Saturday, 12 August 2017

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled review – voices from Syria

A Syrian refugee in Lebanon.

 Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 'Everyone talks about Syrians, but very few actually talk to them. Perhaps that’s why Syria’s revolution and war have been so badly misunderstood in the west – variously as a US-led regime-change plot, an ancient Sunni-Shia conflict or a struggle between secularism and jihadism.

 We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled bucks the trend. Here the story is told entirely through the mouths of Wendy Pearlman’s Syrian interviewees, hundreds of them, from all social backgrounds, Christians and Muslims, Ismailis and Druze, rural and urban, middle class and poor. These best of all possible informants – the people who made the events, and who suffer the consequences – provide not only gripping eyewitness accounts but erudite analysis and sober reflection.

 The introduction, alongside a concise overview of developments from 1970 to the present, describes Pearlman’s method. She interviewed refugees (who are therefore overwhelmingly anti-regime) in locations ranging from Jordan to Germany. And she interviewed them in Arabic, enabling “a connection that would have been impossible had I relied on an interpreter”. The result is testament both to Syrian expressive powers and the translation’s high literary standard.

 These heart-stopping tales of torment and triumph are perfectly enchained, chronologically and thematically, to reflect the course of the crisis. They begin with life under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, “not a government but a mafia”, when children were trained to lie for their family’s security. “It was a state of terror,” says Ilyas, a dentist. “Every citizen was terrified. The regime was also terrified.”

 Assad inherited power from his father in 2000. His crony-capitalist “reforms” meant “the poor got poorer and people got angrier, day after day”. Interviewees recount the 2004 Kurdish uprising and smaller, isolated acts of resistance.

 In 2011, against the background of the Arab spring, decades of frustration exploded. According to Cherin, a mother from Aleppo who speaks like a grassroots poet: “You have an inheritance, and after 30 years you slam it on the ground and shatter it.” State repression only intensified the fury. “The government sent dead to every village,” says Abu Thair, an engineer from Daraa. “The funerals began. And imagine, each funeral becomes a demonstration.”

 The early revolution was marked by cross-sect cooperation, a new sympathy for distant regions and a reinvigorated sense of nationality. “You are my people,” enthuses Waddah from Latakia. “You are extraordinary.” Revolutionaries set up coordination committees to organise and record protests, to try to provide security, then to build makeshift field hospitals (the injured arriving at state hospitals were often murdered). Later, people elected local councils to administer liberated areas – the first experience of democracy in more than 40 years, remarkably under-reported, and an evidential rebuke to those who believe Arabs are culturally unsuited to ruling themselves.

 In response, the regime practised rape and torture. It delivered tens of thousands of peaceful activists into prisons that serve as extermination camps, and simultaneously released jihadists. Ayham, a web developer, complains: “The regime puts all the movement leaders in prison, and then says the movement has no leaders.”

 Curfews were followed by sieges, gunfire and warplanes. The revolution’s militarisation was inevitable, even necessary, but it inevitably brought down a host of curses, from banditry to warlordism. “We need somebody to do the wrong thing in order for future generations to have a life that is morally stable and functioning,” Adam, a media organiser, says, before admitting: “We opened Pandora’s box.”

 Pearlman hears rebel fighters talking of their motivations (houses burnt, relatives abducted) and civilians recounting experiences of bombing, massacres and chemical attacks. Assad deliberately provoked sectarian breakdown; foreign interventions fanned the flames. Global jihadist groups arrived as parasites on the chaos, and some Syrians joined them, because, in one informant’s words: “You are in dire need for a narrative that can justify this futility.” A fighter explains the generalised rage thus: “No country in the world is paying attention to me. Not a single one is doing anything to protect any fraction of the rights I should have as a human on this earth.”

 Now revolutionaries resist the new authoritarians alongside the old. Khalil, a defected army officer, articulates a common sentiment: “We won’t accept another dictator to take [Assad’s] place.”

 High ideals coexist with grim reality. More than half the population have been driven from their homes, and families have splintered. Pearlman hears of the poverty, disease and humiliation of exile. She talks to a woman who kissed the walls of her neighbourhood before she fled, and a mother who made terrible journeys through Europe, ending with her determined journey to Berlin.

 There is certainly hope. Throughout this book, Syrian irrepressibility and resilience are set against the logic of self-immolation and nihilism of “Assad or we burn the country”. It is a book that sheds necessary light and confounds misapprehensions, not least in that it reveals the roles of revolutionary women, usually invisible to the outside.

