Saturday, 8 July 2017

Syrian Refugee: ‘It Was Pretty Much Suicide To Stay In’ Aleppo

 'The United States and Russia have reached an agreement on a cease-fire in southwest Syria.

 Although details about the agreement and how it will be implemented aren’t yet available, the cease-fire is set to take effect Sunday at noon, Damascus time.

 “Honestly, when I hear something like that, I get a little happy and hopeful,” said Syrian refugee Mahmud Hallak.

 Hallak grew up in Aleppo, a Syrian city hit the hardest by the country’s civil war.

 He came to Philadelphia in 2012, after he was forced to flee his home country.

 “The government was able to get our names, who we are, and what we did,” said Hallak. “That point it was pretty much suicide to stay in the city.”

 Hallak – just a teenager back then in Syria – was part of a protesting group of Syrian people fighting for freedom, trying to overthrow the country’s oppressive government.

 While he was able to flee to America, his father did not and was killed during the war.

 Over the past five years of the unrest in Syria, Hallak also lost a cousin and several friends.

 He is hopeful that this new cease-fire, backed by the U.S., Russia and Jordan, will work.

 He also hopes the world understands it is not a victory for the Syrian people.

 “At this point, there is peace, but not really,” he said. “It’s just a government taking over full control. Seeing that, it’s just like all that happened was pointless. All these people died, all this distraction and we did not come up with anything.” '

A Half-Million Syrian Returnees? A Look Behind the Numbers

 'On June 30, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that nearly one-half million Syrians had returned to their homes between January and May 2017. The report expresses optimism that millions could return if "peace and stability in Syria increases." A research mission by this author to Lebanon focusing on Syrian refugees, however, prompts much circumspection about whether or not Syrians should be returning at all, even if the pipe dream of peace becomes a reality.

 The first point to emphasize in analyzing the recent UNHCR figure is that 443,000 returnees are actually internally displaced persons (still living in Syria), out of a total 6.3 million IDPs registered. Just 31,000 were refugees (living outside Syria), who had fled to neighboring countries (Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan). Moreover, even as a small number of refugees return to Syria, the number of exiting refugees continues to rise at a greater rate, a reality caused largely by persistent instability throughout the country. Between January and May 2017, the number of registered Syrian refugees increased from 4.9 million to 5.1 million, according to the UNHCR. While the IDP figure has been declining steadily from 7.5 million since the fall of 2015, anyone assessing such trajectories must be extremely careful to account for manipulation of data for political purposes.

 The concept of IDPs is much broader than that of refugees, entailing anyone who has left home -- and who, in turn, might have traveled very short or longer distances. Indeed, shorter distances create a greater likelihood of return. Among the returnees recorded by the UNHCR, several hundred IDPs living in West Aleppo came back to East Aleppo, and suburban Damascus IDPs returned to al-Qabun or Qudsaya when these areas were reoccupied by the Syrian army in fall 2016. A similar phenomenon may play out after Raqqa is reclaimed from the Islamic State. By contrast, for the rebel-oriented families of Daraya, the al-Waar district of Homs, or Zabadani -- who were sent to Idlib following an agreement with the regime -- little chance exists for an imminent return to their homes.

 A complicating factor in this discussion is that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the entity responsible IDPs, does not conduct the census itself. Instead, Syrian government administrators and rebels alike overestimate their IDPs to obtain maximum food aid and prove that each respective camp controls the majority of the population. Such manipulations led OCHA to reassess its statistics in fall of 2015, with the result being a substantial drop in the estimate from 7.5 to 6.5 million IDPs. According to UN sources, the IDP data suggests rebels inflated their numbers more than government officials did. Such variance may seem logical given that many residents fled to regime-controlled areas for security, unless they were involved in the insurrection. The government areas offered greater security because they were not subjected to frequent aerial bombardment or embargoes and because public services were maintained.

 As compared to Syria, refugee data from UNHCR and the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey (AFAD) -- the Turkish organization in charge of the refugees -- is more reliable. Both organizations take seriously registration of applications, and neither skews its data. Potentially driving down figures is the reality that many refugees do not want to be registered. In Lebanon, a study conducted by Beirut's Saint Joseph University showed an underestimation of refugees by 23 percent in 2016. Among this proportion, many are no longer registered because single refugees or those without small children, for instance, are usually ineligible for humanitarian aid. Moreover, most Syrian refugees who came to Lebanon after 2015 are ineligible for humanitarian assistance and therefore have less incentive to stay in their adopted country. Nor do refugee cards exempt them from residence permit taxes -- $200 per year for those older than fourteen. Many Syrians thus obtain fake employment contracts, even though the bosses providing such fraudulent paperwork are often simply smugglers. This helps explain why the actual number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon seems not to decrease, with the situation in Syria still discouraging their repatriation.

