Thursday, 5 January 2017

Girding the forces of change

 Akram al-Bunni:

 'The first misunderstanding: many say that the military defeat of the rebels spells the end of the political revolution. They are mistaken. Anyone who believes that the conquest of Aleppo will stabilise the Syrian regime is deluded. For Assad's rule by violence is not capable of creating a future for Syria. This failing is due not only to the atrocities the regime has committed. Nor can it be found in the instinctive belief that the course of history is preordained, or that the rule of law and justice will sooner or later inevitably prevail against injustice and violence.

 The war in fact goes on: large areas are still outside the regime's control. Assad has been greatly weakened by sustained, bloody battles and interventions from outside. When he finally took Aleppo, it was mainly Islamist groupings that were defeated. And their objectives have nothing to do with the Syrian revolution and its quest for democracy.

 Most important of all, however, is that the original reasons for the revolution – the oppression of the people and the corrupt political system – have remained unchanged. On the contrary: during the years of war, given the continuing violence perpetrated by the regime, the need for political transformation has become more apparent than ever.
 How can a society that has been oppressed, torn apart and scattered across the globe ever hope to regain its vitality and cohesion without fundamental political change? Only profound transformation is capable of paving the way for a just political system: a system that serves the people rather than imposing itself on them through violence and terrorist acts.
 Only in this way can the future rulers in Damascus gain the confidence of the world community. And without their support it will be difficult to deal with the aftermath of the conflict and to resolve the humanitarian issues.
  The second misunderstanding can be summed up with a famous quote: ′success has many fathers, but failure is always an orphan′. Major opposition figures are thus distancing themselves from the defeat of the rebels in Aleppo and putting the blame on others.
 It is of course completely understandable and justifiable to critically analyse a defeat in order to learn from the mistakes made. But that should not lead us to seek blame for the current situation in Syria only among the opposition, despite the fatal discord in its ranks. That would be like chasing down the victim instead of the criminals.
 If we confine our analysis exclusively to the opposition, we ignore the responsibility borne by the regime and its allies. It was after all the regime that insisted on seeking a military solution through the excessive use of force. And conveniently enough, the world community at the time proved unable to protect the civilian population and enforce a political way forward.
 Nevertheless, it is still important to not only consider the circumstances at the beginning of the Syrian revolution, but also to investigate the role of the opposition in the course of the conflict. Conspicuous in this connection is the opposition's ongoing internal fragmentation and ideological clashes. Its authority dwindled precisely at the moment when the opposition should have been leading the people's movement and quashing the rise of fundamentalist currents.
 Moreover, the opposition failed to provide sufficient support to peaceful factions of the revolution and popular movements. It relied too strongly on assistance from outside, obeying the commands of foreign stakeholders.
 The opposition was not active enough in terms of propaganda, either. It should have openly publicised the suffering of the Syrian people in order to force the international community to take action and to press forward to find a solution to the conflict. The opposition's greatest failure, however, is that it did not manage to present itself as a viable alternative to the status quo, as an option that respected plurality and a democratic culture.
 The third misunderstanding arises from being unable to distinguish between a dynamic Syrian civil society and the various jihadist groupings. The latter have done the revolution great harm by using the uprising for their own ends. They founded their own emirate and forced people exhausted by war to submit to their fundamentalist world view under the threat of the most savage punishment.
 "Syria remains free and Nusra must go!" shouted the demonstrators in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and other towns in response to the attempt by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) to seize their banners and apprehend or even murder activists. This is a clear sign that the Syrian people do not accept the jihadists and the role they have assumed. Yet care is needed here; after all, should the fundamentalists get out of control, further violence and sectarian conflicts could be the outcome.
 Many of the jihadists on the battlefield clearly represent only the interests of their financial backers, or are acting out of purely selfish motives. Each time a defeat loomed, many of them managed to save themselves through negotiations. They then left the civilians to their fate.
 All of the above raise the question of whether the scenario in Aleppo might soon be repeated. How is the defence of the territories that still remain beyond the control of the regime being organised? Will the insistence on military solutions and the tolerance of radical groups be more likely to strengthen or weaken the further course of the revolution?
 Are there still any political and cultural elites left that wield the power to create a new form of social cohesion across ideological boundaries? And will they be able to steer Syria's internal conflicts into non-violent channels?
 Fourth, one must distinguish between the revolution itself and its results up to now. The revolution was first and foremost a response to objective political grievances which erupted in demonstrations against despotism, nepotism and corruption. The people were crying out for their rights. Yet the response was torture, arbitrary detention and murder. On the other side are the phenomena that thrived in this fertile ground of oppression and steered the struggle in the direction of Islamism. This development has little to do with the quest for freedom and respect for human dignity.
 It would therefore be premature to now deny the revolution its legitimacy as a historical event just because it has not yet brought about the desired outcome. That would be tantamount to declaring the regime with its acts of violence as innocent, while at the same time neglecting the role played by regional and global stakeholders, which have likewise fought against and deformed the revolution.
 "We will return, Aleppo" says the writing on the walls of the devastated city. These words defy Assad's claim that his regime's military victory is now complete. They speak from the depths of the changes that have taken place during the years of the revolution. And they demonstrate that the hope which has taken root in the souls of the people is capable of reawakening the revolutionary spirit and girding the forces of change against the mistakes committed in the past. The opposition will then be able to face up to the new challenges in Syria despite all the difficulties involved.'

