Saturday, 8 September 2018

Still recording: Syrian revolution documentary wins top Venice prizes

 'A film that follows two friends through four nightmarish years of the Syrian revolution and genocide has lifted some of the top prizes at the Venice film festival, which ends today.

 Still Recording, a documentary by Ghiath Ayoub and Saeed al-Batal, records what happened to two idealistic art students after they were swept up in the fervour of the Syrian revolution.

 It picked up two awards at Venice Critics’ Week.

 Friends Saeed and Milad leave Damascus and go to Douma in 2011, a suburb under rebel control, to set up a radio station and recording studio.

 There they struggle to keep a flicker of hope and creativity alive as they endure fighting, siege and famine.

 Ayoub and al-Batal, who shot 500 hours of footage, said that with so little reporting coming out of Syria it was important to bear witness.

 “We started doing this because there wasn’t, and still isn’t, an efficient working media in Syria because it’s not allowed to enter and if it is, it’s under the control of the regime,” said al-Batal. “Art is nothing if it is not resistance, even if there isn’t revolution... it is resistance against a huge amount of emotions you have got inside you. Emotions need to come out and expressing them through art can do that.”

 The win comes as the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are preparing to launch an assault on Idlib, the northern province that is the last major stronghold of the rebel and jihadist groups which have been trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad for the past seven years.

 Al-Batal said the situation in Syria “is more dangerous than ever now” because the Russian military are more ruthless than Assad’s badly trained soldiers.

 “They know where to hit, and how to hit hard,” said al-Batal, who said the “media army behind them” was the same.'

Our pain has made us one family

Around 1 million people have fled to Idlib from other parts of Syria

 'When ISIS fighters began to murder opposition activists in Aleppo, Mostafa and his family fled south towards Raqqa.

 When Raqqa fell to the jihadists, they fled again, this time to the northern countryside of Aleppo near the border with Turkey.

 And when Assad’s forces took control of the countryside in 2015, they fled to Idlib, now the last-remaining rebel stronghold in Syria.

 “We’ve been here about three years. Idlib has been a safe place for us,” Mostafa said. “But we always know this day would come. Everyone in Syria knows you can go to another place but the war will follow you.”

 For Mostafa and around one million other displaced Syrians, Idlib has been a place of relative safety after being forced to flee their homes.

 Families from all over Syria - Aleppo, Ghouta, Daraa, and a dozen other bombed-out cities - converged on the rural northwestern province after their own hometowns were overrun by ISIS or the régime.

 Around half of the 2.5 million civilians in Idlib arrived there recently from somewhere else.

 But Idlib’s time as a sanctuary looks to be coming to an end. Syrian régime forces are massing on the borders of the province and appear to be preparing for a final assault under the cover of Russian airpower.

 “Sometimes I tell people what happened in Ghouta and they shake their heads. I don’t think they believe me,” said Muhammad, a 27-year-old who arrived in Idlib in March after surviving the régime’s five-year siege of Ghouta, a Damascus suburb.

 “People don’t know the threat waiting for them because they don’t have the experience I have.”

 At the end of previous sieges, the régime would often give rebel fighters and the civilians who support them the option of going to Idlib in return for surrendering. Green buses would ferry the defeated to Idlib, which is largely under the control of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group once linked to al-Qaeda.

 Now there is nowhere left to run. All other rebel-held areas have fallen to Assad’s forces and Turkey has closed its border, saying it cannot take another influx of Syrian refugees. Smugglers can still get people across the border but at a cost of $3,000 (£2,321), far beyond the means of most people.

 “Everyone is asking the same hard question: what will you do if the régime comes?” said Ahmad, who came to Idlib after Assad’s forces overran Aleppo in late 2016. “Many people will fight to the death.”

 One small source of comfort is the Turkish military presence in Idlib. Turkey’s forces have set up around a dozen military posts and civilians hope they may be able to shelter near them during an attack, believing Assad’s troops won’t risk bombing Turkish soldiers.

 Others talk of trying to get out of Idlib to the area around Afrin, which is controlled by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces. The route would be perilous, especially during an assault.

 Although few people moved to Idlib by choice, many of its new residents speak happily of their time in the province, living alongside fellow Syrians who cling to the ideals of their almost-defeated revolution.

