Friday, 7 February 2020

As Syria régime inches closer, Idlib city prepares for mass exodus of civilians

As Syria regime inches closer, Idlib city prepares for mass exodus of civilians

 'Fahad Aswad hasn't slept in two days. An anaesthetist at a maternity and paediatric hospital in Idlib city, Aswad has been working around-the-clock to treat patients injured in the mounting violence that's gripped Syria's last rebel stronghold.

 "As I talk to you, the sound of warplanes fills the air," Aswad says.

 The Syrian army has advanced to within eight kilometres of Idlib city, the heavily populated provincial capital home to scores of civilians already uprooted from fighting elsewhere in the country. But even as pro-government forces inch closer to the city, Aswad is determined to stay put.

 "We will continue to work until our last breath. If Bashar al-Assad's forces decide to storm the city, we will be displaced to the camps," he said.

 In what amounts to one of the largest displacements since Syria's war erupted in 2011, a deadly régime offensive in northwest Syria has forced more than half a million people to flee their homes since December, the United Nations estimates.

 Videos posted to social media showed bumper-to-bumper traffic as thousands poured out of Idlib city and the surrounding towns this week.

 Desperate families packed their cars and trucks to the brim and headed north toward the relative safety of towns near the locked Turkish border.

 The civilian exodus began in late April when the government launched its push to retake Idlib and parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Hama provinces – the last swath of the country still in the hands of the opposition.

 According to the UN human rights agency, at least 1,500 civilians have been killed in the past nine months of fighting.

 Bashar al-Assad, whose forces now control roughly two-thirds of the country, has long vowed to capture every inch of Syria.

 Supported by Russian airpower and Iran-backed militia forces on the ground, the Syrian army has retaken several key towns and villages in the past two months, including the opposition stronghold of Maaret al-Numan.

 Under the cover of airstrikes, Syrian forces seized parts of the major highway town of Saraqeb on Thursday, some 15 kilometres east of Idlib city.

 "They are trying to advance from several axes in southern Idlib and Aleppo countryside," said Captain Naji Mustafa, spokesperson for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front.

 "[The régime] suffered heavy losses, but Russia is using all of its military power and practicing a scorched-earth policy," he said.

 Turkey, which backs the opposition, called for an end to the bombing campaign after shelling by Syrian forces killed eight of its military personnel.

 Turkish President Recip Tayipp Erdogan warned his country would not allow Syrian forces to advance further and accused them of pushing "innocent and grieving people" toward Turkey's southern border, which is currently closed to new refugee arrivals.

 He added that Turkey would retaliate if pro-government forces did not retreat from Turkey's 12 observation posts in Idlib, two of which have been encircled by Syrian troops and were set up as part of a 2017 agreement with Russia designed to de-escalate the fighting.

 With an estimated 150,000 people displaced in the past two weeks alone, aid agencies are warning of a potential humanitarian catastrophe unlike anything seen in the past nine years of war.

 The UN has appealed for $336 million to assist with the latest wave of displaced people, 80 percent of whom it says are women and children.

 Freezing winter temperatures and rising fuel costs have compounded an already miserable situation for Syrians on the move.

 With skyrocketing rental prices for houses in the towns along the Turkish border, many of the displaced have resorted to sleeping in the open air or makeshift tents. Some have found space in crowded displacement camps, which are currently hosting five times their intended capacity.

 "Living in camps would be very difficult. As a woman, I cannot imagine," said Afaf Jakmour, a 29-year-old journalist living in Idlib city.

 If the régime gets much closer to her home, Jakmour and her family plan to drive north toward the border and from there look for shelter. It's a painful decision Jakmour says she's putting off as long as possible.

 "If the régime storms the area, I will definitely leave. But I plan to stay until the last minute," she said.'

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Russia-Turkey tensions play out in media following deadly Syria clashes

 Ragip Soylu:

 'A day after Syrian government forces killed eight Turkish soldiers, Russian state media published a series of anti-Turkey reports, the kind not seen since relations between Ankara and Moscow hit a nadir in 2016.

 Russian state news agencies Rossiya Segodnya and TASS claimed in separate articles on Tuesday that Turkey had played a role in the creation of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's former Syrian arm that has now rebranded itself as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.

 The articles included the testimonies of two Syrian fighters, who claimed Ankara gave $100 salary to the Nusra militants. Zvezda TV, operated by the Russian defence ministry, ran a similar report that put Turkey under the suspicion of aiding the militant group.

 Turkish relations with Russia have been tense since last week, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Moscow wasn't abiding by the de-escalation agreements it had promised to uphold in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province.

 Multiple ceasfires have collapsed in Idlib, a province in northwest Syria bordering Turkey, and Syrian government advances have displaced 500,000 people since December, according to the UN.

 Russia is a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and its forces have decisively swung Syria's war in his favour.

 “A million Syrians are on the move to the Turkish border,” Erdogan said on Monday.

