Friday, 9 February 2018

The new ISIS pocket in Idlib

 'Say good bye to the old ISIS pocket in Hama and say hello to the new ISIS pocket in Idlib.(20 km to the west) With friendly support of Assad, Putin & Iran.

 Pro-regime media claims instead, they did all they could to stop the "thirty kilometers of government territory" journey of some 500 ISIS militants. Pictures show several destroyed technicals and up to 10 terrorist fatalities. Still, rather doubtful they really tried to.'

"How many appeals do we still have to make to stop the killing? We are being killed by a dictator who wants to rule us by force."

Image result for Babies rescued from Syrian hospital after Russian airstrike 1:10 Video nbc

 'After surviving seven years of war, Aya Qrai was offered a unique chance at joy: her first child, a son.

 "Abdulrazaq let me live in my own world and I forgot the war — I saw the beauty of life through him," said Qrai, 19, speaking from a rebel enclave in northwestern Syria. "With all the war and all the sadness, I was full of happiness."
 Abdulrazaq was born two months premature and went into intensive care at a hospital in the city of Maarat al-Numan in northwestern Syria. He died 16 days later, after airstrikes badly damaged the facility in Idlib Province on Sunday and forced the evacuation of at least 10 newborns.
 Abdulrazaq died from lack of oxygen before he reached another hospital, according to his family.
 Video shot on Sunday in the aftermath of an attack that rebels and observers say was carried out by a Russian warplane shows newborns being rushed from the damaged building.
 Tearful and exhausted, Aya Qrai says she wants to die.
 “We Syrians are not allowed to smile and to live a normal life,” she said, sitting close to her husband, Hamoud. “When I decided to live and to challenge the war [by having a baby], the airstrike took my baby away from me.”
 A hospital in nearby Kafr Nabl was also bombed Sunday, forcing the evacuation of patients.
 The shelling of the hospitals and other areas where civilians are trapped comes amid intensifying attacks on rebel-held areas near the city of Aleppo and the capital, Damascus.
 The Qrai family’s grief is just one piece in a mosaic of tragedy created by Syria’s civil war, which started as pro-democracy street protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. The conflict quickly spiraled into a full-fledged conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions from their homes.
 The Qrais are among some two million people now living in Idlib — where fighting is forcing civilians to move constantly to escape fighting, according to the United Nations. Two pro-government villages in Idlib were also being besieged by rebels, the U.N. announced on Tuesday.
 When asked if the couple had a message for the world, Hamoud Qrai angrily interjects: “Sir, how many messages do we have to send? How many appeals do we still have to make to stop the killing? We are being killed by a dictator who wants to rule us by force.”
 “Who on earth would target a hospital?” he said.
 This week, the U.N. called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Syria of at least a month after heavy airstrikes claimed scores of lives.
 Aid workers, meanwhile, warn that rebel areas are not receiving desperately needed deliveries.
 "For the last two months we have not had a single convoy,” said Panos Moumtzis, assistant U.N. secretary general and regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. “This is really outrageous." '
Image: A destroyed hospital in Kafr Nabl

'Of Fathers and Sons': director Talal Derki's new film following a Nusra Front "soldier of God"

 'My life before these bad times was different. I was living in Damascus. I studied cinema in Greece. Most of the people I knew in Damascus as a filmmaker were artists, you know, we never were in touch with the religious people, and by saying religious I am talking jihadis, salafists, those were very rare in Syria. After the revolution started, I filmed my documentary "Return to Homs" in Syria, with people who were into democracy and freedom. During the time of the shooting people started to talk about a "caliphate." It was the month when ISIS declared itself, in Spring 2013. I witnessed how many people loved them, so much brainwashing! That was for me the biggest shock.

 During the last block of shooting for the film in 2013, I met for the first time a jihadi from IS in the desert north of Homs. I was there waiting, and the only people with internet access were IS. So I met some people and later I thought, you know, I have the possibility to do it, I have access. I believe it's difficult for someone else to do this. So it has really been a big journey since we started in 2014.

 The Islamists didn't have much knowledge about my background. I had hidden all information, had avoided all photos of me drinking alcohol and being with girls. And before I didn't write any article against the jihad. So there was no clash. I also gave some interviews on opposition Arabic radio and TV that supported them, and they were happy thinking this is a guy supporting us. And I told them I was motivated by their movement, I wanted to learn from them.

