Tuesday, 24 April 2018

'Words are my only weapons' - Syrian activist's push for peace

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 'From dusty Syria to the crowded Belgian university town of Louvain-la-Neuve. Yahia Hakoum's life has changed so much since 2011, the year he joined protests against Bashar al-Assad's regime.

 He was picked up and jailed for 45 days, spending some time in the notorious Saydnaya prison, where he says he was tortured and lost 31 kilos.

 Now living in Belgium, that trauma still haunts Yahia. He recalls how his jail experience left him.


 "When I was released, I was just skin and bones. People were scared of me. Torture was systematic, to make a real physical change," he said. Discouraging people from joining demonstrations is the point he's making.

 After prison, Yahia decided to get out of Syria. Through an Italian priest, he was able to get a student visa for Belgium - where he now studies political science, alongside activism.

 He explained; "I preferred to leave the country because I didn't want to kill someone just because they didn't share my political views. Words are the only weapons I have. I don't have anything else. I have no influence, so now what I do is testify about what happened and what is happening today."


 Looking to the future, Yahia is in no doubt: peace will not come from talks between Iran, Russia and Turkey, nor from a Europe standing still without active mediation.

 He said: "The EU has accepted to play the role of a big NGO that delivers humanitarian aid, that pays money. It's able to play a bigger role through economic sanctions, but even those sanctions are not now respected," referring to member states.

 In Yahia's view, as long as the international community supports a so-called official opposition that represents the interests of other countries, there'll be no end to the Syrian conflict.

 "They have never listened to people inside the country. So far, there isn’t any real Syrian representation that comes from the heart of the revolution or that is able to represent the revolution," he commented.

 "This revolution doesn’t belong to old people, it doesn’t belong to the historical opposition of Assad: this is the revolution of the youth and this youth has never had the chance to speak out at political level."

 Yahia hopes to one day be back in Syria to re-join what's left of his family, the conflict has claimed the lives of many of his siblings.'

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Sunday, 22 April 2018

In one sense, you can say the revolution never dies



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 Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 "It's really distressing that the very people in Western societies who one would have expected to be the first to show solidarity with the Syrian people and their revolution from 2011; it's very often those sections of society that have just been relaying Russia and Assad's propaganda. I think we have to ask what is going on here. A lot of it is a West-centrism, in which people imagine everything that happens in the world is about us. If there's a problem in Syria, we don't need to ask Syrians about it, we don't need to study Syrian history and politics, and we don't need to look at the machinations of other imperialist states. We just need to focus on what our state is doing, and in fact we don't even do that. What we often do, is just assume our state is doing certain things.

 So, from the very beginning, some people on the left assumed that the Syrian Revolution was just a régime change plot, dreamed up in Washington or Tel Aviv, or maybe in Saudi Arabia, and they started treating the thing as if it was that from the start. Which is shameful, really. It's actually racist I would argue, because it robs the agency of Syrian people. It says these people are just pawns in our arguments with our own government.

 If you actually look at what happened, you'll see that in 2011, on some Fridays, there were millions of people on the streets, protesting for democracy, not for an Islamic state, but for democracy, freedom, and social justice, and against corruption and torture and oppressive policing, and all the rest of it. They didn't go out into the streets because the Americans or the Israelis told them to, or bribed them to. These are Syrians who don't like Israeli or American imperialism. They know more about it than people in the West do. They've suffered it. So they don't go out and do things because distant foreign governments they don't like tell them to do so. They certainly don't go out and risk their lives, knowing they are going to get shot at, that they may be arrested afterwards and tortured to death, because some foreign imperialist tells them to. They went out because they were immediately concerned.

 And what happened then was the régime declared war on them, and out of this war came a whole series of other wars. Regional, international, sectarian, ethnic. All kind of different states jumped in. All of them, of course, because that's how states behave, for their own reasons in their own interests, not in the interests of the Syrian people. But the biggest imperialist input into this war has been Russian and Iranian. I said this to a Scottish lady here yesterday, and she said, "Is Russia imperialist?"

 Now, if you're in the West, maybe the distinction between Russian imperialism and our imperialisms, seem very important. But if you're an Afghan, for example, your country has been occupied and destroyed, first by the Russians, and then by the Americans. If you're in Central Asia, or the Caucasus, or Eastern Europe for that matter, you know all about Russian occupations, imperialisms, and genocide.

 So it is such a narrow-minded, myopic, self-absorbed, Western idea, that the only way we can respond to this enormous tragedy in Syria, is by making the same old points that we make every time our governments say anything. It's not actually just about us. And also, if we look at what our government has been doing, why do people get so upset at the three strikes the other day on three empty chemical weapons bases? But they didn't get upset, I didn't see any huge angry demonstrations all the rest of the time since 2014 when the United States has been bombing Syria. It's been bombing for years, and killing thousands of civilians, and destroying cities. But that's in the name of the War on Terror, so we don't actually notice.


 Why would the United States drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when they already knew that the Japanese were considering surrender? There are lots of parallels we could look at. The actual strategic reason why Assad used chemical weapons this time was, as people who follow will know, in the last few months, he's been cleaning out, ethnically cleansing, or sectarian cleansing, the suburbs east of Damascus, the Eastern Ghouta. And one by one, the towns that were liberated, the revolutionary towns in those areas, were defeated, the signed surrender agreements; and the militias, and the activists, and their families, were bussed off to refugee camps in northern Syria. Many other people were detained by the régime. The town of Douma was the biggest thorn in his side, because he couldn't get the main militia there to surrender.

 They were in surrender negotiations, and Jaish al-Islam, the militia there, said that they wanted their soldiers to stay in the area, to guard the local civilians from the régime, and they would become a kind of police force, and they would stop fighting. The régime and the Russians didn't accept this, and broke off negotiations, restarted bombing, and in the middle of the bombing came the chemical attack, which created such a panic among the civilians - this is the thing about chemical attacks, most people of course have been killed by other means - that under popular pressure, Jaish al-Islam said immediately, within a few hours, that they would surrender.

