Friday, 17 February 2017

Local doctor offers personal look at Syrian crisis

ANNE REINER/Sun-Gazette 
Dr. Rodwan Raijoub speaks about the Syrian refugee crisis during the United Churches of Lycoming County Ecumenical Lunch on Wednesday afternoon at the New Covenant United Church of Christ.

 'The innocent lives lost and families displaced in Syria deserve a humanitarian response and must not be forgotten, a local medical doctor and Syrian immigrant says.

 “The amount of devastation I have seen is beyond imagination,” said Dr. Rodwan Rajjoub, a local neurosurgeon with UPMC Susquehanna who immigrated from Syria in 1973. “What’s the purpose? I don’t know.”

 Since 2011, Rodwan Rajjoub has traveled to several Syrian refugee camps throughout Jordan and Turkey, volunteering his time to the Syrian American Medical Society, a nonprofit that offers medical assistance to refugees.

 “These people need help because no one is helping them,” Rodwan Rajjoub said. He said much of the medical assistance he provides is to help children who are now quadriplegic or paraplegic due to gunshot wounds or explosions.

 He told the one story of a girl who will never walk again. She is one of many in similar situations.

 “At least she’s alive. The bullet went into her back,” he said. “I don’t know what her crime is. She’s only 4 years old.”

 The examination rooms Rodwan Rajjoub worked in had none of the modern amenities that makes medical work so efficient in the United States. There was no computer, no table and no records, he said.

 Many injuries were so profound, there was little that could be done to help people with the tools he had available.

 The Syria that Rodwan and Zokaa Rajjoub grew up in was much different than the Syria of today. He pressed his audience to name a terrorist who has come out of Syria from 1975 to 2016.

 “If you find one, let me know,” Rodwan Rajjoub said. He remembered that years ago people of all different beliefs and nationalities lived in Syria together.

 The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad commonly is known as a civil war, but that’s not how everyone sees it.

 “It’s not a civil war, it’s a revolution,” said Zokaa Rajjoub. It’s the poor in society rising up against Assad, who refuses to distribute his immense wealth to his starving citizens, the Raijoubs said.

 It began as peaceful protests and turned violent when the government began killing the protesters, they said. Now the government is killing everyone, they said.

 Zokaa Rajjoub recounted a time several years ago when she returned to Syria to visit her father who was near death. After going to the mosque, she came outdside and saw a group of protestors. Government forces drove up and began shooting, she said.

 “It was just so scary. They were just shooting randomly,” she said. “I just experienced it once. I don’t know how people live like that. I really don’t.”

 Worldwide attention to the devastation in Syria increased as refugees began fleeing their homes. Those who didn’t want to fight were forced out because their homes were destroyed and their family and friends were dying.

 “I don’t know who as a human being could accept this,” Rodwan Rajjoub said, referring specifically to the destruction of the city of Aleppo. “Imagine if half the United States were forced out of their homes.”

But despite the turmoil, many Syrians do not want to leave, he said. Many want to return to the place where they grew up and raised families, but in many cases it no longer exists.

“No one would like to leave his home,” Rodwan Rajjoub said.'

Thursday, 16 February 2017

‘You want freedom? This is your freedom’: Rape as a Tactic of the Assad Regime

 'It is more difficult to convince the victims of pro-regime forces to speak out, and their abuses are probably more difficult to document, than those abused by ISIS. The main reasons are the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence. In any culture, rape is a taboo; but this goes even deeper in most Syrian communities. Some women were rejected by their families and lost custody of their children because they had been raped in prison. Some reportedly committed suicide due to family and social pressure. This is why, when a woman is released from jail, it is highly unlikely that she will speak out about her assault; so she hides it. On the other hand, ISIS victims were kidnapped in order to become sex slaves most of the time. Thus, when a woman has been released and returns to her community, everyone knows that she was raped, which makes these women more likely to speak to investigators. In addition, one of the main challenges I faced was to convince survivors of the utility of documenting their ordeal. ‘What is the benefit of talking?’ is probably the question I’ve heard the most these past months. Syrian women feel abandoned by the international community and think that there has been no reaction to many atrocities that were made public.

 The second issue affecting documentation is access. Some survivors are still in Syria and, for most of them, it is too dangerous to speak. Others have fled to neighbouring countries or to Europe. Intermediaries often lost track of them. When women start a new life in Europe, they don’t want to look back and remember the ordeal they went through. In addition, depending on where survivors live, some are still too afraid to speak out against the regime. This is the case in Lebanon for instance.

 Finally, politics is a important reason as well. From the perspective of the international community, the main threat comes from ISIS and other extremist groups, not from the regime. Some countries encourage the UN to investigate crimes perpetrated by ISIS and prefer to overlook crimes committed by the regime. In the same way, some countries focus on exploring accountability mechanisms regarding ISIS crimes. Most of the women I talked to feel very bitter and don’t understand why sexual crimes committed by the regime receive so little attention compared to the ones committed by ISIS.

 Even though it is difficult to assess the degree of knowledge that government officials had about sexual violence, they must have been aware of these acts. The Syrian security apparatus is characterised by a very strong hierarchy and an effective chain of command. According to several testimonies, directors of detention centres were directly involved in sexual assaults. It is unlikely that mid-level commanders were not aware of what was happening in detention centres. And it is even more unlikely that mid-level commanders would have taken the initiative to tolerate something that high officials would have disapproved of. Moreover, the fact that rapes were committed in many different cities and provinces indicate that they were part of a policy that was at least tolerated. For example, a survivor said that when she told the head of an intelligence branch that she had been raped, the officer didn’t take her claim seriously. Finally, the UN Commission of Inquiry mentioned sexual violence in several reports. While the Syrian government never addressed the allegations, it cannot argue it never heard about them.

