Sunday, 24 September 2017
'Tim Ramadan's* day begins with the sound of coalition air raids piercing through the morning air at the break of dawn.
"First, it sounds like a strong, fast wind, then comes the sound of the crash - loud and pounding after impact. If the strike is less than 300 metres away, you can hear whistling in the ears for several minutes," he says.
The smell of death hangs in the air with the streets of Raqqa full of dead bodies rotting under mounds of rubble, in the late summer heat.
The Syrian citizen journalist from Sound and Picture, a group of Syrian human rights activists documenting cases of violations against civilians, charges his laptop from abandoned car batteries, and connects it to a hidden WiFi device in his rented apartment to upload pictures and videos of what appears to be the final phase of the battle.
"A couple of weeks ago it was still possible to shoot and take pictures on the sly but now it's very difficult."
"When we're on the streets we are constantly running to avoid Daesh (the Arabic-language acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, ISIL, also known as ISIS) snipers and coalition air strikes. We are afraid that Daesh might locate where the video was taken, and that might cost me my life," Ramadan told Al Jazeera.
Ramadan can only access the internet a couple of times in the day, but as one of the few journalists and media activists who have been able to get images from the battered city out into the world, he says he is willing to take any risk.
"This is my city, not Daesh's city or the coalition's city. I'll stay here and defend it and tell the world about all the war crimes committed by everyone against my people, " Ramadan says.
"I feel that it's my duty. It's not about me alone any more, it's about the families stuck here with no food or water [...] being slaughtered by different means, by Daesh and the coalition. What I am doing is part of what I signed up for when the uprising started," he says.
More than a thousand people including 248 children and 177 women were killed in the Raqqa offensive between the June 5 and September 20, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a United States-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, now control the majority of Raqqa city with ISIL's fast collapsing ranks confined to small pockets in the city centre and a few other neighbourhoods.
Raqqa, like many parts of Syria, witnessed spontaneous, non-violent, anti-government protests as part of the Arab uprisings in 2011, which called for the overthrow of Arab dictators.
In Syria, protesters called for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, who has ruled the country since 2000.
In March 2013, it became the first provincial capital to be captured by armed opposition fighters from government troops symbolised by its jubilant residents bringing down the statue of former President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian leader.
It was hailed as the first successful model of the revolution where opposition activists from across the country would seek refuge from the crackdown of the Assad government.
Local coordination committees were set up to ensure democratic governance of the city whose schools and markets were relentlessly bombed by the government.
Within a few months, ISIL took control of Raqqa after capturing it from the Free Syrian Army, an armed group formed out of military defectors, in spite of opposition and protests by local residents.
ISIL's attacks on Syrian activists, Christians and minorities, its infamous kidnapping of Italian, Jesuit priest Paolo Dall'Oglio and its public floggings and executions gained it international notoriety.
Ramadan remembers his first protest in April 2011, as a young university student in Deir Az Zor city, southeast of Raqqa. The fear of his beating heart gave way to tears of joy as he heard chants "The people want the fall of the regime," his voice blending with those around him.
Government attacks destroyed his home and killed many of his relatives, forcing him to move to Raqqa where he resumed his studies at the Raqqa university.
In the following years, Ramadan's close activist friends were killed by ISIL, he says, and in the final days of the battle for Raqqa, he lost the woman he met and fell in love with five years ago at the university.
"She asked me to leave the city and come with her, but I refused because I needed to tell the world what's happening here. She said she doesn't want to be with someone who will die," Ramadan recalls.
He says Raqqa looks like a ghost town where people avoid going out of their homes in spite of the risk of being killed inside by aerial bombardment.
Bombs and mortars have destroyed hospitals and shelters with no functional civil defence units to take the injured out. Food and medicine have run out.
"There is no food for the last two weeks. People are eating mouldy, rotten bread, olive oil, leaves and herbs," Ramadan says.
His memory of sitting on his roof under a cool night sky, watching the stars and drinking coffee, surrounded by the humdrum of the bustling, vibrant, ancient city by the Euphrates river where families would gather and sing on weekends, is a distant one.
"Seeing dead bodies is normal now. It doesn't affect me any more. I don't cry any more over dead people. It's become a routine. This war has changed me a lot. Earlier, I used to have a sense of humour. I was a happy person, now I am always depressed.
"If life ever returns to normal, I would first hang pictures of all my martyred friends in the city. But personally, I would like to see a psychiatrist to help me get over what I have seen - everyone here needs to do that," he says.
The military offensive to recapture Raqqa has displaced an estimated 190,000 people and destroyed some 75 percent of the city.
Airwars, a group tracking civilian deaths in Russian and US-led coalition air raids in Syria and Iraq, has documented some 5,775 US-led coalition bombs, shells and missiles dropped in the month of August, resulting in at least 433 likely civilian deaths.
"It's troubling that since June 6, the coalition has admitted to just four deaths from two incidents at Raqqa, while locals insist that more than 1,000 have died," Chris Woods, Director of Airwars, said.
"All indications are that civilians are dying in significant numbers at Raqqa. Rather than denying that, we would prefer that the coalition took the problem seriously."
The US-led coalition said that it dropped about 16,500 munitions in Raqqa and the surrounding areas since June but denies reports by monitoring agencies and human rights groups of an astonishing number of civilian deaths in the Raqqa offensive in the past few months.
In Raqqa, only one underground hospital remains to treat the dozens injured in air raids and fighting, but there are reportedly no doctors left to treat them.
Wounds are being sanitised with salt and water in the absence of medical supplies reaching the city, according to testimonies collected by human rights group, Physicians for Human Rights.
"We managed to speak to several doctors because they had fled recently. One of them said he was the last remaining doctor. Two of his colleagues were reportedly killed in coalition air strikes and the other died from an ISIL landmine," Racha Mouawieh, research associate at Physicians for Human Rights said.
"One of the main challenges that people are facing is that they can't reach hospitals because there are no rescue teams and there are no civil defence teams to take them to the hospital," she says.
Returning to Raqqa as it reaches the final and perhaps the most dangerous phase of the conflict seems uncertain for the many who have managed to escape, often risking their lives or by paying huge sums as bribes.
Abdalaziz Alhamza, one of the founders of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a citizen journalist group, is living as a refugee in Berlin from where he tracks and reports on developments from Raqqa.
He thinks a military defeat of ISIL is not enough to bolster confidence among the civilian population to return to their destroyed city.
"No one knows who is going to stay in the city. No one knows who will run and govern the city. People are afraid of being charged of supporting ISIS or being forced to join the SDF," he says.
"The US is only focused on defeating ISIL as an armed organisation, they don't seem to care about what's happening to the civilians or the local population. And that's precisely the reason why we ended up having a group like ISIS," he says.
His concerns come from allegations of human rights abuses and violations such as forced conscription of child soldiers, lootings, and kidnappings by the SDF, in areas under its control.
"We have certain reports of SDF forcibly detaining people, there are reports of forced recruitment of children and adults and mistreatment and abuse of detainees since the offensive began in June," Matthias Behnke, coordinator of UN Human Right’s Syria Team, said.
"Regardless that ISIL might not respect the laws of war and use civilians as human shields, that does not give the opposing parties in the conflict the right to disregard their obligations to protect civilians," he continued.
"Even ISIL fighters who may have surrendered and are outside combat must also be protected".