 The main obstacle to return remains lack of security. This perception varies according to geographic origin, socioeconomic level, and, of course, potential involvement in resistance to the Syrian regime. However, a common thread links all Syrian men ages fifteen to forty-five: fear of being conscripted into the Syrian army or rebel groups or the larger Syrian Democratic Forces, depending on their place of residence. Many families still therefore prefer to leave Syria preemptively when their sons approach their eighteenth birthday, the age of conscription. As long as the fighting keeps up, refugees will continue to flow out of the country -- and the return of significant numbers will be limited. Once the fighting is over, only amnesty could reassure the hundreds of thousands of "deserters."

 Corruption from Syrian officials is the second reason for staying in Lebanon. For their part, men do not dare return to Syria for fear of being arrested arbitrarily and having to pay a large sum to be released. One interviewee in Lebanon related that he'd had to pay $3,000 to be set free from prison while he was in good standing with the Syrian authorities. His uncle, who works in Kuwait, paid the Mukhabarat (secret police) $15,000 to release his seventeen-year-old son, who was jailed arbitrarily in Damascus. Furthermore, since the beginning of the civil war, a tremendous number of kidnappings have occurred in Syria, with the principal targets being men of military age, sons of wealthy families, and those with families abroad.

 The Syrians who return to their former homes often do so with horror stories. The testimony of a refugee from Aleppo who visited his house in April 2017 carried a particular eloquence, while appearing to represent a broader reality: "I went back to our apartment in Ashrafiya [a neighborhood in northeast Aleppo]. From the Lebanese border to Aleppo, I had to pay a $100 bribe [two months' salary for a civil servant]. I had packed a food bag for my sister: tea, coffee, powdered milk, and so on. But once I arrived at Aleppo, my suitcase was empty because at every checkpoint on the road they took something. Our apartment could be rehabilitated with some work, but it is too expensive and there is almost no electricity. Our shop was destroyed and looted. We prefer to stay in Lebanon and wait for a visa to leave for Europe or Canada."

 The family just mentioned is relatively well established in Lebanon: all are supported by the UNHCR (with $27 of food per person per month and healthcare coverage), the husband has a permanent job, and all four children are enrolled in school. Back in Syria, the economic situation, corruption, and rampant insecurity all deter a return, especially since doing so would forfeit their status as refugees and consequently the possibility of emigrating elsewhere. Even if only a few hundred visas are distributed a year by the European Union, Canada, Australia, and the United States, such slim opportunities still nourish dreams for a future departure. Further arousing desires for emigration are the millions of new Syrian refugees since 2012 living in northern countries (mostly Germany, Sweden, and Canada) who share their experience with their relatives. Moreover, the EU border is not protected by a wall, people are sometimes rescued at sea, and the right to family reunification has not been removed from the European Treaty of Accession 2003.

 In Lebanon, the UNHCR's humanitarian aid and support from numerous NGOs allow Syrian refugees to extend their stay. Food and healthcare are largely covered, as noted in the example before, with the main expense being rent. The Syrians agree to work for a lower net wage than that of the Lebanese and, unlike the Lebanese, they do not report their earnings to social security. In northern and eastern Lebanon, where the refugees are concentrated, the World Bank is financing the construction of rural roads in order to create jobs for the refugees while also investing in the host community. The situation for Syrian refugees is far from pleasant, but for most it exceeds the alternative in Syria. For the international community, the dilemma remains wherein provision of aid alleviates suffering but, in doing so, potentially sends misleading signals to the refugees regarding their future.

 The latest UNHCR poll shows that only 6 percent of Syrian refugees want to return to Syria in the near future and 8 percent say they will never return. Some three-quarters are officially hesitant.

 The way in which these sentiments develop will, no doubt, depend on security conditions and the speed of reconstruction in Syria. However -- as a general rule -- the more time refugees spend abroad, the less likely they are to return to their countries of origin. Yet should conditions deteriorate dramatically in their host country -- Lebanon, in this example -- Syrian refugees would be persuaded to return home regardless of any improvement in the security and economic situation. The deterioration of living and security conditions in Lebanon could also lead to the radicalization of people who cannot return to Syria and who, somewhere along the way, succumb to desperation.'

Thursday, 6 July 2017

PYD leader threatens to hand over Afrin to Assad regime

Image result for PYD leader threatens to hand over Efrin to Assad regime

 'The Democratic Union Party (PYD) ringleader, Saleh Muslim, threatened to hand over the region of Efrin in Aleppo north-western countryside to the Assad regime if Russia and the US would not put an end to Turkish threats of entering Efrin.