 Survivors mainly belong to the conservative Sunni community. However, in the majority of cases, I don’t think sectarianism was a driver per se. Rapes have targeted activists and women perceived to be associated with the opposition – whether the relatives of opposition fighters, or women living in opposition strongholds who were not politically active. Since the majority of the opposition is Sunni, most of the women who were assaulted were thus Sunni as well. The rhetoric of security agents and of militiamen has clearly been sectarian. It has been a way to mobilise people and to reinforce the dynamic of ‘us’ against ‘them’. Security forces, whose majority belong to the Alawite community, have felt threatened by the Sunni-majority opposition uprising. It also fuelled violence. But I collected testimonies of a Christian woman and of an atheist woman who were raped. And a witness heard Alawite women saying they had been assaulted as well.

 Rapes seem to be more frequent when the regime felt under threat. This would need to be confirmed by studying more cases. From early on, the regime understood that it was fighting for its survival, and resorted to any weapons and any possible tactic, including siege and chemical gas. It scaled up its attacks when it felt it was the most threatened, especially in 2012 and the first half of 2013 when the opposition gained ground and before it received heavy support from foreign countries. Following the logic of doing ‘whatever it takes’ – to use a line commonly attributed to Syrian security officials ­– to retain power, security agents probably used rapes. Unfortunately, this has been an effective weapon to contribute to subdue the opposition. Defectors from the regime said that even though security agents did not receive specific orders about which tactic to use, they were given a free range in the context of impunity. I think this was also conducive to sexual violence.

Solid evidence that the Syrian regime has perpetrated war crimes exist. Since the beginning of the war, it has committed the most egregious attacks against its own population. Indeed, serious violations of international humanitarian law such as unlawful killings, torture, inhumane treatment, the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and rape of civilians have been documented by human rights organisations and by United Nation investigators. Therefore, in the context of the non-international armed conflict currently occurring in Syria, these violations constitute war crimes according to the Rome Statute of the ICC. In addition, if these crimes are part of a widespread or systematic attack targeting the civilian population, they can amount to crimes against humanity. This is why these crimes need to be formally investigated so that the regime could be held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But at the moment, no international court has jurisdiction on Syria.

 It is absolutely crucial that these women get justice. Not only do they need to obtain reparation, but perpetrators must also be held accountable in order to send a strong signal that war-time sexual violence is not a fatality and that it is unacceptable. Some of the women I talked to long for justice, whereas others don’t believe it can happen. Actually, as of now, accountability prospects at the high level look bleak. Since Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and the Security Council is paralysed by the Russian veto, the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction on the country. Still, after the war is over, an ad-hoc tribunal might be set up. In addition, all states have the obligation to investigate and prosecute the most serious crimes based on the universal jurisdiction principle. It means that national courts can proceed even if the crimes have committed abroad and even if the suspect and the victim are foreign citizens. Meanwhile, European national courts can also investigate cases involving dual nationals or nationals. For instance, criminal complaints for alleged war crime and crime against humanity have been filed against Syrian regime officials in France and Spain. So there is a range of options. And remember, last year, the ICC convicted the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, for crimes against humanity and war crimes, for rapes its troops committed in Central African Republic in 2002. So even if it takes time, provided there is political will, victims can ultimately get justice.'

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The West's lamentable myopia