 What this means is that Assad saved thousands of loyalist militiamen, his own ones. Because if he had had to fight his way into Douma, he would have lost thousands more men, and he's got very few of his own men left. Most of his men on the ground are now Iranian-backed transnational Shia jihadis.



  In 2017, about a year ago, when Assad used sarin gas in Khan Sheikhoun, and Trump wanted to show he was a tough guy unlike Obama,  so he went and bombed the airbase from where that attack had been launched. He cratered the airfield, and I think he destroyed one or two planes. But he called up Putin beforehand, a couple of hours before, and told him what he was going to bomb. Putin called Assad, and they moved their important stuff out of that base. And the same thing happened this time. The régime had several days, and it was actually for the Syrian people, or the revolutionary Syrian people in the areas being bombed every day by Assad and Russia, the few days running up to the strike were incredibly peaceful, because Assad was busy hiding his equipment and his planes, and he wasn't flying them and bombing people very much. So he had time to empty out the chemical sites, the three empty sites that were hit. This was a gesture.

 About the Russian response, there are two things here. The first thing, we shouldn't believe Russian rhetoric. If we follow closely, we will see that a couple of months ago a group of pro-Assad forces attacked the Americans' Kurdish allies in Eastern Syria. The Americans responded by putting a plane in the air, and bombing all of the vehicles in this column that was approaching. They killed about 200 people, I reckon. And it later emerged, that dozens of those 200 were actually Russians. A mixture of mercenaries, their equivalent of Blackwater and so on, but also some Russian soldiers. Putin said not a word. It leaked out into the Russian media, but no issue was made of it. Because, of course, Putin knows that if it comes to a military escalation, he will immediately be humiliated, and American weaponry will be shown to be superior to his. He is not going to go into a big escalation with people who are stronger than him, for the sake of the point he is making in Syria.

 The second thing is, more importantly, when people think there is about to be a superpower conflict over this, I don't think they realise that a more intelligent analysis of what's happening in Syria, suggests that it is international collaboration against the Syrian Revolution. It's not the case that the Russians are trying to keep Assad in, and the Americans are trying to get Assad out. If the Americans had wanted to get Assad out, in 2011-12-13, it would have been remarkably easy. They didn't want to. They chose not to. They have sometimes armed some Free Army groups, usually in the context of the war against ISIS. never in a serious way. And the Americans have always vetoed anyone else giving the Free Syrian Army the anti-aircraft weapons, which they really needed to stop the aerial campaign against their schools and hospitals and markets.

 So the West hasn't helped the Syrian. It has sometimes, not often, been more or less on the same page. Obama, who did his nuclear deal with Iran, which I'm not against in itself; in order to get the deal with Iran, he allowed Iran to send tens of thousands of foreign Shia jihadist militiamen, to fight on the dictator's behalf in Syria, which is much more destabilising. So the idea that America and Russia are facing off over this, I think is very inaccurate.



 When Putin came in, there was an independence movement in Chechnya. He absolutely destroyed Chechnya, and razed the capital city Grozny to the ground. Then strangled the government in Georgia. Then he went to Ukraine and took the Crimea. Whatever you think of the background there, and I'm sure there is historical resentment and problems; and the West, NATO and EU have some responsibility for the situation; nevertheless, he's gone to one place after the other after the other. And nothing's been done about it. There's a hot war in Europe. More people have died in Ukraine in the last few years than in Libya. Everybody ignores that for some reason. I don't quite understand why.

 

 Robert Fisk says that he met a doctor, who speaks very good English. Which is necessary, because Fisk doesn't speak Arabic, although he pretends to but he can't, and you can see that from the fairly continuous mistranslations in his journalism. So he met a doctor. The doctor himself said he wasn't in Douma at the time of the attack. But he spoke very good English. And strangely he came up and introduced himself to Mr. Fisk, and started giving his theory, which was that a dust storm had caused the pictures we saw of people dying with white froth around their mouths, and tiny pupils, the kind of stuff that can only be caused by chemical weapons.

 This part of Syria, the Ghouta, has been bombed continuously for five or six years, and it's strange that suddenly, for the first time ever, a combination of panic and dust creates a phenomenon in which dozens of people die with foam around their mouths. it's not a serious story, and people are leaping on it, because they want to believe this narrative.

 Fisk has got form on this. He's done this before. In 2012, he went, embedded with the Syrian Army, to the site of an enormous massacre of civilians in Daraya, that had just been committed by the Syrian Army. Then he reported on it, and gave a story that it was the community that had done that to their own people. The local people complained about it, the Local Co-ordination Committees, the revolutionary bodies in that area, complained about it, and they were ignored in the Western media.

 I ask again. Why is it that we, especially supposedly progressive people, put all of our faith in old white men, who don't speak the local language, who don't go anywhere in these countries without régime minders explaining everything to them, and introducing certain people to them? Why do we put all of our faith in this, and at the same time we totally ignore the reports that are coming from the ground, from Syrians? From leftist Syrians, and Islamic Syrians, and jihadist Syrians; and men, and women, and Christians, and Muslims. We ignore them all because they are brown people who can't be trusted, and lie, I presume.


 In one sense, you can say the revolution never dies. Because it is a set of ideas. And because so many millions of people have burned all their bridges, and it is impossible to turn back to 2011, before their family members were killed, before they were tortured or raped, before they were expelled from their homes. It s not going away, that wherever there are Syrians, you will find people committed to the revolution.

 Having said that, inside Syria, now entering the eighth year of this disaster, the revolutionary civic society is very much on the defensive. The revolution has lost much of its urban strongholds. Over a year ago, when Aleppo fell, everybody in the West, progressive people, alternative media and the mainstream media, were all coming out with this narrative that jihadists are holding Aleppo, and Assad and the Russians are taking it back. It was a reversal of reality. Inside Aleppo, probably 1 or 2% of the fighters were al-Qaeda linked. Most of them were Free Army or moderate Islamist militias.


