Saturday, 29 July 2017

Protests against Assad Regime in al-Bab city

 'Syrian people of al-Bab expelled Assad regime from their city 5 years ago. Today celebrating their hard-earned freedom.'

Celebrating Jerusalemites show the world that the Syrian revolution has not been forgotten

Celebrating Jerusalemites show the world that the Syrian revolution has not been forgotten

 'Victory was finally theirs. On Wednesday night, a whole city and its supporters took a sigh of relief after Israel had decided to take down the controversial metal detectors at al-Aqsa Mosque, which caused the city to a standstill as Jerusalemites protested against the theft of their autonomy and the unsolicited show of power from an occupying force.

 Lives were taken, neighbourhoods went on strike and Islam’s third holiest site was boycotted as a form of peaceful resistance. The future was cloudy, but Jerusalemites took comfort in the fact that the only form of certainty they had was their persistence and unity, as they shocked the world by lining up in thousands to use their prayers as a form of protest.

 Though, despite their own victory, struggle and cause, in the midst of the excitement, it was clear that their own cause wasn’t the only thing on their minds. In a show of solidarity and unity, celebrating Palestinians begun to recite chants of the Syrian revolution.

 This particular form of solidarity is rare nowadays.

 With Syria being branded as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War and being associated with a spiralling refugee crisis and a stalemate on the ground, the essence of the Syrian revolution is now long forgotten.

 Like Palestine, Syria is used as a political tool to perpetuate the self-serving discourse of a “supporter”. Too often, anti-imperialist circles that reject Western imperialism but whitewash Russian imperialism claim the best option is to support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad under the guise of him being an ally for counter-terrorism.

 Compared to 2011 when the Syrian revolution began, the immunity of dictator Assad has increased dramatically, despite his crimes against his own people becoming more violent in his hold for power.

 Overlooking the humanitarian crisis, talk of the Syrian call for their rights, freedom and democracy is met with pretentious eye rolls and baseless announcements that the Syrian revolution had never even existed, using the fact that there is now no united military opposition against Assad as a way to dismiss the early revolution.

 By repeating the chants in their own victory, Jerusalemites have shown that they have not forgotten the Syrian revolutionary spirit. They are not only reminding the world that Syria is more than the proxy war it has spiralled into, but that the essence of the Syrian revolution is not buried in the blooded rubble of history.

 They are showing the world that the call for freedom will never be forgotten and the call for the fall of the Assad regime, no matter how much international support he will continue to receive is not one to be invalidated.'

Friday, 28 July 2017

Syrians describe torture inside Assad prisons: 'Death is much better than this'


 'As the bloody Syrian civil war rages on, another much more silent war engulfs the devastated country in the secret hellholes of Bashar Assad’s prisons where tens of thousands of political prisoners have endured abuse, rape and torture.

 Noura Al-Jizawi, remembers how her world fell apart five years ago when she was a student at Homs University. One minute she says she was coordinating a non-violent demonstration, the next she was being hauled off to prison in a blindfold, “abducted” by Syrian intelligence operatives who held a gun to her chest.

 “I just wanted to live in a country that respected me as a human; one that offered me some dignity and freedom. I could not accept that I had to live under a dictatorship,” Al-Jizawi, 32, said from southern Turkey where she is an activist. “For that, we females – even the old ladies – were tortured the same way as the men. We were hung by our feet, electric shocks, our faces beaten into walls and our skin set on fire. My teeth were all broken. I spent more than a month in solitary confinement. I just kept praying for my body to stay alive.”

 Then there were the medieval torture techniques. One entailed being bound to what has long been known as the “German Chair.” A detainee’s arms and legs would be strapped to a metal chair and their bodies stretched and distorted as they were repeatedly tipped backwards toward the ground.

 Al-Jizawi said she and her fellow detainees were fed twice a day -- if they were lucky. The meals consisted mostly of slops of rice riddled with hair, urine and dirty objects. She said the guards threw the food at them, leaving them to eat “like animals without plates of utensils.”

 She and four other women were moved to an underground basement, their mouths taped shut. Later she learned that they were moved because the Red Cross was coming to inspect the prison. The Red Cross inspection followed an outcry from human rights groups and the United Nations.

 Al-Jizawi said they had been bruised and battered and they were moved to conceal any signs they had been tortured.

 Some women were raped, she said. She said the guards knew the rapes wouldn’t be reported given cultural and religious taboos in Syria. But, somewhat ironically, Al-Jizawi believes that the number of female detainees who have endured rape has been vastly exaggerated – by the Syrian government.

 “This is a tool they use to instill such fear to silence young women, to ensure they stay home,” Al-Jizawi explained, noting how rape comes with such deep shame even on the survivor in their society, and threatens to destroy one’s marriage prospects for life.

 Al-Jizawi said her nightmare finally ended when she was released after six months in jail. She said was forced to plead guilty to win her release. Her family has since fled to Turkey.

 Professional status offers no protection. A Syrian physician who asked only to be identified as Dr. Karam, said how he had been tortured after the Assad regime arrested him in 2011.

 Karam said it was standard practice for inmates to be dragged around and clobbered with cables and bars until almost all visible flesh was black.

