Thursday, 26 July 2018

Rojava is Omelas, Not the Ones Who Walk Away

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 "They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery."

 In 1973 the anarchist science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin wrote a story called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, about the dilemma of the liberal conscience; how do we accept our happiness and prosperity when it is based on the suffering of others? She describes as anarchists those who reject this bargain and walk away.

 Today it seems that those who embrace the "Rojava Revolution", the rule of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) over northern Syria, have accepted this bargain, based as it it is, not on the suffering of one child, but of the torture of millions under the PKK's ally, the Assad régime. I think this defines the PKK, and all its offshoots, as a force that is everywhere the enemy of democracy and freedom.


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 It wasn't until the summer of 2015 that I begin to reach this conclusion. In compiling my blog, News of the Revolution in Syria, it mostly seemed up to that point easier to ignore the Kurdish question, and its flipside the Turkish question, up until then. It was hard to find commentary in English that talked about the relationship of the PYD to the Syrian revolution at all. I can recall at the first (perhaps only) Syrian Solidarity Conference in the UK in London in early 2014, Robin Yassin-Kassab having a sharp exchange with a PYD supporter from the panel explaining that the PYD had acted as quite an authoritarian organisation in its own right. But still the overwhelming message getting to the British left were that the YPG were the good guys, fighting for feminism and gay liberation, with none of the complications of Islamism and supporting Western intervention which were the left's bugbears about the actual Syrian revolution.

 In the summer of 2015, the world had united around the defence of Kobane (rarely being reminded that it also had an Arabic name too, because everything Kurdish was liberatory, and everything Turkish or Arab oppressive), and indeed Free Syrian Army brigades went to fight alongside the YPG against ISIS. And within weeks, there were clashes between the YPG and the FSA, while the FSA was also fight the régime, while the YPG was not fighting the régime at all.

 There were people in Syrian Revolution discussion groups who would present the YPG as the victim in all this. There were good FSA, like Jaish al-Thuwar, who were fighting alongside the YPG. The other side weren't really FSA any more, but were corrupt Islamists. For some reason, some of the worst were not the officially Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, but Turkish affiliated groups like the Sultan Murad brigade. Maybe there were some bad statements by the PYD about co-operating with Assad, but that was forced on them by the attacks from Islamists and Turkey. And the YPG wasn't just the PYD, there was a multi-party military council that ran the YPG.


 People would challenge these assertions. This military council never operated, as other news reports showed. It was Jaish al-Thuwar who were in fact the mercenaries. And the alleged violations covered for the elephant in the room. The YPG accepted régime presences in Hasakeh and Qamishli, and although they had occasional clashes, they worked hand in hand to expel any FSA presence. The PYD area in Aleppo increasingly co-operated with the régime againbst Free Aleppo, culminating in them storming Free areas and butchering rebels and civilians with the Iranian militia the following year. Along with expelling the people of Tel Rifaat in an attack from Afrin with massive Russian bombing, and going on to attack Mare' at the same time the régime was attacking from the south and ISIS from the east. Yesterday a PYD leader announced they are ready to take part in an operation to reassert régime control over Idlib, and they have been in discussions to return régime control to eastern Syria. By now it should be clear to anyone who cares to see that the alliance with the Assad régime is not an aberration, but a fundamental part of what the PYD is about.


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 By August 11th, 2015, Turkey had indicated it wished to set up a safe zone in Northern Syria which Assad would not be allowed to bomb, and all the revolutionary factions in Syria had at least gone along with it. The YPG, by contrast, announced that the Turkish Army had attacked both it and civilians. No follow up to these attacks ever occurred, which finally convinced me that the YPG was a continuous lie factory. This continued through to the Afrin conflict, where the YPG and its supporters claimed Turkey was deliberately attacking civilians, belied by a YPG commander interviewed by RT in Afrin, who said his soldiers dressed as civilians so that Turkey wouldn't attack them. It was claimed the TAF destroyed the Maydanki Dam to stop the water supply to Afrin City, yet pictures seem to support the Turkish claim that the retreating YPG sabotaged the dam, and it was repaired as soon as possible (and no mention was ever made by anti-Turkish commenters about the 6 years the YPG had diverted the water from the city of Azaz). It seemed to me that such a level of propaganda was necessary because there is no other way to cover for allying with such extreme evil as Assad.

 And the same thing was going on on the Turkish side of the border. The PKK abrogated a peace agreement with the Turkish government, and went back to war, while claiming it was the Turkish government that had attack it. Yet the Turkish state had every reason to want to keep peace in Turkey and any conflict on the Syrian side of the border. The PKK on the other hand, see Turkey's difficulty as Kurdistan's opportunity, thinking, especially with Russian and US help, that it could carve out a state for itself from Iraq to the Mediterranean, now that it had US and Russian help in addition to its alliance with Assad. And that Turkey would be forced to come to a deal the more it was destabilised. The more chaos the better. The more misery the better.

There were suicide bomb attacks, in Ankara and Istanbul, in early 2016, the second entirely against civilians. At first no claim of responsibility was made, but when the bombers' PKK or YPG identity was revealed, the TAK or Kurdish Freedom Hawks came forward to claim responsibility. As if this wasn't already an obvious deflection, the Istanbul bomber's funeral was attended by the entire local leadership of the HDP, the supposedly independent Kurdish leftist political party. At the point it seemed clear to me that those saying the PKK,PYD, YPG, YPJ, SDF, TAK and HDP were all part of one Ocalan cult, directed from the PKK hideouts in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq, were correct. This was strengthened for me when I searched for comments about the peace process with Turkey from the HDP leader, Selhattin Demirtas, and discovered he had said, "It's up to Ocalan." Not the Kurdish people, the HDP, or even the PKK, but just the leader. It's a cult based on support for its leader, as far from anarchism as you can get.




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  Some people present the PKK as the defender of the Kurdish people. Or even if they want to claim they are critical of the PKK's authoritarianism, that it is the Turkish threat of genocide against Kurds that was the real problem dividing Arabs and Kurds. The unreality of this analysis is felt most obviously by the Arabs whose land is occupied (we could also say the division into Arab and Kurdish areas is due to the PYD and régime racialising the struggle), and are then told they most be broken away from their tribal mentality, as one Italian YPG supporter proudly told me. There is the hidden crisis of those Kurds not willing to serve as child soldiers for the YPG, or those, including all other Kurdish political parties, who face frequent arrest and imprisonment in PYD areas, even when they support the PYD line of opposing the Turkish/FSA forces.

