throughout the country, detainees routinely drank water out of toilets and died from starvation, suffocation, and disease. “People went crazy,” Hamada said. “People would lose their memories, people would lose their minds.” Eventually, he was transferred to a solitary-confinement cell, which he shared with ten people.

 One day, Hamada was blindfolded and dragged to another room for questioning. The lead interrogator, whom Hamada knew as Suhail, began by establishing Hamada’s identity. (Some people were detained and tortured by accident; their names were similar to those on wanted lists.) When Suhail asked for information about other opposition activists he had met in Damascus, Hamada hesitated. The torture began. “At the beginning, they were using cigarettes,” he said. “They would stub them out on my legs.” He rolled up his jeans to the knee and showed me four round scars on his left leg, five on his right. There were burns on his thighs, too. They also poured water on him, and shocked him with wires and prods. To end the abuse, Hamada gave up the names of friends who had already been killed in Deir Ezzor.

 Suhail’s assistants told Hamada that if he admitted to carrying weapons he would be released. He didn’t confess, so they cracked four of his ribs. At that point, he agreed that he had been armed with a hunting rifle, and they let him down. But, to better suit terrorism charges, Suhail wanted the confession to include a Kalashnikov. Hamada refused, so, he said, “they stripped me out of my underwear and brought a plumbing clamp,” of the kind typically used to moderate pressure in hoses. “They put it on my penis, and started tightening it.” Hamada recalled Suhail asking, “Are you going to admit it, or shall I cut it off?” Hamada agreed that he had carried a Kalashnikov, so Suhail released the clamp and asked how many clips of ammunition Hamada had carried. “How many clips do you want me to have?” Hamada asked. Suhail reminded him that he had to confess on his own, so Hamada said, “I had five bullets.” That wasn’t good enough, Suhail told him: “I need two magazines.” The torture escalated until Hamada confessed to everything they asked.

 Coerced confessions served no apparent intelligence-gathering purposes, but they did lend a legalistic veneer to the detention process. After confessing to violent crimes, anti-government activists could face serious charges, and, if convicted, be kept in detention for years. The confessions also perpetuated the illusion of a vast conspiracy against Syria, as detainees admitted to engaging in sedition or treason.

 The brutality took a toll on many interrogators, too. In at least one case, an interrogator begged a detainee to admit to a crime so that he could stop hurting him. “They were very much of the opinion that they had to produce results,” Chris Engels told me. “The ramifications of not doing their job well were real, and there’s evidence of what happened to people who did not.” The final line of the Crisis Cell’s targeting policy ordered the heads of security branches to “periodically supply the National Security Bureau with the names of security agents who are irresolute or unenthusiastic.” Some of them ended up in Hamada’s cell.

 In early 2013, after nearly a year of detention, Hamada lay on the floor of the hangar. He had been interrogated and tortured seven or eight times. An infection in his eye was dripping pus. The skin on his legs was gangrenous. he next day, the head of interrogation came to the cell and informed Hamada that he was being sent to Hospital 601, a military hospital that sits at the base of Mt. Mezzeh. Hamada had heard of Hospital 601. Several other detainees had been sent there, and the few who had returned, Hamada said, had cautioned, “This is not a hospital—this is a slaughterhouse.” Despite Hamada’s condition, guards hit him during the drive to the hospital. One used a green pipe; in Arabic, al-akhdar refers to a green object, so security agents all over Syria taunted detainees by calling this weapon Lakhdar Brahimi, who was then the U.N. special envoy for Syria.

 In the hospital corridor, male and female nurses started hitting Hamada with their shoes and calling him a terrorist. When he got to the ward, he was tied to a bed with two other prisoners. A nurse asked him about his symptoms, then beat him with a stick. A U.N. report from later that year notes, “Some medical professionals have been co-opted into the maltreatment” of detainees at Hospital 601. Hamada was in disbelief as much as he was in pain.

 That night, Hamada woke up needing to use the bathroom. A guard hit him all the way to the toilets, but he went in alone. When he opened the first stall, he saw a pile of corpses, battered and blue. He found two more in the second stall, emaciated and missing their eyes. There was another body by the sink. Hamada came out in panic, but the guard sent him back in and told him, “Pee on top of the bodies.” He couldn’t. He started to feel that he was losing his grip on reality. According to the U.N. inquiry, dead detainees were “kept in the toilets” at multiple security branches in Damascus.