Yassin al-Haj Saleh:
 'Let me explain the historical background of communism in Syria. A rift developed in the Syrian Communist Party (SCP) in 1972 on issues relating to the dependence on the Soviet Union and the understanding of various Syrian and Arab issues. Another important topic at that time was the liberation of Palestine and the Arab League. Subsequently, the party′s attitude towards the Assad regime also became important. One faction sought independence from the Soviet Union and adopted a more radical stance towards Israel. The other one towed the Soviet line and allied itself with the Assad regime. I belonged to the former.
 I was a medical student and politically active at the University of Aleppo when I was arrested. We were crushed as a party because we actively opposed the regime, not because we were communists. People with different ideological backgrounds were good for the regime. As long as they were obedient, they were free to be communists, Islamists or Arab and Kurdish nationalists. As soon as they crossed the line, they were eliminated.
 For Hafez al-Assad′s regime absolute power over the population of Syria and the surrounding region, including Lebanon and Palestine, was top priority. Opposing this regime of political slavery was considered the gravest crime. I was one of many who rebelled. However, I would never have believed that I would end up in jail for sixteen years. I even spent one year in Syria′s infamous torture prison, Tadmur.
 Bashar al-Assad′s regime is by no means secular; it is sectarian. When it comes to Muslim-majority countries, many people in the West tend to adopt what I call Huntingtonian secularism, defining secularism in an oversimplified culturalist way as something that is basically against Islam.
 Many people in the west simply know nothing about Syria. Most media coverage about Syria consists of simplifications, showing Bashar al-Assad in expensive suits, accompanied by his rich and elegant wife. Reference is also usually made to his Alawi minority status, demonstrating that he is not from the Sunni Muslim majority from whom, of course, minorities need to be protected. Such coverage is rife with Islamophobic sentiments.
 This myopic interpretation has made it easier for many to identify with the thuggish regime, rather than with those who were invisible for decades and are now rising up against Assad. The rhetoric of supposed ″minority protection″ traces its roots back to the legacy of the colonial powers and their discourses and practices. According to colonial logic, the Middle Eastern minorities are threatened by the Muslim majority, which is why they need protecting by the "civilised" Western powers.
 I find it shocking that elements of the left in the west have sided with a brutal, corrupt and sectarian regime – a dictatorship which for half of a century has depended on the existence of a predatory class that exploits the impoverished and unprotected Syrian population, squeezing public resources dry while depositing billions in foreign banks. Many left-wingers in the west know that Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria for thirty years. They know that he transformed Syria into a dynastic monarchy ruled by the Assad family. They also know that this is a grave breach of the very concept of republic. Why have they never spoken out about this?
 One problem is that all those who define themselves as anti-imperialists tend to identify our struggle as a regime change plan in the US sense, which naturally they reject. In the process they ignore Syria′s entire history, its society, political life and economy. At the same time, they feel encouraged to regard everything that happens in Syria in anti-imperialist terms, forgetting that regime change back in 2011 was our own initiative as Syrians! We were the ones who set out to overthrow the barbaric regime.
 I think it is dreadful to use the term "the right side of history". Who are these beings who observe history and are thus able to decide who was in the right and who in the wrong? Genocide is a powerful term which needs to applied with caution. It would be more legitimate to apply it to the whole course of continuous systematic torture, killing, bombing and forced displacement which has taken place over the last six years. Those who were displaced were mainly local residents and those who captured the city were aliens: the regime′s army and foreign Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan. Finally, it was the carpet bombings of imperialist Russia that facilitated the entire campaign. Aleppo was basically just a reconquest.
 The revolution began with peaceful demonstrations that went on for months – yet which from the very beginning were met with brutal force by the regime. In September 2011, almost six months after the revolution, Syrian protesters requested international protection. Many Syrians assumed that the world would not abandon them to their fate the way it had done in 1982 during the massacre in Hama. One reason for this collective assumption was the democratic rhetoric that provided the accompanying narrative for the West′s interventions in the former Yugoslavia in 1998, in Iraq in 2003 and in Libya in 2011.
 Yet international protection was not forthcoming. Armed resistance began to increase: vulnerable people who had lost their trust in the world started to rely instead on weapons. A dynamic of radicalisation, militarisation and Islamisation was triggered. It was foreseeable that people who were previously not radical would become radicalised. Many without a particular reputation for piety became Islamists over night. And let′s not forget the external factors: the masses of petrodollars from states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, not to mention the Salafist networks in the Gulf. The current situation in Syria is the ideal environment for Salafist jihadists to prosper.'

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

From Saydnaya to Sweden: Syrian torture victim teaches compassion and gratitude

 'They are ranked among the world's happiest citizens, but now Swedes are taking lessons in positive living from a survivor of torture in President Bashar al-Assad's prison cells. Last month in Gustavsberg, a quaint town famous for its porcelain production 20 minutes from Stockholm, 21-year-old Omar al-Shogre addressed an audience of over 120 in a lecture with the title, “From the world’s most dangerous prison, to Sweden.”

 “After the shocking torture, I told the investigator to stop, and that I would tell him everything he wanted,” Shogre tells his audience of his past, as they alternate between groans and gasps of horror. “I sat down and started to say anything possible. Then the interrogator said to me, ‘OK, that is enough,’ but I said, ‘No, I have more’. I was afraid of going back to the torture if I stopped talking.”

 Shogre is perhaps not the likeliest speaker on positive living. He was starved and tortured in 10 different prisons in Syria after participating in the anti-government protests that erupted in 2011. He was electrocuted on all parts of his body, including his genitals, forced into false confessions, and witnessed widespread rape of other prisoners. But he speaks with confidence and coherence, having learnt to speak fluent Swedish within a year of his arrival in Stockholm.

 “It is impossible for the human mind to understand Syrian prisons. Nobody can imagine it,” Shogre told Middle East Eye privately, away from the stage. “Even when I remember it now, I cannot believe how I am still alive.”

 Shogre has also spoken in Sweden's frozen north, with the encouragement of people he first met in the country. Lisbeth Karbin's family was originally assigned as a guardian for Shogre's younger 12-year-old brother Ali, before the siblings moved to Stockholm.

 "In the beginning, I saw that Omar was frustrated when he tried to tell me about his past; he waved his hands and tried to demonstrate using body language, picking up the phone and trying to translate with it. But it took him only a few weeks to speak Swedish," Lisbeth told MEE.

 On hearing Shogre's story, she encouraged him to share it more widely. Just after the new year, with temperatures of -30C outside, Shogre addressed an audience in Kalix, near Lisbeth's home and Sweden's border with Finland. "We had politicians, healthcare professionals [among the audience]; it was a great lecture," she said. "Omar gives so much of himself; he gets people to listen, to be interested."

 Shogre's talks, which he organises in universities and public theatres across Sweden, combine his experience in detention with facts about Syria's dark history of dictatorship. His last lecture carried the subtitle, “Welcome to a small part of the truth.”

 Shogre spent nearly a year in Sednaya, the notorious political prison in the mountains 30km north of Damascus, where he contracted tuberculosis and which he describes as “horrifying”. He fled to Sweden after his mother paid a $15,000 bribe for his release in June 2015. In prison, “there was a lot of torture, beating with metal sticks, and being suspended from the ceiling, and electrocution,” Shogre told his most recent audience.

 Although Shogre says he would never repeat his time in detention, he says that it represented "the best days of my life" because it "taught me how to be human," calling it the "school of prison".

 He feels that he owes his survival to other prisoners' magnanimity. He said that other prisoners saved his life on multiple occasions: by giving him their food rations to stop him wasting away, and by convincing guards not to kill him. He saw the best and worst of humanity, and feels a responsibility to tell the world what is happening in Syria's prisons.