Alhamza says he fears for the minds of an entire generation of traumatised children and young adults who have lived through ISIL's control without access to the outside world and information, witnessing public executions and torture and death of their loved ones in the conflict.
"ISIS is not only an armed organisation, it's an ideology. The international community is not thinking about the day after. We saw it with the Taliban, then al-Qaeda and now ISIS.
They (the international community) were focusing only on the armed group, not their ideology. No one thought something worse than al-Qaeda would emerge, but it did. So it's likely that the group that emerges after ISIS in a few months, or years, or whenever might be even more dangerous," Alhamza cautions.
Ramadan has now left Raqqa city for northern Syria. He says he did it to carry a sick child to safety while being targeted by a hail of bullets.
"I left everything behind me; my memories, corpses all around the city, hungry people, even my clothes, but I went out with a child whom I did not know just because he had a future that should not be denied," he said in what he called perhaps his last post on social media.
*Tim Ramadan is a pseudonym he uses for fear of reprisals.'
Saturday, 23 September 2017
'An estimated 821,210 people remain trapped in at least 34 besieged communities across the country and nearly 1.7 million additional Syrians live in “Watchlist” areas, under threat of intensified siege and abuse. The Syrian government and its allies remain responsible for the vast majority of all of the sieges in Syria and for most of the threats to “Watchlist” communities. ISIS-controlled al-Raqqa city was added to the Siege Watch “Watchlist” for the first time ever, after being surrounded by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in June. Two more “Watchlist” communities – Barzeh and Qaboun – capitulated to forced surrender agreements in the face of humanitarian crises caused by Syrian government’s “surrender or die” strategy. Both were subjected to forced population transfers uprooting thousands of civilians. Qaboun was entirely depopulated and removed from project monitoring efforts. At least six suspected chemical attacks were launched against opposition fighters in Jobar and Ein Tarma during the reporting period. In one case, victims showed symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent. Eastern Ghouta, the largest remaining besieged enclave in the country, is the most likely target of the Syrian government’s next major scorched earth campaign after pro-government forces capture Jobar. More than 420,000 people are at risk. Humanitarian conditions continued to deteriorate in Deir Ezzor, where besieged civilians are bracing for escalated hostilities.'
"The bombing hasn't stopped yet. A lot of people will be killed. A lot of houses will be destroyed, and construction will be destroyed. How can we let the refugees back to Syria, if there is no chance for them to live in peace in Syria?
I feel really disappointed for the international community, because nobody did anything against the régime and Russia until now. Right now there are a lot of people bombing, and Assad is still president.
A lot of Syrians pay to leave Syria. Most of them have lost some of their family. Who can live in Syria? Right now, more than 500.000 people have been killed. They have to do something against the bombing, and they have to protect the civilians, because it's the role of the international community to protect the people.
I was a high school student, but when the bombing started in 2011, I felt I had to do something to document what was going on, to document the massacres, and that's why I joined - as a photographer - the White Helmets. It's very important to share this story, even if it's scary and dangerous, but there is an important mission and message; to let all the people watch what we watch in Syria. What we see. That is why a lot of Syrians have become photographers and cameramen, because we want to be documenting what is going on.
And that's why we have made this movie [The White Helmets]. Not for attending festivals or to win the Oscar, we have to reach it for the people around the world."
Friday, 22 September 2017
'Earlier this month, during a UN Humanitarian Task Force update, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura solemnly proclaimed that “a moment of truth” was coming in the Syrian war.
With the advance on Deir Ezzor and the impending defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group in Raqqa, de Mistura suggested that it was increasingly likely that, for many of the international actors who became involved in the conflict to fight IS, their work was nearly over.
Or to use Donald Trump’s language, the “destruction” of IS was complete, and for de Mistura and the UN this signified the transformation of those key areas into “liberated zones”.
“Deir Ezzor is almost liberated. In fact, it is as far as we are concerned,” he said during the press conference on 6 September. “The next one is going to be Raqqa – it’s a matter of days or weeks.”
It is worth looking at the use of the term “liberated zone” in the 21st-century Middle Eastern context, and how it is used sparingly and mostly in reference to anti-Islamist activity.
In July 2017, after his army fought against several militias including the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar al-Sharia, Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, a field marshal under Muammar Gaddafi, announced the liberation of Benghazi from “terrorism, a full liberation and a victory of dignity”.
Somewhat paradoxically, even the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, which has killed hundreds of civilians in air strikes and created the world’s worst outbreak of cholera, has labelled their territorial gains against al-Qaeda in the southern provinces as “liberated areas”.
I am not suggesting that removing Islamic militant groups from the region isn’t a priority. But I question the use of the term for areas like Deir Ezzor and Raqqa when we look at other Syrian cities where citizens operate independent media outlets documenting the activities of both regime and opposition groups.
Or, as in Idlib earlier this year, set up local council elections outside of the purview of both regime and Islamist militant elements.
Both Western and Arab governments have equated victory against Islamist groups with this notion of liberation, as if these groups are the only threat to progressive notions of justice and security and overlooking the authoritarian regimes at the foundations of these societies. These narratives serve to de-legitimise the long-term and liberationist practices of citizens in their local areas.
This designation of the “liberated zone” is used frequently in relation to IS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq (see the most recent liberation of Mosul).
But throughout the history of the Syrian conflict in particular, “liberation” has rarely been used by international actors to describe the state of affairs in areas where citizens have managed to govern themselves such as in Zabadani.
Starting in mid-2012 and even as the city was besieged, locals in this Damascus suburb ran their own autonomous and independent municipality, governed through democratic elections for a period of time. Earlier this year after years under siege, the remaining residents were transferred to Idlib as part of an agreement between rebels and the regime. But their local governance during those years should not be forgotten.
We complain that the international community is all words and no action, but their use of language is still important and sets a tone for how diplomacy proceeds. All too often, that language simply mirrors the regime’s "jihadist vs the world" point of view, rather than acknowledging the political activism of the Syrian people, big and small, since the beginning of the uprising.
Yes, these democratically governed areas may have negotiated with opposition forces, including militant Islamists, and also with regime forces, especially when it came to securing food and resources for their people. But the key point is that they were governing themselves outside of both Ba’athist and Islamist authoritarian repression.
So when we are talking about liberated zones in Syria, what do we actually mean? A temporary, faux-liberation that enables the previous Syrian socio-political structures of intimidation and coercion to prevail?
Defining geographies of liberation in the Syrian civil war has always been subjective, but through the influence of the Syrian regime and its international allies, much of the country’s genuine political opposition has been portrayed as a homogenised group of potential terrorists.
This securitisation of the opposition has affected the built environment of the country. In 2012, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signed Decree 66 into law allowing for the redevelopment of “unauthorised housing and informal settlements”.
The law has allowed urban developments like Basateen al-Razi in Damascus to move forward, despite the fact that many believe, as journalist Tom Rollins has reported, the projects are a guise to forcibly dispossess those who oppose the regime and engineer demographic change.
“When al-Assad announced Decree 66, his minister of local administration, Omar Ibrahim al-Ghalawanji, hailed it as a ‘first step in the reconstruction of illegal housing areas, especially those targeted by armed terrorist groups’,” Rollins writes.
“State media promotional material for the Basateen al-Razi development makes a similar argument. With 'terrorists' gone, it says, the serious work of rebuilding Syria can begin.”