 “I have never been to London but I heard that one street you can hear 100 languages. Here in Idlib, on one street you have people from all 14 governates in Syria,” said Mostafa.

 “When you meet somebody from Homs or Deir Ezzor you don’t ask him what happened, you know that he is like you and he lost brothers or children. You don’t ask where they were before because you know it will open old wounds.”

 Mostafa said he had lost two brothers during the war, one killed by ISIS and the other by the régime. “We have a saying in Arabic: ‘our pain has made us one family’. It’s true in Idlib.” '

Friday, 7 September 2018

Resistance is our choice

 'Residents in Syria's northwestern Idlib province are holding mass rallies in the rebels' last bastion, under the title "Resistance is our choice", protesting aginst an imminent government offensive there and chanting against Bashar al-Assad.

 The Friday rallies came as the Presidents of Iran, Turkey and Russia are meeting in Tehran to discuss the war in Syria. The summit may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action in Idlib and its surrounding areas, home to more than 3 million people. Nearly half of the area's residents are already displaced from other parts of Syria and have refused to reconcile with the Syrian government. .

 "Come on, leave Bashar!" hundreds of protesters chanted in Saraqeb, a town in eastern Idlib. "We will defend our revolution." '


Syria: Is Idlib really the last battle?

Training of Syrian rebels in the province of Idlib, September 1st.

 'In Idlib, it is not the last act of the Syrian crisis that is about to be played out but only the last act of the first part of this tragedy. As the "liberation" of Aleppo foreshadowed, on the model of that of Mosul, the "victories", Raqqa first, Ghouta and Deraa afterwards, were effectively imprisoned. Althoug some eager observers want to read the "end" of the Syrian crisis. Idlib remained unresolved, partly protected by the proximity of Turkey. Enclosed in the eyes of Westerners between the amalgam of sectarian thought, right and left ("they are too Muslim to be honest"), and those of "melenchonist" intellectual laziness (the Syrian revolution is "only one war for resources "), the Syrian opposition was to varying degrees disavowed by the entire planet.

 Since Aleppo, however, many masks have fallen. Behind the scenes and hence the exact scope of the régime's "victory" are beginning to be known. To accelerate the process of confiscation of their property, the ruling Syrian clan has begun to publish the names of those thousands of citizens who have died in its jails of identical "cardiac arrests". And he boasts very openly lately of having managed to manipulate ISIS. For their part, the Russians today recognize with confidence that, to accompany their formidable air commitment (39 000 sorties having killed 86 000 "combatants"), they have had up to 63 000 men engaged on the ground (including "434 generals").

 Let us take the time today to understand that these "victories" were not those of one part of the Syrian society on another. They were only made possible the powerful external lever that has artificially perpetuated a State repression of an infinite bestiality. This lever was driven by Iran and the Shiite world first, then more decisively, by Russia, in incomparably larger proportions than the support, Western or Arab, received by the opposition. Imported from Tehran and Moscow, the ultimate "victory" of Bashar al-Assad is more than ever that of a minority artificially infused from abroad - the majority ... abandoned by all.

 In fact, in December 2016, it was not the Chechen jihadists who left Aleppo (nor the Iranians nor the Russians who entered it en masse) but its most legitimate inhabitants. The goal that the Russians and Iranians are reaching is the destruction of any resistance to the longevity of their Syrian counterpart other than the jihadist bogeyman. They let him prosper all the more willingly because they knew that the Western world was stuck in the short-term electoralism of its policies. And that, as it confused the causes (Assad) and the consequences (ISIS) of violence, it was ready to postpone indefinitely any pressure on them.

 The "victory" promised in Idlib is therefore that of a minority driven by foreign authoritarianism over a majority abandoned by the most arrogant "defenders of democracy." This victory of the weapons of the authoritarian winter over the hopes of the democratic spring obviously can't be an exit from the crisis but only its reconfiguration. The triumph of force leaves no glimpse of "reconciliation at the center" which would be the sine qua non of a re-institutionalization of power. Such a solution would have required that those of the vanquished who had managed to survive the destruction of Aleppo, Raqqa or Daraa, to join the millions of these refugees who preceded them, enabling them to feel a common identity. It was absolutely nothing. Redeployed territorially, the immense camp of the excluded retains indeed the most legitimate reasons to remain mobilized. At all levels of Syrian society, the explicitly confessional tone of the Iranian - military but also economic and entrepreneurial - presence augurs badly for going beyond the sectarian divide.