 When the YPG was expelled from Afrin, tens of thousands of civilians did flee. Maybe they believed the scare stories of what the Turks would do. Maybe they just worried that bombs would drop on them in a war zone. In any case, when the guns stopped (though not the YPG's IEDs which continue to maim civilians in Afrin), most of the displaced wanted to go back, only to be told by the PYD that they couldn't until they had re-liberated Afrin, as they see it. I can't see it as anything other than a cancer on the Kurdish people as well as other Turks and Syrians. It demands war on the hovels, and peace to the palaces of torture.

 There may have been a time when the PKK was a legitimate national liberation movement. There was historically a real amount of oppression, continuing into the late 20th Century, such as the denial of language rights. But to keep Turkey at peace, the AKP government has offered the best deal to Kurds of any Turkish administration. And as a result, between 25 and 50% of Kurds in Turkey vote for the AKP. It again seems improbable in the extreme that several million Kurds would vote for someone who wanted to massacre other Kurds.

 So I think the PKK is a cancer. Because it has made its 
raison d'être trying to dismantle the Turkish state in south-east Turkey, and has found an ally in genocide for the purpose. Because the Turkish government knows that the destabilisation it experiences won't stop as long as Assad in power, so that however much it wants others like the United States to act to bring it about, it want to have a peace to which Syrian refugees can return, and knows that won't happen under Assad. So the PKK allies with Assad, knowing that what strengthens him weakens them.


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 There are people who say of the PKK, "We can notably talk of positive policies regarding women’s rights and secularism." You cannot divorce these things from the context in which it occurs, an alliance with a régime that rapes women on a mass scale and tortures Muslims until they declare there is no God but Bashar. You cannot force secularism and communism on people. A half century of Communism in Eastern Europe, after which people want to join NATO to protect themselves from Russian invasion, should be a salutary lesson (instead the left blames the crisis in Ukraine on Russian expansion).

 We are told the PKK has evolved from Marxism or Maoism to anarchism, because Abdullah Ocalan read  Murray Bookchin in prison, and so all his followers decided to do so. A group becomes anarchist because the leader tells them to? That's not like any anarchists I've ever heard of.

  The pinkwashing of Israeli occupation by pointing to their record on gay rights as better than in Arab countries would be objected to by all leftists, but it seems to be accepted when it comes to the YPG. Democratic confederalism doesn't seem to amount to any more than the one-party elections that would occur in Communist Cuba or China (and the Cultural Revolution in China is another moment at which many outside leftists mistook Communist fervour for freedom). When there is no freedom at the top, and in this case an alliance with genocide to boot, local elections are a sham democracy.


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 That's my opinion of the PKK. It's an anti-democratic force wherever it goes, including Europe where it supporters responded to the Afrin conflict by burning mosques. Other people have a different point of view. That's fine by me. I'm not one of those who say you have to think in the exact same way as me about every conflict, or you are guilty of selective solidarity. I think if there was going to one conflict to be selective about right now, it would be the one against the Assad régime. Not because there is something intrinsically special about Syria, but because the Assad genocide is the most destabilising event in the world today, and the single greatest cause of lies to be introduced into political debate, particularly that of the left. So, if I am for anything first, like Michael Weiss, it is for Syria First. I would judge all politicians first by what they have to say about Syria.

 But for many people it is the opposite, if you support Erdogan, you are as bad as those who support Assad (even by some perverse logic, you support Assad too). I don't support Erdogan. For eleven years when I was a child we had a Prime Minister in the UK, a Conservative called Margaret Thatcher, who I've seen compared to President Erdogan. And we hated her. She shut down the Greater London Council, wouldn't let us here the voices of Sinn Féin MPs, seemed like she was destroying our public services. Yet she did have millions of supporters, and she peacefully gave up power, and her party was voted out. And she wasn't facing a genocide in a neighbouring country, and responding much better than any other political leader.

I know the Turks have shot Syrian refugees. I know they arrested eleven members of the Turkish Medical Board before releasing them the next day. I know they arrested many journalists, most famously Ahmet Sik, who is now an opposition MP. No they are not perfect, but they have offered refuge to millions of Syrians (and an infinitely more welcoming environment than Lebanon or Jordan, currently trying to throw them out as they Turkish opposition would wish). And have offered free medical treatment to hundreds of thousands of civilians and fighters without which Free Syria would not have survived. There is no justification here for any equivocation about the PKK.


 There are reasons to wish that outside influence was unnecessary for the Assad régime to be defeated. But as the régime threatens to attack Idlib, and the PYD offers to assist, many of those who live in the still liberated area hope Turkey will defend them. It seems wrong for outsiders to attack the FSA as mercenaries, and the SNC as racists, for supporting the liberation of Afrin from Assad's ally. If someone has a strategy for liberating Syria that involves no Turks and no Islamists, let's hear it. If they are saying the military defence of lives and communities against Assad was a mistake, and we should support an ally of that genocide instead, I think that is hopelessly muddle headed.

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Tuesday, 24 July 2018

'Justice will triumph over injustice': Armed opposition groups believe the Syrian revolution lives on

'Justice will triumph over injustice': Armed opposition groups believe the Syrian revolution lives on

 'Seven years after Syrians took to the streets, first demanding political change and later the resignation of the regime, the Assad regime has managed to regain control over much of Syria.

 With the intervention of the Russians, a period of constant military wins for the regime began in 2015.

 The regime took back Aleppo, Ghouta, and Rastan in northern Homs and is now gaining ground in Daraa towards the Jordanian border.

 Many consider the armed opposition defeated and the Syrian uprising dead. However, opposition groups are keeping faith in what they call "the Syrian revolution".


 Izzeddin Salam, a member of the political office of Festaqem Kema Umirt - an Aleppo-based rebel brigade - rejected the idea that the revolution was dead.

 "The revolution is an idea and the idea won't die until the people die. The revolution is continuing but in another way. We have huge judicial files against the regime and Iran over their support of terrorism like Islamic State and al-Qaeda."


 Izzeddin Salam sees the armed opposition's military losses in Ghouta and Damascus as the result of an international decision to leave the rebels isolated and accept Assad's ongoing rule.

 Fathi Hassoun, the leader of Harakat Tahrir Watan, formally known as Tahrir Homs, a brigade formerly based in the Rastan pocket in northern Homs, agrees with Salam and says the revolution is at a "critical stage". He too denies it is dead.

 "[The revolution] is continuous and its effects are witnessed before our eyes, including the inability of the regime to manage the areas it has recently controlled," he said.

 Hassoun says the ongoing fighting in southwest Syria is proof the uprising still lives:

 "The resistance shown by the factions of the south who preferred death to recognising the regime is evidence the revolution is alive."


