Friday, 11 October 2019

Thousands protest against Assad régime in Syria's Idlib

 'Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Friday (October 11) in Idlib province, chanting anti-Russia and anti-Assad militia slogans and confirming the continuity of the Syrian revolution, condemning Assad and Russian bombardment on Idlib and expressing their support for the Peace Spring Military Operation.

 The anti-régime protests took place for the seventh consecutive week in Idlib city and Idlib countryside’s villages and towns, including Binnish and Kafr Takharim.

 The demonstrators asked the international community to press the Assad régime and Russia to stop killing civilians and to release the detainees.

 Idlib is the largest part of Syria controlled by the opposition with a population swollen by Syrians who were displaced by the Assad régime and its allies’ advances in other parts of the country.'

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Shattered Assad’s régime beginning to crumble

 'Streets in many different Lebanese cities witnessed protests last week. The country has been suffering from dire economic conditions, which have been worsened recently by a lack of hard currency on the market. This has caused an increase in the US dollar exchange rate, seeing it jump from 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar to as much as 1,700. The Lebanese central bank’s financial engineering, which has kept the exchange rate for US dollars fixed in order to stabilize the financial environment, is no longer sustainable. This crisis has been attributed to the fact that dollars are being taken from the Lebanese market and smuggled into Syria.

 Though the central bank and the government are said to be taking measures to mitigate the crisis, it is important to see what it means in the broader context: It means Syrian President Bashar Assad is cornered and the US policy on Syria is working, despite false moves such as this week’s withdrawal from the northeast.

 The breakdown of the system in Lebanon is not in Assad’s interest. The current Lebanese government — despite the existence of factions that vehemently oppose Assad — is more or less neutralized. Lebanon is the home of Assad’s best support: Hezbollah and its Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement. Additionally, Lebanon contains a large portion of his opposition. Assad, of course, prefers them to be refugees in camps rather than an armed opposition fighting him in Syria. Nevertheless, he accepted the risk of seeing Lebanon destabilized in order for him to get an injection of American dollars. This shows how desperate and fragile his régime is.

 Assad’s eagerness to get hard currency led him to pressure his allies to suck liquidity from Lebanon and inject it into his régime. Moreover, in August he issued an order to freeze the assets of his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, as well as other business people. Though the régime has marketed the move as an anti-corruption measure against those who made their money illegally from a war economy, the truth is Assad is cornered and is desperate for cash. A confrontation with businessmen fronting the régime is bad news for Assad. It means the cake is too small for him to share with his cronies. However, those cronies are his support and the tentacles through which he operates. By alienating them and confiscating their assets, he is also limiting his ability to maneuver.

 Though Assad is winning the Syrian conflict militarily, he has not been able to garner stability in the country. As events unfold, his inability to run the country is exposed. Syria is de facto divided into four parts: Idlib contains the remnants of the armed opposition and is controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham; Afrin and the Euphrates in the north are under the influence of Turkey and its allies; the northeast is controlled by the Kurdish factions with the Syrian Democratic Council; and Assad supposedly controls the largest swath of land in Syria, limited by Abu Kamal in the northeast, Raqqa and Manbij in the north, and the Mediterranean to the west. However, the reality for Assad is much grimmer than one would think. He has no resources and no authority to govern. He is at the mercy of his patrons: The Russians and the Iranians. And he is living on borrowed time, as he is becoming an expensive client, especially for the Russians.

 So far, Moscow has been hoping that the US and the international community will accept Assad as victorious, start the reconstruction process and enforce polices encouraging the return of refugees without a proper political transition. However, the US and EU are holding firm. As one high-level European official told me, it is an ironclad guarantee that there will be no reconstruction until there is a concrete and proper political transition.

 The US policy has focused on isolating Assad. Instead of further militarizing the conflict and injecting funds and arms to rebel groups that are difficult to control, the US has decided to demilitarize. White House policy also extends into pressuring other nations to sever ties with the Assad régime. The delegation of Syrian business peoplewho met with UAE investors in January left empty-handed because of American sanctions. On the other hand, while the US policy aims at making life under Assad hard, it has put in place plans to revive the economy in areas outside his control — in the north and northeast. Washington established the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, known as START, with a mandate to stabilize those areas and make them livable.

 We don’t yet see a clash between Assad and his patrons, as everyone seems to be on the same wavelength. Moreover, everyone is expecting that the American withdrawal from the northeast will be in Assad’s favor. However, he is unable to rule the country in the same centralized and oppressive way he used to. He is running out of steam, shattered by the long war and the American sanctions. His régime seems to be slowly crumbling. He might have won the war, but he has not won the peace — and he won’t.'


Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Syrian Rebels See Chance for New Life With Turkish Troops

“Now it is a fight for land, not for freedom and dignity as before,” said Fares Bayoush, a former senior commander in the Free Syrian Army.