 The co-president of the Kurdish party, which is primarily made up of People's Protection Units (YPG), told Ronahi News TV Channel on Wednesday (July 5) "We asked the United States and Russia to intervene and stop the Turkish aggression on Afrin. If they do not help us stop this aggression, we will hand over Afrin to the Syrian (Assad) regime, just as we did with Manbij,” Rojava News reported.

 The latest threats by Muslim came hours after Turkey said it may launch a cross-border operation into the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Efrin in northern Syria if it constitutes a "constant security threat."

 Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik told state-run television TRT on Tuesday that Turkey's military will continue to respond to the "slightest fire" into Turkish territory from Afrin.

 He spoke hours after reports that Turkey's military retaliated overnight to fire from areas controlled by the YPG.

 Turkey considers the main Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG), which is supported by the United States, to be an extension of Kurdish rebels fighting in Turkey (PKK).

 Last year, Turkey sent troops into Syria to help Syrian opposition forces battling to oust ISIS terrorists from another border region and to curb the territorial advances of the Syrian Kurdish militia.

 "We would not abstain from doing what is necessary if Afrin becomes a constant security threat," Isik said.

 Turkish media reported that during the past days, about 20,000 Free Syrian Army fighters will participate in a Turkish military operation in Afrin region, after Ankara completed preparations for the process, which will take 70 days, and includes the capture of Tal Rafa’at city and the YPG-controlled Mennagh Military Airport.

 Turkish newspaper Milliyet reported earlier that the Turkish side has conducted rounds of negotiations with the Russian one to discuss the planned military operation, pointing out that Russia began withdrawing troops it had deployed earlier in Afrin under the pretext of monitoring the truce.

 The newspaper quoted a Russian diplomatic source as saying that “a new area is planned to reduce the tension in Afrin,” pointing out that security is ensured in this region by Turkish and Russian military, similar to the proposed mechanism to ensure security in the areas of “de-escalation zones”, including Idlib countryside.

 Turkish Karar news website revealed on Friday a new operation by the Turkish army in northern Syria aimed at targeting PKK-affiliated militants.

The website reported that the Turkish operation, dubbed “Euphrates Sword”, has mobilized 7 thousand of its forces on the border, as it is expected to start operations from west of Azaz in the town of Ain Dokneh and Mennagh Military Airport until Tel Rifaat, Afrin, and Tel al-Abyad.'

Syrian Lense:
 'With the operation for Tell Rifaat looming and several people drawing parallels to Euphrates Shield, it's important to delineate the differences between the last operation and this prospective one. First, FSA forces, most notably Liwa Mutassim, have received training for months now. Although much is still severely undertrained, comparing the competency of N Aleppo rebels eight months ago with now is a mistake. With that being said, the terrain is completely different from the open plains where much of the Euphrates Shield operation took place. The Afrin canton is largely mountainous, making any push incredibly difficult Kurdish armed groups are in their niche when fight is in mountains. And no, Afrin city is most likely not a target. This is the more probable plan for this operation:' 


'Large protests against YPG in Northern Aleppo. People calling for the liberation of Arab areas under YPG control.'

Assad regime helicopters dropped chlorine gas on Eastern Damascus again


 12:26 AM - 6 Jul 2017'

This Utah family fled Syria as the bombs fell — and almost all they took with them were recipes

Image result for This Utah family fled Syria as the bombs fell — and almost all they took with them were recipes

 'Yassir Alzoubi loves to cook. His chicken shawarma and falafel are right out of Syria and sing with Middle Eastern flavors.

 The recipes Yassir holds close to his heart are among the few things he and his family brought from their southern Syrian village that was practically bombed out of existence near the city of Daraa.

 Yassir and his wife, Manal, have three sons, ages 17, 12 and 8, and 15-year-old twin daughters. They now live in Midvale with the children's grandmother, Soubhieh Abdullah, 81.

 The family members escaped with little but the clothes on their backs in March 2013, when Syrian government bombers flattened Khirbet Ghazaleh, their suburban town of 30,000. During a pause in the bombing, they caught a ride in a van to the southernmost village in Syria and then walked 15 miles into Jordan. There, they lived in the Zaatari refugee camp for 2½ years.

 These days, the Alzoubis keep memories of home alive with traditions, the most sensory of which is food.

 Daraa, a city of about 1 million in southwestern Syria is about 55 miles south of Damascus. It is sometimes called the "cradle of the revolution," because protests erupted there when a dozen boys were arrested for painting anti-government graffiti. That, some say, sparked the Arab Spring in Syria and the rebellion in 2011.

 Later that year, bombs began to fall in and around Daraa. Many nights, the family retired to the safety of the basement. But it was difficult to sleep with explosions all around, said Mohammed, the 17-year-old.

 Yassir and Manal were both educators in Khirbet Ghazaleh, which also was home to engineers, physicians and other professionals, he explained proudly.