 A former senior member of the Ahrar al-Sham faction, who asked to remain anonymous for his security, also agreed.

 The opposition is in a difficult situation, he says, but he points out that the opposition has had many such difficult moments.

 "It's now been seven years since the revolution started. The Assad regime is a criminal regime supported by Iranian militias and the Russian killing machine," he said.

 It has been the regime's targeting of families and infrastructure that has set back the opposition, he argued.

 "Many rebels were in places under siege. They resisted for a long time, but the Russians and Iranians targeted civilians and facilities, forcing the rebels to surrender. Russia, Iran and the regime targeted civilians and facilities in revenge for any operation by rebels. This led to a humanitarian crisis which affected rebels."

 Abu Berra, the leader of the northern sector of Jaysh al-Islam, a formerly Ghouta-based faction, sees Russia's massive attacks alongside Assad's war crimes and use of chemical weapons as the principal setbacks for the armed opposition.

 "The Syrian revolution is not 'areas of control' - the revolution is values and principles which can't be killed by weapons. The Syrian revolution is alive in the hearts of its sons. The murderer can't be victorious, and the oppressor can't continue to oppress the people. Justice will triumph over injustice."


 Salam hopes the recent electoral victory of Turkish President Erdogan will secure the rebels' presence in northern Syria.

 "The victory of the Justice and Development party opens the way to fight in the north in the face of a possible regime assault after the end of its operations in southwest Syria. Russians and Iranians made promises for northwest Syria, but they are liars," said the Festaqem Kema Umirt member.


 Dr Muhammed Vecih Cuma is the President of the Syrian-Turkmen Assembly, which represents Syrian Turkmen.

 "In many regards, the fate of the Syrian revolution is connected to Turkey. Turkey is the only state which seeks the stability and safety of Syria and works for it through political means. Turkey protects its own national security and takes steps for the safety of the Syrian people. Turkey is also the biggest provider of humanitarian assistance for Syrians. The Turkish and Syrian people share common values. Turkey is the only state in the Middle East which doesn't fear a democratic Syria."


 While the remaining rebel presence in southwest Syria are under attack by the regime and Russian air force, all other rebel presences in Syria are either under direct Turkish control as in Afrin and northern Aleppo, or under Turkish influence as in Idlib where Turkey established 12 "observation points" to ensure the de-escalation zone in Idlib agreed within the Astana process.

 The unnamed former senior member of Ahrar al Sham also referred to these key areas:

 "Rebels still have a presence in Aleppo, Afrin, Idlib and Daraa. The situation in Deraa now is really bad. Russians are primarily targeting civilians. Therefore the situation is difficult, but rebels strike back causing huge causalities to the enemy."

 Fatih Hassoun, leader of Harakat Tahrir Watan, blames the international community for the situation in which the armed opposition now finds itself.

 "This is due primarily to the failure of the international community and to its focus on the half-cup of terrorism and confronting it. Its vision was limited to fighting terrorism by extremist organisations like IS, excluding the regime's militias and allies despite all the crimes committed by them. Which enabled the regime to implement and achieve its goal."

 The Ahrar al-Sham ex-member agrees, saying that while Russia and Iran invested huge resources into the regime, other foreign actors hadn't supported the rebels and limited themselves to only "condemning" crimes committed by the regime.

 "No real support was given to rebels, but the regime bought foreign fighters and got huge foreign support to such an extent that Russia and Iran colonised Syria. The regime is only a puppet. Russians and Iranians do whatever they want. They make deals and agreements in the name of the regime. Rebels on the other hand are neither a state nor an established militia like Hizballah. If rebels were strong, no foreign power could withhold them from toppling the regime. Rebels have the capability to change everything in Syria."


 The former senior Ahrar al-Sham member also thinks that the situation in Syria could change if foreign powers were to change their attitude towards the rebels.

 "The revolution isn't dead," he said. "All deals could be cancelled like the Iranian nuclear agreement which was cancelled by US President Donald Trump.

 "Rebels maintained their presence without a real foreign support. If rebels get support, everything in Syria would change immediately." '


US complicity in Daraa rubber stamps Assad's genocide

Monday, 23 July 2018

Syrian Régime Doing Everything to Eliminate White Helmets



 'Rami Jarrah says the White Helmets commitment to saving people being attacked by the Syrian government is like a “fork in the front of the Syrian régime”.

 “The Syrian regime has led this propaganda against the White Helmets, basically claiming that they’re connected to al-Qaeda and that they don’t support people, they don’t help people and they’ve brought in Western journalists to try and prove this.”

 Rami says the only reason Israel assisted in the evacuation of the White Helmets is because to get to Jordan the evacuees had to pass through the Golan Heights which is controlled by Israel.

 He says it’s ironical that while many people are angry that somehow there is a collaboration between those that oppose Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and Israel, it isn’t really the case with many not understanding the perspective the Syrians have been placed in.

 “They’re are being attacked by a government that “sold” them the idea of standing up to Israel when in fact when the peaceful popular uprising started in Syria in 2011, it was actually people demanding on the government to have an actual real stand against Israel and not a fake one where they are actually protecting borders with Israel.”

 Rami says with the evacuation of the White Helmets, there are currently no organisations assisting the Syrian people.'

Friday, 20 July 2018

What’s going on in Syria—the cruelty of the Syrian government since 2011

Karam Alhamad's profile photo, Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor

 'Wafa Mustafa is in the Humanities, the Arts, and Social Thought degree program at Bard College Berlin. “I’m from Masyaf, a small village in the middle of Syria,” says Wafa. “I moved to the city to study journalism and media. Two months after I went to a protest in support of the revolution I was arrested by the regime. When I was released I went back to my college, but I was told I wasn’t a student there anymore. Then, in July 2013, our dad got arrested in Damascus.”

 His arrest meant that the family had to flee immediately to ensure that the regime wouldn’t come after family members and use them to force their father to talk. (Sana happened to be in the United States at the time on what was supposed to be a six-week exchange program; without a home to go back to, she was eventually granted political asylum.) They went to Turkey with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs. “It was me, my mother, and my youngest sister,” Wafa continues. “One of us had to work because we needed money and we knew nobody and had no help from anyone. For three years I worked in Turkey, first with a radio station and then with a newspaper and then with a website as an editor and a reporter.”

 She worked 16 to 17 hours a day. The work helped push down the understandable depression she was experiencing: one of her closest friends had been killed, she was far from home and from the revolution she continued to believe in passionately, her father’s condition and whereabouts remained unknown, and the bureaucracy of applying for asylum was worthy of Kafka. “In Syria I always had the hope that I would continue my studies at some point,” Wafa explains. “But in Turkey it felt like: That’s it. This is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life.”