 More to the point, inside Aleppo, inside the Ghouta, inside all these areas, as well as the rebel militias, who are very often authoritarian and criminal and opportunistic and indisciplined, although they killed far, far, fewer civilians than Assad's side; as well as the rebel forces, you've got democratic local councils, self-organised councils. You had women's centres. You had Free newspapers. You had underground schools, all kinds of civic organisation, revolutionary debate. And that needs urban areas inside Syria in  which to survive. And when they drove the revolution out of Aleppo, out of the western Damascus suburbs, out of the eastern Damascus suburbs, out of Homs years ago, this is what they are really targetting.

 So the rebellion against Assad, and the possibility of democracy and freedom and social justice and self-determination for Syrians, seems to be further away than it has ever been . It's an absolutely desperate situation. And Assad with superpower help, remember before the Russians began bombing, he only controlled about a fifth of the territory of the country. Now he's got over half it. So yes, with superpower help, he's kept his throne. However, while his throne exists, the Syrian state doesn't really exist any more. The country has been split into Russian and Iranian zones, an American zone, and a Turkish zone. These different powers, and I think an Israeli-Iranian war in Syria is very likely at some point quite soon, we have a Kurdish-Turkish war in Syria now, the War on Terror is being pursued in Syria. Large parts of eastern Syria are now occupied by Iranian organised foreign Shia jihadists, which almost guarantees that ISIS is going to come back in force at some point before too long.

 So Assad is no longer in danger, at least for now, but the war, or the wars, are by no means over. And certainly the refugee flow is not over. remember, half the Syrian population is displaced from their homes, and every day more people are leaving the country because it is impossible for them to live there.

 Assad's run out of his own fighting men. His own Syrian Arab Army doesn't really exist any more. There are a couple of brigades that are staffed by people from Assad's sect, the Alawi sect. There are sectarian militias, and then there are Iranian ground forces. And Russian bombers in the sky. So the Iranian ground forces have been absolutely essential to Assad getting control back, and driving out rebellious populations.

 The Israelis have sat and watched the Iranians build up. It hasn't bothered them to see the Iranians crushing the Syrian Revolution. It hasn't bothered them to see Shia miltiamen settling in areas that have been cleansed of Sunni Muslims. Because that just means in the decades to come, Muslims will be fighting each other rather than fighting anybody else.

 But now that the opposition seems to have been crushed, that the revolution seems to have any hope at all of actually taking power, Israel's understandably getting very worried. Suddenly at its border, its most important enemy has military bases all around it. We've already seen some rounds between Iranians and Israelis inside Syria. I would expect that there would be more of this, If the Israelis think a new balance of power is being forged in the region, they will want to get in there and upset it in their interests.

I also think it's quite likely in the future that Israel will probably move into a strip, a buffer zone, in southern Syria. In order to have an effect on what goes on on the ground, and a security zone there. i don't think they'll try to colonise it with settlers, I don't they would be so stupid. I expect they will try and get some proxy militias working for them in that area as a buffer against Iran.


 It's a bit hard for Syrians to take lessons on anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism from so=called Western progressives who will tell us that of course the Syrians will be traitors if they don't support Iran in that war. But Syrians, or the vast majority of Syrians, are perfectly well aware that if this was a war in order to liberate Palestine, in order to restore Palestinian rights and self-determination, they would accept making sacrifices. They know perfectly well that the Palestinian-Israel conflict is an excuse for the Iranian ruling class, very unpopular at home now, to expand its regional territorial control over key parts of the Arab world. Which in itself is a huge generator of Sunni extremism as a backlash. 

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Thursday, 19 April 2018

Who knows what's going on in Syria?

Burning Country

 Robin Yassin-Kassab:

'Truth is always contested, especially in a war zone. That’s why people like Eliot Higgins are indispensable. He (and his Bellingcat organisation) geo-locate videos, cross-reference on the ground reports, and so on, in order to verify what’s happening. Within Syria, groups like the Violations Documentation Centre and the Syrian Network for Human Rights do very careful fact-checking. So the SNHCR’s statistics on civilian deaths in the conflict (finding 94% were caused by Assad and his allies up to October 2017) include only named and documented cases. The OPCW, UN bodies, and human rights organisations have released many reports finding Assad and his backers responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

 So while truth is difficult to discern, it is still possible to discern it most of the time, and this is being done, those who pretend that it isn’t, or that no clear pattern emerges from the various reports, are therefore clouding the truth, whether deliberately or unwittingly.

 From the start of the revolution in 2011 I aimed to inform and comment on actual events in Syria. Then it became more important to amplify Syrian voices and perspectives, because the English-language media in general was ignoring them. I didn’t pay much attention at first to the more extreme and blatant atrocity denial and propaganda. That was a mistake. The Assad regime, and Russia and Iran, have won the information or narrative war as surely as they’ve defeated the Syrian rebels. The aim of the Kremlin-Assad-Iran propaganda machine is not to create simply one alternative version of reality – because that version is a fiction, holes will inevitably be found in it – but many, so as to cloud the public sphere, so that nobody can be sure what’s happening. That’s why the Russian envoy to the UN claimed in the same speech that 1. there was no chemical atrocity in Douma, and 2. that the (non-existent?) atrocity was perpetrated by the rebels with help from western powers. Such stories are fed by the Kremlin onto western conspiracy theory websites, get picked up by alt-leftists and rightists, then by ignorant and lazy mainstream journalists, then become part of the accepted reality. So now, in order to discuss the latest Russian targeting of the White Helmets first responders, it’s necessary first to dispute endless conspiracy theories that the White Helmets are an al-Qaida front or a tool of western imperialism. Which is very convenient for the war criminals.


 Reporters and authors should focus on actual facts first, then on human realities. Not on orientalist assumptions. They shouldn’t start with a narrative (like jihadis vs secularists, or Sunnis vs Shia, or ‘a re-run of Iraq’) and select or interpret facts to fit that narrative. Rather they should start with facts, then voices from people on the ground, and try to understand events on those terms. We as readers should stop relying on famous white correspondents who don’t speak local languages and who travel everywhere with regime minders. Newspapers and websites should take their fact-checking responsibilities far more seriously, and should publicly correct and apologise when their writers are proved wrong.

