Saturday, 31 December 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrian activists languish in government jails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 30 December 2016

Syrians want to change the régime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Assad, Hezbollah terrorists continue bombing Wadi Barada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 26 December 2016



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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