 He said he was locked up for more than six months and spent most of that time in Syria’s most notorious prison, Saydnaya, just north of the capital Damascus.

 “I was not allowed to talk or lie down,” he said from southern Turkey. “The whole time my family didn’t know where I was, they thought I was dead.”

 In May, U.S. officials accused the Assad regime of killing as many as 50 prisoners a day at Saydnaya and more than 13,000 there since the civil war began. U.S. officials said another 18,000 Saydnaya prisoners were believed to have died due to starvation and the toll of physical abuse. The State Department has accused the Syrian government of building a crematorium at the site to dispose of detainee remains and destroy evidence.

 Sarmad Al-Jilane, a 24-year-old activist, was labeled one such terrorist simply for voicing his opposition in peaceful protests.

 He said that he was arrested in 2011 and the conditions in prison were “horrendous.” He said three detainees were crammed into a cell that was barely big enough for one person.

 He said in the prison they were subject to systematic beatings of one’s “reproductive organs” with an electroshock weapon while a door would be slammed shut on their heads.

 “I was allowed to go to the bathroom only two times a day, each of 10 seconds. After the 10 seconds end, they started to hit me,” Al-Jilane said. “The guards would force detainees to stand in a room for as long as 30 hours while throwing water at them, electrifying them, and hitting them with sharp objects, all of this without any investigation.”

 He said his family, desperate to obtain his release, pulled together “a big amount of money to a businessman mediator who communicated with officers” and negotiated his release. He was imprisoned nine months and when he was released, he was forced to flee. He now lives in Germany.'

 The conflict, which shows no signs of resolution, is believed to have killed more than 500,000 people and displaced 11 million Syrians from their home.

 “The Syrian regime prisons are unannounced ways to exterminate people,” Al-Jilane said.'


Thursday, 27 July 2017

Washington finally admits 'US-backed Syria rebels' can only fight IS, not Assad regime

Washington finally admits 'US-backed Syria rebels' can only fight IS, not Assad regime

 'US-backed opposition forces in southern Syria are only authorised to fight the Islamic State group and not Bashar al-Assad's regime, Washington has confirmed.

 It follows consistent reports that Washington has forced rebel groups in the Syrian Desert region to pledge they will only fight IS in return for US arms and training.

 On Wednesday, a senior US officer appeared to confirm Washington's priority in Syria is not the removal of Assad but the defeat of the Islamic State group.

 "The coalition supports only those forces committed to fighting [IS]," the US-led anti-IS coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told CNN.

 The recent decision has prompted one rebel group to leave the US-run al-Tanf base in southern Syria, close to the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, when they were offered the choice of US arms or fighting Assad.

 "The Shohada al-Quartyan [rebel group] have made it known that they may want to pursue other objectives," Dillon added.

 "The coalition is making it clear to Shohada al-Quartyan leadership that if they choose to pursue other objectives, the coalition will no longer support their operations."

 Anti-IS forces in southern Syria are mostly part of a Jordan-based, US-backed train-and-equip programme that vets fighters to ensure they won't use their weapons against the Assad regime.

 They operate from US-supplied bases in southern Syrian Desert including al-Tanf, which has been a main hub for the battle against IS in the south.

 It is surrounded by a 55km wide "de-conflict zone" that surrounds al-Tanf, which is intended to prevent pro-regime forces clashing with opposition fighters in the area.

 Several times Iranian-backed, pro-Damascus forces have been bombed by US aircraft when it appeared they were heading for al-Tanf.

 Shohada al-Quartyan forces recently left this protective zone to embark on a new campaign against the Syrian regime, Tillon told CNN.

 Another US official confirmed to the broadcaster that Washington was primarily focused on defeating IS, not the downfall of Assad even if the al-Tanf base is surrounded by pro-Damascus forces.

 "We are not in the business of fighting the regime," an official told CNN. "They can't have multiple objectives and we need to be singularly focused on fighting IS."

 The news follows President Donald Trump's confirmation that the CIA would close a rebel aid programme, describing the exercise as "dangerous and wasteful".

 Syrian rebel groups are frequently accused of being "US-backed" or "armed" by opponents.'


 Dr. Rola Hallam:

 "One of the things that's done the Syria crisis such a disfavour is calling it a civil war. Because this isn't half the population killing the other half. What we have is state-sponsored murder and oppression, that was in response to people going out on the street, calling for freedom and dignity. And so it's actually a war on civilians. And it's a war on civilian structures, and it's had at its heart the targetting of doctors, and aid workers, and health care. And you guys know about presidents trying to destroy health care, right?

 Physicians For Human Rights have been documenting this since the beginning of the war in 2011, documenting nearly 500 attacks on health care facilities. Some of them are indiscriminate, but actually they say this has been part of a systemic attack on health care, and murder and torture of health care workers, so actually using it as a weapon of war. And it's decimated our health care system, and that basically means we've got children dying of preventable diseases like pneumonia, or treatable diseases. It's women who are now giving birth without health care attendance. It means we don't have the anesthesia we need to perform surgery.