 "It's a special place. People there cared about each other," Yassir said through a translation by Mohammed.

 They had built a new house in 2007, Yassir said. "Our home is gone now — bomb."

 Yassir and his siblings also owned a small farm nearby, where they grew wheat, olives, tomatoes and watermelon.

 "It was good land," Yassir said. "It was good for growing."

 As he prepared a large number of chicken shawarma sandwiches, Yassir recalled his older brother, who is still in Syria.

 "No place is safe in Syria," he said. "When we got out of there, the situation was very bad. But now it is worse."

 Mohammed translated for his father: "The government does not help people," he said. "It turned against them and started killing them."

 Yassir and Manal were both educators in Khirbet Ghazaleh, which also was home to engineers, physicians and other professionals, he explained proudly. "It's a special place. People there cared about each other," Yassir said through a translation by Mohammed. 

 They had built a new house in 2007, Yassir said. "Our home is gone now — bomb." Yassir and his siblings also owned a small farm nearby, where they grew wheat, olives, tomatoes and watermelon. "It was good land," Yassir said. "It was good for growing."

 As he prepared a large number of chicken shawarma sandwiches, Yassir recalled his older brother, who is still in Syria. "No place is safe in Syria," he said. "When we got out of there, the situation was very bad. But now it is worse." Mohammed translated for his father: "The government does not help people," he said. "It turned against them and started killing them."

 Although they put on a hopeful face, the transition to a new country and culture is not easy.

 "We didn't know anyone here," Manal said. "But people in America are very nice. We are happy to be in Utah."

 Nonetheless, she pines for her homeland and the brother and sister she left behind. "My hope is that my family can join us here."

 Yassir, too, misses Syria. "It's sad," he said through Mohammed. "I spent most of my life there, so it is hard to leave." '

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

FSA groups announce boycott of Astana talks.

How a Syrian NGO is rebuilding destroyed parts of Idlib

 'A non-governmental organisation has launched an initiative to rebuild parts of northern Syria that have been destroyed in the country's ongoing war.

 The Violet Organization aims to clean, rebuild and renovate schools, roads, parks and other public spaces in rebel-held Idlib. The first project, dubbed "Idlib's Spring", focuses on the heart of Idlib city, where volunteers have painted, planted and renovated the famous clock square.

 "We have 1,500 volunteers working on this project with the help of local committees, and we will continue with a similar project in areas such as in Ariha, Jisr al-Shughour, Maaret al-Numan, Marea and Kafranbel in Idlib province," said spokesman Fouad Sayyed Issa.

 "The feeling of hope was felt by everyone as we finished our project in Idlib's clock square. This clock tower means so much to the people of Idlib," he added. "We could see happiness on the faces of adults and children; everyone was so happy. Everyone felt like life was brought back to them."

 Founded in Idlib city in 2011, the same year the Syrian conflict began, the Violet Organization was launched by a group of volunteers focused on distributing humanitarian aid.

 "Between 2015 and 2016, we managed to reach out to 2.7 million people in need," Issa said. "We mostly receive our donations from organisations and individuals. Our work includes creating shelters, providing health facilities and education, and protection."

 Amid deadly fighting between rebels and government forces, the team later moved its office to the suburbs and expanded aid operations to Aleppo, Hama, Latakia, Homs and the Damascus suburbs.

 Most of Idlib province in northwestern Syria has been under rebel control since 2015. It is regularly bombed by both Syrian and allied Russian warplanes, and many schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed.

 The Violet Organization has received praise from the United Nations for its aid during the eastern Aleppo evacuation, and the group has also teamed up with other relief groups, including Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee.

 "Our message to the world is that the Syrian people can and will get back on their feet. We will bring life back to our country and smiles back to our peoples' faces. The war must stop; the air strikes and the fighting must stop," Issa said.'

'You destroy, we rebuild': a builder's life in war-torn Syria

 'When builder Abu Salem repairs a shell hole in a house in rebel-held southern Syria, he knows it might not be the last job he does on the structure.

 "There is a chance the buildings will be hit again," he said, "But in the short term people should be able to take refuge in their homes."

 Abu Salem heads a group of 12 construction workers who rebuild and patch up buildings damaged by barrel bombs, air strikes and shelling in and around Syria's Deraa city.

 With no access to modern tools, and materials made expensive by the war, Abu Salem's men break up buildings, mix concrete and carry loads by hand. Despite the difficulties, they have kept their sense of humor.

 Three months ago a video circulated widely on Syrian social media showing masked men kneeling in formation, brandishing staffs and rising to shouts of "God is Great".

 At first glance it looks like a typical example of the belligerent propaganda footage often posted by armed groups in the Syrian conflict. But it isn't what it seems.