 Later that night, two drunk soldiers walked into the ward. One of them bellowed, “Who wants medicine?” Several detainees lifted their hands. The doctors hadn’t given Hamada any drugs—only a mostly empty bag of intravenous fluid—but one of his bedmates, who had been in the ward for several days, warned him not to volunteer. The soldier selected an eager prisoner. With the inmate kneeling at his feet, head facing the floor, the soldier grabbed a sharp weapon and started hacking at the base of his skull, severing the spinal cord from the head. Then he ordered another patient to drag the body to the bathroom. The U.N. report says of Hospital 601, “Many patients have been tortured to death in this facility.” The soldier called himself Azrael, after the archangel of death; other survivors recall him murdering patients in similarly horrifying ways.

 On the second day, he begged a doctor to send him back to the Air Force-intelligence branch. The doctor noted that Hamada was still sick. “No, no, no, I am totally cured,” he said. On the fifth day, he was escorted out of Hospital 601 by the same guards who had deposited him there. “You animal, you son of a bitch,” they said. “You still didn’t die.” They hit him all the way back to the branch, then strung him up by his wrists for four hours.

 In the early hours of August 21st, the Syrian government launched rockets carrying sarin gas into densely populated neighborhoods in Damascus, killing more than fourteen hundred people. In response, President Obama, who had earlier committed to a “red line” should Assad use chemical weapons, announced, “I have decided the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.” He said he would wait for congressional approval, but, he continued, “what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death, in plain sight, and pay no price?”

 Shortly after the chemical attack, Hamada and many other prisoners were transported to al-Mezzeh, without explanation. Agents moved the detainees to a large, empty hangar on the base. At least one of the sarin-gas rockets is believed to have been launched from the base at al-Mezzeh—it was a logical target for an American strike. Inside the hangar, guards jeered at the detainees. They said that when the Americans bombed Syria all of them would be killed.

 In early September, the United States backed away from the prospect of a military campaign, and Hamada was returned to the terrorism court in Damascus, where his case was finally heard. The judge noted that he had confessed to attacking checkpoints and killing soldiers. Hamada rolled up his pants and showed the judge the cigarette burns. He held up his wrists, revealing deep purple scars. He showed the black-and-blue welts on his torso. It was a familiar scene inside the courtroom. To each charge, the judge said, “Not guilty.”

 He fled to Turkey, boarded a smuggler’s raft to Greece, and travelled more than seventeen hundred miles to the Netherlands, where his sister had moved before the war. He recalled the migration with a shrug, in a single sentence, as if it were nothing.

 Hamada’s account of atrocities at Hospital 601 was later corroborated by approximately fifty-five thousand photographs, smuggled out of Syria by a military-police officer known by the name Caesar, an alias. Between Caesar’s photographs and the CIJAs case, Stephen Rapp told me, “when the day of justice arrives, we’ll have much better evidence than we’ve had anywhere since Nuremberg.” Wiley and Engels believe that, should the case go to court, the CIJA has sufficient evidence to convict Assad and his associates on several charges of crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, and other inhumane acts.

 Last year, when Assad was asked about the Caesar photographs during an interview with Foreign Affairs, he said, “Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else?” In 2011, the U.N. commission of inquiry alleged that a thirteen-year-old boy named Hamza al-Khateeb had been tortured to death in detention. In response, a Syrian investigation concluded that, shortly after the boy died, a “forensic photographer” took “six colored photos” of the corpse. “We attributed the number twenty-three to it.” The Syrians determined that the pictures showed “no beating marks, no traces of torture,” and that the boy had been killed by gunfire, “most probably by his fellow-terrorists.” The investigation also found that a doctor who had reported that the boy’s penis had been cut off “had misjudged the situation in an earlier examination.” Caesar’s collection contains six images of Hamza al-Khateeb’s body. His eyes are swollen shut, and his head is a deep purple, from being beaten. His penis is missing. In every picture, there is a bloodstained note card bearing the number twenty-three.

 In the Netherlands, Hamada attends physical-therapy sessions to rehabilitate his scarred limbs. He studies Dutch and organizes anti-Assad protests in public squares, though attendance is sparse. He wonders about his nephews, his brother, his brother-in-law, and many missing friends. “Where are they?” he cried. “Are they alive? Are they dead?” His sister in Syria asks the military police for death certificates, to no avail. Every day is “misery,” Hamada said. “It’s misery. It’s misery. It’s death. It’s a life of death.” '

Sunday, 10 April 2016

In Aleppo the war is going ahead to the silence of worldwide media

 Mohammad Alaa sent these pictures and this video from Aleppo asking us to show what is happening in Syria while all the world think Russia is saving the country. Alaa today picked up a member of White Helmets and a child, both death because of the bombings.