 This is such a big problem for all of us. This isn't just a problem for Syria. And by that I mean that the targetting of health care workers - like this is protected by international norms, right? And when we allow that to occur, then when it breaks for one, it breaks for all. Does that mean that your health care facilities will be a legitimate target in any war that you may be involved in? It's a really dangerous precedent to set, and the fact that it's destroying our health care means we're going to become like Liberia and Sierra Leone. We're going to become exporters of disease, and viruses know no borders.

 In every crisis, the first responders are the people who are affected. It's the affected community. So my family, like many others, turned our houses into warehouses we could distribute this aid from. Then, as the crisis grew, and engulfed the whole country,  it became obvious these little efforts were no longer sufficient. So we coalesced, and started to form new charities, and its the local humanitarians, it's the local doctors, nurses, and aid workers, that do the majority of the aid work in Syria. A group called Local2Global* said that 75% of the humanitarian work in Syria is being done by Syrian charities. That's amazing, but what is less amazing is that we get less than 1% of the humanitarian aid budget.

 You start with pulling your hair out, and being frustrated and angry that this is still happening. That weekend [19-20 November 2016], five hospitals were bombed out of existence, including the children's hospital. Imagine, it had been bombed six times before, a children's hospital. I was so livid and furious. We'd been spending the last few years rebuilding, and helped to build six hospitals in Syria. And so I wanted to do something that everyone else could get behind, because I knew that there were so many people who were feeling this frustration, and that was how the People's Convoy idea came. We planned to crowdfund, to rebuild an an entire children's hospital. And we wanted to do it the week before Christmas, in ten days, and we wanted to take the whole equipment for the hospital across from London, across Europe, to Syria, and we did that. 5000 people from around the world. This wasn't just me, it was a global collective effort. It was 30 organisations that came together to endorse the campaign, and it was 5000 people from ten countries that raised $320,000 in 12 days. Enough to rebuild the hospital and keep it going for six months. It goes to show how much we can achieve when we work together, and can channel these emotions we have in a positive proactive way.

 At CanDo, we believe people are the biggest superpower. We just need to have a way to harness that collective energy and resources. That is why we are using crowdfunding, and we've just set up a crowdfunding platform, the first to provide humanitarian aid in war zones. We're calling you, the engaged citizens of the world, the global humanitarians. Through this platform, we're going to connect you to humanitarian organisations working in war zones, so that you guys can know exactly where your money is going, and you can trust that it's going to these trusted and impactful local humanitarian organisations, so that together we can provide this health care, and save many more lives.

 I think that's the way to do it, because the big NGOs are so bureaucratic, and slow to move, and they make us feel really detached from the issues, and it feels really disengaging and disempowering to just hand your money over when you've no idea where it goes.

 This way, you can connect, but also choose which project you want to support. The beauty of local humanitarians is they know the community really well, and they know what's needed and how to get it there, and they are creative, because they're the ones who are there in the most need. So to give you an example, there is a ceasefire across much of Syria, but there are still, and most people don't know this, about a million people who are besieged. Literally, like a medieval siege tactic, being slowly starved to death. So besieged Damascus is one of these areas where there's about 400,000 people being slowly starved to death. So one of our local partners has been working over the last couple of years to grow mushrooms, which we call the meat of the poor. So they've been working to see if they can get them to germinate and grow, and they've managed to do that, so that's one of the campaigns we're currently running. For less than $15,000, that is going to feed 800 people in a sustainable way. We're going to teach them how to grow their own mushrooms, so they can feed themselves when there is no other fresh food source there. So they have that ability to provide something really effective, and really efficient, and I think that's how we can all make a difference to people in crisis."


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Women in Idlib Challenge Islamic Extremists

 Zaina Erhaim and Jomana Qaddour:

 'In the middle of the main market in Idlib City, during one of the busiest days of the year, Eid day, Amal, a local resident, was stopped by the Islamic police. She was chastised because of her refusal to wear the required long dark coat, the mantou. Instead of looking down or profusely apologizing, Amal shot back at the Islamic police that is affiliated with Jaish al-Fatah, “No one has anything to do with what I wear! I have been living here for the past 25 years, who are you to control me!?” The scene quickly escalated and hand fighting ensued, with shopkeepers stepping in between Amal and the police until she managed to flee.

 Amal’s story, relayed to the authors, is but one example of the rising citizen anger against the fundamentalist armed forces imposing harsh Islamic regulations, especially on the female population in Idlib. Time and time again we have seen such stories reflect the absolute need to continue supporting civil society resistance against the extremist armed groups. Without such resistance, the groups would have had civil control over large portions of opposition-held territory long ago.

 Idlib province, often referred to as “Little Syria,” is now home to hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced Syrians from Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs. Idlib City was home to a population of 165,000 residents in 2011, and now houses as many as 400,000. Foreign fighters have come to the province from all over the world to fight with groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.). The presence of foreign fighters is felt daily in this opposition stronghold. “It took 20 years for me to see a foreigner in Idlib,” Ghalia, a resident and teacher at Idlib University, told Erhaim referring to her neighbor who came from Turkestan to fight in Syria. “Now they are all over the place!”