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

86 Journalists & Media Activists Killed in Syria in 2016

Rights Group: 86 Journalist & Media Activist Killed in Syria in 2016

 'At least 86 journalists and media activists were killed and 123 others injured in Syria in 2016, a rights group has said. The group added that regime forces were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the deaths.

 In its yearly report about violations against journalists and media activists in Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said that 41 journalists and media activists were killed at the hands of the Assad regime in 2016. They included a female media activists and four activists who died under torture in Assad’s prisons.

 Eleven journalists were killed in Russian attacks across Syria in 2016, while 20 more, including a female media activist, were killed at the hands of the ISIS extremist group. The PYD militias killed two journalists, while 4 more were killed at the hands of gunmen whom the SNHR could not identify.

 According to the report, 123 journalists and media activists were injured in 2016, including 33 who were injured in attacks by the Assad regime, 31 at the hands of Russian forces, 8 in attacks by ISIS, 2 in attacks by the PYD militia, and 6 in attacks that the rights groups said were untraceable.'


Syrian woman risks life to treat war wounded

 'DERAA – The perils of working in a war zone have not deterred one Syrian woman from taking to the streets to treat those injured in the ongoing conflict.

 Um Faris, 38, says she has been volunteering as a medic since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011. The trained nurse and mother of three says she felt an obligation to use her skills to help others - despite the dangers.

 "At the beginning of the revolution, I treated the demonstrators in the streets. The medical staff in the area were frightened of the regime and the constant arrests. Injured people were left in the street and no one would dare approach them or treat them. We started taking them to hidden homes and treat them there," she said. "For a long time, we worked in secret, until I was arrested once, twice, three, up to six times. After that, we stopped going to any area that had regime checkpoints, we only worked in the liberated villages. I also returned to my job in physiotherapy, along with treating the injured."

 She is now an active member of the White Helmets, a civil defense group that rushes to the sites of air strikes or rocket attacks to search for, rescue and treat survivors.

 The volunteer group says it has rescued more than over 78,000 people from attacks in Syria and relies on donations and aid agencies for medical supplies and equipment.

 Also known as the Syria Civil Defence, the White Helmets was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize and was among the winners of the Right Livelihood Award in 2016.'

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

“Our Fates Are Linked”

  Robin YassinKassab:

 'Leila al-Shami and I felt that the story of the Syrian revolution and counter-revolutions was being told very badly in the West. Commentators of both left and right were ignoring Syrian voices from the ground in favour of inaccurate and often orientalist grand narratives. They saw the struggle as one between a secular regime and jihadists – although the regime was the main generator of sectarianism in Syria, and the jihadists were of marginal importance until the latter half of 2013. (When they did become important, it was largely as a result of sectarian policies pursued by Assad and his Iranian backers.) Or they saw it only as a proxy war. Certainly by now there are several proxy wars being fought in Syria, but the uprising was Syrian, and came in response to Syrian conditions.

 Big name journalists who spoke no Arabic and went nowhere in Syria without a regime minder were telling a story we couldn’t recognise. We wanted to amplify the voices of the revolutionaries – community activists, intellectuals, fighters, refugees – who were at the heart of events, who were doing remarkable things in the most difficult of circumstances, and who were being ignored. Our book is built around interviews with such people. It also aims to give social, historical, political and cultural context to the story – something which journalistic accounts almost inevitably fail to do.