 With that, Shogre, from the village of al-Bayda in Syria’s coastal Tartous province, is teaching the need for gratitude and compassion. Rather than through hackneyed advice about positivity, he does so in a deft presentation of a dreadful past.

 “Just listening to Omar, you feel a lot of inspiration,” said Olle Oberg, 25, a cameraman and YouTube video producer from Stockholm. “The message is that you must never give up, and that we must not take life for granted. We must not ignore what is going on in the world. It might happen to you; Omar was in that situation in Syria, and now he is here.”

 Audiences who attend Shogre’s lectures are also often confronted with details about Syria’s history that have been lost among images of Islamic State group militants and bombed-out cities.

 “In Syria, the intelligence and security services do not mean safety,” Shogre told his audience in Gustavsberg, explaining the country’s rife corruption networks and state security apparatus.

 “They mean fear. The police in Sweden are not like in Syria – there is a vast difference. The intelligence and security forces mean that you have got to run away, otherwise you will lose your life.”

 Shogre is determined to recount the beginning of the Syrian uprisings in 2011, in an attempt to increase awareness of civilians’ fight for freedom, telling stories from the early days of the revolution.

 "He [Bashar al-Assad] decided to send his forces, and the security services went and arrested the boys, who were about 10 years old. They took them to a security branch and tortured them," he said.

 “Children who had watched the news about the [revolutions in] Egypt and Tunisia and saw the slogans – ‘Freedom’ and ‘the people want the fall of the regime,’ took pens and wrote on walls: ‘Ijay’ik al-dour ya dok-tor’ (Doc, now it’s your turn) Shogre explains, referring to Assad's training as an ophthalmologist before his brother's death in a car crash saw him accede to the Syrian presidency.

 “We don’t really think about the issues of the protests and the prisoners in Syria,” said Emil Monikander, 20, a student from Stockholm. “We only see the bombings. Omar’s story is very moving and he tells it so well that you can feel you are there. It makes you realise our lives are not that bad compared to others.”

 Some people are shocked at Shogre’s willingness to talk about what happened to him.

 “People sometimes think that I am weird, and I am not thinking straight as I talk about thousands of bodies, burning, torture, and organs being cut out,” Shogre explains. “I laugh and act normally as I talk about these things, while other people are crying. Everything is easy for me in life except for prison. Prison is the only difficult thing in life.”

 Does Shogre himself not find the process of reliving the traumatic experiences he lived difficult? Would he not prefer to forget it and try to build a new life in Sweden without the memories of a painful past? He insists absolutely not.

 “There are two kinds of people who leave prison,” Shogre says, in a reflective tone. “People who want to forget the torture, war and pain and live peacefully. But there are people who cannot forget what happened to them and their lives and families in Syria. I remember everything from prison, all the torture and my friends’ deaths.”

 Shogre carries the weight of responsibility of a free man who can speak out, knowing there are still tens of thousands of people incarcerated in Syria.

 “A lot of prisoners come out of prison very tired physically and psychologically, and cannot talk about what happened to them. Whenever I sleep, I dream of being tortured and burned. I see my friends being killed. That gives prisoners a reason not to talk about it, because they want to forget.”

 In some way, speaking publicly is therapeutic for Shogre. Knowing that sharing his ordeal can help others deal with challenges in their lives, as well as raise awareness about the grim situation in Syria, gives him solace.

 He tried seeing a therapist to help him deal with what happened in his past, but he said that this did not help him much, adding, "I am my own therapist".'

Daraa city rebels launch preemptive battle to hold onto Jordan border crossing

 'A combined force of hardline Islamist and moderate Syrian rebels in Daraa city is battling Syrian regime forces for a second day on Monday to prevent them from regaining control of a nearby border crossing with Jordan. Rebels suspect the regime was preparing to take the closed Daraa border point because of a Syrian military build-up and week-long shelling of Daraa city.

 “Regime forces are aiming to seize control of the border with Jordan because of its economic importance,” Abu Shaimaa, the spokesman for the al-Banyan al-Marsous operations room carrying out the battle told Syria Direct on Monday.

 The battle comes two and a half months after Jordan—a longtime backer of southern Syrian rebels opposed to Bashar al-Assad—indicated its willingness to reopen its borders with Daraa province only if they were held by regime forces.

 “The borders cannot be opened unless regime forces from the Syrian army take control of them,” Chairman of the Jordanian Joint Chiefs-of-Staff Mahmoud Freihat told BBC Arabic in a videotaped interview on December 30, referring to the Daraa and Naseeb border crossings.

 Syrian regime forces currently control the northern and western neighborhoods of Daraa city, the provincial capital, while Islamist and Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions control its south and east. Daraa city lies just four kilometers from Syria’s southern border with Jordan and one of the province’s two inactive border crossings. On Sunday, following an alleged buildup of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces in regime-held neighborhoods of Daraa city and a week-long ground bombardment campaign against opposition neighborhoods, Islamist and moderate rebel forces launched a broad offensive against the regime-held al-Manshiyah district.

 “Our goal is to prevent the regime from taking control of the old customs building and to push it further back by taking all of al-Manshiyah district,” the rebel spokesman told Syria Direct on Monday. Al-Manshiyah is the regime-held district of Daraa city closest to the Jordanian border.

Dubbed “Death Rather Than Humiliation,” the rebel offensive is the largest of its kind in Daraa city since 2015. The rebel groups currently battling Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces in Daraa city include the recently-formed Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—a hardline Islamist coalition including former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—as well as Ahrar a-Sham and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions working in Daraa city.

