Saturday, 7 October 2017

Sneaky Erdogan, if this is true!

 'All the bla bla, just to attack the YPG, while continuing to tolerate HTS in Idlib. We will see!

 "Reports Turkey and HTS reached an agreement HTS will hand all positions on PKK fronts to Turkey. No Euphrates Shield."*'


Mixed Reactions trail Syria’s World Cup Qualification Hopes

 'A cross-section of Syrians and football fans have criticized President Bashar al-Assad regime’s football propaganda tool. Syria has been involved in a brutal civil war since 2011 with over 500,000 dead, millions of displaced Syrians and countless cities in ruins.

 During Fifa’s world cup qualifications in September, Syria was on the brink of crashing out of the competition when a 93rd-minute equalizer against Iran was scored by Omar Al-Somah.

 After returning a month earlier from a five-year exile that was self-imposed by Al Somah, Somah helped to secure a 3-1 win over Qatar.

 At the end of the game in September, Somah infuriated many fans when he gave thanks to Syria’s Dictator Bashar al-Assad.

 Syrian defender Ahmad Al Salih and Captain Firas Al-Khatib, who had recently returned from a self-imposed 6-year exile, said any instability with the constant changes was overshadowed by the need for common national unity.

 Players who have been absent for a long time like Al Somah require little time to adapt to the nature of the environment they are faced with, said Al Salih.

 Al Salih said the driving force behind the adaptability of his teammates is the determination to make Syrians happy and unite Syrians through football during the on-going civil war.

 He also said the length of time and experience shared between his teammates makes it easy to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses on the field of play.

 In the Post-match comments, Al-Somah and Al-Khatib made inflammatory statements, claiming a non-political approach was adopted towards soccer and national sport by an Assad regime that used sporting arenas to launch shells into civilian populated areas.

 A compiled list that allegedly contains names of slain or incarcerated players was released by former player Ayman Kasheet; he further denies the claims of Al-Somah and Al-Khatib.

 He queried how consideration can be given to a team that carries the same flag as the planes that drop bombs every day killing children and scores of civilians.'

Qatar’s pragmatic Syria gamble

 'The 2017 Gulf Crisis between Qatar and its GCC neighbors has developed into a clash of narratives that concerns not only the various regional interests in the Middle East, but also vital U.S. national interests. The Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) has justified its embargo against Qatar due to its alleged political, ideological and financial support to non-state terror groups across the Middle East, especially during the Arab Spring.

 The UAE in particular has invested in a public-diplomacy campaign in Washington to persuade key policy circles that the small gas-rich emirate of Qatar has been one of the main sponsors of terrorism in the region. The Trump administration’s response has been ambiguous. While the White House initially embraced the joint effort of the Quartet to “correct” Qatar’s alleged Islamist foreign policy, the State Department and the Department of Defense were more cautious.

 A more nuanced understanding of Qatar’s foreign and security policy during the Arab Spring is needed in order to assess how Doha has advanced its interests and values since the late 1990s. Qatar’s Syria policy is an excellent case study to illustrate Doha’s ambitions, intentions and its flaws with implementation.

 When the first protestors took to the streets of Tunisia in late 2010, the then emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani saw an opportunity to put his worldview into practice. Running state affairs since the early 1990s, Hamad proposed an avenue of social, economic and political reform that would help the small state propel into the twenty-first century. Qatar had to emancipate itself from the ultra-conservative influence of Saudi Arabia by overcoming entrenched social norms, liberalizing education and the job market, and introducing civil liberties. Although Qatar was surely not en route to becoming a liberal democracy, Hamad nonetheless invested in liberal values such as the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and a pluralistic sociopolitical discourse between the emir and the public. Apart from exploring the incredible wealth of natural gas, Hamad was eager to ensure social justice, equal distribution of wealth among citizens and an inclusive society. In many ways, Qatar, has become a more liberal counterpart to the authoritarian regimes of the Arab World.

 In late 2010 and early 2011, Hamad, presiding over the richest country per capita in the world, hoped that maintaining a liberal political view would support those rising up against authoritarian regimes would bring about a transformative shift in the region’s direction. Similar to President Clinton who spoke about “being on the right side of history,” Hamad envisioned an “Arab Awakening”—a dream which proved more difficult to realize in practice.

 After the fall of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and the outbreak of civil war in Libya, Qatar turned its attention to Syria in March 2011. Hamad, making use of the royal family’s personal relationship with the Assads, sent his son Tamim to convince the Syrian president to step down (Tamim is now the Emir of Qatar). In return for ensuring a path for political reform and a peaceful transition of power, Tamim promised compensation and financial aid to Assad to make this transition as smooth as possible. The Syrian president declined, which shifted Qatar’s posture towards Damascus from engagement to confrontation.