 Karam Alhamad, who is studying for the Economics, Politics, and Social Thought degree at Bard College Berlin, also has a rich—and horrific—store of such firsthand knowledge. And he has shared what he witnessed through photographs and videos. Although he had always been interested in journalism, and even worked for the main newspaper in his hometown of Deir ez-Zor, a city on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, it wasn’t until protests broke out in 2011 that he took up a camera. Over the following four years, he was jailed by the Syrian regime four times, the longest stint being 11 months in 2014, nine and a half of which was in the notorious Branch 235 prison (also known as the Palestine Branch). While there, ever the journalist, he kept track of the number of people who died. The total reached 73 before he was released.

 “When I got out I went into a Free Syrian Army area of the city, or so I thought, but I was shocked to find ISIS there,” recalls Alhamad. “That’s why I decided not to stay in Syria. But I couldn’t get a passport. I had a red line under my name. I was wanted by the regime. I still am. So I wasn’t allowed to leave. This led me to (cross illegally) into Turkey.”

 Once there, Alhamad found work with the Syrian opposition government and won a Leaders for Democracy Fellowship to study at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. “I applied for a visa from the U.S. Consulate and I got it, but the Turkish police wouldn’t allow me to leave,” Alhamad says. “So I talked to a French journalist I’d worked with and she did a story about the situation. After that I got a call from an assistant to the prime minister of Turkey telling me to go to the airport, that I could go, but officers there didn’t allow me to leave. They refused to talk to the prime minister’s assistant, so he told me to put him on speaker. Finally the officers allowed me to leave by the diplomatic gate.

 Though Alhamad is referring to his research and consulting work, his photography and video are also certainly creditworthy. His YouTube page is full of powerful images of what it means to live a life surrounded by violence. To see small children being pulled from a bombed-out building is, of course, terrible. To see the lack of surprise on their faces makes it clear that this is all they have known. That is more terrifying than anything Hollywood could conjure. The videos are difficult to watch. But for Alhamad they can also be a salve. “After what I’ve been through and what Syria has been through, the way I think about the photos, the videos, my experiences, my body—it all makes me stronger, it makes me who I am,” says Alhamad, whose legs still show the scars of the torture he endured in prison. “I took the photos and videos and posted them to show people what’s going on in Syria—the cruelty of the Syrian government since 2011. Those photos touch my heart. Sometimes when I feel disconnected I go back to the photos and videos and I get tears in my eyes, but I need that to stay connected to what’s happening. I understand that for most people it’s a new thing, they have not witnessed such cruelty. But for me it’s an experience that should and must be understood by other people.” '

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Syrian civil society turns to factions after US funding freeze



 'Joining a hardline Islamist faction was never part of Khaled Abdul Kareem’s plan.

 Just a few months ago, the father of two was steadily employed as a logistics officer with the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB), a collection of US-funded civil society organisations in Syria’s northwestern opposition-held Idlib province.

 The work was reliable and with the help of a monthly salary of $100, Abdul Kareem’s office was a relatively stable place to earn a living in a country at war. “I delivered the goods on time,” he recalled, “and I was truly dedicated to the job.”


 But at the end of March, the Trump administration announced a freeze on some $200m in stabilisation aid to Syria. The URB was one of at least 150 recipient organisations whose funding abruptly came to a halt.

 Within a matter of weeks, Abdul Kareem and more than 650 other employees at the union were thrust into a vast pool of unemployed residents in the northwestern rebel-held territory, where more than a million displaced people fleeing reconciliation agreements and pro-government offensives across Syria have gathered alongside rebel fighters, activists and those wanted for mandatory military service.

 Hundreds of the URB’s former employees are now working on a voluntary basis to maintain operations as the organisation’s leaders desperately seek alternative sources of funding, URB president Raed Fares said. But others have turned toward the patchwork of armed factions ruling the area to look for much-needed income.

 Abdul Kareem quickly found a job with hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), the dominant faction in Idlib. HTS was designated a terrorist organisation by the US government in May.

 “I’m fundamentally opposed to all of their policies,” said Abdul Kareem, who now serves on the faction’s police force, “but I need money to provide for my children.”

 Two other former URB employees found positions within Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions. All three men now carry a weapon on a daily basis. They asked that their real names be withheld, fearing repercussions from local rebel groups.

 The sudden shift from office jobs to frontlines reflects the fragility of a nascent Syrian civil society movement that often hinges on shrinking pools of foreign aid - and the potential for armed groups with deeper pockets to fill the void left behind by funding cuts.


 At the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus - where more than $3m in US funds has been implemented in recent years - paid work in most of the union’s offices officially came to a stop more than a month ago.

 Although limited funding from UK-based NGO War Child has been enough to keep 12 local children’s centres open, a number of centres dedicated to women’s empowerment and adolescent support are now temporarily closed because the operational costs were too high. Volunteers are maintaining other activities for the moment, including medical services, athletics programs and the most widely listened-to radio station in opposition-held Syria: Radio Fresh FM.

 “Everyone still has hope that we’ll find an alternate funding source,” said Fares, who is courting donors in the US and beyond in an attempt to preserve the work he helped launch years ago as a community leader in central Idlib province’s Kafr Nabl, the once-sleepy town whose vocal residents earned it the moniker of “conscience of the revolution”.

 But cuts are already beginning to bite, pushing some employees to look for alternative work in a northwestern province where displaced persons make up more than half the population and most people rely, at least in part, on humanitarian aid to get by.


 With work already hard to come by, residents say that the myriad opposition groups on the ground in Idlib can provide a key source of employment.

 “Searching for a job in the north is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Muhammad al-Ali, a 27-year-old native of Kafr Nabl. “We’ve been forced to take up arms in order to survive.”

 Until recently, Ali’s voice was a staple of the local news coverage broadcast by Radio Fresh. But after the funding freeze, he said he grudgingly accepted a position as a liaison officer with a Free Syrian Army faction, taking advantage of a personal connection to another officer.

 “I never imagined that one day I’d leave my job, join an armed group, carry arms and head to the frontlines,” the father of two says. “I was forced to do so in order to provide for my family.”

 Ali now moves throughout the rebel-held northwestern countryside, monitoring dormant frontlines facing government-held areas while reconnaissance planes circle overhead. It’s a role that earns him about $100 every two months - half of what he made at Radio Fresh.

 Ali’s former colleague at Radio Fresh, Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahmoud, said he made a similar move after the aid cuts left him “looking for any job in order to survive".

 He found work with the FSA-affiliated National Liberation Front, as part of the group’s media team. The former radio editor now carries a weapon alongside his camera, documenting the battles on the ground rather than from the Kafr Nabl office where he still volunteers a few hours of his time each week.