Reconstruction projects have been launched in the Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amr, once a rebel stronghold, and Rollins reports that observers expect east Aleppo to be next.
The regime’s use of polarising and securitising language is no surprise considering they wish to remain in power. But now we see a resigned international community which is failing to find solutions for a post-conflict Syria that do not pivot around the Assad regime.
The Astana peace talks are a prime example. In these ongoing negotiations, the concept of “de-escalation” has been central, but again what are the consequences of de-escalation - and what does the term actually mean?
What the international community now seems to be saying is that as the agenda of defeating Islamic extremism in the region is coming to an end, the war is coming to an end, and any military advances on the Syrian regime and their allies must be put to the side for the sake of non-violent peace processes. These, of course, have a tendency to fall flat on their face in the Middle East. Just see the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" for an illustration.
“On the opposition, the message is very clear: if they were planning to win the war, facts are proving that is not the case. So now it’s time to win the peace by negotiating and by making concessions on both sides,” de Mistura explained.
It’s as if war and peace are not intertwined, as if the Syrian regime – by aiding the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and releasing militant prisoners early on in the war - didn’t contribute towards the perpetuation of Islamic extremism in the region that morphed into IS. But war and peace, the Syrian regime and IS do not exist in separate spheres, they are not mutually exclusive.
The greater war that Syrians have long fought and will continue to fight against the Assad machine will not end through peace talks that continue to legitimise the regime’s position in the country in order to achieve part-time liberation. De Mistura’s comments simply fall into the same tired rhetoric that repeats ad nauseum that political processes need to occur between the regime and “the opposition”.
After seven years of war, and many years before that when the regime and Syrian civil society held shallow negotiations as part of the Damascus Spring, what are the chances of winning the peace?
The next round of Astana peace talks, scheduled for October, will be brokered by Iran, Russia and Turkey, yet despite their in-depth knowledge of the conflict, they are explicitly biased interlocutors. The talks have seen opposition groups drop out because of a lack of faith in the practical implementation of the decisions if one has to rely on the Syrian regime and its allies.
Sloppy references to “liberated zones” isolated from the deeper political context do not tackle the root of the repression in the country, and the reason why liberation will stay relegated to zones, and not the entire country itself.
De Mistura, the UN, and the international community as a whole must be consistent with their narrative for a peaceful post-conflict resolution in Syria, one that recognises the fundamental obstacle to long-lasting peace: the regime and the international community’s inability to gauge whether Assad will abide by non-violent resolutions – agreed by the regime and the opposition - for the long-term goal of justice and peace in Syria.'
'The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has turned down the U.S.' offer to fight alongside the PKK's Syrian offshoot People's Protection Units (YPG) dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to liberate Deir el-Zour from Daesh terrorists, saying that they do not want to fight alongside a terrorist group.
FSA-affiliated Maghawir al-Sawra group's spokesperson Muhammad Jarrah has said that they received an offer from the U.S. to fight with the SDF in Deir el-Zour.
He noted that they rejected the offer as they consider the YPG and its political wing Democratic Union Party (PYD) as separatists and that both the SDF and Daesh paralyzed the Syrian uprising and boost Assad's strength.
Jarrah noted that the only condition their group would participate in the liberation operation is by taking "independent steps" as they "do not want to share the burden of crimes committed against Syrian civilians."
"Assad regime and Russian jets committed massive massacres in the city" he added.
Another U.S.-backed moderate opposition group's spokesperson Saed el-Hajj also said that they received the same offer from the U.S., but they rejected it.
"The SDF and the regime are from the same group" el-Hajj said, adding that they do not trust the SDF and that such offers aim to create division among moderate opposition groups and destroy their goals and principles.
The spokesperson noted that they are also in favor of an independent road map for Deir el-Zour, not including the SDF.
The PYD started advancing toward Daesh-held Deir el-Zour on Sept. 9, with no resistance from the terrorist group.'
Wednesday, 20 September 2017
Khaled al Zubi:
'In July, in one of President Trump’s first foreign-policy advances, the United States, Russia, and Jordan brokered a cease-fire between Syrian regime and opposition forces in the country’s southern provinces along the Jordanian border. The deal raised many people’s hopes that a new era had begun, one that would rein in Bashar al-Assad’s military operations against his own people. That’s not the way it worked out.
Several weeks ago, I awoke late at night to the whizzing sound of regime aircraft circling the skies above my village, Muleiha Sharqiyya, and my 1-month-old son, crying. It was his first experience with warplanes in his short life, and no doubt scary. I rolled over and quickly scanned my phone; friends on WhatsApp were saying that several hundred Syrian and Russian forces were gathering outside Sama Hneidat, just east of Muleiha Sharqiyya, in apparent preparation for an assault. Not more than 15 minutes later, FSA rebel convoys carrying reinforcements could be heard passing down the main road heading east, toward the regime buildup.
Muleiha Sharqiyya is part of a string of towns in Syria’s southernmost Dera’a province that collectively form a sort of border between regime- and opposition-held territory. Our hamlet of 6,000 faces several regime-held towns located just under two miles east, well within range of small artillery. A few miles south looms the sprawling Tha’la military air base, where Assad’s forces regularly assemble before launching assaults on cities and towns in east Dera’a.
I got up and texted Yasser, a colleague who worked the nearest checkpoint through which the convoy was undoubtedly passing. “It’s nothing, inshallah,” he wrote, “but some of the guys think they [the regime] might wanna take the reservoir before the winter.” This was a reference to the water reservoir in a nearby village, which serves both regime and opposition farms.
“There’s foreigners with them,” Yasser added, which usually meant Iranians, Afghans, or even Russians.
By the end of the night, the FSA mustered a big-enough show of force to deter the pro-regime forces without firing a shot. It’s a testimony to the organization and readiness of opposition forces here and the popular support they enjoy.
The Syrian revolution began in Dera’a in 2011, and what transpires here is crucial to the viability of a political solution to the Syrian conflict. It was in Dera’a city that Syrian youth sprayed “The people want the fall of the regime” on walls and were arrested on March 6 of that year. The first mass protest against the regime—the so-called “Day of Rage”—occurred on March 15. On March 24, Dera’a saw the first massacre of the revolution, when security forces killed more than 200 civilians just outside the Omari mosque in Dera’a’s Old City. [The Nation could not independently verify this figure and therefore does not endorse its authenticity. International reporting at the time of the event placed the number killed there, on that day and in the days afterward, at anywhere from 5 to 150.]
Perhaps because the revolution began here, its spirit has been preserved in its purest form in the south. Unlike other liberated areas—such as Idlib in the north and East Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs, which are dominated by Islamist military factions—FSA factions here, collectively known as the Southern Front, have successfully prevented the spread of such groups. Both a free press and civil society thrive here, along with independent civil courts that resolve disputes between individuals. If the Assad regime can’t preserve a fragile peace with the Southern Front, it’s unlikely to do so elsewhere.
The fact that the Southern Front factions are committed to the principles of democracy has a downside. This region has historically enjoyed more support from the United States, Britain, and other sectors of the international community than other FSA factions and has been spared the grinding poverty in besieged parts of Syria where Islamists or other radical forces have sway. On the other hand, much of what goes on in our province goes unreported, both internationally and in the regional press. When violations occur, they often go unnoticed.