 A reader wishing for a fuller political and cultural background will consult other works too, but this one contains all the human context necessary, and in the people’s own voices. Syrians, Pearlman writes, are too often cast as “victims to be pitied, bodies to be sheltered, radicals to be denounced or threats to be feared ... it can be difficult to find chances to listen to actual Syrians as human beings”. But she has listened.'

Syrians evacuate Aleppo in December 2016.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Why Trump shouldn't pull the plug on Syrian rebels

Image result for Why Trump shouldn't pull the plug on Syrian rebels

Mohammed Alaa Ghanem:

 'President Trump is making a dangerous mistake if he is ending a CIA program to arm moderate Syrian rebels, as was asserted by the Washington Post last month. His decision will mostly serve to empower Al Qaeda and Iran. The president should reconsider.

 I have tracked the program since its inception in 2013 while serving as Government Relations Director of the Syrian American Council, a nonprofit that advocates for a democratic and pluralistic Syria. I believe that the President’s decision could not have come at a worse time.

 Battles that will determine the strength of Al Qaeda and Iran in Syria for years to come are raging right now. The president’s decision undercuts the good guys.

 The CIA program was never meant to defeat Assad. Known as “Timber Sycamore,” it proposed working with only a few dozen moderate rebels per month (there were around 100,000 rebels overall at the time) and providing them only with basic training and light arms.

 I still remember the day the program was introduced because I received an inside report on the Obama administration’s meeting with senators to introduce it. Most senators were, to put it mildly, skeptical.

 House and Senate Intelligence Committee members rightly asked how such a meager program could succeed. Some wondered if the program was meant only to be a cosmetic substitute for more robust action.

 Obama Administration officials responded that the U.S. needed “skin in the game” to keep regional opposition backers in line and check extremism in the rebel camp. This was a key argument that got the program approved. And this, ultimately, was the program’s main purpose.

 Even by these very limited standards, the program was set up to fail. In early 2014, a highly disciplined coalition of CIA-vetted rebels called the “Hazzm Movement” formed in northern Syria. The group was strongly committed to fighting extremism; they eventually entered into a 3-front war with ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Assad forces.

 I knew the leadership of this group and even arranged meetings for them with the administration to help them gain increased support.

 But the support was not forthcoming. When Hazzm fighters captured enemy tanks, the CIA would not give them the money needed to operate them, so the weapons sat idle. The CIA at one point shipped 36 rifles to a commander who had requested 1,000. When the Hazzm Movement was overrun by Al-Qaeda in early 2015, its commanders reported receiving just 16 bullets per fighter per month.

 A leader of the group later described depending on America for support as “a losing bet.

 Trump has cited the CIA program’s cost inefficiencies and indirect benefits to Al Qaeda as reasons for ending it. Neither argument is valid in southern Syria, where the CIA and regional partners adapted to failures in the north by devising a new, more egalitarian system of weapons provision that helped moderates to unify.

 A coalition of Free Syrian Army rebels rose to prominence in early 2015 and has dominated southern Syria until today. This coalition has kept Al Qaeda weak in southern Syria; contained suspected ISIS affiliates at the Israeli border; and kept Iran and Hezbollah away from Jordan and Israel through blistering military defeats.

 Further east, affiliates of the coalition have allied with a Pentagon-trained group to expel ISIS from the outskirts of the Syrian capital.

 Even in northern Syria, it is wrong to call the CIA program a flop. Former CIA-vetted rebels remain heavily involved in anti-Qaeda efforts in northern Idlib province, where Al Qaeda hopes to establish an emirate. Groups such as the Free Idlib Army and Levant Front have kept pockets of democracy alive.

 Local rebels waged a major battle against Al Qaeda last month, and former CIA partners north of Idlib are now the best hope to destroy Al Qaeda at its main base in that province.

 That the CIA program achieved successes even though Obama set it up to fail is a testament to the potential of the collaboration. Trump now needs to decide whether he will bring this potential to fruition, or complete Obama’s failures.

 Under Obama, Iran became much stronger in Syria, because Obama’s Syria policy was largely premised on appeasing Iran to secure a nuclear deal. As a result, the CIA program in northern Syria failed to hold Al Qaeda at bay; but Trump’s cancellation of the program might be the finishing blow for moderate forces that will give Al Qaeda its cherished emirate.

 It could also give Iran its ultimate goal: a direct ground corridor to Lebanon, allowing it to supercharge Hezbollah and threaten U.S. allies in the region like never before.

 The CIA-backed “Lions of the East” resistance group is the main obstacle to such a historic Iranian victory at this time. The Lions came under fierce attack from Iranian proxies after contesting Iran’s route to Lebanon through eastern Syria.