 In close coordination with the Obama administration, Doha started to work on an initiative to isolate the Assad regime in the Arab League while setting up a governing body representing the Syrian opposition: the Syrian National Council. Qatar shared the Western vision for a new Syria based on sociopolitical inclusion, social justice and civil liberties—a vision that did not necessarily mandate a transition to liberal democracy. The council was to become the strategic body managing the Syrian opposition as a quasi-government in exile representing then 60 percent of all Syrian opposition groups. From the beginning, the Qatari government was adamant that any opposition initiative had to be inclusive and represent the “will of the Syrian people”—an ambition that might appear unachievable in hindsight considering the multiplicity of different agendas dividing the opposition.

 The most dominant force in the opposition at large (the council in particular) was the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. Syria’s oldest and most extensive opposition group had been relentlessly repressed by the regime since the 1970s. Due to existing personal relationships with the Syrian Brotherhood, Qatar was immediately drawn to the moderate Islamists who presented themselves as well organized and influential, and who had a clear sociopolitical vision for a new Syria. When it became apparent that the Syrian National Council was getting bogged down in turf wars and political rivalries between different oppositional camps, the far-reaching network of the brotherhood appeared as an alternative means for Qatar to deliver goods to Syrians cut off from public services by the Assad regime.

 By early 2012, more and more reports surfaced that the military councils, supervised by the council, developed into corrupt patronage networks failing to provide Syrians with aid and security inclusively. It was then that Doha began to reach out to individual groups in northern Syria—moderate Islamist groups that were often linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar felt these groups had a better track record of providing public goods as they had long been supplementing regime services locally through their charities—something that independent research into the effectiveness of Islamist councils confirms.

 Thus, Qatar’s Syria policy was neither ideological nor religious, but pragmatic. Qatar’s networks with Islamists evolved from the emirate’s tradition of maintaining a place of refuge for the politically persecuted and the country’s attempt to hedge its foreign policy through diversification. Moreover, there was a widespread belief among senior policymakers in Qatar that political Islam provided the only functional opposition to authoritarianism. Also, Doha believed that the charitable work of Islamist groups was more effective, reliable and inclusive than that of secular charities. Thus, at a time when the existing sociopolitical order of the Arab World disintegrated, Qatar perceived Islamist groups as the only available force able to fill the sociopolitical void left by the failing regimes—at least temporarily.

 Qatar initially provided Islamist military councils with financial and nonmilitary support that allowed these councils, which were widely underfunded by the Syrian National Council, to provide public goods and services in areas liberated from regime forces. These groups were comprised of indigenous Syrians, held together by their Islamist creed, and guided by principles of social inclusion and a commitment to public security—all at a time when salafi-jihadists were still a tiny minority in Syria.

 While Qatar’s ambitions were noble, the idealist approach to supporting widely autonomous rebel groups proved to be difficult. Like the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey had all invested in training and equipping rebels on the ground, Qatar found it hard to retain control over the operational and tactical activities of its protégés. At the same time the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria was hesitant at best, delaying Qatar’s support for moderate rebels allowing salafi-jihadist groups to gain ground. The nonpermissive environment created by the Obama administration—and the failure of the international community to whole-heartedly back moderate Islamist rebels—drove moderates into the hands of radicals.

 Further, it was the more decisive intervention of Iran and Russia over the course of the civil war that turned the tides of the conflict. As Assad’s sponsors turned on the moderate opposition, Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh were able to consolidate their power, fulfilling Assad’s claim that his regime was fighting terrorism.

 When it became apparent that Syria’s moderate opposition was fighting an uphill battle amid a constrained geostrategic environment where no Western powers were willing to fully commit to being “on the right side of history,” Qatar withdrew its military liaison officers from Syria in 2014. Qatar’s charities continued providing aid to local councils. But with the proliferation of salafi-jihadists in Syria, it was no longer feasible to provide military support to groups on the ground.

 Qatar’s efforts to indirectly reach out to Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra were thwarted by the unwillingness of those groups to comply with Qatar’s strategic narrative of serving the Syrian people inclusively in order to create a more liberal sociopolitical system in a post-Assad Syria—a future that neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia will be able to shape. Now, the protégés of those groups have been widely defeated by radical elements that came to dominate Syria’s opposition in 2014.

 Hence, despite its strategic miscalculations and clumsy operational implementation, Qatar’s objectives in Syria were widely aligned with those of the West. While the United States and Europe shied away from determinedly confronting Assad’s heinous killing spree, Qatar tried to help Syrians build a post-authoritarian future. It did so relying on Syria’s moderate opposition—groups promising to embrace pluralism, civil liberties and socio-political inclusion. Qatar neither sought to fund or arm the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra or Daesh as they are incompatible with Doha’s relatively liberal raison d’état. The fact that Assad and his henchmen are now on a winning streak is the collective failure of the international community to come to the Syrian people’s defense.'

Thursday, 5 October 2017

At the core of the war in Syria

The Restless Earth Installation

 Bente Scheller:

 'Those of you who visited Syria before 2011 may tend to remember their journeys as fondly as I do: A country in which buildings from a variety of eras bear witness to a long history of many peoples and religions. The old town of Damascus in which the Umayyad mosque rises atop the foundations of the ancient Roman temple of Jupiter, an environment characterised by tradition in which people, in between prayer calls and church bells, go about their everyday lives which in turn could be thought to have emerged from the tales of the Arabian Nights.