 'Amid the criticism over President Trump’s Syria policy, there is one former American ally that has welcomed his decision to pull back Kurdish-led forces and allow Turkish troops to create a safe zone in northern Syria: the rebel Free Syrian Army.

 Ensconced in several small enclaves of Syria near the Turkey border that are protected by Turkish forces, the Free Syrian Army (now named the National Army) is ready to deploy 14,000 soldiers as ground troops for Turkey in such an operation, Yousuf Hammoud, a spokesman, said on Monday.

 Mr. Trump’s decision, announced late Sunday, has been sharply criticized by politicians of both political parties in the United States as a desertion of the Kurdish-led forces — the most reliable American partners in fighting Islamic State militants in Syria. But fighters and veterans of the Free Syrian Army point out that they were also abandoned by Mr. Trump when he cut support to their force in 2017.

 Now, the Free Syrian Army, which has largely been marginalized in the conflict, sees a chance to regain lost territory in its struggle against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

 “A new hope is born for our people who were sent into exile from their homes, whose houses, work stations and land were taken away,” Mr. Hammoud said.

 President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose country hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has long called for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to shelter those fleeing the war and has raised his demands in recent months for a safe zone to resettle refugees along the Turkish border. Some rebel fighters of the factions that make up the National Army have been packing their bags in anticipation.

 “We really need the safe zone for the civilians,” Abdul Naser Jalel, a division commander of the Free Syrian Army, said in an interview in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep near the Syrian border. “A big part of the people will go back to their houses and their lands and we are preparing for that.”

 Hisham al-Skeif, a former civilian leader of the anti-Assad uprising and a spokesman for a faction of the rebel army, said the creation of the safe zone had been negotiated to avoid clashes. Free Syrian Army soldiers would be on the ground, backed by Turkish forces, but would avoid areas where United States forces and their Kurdish-led allies were based, he said.

 “We are allied with the Turks, and we are convinced this is for peace and not war,” he said. “We always say we never want to fight.”

 Mr. al-Skeif said Free Syrian Army soldiers and Turkish troops were expected to occupy a strip of territory between the two border towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, where most residents are Arabs. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been allied with the United States, were reported to have withdrawn from the towns on Monday.

 The operation to create a safe zone, if successful, would be a boost for Mr. Erdogan, who is under political pressure at home from splinter groups in his own party and growing public resentment against Syrian refugees.

 Syrians have mixed feelings. Some dislike seeing another foreign power further invading their land, but for the Free Syrian Army and many refugees, Turkey represents the best hope.

 The Free Syrian Army once seemed a lost cause, including to some of its own fighters. It came close, according to supporters, to toppling Mr. al-Assad’s government.

 Born out of the 2011 uprising, led by military defectors and ordinary citizens who took up arms as the government began a violent crackdown against protesters, at its height the Free Syrian Army had extensive popular support.

 For Mr. Jalel, 35, a former captain in the Syrian special forces who defected to join the uprising in 2012, the Free Syrian Army still represents the original ideals of the Arab Spring democracy uprisings that roiled the Middle East.

 “For us, as the Free Syrian Army, we think the civilians are our family,” he said. “We are the civilians.”

 But the rebel army was weakened by infighting and attacks from radical Islamist groups — the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) — which were better funded and far more ruthless. In 2014, Free Syrian Army factions fighting the Islamic State on one side and the Syrian military the other suffered heavy losses, and nearly collapsed when the United States ended its support in 2017.

 It has since regrouped with Turkish support, headquartered in the Syrian town of Azaz. The group’s true size is unclear, but it claims to have 30,000 to 40,000 fighters, a collection of rebel factions in a small area that Turkey has carved out and placed under its control around the towns of Jarabulus, Al-Bab and Azaz and the district of Afrin.

 Under Turkish management, the group has struggled to maintain credibility. In early 2018, it provided the ground troops for the Turkish army to seize Afrin from Kurdish-led S.D.F., and was criticized in a United Nations report for human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and looting.

 Mr. Jalel said his forces had caught many of the culprits, saying they were not members of the Free Syrian Army but opportunists who had exploited its advance.

 Mr. el-Skeif acknowledged that abuses had occurred in Afrin. He attributed them to revenge because the Kurdish-led forces have occupied Arab towns and villages, ousting members of the Free Syrian Army from their homes.

 Other elements of the Free Syrian Army, in northern Syria’s Idlib Province, regrouped under a Turkish-backed coalition known as the National Liberation Front. But last year they lost sway to the more powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates the province.

 “Now it is a fight for land, not for freedom and dignity as before,” said Fares Bayoush, a former senior commander of the Free Syrian Army who worked closely with American military and intelligence officials and had to flee attacks from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

 He and other Free Syrian Army veterans criticize the United States, which in their view allowed extremist groups to grow so strong that they obliterated more moderate groups like theirs.