 The Pentagon carried out multiple airstrikes against those proxies before backing off; the Lions persevered and last week launched a furious new offensive. With proper support, these forces could cause major damage to Iranian interests in Syria. Without aid it is only a matter of time before they are defeated.

 The idea of Trump’s decision to end support sends a chill up the spine of anti-Assad democrats across Syria. Thousands of Syrians will take it as a signal that America no longer wishes to support their struggle for freedom – be it against Assad, Iran, or Al Qaeda.

 Thousands of fighters who received salaries from the program will no longer have a livelihood, forcing them to join better-funded extremists or leave the field altogether for Al Qaeda and Iran to flourish. The situation will get worse, not better.

 The CIA program was far too limited and was in dire need of reform. But if Trump thinks that he struck a blow against the extremists by pulling the plug on CIA partners in Syria, then he should know that he is only extending Obama’s failed policies.

 A more robust program that gives vetted rebels freedom to target ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Iran alike would better serve U.S. national interests.'

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Yassin al-Haj Saleh's 'The Impossible Revolution': An incisive work

Yassin al-Haj Saleh's 'The Impossible Revolution': An incisive work

 Muhammad Idrees Ahmad:

 'Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution over six years ago, there has been a determined effort to smother it both literally and figuratively.

 There is the ceaseless attrition of bullets, bombs, torture, starvation and poison gas; there is the relentless subversion of truth through erasure, distortion, slant and fabrication.

 But in defiance of the terror, through myriad betrayals, regardless of the slander, and in the face of global indifference, the revolution survives. Every time the violence ebbs, the revolutionary flag returns to the street borne by crowds chanting the same slogans that reverberated through earlier, more hopeful days.

 Even in the absence of peace, besieged neighbourhoods have elected local councils, provided social services, educated children, treated the wounded and fed the needy. Under impossible circumstances, the people who stood up against one of history's most murderous regimes persist.

 You would know none of this if your only window into the Syrian conflict is the western media or, worse, its Kremlin counterpart. Syria, for all one can tell from their coverage, is about Islamic State atrocities, Al Qaeda gains, coalition bombings, regime advances, Russian resurgence and CIA manoeuvres.

 It is a geopolitical chessboard in which Syrians are mere pawns, denied agency, except in violence; denied humanity, except in victimhood.

 When earlier this week the UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte resigned over the Security Council's inaction, she saw fit to add: "everyone in Syria is bad now". She said this as the news of the execution of media activist Bassel Khartabil was becoming public, Idlib University was holding free elections, Saraqib and Eastern Ghouta were electing local councils and volunteers from the Syrian Civil Defence were risking lives to rescue victims of the regime's relentless bombings. For del Ponte and her ilk, these people might as well not exist.

 Such is the moral haze in which the debate on Syria has unfolded. And it is this fog that Yassin al-Haj Saleh has chosen to dispel in the ten essays that make up The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

 In its lucidity, erudition, range and percipience, the book is worthy of a Gramsci. In its method, rigour and predictions, it is an intellectual achievement of extraordinary significance. The book honours the revolution by describing with precision its causes and aspirations and recording with complexity its challenges and achievements. It is the living chronicle of a revolution, a sustained diagnosis, a prophecy and a 'J'accuse'.

 Yassin al-Haj Saleh, one of Syria's most celebrated intellectuals, wrote these essays over a period of five years, from underground in Damascus, Douma and Raqqa, and from exile in Istanbul. Saleh's compelling biography and his colossal sacrifices lend his writings unusual moral authority.

 While still in college, Saleh was arrested by the regime and spent 16 years in its notorious prisons; and, since the start of the revolution, his wife and brother have both been disappeared by jihadis (the latter by IS). Yet, in spite of the personal tragedy, Saleh writes with remarkable dispassion and objectivity.

 The essays in this book tackle questions that most confound audiences in the West.

 The discussions range from the causes of the revolution, the regime's violent repression, the revolution's turn to arms, the rise of the Islamists, the threat of militant nihilism to the question of sectarianism. They are rooted in history but they aren't the usual apologetic narratives of colonial depredation and native passivity. Saleh's interest is in postcolonial Syria, in its initial promise, halting progress, and eventual betrayal under Baathist rule.

 The Baath Party however was merely a cover for what Saleh calls Hafez al-Assad's "neo-sultanic" rule under which the social functions of the state declined, the population became dependent on a new elite through networks of patronage from below, while the security state maintained order through surveillance and terror from above.

 The regime used the logic of sectarianism to keep the population split vertically, so that people at the bottom could only access state resources and services through intermediaries from their own sect. Sectarianism in the regime's hands became a political means of control. It had nothing to do with doctrinal differences; its guiding principle was power.

