Saturday, 4 November 2017

Wendy Pearlman reads from "We Crossed the Bridge and it Trembled"

 Part 1 - Authoritarianism

 Salah, a landscaper from Deraa: "We don't have a government. We have a mafia. And if you speak out against with this, it's off with you to Beit Kheltur, your aunt's house. That's an expression we have. It means to take someone to prison. It means forget about this person. He'll be tortured, disappeared; you'll never hear from him again."

 Ilyas, a dentist from rural Hama: "Syria had the appearance of being a stable country, but in my opinion it wasn't real stability. It was a state of terror. Nobody trusted anyone else; don't talk, the walls have ears. If anyone said anything out of the ordinary, others would suspect that he was a government informant, just trying to test people's reactions, and gather a sense of what was going on. It was a régime based on command and obedience, every state institution recreated the same kind of power. The President had absolute power in the country. The principal of a school had absolute power in the school. At the same time, the principal is terrified. Of whom? Of the janitor sweeping the floor, they are all government informants."

 Ayham, a web developer from Damascus: "The brainwashing process starts when you go to school. We love the leader, we love the régime, without them the country will collapse. You grow up with that in the back of your head, constantly reminding you that we are living thanks to the grace of the Assad family. But even as an innocent child, you see that the whole system just reeked. It fed on corruption and grew. If you want to get a passport, you have to bribe this guy, and that guy, and kiss that guy's ass. From when you're little, you're taught that this is the only way to survive in this country. As an active member of the ruling party, you're going to get better grades, better chances for better schools or jobs, everything is handled by how loyal you are to the régime. So you are raised on the principle that you have to show your loyalty."

 Part 3 - Revolution

  Shireen, a mother from Aleppo: "Oppression was residing in us. It was part of our life, like air, sun, water; we didn't even feel it. Like air is there, and you never ask, 'Where is the air?' But then, in one second, in one shout, in one voice, you blow it up. You defy it, and stand in front of death. You have an inheritance, and after thirty years you slam it on the ground and shatter it. Don't even imagine that it was easy to go out to a demonstration. No amount of courage allows you to stand there and watch someone who has a gun and is about to kill you. But still this incredible oppression made us go out. I encouraged my nieces and nephews to come with me to demonstrations. I felt that if they didn't try that experience, they'd be missing the real meaning of life. When you chant, you shudder, your body rises, and everything you imagined just comes out. Tears come down, tears of joy, because I broke the barrier. I am not afraid. I am a free being. Sadness and happiness and fear and courage, they are all mixed together in that voice, and it comes out strong."

Rima, a writer from Sweida: "I was in the demonstration, and I started to whisper, 'Freedom,' and then I started to hear myself repeating, 'Freedom, freedom, freedom,' and then I started shouting, 'Freedom!' I thought, this is the first time I have ever heard my own voice. And I told myself, that I would never let anyone steal my voice again."

 Part 4 - Militarisation

 Captain, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army from Aleppo: "When demonstrations began, security force came. We agreed, that if they were going to shoot bullets, then we needed weapons too. We were only chanting in the streets. We could have chanted for the rest of our lives without anyone even paying attention to us. But when the régime started attacking us, a lot of people who were on the sidelines started to join and protest too. Because of the blood. Blood is what moves people. Blood is the force of the revolution."

 Living War

Abu Firas, a fighter from Idlib: "At first, one or two people were killed. Then 20. Then it became normal. If we lost 50 people, we'd say, 'Thank God it's only 50.' It's been so long since I heard that someone died of natural causes."

 Part 7 - Flight

 Talia, future TV correspondent: "The night before I left, was the longest night of my life. I was alone with the kids, and the planes were in the sky all night. The sound of planes is scarier than the sound of barrel bombs, because you hear them and wonder when the bombs will drop. The waiting is harder than the actual attack. I didn't know if we'd leave the next day, or if this would be the night that we died. I had seen children torn in pieces before, but I wasn't strong enough to see my kids in that state. I needed to get them to safety. The kids woke up, and I got them dressed. I got two pieces of paper, and wrote our names and phone numbers, and put them in their pockets. That way, if someone got killed, people would know their identities. I waited for the driver outside. I kissed the walls on the street, because I knew that I was never coming back to them."