 The United States then began supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, while at the same time ending its support for the Free Syrian Army.

 Free Syrian Army members resent S.D.F. control of majority-Arab areas. Like Mr. Erdogan, they see the Syrian Democratic Forces as a sister organization of the P.K.K., a Communist-styled party that has been waging an insurgency in Turkey for three decades. The proof, they say, is evident from the portraits of the P.K.K. leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in the Syrian Democratic Forces’ offices and bases.

 “A Kurdish minority is ruling the majority,” Mr. al-Skeif said. He complained that they had been fighting the dictatorship of Mr. al-Assad only for it to be replaced by the personality cult of Mr. Ocalan, a Turkish Kurd.

 “We were seeing Assad’s picture before, and now we are seeing Ocalan and he is not even Syrian,” he said. “We were studying Assad’s life in university, and now they are studying Ocalan in schools and universities and he is Turkish.”

 Mr. Jalel pulled up photos on his cellphone of 52 new recruits at his training base last week in Jarabulus to show the continued public support for the rebel army. The army recruits were 18- and 19-year olds who have grown up in the tented camps of displaced people that surround the town.

 “As long as we have the civilians and a free army, with a small piece or a small town of Syria, we will liberate all of Syria again,” he said.'

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

I thought I'd seen all the horrors possible here in Idlib – until now

A civil defence worker helps carry out a rescue operation after airstrikes on the town of Arihah in Idlib province, in July

Raed Al Saleh:

 'Most of my country is in ruins. But the worst crisis of Syria’s conflict is unfolding now. Beautiful cities have become ghost towns, their inhabitants forced to flee the country or pushed into one of the last remaining areas outside of Assad’s control. More than 3 million people, half of whom are children, are trapped in Idlib, where a tyrant is unleashing horror from the sky. It’s the largest displacement crisis of the 21st century and yet Idlib’s people have been abandoned by the world.

 After eight years leading teams of volunteer rescue workers, the White Helmets, I thought I had seen all the horrors possible. But looking at the state of Idlib today, I can honestly say it’s the worst my country has been.

 People are sleeping in the open, with just olive trees to shelter them and their families. Their most pressing needs are for clean water, toilets, and showers, but the UN has diverted the little funding available to fuel and heating. As a result, more than 40,000 people are thought to have contracted a tropical disease. When I was speaking to an elderly woman who had taken shelter in the open fields, she cried out for a toilet – it was the one thing she said would restore her dignity.

 More than 180,000 families have fled their homes since April but a mere 9,000 tents have been provided in recent months. Schools and community centres are overcrowded with people looking for somewhere to sleep, preventing children from going to classes, and displacement camps are close to breaking point. The ceasefire broke again this week, and the bombs are likely to push yet more families to the overcrowded camps. In August, 40,000 people left their homes in fear for their lives in just 24 hours.

 Since 26 April, the Syrian régime and Russia have pounded Idlib with a ferocity we have rarely seen before. Almost 1,000 civilians have been killed and many more severely injured. As with previous major escalations in the conflict, the war planes target our rescue workers, medical personnel and humanitarian facilities as a tactic to prevent help reaching the population.

 At a time when people are in urgent need of healthcare, more than 50 aerial attacks on hospitals and medical facilities have been recorded in the past six months, many with patients still being treated inside. After pressure from two-thirds of the UN security council, the secretary general finally launched an inquiry into the bombing of hospitals in Idlib in August, which must mean justice for the war crimes still being committed today.

 Nine of my White Helmet teammates have been killed, seven in “double-tap” airstrikes that target rescuers arriving at the site of the bombing.

 Yet local humanitarian groups are working with virtually no backing from the international community. The UN funding allocation for the crisis in Idlib is just 6% of the amount needed to provide vulnerable people with the basics – food, clean water and sanitation services.

 With little sign that the United Nations is stepping up its response, people are scared and desperate. But as the crisis worsens, there’s the possibility that this emergency could mean millions more refugees seek safety in Europe, a reality that could finally shake world leaders from their stupor.

 By destroying hospitals, rescue centres and schools, the Syrian régime and Russia are waging a physical and psychological war against the people of Idlib, hoping to squash their hope and strangle the essential services they rely on to survive. They want to destroy all aspects of life and leave them with no option but to flee.

 But we refuse to let go of hope or to believe, as Assad and Putin want us to, that Syrian lives and international humanitarian law no longer matter. Every White Helmet volunteer has made a pledge to stand up for humanity and human rights, guided by our motto: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”

 Today I ask the United Nations and the international community to finally step up with urgency and increase funding for shelter, water and sanitation, health and education in north-west Syria. They must pressure the Syrian régime and Russia to abide by multiple UN resolutions and stop the attacks on civilians. Syria has been the UN’s catastrophic failure – but it’s not too late to act.'

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, carry a wounded man on a stretcher following a reported airstrike on the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, June 2019