 After seven years of repression and war, with the intervention of numerous foreign states and organisations, the geo-political aspect of the war dominates. In many respects the fate of Syria is now out of Syrian hands (including Assad’s). Yet the fundamental problem in Syria remains that millions of Syrians find the continuation of Assad rule intolerable, and Assad in turn finds the continuation of these opponents’ very existence in Syria intolerable. It was Assad’s original war on the people which birthed a series of regional and international conflicts. Without engaging with this reality, there will be no solution to the Syrian conflict. The remains of Syria will continue to throw out people, to inspire terrorism, and to provoke super-power sparring.

 On some Fridays in 2011 and 2012 millions of Syrians went onto the streets to protest, even though they knew they would be shot at or arrested and tortured in the sweeps afterwards. They didn’t risk their lives, as some imagine, because they were incited or paid by the CIA, Mossad, or Saudi prince Bandar, but because they were immediately concerned by the failures of dictatorship. To see Syria only as a proxy war is to rob Syrians of their agency, and therefore points to a racist habit of thought.

 Similar overgeneralisations lead to Idlib being described as ‘al-Qaida controlled’. Al-Qaida (or Nusra) is certainly present. So are various other Islamist and Free Army militias. So are local councils, women’s centres, free newspapers, trades unions, and people who regularly protest against Nusra.

 Diane Abbott describes the Syrian revolution (which includes Christians) as mere “rag-tag jihadis”, and entirely ignores hundreds of democratic self-organised councils. Again, it’s the failure to see people, or even to want to see them. Only states and terrorists matter.


 Islamophobic and racist overgeneralisations are as prominent on the left as on the right. in a nonsensical and reactionary binarism, ‘progressives’ are more likely to express solidarity with states – even fascist or imperialist states – than with people. As a result there is increasing red-brown convergence.

 Analysis and engagement have been sacrificed in favour of (inaccurate) grand narratives and conspiracy theories. This way of seeing the world ends up in demonology. So for instance the triumvirate of evil – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US – must be blamed for everything from the Arab Spring to ‘inventing ISIS’. (Nobody needs to make stuff up to criticise these states. They certainly commit terrible crimes. But this overgeneralisation leads to a picture of the world which is entirely false. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is scared of ISIS, has been repeatedly attacked by ISIS, funded mainly the Free Army in Syria – but also Jaish al-Islam which, while Salafist, ruthlessly eliminate ISIS and al-Qaeda cells in its area of control. Indeed Saudi Arabia is currently pursuing a fiercely anti-Islamist policy in the Arab world. It underwrote General Sisi’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt).

 The problem goes beyond the left. Brexit and Trump as well as Corbynism are symptoms of a larger cultural slide involving populism, conspiracism and the dominance of powerful fictions. A rigorous analysis of the phenomenon would have to take on board the role of social media and the growth of a ‘post-literate’ society in which people are simultaneously atomised (working at home, for instance, not meeting fellow workers every day) and strangely connected (to an international internet clique of similar opinion or interest). It may have to do with the collapse of traditional religion, then of its replacements (belief in progress, for instance), and therefore of the basic human need to fit ourselves into big stories.


 We started the decade with grassroots revolutions. We’re heading to the end of the decade with these movements crushed on the ground and in the ideological sphere. Two pregnant quotes for our times:

 Walter Benjamin – “Behind every rise of fascism is a failed revolution.”

 Hannah Arendt – “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” '

 Author Robin Yassin-Kassab lives in Scotland

The Families Who Sacrificed Everything for Assad



 'Many Alawites believe Douma’s main insurgent group Jaysh al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, has been holding up to 7,500 Alawite prisoners in and around the city—including army generals, soldiers, and civilians—kidnapped or taken captive by rebels over the years to try to extract concessions from the regime. Though the Alawites represent a small proportion of the country overall, they hold key regime positions, dominate the police, and supply the main fighting forces who have been defending the regime since 2011. Many of their families are missing loved ones whom Assad can’t seem to get free, even as he tells them he wants still more of their sons to fight.

 Assad’s ability to get them back is vital to preserving his legitimacy in the eyes of this important constituency, a fact that Iran and Russia, his patrons, also recognize. “We won’t give up on any missing or kidnapped person and we are going to do whatever it takes to free him if he’s still alive,” Assad said during a meeting with Alawite families on Tuesday. For Assad, demonstrating solidarity with his own community may be a bigger concern than any fallout from his use of chemical weapons. Given the West’s uneven track record in responding to previous such attacks, his allies’ determination to protect him, and his own willingness to justify any atrocity or lie about it with impunity, there’s a brutal logic to his thinking—his regime seems built to last, especially as confusion grows about what if anything the American response will be. Yet, in the lead-up to the suspected Douma chemical-weapons attack, it became clear that Assad needed to demonstrate to his own war-weary community how far he was willing to go to free their prisoners. This is a dictator who instinctively understands how quickly things could collapse if the Alawites turn on him.

 Over the course of Syria’s seven-year war, I’ve spoken with many Alawites who feel they have sacrificed everything to preserve nearly five decades of Assad family rule. Virtually every house in Alawite strongholds in western Syria has been affected by the war, which many members of the community believe is as much about saving Assad as it is about preserving their very existence. The regime’s narrative claims that the Sunni Muslim majority, from which the rebellion draws, wants to eradicate their community. And as the rank-and-file of the army crumbled because of defections, Alawites rushed to join newly created sectarian militias. But Assad always seemed to care more about Iran’s Shiite militiamen, including Hezbollah fighters, who also flooded the battleground to save him.


 The recent offensive in Eastern Ghouta, which has involved nearly two months of a Russian-backed scorched-earth campaign against the rebels, seemed destined to change that, particularly as Iran and its militias appeared to be taking a backseat. Alawites and many inside the regime called for Assad to inflict maximum pain on the opposition to secure the release of prisoners.