 Engulfed by the scent of jasmine and cardamom coffee, a foreigner can easily forget about the dark side of Syrian life. Syria was not only a country in which you could positively feel the heartbeat of thousands of years of ancient societies, but also a state in which the most enormous security apparatus in the Middle East virtually strangled its citizens.

 The widely praised peaceful coexistence of religions was certainly no feat of Hafez al-Assad who had gained hold of power in the country by means of a coup in the 1970s. It was rather a characteristic of Syrian history without which so many small and minuscule communities of different religious affiliations could never have developed and persisted.

 Yet his grasp for power brought on a religio-political issue for Hafez al-Assad. As is common with dictators, he was concerned with assuming the appearance of legitimacy. However, while the Syrian constitution states that the president must be of Muslim denomination, Muslims were conflicted over whether the religious community to which he belonged, the Alawites, were part of Islam.
 As much as he laid emphasis on the pan-Arab nationalism propagated by the Syrian Baath Party, the crucial question remained: how should he deal with this religious matter?
 Hafez al-Assad is succeeded by his son Bashar – and history repeats itself.

 This was Hafez al-Assad’s solution: to have a religious decree fashioned by Muslim scholars which declared his religious community Muslim. Simultaneously, he disallowed any discussion of religion or political-religious questions such as whether any one religious group enjoyed privileges or was oppressed.

 Not everyone supported Hafez al-Assad’s politics. Expropriations for example which were enforced on the basis of socialist-tinted politics and the disadvantaging of certain territories caused tensions.

 When, towards the end of the 70s, a first major uprising formed for this reason, the regime crushed it with armed force and Hafez al-Assad branded the movement “Islamist”. Although the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was the driving force backing the rebellion in the beginning of the 80s, it was by no means only its members that were met by violent suppression.

 Syrian human rights solicitor – of Christian faith – Anwar al-Bunni who now lives in Berlin experienced the insurgency and its suppression in Hama, the city centre of which was levelled to the ground at the time. Widespread arrests caused all men fit for military service to be put under general suspicion. Even back then, it was enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for a person to be executed on the spot or to be abducted.

 The suppression of the uprising by Hafez’ son and successor Bashar al-Assad which commenced in 2011 is a repetition of history, only at a much greater scale.

 As soon as the demonstrations began to form, Bashar al-Assad denied the insurgents any form of humanity: they were, in his view, “microbes” – an evil that had overcome Syrian society and required eradication. Not long after, they were declared “terrorists” – a term that also entices people in Western societies to abandon constitutional thinking and to justify any means.

 The majority of insurgents were without doubt of Sunni faith – simply because the majority of the Syrian population, approximately 70 percent, is also of Sunni faith.
 The protesters in Syria demanded only what is a given for us in Germany.

 However, the demands brought forward by the insurgents were neither of a religious nor of a secular nature. They were humane.
 Those who in the hundreds of thousands summoned the courage to take to the streets were neither controlled from the outside nor had they a religious agenda. They demanded what is a given for us in Germany: dignity, freedom and justice.

 The women and men protesting chanted: “silmi, silmi” – “peaceful, peaceful” while they raised their hands to the sky to show that they did not carry any weapons – and they were met with the regime’s bullets.

 Bashar al-Assad mocked the victims during his parliamentary speech at the end of March 2011. And yet, in order to impart their message, “do not dare challenge the powers that be”, on the population, the regime quickly discovered even more cruel methods.

 One of the first casualties was thirteen-year-old Hamza al-Khatib. The secret service arrested him amidst a demonstration and a few days later, handed over his brutally mangled corpse to his parents. A child, tortured to death by the secret service.

 With that, the regime revoked the unwritten pact that at least those who do not pose an essential threat to its power would be spared. A certain degree of security and stability, a minimum, for the expense of which many Syrians were prepared to accept an authoritarian rule, was therefore no longer given.

 This is a prime example in that autocrats are not only no guarantor of stability, but that they are its natural enemy: due to their lack of democratic legitimacy, they live off turning any opposition to their rule into a threat to society – at best, a threat that hits a nerve in democratic states. Such as terrorism. Autocrats do not stick to the rules, they bend them. Their rationale is despotism. They thereby disqualify themselves as reliable partners of constitutional systems.

 Because prominent Christians and Alawites were among the ranks of the Syrian resistance, because many purposefully non-violent activists had attained a certain reputation within and outside of Syria, it was of much greater importance for the regime to silence them than to deal with the protagonists who started to arm themselves after six months.
One of our partners, internet activist Bassel Khartabil, was incarcerated and tortured to death

 Perhaps you are familiar with Padre Paolo Dall’Oglio. Paolo was an Italian Jesuit priest who had settled in the Deir Mar Moussa monastery. There he founded a community which took it upon itself to restore the 7th century cloister and to transform the place to one of interreligious dialogue. Here, one would meet young Syrian men and women of various denominations who would work and meditate together. Looming majestically above the scraggy mountains, Mar Moussa became an emblem of Syrian diversity and of lived cooperation and was tolerated by the regime, whereby it watched it with distrust at the same time.