Part 8 - Reflections

 Adam, a media organiser from Lattakia: "One of the most profound things that I've learned from this experience, is that the process of finding out what a country needs is never clean. Of course, when you're in a stable country, with functioning institutions, it's easy to have a moral code. But these values are only possible, because other people did dirty things to put that system in place. We opened a Pandora's Box. We had this innocent childlike interest to see what is inside the box. We thought we'd get a present, and what we got was all the evil in the world. Now we need to close the box again, but it's going to take a while. Now I'm working with an NGO, that helps the free media inside Syria. I see my job as trying to support people who want to make their dreams come true. But I'm too old to dream now, in a month and a half, I'll be 29."

Friday, 3 November 2017

The last doctor out of eastern Aleppo: “You can’t just turn your back and walk away”

 'In early 2011, Zahed Katurji had just finished his medical studies in his home town. He spent his free time playing basketball, learning German – he was considering further studies abroad – and listening to his favourite heavy metal band, Korn.

 For most of the time since, Katurji, 31, has been Dr Hamza Al-Khatib, the manager of the Al Quds hospital, and one of the last doctors in eastern Aleppo, Syria.

 In 2011, Katurji was living with his family in the ancient city of Aleppo. Although his friends had been following events in Tunisia and Egypt, where protestors in the streets were overturning authoritarian regimes, Katurji wasn't that political. In March, after protests began in Syria, he watched coverage on both government and independent TV channels.

 Then Syria’s dictatorial President, Bashar al-Assad, gave a speech. “He’s laughing,” Katurji thought, as Assad brushed over the deaths of protestors. At that moment: “I believed I should participate in [the protests] – it’s my country and that stupid man was the president of my country.”

 With the army distracted by uprisings in other cities, whole neighbourhoods in the east of Aleppo threw off the authorities, aided by the newly-formed Free Syrian Army. Katurji started making the 30 minute commute every day from his family home in the west of the city to volunteer in Salaheddine, one of the rebel neighbourhoods in the east. “In the first months it was very easy,” he recalls. “There were two main streets with snipers on them, but you could skip those.”

 Fearing for his family’s safety, he renamed himself Dr Hamza, choosing the name of a 13-year-old boy who was arrested, tortured and killed for protesting the siege of his city in southern Syria, Daraa. In late 2012, he started working at Al Quds hospital, in the emergency department. Dr Hamza was one of between 30 and 70 doctors, serving a population that fluctuated between a high of more than a million and lows in the hundreds of thousands as bombing intensified.

 The work was relentless, and as the manager of the hospital as well as a doctor, Katurji often lost track of the hours. One day, the radiographer refused to take any more x-rays.

 “I became angry with him," says Katurji. "He showed me the records. Between 8am and 5pm, he had taken 360 x-rays. He told me: ‘I will become sick and the machine will explode if I take extra pictures.’” Katurji realised he must have treated more than 400 injured patients that day. He felt suddenly exhausted.

 Katurji first realised the revolution would not be swift in September 2012, when one of his friends was killed by a sniper. By 2013, he had lost three friends, and the threat was increasingly from the skies. Everyone in eastern Aleppo seemed to have lost someone. Assad’s regime dropped barrel bombs on the inhabitants of eastern Aleppo – breaking international codes of law – and the survivors turned up at the hospital.

 One case that sticks in Katurji’s mind was that of a six-year-old boy, whose foot was crushed after a barrel bomb hit his building. “The only thing we could do was amputate it,” he says. The boy overheard the discussion, and understood what was about to happen.

 “He grabbed me and said 'Please uncle, don’t let them amputate my foot, I will be well-behaved',” Katurji recalls. “That stuck in my mind. He thought he’d done something wrong.”

 As the years passed, and the conflict intensified, the doctors saw children who knew nothing but the thunder of enemy helicopters. “They don’t know what a playground is, they don’t know what football is, they don’t know what music is,” he says. “They grew up mostly in basements.”

