Saturday, 18 August 2018

We direct a message to the faction leaders to unite

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Hadi al-Abdullah:

 "Many mistakes have happened in the Syrian revolution, and it is difficult to sum them up in an sentence or two. This is first time the Syrian people have carried out a popular revolution. The Syrian situation is different from other countries' revolutions, due to the support of the Great Powers for the Assad régime. Perhaps the most important and notable errors: Disunity without the presence of any unified military, political or even media leadership, and the Syrian revolution is still making this mistake to this day. The second is dependency on the exterior, compared to 2012 and 2013 when the decision was Syrian only, and what led to our arrival at this stage recently from following the exterior which caused a great loss to the people and revolution. One of the mistakes as well was the confidence in the leaders of the factions, the Syrians have relied on them because there was no other solution to resort to.

 There are various ways to confront the promoters of reconciliation or "frogs": The Syrians must adhere to the principles of the Syrian revolution for which we have sacrificed much. Second, through awareness campaigns for the popular incubator urging adherence to the revolutionary principles and clarifying the danger of reconciliation with the Assad régime and his betrayal, he and his Russian ally who promote a false narrative regarding returning to the fold of al-Assad. We observe that he in a number of areas has expelled the revolutionaries and civilians from it and there are cases of arrest by Russia and the Assad forces on a daily basis, including in the Homs countryside, Eastern Ghouta, and the areas of Daraa. There needs to be pressure on the factions not to carry out any reconciliation with the Assad regime, in addition to dealing firmly with those who promote reconciliation in the north of Syria, and this is what the factions started with recently.

 We all know that Idlib turned into a mini-Syrian state inhabited by most of the Syrians displaced by the Assad régime from the rest of the country. It is the last refuge for them after they refused to reconcile with the régime. The fate of the city of Idlib is different from the other regions because it has observation points for protection, and we do not expect Turkey to forsake the province and its countryside, because it will reflect negatively on them, and there will be hundreds of thousands of displaced people on the Turkish border, and it is not easy to forsake them under these circumstances. Everyone in Idlib knows that it is the last point or bastion of the Syrian revolution today. If the régime would launch a war on Idlib there will be a strong response in defense of it and it could be the start for retaking control of the areas occupied by the régime and its allies. And there are efforts that have recently begun to form a unified force in Idlib to confront the regime composed of several large factions, except for HTS and others.

 The restoration of political or military autonomy under the current circumstances is almost impossible. Most military or political leaders became dependent on the exterior and the restoration of political autonomy needs raising awareness, through citizens carrying out popular initiatives to return the spirit of the Syrian revolution and hope to the souls of the civilians. Restoring political autonomy is very difficult and not easy.

 There have been many bad moments for me from seven years ago until now, from threats, targeting, bombing, to assassination attempts. Among the most difficult was the year 2016 in Aleppo when Khaled al-Issa was martyred, in addition to the loss of the people we love. And the most difficult is trying to traverse the situations of sadness.

 There is no doubt that the conditions experienced by the Syrians today are difficult and most of them suffer from all kinds of pressure, but there is no solution other than resistance against the Assad régime, especially since the régime has not changed. For those who are in the interior; sticking to the land and for all outside Syria; sticking to the cause. Despite the setbacks and betrayals that we are facing, we will remain steadfast upon the principles of the revolution and its martyrs and detainees. We direct a message to the faction leaders to unite and form a unified body and a united leadership different from what we have seen before."

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Tuesday, 14 August 2018

I ran from the Syrian regime’s bombs once – now I fear having to do so again

A Syrian woman with a child

 'I am a forcibly displaced woman from eastern Ghouta, an area on the edge of the Syrian capital of Damascus. I lived there with my family throughout the revolution until March of this year, when the Assad regime escalated its attacks on Ghouta and eventually recaptured it. The regime’s soldiers forced us to choose between living under Assad’s control, or fleeing to the opposition-held north-west of the country, currently home to more than 1.3 million displaced Syrians.

 I live today in the Aleppo countryside, which is the largest area of Syria, along with Idlib province, outside regime control. The countryside is controlled by various factions. Turkey runs our health and education sectors while local councils, run by civilians, handle all other services. Armed opposition groups also exert military control. With me is my husband, a physician, and my two children, who are finally back at school.

 In 2011, I joined the Syrian revolution. Up until then, I had spent my whole life under the control of Hafez Assad and his son, Bashar Assad. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with my children and grandchildren living under the control of Assad’s son, also named Hafez. I wanted to live and enjoy my rights as a citizen in my country, and not as if I were a foreigner with no rights at all. The corruption of the Assad family and their allies was taking away everything from us. I joined the revolution to exercise my right to freedom of speech and the freedom to have an opinion.