That is not to say that locals are uninformed. The near-clash in my area took place in late July, just over two months after the fourth round of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, in May, where Russia, Iran, and Turkey came up with the idea of implementing “de-escalation zones” across Syria. But neither those talks nor the US-brokered cease-fire has stopped regime aircraft from regularly bombing Dera’a city, the large provincial capital. Nonetheless, on this particular night, in Sama Hneidat, regime forces may have figured that it wasn’t worth violating the cease-fire over a battle they were likely to lose.
“Putin’s playing with Papa Trump,” a neighbor, Abu Faysal, told me the next morning, over coffee. “Everyone thinks Trump is crazy and that Putin—guided by logic—is pulling the strings,” he added. “What they don’t realize is that Syria makes everybody crazy.” Abu Faysal was convinced that the regime buildup was a Russian attempt to intimidate both the FSA and the United States to gain leverage for the next round of talks, whenever they would be. “Trump tried to show Russia he was the worst by bombing Assad,” a reference to the April 6 US airstrikes on Syria’s Shayrat air base after Assad used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. “Now Putin’s saying, ‘I can be crazy too, but a different kind of crazy.’”
When the “Day of Rage” protests began, I was an economics major at Tishreen University in the northwest province of Latakia. Dominated by the Assad family’s minority Alawite sect, Latakia has always been loyal to the regime, and Tishreen University was no different. When I and other students organized a march in solidarity with Dera’a, most of the student body watched from the sidelines as we entered the main quad, to be detained by school security.
By April 2011, many of the Tishreen students were labeling the protesters in Dera’a as radical Sunni jihadists. The regime had already adopted the slogan “us or the terrorists.” The university paper published articles claiming that intelligence had been intercepted demonstrating that “calls for help” had been made to international jihadists like Al Qaeda.
It was shocking to hear what was being said about my distant home province. The mood on campus was becoming so different from what I was hearing back home that I decided to leave university, return home, and join the protesters, or at least comfort my family. In the end I did both, as I learned soon after that one of my cousins, Ahmed, had been shot and wounded by security forces during a demonstration.
Shortly after my return home, six friends and I, armed with just two AK-47s and several hunting rifles, set up our town’s first neighborhood watch along the road leading south toward the Tha’la air base, which we would man at night. It was a modest effort, but our ranks would slowly grow, and to our surprise, we got support from sympathetic army officers, many of whom would later defect and join the opposition.
One such person was Zakaria, a sergeant from the northeastern town of Qamishli who was stationed at the 52nd Brigade base located just west of Muleiha Sharqiyya. Zakaria often frequented the mobile-phone shop my family owned, initially to buy credit for his phone. As time went on, Zakaria became more and more friendly with me and our staff, and ultimately began to speak about his desire to defect, saying that he feared what would happen to his family if he were killed.
One day Zakaria gave me his phone number and told me to call if I needed anything. I wasn’t sure if he was aware of my nighttime activity manning an armed checkpoint to deter his security forces. However, several weeks later, it was Zakaria who reached out to me, and it was clear from our conversation that he was privy to what I was up to.
“Security forces are going to launch night raids tonight looking for Khaled, Fadi, and Maher,” he said, referring to another volunteer named Khaled. “They’re going to charge them with engaging in terrorist activity.” I forwarded the message, advising all three to leave town. I also advised the other guys manning the checkpoint to stay home. Sure enough, the raids were launched, but the security forces came up empty-handed.
“Whoever saves one life—it is as if he had saved all of mankind,” I told Zakaria the next day, citing a well-known passage from the Quran and Talmud during a phone call thanking him for his help. He later defected from the army while on leave in Damascus. Before doing so he introduced us to other sympathetic army officers who would continue to help us stay several steps ahead of the regime. The last I heard, Zakaria was dead, killed while fighting the regime alongside an FSA faction in the eastern Damascus suburb of Qabun.
As the months went on, I switched from carrying a rifle to a camera. As the armed insurgency phase of the revolution intensified, more and more Syrian army officers defected to the opposition who were far more qualified than I to provide security for our town. Furthermore, working at my family’s mobile-phone shop afforded me more experience than most people in my area working with computers, cameras, and other forms of technology.
My experience with Zakaria and other army officers who would later defect also meant I was uniquely placed to coordinate with the armed factions and track developments through the course of the revolution. I dived headfirst into journalism and activism and haven’t looked back. My work has taken me to frontlines all over the south, where I’ve been able to witness FSA losses and gains and had the privilege of developing ties with other like-minded activists. Our job is to use our cameras to document regime war crimes and tell individual stories of triumph, failure, and perseverance that collectively make up the ethos of resistance in the south.
My work allows me to see first-hand the solidarity among the southern factions that characterize our region. Unlike in other parts of the country, where individual groups lay claim to specific towns, regions, or swaths of land, in many parts of the south armed brigades and factions share territory and come and go between different front lines, as the situation requires. This freedom of movement extends to myself and others, and is a testament to our region’s success: Though I pledge allegiance to no faction, my work on behalf of the Syrian revolution ingratiates me with the Southern Front factions, whom I call my brothers.
Ever since the fourth round of Astana talks in early May, when de-escalation zones were first broached, Syrian regime forces have adopted a series of new tactics in the Dera’a countryside that appear to be aimed at provoking a violent response from FSA opposition forces, while allowing the regime to maintain plausible deniability.
The first incident occurred between May 28 and 30, when, similar to what happened in Sama Hneidat, hundreds of pro-Assad Iranian, Afghan, and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters mobilized with dozens of tanks and heavy artillery over a period of three days outside the town of Khirbat Ghazala, six miles northeast of Dera’a city. The show of force was interpreted by FSA artillery units stationed in the area as a direct provocation.
Muhammad Badr al-Izra’i, an FSA commander stationed with a local artillery brigade, told me regime columns were approaching from two different directions, one from Damascus and the second from the frontlines in Dera’a city.
Al-Izra’i was convinced the regime would claim it was implementing the terms of the Astana talks by de-escalating the fight in Dera’a and then, after the fact, send in the second column the next day and commit a massacre in Dera’a city. “They wanted to hide this fact from the international community, so they withdrew some forces first, in order to provide cover,” he said.
To preempt an ambush of FSA forces in Dera’a city, al-Izra’i’s unit leader decided to fire on the regime forces approaching from Dera’a. Regime ranks took heavy losses, scattered, and withdrew in different directions. “Our actions that day are what showed the regime we’re not willing to stand for such trickery,” he said. The FSA stand at Khirbat Ghazala may explain why pro-regime forces stood down later in Sama Hneidat after the FSA mobilized its own reinforcements.
Since then, regime forces have avoided clashing directly in the open with FSA factions in the Dera’a countryside, choosing instead to launch air strikes or quick hit and-run artillery attacks. The regime, it seems, is changing its tactics. Throughout June and July, regime forces have used airstrikes or hit-and-run artillery against the towns of Sayda, al-Na’ima, al-Laja, and the al-Nasib border crossing with Jordan. As it launches airstrikes, the regime claims it does so in response to the movement of terrorist groups, knowing that moderate FSA forces dominate opposition areas.