 In Daraa city, the first 48 hours of fighting saw rebels target regime positions in al-Manshiyah with two suicide car-bombers and a massive tunnel bomb. One of the suicide attacks was carried out by Abu Riyan al-Muhajir, reportedly a Jordanian citizen. Syrian state media agency SANA reported on Monday that SAA units were “facing attacks by Nusra terrorists” in Daraa city but that they had “seized control of the combat situation after the terrorist organization suffered heavy losses.”

 Leading up to Sunday’s rebel attack, one week of intense regime ground bombardment of all rebel-held neighborhoods in Daraa city had left them virtually deserted, local authorities told Syria Direct.

 “More than 1,500 artillery shells and rockets have fallen on opposition-held Daraa city” in recent days, Amer Abazeid, the spokesman for the Daraa Civil Defense, told Syria Direct on Monday.

 Multiple opposition sources have reported that elephant rockets (unguided, improvised missiles named for the sound they make when launched) were heavily used throughout the bombardment. Al-Banyan al-Marsous, the rebel operations room, cited “indiscriminate” artillery fire, including highly destructive elephant rockets, as one of the motivations for launching the latest battle.

 Between 2,000 and 3,000 families from Daraa city have fled to the nearby countryside to stay with relatives or sleep rough on farmland and in orchards to escape heavy artillery bombardment, said Civil Defense spokesman Abazeid.

 “The city is all but empty of residents,” Abazeid told Syria Direct. “Our role was to evacuate those inside, but some people refused to leave,” he added. Abazeid estimates that 200-300 families remain inside rebel areas of the city, which was home to roughly 100,000 people before the war.

 The opposition’s Daraa city council has virtually “no funding or resources to provide for these families,” Samer al-Homsi, a member of the civil body told Syria Direct on Monday. The council is keeping records of the displaced and communicating with local and international organizations to solicit help, said al-Homsi.

 Amidst cold, rainy weather in southern Syria, “conditions are harsh, especially for the children,” Sameer al-Musalmeh, a resident who recently fled his home in opposition-held Daraa city, told Syria Direct on Monday. “The local council gave us some cans of food, but they were used up by the next day.” '

'Rebels from Al-Bunian Al-Marsous op. room officially reached outskirts of Water Tower after fall of Manshiyah Mosque's area, ~20% remaining.'


  'Deraa: Regime admits losses & say they could have lost up to 400 fighters.'

Elizabeth Tsurkov: 'A rebel in the Manshiya front in Daraa city tells me that Jordan and the MOC room told rebels to halt the offensive but they ignored orders.'

'Daraa city set on fire. Children burning tires & rubbish against airstrikes on southern Syria'

Monday, 13 February 2017

Breaking Aleppo

Image result for Breaking Aleppo atlantic council

 'After nearly five years of bitter fighting, bombardment, and siege, the Bashar al-Assad regime, Iran, and Russia finally broke Aleppo on December 22, 2016, defeating the opposition and displacing much of the local population. This represented a critical turning point in the Syrian civil war and shifted the balance of power between the United States, its local allies, and its adversaries in Syria. The siege of Aleppo brought the horrors of the twentieth century’s wars to the twenty-first century. Hospitals were bombed, not once or twice, but repeatedly; cluster bombs and incendiaries fell on residential areas; chemical weapons were used. Siege, hunger, and indiscriminate strikes brought suffering to women, children, the disabled, and the very old. This report details the tactics and strategy that the regime coalition used to break Aleppo.

 Beyond Aleppo’s implications for Syria, it bears highlighting what it means for the United States. First, despite being party to the ceasefires negotiated by the United States and Russia, the Syrian regime used them to prepare offensives or freeze some frontlines in order to concentrate on others. Instead of being punished for this, the regime was actually rewarded with more ceasefires, which it then exploited in the same fashion. These breaches weakened the United States’ moderate opposition partners and undermined the confidence of US allies in the region. Breaking Aleppo also involved a pernicious misinformation campaign–nothing less than a war on objective facts by the regime, Russian officials, and media. This was aimed less at convincing than at confusing and disorienting rivals, sapping confidence, sowing disunity, and making truth entirely subjective, such that one party’s lie became just as good as another’s fact. Finally, the regime’s war in Aleppo showed that Assad was ineffective against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremists– suggesting that the Syrian regime would be a poor if not harmful partner for the United States. He was unable to rein in sectarian Shia militia even after Aleppo fell, and his regime more closely resembles an unwieldy coalition of sectarian and organized criminal elements. He and his allies deliberately conflated extremist groups with Syrians holding even legitimate grievances against the government, and rather than use ceasefires to deploy forces against extremists, the regime coalition chose to attack mainstream rebels, in some cases actually losing territory to ISIS as a result.

 While the reduction in violence during each ceasefire temporarily alleviated suffering across the country, in most cases the ceasefires were used by the government and its allies to gain ground or position themselves for future operations. Tracking the ceasefires in Aleppo throughout 2016 provides useful context and an insight into the way ceasefires played into the warring parties’ broader strategic aims. The US and Russia reached agreement on February 22, 2016, for a nationwide cessation of hostilities to begin on February 27. The agreement did not apply to either ISIS or the Nusra Front, but applied to the opposition and government alike. The agreement also stipulated that there must be unimpeded humanitarian aid access to all areas. In Aleppo, government strikes continued throughout the period of the ceasefire. Ostensibly aimed at the Nusra Front, these in fact struck a wide range of targets, including civilians and opposition groups, in what has been termed a “relentless” series of violations. By late April, the government was striking the opposition-held half of the city with heavy bombing, including on hospitals. For the religious observance of Eid, a “regime of calm” was “implemented across all territory of the Syrian Arab Republic for a period of 72 hours from 1 a.m. on July 6 until 2400 on July 8, 2016.” The government and its supporters (Hezbollah, Russia, and Iranian militias) used the three-day window to attack the approach road to Aleppo and work toward bringing about the siege of the city. On the morning of July 6, within hours of the beginning of the ceasefire, there were reports of attacks on the area around the Castello Road. Throughout the ceasefire, fierce fighting was reported in and around the same area, the north of the city.