 I currently work as a member of the women’s department of Aleppo Local Council, which is governed by the opposition Syrian Interim Government. I run projects to support and empower Syrian women socially and politically to play more significant roles in their communities and take part in political decision-making. During the revolution, I watched Syrian women joining men and calling for freedom against Assad. They suffered and endured just like the men and so they deserve to have the same rights and a voice.

 Just few days ago, I helped organise a women’s conference in north-western Syria, which more than 150 Syrian women of different backgrounds attended. We all have hope that tomorrow might be better than today, and we all are working to achieve that.

 I want to see a Syria that looks like us, all of us – diverse. A Syria that can accommodate all of us, protect all of us, keep us safe and make us feel stable, and one which we can all build together.

 But that dream looks a long way off, and in my new home in the north-west, we are facing an all too familiar situation, one that is similar to what happened in the final days of Ghouta, when fighting killed more than 1,400 people and the regime used chemical weapons to take back the area. We hear reports that Russia and the Assad regime are planning an escalation attack against the north-west, in a final attempt to take it over. If this happens, we might be displaced again, but where to? North-western Syria is the last fortress.

 If I am honest with myself, I cannot be sure Idlib would withstand an attack. I once believed that Daraya, Homs, the city of Aleppo, Ghouta and Daraa would withstand the regime. One by one, they all fell.

 I ask myself, what will happen to the tens of thousands of people living in displacement camps? Already, some of them are suffering from sickness and a lack of food and water. How will they cope if Assad and Russia begin bombing the north-west? It’s a humanitarian crisis waiting to happen.

 As activists, too, we are greatly afraid. The regime knows that those who refused to live under its control are gathered in the north-west, and we know that the regime considers peaceful activists and those who don’t support it as enemies and potential targets.

 In recent weeks, the regime has been releasing names of detainees who died in its prisons. They were civilian activists arrested after the 2011 revolution, whom we had long suspected were likely to be tortured and executed. The list of names proves that the regime believes peaceful activists must be targeted and killed. If north-western Syria falls, will we be similarly detained and disappeared? We know that the regime has the support of governments of powerful countries, and that the world has largely remained silent about Assad’s abuses.

 In March 2018, I testified before the UN Security Council, talking about the violations the regime was committing against the civilians of Ghouta. I called upon the members who attended that session to take action to stop the bombing and prevent our displacement, but nobody did anything and we were displaced anyway.

 I don’t think we can rely on the international community to save us, if Assad comes for the north-west. Our only hope would be that Turkey would open its borders and allow us to flee, but there is no guarantee of that.

 The displaced people of north-western Syria, my family included, abandoned our beloved homes and towns to live in freedom from the regime. As much as I long to go home, it is far better to live here than under Assad’s control. Despite everything, we still have hope to get rid of the war criminal, to give life the meaning it deserves and to give humanity its meaning back. If Assad does take the north-west, at least we can say, we did all that we could.'

Monday, 13 August 2018

Reunited post-Aleppo battle, Syria medics mete out 'hope'

Nurse Malakeh Harbaliyya feeds a baby at crowd-funded Hope hospital in the rebel held village ofNurse Malakeh Harbaliyya feeds a baby at crowd-funded Hope hospital in the rebel held village ofNurse Malakeh Harbaliyya feeds a baby at crowd-funded Hope hospital in the rebel held village ofNurse Malakeh Harbaliyya feeds a baby at crowd-funded Hope hospital in the rebel held village ofImage result for Reunited post-Aleppo battle, Syria medics mete out 'hope'

 'Her scarred hands wrapped in gloves, Malakeh Harbaliyya lifted an infant out of an incubator at a hospital in Syria's rural north, holding him gently as he guzzled milk from a bottle.

 Nearly two years ago, the nurse and her brave colleagues were scrambling to save premature babies from heavy regime bombardment of Aleppo city, before ultimately being forced to quit the facility altogether.

 Now the same team of doctors has reunited to open Hope Hospital in northern parts of the province still outside regime control.

 "I think of the children first before thinking of myself, because their lives are in our hands," said 31-year-old Harbaliyya at the facility in rebel-held Al-Ghandura.

 "Their tiny souls didn't do anything to deserve this war."

 In November 2016, Harbaliyya was working in the only children's hospital still operating in rebel parts of Aleppo city when an air strike slammed into the building.

 In footage of the aftermath, Harbaliyya is seen scooping up a baby in a light pink blanket, then suddenly bursting into loud sobs.

 Barely eight months later, after evacuating the city, a car bomb sent Harbaliyya herself into intensive care in neighbouring Turkey.

 But she has pulled through, and the severe burns on her hands have today healed into a swirl of scars.

 Her hair covered by a pink-coloured scarf and dressed in a top that reads "Girls for the Future," Harbaliyya beamed as she lovingly pinched a frail infant's cheeks.

 "My colleagues at the Hope Hospital - the staff with me here - gave me the will to live," she said.