One of those killed in a June 22 air strike in al-Na’ima was a close friend, Mustafa Abd al-Nur, a civilian who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Syrian regime jets dropped their bombs. Regime violations of the agreed-upon de-escalation zone aren’t as bad here as they are in other areas—in particular East Ghouta—but innocent people are still being killed due to the regime’s failure to live up to its promises.
Most southerners are skeptical of Russian and regime intentions in the de-escalation zones. No one believes that Assad or his allies seriously intend to let the Syrian opposition maintain control of any part of the country in the mid- to long term. The Southern Front in turn has not abandoned its aim to defeat Assad militarily or force his government to dissolve.
However, many here support de-escalation zones—but on the condition that Jordan and Russia, not Iran, serve as guarantors. That will allow the Southern Front time to redress problems within the region that have undermined the progress of our revolution for several years—in particular, rooting out what little remains of ISIS, HTS, and other extremist factions. I expect the regime would also like to take advantage of the calm to carry out a bit of spring-cleaning on its side as well.
For now, the Assad regime is likely to try to sabotage and weaken the FSA in the south. Late at night on June 28, my own home was shot up by unknown assailants as I was sleeping next to my wife, just five days before the birth of our son. Luckily, no one was hurt, and we left to stay with family members in the town of Sayda, a safer spot deeper in opposition-held territory. My son, exposed to the sound of gunshots before his own birth and the sound of warplanes within his first month, will undoubtedly grow up fast, and will likely become desensitized to the sounds of war before he’s able to walk.
As of now we don’t know who is responsible for the shooting. It could be elements of the Assad regime infiltrating behind enemy lines in order to kill those of us who are most active in the media. Or it could be the HTS/Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), whom I’ve been outspoken against since their arrival in the region back in 2013.
Luckily, the south hasn’t fallen under the sway of radical jihadists as in other parts of the country, such as Idlib, East Ghouta, and Qalamoun. This stems partially from the social dynamics of the south and partially from luck. When the revolution began, many radical groups focused their efforts around Syria’s urban enclaves, such as Damascus, Hama, and Aleppo, ignoring the south. By the time Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, and others sought to penetrate the region, the social, democratic, and military infrastructure in place was strong enough to resist their spread.
This infrastructure was undergirded by resilient communal ties that have evolved and intertwined since the earliest days of the revolution, when individuals such as myself and others took the initial risks that were needed to inspire others and instill in them a sense of purpose. The south’s status as the birthplace of the revolution means we have had more time to evolve and strengthen these ties, building trust between individuals, communities, and towns that have in turn provided fertile ground for the development of grassroots, democratic reform.
Many have died defending the south, and I expect many more will. However, military power alone hasn’t got us where we are.
Activists and journalists such as myself aren’t doing it for salary or some messianic ideology full of empty promises. We fight for our families, our homes, and the dignity of our towns. The civil, social, and political infrastructure is the bedrock that holds our foundation in place, even if soldiers die in the fighting. We think our model is an example, and we trust that our allies abroad won’t abandon us. I believe the south will prevail.'
Tuesday, 19 September 2017
'At the beginning of today, the Syrian regime and its militias lost several military positions following a military operation launched by several military factions in the northern Hama countryside.
According to media sources affiliated with the Syrian regime, its troops retreated from al-Qahera, Al-Shaatha, Al-Talisiyah and Al-Suda hill near the town of Ma'an in the northern countryside of Hama, military factions have not released information yet.
The Russia warplanes launched several air raids on the villages and towns of the northern Hama countryside, as well as rendering two Hospitals in both Kernabal and Khan Sheikhun out of service as a result of the raids.
The northern Hama countryside has been relatively calm in the military operations since entering the de-escalation agreement on the 4th of May, but the regime forces attacked the opposition factions in violation of the agreement in both the Janaba and al-Zalkeyat and seized them north of Hama.'
'Three hospitals in an hour were destroyed by Assad regime and Russian warplanes in the countryside of Idlib. The Obstetrics hospital of "Tah" was one of them. This is in addition to two schools.
Rahma hospital in Khan Sheikhoun in the countryside of Idlib has been targeted by Assad planes.
They always start killing life and hope.'
Monday, 18 September 2017
Yassin al-Haj Saleh:
"The challenge that Syrians faced was to essentially change the political environment in the country, and this challenge has not been achieved. So everything will be worse in the country, Bashar is staying, and it is an occupied country; occupied by at least the Russians and the Iranians.
What remains of the state is the killing machine. There are no services or services are in a pretty bad shape, schooling, almost everything; but the security tools, and the killing machine, is almost safe.
The Salafi-jihadist source of strength is not only arms. They capitalise on destruction, on hopelessness. So maybe they'll be defeated, militarily speaking, but the ground will still be fertile for we can't say now what extremist groups. Everything that caused the dynamics of radicalisation, militarisation, Islamisation and sectarianisation are still there.
The emancipatory movement is weakened. We are the ones, hundreds, thousands of us were killed under torture. Many disappeared and we don't know about them: my wife is one of them, my brother is one of them. Tens of thousands of people are displaced outside Syria in the neighbouring countries and in Europe, but there is a silver lining to this cloud, the creativity of these people on the artistic/cultural level. Maybe we are not powerful or influential, but I think we are trying to produce meanings for this horrible suffering of our country. Syria now is a global symbol in my opinion, and it is not the end of the struggle. Actually, I think this is only a battle in a longer struggle for justice, for equality, for freedom; and I hope that the democratic movement will have important work in this long struggle.
Prison gave me a different maturity, I hope. Now I am more ready to fight for life, and also it was an inoculation against despair. I hope it changed me positively to be a more human agent and struggle for justice."
Friday, 15 September 2017
'And once we finally expelled IS, we started a reconciliation process to integrate local fighters back into our community. Three years later, Atarib is still in our control. Here's how we did it.
I still remember my first visit to my hometown, Atarib, after the Islamic State (IS) group first showed up there. It was late 2013 when entering Syria through the Turkish border was still easy and the main danger you had to worry about were regime air strikes.
In the main market, you could hear all sorts of foreign languages which was shocking because we were accustomed to hearing Arabic and not much else. A family of Asian-looking fighters who spoke neither Arabic, nor English had taken over my high school.
“Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS] was established literally over a night in Atarib,” said Ahmed, a local activist.
“It was shocking to see that a group who did not exist the night before now has a military base, soldiers and logos all over the city. In other words, it was a jihadi coup.”
Walking around town, now plastered in the IS logo and its signature black flag, it was impossible not to see a masked man in black or a fighter’s wife, casually walking around with a Kalashnikov.
My city seemed to be in a permanent state of mourning.
How IS ended up in Atarib in 2013 is a similar story to how the group ended up in pockets across the rest of Syria as it tried to establish territorial control in preparation for its proclaimed caliphate.
In late 2011 as the civil war in Syria slowly evolved from peaceful uprisings into an armed conflict, al-Nusra was established in Syria with the support of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which was at that time exploring opportunities to expand into Syria.
But things deteriorated between these allies when al-Nusra refused to merge with ISI. Nusra, led by Abu Mohammed al-Golani, wanted to continue to follow al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both ISI and Nusra shared the same vision of establishing a caliphate, but disagreed on how to achieve that goal. Nusra wanted to pursue a long term strategy, winning over locals in the process. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISI’s strategy was to use whatever means necessary to take territory with little concern for hearts and minds.
Eventually, these differences came to a head and, in April 2013, ISI and al-Nusra split when IS was officially created in Syria.