 Leftist commentators insisted on seeing the popular uprising as a Western regime change plot, despite all the evidence, and so they robbed millions of revolutionary Syrians of their agency. They made a bad analysis of the situation, a state-based analysis which imagined that Russian and Iranian imperialism could positively balance American imperialism. I always thought leftism was about supporting oppressed classes in their struggles against oppressor classes, not about supporting one set of expansionist, aggressive and authoritarian states against another in an imagined chess game. But it seems I was wrong. Leftists have also been confused, to say the least, by the fact that this was happening in an Arab, Muslim country. Too many leftists quickly began repeating the ‘war on terror’ tropes of the right – that all these rebels were al-Qaida, that the Muslims need a strong man to rein in their dangerous culture, and so on. It’s not surprising that the right got away with claiming that every Syrian refugee was a potential terrorist when much of the left had spent the previous years explaining that the democratic uprising for social justice in Syria was really a matter of the US whipping up the jihadist masses against a glorious resistance regime.
 The prevalence of conspiracy theories, the willingness to believe Russian propaganda, and so on – we are seeing this phenomenon equally on the left and the right. This brings together many people who voted for Trump and many who would vote for Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. (As the revolutionary thinker Yassin al-Haj Saleh said, “I’ve failed to discern who is right and who is left in the West from a leftist Syrian point of view.”) It signals a profound cultural and political rot. The blatant lies told by Bush, Blair, and their loyal media in the run-up to the occupation of Iraq is one root of the problem. People drew the correct conclusion: that they couldn’t trust what their leaders told them. This scepticism is good in itself, but if it isn’t accompanied by developed analytical tools, and access to real information, then it leads people into a grey zone where nothing can really be known and absolutely anything can be believed.
 Hannah Arendt wrote, “The ideal subject of totalitarianism is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist but the person for whom the distinctions between fact and fiction, and true and false, no longer exist.” This is more relevant than it ever has been.
 Russia’s savage bombing has been a game changer. With Russian planes and Iranian-backed ground troops, Assad has largely succeeded in driving the revolution out of the cities. The urban areas were the strongholds of democratic organisation, so in a real way the revolution is being destroyed. If the revolutionaries can’t hold territory, they can’t organise local councils, independent trades unions, women’s centres, free newspapers, and so on. Once there were almost 800 local councils. Now there are less than 400. These were the achievements of the revolution, and they are being lost.
 The revolution is still strong in Idlib province, but the fighting men there tend to be dominated by Salafist or jihadist factions like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra whose politics contradict the revolution’s democratic aims. Local councils and Free Army brigades control large areas of southern Syria, but they have been militarily neutralised by the refusal of Jordan and the US to allow a weapons supply through the Jordanian border. Northern Aleppo province is also held by Free Army groups and local councils, but in the presence of the Turkish army, and in the context of territorial conflict with both ISIS and the PYD.
 None of this means the war is over. Millions of Syrians fear returning to the country while Assad remains in power. Millions more are too traumatised or have lost too much to stop fighting. Syrian nationalists are outraged by the foreign occupation. Sunnis are outraged by the occupation of Shia militias. The war will continue, but may well shift towards guerrilla and terrorist tactics. Jihadist factions are likely to become stronger as the democratic option is destroyed.
 Having said that, the streets of liberated Syria are still full of people protesting against Assad, Nusra, ISIS, Iran and Russia, and for freedom, dignity and social justice. Syrian revolutionaries keep surprising me, against the odds. I don’t see how now, but perhaps their persistence will win out in the end.
 Hafez al-Assad sided with the pro-Zionist Maronites in Lebanon in 1976, preventing a victory by leftist and Palestinian forces and ensuring the long continuation of the war. He killed tens of thousands of Palestinians at Tel Zaatar and other camps in Lebanon in his attempt to neutralise and control the Palestinian movement in the 1980s. Despite all the confrontational rhetoric, the Assads kept the border with the occupied Golan Heights secure for Israel. During the revolution, Bashaar al-Assad’s regime has tortured hundreds of Syrian-Palestinians to death, and is in large part responsible for the destruction, starvation, depopulation, and occupation by ISIS, of Yarmouk camp, the largest Palestinian community in Syria. Bashaar’s regime also tortured Maher Arar and other ‘rendered’ suspects for the Bush administration.
 Hizbullah certainly did fight Israel in the past, and it was wildly popular amongst Syrians at the time. Now it is roundly despised by most Syrians and Arabs, and by some Lebanese Shia too, for its counter-revolutionary, sectarian and murderous role in Syria on behalf of its sponsor and guide, the Iranian state.
 Even if Assad and Iran were primarily interested in liberating Palestine, this would not justify their slaughter of the Syrian people. And they are not interested in liberating Palestine. They use Palestine as propaganda and leverage to serve the consolidation and expansion of their own power. This much is obvious when the facts are considered.
 Syria was in many ways a lovely country. Foreigners who visited generally loved it, and Syrians were very proud of it. Syria has a fine climate, one of the world’s great cuisines, unparalleled historical riches, and a diverse and friendly population.
 It was also, beneath the surface, a tragic country, one which had suffered enforced poverty and dislocation under first Ottoman and then French imperialism, then bitter class oppression, and then sixty years of dictatorship in which a new ruling class of security officers and loyal businessmen coalesced. All forms of government exploited sectarian, ethnic, regional and tribal differences amongst the people, the better to control them. The Baathist dictatorship in particular ruled by violence and fear. About 30,000 people were killed in Hama in 1982, and thousands of dissidents disappeared in the regime’s torture prisons. Civil society was crushed.
 Despite the extreme repression, Syrians produced some remarkable poetry, music, drama and films. And dissident thought continued to surface, particularly in the brief and abruptly aborted ‘Damascus Spring’ in 2000, after Bashaar al-Assad inherited the dictatorship from his father Hafez.
 Bashaar shut down the political and social opening. Instead, he ‘opened’ the economy. In effect this meant a set of neo-liberal and crony capitalist reforms which enormously enriched his own family and friends while impoverishing large swathes of the population. This was the context for the 2011 uprising.
 I think real engagement with actual struggle tends to wake people up from their abstract theories. I hope in the coming difficult time there will be reflection on how and why the Syrian revolution was misunderstood in the West. The lessons people draw there may well help them to meet the challenges of the new period.
 Walter Benjamin said, “Behind every fascism is a failed revolution.” We live in a truly globalised world, whether we like it or not. Counter-revolution in Syria – via terrorism and a refugee wave – is feeding into a dangerous rise of nativist and exclusionary politics both east and west. The victory of propaganda and false assumptions in the Syria narrative war feeds into the victory of propaganda and false assumptions in such debates as Brexit and Trump versus Clinton.
 Our fates are linked. Understanding leads to general understanding. Ignorance produces more countervailing ignorances. A defeat in one place produces defeat in another. This also means that a victory in one place makes victory more likely elsewhere.'