 Padre Paolo was an impressive personality. After decades of working in Syria, he spoke fluent Arabic - and never failed to speak his mind when it came to decrying injustices. At the beginning of the revolution, he called for a shared solution and for people to be vocal against violence.

 As a consequence, the Syrian regime expelled him from the country. Syrian members of his community were arrested.

 Activists in Syria face danger from all sides. Whoever is persecuted by the regime is just as persecuted by the so-called “Islamic State”, ISIS. In 2013, Padre Paolo travelled to Raqqa in order to negotiate with ISIS, a power that cares little for conversation. It is here that he was abducted. To this day, he remains disappeared without a trace.

 In 2012, nonviolent internet activist Bassel Khartabil, a partner of our office, was among those arrested and tortured to death within months. At the same time, the regime discharged various Islamist detainees.

 These had only ended up in prisons in the first place because the regime itself had once recruited them as fighters for Iraq in order to perpetrate attacks against the American intervention in 2003. Most of the people who fell victim to attacks in Iraq were not foreign soldiers but Iraqi men, women and children.
 The regime is not afraid of Islamist terrorism, Assad uses it for his purposes

 The Jihadists who returned from Iraq were incarcerated by the Syrian regime. The regime perceived it too risky to have these battle-hardened extremists at large in its own country. However, in times of political crisis they worked in its favour by adding vigour to the regime’s narrative that they were dealing not with a revolution, but with an attempted Jihadist coup.

 Islamist terrorism has by no means been what the regime fears most, but instead is what it has learnt to brilliantly exploit - to this day.

 It was not until the so-called “Islamic State” proclaimed its caliphate that a counterpart came into existence beside which the Syrian regime - which itself had forced millions of people to flee their homes, had killed hundreds of thousands and had “disappeared” tens of thousands more - appeared to be the lesser evil.

 Nowadays, people who shy away from criticising the regime typically do so while referencing religious minorities. Assad as the guardian of Christians has become a topos. How far have our standards dwindled if we accept Mafia-like sponsorship without question?

 Chartered rights are what protect minorities. What we see in the Syria of today is the exact opposite. When armed groups set their sights on the Christian town of Maaloula in which to this day Aramaic - the language of Christ - is spoken, the regime chose not to protect it at the town gates but instead positioned itself between churches and monasteries – with the view of provoking headlines to the effect that the opposition was specifically targeting Christian institutions.

 Regime forces were withdrawn from the characteristically Islamist city of Salamiyeh in order to exert pressure on its population to send their sons to join the military service. Minorities have no rights in Assad’s Syria. Protection is granted or withdrawn as an act of grace - depending on the current political expediency.

 To my knowledge, the Syrian regime has not put itself forth as secular. Yet, with the emergence of ISIS, it seems to me that the regime is being increasingly perceived as secular in Western countries. The paralysis which befalls Western societies when confronted with ISIS leads to this seemingly so obvious and simultaneously problematic conclusion.
 Assad’s regime abuses and kills like ISIS – only at a much larger scale.

 The Syrian regime’s propaganda in many ways contains religious references. Starting with their slogan “Assad forever”, later extended to “Assad forever and the time thereafter” – that is a clear reference to the afterlife. Or, as chanted by Assad supporters: “With our soul, our blood, we defend you, Bashar”.

 I have not only watched the perfectly staged execution videos released by ISIS which were recorded for Western eyes with the aim of spreading fear, but I have also seen hundreds of videos by the regime’s henchmen who have proudly filmed their abuse of prisoners.

 One element that constantly recurs is that prisoners, while being abused, are shouted at, “Say it: ’There is no God but Bashar’” – a derivative of the Muslim creed ‘There is no God but Allah’. One need not be of Muslim faith, even a particularly religious person at all, to feel the humiliation that is pelted at the defenceless victims.

 Barbarism is what ISIS is rightly known for. However, in reflection of all that I have not only seen on YouTube but what former detainees of Syrian prisons and former employees of Syrian hospitals – some of which are part of the Syrian torture apparatus – report, it leaves me to say: It is a challenge to identify a form of abuse or killing that is deployed by ISIS and not also by the regime. The latter only does it at a vastly larger scale.

 There is no shortage of evidence for these atrocities. A military photographer who was tasked by the regime with taking pictures of those tortured to death in Syrian prisons smuggled 55,000 photographs out of the country, depicting more than 6,700 slain people. Nobody should be forced to see these images. However, it is of much greater importance to establish: Nobody should be forced to suffer what has been inflicted on the people in these pictures.

 In 2004, the Syrian regime signed the international Convention against Torture.