 Despite the fact that Idlib is home to H.T.S., as well as other extremist armed groups, Idlib residents, and in particular women, have found unique ways to halt support for the normalization of these groups’ ideologies. Socially, as witnessed firsthand by one of the authors, local Idlib women have isolated other Syrian women who have chosen to marry foreign jihadists. They are not invited to women-only daily traditional gatherings, and are thus ostracized from the community.

 Professionally, many women are the primary actors on the ground leading education, medical, and psychological initiatives. Idlib University is heavily policed by H.T.S., ensuring the segregation of males and females and interfering with the curriculum, such as converting the law school to a Shariah school and cancelling philosophy courses. Despite restrictions, teachers like Ghalia go on teaching, and try to motivate students to find value in continuing their education. The greatest challenge is not the constant bombing, shelling, and car bombs exploding every week; residents are accustomed to the violence. It is most difficult for educators to keep students interested in learning even though they know full well that their degrees will not be recognized by any authority. Schools and universities outside of regime territory are unregistered, so they cannot issue any official certification. But keeping these universities, accredited or not, is important now more than ever. Families are too fearful to send their daughters to government-operated universities in regime-held areas. If they are caught, and the regime is aware of their family’s support for Syria’s revolution, they will be sent to government prisons where they are likely to be raped. Even if they are not raped, the possibility that they might have been has stigmatized detained Syrian women in their societies, making it difficult for them to reintegrate and marry later on.

 Women have also provided unparalleled medical and psychosocial support to other women, especially those who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and now left without their former support structures, such as extended familial support, that they previously enjoyed. Ghalia’s sister Sawsan works as a field coordinator for a gender-based violence project with an international civil society organization, managing three centers that provide psychological support to ensure that victims are able to reconnect with society in the aftermath of such trauma.

 Vocational and learning centers are also setup throughout Idlib in order to provide outlets for women that keep them engaged, active, and aware of what life is like even outside of the province. There are now 19 centers that provide vocational training, peace education, and even basic education such as math and reading to thousands of women.

 One such center, My Space, first began in 2015 as a free-of-charge internet cafe so that women could access news about events outside of their local communities. Within a couple of months, the center began to offer first aid and International Computer Driving License courses, in addition to English, French, and Turkish language courses. Instructors also provide guidance on resume building and job searching. Such courses have facilitated the economic empowerment of women, and their independence, allowing them to remain in Idlib instead of forcing them to seek refuge in neighboring countries. And while the Idlib Provincial Council currently has no female board members, it has invited women activists to participate in coordination meetings. This is one realm that remains in need of improvement.

 It is no easy feat to be a female in Idlib, home to H.T.S., as well as an area constantly and heavily bombarded by the Syrian regime. Women have not only taken extraordinary measures to keep their communities physically safe and inside of Syria, they have also fostered intellectual growth and fought to reintegrate victims of some of the most horrendous crimes we have seen this century, including violent rape and torture.

 Continuing to support the kinds of programs highlighted above is not only in the best interest of Syrian women, but also in the interest of external powers like the United States, which seek to oversee the transition into a stable Syria. Killing foreign jihadis or targeting H.T.S. soldiers will not alone produce a stable Syria. The culture of patriarchy and extremist ideology will spread and will continue to gain footing if civilians, especially women, cannot safely meet to learn basic skills, seek treatment, or are not empowered to respond to suppressive fundamentalist police and armed groups. Ending the war, and ridding Syria of both the oppressive Syrian regime as well as extremists is imperative before the long road to ensuring Syrian stability begins.'

Hay’at Tahrir al Sham’s gamble: the failure of blood

AMMAR ABDULLAH/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved.

 'On July 19, 2017, the rebel factions Ahrar al Sham (Ahrar) and Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) engaged in some of the fiercest infighting that Greater Idlib has experienced during the Syrian Civil War.

 This old conflict has been brewing just beneath the surface since before the formation of HTS, which came as a response to rebel failures and the decrease in international support for moderate rebel groups in 2016. Following it's formation, HTS pursued a two-pronged approach towards achieving its dream of a grand merger: cooperating with Free Syrian Army groups in joint offensives and using violence and the threat of violence to pressure smaller groups into joining the fold.

 The failure of this strategy was clear following the lost Hama, Damascus, and Quneitra offensives, along with rejection of HTS by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in southern Syria.

 As HTS realized that their military actions were not successful in attracting additional factions, the group began taking an increasingly violent stance towards non-aligned rebel groups in Idlib.

 On May 12, amid fears of a Turkish-backed united FSA front, HTS orderedFriday’s sermons in Idlib to denounce Turkey and the FSA groups that fight in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation. Five days later, Ahmed bin Ghalib, a Saudi HTS commander, “vowed to eradicate Ahrar al Sham.”

 On May 31, in a sign of internal dissent, former Nour al-Din al-Zenki commander and current HTS leader Hossam al-Atrash stated that all groups should dissolve and unite under the Interim Government’s Defense Ministry.

 Eight days later HTS made its first major attack since January when it attackedFSA and Faylaq al Sham units in the town of Maraat al-Numan, killing FSA Colonel Tasyeer al-Samahi.