 Irresistibly, this "triumph of injustice", which radiates in the world of the vanquished, will therefore maintain the dynamic of rising to extremes. It complete discredits not only those Westerners who have stepped back but also those of Syrian elites who, believing in their promises, have provided them the pledges of the "moderation" they demanded. It will give de facto reason to the most radical, that is to say to the jihadists. Despite the brutality of their military defeat (at the end of a resistance that no other component of the political landscape of the contemporary Middle East has ever been able to produce), they are today the only opponents in Bashar to be able to claim not to have been betrayed.

 Let us dream that we will not have to measure tomorrow what short-term and electoralist policies will cost their authors. And their fellow citizens of the international community.'

Image result for Syrie : Idlib, vraiment la dernière bataille ?

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Turkey strives to unite rebel factions in Syria against Assad

Image result for Turkey strives to unite rebel factions in Syria against Assad

 'Even as Ankara warns that a military confrontation in northern Syria would be a disaster, Turkey is preparing for just that scenario by working to unite rebel forces at Idlib against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has Russia's support.

 Turkey is encouraging leaders of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Syrian National Army (SNA) to join forces. Both groups are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Turkey offers support to the SNA — which was formed Dec. 30, 2017, and is also affiliated with the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government in the Euphrates Shieldarea, east of the river. Turkey also supports the NLF in Idlib. Thus, it would serve Ankara for both groups to unite under a single military command, as Turkey doesn't want to give up the area it occupies in northern Syria.

 After 11 years of civil war, the regime has cleared rebel groups from most of Syria, and those left are concentrated in Idlib. There are also terrorist forces there, and many civilians. The people there are living in fear, as the Syrian regime is threatening to invade Idlib, disregarding all Russian-Turkish de-escalation understandings reached during numerous peace negotiations. Turkey hopes unifying the factions will ward off possible attacks by the regime.

 The factions began meeting Aug. 10 in opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria, under Turkey’s sponsorship.

 On Aug. 12, the SNA commander, Col. Haitham al-Afisi, expressed the readiness of the army stationed in the Euphrates Shield area to merge with the FSA factions in Idlib. Those factions joined the NLF as it was being launched in May.

 When it was first formed, the NLF included 11 FSA factions from opposition-controlled areas, namely Idlib and the northern countrysides of Hama and Latakia provinces. On Aug. 1, four other FSA factions from Idlib and northern Syria joined the NLF, including the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) and Jaish al-Ahrar.

 The SNA deputy commander, Col. Ahmed Al-Othman, said “SNA and NLF leaders have been meeting in Idlib and the countryside of Aleppo to reach an understanding on the unification of the two military blocs under one command.” He added, “We are making great efforts to achieve this crucial unity at this critical stage in the Syrian revolution. If we succeed, the Syrian opposition would have an undeniably strong military force in the Syrian north, with over 100,000 fighters.”

 Othman said, “After the FSA took control of the area of Afrin, northwest of Aleppo, the coast became clear between the Euphrates Shield area in Aleppo’s countryside and Idlib; the areas are now geographically linked and the FSA factions can easily unite.”

 NLF spokesman Capt. Naji Mustafa also said his group is ready to unite with the others, though he added "The developments around Idlib and the invasion threats the regime is making are forcing us to shift our attention toward fighting off possible attacks, instead of focusing on our unity.”

 He added “There is no difference between the FSA factions affiliated with the SNA and those affiliated with the NLF. It is quite easy; we can reach an understanding over unifying ranks as soon as consultations are over.”

 Meanwhile, NLF leader Capt. Abdel Salam Abdel Razzaq said “I believe this step will be a success because it is based on sound foundations and takes into account the military standards in force in these armies. For the first time ever, the FSA will [become] an organized entity that relies on professional officers and academics who defected from the regime’s army years ago.”

 He continued, “The people here in the north wish that all FSA factions would unite under one military entity and have unitary decision-making, after all these years in which the opposition suffered from division and chaos. If we succeed in uniting the SNA and the NLF, our army would be the strongest and the scales would tip in our favor.”

 Abdel Razzaq said, “Turkey wants all FSA factions to unite. It would bode well for the Turkish side and would strengthen its position against other regional powers that are interested in the Syrian issue, such as Russia and Iran.”