 Katurji himself had married by then, to the video journalist Waad al-Kateab. In December 2015, they had a daughter. Still, he did not think about trying to leave. “As a doctor, seeing all the casualties I had to deal with – you can’t just turn your back and walk away. There were hundreds of thousands of civilians. My daughter wasn’t the only child in Aleppo.”

 But by then, it was Russia launching air strikes. The intervention would prove crucial. A newly empowered Assad regime began the siege of Aleppo.

 In April 2016, the regime targeted Al Quds itself. A paediatrician was among the 55 dead.

 The attack was recorded on CCTV, and reported by the charity backing the hospital, Médecins Sans Frontières. Yet by now, the truth was under siege was well. In a widely circulated video, a Western pro-regime journalist Eva Bartlett claimed the attack was nothing more than rebel propaganda. As the siege intensified, so did an online narrative which claimed that the people holding out in eastern Aleppo were terrorists and Islamist fighters, not civilians.

 “It was very silly,” says Katurji. “A paediatrician ‘treating terrorists’ – it wasn’t making any sense.”

 In eastern Aleppo, he claims, the Free Syrian Army fighters were well protected in bunkers on the front line. The patients turning up at Al Quds were civilians. “Most of the shelling by the regime and the Russians would be over the homes, the bakeries – they were trying to kill any life in the areas that were not controlled by Assad.”

 While the international community stood by, the regime besieged eastern Aleppo in July 2016. The siege meant that doctors could no longer receive supplies from Turkey, and fruit and vegetables disappeared altogether. “My daughter never tasted bananas or apples,” says Katurji of the time.

 For years, Aleppo had been divided between the regime-held west and the rebel-held east. But in November 2016, pro-Assad forces broke the stalemate. The world watched as they closed in, street by street, bomb by bomb, on a besieged population. Journalists and activists in eastern Aleppo released what they believed might be their final messages.

 Then, under a last-minute deal brokered by Turkey and Russia, an evacuation was announced. Katurji was tasked with overseeing the medical part. “It took about seven days,” he says. With attacks on aid workers, reports of hostages and Russian and Iranian fighters manning the road out of the city, he contests the idea that the evacuation offered any safe route out. Nevertheless, he acknowledges, “unfortunately there was no other choice”. He was the last doctor to leave eastern Aleppo, on one of the last coaches.

 Katurji went first to Idlib, a rebel-held area in northwest Syria, and then to Turkey, where his medical credentials made it easier to cross the border (other refugees from eastern Aleppo were turned back or shot at when crossing the border). He was reunited with his family in the Turkish town of Gaziantep.

 When I ask him what he has done since then, he smiles ruefully: “Nothing.” He and his wife are still trying to figure out the next steps. “For five or six years, we never thought further than the next six hours,” he says. “Because we never knew what exactly would happen.” Sometimes he just marvels at his daughter running down the road in Gaziantep: “She could never run in a street in Aleppo.”

 If Katurji does have a mission, though, it is to raise awareness of the situation of those doctors in the remaining rebel-held areas of Syria. In 2013, the world recoiled after the Assad regime used chemical weapons on the inhabitants of Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus. Four years later, 400,000 residents are under siege. In September 2017, pro-regime airstrikes hit hospitals in Idlib.

 “Aleppo isn’t the end,” Katurji says, as he prepares to leave the office and join the crowds in the darkening street. “What happened in Aleppo can happen and will happen somewhere else.” '

Bulldozing over the revolution

 'Yousof Akasheh, a rebel fighter, was astonished to find out that the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria was planning to seize his wife’s property. For one thing, she is dead, killed three years ago when a warplane bombed her apartment block. For another, she never owned property.

 Such is the arbitrariness of the regime’s counter-terrorism court, which has branded tens of thousands of opponents of Mr Assad enemies of the state and sent them to the country’s hellish prisons. Those lucky enough to escape arrest are tried in absentia. As punishment, the court routinely seizes their property.

 The civil war in Syria has driven more than 12m people from their homes, contributing to the largest refugee crisis in recent history. But in his typically appalling way, Mr Assad has spied opportunity amid the tragedy. “We have lost the best of our young people…but in return we have gained a healthier and more harmonious society,” the dictator said in August of a war that has killed more than 400,000 of his countrymen.