 In this system kinship become a key principle, money guaranteed access, and together they created the supreme value: power. People at the top of the pyramid were free to expropriate state resources and a legal system was instituted to protect the gains.

 The state functioned on two levels: a "non-sectarian yet powerless visible state" and an invisible "private and sectarian" one. It is the latter that enjoyed "sovereignty over people's fates, internal domestic affairs, public resources, and regional international relations".

 Under Bashar al-Assad the state also replaced its "obsolete, inhumane political apparatus with a glamorous material façade". A regressive and exploitative system was given cover by a purely culturalist notion of modernity with the left-behind blamed for their own immiseration because of their attachment to "tradition".

 Tellingly, when revolution came, virtually all the defections happened in the visible state while the invisible, sectarian state remained cohesive and resilient. Beyond resilience, however, the privatised state also tried to neutralise the revolution's political advantage by forcing upon it a military contest for which it was decidedly unprepared.

 As early as June 2011, Saleh warned against the dangers of this "state of nature": Violence could replace the revolution's positive aspirations with the logic of necessity and desperation. Saleh charges the regime as the primary instigator of violence. But while wary of military confrontations, Saleh does not blame the armed uprising for undermining the revolution.

 Abandoned by the world and faced with the regime's lethal provocations, revolutionary conscience could only hold out so long. Saleh recognises the necessity of armed resistance when the alternative is total annihilation. He also notes that contrary to pacifist dogma, "those who took up arms did not replace the peaceful revolution but rather contributed to its expansion and resilience".

 By July 2011, three months into the uprising, Human Rights Watch had recorded 887 unarmed protesters killed by regime snipers. The Free Syria Army was formed shortly after that. It was partly through the protection of rebel arms that street protests continued to grow (reaching their peak during the summer of 2012). Citizen journalists provided additional protection by filming violations and beaming them out to the world.

 But if Saleh recognises the legitimacy of armed resistance, he is withering in his condemnation of what he calls "militant nihilism" (a term he prefers to "terrorism" which has been diluted of meaning through misuse by repressive states).

 It is neither morally defensible nor practically justifiable because it "necessarily hurts the innocent, owing to its arbitrariness". Even when motivated by real injustice "the 'goal' of terrorism collapses into the very act of rebellion against this condition and into the elimination of enemies without ever achieving anything greater, such as… national independence, or ending poverty, or even punishing criminals among the rulers and their collaborators".

 Saleh was predicting the rise of such nihilism already in May 2012. Without support for the revolutionary forces, he warned, the nihilists will strengthen. "Were a nihilist organisation to somehow come to power", Saleh writes in a prophetic passage, "the result could only be brutal despotism. Not only are nihilist organisations accustomed to indiscriminate violence: their radical withdrawal from the world encourages the cultural and psychological conditions necessary for prohibiting dissent and uprooting any alternative."

 In a section on media activists, Saleh describes them as creating an "objective memory of the uprising". In these ten essays, he has achieved something similar.

 For all its resilience, the revolution in Syria appears headed toward a grim denouement. But in the face of cynical efforts by counter-revolutionary ideologues to rewrite history, Saleh's work will stand as an imperishable reminder of the circumstances through which this impossible revolution endured.'

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Assad and ISIS are playing one game

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 Karam Abo Aljoud:

 'The regime advanced recently in the areas I highlighted with blue, in very quick time with no resistance from ISIS. all those areas were controlled by ISIS. The question is, why the regime keep only a narrow corridor for himself in Hama (next to the arrow)? why the regime is not fighting against ISIS there.

 The answer is that, the regime wants to make it possible for ISIS to go to Idleb, so the regime can claim that ISIS is in Idleb.

 Assad and ISIS are playing one game.'

Exiles despair for city of ghosts, all that remains of old Aleppo

An elderly Syrian sits outside a newly reopened shop selling tablecloths amid the destruction of Aleppo’s old city. Picture: AFP

 'When he speaks of his house in Aleppo, Abu Fares al-Halabi remembers it as it was ­before he fled into exile: the honey-coloured stone arches sweeping over the lower rooms, the breezes coming through the wood lattice windows, and the scent of jasmine in the courtyard.

 Relatives and former neighbours have described the reality now. An outer wall has been ­destroyed by a barrel bomb, opening the way for looters. Much of the neighbourhood is destroyed. “My father wants to rebuild it, other relatives say forget it,” said Mr Halabi, 31, of the house where he grew up in Aleppo’s old city.