 Turkey, which backs some of the Syrian rebel groups, has for months had a military presence in Idlib, centred around a series of observation posts.

 In an effort to stop the Syrian government offensive, however, Turkey deployed about 100 trucks carrying armoured vehicles and tanks to Saraqeb, a strategically important town where the M4 and M5 highways cross over. And then the deadly Syrian shelling came.

 For many in the Turkish media, the Syrian government attack on Sunday night wasn’t surprising. Cumhuriyet daily, a secularist opposition newspaper, noted on its front page that the raid occurred days after Erdogan’s severe criticism of Russia.

 Sabah, a staunchly pro-government newspaper, highlighted comments by Erdogan ally Devlet Bahceli, chairman of the nationalist MHP party, who said Russia had incited the Syrian government to attack.

 “The Moscow administration, which focuses on regional and historical ambitions rather than achieving stability in Syria, is untrustworthy and two-faced,” Bahceli was quoted as saying.

 Burhaneddin Duran, an advisor to Erdogan, has used his column in Sabah to repeatedly call on the US and EU to help stop the humanitarian catastrophe playing out in Idlib, where more than three million people are trapped in the fighting.

 In his column on Tuesday, Duran said Turkey hadn't been left with many options other than changing the balance on the ground.

 “Ankara is reinforcing the observation stations in Idlib. And moving to the stage of territorial control rather than just observing,” he wrote.

 Erdogan, in remarks released to the media on Tuesday, said that Turkey had completed the first stage of addressing the issue by deploying reinforcements, and signalled that something resembling a full-scale military operation might be needed next, following through on previous threats.

 “They believe we have been joking. Our military response to [Syrian government forces] was a good lesson to them. But we won’t stop, we will continue,” he said.

 Erdogan’s visit to Ukraine on Monday also seemed to have rattled the Russians.

 Before leaving for Kiev, Erdogan repeated the official Turkish policy that Ankara would never recognise Russia's unilateral annexation of Crimea.

On top of that, a video showing that Erdogan greeting Ukranian soldiers during the official welcoming ceremony with a “glory to Ukraine” salute created a social media sensation.

In Russia, the slogan is linked to Ukranian nationalists aligned with the Nazis against the Russians during the Second World War.

 “It had a really negative impact on Russians,” said Kerim Has, an independent analyst on Turkish Russian affairs based on Moscow.

 However both sides tried to calm the waters with new statements on Tuesday.

 Following a phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, Russia's foreign ministry said that “there was no alternative to a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by political and diplomatic means”.

 Erdogan, too, underlined that Turkey doesn’t need to clash with Moscow.

 “We don’t need to be in confrontation with Russia. We have many strategic initiatives with Russia" other than Syria, he said. “We will talk about everything. We shouldn’t act on our anger.” '

In Idlib, Assad's war machine has a lethal message: 'Leave or die'

In Idlib, Assad's war machine has a lethal message: 'Leave or die'

 Sam Hamad:

 'In the almost nine years of the war in Syria, the sight of tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands civilians fleeing their homes and neighbourhoods has become a disturbingly familiar sight.

 Since the conflict began, the lowest estimate of those
"displaced" stands at 13.5 million, equating to over one million people per year being made into refugees.

 The other familiar sight is the destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and markets turned to rubble by Russian or Baathist bombers. In the past 10 days, tens of thousands of people in Idlib - the last rebel-held province of Syria - have been forced towards the Turkish border under the threat of annihilation from a veritable blitzkrieg of Russian airstrikes, and the capture of left-behind ghost towns by Assad-Iran's militias.

 An estimated 6,500 children have fled Syria every day since the offensive began on 1 December last year, with 300,000 children becoming refugees in that time span. Seven hundred thousand people have been cleansed in a mere two months, with 80 percent of those women and children.

 None of this is accidental. The chaos of the destruction wrought by Assad masks the terrifying reality that every element of such destruction is methodical - from the deliberate targeting of civil infrastructure, to the carefully planned evacuations of entire populations.

 Though even I describe the cause of this mass exodus from Idlib as a result of "war", this language only tells a small part of the story. The true story can be summed with two words that the world seems reluctant to use: ethnic cleansing.

 Make no mistake, ethnic cleansing is both the aim and the effect of Assad-Iran-Russia's war effort. Many people have claimed over the years that ethnic cleansing cannot apply to Syria, since Assad is the same ethnicity as his victims.

 However, even if you momentarily set aside the fact that Assad's forces are as much as 80 percent foreign, or that he is himself largely now a puppet of Russia and Iran, ethnic cleansing is defined by UN Security Council Resolution 780 as "a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas".

 This perfectly describes precisely what Assad, Iran and Russia have set out to do since the popular revolution gripped the country. Assad, under the growing guidance of Iran, recognised that the protests were so widespread and deeply embedded in the Sunni population of the country.

 The solution was never for him to rule over Syria as it was before the revolution and war.