 But even with his monthly salary of about $130, Mahmoud says debts are piling up.

 “Everything, from food and drink to rent, is extremely expensive,” the 27-year-old father of five said. “The costs are greater than a person’s income.”


 HTS is not only the dominant military force in the northwest, but also maintains a growing presence in administrative and civil affairs through the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) - a civil authority formed in late 2017 and backed by the hardline group.

 Since its founding, the SSG has sought to usurp local governance by challenging the opposing, western-backed Syrian Interim Government and asserting its strict interpretation of Islamic law on residents of the province.

 “HTS is eager and willing to step in” and provide community services like those funded by stabilisation assistance, said Mark Strohbehn, Senior Program Manager for Syria programs at the Washington, DC-based firm Development Transformations (DT), which is the State Department’s largest contractor for civil society programmes in Syria. By doing so, the group may “gain greater control over how people are required to live their life,” he added.

 It is a fear shared by URB president Fares, a longstanding, outspoken opponent of the northwest’s Islamist factions and manager of the Radio Fresh station. “The vacuum that we leave behind will be filled by terrorist groups,” he warned.

 Fares said he remains committed to building up civil society, which he sees as essential to a “future Syria that will respect the rights of its citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity".

 “Civil society is the only tool by which we can reach that point.” '

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Most tribes will not return to the régime’s control

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 'During the Syrian conflict, various disputing armed forces have sought to establish alliances with tribes, given their power and influence and because they constitute a major component in Syrian society. As a result, many tribes have become internally divided, weakening the power of their leaders. Amer Jassim al-Bashir, the Baggara tribe’s sheikh in Deir ez-Zor, had supported the opposition before he defected from it and pledged loyalty to the regime. The tribe, considered one of the largest in Syria, was thus divided.

 While the regime is trying to lure tribes to its side, Arab tribes and clans opposing the regime are getting ready to hold a general conference in the Turkish capital of Ankara, though no date has been determined.

 Sheikh Faisal al-Sultan, a member of the pro-opposition Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans, said the regime’s efforts to form a tribal force against the United States and other foreign forces “are a form of propaganda in light of the international momentum toward tribes."

 He added, "The regime wants to say that tribes are on its side. However, for seven years, the regime couldn't mobilize tribes in battles against the opposition and failed to form tribal forces to support it in battle.”


 Several regional players are involved in the Syrian arena. Turkey is trying to mobilize tribes and unite them in northern Syria. Ankara also allowed a conference for tribes to be held in Istanbul in December 2017 in the presence of Kurdish and Turkmen tribes from Syria.

 Also pointing to regional and international competition is the increasing Saudi activity in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria. Saudi Minister of State Thamer al-Sabhan visited the area in October 2017 to discuss eventual reconstruction.

 There are signs that Kurds, and more specifically the People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighting under the SDF umbrella, are most likely to side with the regime in Hasakah. The United States, once the SDF’s main backer, and Turkey reached an agreement in June to manage Manbij in northern Syria and expel the YPG. Kurds might have felt abandoned by the United States even before that, when Turkey took over Afrin with no US opposition.

 Tribal leader Bashir said, “Kurds’ relations with the Syrian regime have developed. The regime is seeking to open a security zone in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa.”

 He noted that the regime wants to use this relationship with the Kurds to “encircle the tribes refusing Kurdish presence in Deir ez-Zor, where the SDF and the Syrian regime each control wide stretches of the province after its liberation from IS.” The Syrian regime controls areas west of the Euphrates, while the SDF is active east of the river.

 According to Bashir, his Baggara tribe is one of the largest Syrian tribes, with an estimated 2 million members. Most of them are in Deir ez-Zor, but a large part of the tribe’s influence and geographical presence extends from Raqqa to Hasakah, which are under the SDF's complete control. Still, the tribe hasn't joined SDF ranks.


 Three tribes form the demography of oil-rich Deir ez-Zor, on the border with Iraq: Baggara, whose presence extends geographically along a western line toward Raqqa; Alaqidat, whose influence extends toward al-Bokmal in the southeast; and Al-Busraya, which is active toward Raqqa in areas east of the Euphrates.

 "The regime won’t be able to break the alliance between the Kurds and some of their allied Arab tribes in the SDF because these tribes consider the regime an enemy,” Bashir said. However, “this alliance is temporary and baseless. It can disintegrate at any minute. The Kurds [specifically, the YPG] are a de facto force present due to the US [support]. Besides, Arab tribes are afraid the regime might take the place of the Kurds if they are expelled from the province [Deir ez-Zor], due to their [tribes'] weakness.”

 Tribes have suffered heavy casualties in their fight against IS, and many members have fled the war. They also lack the armament that would allow them to enter a wide-scale military confrontation.

 The ongoing Syrian conflict and the regional competition keep possibilities open for the future of eastern Syria. More foreign forces are joining the fight, and there is talk about an Arab force entering after US forces withdraw. But most tribes in these areas “will not return to the regime’s control and won’t agree to work with it indefinitely," Assaad said.

 "Tribes siding with the regime constitute less than 10% of Syrian tribes, while those supporting the revolution constitute 70%. Meanwhile, 20% of tribes have kept mum,” he added.'

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Monday, 9 July 2018

The forgotten history of revolutionary Raqqa, and its deep wounds



 Mazen Hassoun:

 'Raqqa was liberated from the Assad régime in March 2013. The Free Syrian Army and the other opposition groups entered the city. After a battle that lasted only three or four days, the city was completely under the control of the opposition. From then until January 2014, we experienced freedom. We could speak our minds. But in January 2014, the arrival of ISIS changed everything. My cousin was executed on January 10. The FSA was driven out of Raqqa. All of us activists who had worked for the revolution and stood against Bashar al-Assad fled the city. I was among the first to leave in January 2014 when ISIS gained full control of the city and there was no one to defend us.

 My uncle wrote a book in Arabic about Raqqa’s revolutionary history, based on information and articles he has gathered in the past two years. Many people don’t know about it and have only heard of ISIS. I used to be part of a local coordination committee. We coordinated protests, covered the walls with graffiti and revolutionary flags. Around three hundred thousand civilians came out to one of our protests. We were among the first provinces to completely escape Assad regime’s control. At first, after the liberation, we had a lot of civilian organizations and movements for a new, democratic Syria. Most of the people demonstrating were poor or middle-class. We had built a lot of beautiful things before ISIS came to destroy them. Raqqa even used to be referred to as the “Capital of Liberation”.