 Throughout March, tens of thousands of rebel fighters and civilians emerged from Eastern Ghouta and received safe passage to Idlib, an opposition-dominated province in the north. Their release had been arranged in negotiations between the Russians and armed groups. As the Alawites watched them leave, they grew anxious and angry: They had yet to receive much information on their brethren still held by the Army of Islam. But then the Russian-led negotiations with the group collapsed, with the fate of the Alawite prisoners still unresolved. And Assad apparently decided it was time for extreme action. On Friday, the Syrian regime resumed its massive bombardment of Douma, and issued an ultimatum to the rebels: Death and mayhem on an unprecedented scale unless all Alawite prisoners were accounted for or released. Then came Saturday’s suspected chemical weapons attack on Douma, involving a possible mix of nerve agents and chlorine. The Army of Islam soon returned to the negotiating table to discuss Douma’s surrender, with the fate of the Alawite prisoners and missing persons the first item on the agenda—a development that provided momentary satisfaction to the families.


 Soon after, anguished Alawite mothers, wives, and parents rushed to Damascus from their towns and villages in western Syria expecting to be reunited with their loved ones. But hope quickly gave way to anger and frustration when, by Monday evening, only about 200 Alawite prisoners emerged from Douma. Emotions boiled over when the regime’s official media announced that 200 was the final number of prisoners coming out alive from Douma. That 7,500 figure was “fake news,” they said, disseminated in an attempt to extort money from the despairing families.

 In a rare and incredible scene, hundreds of furious Alawites staged an impromptu protest in central Damascus on Monday, marching from an auditorium next to the Russian Embassy that had been turned into a waiting area for the families to one of the capital’s busiest traffic intersections. Nervous regime security forces immediately cordoned off the entire area and sent in state media representatives to console people and allow them to vent. All other media was kept out, one independent Damascus-based reporter who witnessed the scene told me.

 “I brought my son these pants so he could wear them when he was freed,” a bespectacled woman in black shouted as she waved a pair of jeans before the cameras. Her son, a soldier who had been missing for six years, had not showed up. “I used to trust you [state media] but no more!” Jaafar Younis, a state television correspondent and a fellow Alawite, tried to comfort her. “Please calm down auntie, we are dealing with a terrorist armed group”—a reference to the Army of Islam— “that cannot be trusted to keep its word. And all of you saw the pressure the Syrian army put on them when they tried to renege on the deal,” he said. Another correspondent, also an Alawite, conceded there were still possibly thousands of kidnapped and missing Alawites all over Syria but said they were no longer in Ghouta. “We want lists with the names of the kidnapped, dead or alive. … We want our voice to reach his excellency President Bashar al-Assad, only him,” one man insisted.


 By nightfall on Monday, the Alawite families were persuaded to leave the streets after bringing traffic to a standstill. They returned to the auditorium, but their rage did not subside. “The [regime] officers are bastards. The media are bastards too and they never tell the truth. We want to know the fate of our children! How much did you sell them for? How much did you get for the martyrs’ blood? How much?” one tearful mother screamed.

 I heard such sentiments from Alawites numerous times during a two-week trip through the Hama countryside and the coastal western provinces of Latakia and Tartous in the summer of 2014. Tearful mothers and wives told me they knew their loved ones were being held by rebels in Douma, and wanted Assad to do more to get them out. For them, Assad seemed too laid back and preoccupied with his image as a president for all Syrians and not as the leader of the Alawites. Mohammad Jaber, one militia leader close to Assad’s shadowy and ruthless brother Maher, told me in early 2013 that Assad was not as decisive as his late father, who ruled Syria for three decades and faced a similar insurrection in the 1980s. Bashar, Jaber said, should “exterminate” rebels and their families—especially those around Damascus, in places like Eastern Ghouta. This was months before the first major chemical-weapons attack on Ghouta in the summer of 2013 that killed almost 1,400.

 Even though Assad has reclaimed much of the territory that regime forces lost to the rebels, the war is hardly over. Over time, it has empowered many Alawite militia leaders and warlords who demand more toughness from Assad. At least for now, he needs these people, and knows that any major rift within his Alawite community could cost him power in the parts of the country he does control, even with the full support of Iran and Russia.

 Still, Assad is obsessed with projecting himself as a nonsectarian leader for all Syrians who sees the big picture and broader implications of the war. “The battle is bigger than Syria, you are now fighting the war of the world, the global struggle, with each bullet you are firing at a terrorist you are changing the world’s balance of power and every tank driver advancing for a meter is changing the world’s geopolitical map,” a clean-shaven Assad dressed in well-pressed slacks and a blazer told soldiers and militiamen during a visit to the Eastern Ghouta front lines last month to flaunt victory.

 But what do balance of power and geopolitical maps mean for Alawite families who gave their children to keep Assad in power? It is ironic that after a seven-year war that killed more than half a million people, displaced millions and saw the rise and fall of ISIS and involvement of foreign and regional powers, the greatest threat to Assad’s hold on power could still come from his own Alawite community.'

The Syrian football star caught up in revolution and forced into refuge



 'When the revolution broke out in 2011, Firas al-Ali was playing in Damascus for Al Shorta, and for the Syrian national team. “Society treated me like a superstar,” he told me. “When I went to the shop it would take me four hours to deal with the attention from fans!”

 With his previous club – Al-Taliya of Hama – Firas won the Syrian Cup twice and reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Football Confederation Cup (AFC), Asia’s version of the Europa League. Firas is a winger and a free-kick specialist whose left foot would impress Gareth Bale. Al-Taliya’s fans recorded a song for him, which sounds better in Arabic, but goes something like: “When you run on the pitch, the fans boil over, your crosses are so beautiful, Firas al-Aaaaliii!”


 As a footballer, Firas witnessed some of the nepotism and corruption of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship first-hand – players who were picked because of their connections with the regime rather than their talent. Firas had felt critical of Assad, but he had kept quiet, as did most under the terror of Assad’s mukhabarat, the secret police.

 But when the revolution broke out, Firas joined the protests, covering his face to hide his identity. He got into arguments with teammates who had continued to support Assad, even as the dictator’s security forces bore down on peaceful protesters with extreme violence, brutality that soon ensnared his family. His 19-year-old cousin was killed at a protest – the bullet entered his eye and came out of his head. His niece was killed – completely vaporised when a barrel bomb fell directly on her house.