 In blue scrubs, Dr Hatem greeted his colleagues at the door before heading in to examine a girl squirming on a consultation bed from stomach pain.

 The hallway features a large portrait of Mohammad Wassim Maaz, a beloved children's doctor who died in an air strike on Aleppo city in April 2016.

 Later that year, after the city's Children's Hospital was knocked out of action and as a regime victory loomed, Hatem and his colleagues formulated a plan.

 With government troops closing in, the staff knew they would soon be evacuated from Aleppo and wanted to stay together, said the 32-year-old doctor, also the hospital's director.

 "Wherever we went, we wanted to set up a children's hospital," said Hatem, preferring not to give his surname.

 In under a month, a crowd-funding campaign by the Turkey-based Independent Doctors Association and Britain's CanDo charity gathered enough donations from around the world to rehabilitate and run a new hospital for a whole year.

 "We would never have imagined that we could find the whole amount in just three weeks," Hatem said.

 With equipment brought from Britain via neighbouring Turkey, they opened the Hope Hospital in April 2017 in the previously underserved Al-Ghandura district.

 "There was not a single dispensary or anything to do with medicine in the whole area," said Hatem, who criss-crossed parts of the province still under rebel control looking for a good location.

 Slowly, the facility grew into a fully-fledged children's hospital complete with nine baby incubators, a malnutrition clinic, a well-equipped lab and emergency services.

 After having to refer many women to another hospital, they added an obstetrics and gynaecology section too.

 "The team is mostly the same as the one in Aleppo but, because of the bigger workload here and the higher turnout, we had to increase staff," said Hatem.

 As the only specialised facility for miles, his clinic set amidst tall pine trees receives 8,500 to 9,500 cases a month.

 "The Hope Hospital really is a point of hope," he said.

 "It allowed the staff from Aleppo to feel that there is still humanity left in the world," Hatem said of the donations that brought the facility to life.

 But funds have started to run out and another crowd-funding campaign failed to meet its target.

 Now, staff hope to sign a contract with the UN's children agency (UNICEF) to help run the facility for six more months.

 Hospital manager Riyadh Najjar, 31, said the hospital is providing services to many in need.

 "It's anguishing to leave your city, but here you have the opportunity to serve people," he said, dressed in trousers and a white t-shirt.

 Beyond the district's original inhabitants, Najjar said the hospital also serves many Syrians displaced from other parts of the country by the seven-year war.

 Like the hospital staff, patients come from Aleppo city, but also the central province of Homs and northern province of Raqqa.

 "It's something extraordinary to be able to offer them medical services and help them," said Najjar.'

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Syrian rebel groups help fighters earn high school diplomas

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 'Some young adults who left home to fight the Assad régime are getting a second chance at a "normal" life.

 Al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front), which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), honored some of its fighters Aug. 3 for obtaining their high school diplomas (baccalaureate certificates) this year. The front held a special ceremony in Azaz, about 20 miles north of Aleppo.

 Levant Front military leaders, along with fighters who passed the exams and their families, attended the ceremony. Speakers addressed the importance of fighters returning to school after having dropped out because of the war.

 Mohammad Saleh, a Levant Front leader, said that 77 of the 120 fighters from the front who sat for the exams in June obtained their diplomas. "This percentage is excellent, given that they had been out of the game for a while," he said.

 “The Levant Front offered the fighters support by building them a special institute to learn all the material of public schools. Contracts were signed with teachers of all courses. The institute opened in November in Azaz. … For seven months, the students who were fighters were taught and prepared for the baccalaureate exams," Saleh said.

 "The fighters were highly interactive during the school year. They had the desire to return to school, which they had dropped out of to carry arms and join the FSA. The fighters who received the baccalaureate certificate will pursue their university education" in Aleppo province, where there are several colleges. "They can major in any discipline. The Levant Front will repeat this experience next year and support other fighters to return to school,” he added.

 The Levant Front fighters who obtained their degrees are 20-26 years old. Some have fought since mid-2012 against the Syrian regime and the Islamic State (IS). Many will take this opportunity to leave the fighting for good and continue their education in college, and some will remain in the Levant Front to make money to pursue university studies later. The front pays each fighter in its ranks 530 Turkish liras (about $83) per month.

 The FSA is currently fighting the régime on the frontlines from Tel Rifaat to Tadef, north of al-Bab. Tadef is controlled by the régime, and al-Bab is controlled by the FSA. FSA fighters are also deployed with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Manbij in northern Aleppo province, though there are no battles currently.

 Mohammad Derbas, a 22-year-old from northern Aleppo, scored 180 out of 220 points on his high school exam. He said, “I couldn't believe that after all these years of being away from school, I have returned and received the baccalaureate certificate. I can now pursue my [university] studies. I want to study economics at the International Sham University near Azaz."