 I used to protest and demonstrate against Bahar al-Assad even when I was just sixteen or seventeen, from the very start. My family had suffered a lot from the regime. My uncle had been in prison for twelve years under Hafez al-Assad. Another uncle was executed. I was raised in an opposition family, which is the main reason I joined the revolution.


 When ISIS initially appeared in Raqqa, they eliminated all opposition; anyone who rejected their rule was kidnapped: activists, doctors, soldiers. [Interviewer’s note: in April 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, also known as ISIL.] They started attacking opposition factions in Raqqa claiming those groups were backed by Assad, including the major Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades [with whom they clashed in August 2013.]

 At the time, the opposition didn’t have much evidence that ISIS was responsible for the kidnappings and they managed to gain control over the city after an agreement with Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN). [Interviewer’s note:those were two large Islamist groups present in Raqqa at the time, but officially unaffiliated with ISIS.] This agreement is well-known to all Raqqa residents who witnessed the beginning of 2014. At first, there were only two hundred ISIS fighters. Ahrar al-Sham, on the other hand, had about two thousand members. I believe an exchange between the armed groups happened: Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from Raqqa, while ISIS withdrew from Idleb.

 I was actually watching the battle with ISIS at the time. I took my camera to film the events from the side of the Free Syrian Army. ISIS were surrounded in two buildings, with several kilometers of distance in between the two. That was around January 9, 2014. They were that close to losing the battle. But there are two bridges on the Euphrates river south of Raqqa, connecting the city with the rest of the country. Ahrar al-Sham and JAN had each held one bridge and suddenly they left the two, allowing ISIS reinforcements to come in from Aleppo, Idleb and the rest of Syria. Ahrar al-Sham and JAN withdrew shortly afterwards, leaving the remaining group, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa alone and unassisted. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, which was part of the FSA, was outnumbered and unassisted, so they eventually lost.


 Everyone was capable of eliminating ISIS in 2014. The organization was still very weak and didn’t have much military might, vehicles or money. Had the international community supported the FSA during that period of time, we wouldn’t see any of these tragedies today and the terrorist attacks [committed by ISIS] probably would not have taken place. But everyone left ISIS grow until they became a large threat.


 I saw Paollo Dall’Oglio in Raqqa but didn’t actually get to know him. Until today, we still don’t know what happened to him. We launched a campaign “Where are the kidnapped by ISIS?” More than a thousand Raqqa civilians have been disappeared by ISIS, including one of my cousins. We heard many stories about Paollo Dall’Oglio: some said they executed him days after the arrest; a former member of ISIS claimed to have seen him at the Euphrates Damn around 2015. I think that if the SDF will investigate, as they have arrested many ISIS members, they could learn the truth. In the case of those Syrians disappeared by Assad, relatives can bribe the government to know the truth, but not with ISIS.


 The civilians’ greatest fear is that Raqqa could still fall to Assad…We’re hearing about this possibility ever since Assad lost control of the city. If Russia agrees with the US that the SDF should leave the city, we will lose it and Assad will seek revenge from the citizens.'

Sunday, 8 July 2018

'They failed us': Daraa civilians slam rebels for relinquishing control



 'In Daraa province, while the opposition stronghold continues to slip into the Syrian government's grasp, civilians are raging against the rebels' failure and are fearful of the return of President Bashar al-Assad's control.

 "We had hoped that opposition factions would be more organised, but it's chaos," said Adnan al-Shami, a civilian displaced near the border with Jordan, "There was no real preparation to repel any possible attacks."


 Not only fleeing from clashes and bombardment, many civilians have been escaping the prospect of falling under Damascus' control again, too.

 Now, with rebels handing large areas they have held for years over to the government, Syrians are coming to terms with the return of Assad's rule and the opposition's failure to defend their towns and villages.

 "The biggest losers are civilians," said Saleem [name changed], a Syrian living in a town recently handed to pro-government forces.

 On Friday, rebel sources told Reuters that the remaining opposition-held pockets had reached an agreement with the government to lay down their weapons, seemingly putting an end to Daraa offensive.

 The announcement followed several similar deals that separate rebel groups have brokered with Damascus since pro-government forces started their aerial and ground assault.


 Many civilians in Daraa have been left bitterly disappointed by the rebels' conduct during the assault, and have scathing critiques for the groups that have already voluntarily abandoned their towns and villages.

 According to Shami, residents of several villages resorted to stepping in to fight pro-government forces after rebels evacuated.

 "Any resistance was a popular act," he said. "Opposition factions need to unite and organise. They have heavy weapons and assorted munitions, and they could regain the lead."

 Saleem, who lives in a village near the town of Ibtaa that was transferred to government control earlier in the week, blasted the rebel groups for not putting all their capacities to use and fighting before capitulating.

 "Military equipment we had previously seen during [rebel] military parades we did not see on the battlefield," he said.

 "Many factions have not participated in battles, they have been lured with money, they are surrendering their weapons to gain concessions from government forces and Russia."


 In Daraa, as with many other areas of Syria, the government has offered rebels what it calls "reconciliation" deals.

 The terms are not always the same, but a common demand is that all young men - whether they have fought for rebel groups or not - enlist in the army.

 In cases such as east Aleppo in Syria's north and the Eastern Ghouta in the Damascus countryside, rebels and civilians have been given passage to opposition-held Idlib province on the Turkish border.

 In some of the towns and villages that have reached a deal with the Syrian government, access to Idlib and assurances over residents' status have not been secured.

 "There is great discontent and resentment towards the factions of the Free Syrian Army in Daraa," said Ayoub Jumaa, a displaced civilian. "“Many leaders succumbed to negotiations without taking into account the situation of civilians.

 "They have failed us."


 Distrust of the Syrian government looms large.

 "If the opposition factions accept reconciliation and compromise with the regime's forces, I expect that there will be field executions and we will be taken to the intelligence service's cells," said Jumaa.

 Another Daraa resident, Mohasen Hamdo, said he would be forced to leave his land if it falls under government control.

 "I have no options, I can't risk my life or my family's over regime and Russian promises of leaving people alone and arresting no one, because they will not fulfil their part of the agreement.

 "They have killed a lot of Syrians and until now they are bombing our hospitals and homes," Hamdo added. "Why would we accept such a dictator?"

 Saleem said he feared that under government control young men would be detained or forcibly enrolled in the army, saying this had been the fate for people in the Damascus countryside after the opposition fell there too.

 He added that Syrian army forces had reportedly already begun to target Civil Defence search and rescue volunteers and journalists in areas it had captured.

 While it remains to be seen how Friday’s negotiated agreement will be implemented, the news will likely come as a blow to those who had hoped that rebels would stand their ground.