 In 2013, the Syrian regime joined the international Convention against Chemical Weapons.

 The regime is regularly and systematically in breach of both. That is no trivial offence and also, in my judgement, no inner-Syrian matter. This constitutes a serious breach of international law which we should view with deep concern.
 As soon as the air strikes grind to a halt, people return to the streets with their demands: dignity, freedom, justice.

 International conventions set boundaries to the rights of the more powerful protagonists. They protect the weaker ones. If we allow the conventions to be consciously and frequently breached, we thereby not only abandon our values and question our own moral integrity, but also endanger our security and the security of many others.

 Even when what ISIS seems to stand for and what other Islamist protagonists seem to strive towards instils fear in us: We should not be tempted to understand this situation as a religious conflict, as a war that draws from religious convictions that are foreign to us, that we struggle to comprehend, and therefore assume we cannot speak up for humanity and human rights.

 This is a conflict which over the course of the past years has increasingly exhibited the characteristics of a proxy war between the involved international military and political protagonists.

 This is a conflict that has been religiously charged.

 Yet, at its core, this is a conflict that pursues interests comprehensible to us: a conflict for power and participation in profoundly mundane processes. And furthermore with protagonists who continue to demand what is closest to us: dignity, freedom, justice. Even in the face of an increased emergence of Islamist rebel groups, that has remained unaltered.

 During the (few) moments in which negotiated ceasefires prevail, the following scene can be observed in hundreds of localities: As soon as the air strikes of the regime and its allies grind to a halt, people take to the streets with unchanged demands – even in regions that, for years, have been starved and riddled by bombs.

 Most of the oppositional areas in Syria suffer a double threat: While ISIS and the Syrian regime – of which one could assume that they are opposite poles - largely stay out of each other’s way, they instead run riot on the Syrian opposition. As soon as the opposition has a moment to catch its breath, it drives out the Islamists, be it ISIS or as it recently happened in the locality of Saraqeb: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of Jabhat al-Nusra, itself close to al-Qaeda.

 As complex as the situation in Syria may seem, its basic constellation is clear: A regime which not only holds sovereignty over the airspace and the air force, but which also counts powerful international protagonists as its supporters is waging a war of annihilation against wide parts of its own population.
 The very least we can do for people in Syria.

 It may be difficult to imagine a different Syria and even more difficult to show how to get there. The opposition is fragmented and as such is unable to present any viable alternatives.

 However, the conclusion cannot be to remain uncritical of the regime’s systematic displacement of Syrians and the – in the words of human rights activist Stephen Rapp – “killing on an industrial scale”.

 The very least we can do for Syrian civilians – who continue to make up over 90 percent of the Syrian population – is: not to demean the democratic, active forces.

 If, politically, we are unwilling or unable to end the war, we should acknowledge that we at least have a responsibility to those who were forced to flee. And yet, it is our policy to coerce the people who are in search of protection to commit illegal acts: Whoever wishes to find security is often forced to pay smugglers and put their life at risk once again during the unsafe journey through the Mediterranean.

 Only recently, the television appearance of a Syrian army general, Zahreddine, was aired in Germany in which he, accompanied by the derisive laughter of surrounding soldiers, said: “My advice to those who fled Syria to another country is to never return. […] we will never forgive nor forget.” To “not forgive” that they fled war and violence? That is a clear indication that those who have fled cannot safely return to Syria.

 Based on my own outlook on Afghanistan and also our office’s work in Iraq I can say: the Syrian population’s will to govern itself, to not lose heart when faced with military superiority and to create alternative civil structures is exceptional. For that, many Syrian activists have paid with their lives. And we have largely looked on without taking action.

 Those remaining deserve to not be brushed aside as irrelevant or even non-existent – and for us not to lose sight of the true perpetrators.
 It is not the Syrian revolution that has brought about death and ruin to the country, but it is the Syrian regime’s brutish response.

 The first placard those entering Syria see reads: “Welcome to Assad’s Syria.” That is precisely how the Assad clan perceives the country: not as a state of which they have been temporarily entrusted with its rule and therefore the citizens of which they carry the responsibility to safeguard, but instead as private property. Private property that they would rather destroy than abdicate their power. And that is dangerous.'
Image result for Bente Scheller

Amid Syria's horrors, a desert massacre passes unnoticed as survivors claim dozens killed by government forces

A crying toddler with her left arm missing and bandages around her torso holds her hand to her face.

 'In the early hours of Tuesday September 26, hundreds of men, women and children were making a perilous trek through the Syrian desert by night.

 After weeks of trying, they had finally managed to escape a small Islamic State-held pocket in Syria's Hama province near the town of Oqeirbat.

 They were attempting to make their way across regime-held territory and into rebel held north-western Syria.

 Families walked for hours, guided by the stars and the moon in the dark. Across harsh desert terrain, carrying small children and the few belongings they had.

 Sheep and goats were sent ahead, in case there were any landmines.

 Suddenly, the hundreds of men, women and children came under fire.