 Mr Assad is determined to keep it that way by making it exceedingly hard for those who have left to return to their homes. Property registries have been deliberately bombed, title deeds are seized at military checkpoints and new laws have been passed to make it easier for the regime to grab land, businesses and homes. In some parts of the country the regime has rewarded loyalists with property confiscated from its opponents. In other parts, bulldozers have simply flattened neighbourhoods that sided with the rebels. Large tracts of public land in cities are also quietly slipping into the hands of officials and connected businessmen.

 Some of Syria’s poorest areas, where many of the first anti-regime protests flared in 2011 and where most of the destruction has occurred, will be rebuilt without their unruly residents. The regime hopes to move forward with projects that were deeply unpopular before the war, raising skyscrapers, hotels and restaurants from the rubble. Lacking enough cash of its own, it has passed laws to encourage private investors to pay for the reconstruction. But few investors will build residences if there are no people to live in them.

 Half of Syria’s pre-war population is scattered. Many have already sought new homes abroad, away from a ruler who has systematically bombed, starved and tortured his own people. Even if the displaced return to their neighbourhoods, few will be able to afford the regime’s housing, exacerbating inequality that has grown worse during the conflict. Experts predict that 2m lawsuits will be filed after the war by people seeking restitution for damaged or stolen property. The courts may buckle under the burden.

 The regime is not the only side to have grabbed land during the war. Kurds in northern Syria have claimed Arab lands freed from the Islamic State group, which itself used stolen property to buy loyalty. “The destabilising potential of all this is pretty fearsome,” says Rhodri Williams of the International Legal Assistance Consortium. “Few things stay in the minds of people longer than the property that was taken away from them.” '

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Bloodthirsty snipers lined the streets

Image result for 'He has enriched our lives' say Darlington couple who took in young Syrian fleeing warzone

 'Just hours before embarking upon the gruelling journey that would change his life, Mouhyedin Alkhalil was told by his beloved parents that arrangements had been made for him to flee Syria and there was no time to say goodbye.

 He was just 18 and had spent much of his adolescence in the shadow of war, forced to move from house to house as bombing raids destroyed his city.

 In faltering tones, he speaks of a day-to-day existence where there was no escape from the bombs, the death and the destruction wrought by a war that has left a country decimated and its people dispersed.

 Mouhyedin’s childhood home was the family seat for more than 100 years before it was flattened in the conflict that ravages Syria to this day. He moved home repeatedly but there was no escape from the bombs that continued to rain down upon Homs, from the bullets and the atrocities of war. As a teenager, Mouhyedin lost friends, loved ones and life as he knew it, forced to abandon his studies when bloodthirsty snipers lined the streets that led to his law exams, “shooting at everything they see, dogs, cats, people".

 “Every day was different,” he says, with an intensity at odds with his usual sunny demeanour.“You never knew what would happen, people would go to work and not come home – dead. People would stay home – dead. You would be laughing and joking with friends and then the next minute, bombs.”

 The evening before he fled the country, the student was facing the threat of forced enlistment into President Bashar al-Assad’s army, where: “I would be killed or have to kill others.” His pleas to stay in Syria, where he could help his family, fell on deaf ears as his loved ones insisted he leave for Lebanon, fearing he would die otherwise.'

Image result for 'He has enriched our lives' say Darlington couple who took in young Syrian fleeing warzone

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Syrian opposition: We still believe in the revolution

Image result for Syrian opposition: We still believe in the revolution

 'Representatives of some of Syria's armed opposition groups attending talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, say they are hopeful of achieving a lasting ceasefire agreement in eight of the country's 14 war-ravaged provinces.

 Ayman al-Asemi, a member of the Free Syrian Army's military council attending the talks, said while the meetings would not produce a final settlement to the war, they could see a final agreement to the set-up of four so-called "de-escalation zones".

 The Astana talks are aimed at finalising a plan for four de-escalation zones, which will include certain areas of Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, Deraa and al-Quneitra.

 The closed-door meetings are also seeing discussions on the release of detainees held by the government of President Bashar al-Assad and food and aid deliveries to besieged areas.

 "This war is far from over," al-Asemi told Al Jazeera.