 I wanted to go psychologically inside the society of the jihadis. I wanted to understand how it happened, how they become what they are. Who are these people? How do they look from the inside? What are their codes? How do they brainwash people? To understand how they convince people through the story of the new generation. And the film is also about a father's legacy of violence. There's a lot of violence, so what happens to the kids? In a way, I believe that every father can watch this film and find himself or his father somewhere inside it. I tried to capture moments that are eternal moments.

 It's a matter of day by day. You have to forget who you are. You have to be a new person to make such a film. There was no other option. I had to do this. Firstly for my safety. Secondly to observe, to go to their point of view. To understand what their life looks like. You need to let them trust you. I also tried mostly to reduce the places where you shoot, and I filmed a lot inside the house.

 When I went with the father outside, he always met with other jihadis from other Arab countries and from Europe, and these are dangerous people because they don't easily trust you filming them, whatever your background. And they have experience researching online. When they investigated me, I had to tell I am a war photographer. And also from the outside I had to be exactly like them. So I was praying with them, listening to them, shaking my head like them.

 I learned from my father that to tame your nightmares, you need to capture them first. It's about getting them out from the subconscious to the conscious. Write it down. Write it with a camera and then leave it there. That's what I did.

 One of the boys featured closely in the film is Osama, who is very sensitive and rebellious. Osama is the one who lied to his father that he prayed, but he did not pray. And I know him. If he grew up in a different family, he would be an artist. I am sure.

 If the society was strong in that region, if there wouldn't be violence against kids and women, if women were equal there, if there was a clear law about what children learn, the jihadis would not be able to find a place, nobody would welcome them. Look at countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya — violence will bring more violence, will bring more radical people. And this will go on.'

Sundance Film Festival 2018 - Film Of Fathers and Sons (Courtesy of Sundance Institute/K. Hasson/T. Derki)

Thursday, 8 February 2018

East Ghouta ‘drowning in blood’ after third day of bombing

Smoke after an airstrike

 'Residents of the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta have endured a fourth day of relentless bombardment by the government of Bashar al-Assad, a campaign that has so far killed more than 200 people and left a ceasefire deal that lasted months in tatters.

 The bombardment continued despite international pleas for a countrywide ceasefire to alleviate “extreme” suffering in Syria, where the violence has been renewed after failed peace talks earlier this month.

 “Ghouta is drowning in blood,” said a doctor in Arbeen, one of the towns in the region in which 100 people were wounded and at least 14 killed, including a rescue worker and several children.

 “There is no safe place in Ghouta,” said Raed Srewel, a journalist based in Douma, another town in the area. “You can describe it with this saying we have: “On top of death, the graves are too small.”

 59 civilians, including 15 children, have been killed on Thursday alone in eastern Ghouta, an enclave that has been under siege for years, endured a devastating sarin gas attack in 2013 and was once the bread basket of the nearby capital, Damascus.

 The killings capped three days of shelling and bombardment after a national dialogue conference brokered by Russia failed to produce a breakthrough in peace talks. The violence, which continued in other parts of Syria as well, marked the effective end of a de-escalation agreement brokered by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran to reduce violence around the country and pave the way for peace talks.

 That deal has unravelled with a broad government offensive in Idlib province in Syria’s north-west and eastern Ghouta, two of the last major strongholds of the opposition fighting Assad.

 The offensive in Idlib has already displaced more than 300,000 people by UN estimates, numbers that have risen in the last few days. Many have sought refuge near the Turkish border, threatening a new influx of refugees.

 In eastern Ghouta, rescue workers spent much of the day searching through the rubble of buildings that had collapsed under the airstrikes. They said they had tracked at least 76 airstrikes on Tuesday and Wednesday alone in the region.

 “It has become a city of ghosts, and if you walk in it, it is filled with the smell of death and blood,” Srewel said, describing his hometown of Douma. “The planes are always in the skies of Ghouta, the markets and homes are being bombed, there are martyrs and wounded, and God is our only solace.”

 Earlier this week the UN commission of inquiry, tasked with investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, condemned the upsurge of violence in Idlib and Ghouta, saying they “make a mockery” of the de-escalation agreement.