 According to survivors, dozens — perhaps 70-80 people — may have been killed in the incident.

 "I was walking with a group of almost thirty people," 22-year-old survivor Khaled Abu Mariam said.

 "Only me and another person survived."

 Mr Abu Mariam, who spoke from a camp where he and other survivors are now sheltering in Western Aleppo, said he believes the fleeing families were hit with machine guns and tank shelling from Syrian government forces.

 "We made it to the main road, we were in a location between two Syrian army checkpoints. And we were fired at from both sides," he said.

 Another survivor, Mnahi Al Ahmad, said it was impossible to know the exact number killed or injured because it was dark and people had rushed away, leaving the dead behind.

 Adding to uncertainty about the full toll, the families walked in separate groups. Most seemed to know only of their own dead.

 The ABC was sent phone video interviews with other survivors who were now in a camp for displaced families in Western Aleppo.

 "We were running away, I saw around six or seven die and before that another seven out of around fifteen in my group. Many of them were women and children," one man said in the video.

 "The valley was full of people, they were shelling us," another woman added.

 "We were massacred there; people were dying on the ground."

 The survivor accounts match up with information received by UN officials in Damascus who say they received reports of the attack from two different sources.

 "A large number of people were trying to flee from one area to another," a UN official said.

 "That's when they were reportedly hit, resulting in a large number of people being killed."

 The UN official said they had received reports that between 70-80 people had been killed and that the attack had taken place in regime-controlled territory.

 The Syrian Network for Human Rights said it hasn't been able to determine the exact number of victims due to the remote nature of where the attack occurred.

 Yasser Mohamad, a volunteer with the Saed Charity which works in opposition-controlled territory, said he met survivors from the incident when his team arrived to do a mobile clinic in the camp they are now sheltering in.

 "Some of the children arrived at the camp alone, with no parents," Yasser Mohammad said.

 The survivors in the camps said they had tried to escape the IS controlled area near Oqeirbat in early September but it had proven too dangerous.

 Mr Mohamad spoke of one little girl, Tayba, who survived last week's incident but who lost her parents and her arm in early September when families had first tried to escape.

 "She lost her left arm and the woman who brought her to us told me her parents were killed," he said.

 One woman shakes her fist angrily as she speaks about her two daughters she says were killed in the first attempt to escape.

 "One was 12 years old and one was nine years old," she yells.

 "They were killed by the Russian jets, we gathered their body parts, the fragments, off the ground." '

A colour-coded map of Syria showing IS, rebel and regime-controlled territory.

This exhibition gives a voice to the silenced women prisoners of Syria

Womens prisoners

 'Manchester based organization, Rethink Rebuild Society recently held an important event to highlight the horrific aspects of Syrian imprisonment under Assad’s regime.

 Assad’s regime has been accused of barrel bombing and the use of torture detention centers. Since the revolution in 2011, Assad’s regime has been responsible for 85 per cent of civilian deaths in Syria.

 What is often overlooked in the coverage of Assad’s regime is the treatment of detained women in Syria. This important and horrific part of Assad’s regime has been kept quiet through fear. Women are often too afraid to speak out, and others did not survive the atrocities they were forced to endure.

 Just recently a woman named Farah described some of the horrors she endured in an interview with BBC. “One time they hanged a man from his legs and hands. I tried not to see, but sometimes they hold your face to see,” remembers Farah, of an event she witnessed. “They were pulling the ropes… They split him. Until now I remember his voice shouting, and then suddenly I couldn’t hear anything.”

 Another survivor, Alma Abdulrahman, described her experience during an interview with the Atlantic. Alma recalls that before the officers would gang rape her they would yell “here’s the freedom you wanted.”

 Rethink Rebuild Society hosted ‘Silenced Voices: Syrian Women in Assad’s prisons’. The event took place on September 8, 2017. The aim of the event was to help bring to light the testimonies of the women who have survived torture at the hands of Assad’s regime.

 The exhibition also provided direct ways to create change by providing the tools and help needed to write letters to parliament and tweet politicians.

 Asma, a former prisoner, explained that she would be taking part in the conference because “I want to cast a light of Syrian Prisoners so the world knows the torture, hardship and brutality that they are going through. I was imprisoned in 2012, and I saw many people die there. My brother was imprisoned in 2014, and to this day we do not know if he is alive. Through this exhibition we wish to show that all we really want in Syria is freedom.”

 It’s past time that the world became aware of this horrific issue that has been happening in Syria since 2011.

 Sixty-five former prisoners have testified to the guards cruelty and use of sexual torture. Men were ordered to rape one another for the guards amusement. Guards would rape women in front of their families to elicit confessions. The violent treatment and beatings that prisoners have to endure under Assad is unfathomable to those lucky enough to live in countries that respect human rights.

 Amnesty International has been trying to look into Assad’s prisons and have been blocked. Amnesty has since launched an investigation that has found that 17,723 people have died in Syrian jails. Amnesty has compiled at 69 page document filled with human rights violations.