Monday, 2 January 2017

Even when the battle is over, the Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon can never return to Aleppo


 'The fight for Aleppo is all but over, and already voices are crying out for refugees to go home to their “liberated” city. But for the Syrians who have escaped the country – the 2.7 million in Turkey, more than one million each to Lebanon and Europe and beyond – the turmoil and human tragedy will continue. For to be associated with the revolution in any way, as aid worker, teacher, doctor, activist, or journalist, means you can never go home. Refugees fleeing Isis rule can no more go back to government areas than vice versa.

 What would refugees be going back to? Much of eastern Aleppo (and Homs) has been reduced to acres and acres of rubble lying in piles and piles of dust. Reports of children stuck alive under rubble, and of 82 men and women shot in their houses by government forces, are yet more war crimes to add to a long list with a UN spokesman calling it a “complete meltdown of humanity”.

 “My name is on a list,” has become a frequent refrain of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and given as the main reason they cannot go back – most often a government blacklist, but of course there are also Isis and al-Qaida linked-Jabhat al-Nusra (now rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) lists too.

 Nouriman, from Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, said she saw her house bombed in front of her eyes. She managed to salvage her cooking pots from the wreckage of her kitchen. The 46-year-old then risked her life to go back to rescue her nephews, who had been orphaned. Her son-in-law had been a photographer, and her brothers also active in the revolution.

 “I could only flash my face at them,” she told me from her sitting room in Reyhanli, on the Syrian-Turkish border, describing how she travelled with the rebels in convoys and then by bus through Syrian government checkpoints, terrified she would be recognised and arrested.

 Others fled with their children after defecting from the army. Mustafa Hilaq left Damascus with his children for rebel held areas and now looks forward to taking his son to school and playing badminton with him in Turkey. Radwan, 24, fled after his friend was arrested for helping internally displaced people under government controlled Aleppo – he knew he was next. He has settled and opened a computer repair shop on the Turkish border – the calm where he sees a therapist to deal with his severe anxiety.

 Refugees in Turkey have long known that, should Assad prevail, they cannot go home. Last summer’s migration crisis was largely triggered as Russia joined the Syrian air force bombing schools, markets and hospitals using precision strikes as well as cluster bombs as many assumed, rightly, that chances for a rebel military victory were ever slighter.

 Winning Aleppo may be lauded as a victory for Assad. But make no mistake, this bloody war is far from over.'