 Violence in Idlib continued on June 13 when HTS kidnapped two FSA commanders – Nidal Haj Ali and Ahmed al-Mousa. HTS Political Chief Zayd al-Attar announced his resignation the following day, and on June 20 at least five former Ahrar al-Sham units defected back to Ahrar in further indications of internal division over HTS’s aggressive actions.

 Finally, on July 8 al-Modon reported that the Turkistani Islamic Party and clerics Abdullah Muhaisini and Abu Mariyah Qahtani were mediating between HTS and Ahrar as tensions rose along the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

 However, attempts at mediation repeatedly failed as the increasing tensions exploded on July 19. HTS General Leader Abu Jaber justified these attacks in an audio message that day, claiming that Ahrar “refused to merge with us and sold out to foreign interests” – a reference to Ahrar’s close ties with Turkey and its participation in Euphrates Shield.

 Ahrar appeared to hold the upper hand following the first day of fighting, capturing several towns from HTS. However, on July 20 HTS reiterated its position that it would only accept a full merger and launched a new wave of attacks, making quick work of Ahrar strongholds and seizing all of the Idlib/Turkey border crossings by July 23.

 At least nineteen armed groups have joined HTS since July 19 – reportedlyincluding 7,000 fighters from Ahrar’s Badia Division – with many local forces defecting after HTS captured their towns.

 Despite the apparent military success of HTS, the most recent round of infighting has called into question the strength of HTS’s “coalition” label.

 On July 20, after only one day of fighting, Nour al Din al Zenki broke from HTS, claiming that the new attacks were launched by Jolani and Abu Jaber without the approval of the Shura Council and that Zenki had only joined HTS with the promise that infighting would cease.

 Even the HTS-aligned cleric Abdullah Muhaisini declared that the new infighting was haram and confirmed that the Sharia Council gave no approval for it. Zenki’s and Muhaisini’s statements imply that Abu Jaber and the former leaders of Jabhat al Nusra still act with impunity within the organization, despite the fact that former Zenki leaders held the high positions of Deputy Political Chief and President of the Consultative Council.

 On July 20 another HTS group, Quwa al Markaziya, defected to Ahrar and an unnamed Uzebek group announced that, while remaining a part of HTS, it would not fight Ahrar. This, as well as Zenki’s defection, demonstrates that while HTS appears to have won the Idlib war, it has done so only through force and an unwillingness of many Ahrar fighters to fight HTS.

 Fighters and civilians throughout the region still adamantly oppose HTS’s ideology and policies, and any union with HTS will not be amicable.

 Thus, the recent infighting is a clear indication of the failure of HTS’s attempted middle-ground policy. Abu Jaber and Jolani have abandoned the carrot for full license of the stick and will never again be able to masquerade as a welcoming, uniting force in Idlib.

 HTS’s only chance now to achieve a complete merger with Ahrar and the dozens of FSA factions throughout the region is to violently force them into submission – a course which will cement their pariah status both within Syria and the international community.

 Yet this possible merger may have been aided by the United States when the Trump Administration announced the end of the CIA’s arming program on July 19.

 If the formation of HTS was a partial response to the perceived abandonment by the international community, then the actual abandonment of moderate factions by the United States will only serve to further force moderates into HTS.

 In January, choosing to unite with HTS offered a clear decision between choosing a unified domestic opposition that will aggressively pursue war, or remaining outside in order to seek stronger ties with international backers and a more diplomatic approach to resolving the overall conflict.

 Unfortunately, it appears that most factions no longer hold a choice in this matter, but the effects will remain the same.

 As HTS grows at the expense of others, opposition representatives will continue to lose negotiating power in the Astana and Geneva talks, leaving Assad and Russia only one option with which to end the war.'

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Lone clinic in Syria’s rebel north tackles war’s mental toll

Syrian patients watch TV in a room at a mental health clinic in the town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey, July 6

 'At an austere mental health clinic in northern Syria, male patients with shaved heads squat barefoot in a courtyard, some dressed in uniforms and others in T-shirts and tracksuit trousers.

 One man screams at those around him, while another laughs to himself. A third sings exuberantly, exposing bare gums missing teeth.

 The second floor houses female patients in patterned dresses and flowery headscarves. Some smile at visitors while others lie motionless on their beds.

 One woman is tied to her bedframe.

 The horrors of Syria’s six-year war have left the country’s population with devastating psychological scars, but staff at the only mental health facility in Syria’s opposition-held north are doing their best to treat those affected.

 Among the patients at the clinic in Azaz, northern Aleppo province, is a 17-year-old girl deeply scarred by the conflict.

 “She saw a small child that had been killed and was being eaten by animals,” said Dorar al-Sobh, one of two doctors at the facility.

 “She was so shocked she lost her ability to speak. Now she can’t sleep or eat… She avoids everyone.”

 A male patient from the neighbouring province of Raqa came back to his bombed-out home to find the lifeless bodies of his wife and six children.

 “He has difficulty sleeping… he gets flashbacks and nightmares,” says Sobh, 46.

 Some cases predate Syria’s conflict, but others – particularly of post-traumatic stress disorder – have been directly caused by the war. “Of course, we have seen an increase in cases, especially depression, PTSD and coping disorders,” Sobh says.