As elsewhere in Syria, this division caused the majority of al-Nusra’s foreign fighters in Atarib – who were more focused on pursuing a caliphate than winning over locals - to defect and set up a branch of IS in the city. The newly-branded IS members took over al-Nusra’s centre in Atarib including its weapons and other belongings.
Despite clear ideological and strategic differences with IS, the Free Syrian Army groups in Atarib (and elsewhere), made up mostly of locals, didn’t have enough capacity or international support to challenge the group. Knowing full well that IS’s goal was to take control of the city, the FSA reluctantly found common cause with IS in fighting the Syrian regime.
Initially, IS seemed to accept that it would coexist with others in town. But soon enough, the group started to encourage members from others to defect to its ranks by offering public services that were otherwise hard to come by and not offered by other groups.
“When cooking gas was not available in Atarib, Daesh started providing it at cheaper rates to people who registered at its centre,” said Waleed, a local activist.
“When drinking water was not available, Daesh used a water tanker truck to provide people with water. It distributed water for free to its members, and at a low rate to those who registered their names at its centre. As a result, people started joining Daesh,” he said.
IS reportedly attempted to take over Atarib’s main bakery to provide bread at lower prices and also offered to supply thousands of free litres of diesel to the city’s revolutionary council on condition that the latter allowed IS to run it.
Likewise, IS also made efforts to embed itself in the community through provision of dawa and also through awards ceremonies.
“They used to ask people easy questions so whoever participated would win. They knew that people were poor, and that by paying sizeable amounts for silly questions – usually 5,000 SYP [then around $20] for a regular prize, with the big prize going up to 25,000 SYP [around $100] – the number of people attending these events would double every time,” said local activist Waleed.
Members of the group also tried to highlight the inefficiency of the existing local government and paint IS as the best crisis manager and city administrator.
“During Daesh’s public events, the host speakers used to publicly criticise the police, the checkpoints and even the local court, and talk about its corruption, incompetence, not following sharia,” Mahmoud, an activist in Atarib, said. “They were trying to turn locals against those in charge.”
According to Mosab, a local activist, IS’s court – operating in parallel to the local court supported by the local council and the FSA group - was willing to do whatever it took to solve its cases, including coercing people to confess and comply, to maintain an appearance of efficiency.
“One day my friend had a car accident in the city and his gun was stolen from his car in the ensuing confusion. He filed a complaint with the local court, but nothing happened due to lack of evidence,” Mosab told me.
“He later lodged a complaint with Daesh’s court. A few days later, Daesh found a suspect, charged him and gave a gun back to my friend, but it was not the same gun he lost,” he said.
Around four months after Baghdadi launched IS from his underground base in Iraq in April 2013, IS had secured its presence in Atarib and moved to compete more directly with the other rebel groups, seemingly willing to do anything it took to gain control.
To me, there was never anything that special about Atarib before the peaceful demonstrations of 2011 began. About 25km west of the city of Aleppo with around 30,000 mostly Sunni Arabs, our city wasn’t the site of anything historic or the hometown of anyone particularly famous. The truth is that from the moment I could leave Atarib to start university, I did.
Atarib means soil. I have no idea why it was called this, but the name says a bit about the purpose it has serves: it is a large agricultural and trading centre serving as a strategic transport hub between the city of Aleppo, the northern countryside of neighbouring Idlib governorate, and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Syrian–Turkish border.
Anti-regime demonstrations took place in Atarib as early as April 2011, and the city swiftly became an important protest centre for both the district of Aleppo and for the city itself.
One reason for Atarib’s rise as a pocket of peaceful protest were the large numbers of young, university-educated people living in the city. But also important was a strong network for extended families living in the city who provided safe harbour and supported their protesting relatives even if they themselves weren’t in the streets.
But it wasn’t a free for all. Pro-regime locals and shabiha in the area harassed protesters and their families, leading to the emergence of a group of locals who protected the demonstrators. As military officers defected from the regime, Atarib – with its revolutionary reputation – was one of the first urban centres to host them. On 12 February 2012, one of the defected officers established the first FSA faction in the city.
The regime forces immediately reacted and stormed the city two days later. After brief armed resistance, local dissidents fled the city to avoid persecution. The local FSA group in Atarib district, which was made up of locals from the city itself and from the wider district, continued to recruit people until it was able to push the pro-regime forces out of the city in July 2012 and out of most of northern Syria.
Several months later, IS turned up.
As the fight against the regime continued, Atarib, located on a crucial rebel supply line running between Turkey and Idlib and a revolutionary powerhouse that had helped secure rural Aleppo against the regime, became vitally important – and a key target for IS as the group attempted to capture the area.
“Controlling Atarib would have allowed Daesh to dominate the whole area,” said local activist Mustafa.
By late 2013, IS’s increased influence in Atarib had encouraged the group to do whatever it took to compete with locals for control of the city.
Arrests, abductions and assassinations by the group of anyone who opposed, questioned or was perceived to question IS activities became rampant. Using money and other leverage, the group swiftly established a wide network of informants to better understand local dynamics, recruit supporters and eliminate potential threats.
The network, said Abdullah, another local activist, “created mistrust between people as they did not know who could be spying on them. As a result, many people joined IS in order to protect themselves”.
IS’s chief targets included independent activists, citizen journalists, influential figures and FSA members and commanders. Among the most prominent victims was my cousin Samar Saleh who was kidnapped off the street with her journalist friend, Mohammad Al-Omar, in Atarib in August 2013. An eyewitness saw a member of IS when Samar and Mohammad were pulled off the street, but otherwise, we have no information about what has happened to them since.
“It drove people crazy, the spike in the number of people who were forcibly disappeared,” said Mosab.
All of the evidence indicated that IS was the group behind the majority of them, he said. But the group “was always denying the whereabouts of those people. In many instances, Daesh denied arresting people, yet a few days later the same people were presented and sentenced in front of the group’s court.”
By now, fear of IS was widespread, and yet the true extent of the group’s power in the city – and the number of groups that had sworn secret allegiance to it – was a mystery. Unable to know who was aligned with whom, many locals and local groups who would have fought IS were hesitant to act.
IS’s next move, however, proved to be a turning point.
In the first days of 2014, IS’s skirmishes with local groups turned into a full-scale confrontation as the group attempted to seize the city for good.
The change happened quickly: IS established a series of checkpoints to isolate Atarib and prevent opposition reinforcements from reaching it, and also mobilised its forces from areas of Aleppo and Idlib in preparation for storming the city.
On 2 January 2014, IS fighters attempted to arrest my other cousin, Mahmoud Haid, on charges of corruption and affiliation with the Syrian regime. His arrest was part of a wider campaign against corrupt individuals. Local residents intervened to prevent his arrest, and demanded that IS follow the correct procedure in lodging a complaint against him before the local court. The city’s police and local court similarly took action to prevent his detention as IS’s arrest squad withdrew angrily.
IS members later returned with a warrant demanding that the head of the local court come to the IS-controlled police station in al-Dana, a nearby town under IS authority. Atarib’s own authorities refused to hand anyone over, insisting that locals should be questioned or prosecuted within the city itself.