 He said while the situation on the ground did not bode well for Syrians, regional and international powers were to blame having exposed themselves as spectators to the massacres being perpetrated.

 "We will not compromise our freedom and our ultimate goal of removing Assad and his regime from power," al-Asemi said.

 He added that the opposition had submitted several "secret files" to the UN delegation with "solid evidence" of crimes committed by the regime.

 According to al-Asemi, the crimes include the use of chemical weapons, the torture of detainees inside Homs central prison, forced expulsion of residents based on their ethnic and religious affiliations and war crimes committed by Iranian revolution guards against civilians.

 Colonel Fateh Hassoun who heads the opposition military delegation to the talks said that he still had faith in the "Syrian revolution."

 "The aim of the Syrian opposition is still to reach a political solution to the war and lead to a transition period without the regime of Assad." '

Raqqa may have fallen, but Syrian humanitarian group still fears instability

Image result for Raqqa ocalan

 'After liberating Raqqa from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the future of Syria remains unclear. The Trump administration heralded the battlefield success of the U.S.-backed forces, and repeated its pledge to suffocate ISIS' expansionist efforts -- yet the head of the Syrian Civil Defense, a Syrian humanitarian group also known as the White Helmets, isn't quite ready to celebrate.

 "Not really," Raed Saleh responded in an interview with CBS News, when asked if the Raqqa victory means anything to him. "I'm sure you are surprised," he added.

 Saleh has aided victims of the country's incessant violence and fought the human rights abuses of the Assad regime since the civil war began in 2011. He is of the opinion that winning one battle -- even a victory that resulted in the fall of ISIS' self-declared capital -- doesn't guarantee peace and stability.

 "When your city is occupied by one terrorist organization and it's liberated or taken over by another organization, and the picture of another terrorist is held up in the city, this doesn't give us any happiness," Saleh said, referring to a photo of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan brandished in Raqqa after it was liberated. Though the PKK is not said to be in control of the city at this time, Saleh warns that instability may come again.

 "At least some among the people who entered Raqqa are undisciplined and will cause trouble in the future," Saleh predected when he was in Washington, D.C. last week for a conference on American policy in Syria.

 Defeating ISIS is at the center of the Trump administration's foreign policy in Syria. The liberation of Raqqa was the most significant accomplishment for the U.S.-based forces in the country in the last year.

 "The defeat of ISIS in Raqqa represents a critical breakthrough in our worldwide campaign to defeat ISIS and its wicked ideology," Trump said in a statement released by the White House. "With the liberation of ISIS's capital and the vast majority of its territory, the end of the ISIS caliphate is in sight."

 The Trump administration says it has "dramatically accelerated" the fight against ISIS in Syria, mostly through changes in authority that allow the military to act without the impediment of layers of bureaucracy. Nearly 30 percent of the gains in total territory against ISIS by August occurred under the Trump administration, according to a briefing earlier this year by Brett McGurk, the State Department's special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition.

 And the flow of ISIS militants coming out of Syria has been reduced to a trickle. Administration officials point out that ISIS propaganda has stopped encouraging followers to come to Syria to take up the fight. Taking Raqqa away from ISIS has also significantly impacted the messaging from the militant group, given that most of their directives originated from the city, the group's declared capital. MgGurk points out the uphill battle the group now faces in disseminating its messaging from small villages.

 ISIS now holds less that 10 percent of the territory it once held, according to the administration, and it is still carrying out attacks. It carried out an attack that cost the lives of four American soldiers in October. Afterward, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters that ISIS would be defeated when the group is no longer able to operate across multiple regions, and when its offshoots in individual countries can be "dealt with by local forces."

 But reaching that point, that is, weakening ISIS to the point at which local forces have the ability to curtail ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, remains a battle because there are no government forces that can be relied upon for this. Another factor is the U.S. determination that Assad cannot remain in power, a point recently repeated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

 "The United States wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for Bashar Assad in the government," Tillerson told reporters last week after a meeting in Geneva about Syria. "The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and the only issue is how that should be brought about."