 As months went by, the protests continued and the repression intensified, giving way to an increasingly complex, factionalised civil war as the opposition took up arms. Firas’s hometown of Kafr Zeita, near Hama, became associated with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Despite being a police officer, Firas’s brother was arrested because of his connections to the rebellious town. Meanwhile, Firas remained in Damascus, where he would hear gunfire during training. The stadium was converted into a military base for the regime.

 While on a training camp with the national team he watched from the window of his hotel as smoke rose from shelling across Damascus. One day he found out that another of his cousins, just 13, had been killed by the security forces. Half an hour later he joined the rest of the team for dinner – one teammate mocked the protesters and Firas lost it: he had to be pulled off him. Firas couldn’t take it anymore; it was time to defect.


 At dawn the next day, he sneaked away from the training camp, from the city, from his career, and set out for Kafr Zeita, some 300 kilometres north of Damascus, but the national team – preparing visas for a tournament in India – had his passport and military service documents. “At every police checkpoint there was a risk that I would be detained and taken for military service,” said Firas. “The thing that saved me was that the soldiers at the checkpoints were football fans – they knew me and I didn’t have to show my ID, otherwise they would have taken me.”

 Firas spent around seven months in Kafr Zeita, while the war raged and his money dwindled. “The roof of my house made me a footballer!” Firas told me, while describing his hometown. As a child he’d set up a small table on the roof and would fire endless shots and passes at the target each day, until he could hit it almost every time, and had practically destroyed everything else on the roof in the meantime. When he broke something, his dad would get angry and twist his ear, but the next day would buy him a new football or pair of shoes. Firas played on rough, sandy ground and was forever going through balls and shoes. “My family’s financial situation was not great,” said Firas, “but my father had the feeling that I would become something special.”

 Kafr Zeita was subject to heavy bombardment by Assad’s forces. It started with shelling around six times a day. Then the shelling increased and they started to drop bombs from helicopters. It wasn’t safe to hide in the house; they had to flee to nearby farms and fields, returning when the helicopters left. They had a radio that alerted them before an incoming attack, but they had very little time. “If [my brother] didn’t have a car we would have stayed in our house and died,” said Firas.


 Rockets destroyed his family’s houses, life became unliveable, and Firas went from unemployed footballer to refugee, taking his wife and three kids, and his parents, and crossing into Turkey. It was 2013 at the time, and the Turkish government was still maintaining its open-door policy to Syrian refugees.

 While his family went to Karkamis refugee camp, Firas wrangled over a contract with the Jordanian Super League team Al-Hussein. He spent a successful season there but being away from his family for a year proved hard and he returned to Turkey to collect them and bring them over to Jordan. While he was in Turkey, the Jordanian government changed the visa requirements for Syrians. Firas and his family were turned away at the airport and returned to the camp. “I surrendered to bad luck,” said Firas.


 The days of receiving daily adoration and an annual salary of over $100,000 – a fortune for most people in Syria – seemed unimaginably distant. “I moved from a five-star environment to one with no stars. The camp and being a refugee, how can I talk about it? Everything is difficult, from the simplest thing. Even leaving the camp is difficult.”

 There are seven of them in a three-by-three-metre tent, sleeping next to each other on mattresses on the floor. The bathroom is the length of a football pitch away, and feels much further at night. Only when his family sleeps can Firas have some time alone for his thoughts. By the last three or four days of the month, the money they’ve been given by the camp has usually run out.


 Firas and his immediate family were relatively safe, but when Firas prepared to talk about his arrested brother he sighed and swallowed and looked down at the table. When he looked up again, the blue in his eyes had faded.

 Three years after his arrest, they received news. A government officer had leaked 750 photographs of dead prisoners, and Firas’s brother was among them. In the photo, his neck was covered in bandages. “Maybe they cut his throat,” said Firas. All they knew for certain was that he had been killed 45 days after being arrested.

 Firas had been fortunate to avoid his brother’s fate. His fame as a footballer had got him through regime checkpoints, but many footballers and other celebrities who spoke out against Assad’s regime became targets. Dozens of players and coaches have been arrested and killed in a war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

 Amid the privations of Firas’s life, football still keeps him going. He runs a football academy in the camp for around 200 kids. The pitch is bare, rocky ground. They have one football and use stones for training cones. “But when I see the kids are happy I forget that I am a professional player with a lost career,” he said with a smile.

 Firas is also involved in a struggle to set up an alternative Syrian national team in Turkey that can rival and displace the official Syrian national team run by Assad’s regime and recognised by FIFA. “I can’t fight with a gun, so I will fight with football and the talent that God gave me.” '

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Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Valley Doctor Reacts to Airstrikes in Syria



 'A valley doctor says he can never go back to his home country, he is exiled by his political views.

 Tensions continue in Syria after this weekend’s joint airstrikes by the U.S., UK and France.

 Fact-finding teams sent to access the site are not being allowed in.The airstrikes hit close to heart for a Rio Grande Valley doctor who called Syria home.

 "What happened this weekend is really, really a very good thing,” says Dr. Ghanem Daghestani.

 Dr. Daghestani has helped cancer patients in the Valley for 10 years. He says the airstrikes are a message to stop the chemical warfare in Syria.

 "We hope that this will completely take away the capability Assad to use any chemical weapons against the population," he says.

 Dr. Daghestani says some of his family members could be part of the society attacked previously by the Syrian government.

 "We have family members that we don't know of their whereabouts of," he says. "I have cousins I don't know where they are, maybe under the rubble somewhere."

 He wears a bracelet as representation. "It is against keeping Assad in power. This is in support of the Syrian revolution and it has not left my arm for probably seven years now," he tells us.

 Dr. Daghestani says he hopes one day to take the band off. He wants the situation in Syria to improve before more missiles become a destructive voice of change.'
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For Survivors of Aleppo Siege, the News From Syria Is Especially Painful

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 'As the government siege of a rebel-held Syrian suburb has unfolded, one group of Syrian exiles has felt especially tormented.