 "The opposition has failed us," Saleem said. "I no longer have any trust in anyone." '

Everyone who supports Russia is not human



 'Sarah Hassoun is still wearing the German team's shirt, despite her favourites' failure in the group stage and early exit from the competition.

 The 30-year-old pharmacist has never visited Germany. "There was no link or anything to do with Germany," she says. "I only knew of Germany as an industrialised country."

 But like hundreds of thousands of other Syrians, Hassoun's sister fled the war in Syria and found asylum in the European country.

 In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that her country would give asylum to all Syrian refugees that came there.

 Since then, as many as half a million Syrians have found refuge in Germany.

 "After my sister travelled to Germany, she started sending me pictures from there every day and I gradually became fond of this country," she says, showing a picture of her sister in a German village on the background of her phone.

 "I do not care about sports, but I cannot not support a country that said to my sister: "Welcome'."


 Ziad, a refugee in Turkey who wants to be identified only by his first name for security purposes, says he would support any team other than Russia or Iran.

 Instead, he supports any country whose government backs the Syrian opposition.

 "I cheer for Saudi Arabia, France, England, and every country that supported the Syrian people, and I will not support any team that has supported the Syrian regime," he said.

 "I wish I could cheer for the Syrian national team," Ziad adds. "But now it is a reflection of the regime and not the entire Syrian people."

 For Ziad, it is impossible to divorce politics and the war from football.

 "The issue is not football, it is purely human; it is whether you are human or not. So everyone who supports Russia is not human." '

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

I wanted freedom and an end to corruption

Fleeing new assault, Syrian family doubts they will ever go home

 'After running from an army offensive in southwest Syria, Mirad Ghabaghbi says he is ready to take his family anywhere to keep them safe – even neighbouring Israel.

 The vegetable seller is among thousands of Syrians seeking refuge at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

 With the help of Russian air power, pro-government forces have marched swiftly into insurgent territory in Deraa province in the past two weeks.

 The battles have pushed more than 270,000 people out of their homes, the United Nations says, most of them sheltering nearby at Syria’s southern frontiers. But neighbours Israel and Jordan say they will not let Syrians in.

 “Everyone in the village is wanted (by the state). I don’t expect anyone to return,” said Ghabaghbi, who escaped with 22 relatives when the frontlines reached their doorstep.

 He said residents could not even pick up dead bodies in the streets in his village of Kheil in east Deraa, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

 The road out of the province was packed with streams of cars and people despite the bombing, he added.

 Since last week, he has lived in a field near the Golan frontier with his wife and children, elderly mother, and the families of his two brothers. The small kids sleep in the car and others in a makeshift tent, while he spends his nights out in the open.

 “I want nothing but safety for my children, wherever it is,” Ghabaghbi, 46, told Reuters.

 He would move to the Golan if he could just to keep them alive, he said. “Why wouldn’t I go?”

 Israel, which annexed the Golan after seizing much of it from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, beefed up its tank and artillery forces on the plateau this week.

 The Syrian military offensive has so far targeted rebel parts of Deraa, rather than Quneitra province further west near Israel. Despite its warnings to Damascus, the United States has told the rebel factions that it once backed not to expect military support.

 The assault shattered a “de-escalation agreement” that Washington, Moscow, and Jordan brokered for the south last year, a deal which had halted any fighting there.

 The ceasefire had raised the hopes of Ghabaghbi, who came home with his family to their village last year after living as refugees in Jordan since 2012.

 Now, displaced once again, he regrets returning. In recent days, he sold some family jewellery to afford food from vendors who go around in pickup trucks, but said he does not know what to do once the money runs out.

 The family uses solar panels to operate a fridge, and dug a hole in the ground to improvise a toilet. He said one brother was fighting in battles against the government, but he was not sure of the fate of other siblings.


 Ghabaghbi said he could not go back to Deraa to live under state rule, but if it comes to it, he would also not move to rebel territory in northern Syria without foreign guarantees.

 Through a series of offensives and surrender deals, Damascus has clawed back control of much of the country. Local evacuation deals – accept state rule or leave – have sent tens of thousands of fighters and civilians to the insurgent stronghold of Idlib in the northwest.

 “I will stay here until I die,” he said from the field at the Golan frontier. “All the people have become confined in Idlib…and (the army) will take control of Idlib too.”

 “I supported the revolution…I wanted freedom and an end to corruption,” said Ghabaghbi, who used to run a vegetable shop and own an apartment before the seven-year war upended his life. “Nobody had thought it would get us here.” '

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The agony of Syrian journalists



 'Issam Khoury has been detained, interrogated, beaten and tortured, and forced to flee his country because of his journalism and political activism over the last 15 years in Syria, a country torn apart by revolution and the reprisals of a brutal regime led by Bashar al-Assad.

 Hundreds of articles, many on freedom and human rights, and two novels that Khoury wrote put him in the radar of al-Assad and his secret police and provoked a series of interrogations throughout the years that ended with his detention in 2012.


 Syria also became the most dangerous nation in the world for journalists, with hundreds killed, injured and tortured by al-Assad forces as well as rebel groups, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

 In spite of hazards, international and Syrian citizen journalists continue to risk their lives by reporting on massacres and other atrocities, such as chemical bombings.

 “If you are not close to people, you can’t understand their pain,” Khoury said in a Skype video interview recently at his office in New York.


 The 40-year-old Khoury comes from a well-known and educated Christian family in Latakia, a coastal city on the Mediterranean and the fourth largest city in Syria. His activist and writing career began in 2001, and in 2003 he started a non-profit organization called Center for Environmental and Social Development.

 Through the NGO, Khoury launched many cultural and environmental projects, including cleanups of the coastal area, to promote a civil society in Syria. He emphasized an environmental focus, so he could also address democracy and human rights issues in the region without attracting government scrutiny, and risking jail and the shutting down of the office.

 In addition to helping many villages become eco-friendly by installing clean energy, Khoury also organized meetings to support women’s rights, trained journalists and citizen journalists secretly inside of Syria, and succeeded in protecting them. Now, the organization has 200 members, including 26 journalists on the field who send information to Khoury for publication.


 The increasing government crackdowns on journalists and citizens since 2011 occurred despite Syrian law granting them basic rights, such as freedom of expression and the press. Therefore, leaking information was risky, but Khoury’s organization was able to smuggle information by asking female activists to hide USBs in their clothes because the security often did not search women.

 Article 42 of the Syrian Republic constitution states that “Every citizen shall have the right to freely and openly express his views whether in writing or orally or by all other means of expression.”