 According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Aleppo was hit by 4,045 barrel bombs in 2016, with 225 falling in December alone. A record of attacks compiled by the first responder organization Syrian Civil Defence, known as the “White Helmets,” covering the period from September 19, 2016 until the evacuation in mid December showed 823 distinct reported incidents, ranging from cluster-munition attacks to barrel bombs.

 As many as 172 verified attacks on medical facilities and personnel were reported across Syria between June and December 2016.101 According to figures from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), seventy-three of those (42 percent) occurred in the city of Aleppo. The attacks were so frequent, and some key hospitals were struck so many times, that the incidents appear to constitute a systematic attempt to destroy the city’s medical support. The evidence that many hospitals were hit, and that individual hospitals were hit repeatedly, is extremely strong. Nonetheless, throughout the conflict, the response from the Syrian and Russian governments was to deny any and all accusations of deliberately targeting hospitals. Lacking direct documentary or eyewitness evidence of orders given by the government and its allies to target hospitals, those denials are difficult to disprove. However, several strands of circumstantial evidence point toward hospital strikes as a deliberate policy. The first circumstantial thread is the sheer volume of strikes on medical facilities recorded during the conflict: over 400 across Syria, according to Physicians for Human Rights; over 70 in Aleppo in the second half of 2016, according to SAMS. It is very unlikely that such a high rate of strikes on facilities covered under the Geneva Convention was accidental. Second is the Assad government’s intimate knowledge of the terrain. It has ruled the country for decades; most, if not all, of the hospitals destroyed were built under its aegis. It would therefore be illogical to argue that the government and its allies did not know where the hospitals were. They did know; but somehow, they failed to protect them, not once or twice, but hundreds of times. At best, this is a systemic failure of the duty to protect medical facilities; at worst, it suggests a deliberate policy of targeting hospitals. A third indicator is the repeated confiscation by pro-government forces of medical supplies from humanitarian aid convoys to opposition controlled areas across Syria. While trauma and surgical equipment was most frequently removed, antibiotics, anesthetic and antibacterial medicines, obstetric kits for midwives, burn kits, and other medicines were all extracted. In one convoy to besieged al-Waer in 2016, 5.3 tons of medical aid was removed from a convoy, allowing only 440 kg to get through. This apparent attempt to deprive doctors and hospitals in areas under opposition control of medicines and supplies suggests a consistent strategy, implemented whenever and however possible. The final indicator is the strategic context of the strikes, and their application in the broader pattern of siege warfare. The bombing of Darayya’s last hospital on August 18, 2016, precipitated the agreement of the community to accept an evacuation deal. Darayya had endured four years of siege; the loss of the hospital was a decisive factor in the civilian population’s decision to vacate the area. Taken together, this evidence strongly suggests that the Assad government and its allies targeted hospitals deliberately, as part of a strategy intended to break the will and infrastructure of the resistance.

 Between June 5 and August 10, 2016, HRW reported that incendiary weapons were used at least eighteen times on targets in the opposition held areas of Aleppo and Idlib provinces; no fewer than nine incidents above opposition-held east Aleppo were reported in September. In the words of HRW’s report, “For at least a few weeks in mid-2016, incendiary weapons were used almost every day in attacks on opposition-held areas.

 According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, Syrian forces used at least 249 cluster munitions in ten out of Syria’s fourteen governorates between July 2012 and July 2014. This number only reflects incidents in which remnants of cluster munitions were recorded and identified, so the actual figure may be higher. According to the same source, 2,221 people in Syria were killed or wounded by cluster munitions between 2012 and the end of 2015.174 Witnesses to the Syrian conflict have documented the use of a wide range of cluster munitions. Types identified include unguided air-dropped munitions such as RBK-500 series cluster bombs, surface-to-surface rockets, including the 122mm Sakr rocket,175 and 9M55K 300mm rockets launched by the modern Russian BM-30 multiple rocket launcher.When Russia began its air campaign in September 2015, previously undocumented cluster munitions began to be recorded at attack sites, in particular the AO-2.5RTM, ShOAB-0.5M,177 PTAB-1M,178 and SPBE submunitions used with RBK-500 cluster bomb casings. Following reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other organizations about the use of cluster munitions in Syria, the Russian Ministry of Defense denied any and all use of cluster munitions by Russian forces, stating “Russian aviation does not use them,” and going as far to claim were “no such munitions at the Russian air base in Syria.” These denials were exposed as false when photographs and video from Russian media, including Kremlin broadcasters Sputnik and RT, as well as the MoD’s own photographs, showed cluster munitions at the Russian air base in Syria, and even loaded onto Russian aircraft. As detailed above, RT was later caught editing footage posted on their YouTube channel, removing footage of cluster munitions mounted on Russian jets at their airbase in Syria.

 Since the Sarin attacks in Damascus on August 21, 2013, there have been dozens of reports of chemical weapon attacks across Syria using chlorine, sarin, mustard gas, and other agents. In August 2016, the third report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons United Nations (OPCW/UN) Joint Investigative Mechanism concluded that Syrian government forces had used chlorine gas in two attacks, and had probably committed several more, between April 2014 and September 2015, including in cases where evidence had been removed.