 Nurse Mohammed Munzer recalls receiving patients who had been arrested at the peaceful protests in 2011 that kicked off Syria’s uprising.

 “They were tortured and beaten, especially on the head. They started to have mental problems,” the 35-year-old says.

 Others have developed anxieties related to the relentless bombing and violence that has killed more than 330,000 people.

 “There are people who can’t handle the sound of aeroplanes,” Munzer says.

 The facility serves nearly 140 inpatients as well as others who come from outside for care.

 It was originally set up in Masaken Hanano district on the northeastern outskirts of Aleppo city.

 But it was forced to relocate when fighting broke out after rebels entered the city in 2012.

 “The hospital was hit in Masaken Hanano, wounding one of the nurses in his hand and handicapping him,” facility administrator Mohyiddin Othman says.

 Many of the hospital’s medical staff fled and left patients behind, some of them wandering the streets.

 Local residents, alarmed by the situation, contacted a Turkish medical NGO that worked with local Syrian doctors to transfer the patients.

 By 2013, they had been moved first to a facility in western Aleppo province, and then to Azaz with help from charity group Physicians Across Continents.

 While Azaz has been periodically targeted by regime strikes, particularly in the early years after the patients were moved to the area, the new hospital has not been hit.

 That has allowed medical staff to focus on their work, offering residents and outpatients medication, assessments and one-on-one treatment.

 At times they struggle to help those in need, such as a man who regularly visited Sobh to seek treatment for depression.

 “I asked him once about suicide. He told me he didn’t think about it,” Sobh said. “Fifteen days later he shot himself.”

 The hospital also faces shortages of medicine. It receives occasional donations from the World Health Organization, but often relies on alternatives bought on the local market or in neighbouring Turkey.

 The challenges can feel overwhelming, the facility’s staff say.

 “We are psychologically exhausted,” says Sobh. “Sometimes our patients hit us or curse us… Sometimes we take vacations to distance ourselves from the atmosphere of the hospital for a few days.”

 The facility’s basement is set aside for a kitchen and a cafeteria, where residents queue for food.

 Standing at tables or seated on the floor, they eat meals of stew and bread from metal bowls.

 The facility is sparsely furnished, with long rows of beds for patients and washing lines hung with blankets.

 In one room, a television is mounted on the wall, and patients sit together watching.

 The staff also do outreach in the community, hoping to tackle the stigma around mental health issues.

 “We try to spread awareness in our surroundings, and through flyers and social media, to explain that people who have mental illnesses are like anyone else who is sick,” says Munzer.

 Sobh says the growing need for mental health care has caused a subtle shift in local sentiment.

 “The presence of a treatment centre in this area is positive,” he says.

 “The residents of the area accept it, and it’s no longer a sign of weakness.” '

Syrian patients walk around a yard at a mental health clinic - the sole such facility in the rebel-held north of Syria - in the town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey, July 6. - PHOTOS: AFP

Syrian rebels fear Bashar Assad benefits from Trump-Putin truce

A Syrian displaced family that fled the battle between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State militants from Raqqa arrive at a refugee camp in northeast Syria. The U.S. military is supporting local Syrian forces in a campaign to drive the Islamic State from Raqqa. (Associated Press)

 'Diaa Sroor recently watched as Russian troops move to the outskirts of his hometown of Daraa in southwest Syria, supposedly to act as observers under a cease-fire agreement recently struck between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their much-anticipated Group of 20 meeting in Germany this month.

 The Syrian acknowledged in an interview to having mixed feeling about the deal from the start.

 “The airstrikes have stopped,” said Dr. Sroor, 35, a medical doctor, “but the regime artillery units are still active outside the de-escalation zone.”

 Daraa is the fourth and most recent area of Syria covered by “de-escalation agreements” — a series of cease-fire arrangements brokered since May by the U.S., Syria’s Sunni Muslim neighbors Jordan and Turkey, Iran’s Shiite Islamic Republic, Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian backers. Mr. Trump has repeatedly pointed to the cease-fire accord he and Mr. Putin reached in their lengthy G-20 meeting, in part to bolster his argument that engaging with Moscow can deliver real-world results despite the deep doubts of the Washington foreign policy establishment.

 The agreements have been embraced by officials in Amman and Ankara grappling with refugees and violence spilling over from the 6-year-old Syrian civil war.

 But Syria’s anti-Assad rebels and their supporters are disappointed by the patchwork nature of truce agreements and fear they could allow Mr. Assad to further reclaim the approximately 15 percent of Syrian territory held by the opposition after six years of brutal civil war. Mr. Assad and his key backers, Iran and Russia, stand to be the big winners from the truce, they fear.

 “We agreed to do this because we want to improve the humanitarian situation,” said Maj. Issam al-Reis, Southern Front spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a major rebel force. “But it worries us that it’s not for all areas in Syria.”

 The opposition’s concerns have only heightened with reports late last week that Mr. Trump is ending a troubled covert program begun under President Obama of support for armed rebel groups fighting Mr. Assad, a move long sought by Mr. Assad and Mr. Putin.

 For those on the ground in Syria, the stability of the cease-fire is more than an exercise in international geopolitics. Lives are at stake, and fears are rising that Mr. Assad and his allies, especially Iran, will use the respite to cement and extend their control.