 “What is happening in eastern Ghouta is not simply a humanitarian crisis because aid is denied. These sieges involve the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population,” said Paulo Pinheiro, the chair of the commission.

 Russia dismissed calls for a month-long humanitarian ceasefire as the UN Security Council met to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis. “That is not realistic,” said Russia’s UN envoy, Vassily Nebenzia. “We would like to see a ceasefire, the end of the war, but the terrorists, I am not sure, are in agreement.”

France’s ambassador to the UN, Fran├žois Delattre, called for unhindered access for aid agencies. “Eastern Ghouta is experiencing a Middle Ages-style siege. That is totally unacceptable,” he said.

 Syrian government forces also clashed with US forces in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, the first time such a large-scale confrontation has occurred on Syrian land.

 An official with the US-led coalition against Islamic State told Reuters it had repelled a coordinated assault by pro-regime militias on a base in the region, a battle that Syrian state media appeared to confirm with a news bulletin that accused the coalition of killing dozens of militia fighters.

 The official said no US troops had been killed or wounded in the attack, which was carried out by about 500 fighters, but one Syrian fighter allied with the coalition was wounded. More than a hundred pro-regime fighters were killed.'

The Russians strike the symbols of the Syrian revolution

 'Residents in parts of Syria have been experiencing some of the most terrifying days of their seven-year-long war.

 This week, the Syrian government and its Russian ally pummeled towns and villages in the opposition-held northern Syrian province of Idlib with air attacks. A relentless series of payloads were dropped in the space of just a few hours in the darkness of Sunday night.

 The dead are still being counted. Residents say dozens of people are missing under the rubble of collapsed buildings.

 Airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta, the besieged rebel-held suburbs outside Damascus, are ongoing. More than 100 people have been killed in the past 48 hours alone, according to residents.

 "It's clear these attacks are part of a systematic strategy in order to basically punish civilians," said Haid Haid, an analyst with the British think tank Chatham House.

 Hassan Hassan, a Syria analyst and author, agreed that civilians are the focus of these attacks. "Most of the airstrikes have not hit front lines," he said.

 Instead, the air campaign appears focused on residential buildings and hospitals.

 On Monday, Raed Fares, an activist in Kafranbel, an opposition-held town about 8 miles from the nearest front line in Idlib province, said he woke up to bombing raids on the local hospital.

 "In the early morning, they attacked the hospital here four times. It's very close to my house, and it was so horrible to wake up to this sound," he says. "Everything was shaking."

 Fares shared photographs on his Facebook page of the hospital building, with its roof caved in, and of an ambulance destroyed by shrapnel.

 This was the second hospital reported to have been hit in 48 hours. Residents of Maaret al-Numan, another town in Idlib province, shared videos of premature babies struggling for breath after they had to be ripped out of incubators to be rescued from a hospital damaged by a plane's payload.

 There have also been reports of chlorine gas attacks. Doctors in the town of Saraqeb, in Idlib, reported treating 11 patients who suffered from the suffocating symptoms of the chemical weapon.

 These attacks have been interpreted partly as a response to the rebel downing of a Russian Su-25 plane Saturday near Saraqeb. The Russian pilot ejected from the plane and was shot dead by militants, according to Russia's Defense Ministry.

 Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the attacks "precision strikes," according to Russia's TASS news agency, and said they were "provoked by the tragic event when terrorists shot down our plane."

 But analysts also see these attacks as an attempt to punish opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad by targeting towns and villages in Syria that are sympathetic to the opposition.

 Last month, the Syrian opposition decided to boycott peace talks hosted by Russia in the Black Sea city of Sochi.

 Hassan, the Syrian analyst, said the boycott was a major blow for the Russians.

 "Sochi was envisioned by Russia to be a milestone, at least as a public relations stunt, to say, 'Not only did we defeat ISIS,' as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin announced inside Syria at the Hmeimim air base, but also, 'we have managed to steer the politics in Syria as well,' " he said.

 With these air attacks, Hassan said, Russia may be "trying to show [the opposition] that 'this is the result of not bowing to our demands.' "

 The Syrian regime and its Russian ally have repeatedly said they are targeting Islamist extremists and al-Qaida. But, Hassan said, this spate of bombardments has focused on towns in Idlib where residents have rejected the more-militant groups and have shown allegiance to the moderate anti-government opposition.

