Saturday, 1 October 2016
' "Bombing a school in 2016 shouldn't be normal, shouldn't be OK," insists Marcell Shehwaro, a 32-year-old Syrian activist, who runs a network of informal schools out of basements in the devastated city. Classrooms, bakeries, hospitals and even rescue workers are targeted in her hometown during the most merciless airstrikes of a war now five years old.
"Stopping the bombing is what I need right now," she says in an interview in New York. Shehwaro was part of a delegation of Syrian civil society workers at the United Nations. They came to confront world leaders over the Russian and Syrian offensive in Syria after a short-lived ceasefire collapsed. She is from a Christian family, and President Bashar Assad's regime and Islamist militants have targeted her. Syria's Christian community shuns her, blaming the revolt she supported for ushering in militant Islamists that target Christians.
"I can't quit. I speak English. I have two degrees and I'm privileged. Quitting means that I lost," she says. "When I am tired and I want to quit, I say, 'OK, 100 girls went back to school [last month] so I will keep going,'" says Shehwaro. She runs Kesh Malek, which means "checkmate" in English, and the defeat of the king in chess.
Her group has opened seven schools in rebel-held Aleppo, serving up to 3,000 pupils in basement classrooms to shield students from the bombs. But the war has taken an immense personal toll.
"Maybe I didn't leave because I'm guilty that I survived," she says. "I'm without a family, without a country, without dreams, but I'm more determined, more realistic."
In July 2011, the Syrian government held a "national dialogue," a gathering of establishment and moderate opposition figures. The meeting was a gesture by Assad's government to address the nationwide demonstrations that had erupted four months earlier, in March. After the gathering, the protests continued and the government responded ever more harshly. Shehwaro paid a heavy price as a blogger who was openly critical of the government.
"I lost my job," she said. "I went to a weekly interrogation [by security officials] that lasted for hours."
She eventually joined the street protests in Aleppo, in the north of the country. By the summer of 2012, half of Aleppo was under rebel control.
"I don't know if I want to remember who I was in 2011. It was a peaceful revolution. It was a cry for help for something beautiful," she says about those heady days of promise. What followed was something she never imagined five years ago: protesters were met with brutal force, peaceful activists were arrested and tortured, thousands of deaths were cataloged and photographed by the regime. Rape was used as punishment in Assad's jails, according to activists. Rebel factions, increasingly radicalized, adopted an extremist ideology hostile to those advocating democracy. When her mother was killed at a military checkpoint in Aleppo in 2012, Shehwaro accused the regime of murder on her Facebook page.
"As an activist I had a responsibility to tell the truth," she says.
Later, when she went to the hospital with her sister to identify her mother's body, a police officer told her not to overreact.
"I told him, 'You killed her, it's not a mistake.'" Her sister urged her to leave Aleppo for her own safety.
Islamist militants arrested her in 2014 because she refused to wear a veil in an ISIS-controlled neighborhood.
"I survived the regime and I survived ISIS. It's an amazing story," she says. Referring to Sunni Muslim activists who sheltered her, she adds, "I have been around really good people who protected me along the way. Many of them weren't Christians. Actually, 90 percent of them were not Christians."
When she moved from Syria to southern Turkey last year because the dangers had become too great, she wrote about it as another defeat, "A year of denial, guilt, grief, and surrender. Nothing of the hero left for me."
Shehwaro says she's still committed to a democratic Syria but most of her idealism has been ravaged by the barbarity of the war.
As the ceasefire collapsed in Aleppo last week, the regime launched a new military offensive with Russian allies against rebel neighborhoods where Shehwaro runs some schools. Shehwaro's team often closes classrooms to preserve fuel for hospitals overwhelmed with civilian casualties.
"I'm 32 years old and I don't want to take those kinds of decisions," she says. "I don't want to decide whether fuel should go to schools or to save lives." '
Tuesday, 27 September 2016
'The collapse of the latest Syria ceasefire has heightened the possibility that Gulf states might arm Syrian rebels with shoulder-fired missiles to defend themselves against Syrian and Russian warplanes, U.S. officials said on Monday.
One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss American policy, said Washington has kept large numbers of such man-portable air defence systems, or MANPADS, out of Syria by uniting Western and Arab allies behind channelling training and infantry weapons to moderate opposition groups while it pursued talks with Moscow.
But frustration with Washington has intensified, raising the possibility that Gulf allies or Turkey will no longer continue to follow the U.S. lead or will turn a blind eye to wealthy individuals looking to supply MANPADS to opposition groups.
"The Saudis have always thought that the way to get the Russians to back off is what worked in Afghanistan 30 years ago – negating their air power by giving MANPADS to the mujahideen," said a second U.S. official.
"So far, we’ve been able to convince them that the risks of that are much higher today because we’re not dealing with a Soviet Union in retreat, but a Russian leader who’s bent on rebuilding Russian power and less likely to flinch," this official said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Asked if the United States was willing to do anything beyond negotiations to try to stop the violence, State Department spokesman Mark Toner did not outline other steps, but stressed that Washington does not want to see anyone pouring more weapons into the conflict.
Another administration official, however, said, “The opposition has a right to defend itself and they will not be left defenceless in the face of this indiscriminate bombardment.”
Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama, argued that U.S. diplomacy has been hamstrung by the White House's reluctance to use force.
"Diplomacy in the absence of leverage is a recipe for failure," Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republican critics of the Democratic White House, said in a statement. "Putin and Assad will not do what we ask of them out of the goodness of their hearts, or out of concern for our interests, or the suffering of others. They must be compelled, and that requires power," they added. "Until the United States is willing to take steps to change the conditions on the ground in Syria, the war, the terror, the refugees, and the instability will all continue."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest accused the Russians of targeting the civilian water supply of eastern Aleppo used by refugee camps, aid convoys, and the White Helmets, a civilian group that seeks to rescue victims of air strikes.
"The idea of weaponising access to a clean water supply for civilians; it’s beyond the pale," Earnest told reporters.
Sarah Margon, director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office, said the actions alleged by Earnest "all constitute war crimes under international law."
"The U.S. has treated Putin as a partner in peace instead of an accomplice and perpetrator of war crimes," Margon said. "The question is now what steps the U.S. will take to compel Russia to refrain from further abuse and from facilitating Assad’s atrocities."
The White House did not immediately respond to an emailed question on whether the United States believed that Russia has committed war crimes, a charged made by Britain.'
Sunday, 25 September 2016
'Residents of rebel-held eastern Aleppo said "ferocious bombardment" by Syrian and Russian jets on Saturday had levelled neighbourhoods and killed at least 91 civilians.
"We don't have the equipment to pull the corpses out," a resident said, standing on the rubble of a destroyed building in the city's al-Bab district.
Describing the horror around him, he said an entire family was killed in a strike, with several people still lying under the debris.
"We are trying to help the injured, those who survived ... but the situation is catastrophic. Destruction and death, everywhere around us. It seems that the Russians and the regime have been given a green light to slaughter us all. As if starving the people here was not enough - it's now mass murder."
Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a professor at the University of Aleppo, said that residents were expecting another night of horror.
"What we are suffering can't be expressed by words in any language. We don't have water to give our children … [Rescuers] can't help people anymore and the roads have been cut off by rubble. In the hospitals, there are three-four people on one bed, even in the intensive care units."
Another resident from the al-Mashhad district pleaded with the international community to save the more than 250,000 civilians stuck in besieged areas as air raids continued to flatten civilian areas.
"We urge all honourable people around the world, please, we beg you, come to our aid; save us," he said.'