 The U.S. maintains support for the Geneva process in Syria, but getting to a place where there is enough peace on the ground to start that process will be a struggle, Saleh said. He doubts the political transition is as close as some in the U.S. government think it may be. Saleh intends to continue his efforts to help Syrians, and hopes that the accumulated efforts might over time result in peace for his country. While he still sees the Assad regime dropping barrel bombs and killing thousands in the country -- and yet, he does not wholly trust the U.S. either.

"We observe human rights violations from all parties and we talk about this when we meet with American and UN officials, but we do end up focusing on the regime's violations," says Saleh. "Not me, no other Syrians nowadays has great hopes on anyone delivering on these big promises, big red lines that we keep hearing (about). The barrel bombs keep dropping,  and there is no clear hope." '

Image result for Raqqa may have fallen, but Syrian humanitarian group still fears instability

Monday, 30 October 2017

Syrian children flee after kindergarten is bombed in besieged Ghouta

 Kareem Shaheen:

 'Dozens of Syrian children were forced to flee a kindergarten on Sunday after it was allegedly bombed by government forces, highlighting the suffering of civilians in areas besieged by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the rampant abuses in the six-year civil war.

 Video footage shows crying and panicked children fleeing the site of the attack on Sunday, as adults usher them on to go and hide as the adults made their way towards the scene of the attack.

 The video was authenticated by the Associated Press and was released by activists of the Ghouta Media Centre, an organisation covering the war in Ghouta region near Damascus. The footage was shot in the town of Kfar Batna.

 Activists said several civilians were injured in the attack, but there were no immediate reports of fatalities. Residents said schools had been closed on Monday to protect the children against further attacks.

 Ghouta, once the breadbasket of the Syrian capital, has been under siege for years by the Assad regime, and is under rebel control. East Ghouta was supposed to be part of a “de-escalation zone” under a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran to reduce violence in the country.

 Instead, the siege has tightened in the aftermath of a government offensive this year. The suffering of civilians in Ghouta was brought into sharp focus last week with images of a starving one-month-old baby, Sahar Dofdaa, who later died of malnutrition.

 Doctors are warning that shortages of food and baby milk, which has been caused by the government’s siege as well as predatory pricing by local merchants, have led to a rise in cases of malnutrition, particularly among children.

 The UN estimates that 350,000 besieged civilians are living in east Ghouta. Last week, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, described the crisis as a humanitarian emergency and an outrage.

 Supplies for 40,000 people were allowed into the towns of Kfar Batna and Saqba on Monday for the first time in weeks.

 The latest video highlighted the continuing plight of Syria’s children, who have suffered greatly in the course of the war. They have been killed by bombs, starved by sieges and deprived of an education.

 Unicef estimates that 5.8 million children in Syria are in need, with more than 2 million under siege or in hard to reach areas. Attacks on hospitals and schools have been commonplace, and aid organisations are unable to reach all children who need to be vaccinated against polio.'

The Syrian Regime’s Funding of the Islamic State

 Kyle Orton:

  'Reuters reported on 11 October that Hussam al-Katerji, a member of Bashar al-Asad’s Syrian regime, has been engaged in trading wheat with the Islamic State (IS), helping supply the terrorists with resources to run their statelet and threaten the security of Syria’s neighbours and the wider world. This pattern of behaviour from the Asad regime—holding itself out as a counterterrorism partner, while it bolsters terrorist organizations—is well-established, and has its origins in the regime’s survival strategy: to destroy all acceptable opposition forces and make the Syrian war a binary contest between the dictatorship and terrorists.

 Reuters spoke to five local farmers and two administrators from the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the political outfit through which the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) operates in Syria, which is displacing IS in northeastern Syria with the assistance of the U.S.-led Coalition. In addition, the manager of al-Katerji’s own office, Mohammed Kassab, confirmed that the Katerji Group had moved wheat from the IS-held areas to regime-held areas. Kassab insisted that this trade had involved no collusion with IS, though, beyond saying it was “not easy”, offered no explanation as to how that could possibly be true. Asad’s Internal Trade and Consumer Protection Minister, Abdullah al-Gharbi, claims that the regime imports its wheat from the Russians.