 Since 2011, 75,000 Syrian citizens have been deemed “missing” or forcibly detained in prisons by the government. It is imperative that the information gets out there to help. These first hand accounts are essential as Assad’s regime forbids journalists from entering detainment centres.'

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

170 Syrian soldiers disobeyed regime orders

Syrian Soldiers

 'Some 170 Syrian soldiers declined to support the Assad regime by refusing to engage militarily with opposition forces, an Arab news agency reported.

 Soldiers from Al-Suwayda located in the south of the country, announced their decision to disobey a military order which would have seen them travel over 318 kilometres to Hama in north western Syria to support a regime onslaught against opposition fighters.

 Over 40,000 young men from the Al-Suwayda province are said to be carrying out their military service. However, disgruntled recruits decided not to support military campaigns outside their district by refusing orders from their superiors who want to transfer new recruits to the Hama governorate which has seen bloody clashes between the regime and opposition fighters.

 According to the Arab news site the New Khaleej, the soldiers are refusing to take up positions and barracks because they believe that they are embroiled in a war that has nothing to do with them.

 The soldiers’ refusal to carry out orders appears to reflect larger concerns within the Syrian army over maintaining the integrity of its military. The government responded against large scale opposition against conscription in times of civil war by enacting new measures to protect its military infrastructure and prevent a large exodus of its armed force.

 Among the measures introduced by the Syrian regime since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011 is to allow young recruits from Jabal Al-Arab region to serve within their province. The measure was adopted to appease parts of the Syrian population that oppose the brutal war between the regime and the Syrian people.'

Monday, 2 October 2017

"I can't accept this"

FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015 file photo, Syrian refugees covered in dust dust arrive at the Trabeel border, after crossing into Jordanian territory with their families, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria, and Iraq, near the

 'Jordan hopes a cease-fire it helped negotiate in neighboring southern Syria will eventually lead to a secure border, the reopening of a vital trade crossing and a gradual return home for Syrian war refugees who sought asylum in the kingdom.

 Aid officials have said Jordan has deported Syrian refugees — about 400 a month since the beginning of 2017, according to a report on Monday by the group Human Rights Watch.

 Abdulrahman al-Ahmad, 32, went back to his opposition-held hometown of Busra al-Sham in Syria's southern Daraa province, worn out by five years in exile. It's a one-way ticket for most, since Jordan generally bars re-entry of those who left.

 With his house destroyed, al-Ahmad now lives with displaced people in another building. Residents have one hour of electricity per day and buy water from private wells at exorbitant prices, he said. Jobs are scarce and medical care largely unavailable, including for his 3-year-old son who needs a nose operation.

 He said he would fight if government forces retake his hometown.

 "The regime killed my cousin, my brother, my relatives," he said. "I can't accept this."

 The U.N. refugee agency "signs out" Syrians who want to leave Jordan, but it does not promote returns, deemed too risky for civilians at this time.

 "It's too early to speak about returning," said Anders Pedersen, a top U.N. official in Jordan.

 The "de-escalation zone" in southern Syria was the first to be carved out in Russia-led negotiations, with similar efforts under way in other parts of Syria, including with the involvement of Turkey in the northwest.

 Russia portrays such zones as a tool for gradually ending the civil war, now in its seventh year.

 The main trade crossing between the two countries plays a key role in ongoing negotiations over arrangements in southern Syria. Jordan closed the crossing in 2015, after rebels seized the Syrian part.

 The closure dealt a blow to Jordanian trade, but the kingdom seems to be in no rush to reopen it. King Abdullah II said last month that the border would only reopen "when the right security conditions materialize on the ground."

 Jordan has said it will only deal with Syrian government representatives at the crossing, which remains in rebel hands. A government takeover of the crossing would require the agreement of rebel groups suspicious of Assad's intentions.

 Another concern is the fate of two opposition militias — the Eastern Lions and the Martyr Ahmed al-Abdo group — that were fighting Islamic State extremists in southeastern Syria and are now being pushed back by the government.

 Jordan has been urging Syria and Russia to ensure the safety of several thousand fighters.

 Saeed Seif, a spokesman for the Ahmed al-Abdo group, said the rebels have no faith in amnesty promises. Even if a Syrian government takeover of the south were to provide stability for some returning civilians, he said, rebels and their families won't be safe.

 "There is no way they will let us live," he said.

 "They will say we've fought against the government. They call us terrorists, even though we've been fighting Daesh for years," Seif said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. "They will force us to lay down our weapons, or else they bomb the city, or else we leave. Where will we go?"

 Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Syrians who don't trust the "de-escalation" remain in a chaotic desert camp on the Jordanian border, short on food, water and medical aid.

 Hundreds of thousands more refugees are staying put in Jordan, waiting to see what happens to those who risked a return home.

 A 53-year-old Syrian man, who spent three-and-a-half years with his family in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, returned to the village of Nawa, also in Daraa province, as soon as he heard his hometown was becoming safer after the July cease-fire.