Local Syrians say Assad must go

Ghoufran Allababidi

 'Ghoufran Allababidi was born in Aleppo, the ravaged city that was recently taken over by Assad’s forces, which preceded the cease-fire. She moved to the United States in 2000 and works as an interpreter, helping fellow Syrians by working with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services and Catholic Charities.

 Since what she calls the “revolution” began in March 2011, “we’re trying to raise awareness of what’s going on over there.” Since the revolution started, however, Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters have joined the fighting, which has erupted into full-scale civil war.

 Allababidi, Stanley Heller of West Haven, administrator of Promoting Enduring Peace, and other peace activists have met with staff members of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and want to pressure legislators to support the rebels with humanitarian aid.

 “It’s really always been sweet talk that gives us hope, but nothing really happens,” Allababidi said of the leaders of the United States and the United Nations.

 Allababidi, who has had several cousins disappear under Assad, spoke of the millions of refugees in Jordan and Turkey and how at least 80 percent of Syrians want Assad removed. “For me personally, I don’t prefer to see any American soldiers on Syrian soil,” Allababidi said. “But we would like good action to help the Syrian people to get their freedom.”

 Of the cease-fire, which went into effect at midnight Friday, Allababidi said, “I’m very optimistic, even though we don’t trust the regime. … I think Russia won’t leave [Assad] as president.”

 Heller said, “There’s been a number of cease-fires and they don’t seem to last because the regime really is intent on taking everything back and they say this again and again. … We think the opposition should be helped with food and supplies. We’re not calling for weapons.”

 He also called for the United States “to collect the names of the people doing the worst abuses. They’ve been deliberately and systematically targeting medical facilities.”

 Heller said Syrian activists in this country are seeking “airdrops of food to these starving areas. The U.N. said there were a million people under siege. … The U.S. Air Force said they could do it back in January. … They’re just waiting for the call.”

 “There had been a sanctions bill, the Caesar [Syria] Civilian Protection Act,” Heller said. “That act actually passed the House without opposition in the middle of November.” It’s been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but no other action has been taken. It was named for a photographer who used the pseudonym Caesar and took thousands of pictures of slaughtered Syrians. The bill would increase sanctions on the Assad regime and those doing business with it.

 “If we are looking for a peaceful life for the Syrians, whoever is left, then he should be out,” Allababidi said of Assad. “He is winning too many parts of Syria, but people have lost enough and they are willing to give up more for him to be out.” Electric power and clean water are in short supply. Half of the hospitals have been demolished, Allababidi said.

 She said that among the suffering are the Syrian children. “Only 6 percent are receiving education and if you look at the future of those children, I would not be optimistic.”

 Allababidi also is wary of President-elect Donald Trump’s intentions. “I’m not very optimistic about what’s going to happen,” she said. “He mentioned that he’s not going to be against Assad because Assad is fighting terrorists, but I don’t believe that.”

 Allababidi said that besides humanitarian aid, her message is “raising more awareness … so the politicians can be pushed to do something. We need to do something. We need action.” '

Sunday, 1 January 2017

No less than 28 Breaches on the First Day following Ankara Ceasefire Agreement - All the Breaches were Committed by the Syrian-Iranian Regime

Syrian Network For Human Rights

 'SNHR has published the report: “No less than 28 Breaches on the First Day following Ankara Ceasefire Agreement” which documents the breaches that were recorded in the first 24 hours following the commencement of Ankara Agreement.
The report draws upon the monitoring and documentation processes in addition to speaking to survivors, victims’ families, or with eyewitnesses to some of the incidents.
 The report sheds light on every breach committed by the parties that are bound by the truce agreement (Government forces, Russian forces, and armed opposition factions) in areas under the control of armed opposition factions and areas under a joint control (armed opposition factions and Fateh Al Sham Front). The report doesn’t include any combat operations in ISIS-held areas.
 The report monitors 28 breaches – 19 combat operations and nine arrest operations all of which were committed by the Syrian regime forces. Most of the breaches took place in Damascus suburbs governorate where 14 breaches occurred followed by Hama governorate with six breaches, and then Homs and Idlib with four breaches each.
 The report stresses that all the breaches taking place on the first day were committed by the Syrian regime and its ally on the ground the Iranian regime, which the report considers to be the most affected by any political agreement that aim towards a comprehensive settlement. Furthermore, the report calls on the Russian regime, being a primary sponsor of the agreement, to apply pressure on the Syrian-Iranian regime in order to compel it seriously commit to the agreement’s provisions. Otherwise, the ceasefire will ultimately fail.'