 "In the name of God, I am Abu Salem al-Muhameed and I announce the formation of a Concrete Pouring Brigade in the free areas!" Salem shouts into the camera in an unmistakable parody of fired-up rebel leaders fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

 "If you destroy, by God we will rebuild!" he cries as his men wave pickaxes and shovels and then descend into laughter.

 After the You Destroy and We Rebuild Brigade's video appeared, people began stopping Abu Salem in the street.

 "They said: you are the best brigade formed since the start of the Syrian crisis," he sia.

 Syria's war has destroyed the national economy and fractured the country into a patchwork of areas of control which bisect trading routes, raising prices and causing local shortages of vital commodities.

 But money can sometimes talk louder than political loyalty, and across Syria goods still find their way across front lines, with heavy bribes and taxes paid at checkpoints.

 Abu Salem lives in a rebel-held area but sources his building materials from government-controlled zones.

 Cement secured from Damascus may cost about 30,000 Syrian pounds a ton at source, he said, but arrives in Deraa at a price of 50,000 to 55,000 pounds after passing through all the checkpoints.

 "By the time they get to us the price has become 50, 60 or sometimes 100 percent more than their real price," said Abu Salem, a 39-year-old father of five who was a builder before the war.

 Abu Salem is passionate about his mission to reverse the destruction, but laments he can't do as good a job as he'd like.

 There are no engineers, modern construction techniques or cement mixers. He and his colleagues reuse rubble and steel from destroyed buildings and do everything by hand.

 "The quality of building has changed significantly ... If there was equipment we would be able to build faster and better. But these are war conditions," said Abu Salem, who has had to vacate and repair his own house because of air attacks.

 Brigade members are paid in accordance with what customers can afford, averaging the equivalent of a mere four or five U.S. dollars a day.

 "It's always just (enough for) food and water. There are no savings because of the high prices," Abu Salem said.

 Abu Salem said he and his men stood ready to help whichever parties eventually agree to rebuild Syria. "But if someone comes with a rocket or a weapon and says 'fight', I won't," he said.'

Monday, 3 July 2017

We’ve attacked Bashar Assad, and yet no ‘World War III’

 Mohammed Alaa Ghanem:

 'When President Trump ordered a Tomahawk missile barrage against Assad forces in retaliation for the Syrian nerve gas massacre of April 2017 – an act the White House threatened to repeat just last week based on intelligence of an imminent chemical attack – he not only caused massive damage to the Assad regime’s aerial fleet but also left in smoldering ruins years of Obama Administration talking points about action against Assad triggering “World War Three.”

 In the last years of the Obama presidency, Administration officials waved off any and all of my suggestions to build Syrian opposition leverage and coerce Assad into negotiating. They warned that such suggestions – even humanitarian airdrops – could trigger World War Three with Russia, the most important backer of the Assad regime.

 But since April, America has continued to hit pro-regime forces and their Iran-supported allies in Syria, targeting multiple Iran-backed columns and Iran-supplied drones that threatened a U.S. training base for Free Syrian Army rebel fighters. When the U.S. shot down a regime plane in air-to-air combat last week, it was the first event of its kind since the 1990s war in Kosovo.

 With these moves, the U.S. has managed to deter regime chemical attacks on civilians – something President Obama failed to do through diplomacy – and repel Iranian aggressions against U.S. assets without triggering World War Three. Yet former Obama Administration officials are doubling down.

 Colin Kahl, who advised Vice President Biden on national security, writes on Twitter that America is on the path to a “possible clash with Russia” and “war with Iran.” And a former Obama Administration Iran team member, Ilan Goldenberg, warned in an op-ed that more aggressive policies could lead the U.S. to “stumble into a devastating conflict” in Syria.

 The irony is that Obama’s isolationist policies have already caused a devastating conflict. In January 2014, the Assad regime began fiercely bombarding Aleppo as rebels from the area pushed ISIS to the brink in the group’s capital. This weakened the rebel offensive, allowed ISIS to regroup, and led to ISIS storming into Mosul from Syria six months later and declaring a Caliphate.

 Last week, with regime warplanes bombing Pentagon partners fighting ISIS near the group’s capital of Raqqah, Trump responded as Obama should have: by shooting down Assad’s planes.

 Had Obama taken that same step in 2014, ISIS might have been defeated before declaring a Caliphate. Dozens of ISIS terror attacks in Manchester, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and elsewhere that were inspired by ISIS’s rise most likely would not have happened. We are already in a “devastating conflict” due to Obama’s inaction.

 And before policymakers heed Kahl’s pleas to avoid a “possible clash with Russia,” they should reflect on how such a clash became possible. There was no risk of a clash with Russia in mid-2015, when Turkey presented former U.S. anti-ISIS tsar John Allen with a proposed “safe zone” in northern Syria and earned his support. Russian forces had not yet entered Syria then – and based on my own diplomatic sources, Russian diplomats were spooked by the discussions. But Russia was emboldened when the U.S. nixed the proposal in late July. One month later, Russia signed a secret pact with Assad to enter the war.