 Take Kafranbel, the hometown of the activist Fares. It has repeatedly rejected al-Qaida's rule.

 "Kafranbel is the civil face of the revolution, and it's democratic," Fares said. "Russia and the Syrian regime want to paint all of Idlib as being the black of extremists," he added, referring to the black flags used by groups like Islamic State. "But Kafranbel is green and civil," he said, referring to a color on the Syrian opposition flag.

 Hassan emphasized the potential for symbolism in recent airstrikes: "If Russia wants to strike against the Syrian opposition and show them the costs of not playing along," he said, "it makes sense because in striking these areas, they strike the symbols of the Syrian revolution." '

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Living Under Assad’s Siege

Yassin al-Haj Saleh:

 'On Tuesday, 78 people were killed in the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta after heavy aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces. The United Nations has called for a cease-fire for a month across Syria to be able to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate the critically ill and wounded.

 The siege of Eastern Ghouta has turned into one of the longest and most destructive sieges in recent wars — about a year longer than the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo. Ghouta is an area of small towns and fertile countryside east of Damascus.

 The regime of Bashar al-Assad has barred the residents from leaving and outsiders from visiting their relatives in the besieged area, according to Osama Nassar, an activist and journalist who has been living in the Douma district of the area since 2013.

 The people of Eastern Ghouta joined the protests against the Assad regime in March 2011, in the very early days of the Syrian uprising, and government forces killed many young men there. I was there a few weeks after those protests and attended the funeral of eight people killed by the regime.

 The killings militarized the uprising by the fall of 2011. By July 2012, the regime began attacking population centers with barrel bombs. Peaceful protests came to an end.

 In October and November 2012, the rebels drove out regime forces from Eastern Ghouta. In the beginning of 2013, the regime, supported by Iran and Hezbollah, regained the military initiative and imposed the siege.

 I arrived in the Douma district in April 2013 and lived with a civil defense unit that came to be known as the White Helmets. Regime planes bombed the region daily. I saw the bodies of the dead being brought to the civil defense unit every day for registration. One day there were nine bodies. Another day, 26.

 Yet people were still hopeful despite everyday life’s becoming increasingly difficult. On Aug. 21, 2013, the Assad regime attacked Eastern Ghouta with sarin gas and killed more than 1,400 civilians, including 426 children.

 A deal between the United States and Russia forced the Assad regime to agree to surrendering its chemical weapons to United Nations investigators, but President Barack Obama decided not to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. Mr. Assad concluded that he could use all other weapons, including barrel bombs and starvation, to crush the uprising.

 A month after the chemical weapons deal, in October 2013, Mr. Assad’s forces intensified the siege of Eastern Ghouta. Even people who needed medical care were prevented from leaving or getting help from outside. Arbitrary daily bombings turned life precarious; people struggled even to retrieve corpses from the rubble of their houses.

 Around that time, Jaish al-Islam, a Salafi militant group, came to dominate Douma and established a despotic system, arresting, kidnapping and assassinating people who did not comply with its dictates. Other rebel groups in the besieged areas include Faylaq al-Rahman, an affiliate of the Free Syrian Army, and Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, which largely draws its membership from a Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate. And there are numerous smaller groups and brigades, which control and fight in smaller areas.

 The civilians share an ambivalent relationship with the rebel groups. They offer them support for fighting against the Assad regime but criticize them for failing to overcome their factionalism and uniting against the regime. The civilians also protest and chafe at the rebels intervening in their daily life whether it is dealing harshly with them or arresting someone.

 When I left Eastern Ghouta for Raqqa in the summer of 2013, the cost of everyday amenities had already increased significantly because of the war. Our only electric supply was a generator for four hours a day.

 Samira al-Khalil, my wife, had joined me a few months earlier. We didn’t have enough to eat and began losing weight. We laughed that our friend Razan Zeitouna, a lawyer and writer documenting the atrocities, couldn’t lose weight because she was reed thin. The regime’s slogan was “Aljoo’ or Arrukoo’” (Starve or Surrender).

 During the siege, Samira, who had been imprisoned for four years under the Hafez al-Assad regime for her activism, wrote in her diary, “Prison was just a joke when compared to siege, for all the people suffer from the latter: the children, the elderly.” She added: “ Under the siege there is nothing! No medicines, no bread, no water, no electricity, nothing. No! I forgot something important: death. It is available everywhere, in every family.”