 But these freedoms have a different concept than the U.S.’s First Amendment, because they are regulated by the law.
“The state shall guarantee freedom of the press, printing and publishing, the media and its independence in accordance with the law,” Article 43 states.

 However, the reality of freedom and what people can say in Syria contradict the written laws. ‏‏“This country is hopeless. You can’t work in it,” Khoury said.

 Khoury’s pessimism is well-founded. Reporters Without Borders published in 2017 that Syria is number 177 in freedom of press in the world and in the past seven years, ranked it “the world’s deadliest country for journalists.” Intense fighting and the forces of many countries and rebel groups involved in the conflict have put journalists and freelancers of both sides under extreme risks.

 Despite such dangers, for more than a decade, Khoury wrote about different issues in politics and the economy and covered minorities and ethnicities neglected by the regime. He covered the Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish religious minority, and Alawites, a Muslim minority group and the al-Assad family’s own religious brethren.

 “I think that it is amazing when you take information from secret groups like Alawites and Yazidis,” Khoury said. “I am the first journalist, I think in the world, not only in Syria, who wrote about Yazidi people in Syria.”

 In the early stages of his career, Khoury made sure to diversify his subjects in order to avoid detention and to try and persuade authorities that he was not a threat to the system. “I wrote about homosexuals, social problems, politics, economy and all issues for a reason,” he said. “Because when the security police summon me they see that I’m not focusing only on politics, but also on all issues.”

 Amnesty International published a report in 2005 detailing punishment and harassments of Syrian activists. These included more than a dozen of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, and a teenager and his mother in the early 2000s. Authorities arrested some and banned travel for the rest because of their involvement in human rights organizations and demands for reforms.

 “In 2005 scores of Syrians, including children, have been arrested following their return from abroad,” the report said. “They and others arrested in previous years remain detained incommunicado without charge or pending trials and are at risk of torture. In the past three years, at least ten people who were arrested upon return to Syria have ‘disappeared’ and several have died, seemingly as a result of torture and ill-treatment.”

 In 2009, airport secret police seized Khoury’s passport because he had travel restrictions that continued until 2011. Khoury said that after the failure of the 2008 Iranian green movement, Iran trained Syrian security on how they can protect the regime from any revolution.

 “Syrian government expected that a movement might happen in Syria in a year or two. So, they decided to put a travel ban on journalists and all activists between 2009 and 2011.”

 Khoury has a long history and stories “beyond imagination” of interrogations with the General Intelligence Directorate, which summons people by inviting them to “drink coffee.” This is the common phrase used by Syrian authorities instead of saying that they are arresting people to interrogate and jail them.

 He was summoned by the security branch in Latakia in 2009. He expected to be there for a short time until the interrogation was over, but a military general told Khoury he was going to jail because he had come all the way from Damascus to arrest him.

 After 10 minutes, the general received a call about a family member of his who was battling cancer. Khoury, whose mother had died of cancer, heard the conversation and tried to take advantage of the situation. Khoury gave him oncologists’ names and treatment process. In return, the general released Khoury and told him that he has a “green line and that he is a clean person.”

 “Imagine my mental state listening to a man threatening me that in a moment I will be prisoned, then after several minutes I’m maneuvering my release and then after minutes the general releases me,” Khoury said.

 When the Syrian Revolution started in March 15, 2011 in the southern District of Daraa, its sparks quickly reached Latakia. Khoury was of the first journalists to report on what was happening. But the working environment for him at that time became more hostile than it was before, especially in his city, where the government has a strong grip.

 “In the revolution it was different, it is difficult to explain,” he said. “Something that I spent my life working on and dreaming to achieve is gone in front of my eyes, it was not a normal thing for me.”

 Ill treatment of journalists intensified when the revolution started, especially in a district such as Latakia, where the old city is a mix of Sunni Muslims and Christians, and the new city with a majority of Alawites. So, during that time, even as a Christian who had become an atheist, Khoury was socially harassed by regime supporters. The harassment was more specific for Alawite and Christian dissidents who were subsequently left with no option but to leave the country, according to Khoury, who believes the government wants the rebels to be exclusively Sunni.

 “If they change the revolution to a holy war that will be amazing for them because in that way they can justify killing people.”

 Covering demonstrations put Khoury under the spotlight. In 2011, he was captured by secret police who tied his hands in metal chains and attempted to tie them to a car and drag him between Christian villages to send a message to them to stay out of the revolution. People who knew Khoury and saw what happened intervened and stopped the security police.

 “They beat me a lot and they destroyed my face, I went to a hospital and [had a surgery.] They destroyed my nose and ribs.”

 The regime increased its harassment of journalists, which in addition to attacks from many groups involved in the war made it more dangerous for journalists to work in Syria. A May 2018 report said that the number of media professionals, including citizen journalists, killed in Syria since mid-March 2011 had risen to 431.

 In September 2012, Khoury was with his family when the Air Force Intelligence branch in Tartus arrested him. He stayed there for a month in a small cell with other prisoners; the government agents interrogated and brutally tortured him.

 The detention and torture were harsh for Khoury’s father, wife and young daughters. The intelligence police dragged them out of the car and insulted them while searching for any electronics they might have.

 With the state’s control of press and absence of international media, citizen journalism was the only way to make the people’s voice heard. Many young men started uploading videos to social media documenting the government’s brutal response to peaceful protests, which is when mainstream media started broadcasting them.

 Hadi al-Abdullah, a prominent citizen journalist who frequently risked his life covering al-Assad and Russian massacres in Homs, Aleppo and Idlib, and a cameraman were targeted in 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which reported that these attacks underline the huge risk Syrian journalists take to do basic reporting.


 After Khoury’s release, he moved to Lebanon to stay close to Syria and keep reporting. But restrictions on journalists existed also in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has an enormous influence and strong ties with the al-Assad regime. Khoury worked there for a year and a half until 2014, when airport police in Beirut interrogated him and took his passport after he came back from a conference abroad. Khoury then applied for a U.S. visa and came in May 2014 to New York, where he lives today with his family.

 Khoury’s experience with American journalism and universities was unpleasant. He tried publishing in newspapers, but editors asked him to write for free, but he refused. Khoury also presented to universities several projects that were rejected for lack of funding.

 The reason he refuses to publish anything for free is his need of a salary to pay journalists inside of Syria who are risking their lives covering the war and need money to live, especially in areas held by terrorist groups such as ISIS, which recruits suffering civilians to work for them in exchange of payments ranging from $100 to $1,000. He said that if European and U.S. newspapers don’t pay journalists, how can journalists help report on the revolution’s costs.

 “These people worked with these groups not because they agree with them,” Khoury said. “It is because they want to survive.” '