 The plan was to sectarianise the conflict, using mostly Alawite militias (Shabiha) and Alawite-led ultra-loyal units of the Syrian Arab Army. Assad had to demobilise two thirds of this national army due to its overwhelmingly Sunni composition and the high risk of defections as it was ordered to massacre Sunni Syrians.

 These Alawite militias eventually became, with the training and financial backing of Iran, the 'National Defence Forces' (NDF), joined by Hezbollah, the IRGC and Iranian-backed foreign Shia militias. Assad would utilise his, Iran and latterly Russia's extensive war machine to cleanse the mostly Sunni hotspots of the revolution.

 The end result would be a Baathist rump state, heavily under the control of Iran and Russia, where reduced and more ideologically compliant populations would be easier to rule over than the demographics who had initiated the revolution and tasted freedom. In the valleys between Damascus and the Lebanese border, Iran even infamously began the process of resettling cleansed Sunni towns and villages with loyalist Shia populations.

 This is precisely why during every conquest of any "liberated" area of Syria by Assad-Iran-Russia, we have seen the targeting of civilians and civil infrastructure. Normal life in liberated areas has been made almost impossible by the constant targeting of schools, hospitals and markets.

 When populations have resisted initial aerial bombardments, we've seen Assad's forces use chemical weapons on multiple occasions to escalate the terror and reach into the embedded populations and choke them to death - to burn the images of such cruel and traumatic images of death into the mind's eye of populations so that they will endeavour to get as far away from Syria as possible. Resistance among conquered populations is met with genocidal viciousness, including a network of prisons where tens of thousands of Syrian prisoners have been starved and tortured to death.

 After the brutality of the fall of Free Aleppo, who could forget the famous white buses that turned up to literally cleanse the remaining population? The same "evacuations" took place in Deraa, Homs, Ghouta and in most other parts of Syria reconquered by Assad. The slogan used by the regime has been "Leave or die".

 Though "evacuations" is the term preferred by the media, let's call it for what it is: ethnic cleansing. Of course, the destination then was Idlib, whose population swelled by millions as it became the primary location of Syrians cleansed from other parts of the country.

 And this is why it's time we began to use this term to describe the reality engulfing Syria. To understand this aspect of Assad-Iran-Russia's war in Syria not only exposes yet another dimension of criminality to their actions, but it opens up the reality that what was already the worst refugee crisis since WWII is only going to get worse.

 Those Syrians fleeing Idlib have found themselves trapped at a Turkish border that will not let them pass. Turkey has taken in more refugees than any nation on earth, with at least 4 million Syrians settling in the country. Europe, the so-called bastion of liberalism, which contains the world's richest nations, is mired in overtly racist policies of rebuking the refugees. Turkey doesn't have the necessary resources in isolation, which has led to ugly incidents at the border and protests from desperate refugees.

 On Monday, Turkish forces in Idlib were shelled by Assad, prompting Turkey to swiftly retaliate. Assad-Iran-Russia, it seems, is determined to cleanse Idlib, with Russia probably counting on Turkey eventually relenting to the refugees, thus prompting another so-called refugee crisis in Europe. As with the last time, perhaps it's only a coincidence that the fascist parties that gain ground due to the racist backlash against Syrian refugees tend to be largely pro-Russia.

 We live in a world where many cannot even bring themselves to face up to the nature of the savagery being perpetrated against Syrians by Assad-Iran-Russia, namely the interrelated crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Only a few voices use these terms to describe the situation in Syria.

 This failure of language of is part of the general failure of the world that allowed genocide in Syria to triumph.

 The situation for Syrians in Idlib is now a tightrope between barbarism or survival. It seems like the former is the most likely outcome.'

Idlib demonstrators call international community to stop Russia’s slaughtering of civilians in Syria

Image result for Idlib demonstrators call international community to stop Russia’s slaughtering of civilians in Syria

 'Syrian demonstrators took to the streets on Friday (January 31) in Idlib city center and al-Bab city in Aleppo countryside, chanting anti-Russia and Assad militia slogans and calling the international community to stop Russia’s slaughtering of civilians in Syria.

 The demonstrators confirmed the continuity of the Syrian revolution and condemned Assad and Russian bombardment on Idlib.

 They also expressed their sympathy and support to the forcibly displaced persons from Idlib and Aleppo countryside.

 They asked International community to press Russia and Assad régime and Russia to stop killing civilians and to release the detainees.

 On Wednesday midnight Russian warplanes bombed al-Shami Hospital, a bakery and civilian homes in the city of Ariha in Idlib countryside, killing 12 civilians, including four children and six women and injuring 68 others, including 13 children and 15 women.

 Assad-Russian warplanes have committed dozens of massacres in Idlib and Hama countryside since they launched their bombing campaign on the 30th of April, largely violating the de-escalation zone deal reached between Russia and Turkey.'

Image result for Idlib demonstrators call international community to stop Russia’s slaughtering of civilians in Syria