 They are opposition leaders and activists from Aleppo who survived the devastating government chokehold of their own city.

 Fourteen months after they were forced to evacuate the last neighborhoods of Aleppo, they are reliving their trauma from southern Turkey, where they have been spending hours online encouraging activists and rebels in the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, the Syrian capital, and helping to disseminate videos and news from the latest siege.

 “The period that we witnessed and lived in Aleppo was a real hell,” said Hisham al-Skeif, one of the civilian leaders of the Aleppo protests now living in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep. “Now what is happening in Eastern Ghouta is bringing it all back.

 “The hardest thing is to see despair in people’s faces,” he added, clenching his fists and screwing up his face at the memories and at one point breaking into tears. “They think they are going to die and no one cares.”


 A writer and Arabic teacher from an old Aleppo trading family, Mr. Skeif became one of the most outspoken civilian leaders opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, who was president before him.

 Mr. Skeif’s baby son was asphyxiated by the dust of a bombardment. The father made a last, ferocious denunciation of the Syrian government on video just before the evacuation of Aleppo in December 2016. That placed him on top of the government’s wanted list.

 “This regime does not fear weapons. It fears words,” he said. “We had to keep going in our revolution because if we went back, our children would have to live under a third generation of Assads.”

 In exile, many of the Aleppo protesters have dispersed or taken a break, exhausted and depressed at the defeat of their dream of freedom from dictatorship. Yet they feel compelled to share their experience, even if they think the outside world only tunes in after the ghastliest horrors, like the April 7 attack that witnesses and medical workers say used chemical weapons to kill scores of Syrians in Douma, a town in Eastern Ghouta.


 The United States, Britain and France joined in airstrikes last Saturday to punish the Assad government for the attack; Syria, and its backers Russia and Iran, has denied being behind the attack.

 Monther Etaki, a former design student who was one of the last media activists to document the Aleppo siege to the end, said of the act of bearing witness: “It’s worthless, but it’s a duty to do it.”

 A former fine arts student, Mr. Etaki, 28, struggles to support his extended family with freelance media and design work.

 “I lost my job,” he joked, referring to his activism in Aleppo. “For people who were relying on me for information, I am no longer useful.”

 But he continues to blog and post on social media about the war in Syria and to help those still resisting inside.

 “I am just talking to friends in Ghouta and giving advice how to survive because I have some experience,” he said. “I am telling them to save their equipment and not be worried, be calm, that everything will be solved in the end.”

 Fearful for his family — his son was born on July 10, 2016, just before the siege of Aleppo began — he said he lost control at times toward the end.

 “Once I cried,” he recalled. “Once I burned my car. I forgot to take my things.”

 Many of the opposition members set fire to their cars and belongings to prevent them falling into the hands of the pro-government militias that were encroaching into the rebel neighborhoods. In the end, the last to leave were allowed to drive their cars out since there was a lack of buses and in the snow and freezing night, the soldiers stopped checking all those evacuating.

 Mr. Etaki even left the gas on in his home, hoping to destroy it so the pro-government militias could not use it.

 “I was thinking it would burn, but then we did not evacuate that day and I had to go back,” he laughed. There was still just enough gas in the bottle to keep warm that night, he said.

 When he did leave, he said Russian soldiers stole his computers, and his cameras and other equipment were taken as well.


 Dr. Hamza al-Khatib, who became known for his work running the last functioning medical center in Aleppo, Al Quds hospital, warned a friend in Ghouta how the siege would play out.

 “The beginning was a complete besiegement, not allowing anything in or out,” he said. “Then there were a lot of rumors, people coming who wanted to negotiate. That takes about three months. Then heavy shelling, barrel bombs and gas attacks.”

 Dr. Khatib urged his colleague to stay safe somewhere and wait for the organized evacuation.

 “I am telling him just not to lose faith in life,” he said. “You and your wife will live and don’t listen to the rumors. We heard that a lot in Aleppo, that everyone is a traitor.”

 Many who went over to the government side were arrested, and others who chose to stay in their homes were killed by the pro-government militias who took control after the evacuation, Mr. Skeif said.


 For those who did evacuate, the transition to a normal life has been hard in a different way. Molham Ekaidi, 29, an architecture student who became a rebel commander, spent the first four months in Turkey sitting inside his parents’ home, staring at the walls.

 “For years, you only live for the moment. You do not think of the future and you do not think about the previous days,” he said, describing his years as a fighter. “I had to think how to make my living, how to raise my children. It was very hard to start thinking. It took four months before I spoke about architecture.”

 When Turkey opened its universities to Syrian undergraduates to complete their degrees, he joined the final year in the architecture degree course.

 “I didn’t remember anything,” he said.

 His fellow students are 10 years younger than he is, and, he said, they know little about the Syrian revolution.

 “It is hard to connect with them,” he went on. “They don’t know anything of my life.”

 He avoids watching video footage from Syria, but has not ruled out returning to fight if circumstances were to change. Like other survivors, he describes restarting with smaller dreams.

 “I do not have the big dream to have a free country,” he said, “just an aim to make a better life.”


 Mr. Skeif said he was lost.

 “There is no plan for my life,” he said. But then he rallies and talks of a new political project for Syrian youth. “I have a dream for girls like my daughters to have political awareness,” he said, “so they never have an Assad in the future.”

 Dr. Khatib, 31, seems the most positive and confident of the survivors. He works for a relief organization, supplying medical relief to hospitals inside Syria and is planning with his wife to further his education.

 “Now we think is a dead time,” he said. “So we thought we can use this time.”

 But he is also devastatingly realistic about returning to Syria.

 “Maybe my daughter will grow up and by the age of 20 will never have been to her country,” he said.'

Sunday, 15 April 2018

‘Hit Assad hard, put smiles on the faces of all who lost children’: A Syrian activist’s message for Trump



 'My name is Abdalaziz Alhamza and I am a 26-year-old Syrian refugee from Raqqa, the former capital of the so-called ISIS caliphate. I want to personally say thank you for joining with France and Britain to launch air strikes against Syria following chemical weapons attacks on Syrian citizens. You let Syria’s President Bashar Assad know that red lines drawn by the U.S. are no joke.