IS’s local commander then went to the police station in Atarib and threatened to storm the city if the group’s demands were not met. At about the same time, the body of a local FSA fighter, Ali Obeid – a known opponent of IS who had last been seen heading towards one of the group’s checkpoints outside the city – was discovered in a town close by, apparently showing signs of torture; IS was assumed to be the main suspect.
This chain of events provoked demonstrations against IS on the streets of Atarib, and the city’s notables and local armed groups held an emergency meeting and, after months of an uneasy toleration of the group, the city decided to fight.
An FSA commander who was present at the meeting said it was an easy choice.
“People were demonstrating against Daesh in the streets. Daesh also threatened to storm the city and persecute us. Therefore, everyone agreed that fighting was our only choice,” he said.
Preparations for the armed resistance were to be led by the local rebel groups, and among the various roles assigned at the meeting, two local military leaders were unanimously appointed to the roles of principal commander and military commander.
A broader meeting among members of the public followed, which was broadcast widely over walkie- talkies and from the city’s mosques. Members of local armed groups and civilians were urged to participate in the defence of Atarib in whatever way they could.
Based on instructions from the newly designated military commander, civilians set up makeshift checkpoints at all the main entry points to the city, while some local armed groups and business leaders began distributing weapons.
“The sense of solidarity among civilians was unbelievable. It reminded me of the early days of the peaceful demonstrations against Assad, everyone was working together,” said Mosa’b.
“Some people started cooking and looking after those who were at the checkpoints. Others were taking turns at the checkpoints or were patrolling throughout the city. Some donated money, ammunition, arms. Even restaurants were serving food for free.”
On 2 January, within hours of the various meetings around town, the fight against IS was underway. As the group began shelling Atarib from a nearby town, resistance members immediately returned fire, and soon the IS fighters still inside the city were surrounded.
For hours, the IS fighters and local leaders talked in an effort to negotiate their surrender, but it eventually became clear that the fighters were trying to delay efforts in the hope that reinforcements would arrive to rescue them. The next day, IS forces attempted to storm the city again, but were quickly repelled by locals.
That same afternoon, the military commander briefed residents about the fight against IS at a further meeting convened in the city’s largest mosque during Friday prayers. He appealed to the members of the local community to forget about any differences they may have had over their positions since the war had started and work together to defend the city.
Later the same day, led by the military commander, armed civilians joined local armed groups and stormed IS’s headquarters in the city, capturing the remaining IS members – mostly foreign nationals – who had opted to fight rather than surrender. In the weeks that followed, the speed of IS’s defeat in Atarib encouraged other groups to join the fight and expel the group from their areas in Aleppo and Idlib.
The fight against IS was swift. But what is particularly notable about Atarib’s resistance to IS is that the fight was followed almost immediately by a locally run reconciliation process that helped IS fighters who had been pressured to join the group or even those who were now disillusioned to reintegrate with the community.
Local leaders in Atarib including elders, doctors and scholars told IS supporters – some of whom were their own family members - that if they chose not to fight for the group, they would be safe, and many of the fighters choose to put down their arms for this reason.
“We decided to give people a way out in case they wanted one. We all make mistakes, and people should always have a second chance,” said Omar, a local who fought against IS.
“Moreover, killing locals, even if they are members of IS, would badly impact the relationship between the residents of the city. Luckily, almost all of the locals decided not to fight, which weakened Daesh and preserved the unity of our community.”
Of course, there were some in Atarib who didn’t want to forgive the IS fighters, but by and large, as influential leaders in the city voiced their support for reconciliation, most people fell in line.
The process had flaws. It was hard to make sure that former members didn’t rejoin IS somewhere else later or switch allegiance to the ideologically similar al-Nusra as that group moved in to take control of former IS strategic positions and weaponry.
But three years on, the city of Atarib remains under local control, supported by strong civil society and rebel groups in opposition to the Assad regime. This strength has contributed to the city’s ability to protect itself in the face of the recent significant expansion of al-Nusra’s influence following the group’s merger with other rebel groups in the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) or Levant Liberation Committee alliance.
Both before and after the merger, al-Nusra launched a large number of offensives to capture key strategic areas and resources, but Atarib has evaded HTS control.
The city’s residents believe that their ability to work together, bolstered by the continued strong presence of rebel groups in the city, as well as Atarib’s record of resistance to al-Nusra’s previous attempt to take control of the city in early 2015, are chief factors that continue to hold al-Nusra at bay.
In the context of the wider conflict against IS in Syria, the US-led anti-IS campaign has largely succeeded in conquering the group militarily, but it hasn’t tackled how to sustain these achievements. A sole focus on defeating IS militarily, without a broader strategy to address the conditions that first allowed IS to flourish, will likely further enable al-Nusra, which has been exploiting the power vacuum in areas where IS has collapsed.
A strategy to defeat IS – and other ideologically similar extremist groups – can only be successful if it is undertaken comprehensively and in cooperation with local communities to identify and address the deep-rooted political, economic, social and cultural problems that have allowed such groups to rise and flourish.
Strong local communities that are able to create their own alternatives and solutions like Atarib will have the incentive to fight for them, especially when they trust that what comes next will not be worse.
If the US-led coalition wants to defeat IS without it re-emerging, it’s military strategy should be coupled with locally sensitive reconciliation processes to address the issue of reintegrating IS members fully within a local community. Many lessons learned from the Atarib experience could be applied in this context.'
Thursday, 14 September 2017
'I was first confronted with the fate of political prisoners in Syria 15 years ago. To this day, I am grateful for the conversations with lawyers such as Anwar al-Bounni, who is in attendance today, and Razan Zeitouneh, who was abducted in 2013.
One day Razan Zeitouneh took me along to meet Fares Mourad who had, after 20 years imprisonment, finally been released. First sentenced to death, his sentence was later reduced to seven years imprisonment, and yet he was detained for another 13 years. Prisoners in Syria were never granted claimable rights.
Fares was sitting across from me. Even though he could no longer raise his head and was only able to look at me with great strain, he smiled. “What irony that the first foreigner I meet happens to be German,” he said and pointed to his overstretched neck: “We call the torture technique with which this was done to me the ‘German chair’.”
Excruciating detention conditions and torture always were defining features of the Syrian state under Assad rule. That did not first begin with the onset of the Syrian revolution.
Thousands were killed in the Hama massacre in 1982, while thousands more disappeared in prisons. To date, no trace of them has been found.
The neighbouring country, Lebanon, saw the Syrian army in their capacity as occupying power deport political prisoners to Syria and to this day 30,000 of those disappeared are not accounted for.
It is not without reason that the Syrian figure of speech for disappearing without a trace goes, “where not even the blue fly will find you”. The bluebottle fly is the very first fly to lay its maggots on a corpse.
Disappearance is only possible in a state that covertly kills and does away with the evidence. And yet, in Syria, the point is not just to eradicate lives. To the state, it is at least just as important to express contempt and to humiliate the relatives who are reduced to petitioners.
For those who wish to gain an understanding of how prisoners were tortured already in the 1980s in Palmyra’s notorious jail, I recommend the recently released film Tadmor by Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim. In it, former prisoners reconstruct the hell they lived through and play out a typical day in the prison.
With the violent suppression of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the extent of arrests, disappearances and torture assumed an entirely new dimension.
Back when the revolution started gaining momentum, activists were in good spirits and confident that they would succeed in bringing an end to the system. Many who had been detained short-term were determined to continue with their efforts:
“They arrest us, and then we are released, and we continue” – that is how many of our partners described it during the first years.