 From Reuters’ report:

 Five farmers in Raqqa described how they sold wheat to Katerji’s traders during Islamic State rule in interviews at the building housing the [SDF/PKK] Raqqa Civil Council, formed to take over once the city is retaken.

 “The operation was organized,” said Mahmoud al-Hadi, who owns agricultural land near Raqqa and who, like the other farmers, had come to the council’s cement offices to seek help.

 “I would sell to small traders who sent the wheat to big traders who sent it on to Katerji and the regime through two or three traders,” he said.

 He and the other farmers said they all had to pay Islamic State a 10 percent tax, or zakat, and sold all of their season’s supplies to Katerji’s traders under the multi-layered scheme.

 Local officials said Katerji’s traders bought up wheat from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and gave Islamic State 20 percent.

 [An official from the SDF/PKK leadership council in Tabqa, Awas] Ali said he learned of the details of the arrangement with Katerji by speaking with Islamic State prisoners and others who worked in the group’s tax collection and road tolling systems. …

 The truck drivers were even allowed to smoke cigarettes as they passed through the checkpoints, something Islamic State enforcers punished with whippings elsewhere, Ali and several other sources said.

 “I would sell an entire season’s supplies to Katerji’s traders,” said farmer Ali Shanaan.

 “They are known traders. The checkpoints stopped the trucks and Daesh would take a cut and let them pass,” he said …

 The wheat was transported via the “New bridge” over the Euphrates River to a road leading out of Raqqa, the farmers and local officials said.

 As IS falls back, the control of the bridge, and these resources more generally, has been lost, but it lasted through most of the May to August trading season this year. In addition to Asad transferring tranches of cash to the IS jihadists in exchange for the wheat, the regime trucks brought supplies like food and medicine that helped the caliphate maintain its grip.

 The trade between Asad and IS will sometimes be explained in “war economy” terms, and in this case that is superficially plausible. The Asad regime needs 1.5 million tonnes of wheat to create staple products that allow it to exert control of the population in western Syria, and Hasaka, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor contain seventy-percent of the wheat-producing areas. What this neglects is the role the regime had in shaping who controls those zones. Asad imprisoned and massacred unarmed demonstrators and blitzed any zone that fell into rebel hands—while turning loose jihadist prisoners and holding fire for an entire year as IS constructed its caliphate. The regime chose who it would need to pay for access to these resources.

 While Hussam al-Katerji is not a household name in the West, in the Arab world and especially in Syria he is very well-known as Assad’s middle-man for trade with the terrorist groups the regime has enabled to seize areas of the country, namely IS and the PKK. For instance, local reporters at Deir Ezzor 24 and Watan FM exposed the essentials of the above Reuters story in March. Al-Katerji is far from the sole intermediary between Asad and IS—another notable case is Suhayl al-Hassan—but al-Katerji’s role has been especially salient since George Haswani was sidelined.

 In late 2015, Haswani was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury, as was his HESCO Engineering and Construction Company, for acting as “a middleman for oil purchases” between Asad and IS. Haswani had already been sanctioned by the European Union in March 2015 for the same reason. In Haswani’s telling, his running of Syria’s energy sector as a joint enterprise with IS was a patriotic endeavor to provide “electricity to all the spectrum of Syrian people”. It was broad-minded indeed to include jihadists in that spectrum. A different view was expressed by British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond. “This listing”, said Hammond, “gives yet another indication that Asad’s ‘war’ on ISIL is a sham and that he supports them financially”. Among the interesting things about Haswani was that he was a Christian by religion, and a dual national of Syria and Russia. Haswani had significant business interests linked to the Russian government, and it was Moscow that provided much of the connective tissue for a long while between the Asad and IS statelets. There was therefore a great deal of projection in the accusation by the pro-Asad coalition that Turkey was funding IS via oil and other trade.