 I pray you will continue to hit Assad hard and put smiles on the faces of all the mothers who lost their children. Your strikes give hope to all the children who lost their parents.

 Mr. Trump, I urge you to push the international community to support civil society organizations, build schools and hospitals. People will appreciate this more than anything else, and you will go down in the annals of history as the greatest champion of humanitarian action in a world where international governing bodies are willfully impotent and paralyzed.


 Looking back to my childhood in Syria, I can recall being made to watch the news with my father all the time. I was a kid, so I just couldn’t get what was so interesting about people talking for hours on end!

 We would often watch news reports from Afghanistan, and I distinctly remember the fateful day of September 11, 2001 when I heard the name “Al Qaeda” for the first time. I was 9-years-old. I understood nothing. But then, the Iraq War happened. I quickly became versed in the lingo because virtually every Syrian television was tuned into footage of the war in Iraq.

 When I got older, I opted out of getting involved in politics. The main reason I stayed away relates to our neighbor who was arrested under suspicious circumstances. People on the street would make cryptic comments like, “he’ll never see the light of day.” It frightened me and I didn’t question that feeling.


 Later, like many of my Syrian compatriots, I joined the protests in our iteration of the Arab Spring early on, demanding freedom. I’ll never forget my first demonstration. Though I was among the throngs for maybe only 40 seconds, to me, it felt like an eternity.

 Despite my conviction to the cause, I was still absolutely terrified of what could happen if I was identified by anyone affiliated with the government. So after those 40 seconds, I ran. I ran for 15 minutes straight, hopped in a taxi for a good distance, loitered at a small café for about a half hour, and then took another taxi home.

 From that moment onward, I started to research what was going on in my country and the world. I started questioning everything I thought I knew. I started to probe the far reaches of my imagination: How could we effect real change in the country with these protests?

 But before long, the Assad regime started arresting, torturing, and killing protesters. I was personally arrested three times, so these were no empty anecdotes; joining the protests posed a real threat to my life.

 I nonetheless found myself addicted to demonstrating. I felt a sense of obligation to those protesters who had been disappeared or killed. It was during this time that we insisted on dismantling the Assad regime; the number of the protesters grew and demonstrations were popping up nearly everywhere in the country. A revolution was born in Syria.

 Day after day, we faced off Assad’s armed forces with our peaceful demonstrations to prove that all their violence would be unable to kill the spirit of the Syrian Revolution. We responded to gunshots with cameras and told all the world our story. A new generation of activists, journalists, artists, and civil society organizations began to thrive.

 At first, we were convinced the regime would eventually abandon this bloody campaign – how long could it possibly go on killing its own people? But we were eventually forced to recognize a horrible reality: we were dealing with a regime that had controlled the country with an iron fist for more than 40 years. This regime’s brutality knew no limits, no humanity, no mercy.


 At the end of 2011, the Assad regime strategically released from its prisons the extremists who had returned to Syria following the Iraq War. The regime knew full well that these people were not interested in building schools or planting community gardens. These people were released into the country by the Assad regime to sow seeds of chaos and terror among the peaceful people demanding freedom from his tyrannical regime.

 In the midst of our peaceful protests, we didn’t ask for foreign intervention; the Assad regime brought Iran and Hezbollah to fight for it. In time, we could no longer stand by and watch our people being massacred, so only then did we call for help from the international community. We pleaded that outside powers stop Assad by finding a political solution.

 We asked that Assad be held accountable for his actions in a court of law, but all we got from the international community were speeches rich with hot air, and promises that were never be kept. And then ISIS emerged.

 Mr. Trump, Syria’s people have been killed in so many ways – some you can imagine and others you cannot. Assad has killed us with bullets, bombs, snipers, starvation, and various forms of horrific torture techniques I could personally attest to.

 I remember in 2013, when Assad deployed a chemical weapon that killed an unfathomable amount of Syrians in a matter of minutes. I cried more at that horror than any other – seeing all those dead bodies – free from any blood stains and perfectly intact apart from the yellow hue that shrouded their faces frozen in terror. All they had done to ensure their own deaths was to breathe.

 Yes, Mr. President, they dared to breathe after your predecessor declared that any use of chemical weapons constituted crossing a red line. We took this to heart; we thought that this atrocity would finally elicit meaningful action from the U.S. and the international community to finally eradicate this 21st century monster.

 Unfortunately, Mr. President Trump, the red line turned out to be drawn in blood, and we collectively lost all trust in the U.S. and international community. The world’s inaction taught Assad that no one would stop him, so he continued to use chemical weapons with impunity.


 In 2015, Assad brought the Russians in to fight alongside his armed forces and this decision, by far, turned the military table in his favor. The relatively weak Assad army was now empowered to slaughter even more Syrians.

 This so-called civil war was no longer a family affair – we were being killed by non-Syrian actors – countries and militias that had nothing to do with us. The Syrian conflict turned into a proxy war. Then, and only then, the U.S.-led international coalition decided to join the war by targeting ISIS, and leaving Assad to act as he pleased.

 My friends and I founded “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” – the first organization to report from inside ISIS territories. We wanted to fight terror with truth, and because of this, everyone affiliated with the organization became targeted by ISIS for extermination.

 But while it’s true that I suffered more at the hands of ISIS than any other group, I need to tell you something very important: Assad’s regime is far more brutal than ISIS.

 Mr. President, some 95 percent of the Syrians who have been killed in Syria were killed by Assad; his warplanes, his missiles, his chemical weapons. Not ISIS. ISIS was a nightmare for the Syrian people – this is beyond debate. But you, the world – you all decided to fight ISIS and forgot about Assad.

 In 2014, I was forced to leave Raqqa and flee to Turkey after ISIS came to my house to arrest me. After that, I moved to Germany and began to travel the world trying to bring attention to my country and my cause.

 I pray that you will continue working with France and Great Britain and the rest of the free world until Assad is finally defeated once and for all.'

Abdalaziz Alhamza