 Derbas dropped out of school when he was 18 due to ongoing displacement and school closings as a result of the régime shelling. He joined Liwaa al-Fateh, a Levant Front affiliate, in early 2015 and fought alongside his friends against IS in northern Aleppo province.

 Abdel Rahman Hadaba, 25, from Tell Rifaat in northern Aleppo, is a member of the Levant Front. He received his diploma after working hard for it despite his big responsibilities: He is married with two children and, displaced from his hometown, lives in a camp near Azaz. Still, he managed to get the certificate against all odds, and his family encouraged him.

 “When the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, I was a student at the public school. I couldn't continue my studies because I was participating in the protests against the régime. I carried weapons and joined the FSA ranks in 2012. I participated in the first battles against the régime that year, and I'm still fighting with the FSA," he said.

 “I kept dreaming of returning to school all these past years. [Some of] my peers had continued their studies, and I was stagnating. I want to get a job and fulfill my ambition. I want to raise my income. The Levant Front supported us to get the baccalaureate, and I hope other FSA factions in the north would do the same and support fighters dreaming of returning to school.”

 Thousands of Syrian youths left school and joined the revolution against the régime in 2011. Many of them carried arms and fought alongside the FSA after the peaceful protests turned into armed militancy against the regime in 2012. They could not return to school because most schools were destroyed under the shelling. The schools that remained weren't safe. Most teachers migrated to safer areas or to neighboring Turkey in the north.

 These young Syrians wanted more than anything to provide for their families and shelter them from the shelling. IS took control of large areas in opposition-held land in northern Syria in early 2014 and banned education, turning schools into military centers.

 Perhaps the initiative of the Levant Front to support its militants in pursuing their education is a good start for young Syrians who felt their future was slipping away due to the war, displacement and the damaged educational sector.'

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Syrian rebels build an army with Turkish help, face challenges

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 'A “National Army” being set up by Syrian rebels with Turkey’s help could become a long-term obstacle to President Bashar al-Assad’s recovery of the northwest - if they can end factional rivalries that have long blighted the opposition.

 The effort is at the heart of plans by the Turkish-backed opposition to secure and govern a strip of territory that forms part of the last big rebel stronghold in Syria.

 The presence of Turkish forces on the ground has helped to shield it from government attack.

 Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recover “every inch” of Syria, and though he has now won back most of the country, the Turkish presence will complicate any government offensive in the northwest.

 Turkey’s role has gone beyond supporting allied Syrian forces to rebuilding schools and hospitals. At least five branches of the Turkish post office have opened in the area.

 Colonel Haitham Afisi, head of the National Army, says setting up the force has been no easy task over the last year.

 “We are at the beginning. We face many difficulties but we are working to overcome them,” said Afisi in an interview in the town of Azaz near the Turkish border.

 Recently, he had to issue an order instructing fighters to stop “randomly opening fire”, wear uniforms and cooperate with a newly established military police that represents “the force of law and justice and not a rival to any other faction”.

 Factions have also been banned from operating their own jails and courts and from carrying out extra-judicial arrests.

 The project has also faced attack: a number of recruits were wounded on Aug. 5 when their graduation ceremony in the city of al-Bab was shelled. Afisi said it was the work of an “enemy of the revolution, be they internal or external”. The perpetrator had been identified, but he declined to say it who was.

 The National Army compromises some 35,000 fighters from some of the biggest factions in the war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced some 11 million people from their homes over the last seven years.

 Many previous efforts to unite the rebels have failed, obstructed by local rivalries and at times by the competing agendas of foreign states that once backed many of the rebels in the Syrian war.

 The National Army could be different because of Turkey’s presence on the ground.

 The Turkish military pushed into the northwest in two campaigns. The first, “Euphrates Shield”, which got underway in 2016, drove ISIS from territory between Azaz and Jarablus. The second, “Olive Branch”, captured the adjoining Afrin region from the Kurdish YPG militia earlier this year.

 The area is important to Turkey because of what it views as the national security threat posed by the YPG, which it sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.

 Assad says Turkey is illegally occupying Syrian land.

 “All the support for the National Army is from Turkey, there are no other states partnering in this matter,” Afisi said.

 Turkish support includes fighters’ wages, logistical support “and weapons if necessary”. He listed three enemies: Assad, the PKK and ISIS.

 Turkey has also set up 12 military posts in Idlib province and adjoining areas which are located southwest of Afrin, under an agreement with Russia and Iran. The stated aim is to observe a “de-escalation” agreement in the Idlib area.

 Assad has indicated Idlib could be his next target.

 Afisi said the National Army could be quickly merged with Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib if necessary.

 The situation in Idlib is complicated by the presence of well-armed jihadists that have fought with the other groups.

 “We are ready and extend our hand to all groups that represent the goals of the revolution,” he said.'

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