 Military action against Assad is not a simple matter; it never was. But the record shows that failure to confront Assad has caused far more complications than action against him would have. This remains true today.

 Debate is raging within the Trump Administration over how far to go in support of U.S. partners, particularly anti-ISIS Free Syrian Army rebels supported by a Pentagon training base near Jordan. Key National Security Council officials favor action against Iran-backed militias near the base, while multiple Pentagon officials favor a focus purely on ISIS.

 The problem with an ISIS-only focus is that Iran is exploiting the ISIS fight to damage U.S. interests. Two weeks ago, regime forces evicted ISIS from a narrow strip of territory near the Pentagon’s training base – not to launch an offensive against ISIS, but to prevent U.S.-backed rebels from doing so. The regime has also attacked U.S.-backed groups directly, leading to the defensive airstrikes that so dismay former Obama officials.

 Yet the U.S. cannot stand by in the face of such attacks, which have the goal of conquering eastern Syria “before the Americans get there” and opening an Iranian land corridor to the Mediterranean for the first time in millennia. That corridor would drastically increase Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah, open new Iranian trading with Europe, and thereby make it harder for the U.S. to corral European support even for future sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.

 Gains against ISIS by U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army forces are the main obstacle to this corridor. So the increased tempo of U.S. attacks on Assad and Iran is not only laudable; it is not enough. The U.S. must preempt Iran-backed advances by empowering FSA forces to enter major eastern Syrian population centers. Most FSA fighters at the base are from eastern Syria and would be welcomed by locals.

 In the long run, Trump needs a coherent policy that leverages his newfound assertiveness to help pressure Assad, whom Trump has called an “animal,” to negotiate his exit from power. A new FSA offensive against ISIS in the east is only the first step – the first of many that Trump can take without triggering ‘World War Three’ in Syria.'

Image result for mohammed alaa ghanem

Why Does The Syrian Government Keep Looking To Use Chemical Weapons?

Members of the Syrian government forces sit over the turret of a tank.

 'The Trump administration seems confident that a US warning Monday headed off a planned chemical attack by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but is divided over which part of Syria the government actually planned to attack.

 Some intelligence officials, particularly in the US military, believe that the regime, whose troops in recent weeks have been pushing eastward, had its sights set on Deir Ezzor, an ISIS-controlled city near the Iraqi border where thousands of Syrian army troops are surrounded. Others believe the target was likely remaining pockets of opposition in the west, around the cities of Homs and Hama or in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

 The officials said Assad might consider either to be strategically important enough to risk the international fallout from using chemical weapons, which have been banned internationally for nearly a century. That said, it’s unknown whether US intelligence officials attempted to answer which target was most likely before the White House warned the Assad regime that it would “pay a heavy price” should it launch another chemical attack on civilians. Another possible target would be Idlib province, where some of the regime's most entrenched opposition sits.

 US officials could not say for certain that the regime was planning such an attack. Instead, they said the warning was based on aircraft movements and “chatter” about a possible aerial attack to be launched from Shayrat airfield, the base from which a sarin gas attack was launched in April that killed more than 70 in the town of Khan Shaykhun, prompting the US to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airfield two days later.

 At first glance, it might seem hard to understand why the Assad regime would risk using chemical weapons. The strike on Shayrat airfield destroyed 20% of Syria’s operable aircraft, according to the US military, and the use of chemical weapons during the civil war has earned the Syrian government the moral denunciation of the world, particularly for the 2013 chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds.

 But despite government advances in recent months, the opposition continues to hold on to key territory after six years of brutal war, leaving the government to resort to chemical weapons in hopes of driving rebels from the areas they hold, according to Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

 Few weapons are as psychologically traumatizing as chemicals, Tabler said, and that, too, can be an incentive for the regime.

 The Syrian government has most often used sarin gas to try to squash its opponents when its forces seem on the brink of a major loss. That was the case in 2013 when the regime faced stiff opposition in Damascus’s Ghouta suburbs. In April’s Khan Shaykhun attack, the target appeared to be a key opposition logistics hub far beyond the front lines.

 But why use chemical weapons now, and risk another Trump administration retaliation, particularly on areas already under unrelenting Russian aerial assault? As recently as Wednesday, warplanes attacked opposition and ISIS-controlled territory near Homs and Hama, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

 At the Pentagon, some officials believe pro-Assad forces may have intended to use chemicals to help break the siege at Deir Ezzor, where ISIS forces have surrounded a pocket of regime supporters.