 Dr. Sroor admitted that Daraa residents face health risks ranging from poor sanitation to shortages of food and medical supplies, but he said “people in rebel-held areas have a greater level of freedom, and we owe that to [the] bloodshed of our sons.”

 About 70 percent of Syrians are Sunni. Mr. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, and his political base includes Syria’s Shiites. Dr. Sroor said he and his neighbors fear that the cease-fire will give Iran-backed Shiite militias and the Russians more time to bolster Mr. Assad’s positions.

 “People here see the cease-fire as a strategic tactic for Assad’s forces to have a rest and rebuild their fronts to re-attack the city later,” said Dr. Sroor, particularly given Russian support for Mr. Assad even as Mr. Trump pulls back.

 “If the Russians and regime continue to attack in all the other regions, these agreements will be in danger,” said Maj. al-Reis.

 For nearly six years, the Jordanian military has allowed Maj. al-Reis and other Free Syria Army officers to run an operations center in the kingdom.

 But since 2015 Jordan’s focus has been turned from undermining Mr. Assad to fighting the Islamic State, a trend that accelerated since the jihadis savagely burned alive Muath Safi Yousef Al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot whose F-16 fighter aircraft crashed over Raqqa, then the Syrian stronghold of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

 “King Abdullah personally started flying missions against Islamic State after they killed Al-Kasasbeh,” said Shehab Al Makahleh, the Jordanian founder of international security consultancy Geostrategic Media. “Abdullah saw the scourge of Islamic terrorism under the black banner of the Islamic State as a greater danger than the Damascus regime.”

 U.S. and Russian negotiators secured a de-escalation pact in Syria’s Quenitra province in Jordan at the same time they agreed on Daraa.

 Quneitra province borders the Golan Heights — territory Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War. Neither Jordan nor Israel wanted violence to escalate in those regions, especially in case the Islamic State got involved in the fighting as Mr. Assad’s fortunes have improved in the past year.

 “The emergence of terrorists within the armed opposition groups became a threat,” said Jordanian retired Gen. Jamal Madain, an analyst at NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions in Amman. “Now we want to avoid any military confrontation in southern Syria that would lead to additional refugees or the growth of terrorist groups.”

 The Jordanian-brokered de-escalation zone in southern Syria follows a May arrangement for the northwestern province of Idlib, where Turkey has backed a deal with Iran and the Russians aimed at constricting both the Islamic State and Kurdish separatists, whom Ankara has accused of seeking to establish an independent country carved in part out of Turkish territory.

 “Without a political settlement, Ankara will find itself facing increasingly disgruntled military groups that have the capacity to go deep into Turkey,” said Ammar Khaff, executive director at Istanbul-based Syrian think tank Omran Dirasat. “The de-escalation zones are a way to better position Turkey politically.”

 Many rebel factions, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda, are based in Idlib. Infighting between those groups resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen militants on July 19, according to Sunni opposition sources.

 Still, an Omran Dirasat analysis of the de-escalation process published last week estimated that since March, there has been an 88 percent reduction in military operations in Idlib province, suggesting de-escalation is bearing fruit.

 The Idlib figure contrasts starkly with a 45 percent decrease in violence for the east Damascus suburban zone of Ghouta, which is still subjected to shelling and airstrikes. Mr. Assad and Russian officials reached a de-escalation agreement in the area last week.

 “Within the last 24 hours, the Russian party of the Russia-Turkey Commission on violations of the joint agreement has registered three cases of firing in the province of Damascus,” said the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman on Sunday.

 On Saturday the Russians said they had reached an agreement with the rebels to more clearly draw boundaries in Ghouta and establish delivery routes for humanitarian aid.

 “Since the war started, many people were killed just because they were walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, and many bodies still are under the destroyed buildings in Idlib,” said Abd Elrezzak Al-Taweel, a 43-year-old mosaic tile craftsman. “We’re experiencing a kind of peace after this cease-fire, but we’re not comfortable because Assad still is living in his palace, and we’re in this destroyed area.”

 Mr. al-Taweel just returned to Idlib in May after spending six years in notorious government-run prisons, including the Adra jail and the detention center at Mazah air force base outside Damascus. Widespread use of torture and “disappearances” of prisoners at both facilities have been widely documented by Syrian and international human rights groups.

 “Most of the detainees did nothing to be arrested, but the issue was not addressed in any of the de-escalation talks,” said Mr. al-Taweel.

 The failure in any of the cease-fire talks or political negotiations to obtain the release of an estimated 107,000 prisoners in Mr. Assad’s jails has raised objections from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the Qatari capital of Doha.

 The detainees’ plight is just another example of how the cease-fires benefit Mr. Assad, said the network’s chairman, Fadal Abdul Ghany.

 “The most recent agreements don’t tackle the detainees issue, which is a fatal flaw,” said Mr. Ghany. “Freedom for these prisoners is just as important as ceasing the bombing and killing or delivering humanitarian aid.” '

Monday, 24 July 2017

Syrian rebels and militants fight for crossing into Turkey

 'Clashes have intensified between two major opposition groups in Syria with violence spreading to a border crossing with Turkey.