 “We sent a carpenter to repair the door, but as he was doing it a local official came past and told him not to bother, as it will only be broken into again by the looters. Then the official helped himself to one of our antique hookah pipes.”

 Aleppo’s ancient heart is home to a huge souk, an imposing citadel, a famous mosque, and a warren of alleyways full of houses and businesses.

 Before the war it was home to an estimated 120,000 people, many of whom fled as the area ­became the epicentre of battles between rebel forces and the Syrian regime. After three and a half years of conflict, the city was ­recaptured by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and allies in ­December, but much of the area that was once controlled by the rebels remains in ruins.

 Mazen Samman, UNESCO’s program co-ordinator in Aleppo, said last week that detailed plans exist for its full restoration. “Our vision is to rebuild the old city ­exactly as it was before the war, with the same stones where we can,” he said. Former residents say they are dubious of such claims.

 “What’s UNESCO’s plan, to build for me and not consult me?” said Mr Halabi, whose family is in exile in Europe and the US. “There are the monuments, but most of the old city is people’s homes. We are part of the heritage. What is their plan for us?” The mistrust partly stems from the fact that UNESCO can work in Syria only with the blessing of Assad, whose forces are responsible for most of the destruction.

 Many abandoned homes have been requisitioned by supporters of the regime, or squatted by families who lost their homes in the fighting. A second property owned by Mr Halabi’s family has been taken over by a family known for their connections to Assad; despite appeals to the authorities, the family has been told they cannot be evicted. Even those who stayed often lost the title deeds to their properties and cannot return to begin rebuilding.

 “So many gangs and shabiha (pro-government paramilitaries) are in charge. We still cannot visit freely,” Ahmed, 56, a textiles merchant who used to supply manufacturers all over Syria from his shop next to the 12th-century Umayyad Mosque, said. He fled in 2012, and returned to find his shop destroyed. “Aleppo is not the same without its old city and businesses. I hope that we will be able to rebuild it without anyone’s help,” he said.

 Of those who fled abroad, some choose to stay in exile, fearing retribution from the regime. The threat of conscription into the army means that there is a dearth of young men in Aleppo — the people who would do the bulk of the reconstruction work.

 For those who do want to return, the cost of the paperwork at a Syrian consulate has rocketed to $US400 per person. Some observers fear the void could be filled by new residents and investors who care little for the old character of the city. “There are plans available of the footprint of the old city, and there have been architectural surveys,” said Michael Danti, a professor of archeology who worked in Syria for two decades before the war.

 “However, to say those plans can be used to rebuild historic neighbourhoods where there is only rubble and desolation is like saying you could rebuild clear-cut sections of the Amazon using blueprints. One of my biggest fears is that the post-conflict redevelopment will attempt to sweep away all memory of the hundreds of thousands who perished and the millions who fled and might never return. If so, Aleppo will ­become a city of ghosts.” '

On Cloth Scraps, Syrian Names Are Immortalized in Tomato Sauce and Blood

 'Under the clinical white lights of a Maryland conservation center on Tuesday, Mansour Omari carefully laid out five scraps of worn material that have traveled within the collar of his shirt — past Syrian government forces and across oceans — covered in blood and rust, and in the fading names of the disappeared.

 A human-rights activist, fighting for freedom of speech and chronicling the missing, Mr. Omari was arrested in February 2012 in his Damascus office and went on to spend about a year in a series of prisons, including nine months in a brutal facility under the supervision of Maher al-Assad, the brother of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

 It was in that fetid underground jail that Mr. Omari and four of his fellow inmates set out to record the names of all 82 prisoners there, in the hope of informing their families and documenting the atrocities.

 “When I was inside, I saw myself, what I was documenting,” he said. “I saw it firsthand. I felt it was my duty, actually.”

 The resulting lists, which included the prisoners’ contact details, were sewn into the collar and cuffs of a shirt and smuggled out by Mr. Omari, who was the first among the group to be released.

 The scraps of material are now being lent to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for an exhibition in Washington.

 Back in that Syrian prison, with ruthless government guards watching over them, Mr. Omari and his friends had set about quietly improvising writing materials: Small panels of fabric were cut carefully from the backs of their shirts. Broken chicken bones were used as pens. And when the tomato sauce from their rations proved too thin for makeshift ink, the friends used blood from their ailing gums mixed with flakes of rust from the prison’s iron bars.

 “We did it almost secretly. We didn’t want other people to know because there is a danger that some of them would tell the general,” Mr. Omari, 37, said, explaining how groups of cellmates form close friendships in the confined quarters.

 “We were going to some groups, sitting with them, asking for their names,” he added.