 Even as the OPCW-UN were publishing their report in August 2016, fresh allegations of chemical weapons attacks were emerging in Syria, including in opposition-held east Aleppo. At the start of August two attacks were reported in the city, one on August 2, and a second on August 10. In the August 10 attack, victims reported they had been hit by a barrel bomb containing chlorine gas dropped from a helicopter, a mode of attack consistent with other reports of chlorine gas use by Syrian government forces. Over seventy individuals were reported injured in the attack, including approximately thirty young children; three deaths were reported, including two children. The UN’s Syria Envoy, Staffan de Mistura said: “There seems to be a lot of evidence that it did take place.” A further attack was reported on September 6, with over 150 victims transferred for treatment in local medical facilities. Multiple witnesses reported the use of helicopters to drop the bomb, as well as the distinctive smell of chlorine at the attack site. Two deaths were reported from the attack, one of them, a thirteen-year-old child. Al-Quds hospital treated many victims of the attack, sharing photographs of victims being treated on its Facebook page: A medical report provided to Bellingcat by doctors at the al-Quds hospital listed the details of the victims:208 seventy-one patients treated as a result of the attack, including sixteen children below the age of five, twenty children between the ages of six and eighteen, and one pregnant woman. The report also stated that the victims were treated for exposure to chlorine. The identification of chlorine as the agent is consistent with other reports, including statements recorded by various organizations and individuals working in the area. In a video published online by the White Helmets, a rescuer described the smell of chlorine at the attack site; American proopposition journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem produced a video from the attack site stating “The smell of chlorine is very strong here”; and in a video from the SMART News Agency filmed at the entrance to the al-Quds hospital, one man said that he found one of the victims and they smelt of chlorine.

 In mid-January 2017, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that it had documented the arrest or enforced disappearance of no fewer than 2,367 people from Aleppo governorate, including at least 89 women and 64 children, from July 1 to December 31, 2016. A correspondent for Aleppo Today, Ahmad Mustafa, and his father and two brothers were reportedly detained after they escaped east Aleppo; a younger brother was reportedly tortured before being released. Abdulhadi Kamel, a member of the White Helmets, was captured while fleeing to safety with his family. He was interviewed by pro-Kremlin media outlet ANNA News, which is based in the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia—a region that depends on Kremlin military and financial support for its existence. In the interview, Kamel confessed to having staged his rescues in order to receive financing from Europe, Turkey, and “the Gulf monarchs.” However, the White Helmets have said that the “confession” was made under duress,74 and a follow-up investigation by independent outlet Middle East Eye quoted “local sources” as tracing Kamel to the “Air Force Intelligence security branch in Aleppo, where former prisoners frequently recount abuse by officers.” One former resident of east Aleppo who is known to this report’s authors said that one of his students, whom he named, was arrested on December 9, together with the student’s father. He also named four male members of a family from the al-Mayasser neighborhood as having been arrested. Another source said he knows “ten people who are arrested now and their families can’t meet them—they are in the secret police prisons.” He was not willing to name the detainees who were reportedly arrested, so verification of these vague reports is difficult. Arrests of east Aleppo residents reportedly continued into January. On January 3, in Hidaria neighborhood, the identification documents of residents were collected; many young men were reportedly arrested the following day. Another source known to the authors said, “Two of my relatives were arrested after they decided to stay in their houses when the regime’s militias were advancing.” He also named two other men, and a family group, who were arrested when they went from east to west Aleppo. Accurate information on this issue is sketchy, as relatives are reluctant to provide information, for fear it will place their loved ones in still graver danger; however, the number of reports of arrests is increasing. The Caesar photos, so-called for the code-name of the alleged military defector who smuggled the material out of Syria in August 2013 and showed evidence of the torture and summary execution of thousands of detainees, are a chilling reminder of the fate victims of Syria’s prisons and security services can meet. Executions were reported on three main occasions. In order to reduce confusion, only civilians reported executed are covered here, despite the fact that the summary execution of any captive is considered unlawful conduct under international law. When opposition forces withdrew from the northern suburbs of east Aleppo and government forces came into the area, there were reports of executions. In several cases, photographic evidence was provided by former residents of east Aleppo who are known to this report’s authors. They named one of the victims as Mohammad Abdo Sultan, a mechanic who fixes generators whom they knew personally, and who was executed in the northern neighborhoods of east Aleppo beside an unnamed man, reportedly the owner of a bakery. There are other, less specific, allegations from this time. The UN reported that they had received information regarding eighty-two executions in early December. On January 20, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) confirmed in a telephone call that they had had “further corroboration of the executions we reported on in December, and of missing people.”

 A credible ceasefire in Syria does not require occupying the country, or engaging in nation building. What it does require is the imposition of costs on violators (overwhelmingly the regime, Iran, and its proxies) whether through direct kinetic action, robust support for local allies on the ground, or any other effective measures in the policy toolkit. Breaking Aleppo did not end the war or its serious challenges to US interests. Dark as it is, however, it is also a valuable call to action, a hard lesson in the cost of inaction, and a case study in a new and devastating combination of tactics honed by the United States’ adversaries. Aleppo’s catastrophe must inform a US strategy that is both bolder and wiser than that which allowed it to happen.'

Sunday, 12 February 2017

For Arab revolutionaries, there is no choice but to continue the fight

 Basheer Nafi:

 'After nearly six years of battling the regime, its Iranian allies and sectarian militias, the prospect of change in Syria seems farther away than ever before. It is certainly more distant than when the popular revolution erupted in March 2011. The tragedy of human loss and destruction is now compounded by despair, disappointment and frustration.