 "I didn't want to leave Syria in the first place," said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions for his relatives in government-controlled areas.

 Now he is working on his family's land, living in a home that is damaged, but his own. There is little electricity and water is expensive, he said, but there are no airstrikes for now.

 "If the airstrikes come back, I will surrender my life to God like all the remaining people," he said.'

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Woman, Syrian and Revolutionary

 Jean-Pierre Filiu:

 'Razan Zeitouneh was one of the most famous faces of the Syrian Revolution. Her tireless work of documentation and denunciation of human rights violations has earned her numerous international distinctions, including the Sakharov Prize in 2011. Her "disappearance" in a suburb of Damascus in December 2013 has come to symbolize the obscuring of civil society activists for the benefit of Islamist militias, even jihadists.

 The novelist Justine Augier , now based in Beirut, has devoted years of research and writing to deliver "De l'Ardeur" . This impressive book of mastery and precision is significantly subtitled " History of Razan Zeitouneh, Syrian lawyer" . Beyond the literary performance, it is indeed a meticulous job of reconstructing a personality that has undoubtedly aroused at least as much rejection as adherence. For Razan, let us call it by her first name to better mark our respect, is intransigent and determined, rigorous and passionate. "Rebellious and very calm". In a word, revolutionary.

 Justine Augier met and gathered the testimonies of about thirty people and "from every one heard what Razan had done for them." The author plunged into the Syrian dialect to get closer to its sources. She was confronted with the volatile nature of virtual documents, Facebook pages that "disappear" too, with truncated recordings, when they are not diverted. Her method, she reveals it step by step. But above all, she who has never known Syria builds her approach between "two well-known pitfalls" , that of identifying Razan too closely with a closed milieu and that of disincarnating her in an abstract universality.

 This is the course of this pious and conservative middle class
 Damascene child who will emancipate herself by opposing the right to dictatorship. Justine Augier does not pose her heroine as an icon, but follows her as a young lawyer, fighting against the Assad tribunals, building trust with the sans-grade and their families, often with an intolerant faith. Where most prominent human rights activists focus on the famous causes of their peers, Razan discovers Syria from below every day. During the protests of March 2011, she contributed to the network of local co-ordination committees, which root the uprising in the long term and in society, where the outside world expects a hierarchical vanguard.

 Razan has been underground since May 2011. For Bashar al- Assad, who frees jihadist detainees by hundreds, nonviolent opponents are the worst of nightmares, that of a citizen alternative to tyranny. "
De l'Ardeur" shows us how Razan escapes the track of the different political police, taking on it, on his sleep, on his health, prohibiting rest. In April 2013, it joined the suburbs of Douma, in the west of Damascus, controlled by insurgent militias. But these "liberated" areas are at the mercy of the bombing of the regime, which has the monopoly of the air force. They are also subjected to a ruthless blockade, which fuels the juicy trafficking of war profiteers. Razan denounces the bargaining of the starvationers and the exactions of the militias with the same virulence as the crimes of the dictatorship. In December 2013, she "disappears" with three other civil society activists.

 There are tens of thousands of women and men who have "disappeared" in Syria since the beginning of the repression by the Assad régime, from the spring of 2011, against entirely peaceful demonstrators. The life of the relatives of these "disappeared" is henceforth suspended at the slightest hope of finding their trace. Many spend exorbitant sums to finance a more or less reliable intermediary, to negotiate a proof of life, to pay in vain a ransom to simple scam artists. For all these "disappeared" parents, appeasement is no more conceivable than mourning.

 Delegate of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) in Lebanon, I had written in 1984 the first report on the "disappeared" of this multiform conflict. I was overwhelmed by the infinite pain of these parents, now at the mercy of the slightest rumor, the most abject blackmail on their dear "disappeared". And I learned, sometimes very many years later, the "reappearance" of people who were thought to be lost forever. This was especially the case when the unfortunates had fallen into the hands of the torturers of Assad father and then of Assad son, especially in the terrible prison of Palmyra / Tadmor .

 Justine Augier offers us one of the most poignant moments of the book during her exchanges with Yassin Al-Haj Saleh. Al-Haj Saleh, an unbelievable opponent of Assad, now based in Istanbul, could be described by the "World" as the "free voice of Syria" . He was imprisoned for sixteen years by the Assad regime and his wife "disappeared" in Douma at the same time as Razan and that their two companions of misfortune. He had long believed that the four militants had been abducted by the Jaish al-Islam militia, dominant in Douma, whose leader had directly threatened Razan. But he is now convinced that such a complete "disappearance", without the slightest sign of life, can only emanate from the Assad regime and its cult of secrecy.

 The loop would thus be closed: if the dictatorship Assad can make "disappear", it can, it has proved in the past, let "reappear". We can not better illustrate the perversity of the abuse inflicted by such a regime on its people. And one will turn away from such a horror for, with "De l'Ardeur", evoke and invoke Razan in the present. To the present of Syria. To the present of the revolution.'