 Conservationists at the museum are preparing to study the fabric and are researching how best to preserve it. The chief conservator, Jane E. Klinger, said her team was looking to construct containers to hold the documents — perhaps from plexiglass fitted with ultraviolet lights — which have so far been buried within a notebook Mr. Omari bought at the civilian prison to which he was moved in late 2012.

 “That’s a very good solution for a lay person because they’re protected, flat, there’s an amount of cushioning,” she said, using white gloves and small metal tools to look through Mr. Omari’s notebook.

 On Tuesday at the museum’s David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation and Research Center, about an hour’s drive from Washington, Mr. Omari unveiled the names of the prisoners to a small group of conservationists.

 Flipping through the notebook’s worn pages, he revealed memories, all dated carefully on the top of every page.

 Scribbled neatly on the book’s tattered front are the words “la dolce vita,” or “the good life.”

 “I don’t take it out so much,” he said in slow, hushed English. “It’s so emotional for me when I see it.”

 “I was writing it for myself, trying to see that life is beautiful even after all that happened,” he added.

 Some pages are filled with Arabic, lessons in journalism and poetry that Mr. Omari taught an illiterate prisoner. There are also lines of basic English — “She knows her nose is big” — as part of the language instruction he provided for others.

 “You are in a place that you have all the time. You have nothing. You are doing nothing. You have nothing to do. So we had a lot of activities,” he said, explaining how inmates created “televisions” by holding up a sheet and taking turns to perform before it.

 “I convinced people. We are detained. We don’t know how long we will be there,” he added. “But when you are released, if you have a language, that will help you.”

 Mr. Omari, who now lives in Sweden, estimates about 100,000 people have been held by government forces in Syria, where half the population is thought to have been displaced since the war began more than six years ago.

 Scraps of documentation are slowly emerging, including letters from inmates and more names of missing people, as well as photographs smuggled out of the country by a Syrian police photographer that show widespread torture.

 Mr. Omari was arrested for his contact with foreign entities, among other things. And though the reasons for his release remain unclear, he says pressure from overseas is likely to have contributed to it.

 This week, the family of Bassel Khartabil, another well-known activist, shared news that he was executed in 2015 shortly after being imprisoned.

 Along with trying to share stories of the atrocities that are occurring in the Syrian war, Mr. Omari is calling on foreign powers to intervene in the conflict. He says that much of the public shares his view.

 “They hate so much Obama because he drew a red line, and he didn’t interfere,” he said of former President Barack Obama. “They hate Obama so much, really.”

 While President Trump’s decision to launch a missile strike in Syria in response to a chemical weapon attack in April was met with some criticism overseas, Mr. Omari said that among the Syrian public, “almost everybody was happy.” '

Monday, 7 August 2017

As Turkey's political divisions deepen, Syrian refugees in Istanbul worry about being caught in the middle

Image result for Syrian refugees look out from an evacuated house the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul, Turkey. (Gurcan Ozturk / AFP/Getty Images)

 'The night of last year’s attempted coup in Turkey, Alaa Khaldi considered packing his bags.

 The 31-year-old Syrian refugee from Damascus, who fled to Turkey in 2015, was worried that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would fall. Erdogan’s Islamist government has opened Turkey’s doors to more than 3 million Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country, and Khaldi thought a new government might roll up the welcome mat.

 “The main party is with us,” Khaldi said, referring to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP. “What happens after them, we don’t know.”

 Erdogan survived the attempted coup July 15, 2016, and has amassed more power, imposing a seemingly indefinite state of emergency and deeply polarizing Turkish society. But Syrians living in Istanbul worry that the widening political divisions will put them at risk, particularly as their numbers continue to grow while Europe blocks refugees from entering through Turkey.

 “If the regime changes, we would definitely be at risk,” said Khaldi, who works at a software company in central Istanbul’s Fatih district, a densely populated neighborhood with a large Syrian population.

 Erdogan has cast Turkey’s acceptance of the refugees as a benevolent project toward fellow Muslims — and particularly Syria, which shares a history with Turkey as both were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire until 1922.

 While Europe has tried to stop the flow of refugees and some European countries have been openly hostile to arrivals, Turkey has absorbed the influx with relatively little unrest. The vast majority of Syrians who work do so under the table, but Erdogan has offered a limited number of work permits that could raise Syrians’ wages and even floated the idea last year of offering Syrians the chance to apply for Turkish citizenship.

 That triggered a backlash among many Turks, even Erdogan’s supporters. His announcement came amid a smattering of news reports alleging the involvement of Syrians in various crimes, and soon the hashtag, “I don’t want Syrians in my country,” was trending on Turkish social media.