 It is not difficult to list the reasons that led to this, nor is it difficult to finger those responsible for the massive losses incurred by the people, their towns and cities. Yet, the outcome is the same whether we agree on this and who is responsible or not.

 This, of course, is what led to the emergence of voices saying that the Syrian revolution should not have happened in the first place, that the slogans were wrong and that the biggest responsibility for the Syrian tragedy is to be borne by those who raised the banner of change without understanding whom they were taking on, the forces that stood by the regime, or its determination to wage an existential struggle irrespective of the consequences.

 This is an implausible argument. First, because the Syrian revolution, like all the Arab revolutions, was not the making of one party or one charismatic leader or a group of them. The Syrians took to the streets of their towns and cities in an Arab revolutionary climate, voluntarily, simultaneously and spontaneously.

 The military confrontation, which happened months after the regime forces and its agencies attacked demonstrators, was not a decision made by any of the opposition parties or groups of activists, who started emerging gradually within as well as outside the country. Armed confrontation was a direct reaction to the viciousness of repression and to the barbarity of state institutions. It developed in an unorganised fashion and took the form of groups that comprised dissenting elements from within the Syrian regime’s army and young militants of various Islamic and non-Islamic tendencies.

 As is now well-documented, it took two years from the eruption of the popular revolution before al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group began to establish themselves inside Syria.

 Second, uprooting the regime was never the Syrian revolution’s primary goal. The revolution, in any case, did not have a proper united leadership to determine its objectives. The general mood of the early protest movement was reformist. It called for political, social and economic change. It would have been entirely possible for the regime to contain the mass movement had the ruling minority exhibited the slightest readiness to effect tangible changes in the structure of the government, and to end its boorish hegemony over state resources.

 During the spring, summer and autumn of 2011, the regime was presented with proposals by elements close to it for a new constitution. Arab leaderships, both official and popular, known for their friendships with it, interceded and so too did its Turkish allies. Everyone tried, even begged, and there were numerous promises of support to put Syria on a reformist track to be led by the regime itself with the aim of rescuing the regime and rescuing the country.

 All efforts were cancelled out by the blind arrogance of the ruling clique and its short-sightedness on the one hand and the pressure exerted on it by Hezbollah and Iran on the other.

 It would be foolish to ignore the role played by the terrorist groups and their regional and international interventions in complicating the crisis. However, the primary and greatest responsibility falls on the shoulders of the regime and its sectarian allies who, right from the very beginning, treated the people’s movement and their demands as a zero-sum game: either the people and their political forces win or the ruling minority wins.

 Perhaps an early indication of the bloody minority approach that led Syria to where it is today could be detected in Hassan Nasrallah’s famous speech in which he said: “Homs? Nothing is happening in Homs!”

 Perhaps the Syrians erred when they took to the streets to demand their freedom without realising the extent to which the regime and its allies were ready to mobilise their troops and resources to repress the people and destroy their historic cities and inheritance.

 But have the Egyptians, the Yemenis, the Libyans and the Tunisians erred too? Haven’t their revolutions too been aborted and their dreams of change destroyed? Haven’t Yemeni and Libyan cities too been destroyed? Haven’t thousands of Egyptians, Yemenis and Libyans also been killed and scores of thousands been detained with many more banished and forced into exile?

 On 23 October, 1956, a student protest movement erupted in Budapest. Soon the student movement developed into a massive people’s revolution that spread to all parts of the country and was joined by millions of Hungarians. Within days, and despite the continued confrontations with the five Soviet divisions that had been deployed within Hungary since the end of WWII, the revolutionaries succeeded in bringing down the secret police organisation that was the regime’s main tool of repression and toppled the pro-Moscow government.

 In the beginning, the Soviet Union was hesitant to intervene. However, as soon as it transpired that the new reform government was determined to withdraw from the Warsaw Alliance and declare Hungary a non-aligned state, the Soviet leadership decided to use force to repress the Hungarian revolution.

 On 4 November, 17 Soviet military divisions were ordered to cross the Hungarian borders and join the five divisions that had already been there in order to quell the revolution with the power of arms. The Hungarian revolution was defeated and the Hungarians paid a heavy price: thousands were killed, more than 20,000 were detained and more than 200,000, who fled to other parts of Europe, became refugees. In 1958, the head of the reform government, Imre Nagi, and several of his comrades were tried and executed.

 More than a decade later, during the Prague Spring of 1968, the Soviet army intervened once more in order to bring down a (communist) reformist Czech government and obstruct the process of democratisation within Czechoslovakia. Here, too, the cost was quite heavy.

 Even the Polish Solidarity Movement, which became a symbol for the victory of freedom in 1989, did not enjoy an easy ride. The movement, which was established in August 1980 as an independent labour union, was transformed within months to become a civil opposition current that had more than nine million members. In October 1981, General Jaruzelski rose to power in Warsaw, declaring martial law and launching a nationwide repression campaign that reached its climax in October 1982 with imposing a ban on Solidarity and declaring it to be an illegitimate organisation.

 The Solidarity Movement was victorious in 1989 when it ended the rule of communism; and so were the entire peoples of Eastern Europe. In Hungary; Nagi was given a new burial in an official ceremony and the 23rd of October was declared a national day.

 The history of nations does not stop at a single moment, the moment of failure and disappointment or even defeat. Human society moves along a flowing and continuous current toward uplifting the values of freedom and human dignity. No force can ever stop such a current.'