'You will go behind the sun'

 'Only one of Rabe Alkhdar's brothers came back alive from a Syrian prison. Hassan, emerged from one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's most infamous prisons, Tadmor, and told his mother that her other son, Hameed, had been killed inside.
"He told her that after he was beaten and hung, the guards returned the body and threw it on top of Yunus. They left both bodies there for two days. Hassan had to watch his brother lay there dead for two days. We only got Hassan back, and Hameed's death certificate. It's now been three years since we lost him."
 "One day my brothers were called to treat a victim at his home," Rabe explained. "They went to the given address and were trying to do it quietly. They knocked on the door but nobody answered, and they felt that something was wrong. Suddenly they were surrounded by Assad's intelligence forces and were captured."
 He continued: "As detainees, they were beaten with batons and cables. The interrogators used braided electrical cords to beat them across their backs and neck, and batons to beat them on the bottom of their feet in Tadmor. The agents promised to released them if my family paid them a ransom, so we paid $9,000 to get both of them back. But Hassan was also forced to make a deal. He had to promise to collect information for the regime about doctors and pharmacists working in Syria's medical aid networks."
 Hassan betrayed his captors and fled to Turkey after he was released, Rabe said. But his other brother, Hameed, was killed inside the prison.
 "We gave them all the money and only one of my brothers walked out of Tadmor," Rabe said. "We waited and waited for my other brother. No one came. We looked at Hassan and he could not speak. My mom hurried to hug him and she begged him to tell her about her other son. Hassan just cried uncontrollably. She insisted for him to tell her right then."
 "He told us that while he was in prison, there was a young boy being detained in their cell along with six others. His name was Yunus. Yunus was sick all the time. One day, he suddenly fell to the ground. He got up and stumbled across the cell and fell to the floor again. He lay there on the ground curled in a ball.  Yunus seem epileptic."
 After his release, Hassan explained that Yunus had been in the prison for a month because his family was poor and couldn't pay for his release. He was not allowed any medication for his condition, and, Hassan recalled, "on that day his health seemed to fail him all together."
 "The guards grabbed my brother and left this child to suffer alone from his seizure. Within a few long moments Yunus was dead."
 Not long after, Hameed was dead, too. After trying to get out of the guards' grip to reach Yunus after he collapsed, Hameed was dragged out of the cell and hung.
 "There's a saying in Syria that if you do something wrong, if you defy the government, you will 'go behind the sun,'" Rabe said. "In other words, you will be arrested and then just disappear. No one goes to Assad's prisons without being tortured." More than half of Syria's population has either fled or been killed since the war erupted in March 2011. The vast majority have died simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time: barrel bombs dropped by regime helicopters on civilian targets in rebel-held areas have killed over 20,000 people, mostly civilians, in five years.
 Thousands more have been tortured and killed in the regime's prisons, a practice the United Nations deemed "extermination as a crime against humanity."
 The Islamic State and Al Qaeda's affiliate group in Syria, known as Jabhat al-Nusra, have also ruled parts of Syria with an iron fist, but far fewer have been killed by the jihadist groups than by the government and its allies. Rabe said his uncle, Ahmad, was killed by the Islamic State in March 2013, along with his cousin, Hasan. They were charged with treason "for helping infidels move from one area of Aleppo to another" in 2013, Rabe said.
 The Free Syrian Army, an umbrella organization comprised of mostly moderate rebel groups backed by Western countries, kicked ISIS out of Aleppo later that year, Rabe explained. But before the jihadists fled, they killed all of their prisoners.
 Still, when asked who his own family had suffered from more, Rabe was unequivocal.
 "Both [ISIS and Assad] are hideous," Rabe said. "But my family suffered most from the regime side."
 Rabe moved to Washington, D.C. As of this article's publishing, he was still waiting for his and his family's asylum claims to be processed.  His Facebook page offers a glimpse into his life before the war — photos of him and his brothers at soccer games, his trips to Sydney and Cape Town, his boys playing with iPads. Now he uses it to post videos of the war's atrocities and photos of his sons draped in the revolution's flag.  He is under no illusion that his family will ever be reunited in Aleppo. The war will rage on, he believes, as long as Assad remains in power. 
 "I can’t see an end to this war, and no one is helping to solve the root of the problem, which is Assad," Rabe said. "Assad is the head of the snake."
 The embattled president recently said in an interview that he didn't think it would be difficult to form a coalition government with members of the opposition, and that he would call for new elections if that is what the Syrian people wanted. Rabe laughed at the notion, saying that he had never voted because there is no use in it.
 "I don’t know what voting is. I don’t know what freedom is," he said.
 Then, he began to cry.
 "Since moving to the US, I've met many Americans who ask me what it was like growing up under that dictatorship. They then say they 'can't imagine' what it must have been like, that they were born free and will die free. I've never experienced that," he said, with a sad smile. "I will never experience that." '