 “The regime is desperately trying to push out east to show they are sovereign over their country, which they haven’t been able to say in about half a decade,” Tabler said. “It’s completely logical they would use chemical weapons against ISIS because they think no one would care.”

 There would be some precedent for such a move. Assad conducted a suspected sarin gas attack against an ISIS position east of Hama City in the months before the strike against Khan Shaykhun, and received basically no international backlash, said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst for the Washington Institute for the Study of War.

 “It is possible he's preparing to test whether he can achieve the same outcome even post Shayrat strike,” Cafarella said.

 For the US military, the use of chemical weapons in the east be would particularly problematic as it would be in vicinity of US troops and bring the Syrian civil war physically closer to the ongoing US war against ISIS.

 Other intelligence officials say the Damascus suburbs were the more likely target. Such an attack would be more in line with previous sarin gas attacks and would be designed to deal a death blow to opposition forces, a US official told BuzzFeed News.

 “The full capture of the Syrian capital is a strategic objective for Assad. He is close to achieving it, but the remaining rebel holdout in eastern Ghouta will be difficult to capture,” Cafarella said. “One major chemical weapons attack could be decisive because it could provide enough disruption of the rebel-held area to enable pro-regime forces to break through final rebel defensive lines and seize the area.”

 On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters en route to Brussels that the preemptive statement Monday appeared to have worked.

 “They took the warning seriously,” Mattis said. “They didn’t do it.”

 But Tabler warned that the situation in Syria has not changed enough for the regime to rule out using sarin gas in the future.

 “What drives all this is the regime does not have manpower to retake its territory,” he said.'

Turkish experts evacuate a victim of a suspected chemical weapons attack.

Assad Struggles to Assert Regime Influence against ‘Shabiha’ Thugs


 'Damascenes are living in great fear as the Syrian regime comes closer to restoring its complete control over the capital.

 They fear that the return of the regime will see the occurrence of the crimes that were committed in Aleppo when it recaptured it from the opposition. The city had witnessed in late 2016 an unprecedented crime wave committed by the regime’s “Shabiha” thugs. Forty-eight cases of rape, eight kidnappings, 13 murders and over 18 robberies were recorded during that time, said local sources.

 Concerns of a similar crime wave taking place in Damascus have occupied the people’s mind amid reports that the regime was no longer capable of reining in the Shabiha. Some of the thugs have even initiated contact with the Russian base in Hameimen and Iranian militia head al-Sayyed Jawad. One observer went so far as to say that Jawad “is Bashar Assad in Syria.”

 Regime head Assad had recently issued orders to “limit the presence of the Shabiha,” but some circles believe that such a measure was done to save face because the thugs are out of his control.

 Damascus has seen over the past five years murders, rape, kidnappings for ransom, car theft and house and store robberies. These crimes often took place the Shabiha-controlled areas.

 The thugs even set up checkpoints under the pretext of security and even hurled insults at the civilians.

 One such civilian said that he had to wait two hours to purchase a bag of bread at a staggering 50 liras. “We were optimistic by Assad’s recent order, but it seems the situation is headed from bad to worse,” he said.

 He explained that the bread trade has become a profitable business for the Shabiha because they are selling it at three times the price of bakeries.

 The regime crackdown against the thugs comes in wake of Defense Ministry order to destroy all non-regime issues security cards.

 The Shabiha emerged in 2011 from the “Popular Defense Committees.” Backed by Iran, the committees were originally formed in 2011 at the beginning of the Syrian uprising. They were employed to help the regime in cracking down on the peaceful protests. They included unemployed individuals, retirees, drug abusers and people with criminal records.

 They operated under the name of “National Defense Forces,” “Baath Brigades,” and others. They also included members from Iraq and Iran, as well as Lebanese members of the “Hezbollah” militia.

 Members of these groups were later called Shabiha [ghosts] due to their crimes and destruction.

 After six years of war, the clear role of the Shabiha in regime-held areas emerged and they now hold final say in those regions. Informed sources estimated that there are around 60,000 thugs, while the regime forces numbers that had stood at 350,000 before the unrest has dwindled to 60,000 to 70,000.

 The majority of the Shabiha made fortunes due to looting, robberies, embezzlement and other crimes. This is demonstrated in the lavish spending seen in their daily lives. The thugs own luxury vehicles and several houses, which resulted in the emergence of a social and class divide in Syria.

 The streets of Damascus have seen the deployment of the police and security forces members in order to implement Assad’s recent orders on the Shabiha. Several vehicles have been halted for either lacking license plates or having tinted windows.

 A dispute often breaks out between the police and the vehicle owner, who is often a thug. It also often ends with the Shabiha member refusing to remove the tinted windows.

 In addition, the regime has started to remove several of the militia checkpoints in Damascus. It is seeking to render the capital, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Tartous free of checkpoints by August, said sources in Damascus.