 By the fall of 2013, along with Eastern Ghouta, the rebel enclaves of Daraya, Moadamiya, Madaya and Zabadani, which are close to Damascus, were also under siege, being bombed and starved.

 Eastern Ghouta showed great resilience and embraced innovative ways to survive. People continued growing food on their farms, and that partly helped keep hunger at bay. They found a way to breach the siege by digging a network of underground tunnels, some of which led to neighborhoods in Damascus and were used to smuggle in necessary commodities.

 Numerous conversations with friends and acquaintainces still living there give me a fuller sense of how they survived. People recycled plastic garbage and extracted fuel from it. They used this fuel for the generators that had been smuggled in through the tunnels. The electricity this generated became essential to connect with satellite internet and the outside world. They ground fodder and used it as flour to bake bread; they toasted oats and used it to make a beverage to replace coffee. They embraced wild herbs, which were untouched in peace, as a staple vegetable. They turned the basements of hospitals and schools into storage facilities in the face of the barrel bombs.

 In a cruel twist, the regime sought to extract profit by doing some business with the besieged populace. Muhyi Eddin Manfoush, a businessman connected to the Syrian Republican Guard headed by Mr. Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, was allowed by the regime to sell flour, packaged food, butter, oil, tea and sugar, among other things, in the besieged area, according to several merchants in Eastern Ghouta.

 The deal was that Mr. Manfoush would charge the besieged and impoverished buyers a tax beyond the usual price. For a kilogram of flour, sugar and rice he charged an extra 2,000 Syrian pounds, or about $4; for clothes, shoes and cleaning material he charged an extra 3,000 Syrian pounds, or about $6, according to multiple residents. But medicines, medical equipment, electronics and building equipment were strictly prohibited from entering the besieged area.

 The people of Eastern Ghouta were left with few resources and a terribly depleted capacity to buy anything. The few sources of support were financial aid from a group of NGOs and some religious networks. By 2017, the fourth year of the siege, Mr. Assad’s forces had taken control of many neighborhoods from the rebels. In March, the regime took Barzeh and Qaboun, two neighborhoods in Damascus that were crucial for the survival of the besieged areas. The tunnels that the opposition had dug to bring in supplies led from Eastern Ghouta to Barzeh and Qaboun. Mr. Assad’s forces destroyed the tunnel network and blocked the supplies.

 Within days of the fall of Barzeh and Qaboun, the price of diesel jumped to about $10 per liter from about 63 cents per liter. The season for harvesting crops and planting vegetables was days away. The farmers couldn’t afford the fuel for their agricultural tools — generators, water pumps, tractors. They simply couldn’t water their lands or even harvest the crops.

 The failure to cultivate and harvest the local produce, the destruction of the tunnel system and the relentless siege pushed the cost of living punitively higher. In October, according to various residents and activists in Eastern Ghouta, a kilogram of sugar cost 2,400 Syrian pounds, or about $5; a kilo of rice was 2,900 Syrian pounds, or about $5; a kilo of lentils was 2,000 Syrian , or about $5; a liter of frying oil was 3,000 Syrian pounds, or about $6.

 The besieged couldn’t afford it. Children were the first to starve and die. And that is when the images of the emaciated, undernourished children began coming out of Eastern Ghouta.

 In late November, the businessmen connected to the regime brought in a new contingent of supplies at their usual extortionate rates. Few could afford it, and it barely lasted two weeks, according to Aous al-Mubarak, a dentist living there. Around 400 children suffered from extreme malnourishment, he said. The numbers have only risen.

 Eastern Ghouta has been turned into a concentration camp by the Assad regime. Mr. Assad has perfected a system of political nihilism, which wipes out people who oppose it and enslaves those who acquiesce and submit. Even after five years of siege and bombardment, the residents are holding on to human dignity, mourning each death, not turning callous in the face of its familiarity.

 Bara’a, a 15-year-old girl who was a friend of Mr. Nassar’s daughter, was killed in January after the regime planes bombed Douma. Mr. Nassar had thought five years of living under siege was familiarizing him with death. “I shudder every time I think of her mother,” he said.'