Thursday, 12 July 2018

Most tribes will not return to the régime’s control

Image result for Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans

 '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.'

Image result for Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans

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." '