 Erdogan’s political opponents — who castigate him as an increasingly authoritarian figure who has imprisoned tens of thousands since the failed coup — have also voiced concern about the large Syrian presence.

 Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has emerged as perhaps the most influential opposition figure after leading a massive anti-government demonstration in July, has called for a national referendum on the Syrian citizenship question and said that a growing Syrian population would make it difficult to identify suspected militants among them.

 Erdogan has not changed his policy, saying in a speech in late July that anyone who brought up stories of Syrians causing unrest in Turkey was effectively a terrorist.

 About 300,000 Syrian refugees live in 26 camps run by the Turkish government, with the vast majority of the overall population clustering in cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Gaziantep, near the Syrian border.

 Syrians account for 3.6% of Turkey’s population, and their presence is obvious in areas like Fatih, where Syrian sweet shops and fast-food joints line the sidewalks and signs on storefronts are printed in Arabic script.

 Such neighborhoods are undeniably signs of Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism, but experts also say there are underlying tensions and misunderstandings, particularly because most Syrians don’t speak Turkish.

 “In the beginning, the idea of a common civilization really smoothed things over, but in the long run we’re seeing these Syrian ghettos develop, especially in major cities,” said Selim Koru, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.

 “People in Syrian ghettos are going to be resistant to learning Turkish, adjusting to Turkish culture and traditions. So in the medium to long run, that could present some problems,” Koru said.

 At a small grocery store in Fatih, a 37-year-old shopkeeper from Damascus, who gave his name only as Kinan, said recently that nearly all his customers were Syrian. Turks probably wouldn’t patronize his store if they knew he was Syrian, he said.

 “They accept us, but they don’t really like us,” he said.

 A medical engineer who fled Damascus in early 2016, Kinan lives in an apartment in Fatih with five other Syrian refugees. Since clashes broke out in May between Turks and South Asian migrants in another part of the city, Kinan said he is careful when he rides public transit not to speak Arabic.

 “Day after day it will become worse for us, this is my fear,” said Kinan, who works to send money to his wife and son in Damascus. “On social media, you see stories of Syrians being attacked, even killed in Turkey. They feel we are taking their jobs. They will become less accepting of us.”

 At a Syrian chicken restaurant along Fatih’s main drag, 15-year-old Hassan Sakka from the Syrian city of Aleppo showed a scar on his ear from a fight he’d had that week with a Turkish neighbor who he said had tried to shake him down for money. The neighbor’s reasoning, Hassan said, was that he didn’t have a job while Hassan and his cousin did.

 “The relationship between Syrians and Turkish people is just about work. There is no friendly relationship,” said Hassan’s cousin, Haytham Mahmoud.

 The 26-year-old works in a factory assembling boxes for about $350 a month alongside a dozen other men, all Syrians, to send money to his parents and two sisters in Aleppo.

 “There is no friendly relationship,” Mahmoud said. “Here we just eat, sleep and work. Any of us would love to go back to Syria.”

Image result for Syrian refugees look out from an evacuated house the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul, Turkey. (Gurcan Ozturk / AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian feminists: ‘This is the chance the war gave us – to empower women’

 'In the early, heady days of the Syrian revolution, opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and advocates for human rights saw an opportunity. “Women were extremely active and present,” says writer and journalist Samar Yazbek. But as the war escalated, some of this hope was lost. “The war became extremely violent and women’s rights became a secondary issue. But despite the horrifying intensity of the war, there are still women activists working to create life and maintain a civil society, both within the heart of war and as refugees.”

 These activists are fighting to ensure that women have a place not just at the negotiating table, but in post-war Syria. As the chaos of war causes major social upheaval, these women are pushing for girls and women to be empowered, and to have equal access to education and representation – in keeping with the UN’s sustainable development goal 5, which points out that such changes benefit humanity at large.

 In 2012, Yazbek won the Penn Pinter prize, a prestigious literary award. She used the money to start Women Now for Development, one of a number of organisations trying to challenge traditional patriarchal norms. Initially, the work revolved around helping women to support themselves financially. As violence intensified and the revolution became militarised, it adapted to protect women’s status and to support them through displacement. “I wanted to help build a democratic society,” says Yazbek. “It seems very far away now, but the ambition is to create pockets of civil society that can link up together to rebuild Syria after the war.”