 The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) coalition, led by former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham (JFS), has been engaged in intense fighting with the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group and various allies, nominally over HTS’s removal of the Syrian revolutionary flag in opposition-controlled areas of Idlib province.

 So far, at 65 people - including 15 civilians - have been killed in the violence which threatens to tear apart the last seams of rebel unity in Syria.

 Fighting has spread thoughout the province, spilling over into Aleppo and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.

 "The fighting is now inside the crossing. It has become a battlefield, with part of it under Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's control, and part under Ahrar al-Sham's control," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

 Ongoing clashes have also prevented emergency evacuations of severely injured patients from inside Syria to Turkish hospitals near the border.

 An AFP correspondent in the province also reported heavy clashes on the outskirts of the town of Binnish and attempts by HTS to break into the village of Ram Hamdan.

 “We are going to fight until the end,” said Ali al-Omar, the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, in a video published on Twitter.

 “I call people and other factions to gather themselves and fight against HTS, to maintain the revolution, and to protect our homeland.”

 Although rising tensions and sporadic clashes have been ongoing between Ahrar and HTS for some time now, the latest round of fighting was sparked off when Ahrar attempted to raise the revolutionary flag associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the capital city of Idlib, a move objected to by HTS.

 The fighting has put an immense strain on civilians.

 “It’s insane, we want to live in peace, away from war," said Abdulsalam Haji Ahmad, a citizen living in Idlib.

 "I wish the truce would be halted soon, so Assad and Russia will kill all those parties.”

 Breaking down in tears, Abdulsalam said there was “no winner” for Syrian civilians.

 “They pretend that they are fighting for us, they are liars,” he said.

 “It’s a power struggle, It’s Game of Thrones.”

 Civilians in much of opposition-controlled Syria have staged protests against HTS accusing them of being “extremists” along similar lines to the Islamic State group.

 Protests in the town of Sarmada on Wednesday and Thursday were greeted with gunfire by HTS.

 “Citizens are divided between the ones who want to get rid of HTS, or other simple people who want stop this farce,” said Ahmad Omar, a citizen based in the west of Aleppo.

 “On one hand, protesters took to the streets refusing this indecisive inter-rebel fighting in some areas as it weakens both sides, therefore it will definitely benefit the Assad regime.”

 However, he said that some protesters had taken to streets specifically to oppose HTS, chanting "we don’t bow to anyone but God, and Al-Jolani is an enemy,” referring to the leader of JFS.

 In Saraqeb city, where HTS reportedly opened fired on protesters, killing a media activist, civilians forced the militants to leave the city peacefully.

 Ahrar and HTS were once allies and fought alongside each other in the Army of Conquest coalition to capture most of Idlib province from Assad forces in 2015.

 But tensions have grown, exacerbated, analysts say, by HTS's fears of a plan to expel HTS from the province, partly as a way of assuaging fears in the international community that rebels were too close to the group, who are designated a terrorist organisation by many countries.

 The in-fighting has also led to fractures within HTS - Nour al-Din al-Zinki, a rebel group who became notorious after a video appeared online appearing to show them beheading a minor, left the coalition on Thursday citing the failure of rebels to focus their fighting on Bashar al-Assad’s government as well as the “absence of sharia governance”.

 As a result of fighting in Aleppo, a group of rebels managed to seize control of a military checkpoint in the entrance of Al-Atareb, west of Aleppo, a city which had also previously witnessed anti-HTS protests.

 Mohammed Atareb, an FSA fighter allied to Ahrar, said that 150 Ahrar fighters had come from territory controlled by Turkey in the north to aid the anti-HTS forces, while fighters from “other factions are bracing themselves to support the movement.”

 “We are going to support Ahrar al-Sham not because we like it - we definitely have a different ideology, they insulted the revolution flag many times before adopting it recently,” he explained.

 “But we want to defeat the extremism represented by HTS.”

 Experts said the outbreak of violence comes against the backdrop of a deal agreed in the Kazakh capital Astana in May for four "de-escalation zones" in Syria.

 The agreement between Assad allies Russia and Iran, and rebel backer Turkey, designates the Idlib region as one of the mooted zones where combat between the government and rebels would halt.

 HTS opposes the agreement, which calls for continued fighting against militant groups like its main component JFS.

 "As soon as there was the announcement of Idlib as a de-escalation zone, that's it," said Nawar Oliver, a military analyst at the Istanbul-based Omran Centre think tank.

 "HTS felt like a war is upon it," he told AFP.

 "You have these two main rebel forces that are vying for control for Idlib province," added Sam Heller, a Syria expert at the Century Foundation.

 "Whatever kind of political or ideological differences existed between them have been exacerbated or inflamed by the Astana talks, as well as by the rumours - if not the reality - of some larger deal that would work against HTS," he said.

 Oliver added that the fighting was a chance for each side to gain valuable territory, including the border crossing where taxes and tariffs can be extracted.

 "This is an attempt by each faction to extend more influence and control over new areas," he said.

 Idlib is one of the last major parts of Syria beyond the control of the government, which has recaptured vast swathes of territory from opposition fighters since its ally Russia intervened on its behalf in September 2015.'