 By January 2017, after a disastrous start to the U.S.-led campaign with IS’s takeover of Ramadi and Palmyra, the Coalition and its “partner forces” were pushing IS back and had taken something approaching half of its territory. The cities of Tikrit, Tel Abyad, Hasaka, al-Hawl, Ramadi, Shadadi, Falluja, Minbij, Qayyara, and Shirqat had fallen out of IS’s hands, and the offensive against Mosul was underway. At this moment, the Asad regime was the largest individual source of funds for IS. European counterterrorism officials assessed that Asad was using power in Damascus generated in IS-held plants around Palmyra like Al-Akram natural-gas facility. In turn the Asad regime was providing cash to IS. The increased trade between Asad and IS was apparently driven in part by a temporary reduction in the provision of cheap energy to Asad by Iran and Russia in late 2016, though it went on for at least a few more months.

 The money from the Asad regime helped IS counter the concerted U.S. campaign against the jihadists’ finance networks, a program that began no later than the May 2015 U.S. Special Operations Forces raid into Deir Ezzor that killed the head of the “Antiquities Division”, Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi), and forced the reassignment of the provincial emir, Ali al-Jiburi (Abu Ayman al-Iraqi).

 Local outlets named al-Katerji as the facilitator for these arrangements between the Asad regime and IS. It appears that at least one route for the oil took it from IS hands in eastern Homs to Qamishli, where the Asad regime is permitted to run key security infrastructure in the area otherwise run by the SDF/PKK, and then into Aleppo. Syrian rebels intercepted some of these shipments between the regime and jihadi terror groups.

 In the spring of 2017, the Asad regime, sensing it had defeated the mainstream opposition, began—with Coalition supporta consistent campaign into IS-held areas. Before that, the pro-Asad forces would use political incidents like the Palmyra offensive and their various clashes with IS as evidence that they have fought the holy warriors all along. But the reality is that it was exactly at these points of closest collaboration that some of the most violent episodes between Asad and IS occurred during the long years in which they observed a de facto non-aggression pact. The 8 January 2017 blowing up of a regime gas plant by IS, for example, was a message to the regime because it had fallen behind on payments. As a Syrian oil official once explained, “You kill and fight to influence the deal, but the deal doesn’t end.”

 With IS driven from overt control of its twin capitals and the Asad regime secured for the foreseeable future by Iran and Russia, there has been a sense that Syria’s war is winding down. There is talk of “reconstruction” funds being sent into Syria, particularly by the European Union. Sometimes presented as a means to exert political leverage to force Asad out, this fantasy must be dispensed with: the regime survived this war by destroying the country and half-a-million of its people; it will not now surrender in exchange for several million dollars. The reality is that the E.U. wants to turn off the refugee flow, which has destabilized politics on the Continent and gave IS an opportunity to smuggle terrorists into Europe, and some E.U. states are prepared to pay Asad to do it. It should be obvious that neither Asad nor his allies can do this. Most Syrian refugees fled Asad and cannot return while he is in power. Beyond that, the focus on IS misses the point. The regime’s survival, propped up by Iran, provides a reservoir of political legitimacy to IS and other radical actors, ensuring instability in Syria and well outside. There is nothing to be gained by paying the pro-Asad coalition to defend us from a terrorist menace it is substantially responsible for, and there is something obscene in retrospectively subsidizing mass-murder on this scale.'

Sunday, 29 October 2017

What I witnessed in northern Syria: Idlib, Hama, Aleppo

 Mousa al-Omar:

  "I greet you from the northern part of Syria. Before the sun sets, let me say a few words in two short minutes. For those who spread rumours, that northern Syria has turned black and is completely controlled by extremists, talk about al-Qaeda/al-Nusra and extremists is in the past and no one talks about it any more.

 I drove my car here for over 150km, without any bodyguard. I haven't been threatened, or encountered any armed groups. Even checkpoints were almost nonexistent, due to the recent mergers of rebel factions here. Also, most fighters are preoccupied with defending front lines in various directions.

 Here in the so-called Green Zone of northern Syria, which at 10,000 square kilometres is as large as Lebanon, people love life and want to do good. They love their freedom, want to rebuild their country, and above all love their revolution. They are determined that the million martyrs who died defending them did not die in vain, and their sacrifice will not be forgotten.

 I personally have not witnessed any extremism or ISIS or al-Qaeda at all. I invite you to come here and visit the fields, valleys and mountains to see that for yourselves. The hearts of people here are as green as the fields, and as pure and fruitful. This is my message to you all."

موسى العمر