 Even in the relative normality of life before the war, it was clear that women were suffering from discrimination. In November 2011 a UNFPA report (pdf) found that one in three women in Syria experienced domestic violence. Several Syrian laws clearly disadvantage women; the penalty for “honour” killing is softer than for other murders, and there is no legislation that specifically prohibits gender discrimination. The Syrian family code limits a woman’s financial rights within marriage if she works outside the home without her husband’s consent. The Syrian regime has at times been cynical about its engagement with women’s rights, presenting itself as a safe option compared to the rank misogyny of extremist groups. This has often been hollow, for instance, using women as spokespeople while keeping them out of roles of real influence, and failing to take any action on discriminatory laws. And Yazbek points out that in areas of Syria held by Isis and other religious factions, the situation for women has drastically worsened. “We were already fighting against patriarchy and dictatorship before the war. Now we have to fight not only that, but also religious extremism.”

 Women Now runs seven centres – two in Lebanon and five within Syria. Starting as a small support group for a few families in rebel-held territory in Syria, it has expanded to become a major women’s network. In addition to providing psychosocial support, skills training (in English and IT among others), and economic empowerment, it has a clear political goal: getting women’s voices heard – from the family setting to international peace talks. “We try to educate women about their rights, and spread awareness,” says Ola El-Jindi, a programme manager at the NGO. “This is the chance the war gave us – to empower women. If we didn’t use it well, it would be another disaster of war. We must use this opportunity to do better things.”

 At the Women Now centre in Chtoura, a town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, women and their children pass in and out all day; the centre acts as a safe space for women to express their ideas, engage with politics, and fight the loneliness that can be a central part of the refugee experience. In a room adjacent to the main office, two Syrian women, Noor and Hala, told me about their dreams. “I’d like to set up a business,” says Hala, who wears a full niqab. “My ideal would be designing evening gowns.”

 “I want to get a job to send my kids to a good school,” says Noor, who is learning English at the centre. “Now I feel I have a purpose, I am not only serving my family and my kids, but also doing something for myself.”

 There is clearly a large gulf between women living as refugees, in challenging economic situations, and the more privileged women already engaged in Syrian politics. “We aim to empower women in their daily lives and make them capable of representing themselves,” says El-Jindi. “It is hard to get women’s voices heard – there is a big gap between the women in Geneva and the women here at this centre. But our first goal is not only participating in international peace talks. It is to make women empowered enough to participate in general.”

 In many places around the world – including Britain after World War Two – war can be a turning point for female empowerment. As men are absent, fighting or killed, women move out of their traditional roles. This is true inside Syria, where women are keeping society going in the midst of war – working as doctors, teachers, nurses and advocates. In places like Lebanon – where many refugees don’t have the legal right to stay – men are more likely to be stopped at checkpoints than women, meaning their movement is restricted.

 “In Arab culture, the man is often the breadwinner, has the decision-making power in the family, and spends more time outside,” says Chiara Butti, Lebanon country director for the peace-building charity International Alert. “When they have to leave their country they become very frustrated sitting in the camp. For women, it’s often easier to move around. So they can work in the community, meet other women. After a few years, they are identified as influential people in the community – they’re able to bring people together and represent their community.”

 Of course, refugee women face a whole host of gender-specific challenges – not least heightened risk sexual assault or exploitation, and caring responsibilities for their children. Engaging in international peace talks can seem a whole world away; some face resistance from male members of their families when they start to participate in politics.

 But recent history shows that women’s presence at international talks is vital. In 2014, when Syrian women were still excluded from the process, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) held a conference in Sarajevo bringing together Syrian and Bosnian women. The Bosnian party shared their experiences of being left out from the 1995 Dayton peace negotiations, where no women were present at all. According to WILPF, the exclusion of women from Bosnia’s peace process “has had concrete consequences both for the society as a whole and also for women … and their ability to be recognised as agents of change in later processes.” This is not unique to Bosnia; in 2012, UN Women published a review (pdf) of 31 peace processes, showing that only 4% of peace agreements had women as signatories.

 The top negotiating teams for both Syrian opposition and regime are entirely male – but in March 2016, a Syrian women’s advisory board attended Geneva talks for the first time. “All of us are women who regularly face a room full of men attempting to resolve a conflict fought mostly by men,” Marah Bukai, one of the committee members, wrote recently. “In our own ways, we persist in taking on a political role that many people in our society do not accept.”

 Women Now wants to ensure that grassroots concerns are reflected too, and runs consulting sessions with women, supporting them to write recommendations and demands, which they then feedback to the opposition commission and the team of Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria.

 “There is nothing good about the war,” says El-Jindi. “Women are forced to relocate, and work as well as looking after their families. We have been forced to change. We didn’t choose it. But now, we are not going to go back to our previous position.” '