 One can’t help but wonder whether such a unification could indeed help the Syrian opposition in the north in its fight against the Syrian regime. It all seems to depend on Turkey's role in supporting all the factions and accelerating the process of uniting under one entity.'

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Not all hope is lost

 'Victory by the Assad régime over the last bastion of the Syrian resistance is far from a foregone conclusion. Worse still for the Assad régime, it could unite the opposition into making a last stand.

 Over the last two years the Syrian revolution has taken a dramatic turn from what it was in the early days of the revolution. It's fair to say that the revolution started with civil unrest followed by mass arrests, widespread torture and killings by the Syrian régime against those who dared to speak up and protest.

 Then came the early stages of armed resistance that took shape from the announcements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), followed by many other armed groups and factionalisation.

 The early days of the conflict may be described as those of resilience in the face of a vicious onslaught by the régime, perseverance, and a refusal to "prostrate" to Bashar al Assad. It was characterised by continuous battles and countless "martyrs". The people had enough of Assad.

 Then came the liberation of the city of Idlib which was a landmark event in the history of the revolution as the opposition controlled much of the countryside and a single city: Raqqa. Other parts of the country were then liberated.

 The régime had by then already been besieging and starving places like Homs, Zabadani and Madaya to name a few. The tactic of 'siege and starvation' began to work. Many recall the pictures of fighters and their families being transported in green buses from their homelands to the northern Syrian province of Idlib, the heartland of the revolution.

 The régime has used this tactic over the last couple of years. Taking out one opposition or rebel-held area at a time until it becomes nearly certain that the final destination of all besieged fighters is the province of Idlib.

 Politics played a larger role than fighting during several stages of the revolution and revolutionaries realised there were forces bigger than their pump action shotguns and chants of war. The political battle was so dominant at certain times that many armed groups wouldn't fight a single battle during that time.

 Then came the Astana talks and "de-escalation zones"; a new concept to those on the ground in Syria. Many believed that this was some kind of conspiracy and not the end of the war, others begged to differ and were almost certain that the war was over and that "new borders had been drawn".

 The Syrian people describe what happened next as "expected treachery". VOA reported last week, paraphrasing the United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura, as "Syria as a sovereign country has every right to reclaim its territory."

 Those that believed everything was a conspiracy are now convinced that international peace talks and conferences were a conspiracy to cover up a larger plan. Some even said that Staffan de Mistura has now proven that he is not a neutral peacemaker but rather a complicit partner to the régime's slaughter and torture of innocents.

 For many here in northern Syria it does seem that the war is on the verge of restarting if the régime and its Russian backers start an offensive on the densely populated province. Idlib is currently home to just under 3 million people, over 1 million of them are refugees. Carpet bombing, that has become the modus operandi of the régime will spell disaster for a province that is more densely populated than at any time in its history.

 Peace talks between opposition and rebel factions have now restarted after the announcement of a "renewed war on Idlib".

 To the average Syrian, the battle for Idlib is not simply about 'getting rid of terrorists' as has been announced by the Russians, the Syrian régime, and even the UN. For many Syrians, this is not the case, rather it's an offensive that aims to silence the revolution and its hope for freedom, once and for all.

 The past month in northern Syria has been full of preparations by armed groups and civilians alike. Many civilians have voluntarily taken part in digging trenches with nothing but shovels and pickaxes, some have even been killed in the process due to the intense régime bombardment in areas in Hama, Sahl Al Ghab and Aleppo.

 In preparation for an offensive many people have been caught working for the Syrian régime, the locals call these people "frogs" or "dafadi" who are willing to work with Russia and the Assad régime. Rebel sources I have spoken with tell me "we have certain information that those that have been arrested were to be relied heavily on by the régime when the offensive does start".

 However not all hope is lost. The free people of Idlib will not allow international powers to decide their fate for them. Nor will they simply and idly wait as a brutal régime seeks to exert its long lost legitimacy with their blood.

 A video statement was released by the National Front for Liberation or 'Jabhat al Wataniya lil Tahrir' dated 1 September stating that "those young men who at one stage gave up on the revolution are now back in the trenches."

 It seems that the spirit of the early days of the revolution is now back, and in case the régime and Russia's offensive does actually start, we will likely see a new stage in the Syrian revolution similar to the one we knew in the early days.'