 Locals have doubted the regime’s ability to remove checkpoints from the capital because the Shabiha have become the actual rulers of some neighborhoods, such as al-Sumeriya and al-Tadamon.

 “The unlimited power that the regime granted to those militias prompted them to rebel against the regime itself,” said a local.

 Several observers had warned of such a development, adding that controlling the militias in the future will be very difficult.

 Furthermore, some militants have even refused to head to the battle frontlines out of the pretext that they had initially joined the militia to “defend their neighborhoods only.”

 They have even gone so far as to prevent members of the regime security forces from entering those neighborhoods if the forces were on a mission to apprehend a suspect. Several fierce clashes had erupted between two sides as a result, with deaths reported on either side.

 The regime has witnessed some success in eliminating the Shabiha in the Waar neighborhood in northern Damascus. Members of the Fourth Division removed the thugs, who had terrorized the locals, especially in the Barzeh neighborhood.

 Observers believe that the regime campaign against the Shabiha stems from several possible reasons.

 The first is that Russia is pushing Assad to increase his popularity ahead of the upcoming elections.

 The second is Assad’s concern of possible clashes taking place between the Shabiha and Russian and Iranian forces that will be deployed around Damascus, said sources from the Turkish presidency.

 The third reasons, said the observers, is that Russia and Iran have pressured Assad to contain the violations of the thugs, who have started to provide weapons to the opposition and terrorist groups alike.

 A Shabiha member earns around 30,000 to 60,000 liras a month or around 550 dollars. The salaries are paid by Iran. The wages of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese militants ranges between 200 to 800 dollars. The observers said that like “Hezbollah”, the majority of the militias in Syria are now more allied to Iran than the regime, which is worrying Assad.'

Asharq Al-Awsat

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Fear came with Hafez al-Assad

Syria: A man holds a picture of Syrias President Bashar al-Assad and his father Vater Hafez al-Assad (2010).

 Ameenah Sawwan:

 ' "The father of all Syrians has left us." Those were the words used on Syrian national television to announce the death of Hafez al-Assad on June 10, 2000, a sweltering summer day in the Syrian capital of Damascus. I was just nine years old, but I knew this was something big – and I was terrified. I ran to my uncle's house across the street to find my cousin. She was on the first-floor balcony, so I called to her from the street: "He died, he died, Hafez al-Assad is dead!" My cousin, who was a little older than me, quickly ran downstairs to put her hand over my mouth. She didn’t believe me until I told her to turn on the TV and see for herself.

 The only way to describe how we felt in that moment of uncertainty – after three decades of Hafez al-Assad as president – is that Syrians were afraid of what the future might bring. Hafez al-Assad had served as president of Syria since 1971 and was responsible for establishing an authoritarian government under the control of the Ba'ath Party. He had held many important positions in government – the last as minister of defense – before seizing power himself in 1970, when he toppled President Salah Jadid and appointed himself the undisputed leader of Syria.

 Hafez locked Salah Jadid away in the Mezze Prison in Damascus, where Jadid remained until his death in 1993. To Syrians and the outside world, the coup seemed calm and bloodless and the only evidence of change was the disappearance of free newspapers, radio and television stations. After that, all media was controlled by the state.

 Hafez Assad called his military coup "The Corrective Movement" and it is still celebrated as a national holiday known as 16 November Day, when the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party celebrates its so-called "accomplishments". Hafez al-Assad's real achievement, though, was the lengths he was willing to go to hang on to power after the coup. One of the most notorious incidents took place in 1982 in Hama. The Muslim Brotherhood used mosque loudspeakers to urge people to take to the streets in protest against Hafez al-Assad and kill one of the leaders of the Ba’ath Party. In response, the dictator ordered his army to crush the movement, with troops ultimately demolishing half of Hama Province and killing more than 10,000 civilians.

 Born in the 1990s, I did not experience this history that shaped today’s Syria. I grew up in Muadamiyat al-Sham, a suburb in the western part of Damascus, a community where people would talk about everything, but would change the subject immediately if politics came up. This was not only true for my family, but for every family who lived there.

 Many people in this community have now left Syria in the wake of the revolution that began in 2011. It all started with peaceful demonstrations, but very soon the soldiers and militias of Bashar al-Assad began to brutally suppress these protests. They arrested and killed demonstrators and activists and shot at innocent people in the streets. As the conflict turned first into a civil war and then into a proxy war, many people had to flee to neighbouring countries. It had become too dangerous to stay in Syria.

 I was also forced to leave at the end of 2013. I was about to be arrested, but was able to get out even as other members of my family were arrested by the Assad regime. After a long journey, I ultimately ended up in Berlin, where I now have the opportunity to help Syrian voices to be heard.'