It was clear to them that they would face detention. And yet they expected there to be boundaries which the regime would not infringe upon at a large scale. They were convinced that they would get away with their lives.
This certainty soon dwindled once it became clear that many would indeed not survive. When the cases in which prisoners of all ages survived imprisonment only by some weeks, at times only a few days, began to amass and it could no longer be ignored that death by torture had become method, the mood hardened. That also promoted the arming of the uprising.
The photographs taken on behalf of the regime by the Syrian military member code-named “Caesar” – images of prisoners tortured to death in the regime’s detention centres and prisons – depict at least 6,700 victims of the gruelling state leadership.
Investigator Stephen Rapp describes it as “killing at an industrial level”, and he furthermore postulates that already the available documents on these crimes are the most extensive set of records “since Nuremberg”.
The “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic” report released by the UN Commission of Inquiry in 2015, or the reports published by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International on detention conditions and the systematic execution of thousands in the Sednaya Prison, have put beyond doubt that the killing of those arbitrarily arrested has become method.
Despite the circumstance that this ineffable horror has been precisely documented, there has been no noteworthy political outcry.
Whether the grounds of the Sednaya Prison actually contain a crematorium – as suspected by the State Department – is yet to be determined.
However, the fact that tens of thousands of people have been disappeared and no news as to their whereabouts has been received for years suggests that a majority of them are no longer alive.
Why is there no push for international access to this prison? How is it possible that especially among the ranks of German politicians so many of the bloodcurdling crimes committed by the Syrian regime and its main backers, Russia and Iran, are passed over or even played down?
Ethnic cleansing is well underway in Syria – pursued in great part not, as oftentimes presumed, by ISIS or Daesh, but rather by the regime. The infamous “green buses” are used to deport thousands against their will, and ghost towns are created, all on the basis of religious affiliation.
The Caesar photographs and the film on the disappeared were shown in Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In Germany, however, most politicians conduct themselves guardedly. Most notably in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien speaks of the greatest humanitarian crisis of the century in relation to Syria.
Insofar, states and international organisations pose the question of how one can help, how especially the people in Syria can be helped.
The majority of UN humanitarian aid distribution is not aligned with neediness and the relevant criteria – independence, impartiality and neutrality – but aid is instead distributed plain and simply via Damascus in an area controlled by the regime. In light of what is known of the detention conditions in Syria, the question arises, in my view, to what extent humanitarian aid is used not to alleviate suffering, but to contribute to the horror. Medical facilities in regime-controlled areas are an integral part of the torture apparatus. Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria wrote in the Washington in April: “Medicine has been used as a weapon of war since the earliest days of the uprising, when pro-government doctors performed amputations on protesters for minor injuries.”
Survivor Mohsen al-Masri explains, “Prisoners learned to stay silent when guards asked who needed to go to the hospital. It didn’t matter what they did to us; we had to pretend we were fine. People rarely came back from those trips.”
In a state which uses doctors and hospitals as part of its brutal obliteration of the opposition, the assessment of what one delivers to this system becomes a political and a moral issue.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has broached the matter of releasing political prisoners in advance of each round of Geneva peace talks. The release of political prisoners would be a confidence-building measure and would signal that the regime takes an interest in a negotiated settlement.
The fact that the Assad regime, after all these years, is unwilling to make such a gesture speaks volumes for the prospects of the talks. For the time being, they seem merely like a means to let time pass.
Time in which the regime continues to wage its relentless war against insurgents, whom it bluntly subsumes under the category of “terrorists”. Time during which the international community gives the impression of being active without however being capable of producing any tangible progress, particularly in relation to the improvement of the living conditions of civilians in Syria. Every day more people are arrested, and every day more people die in captivity.
The regime’s continuation of large-scale arrests and disappearances on the one hand is due to the circumstance that political prisoners are used as leverage to pressurize relatives. At times the objective is to coerce another member of the detainee’s family to turn themselves in. Oftentimes the motives are of a material nature. The families of political prisoners are forced to hand over money, even just to obtain information on the whereabouts of the person concerned. Ever-present corruption in Syria renders imprisonment an individual source of income for civil servants at every level. Since 2011, this has downright blossomed into a grim branch of the war economy, a self-sufficient system. Many of those who have become indebted or who have sold their possessions in an attempt to scrape together money for the more and more exorbitant demands of the security forces have later come to realise that their relatives were already deceased at the time of payment.
On the other hand, the reason for which arrests and abuse resulting in death are pursued is that the regime needs not fear any consequences. The meticulous documentation by Caesar and others, but also the fact that henchmen of the regime still continue to publish videos online of them torturing detainees bears witness to that.
Legal reviews such as the one initiated by Anwar al-Bounni and Mazen Darwish, in cooperation with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, are therefore of grave importance. A clear message must be sent to the effect that despite the present state of connivance due to political unwillingness, the crimes committed will not remain unpunished in the long term.
If we switch from the international to the local perspective to examine in detail the so-called “local ceasefires”, it becomes apparent that here also the issue of prisoners assumes great importance.
Close to one million Syrian men and women live under siege according to the estimate released by Siege Watch – almost all of them are being besieged by the regime. By starving the population and withholding medical care, the regime and its allies attempt to forcefully elicit surrenders. In the last months alone, numerous locations in the environs of Damascus have been depopulated in the full sense of the word. “Current population: zero. No longer monitored,” Siege Watch states on its interactive map.
In the course of negotiations of the conditions for the surrender of a locality, the opposition’s demand for the release of prisoners proves to be an especially tenuous issue.
That is typically the point at which the negotiations are abandoned and the issue fails to find its place in the final settlement – and even if it does, based on the experiences to date, the regime only rarely complies with its commitments. This raises the question: Why?
Only because the regime, even at a small scale, is not prepared to commit to confidence-building measures? Or because it aims to prevent witness statements? Or because the individuals in question have perhaps already lost their lives and their corpses have long been buried in mass graves?
That takes us back to the question of why not more is done at an international level to grind to a halt the mass killings in Syria.
Syrian activists are left to battle a set of problems at international level. Democratic forces in Syria are continually worn down by all of the armed parties who have no interest in freedom or rule of law – ISIS and other Islamic extremists, the authoritarian tendencies also present amongst Kurdish groups, and the regime. Abroad they are often told that there are “no good guys” left in Syria – ignorance as justification for inaction.
Challenging the Acceptance of the Regime
Time and time again, those driven by nostalgia reminisce about an illusory stability, security and peaceful togetherness in Syria prior to 2011. While this may have been the impression a traveler and outside observer could have obtained, it fails to do justice to the real-life experiences of many Syrian citizens.
In the face of the openly and wilfully flaunted reign of terror by the so-called “Islamic State”, the leap to designate Assad the “lesser evil” is quickly made in an international context, regardless of the well-documented fact that his regime is responsible for the majority of human rights offences and war crimes.
The Assad regime is culpable for more than 90% of deaths in Syria. Amongst those tortured to death, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the figure rises to 99%. And yet, the myth that this regime is worth preserving cannot be eradicated.
Whoever describes the regime as a “lesser evil” in the same breath tends to make reference to the minorities living in Syria and suggests Assad is their guardian. That is equally only tenable when one turns a blind eye to what is actually taking place. Neither are those rising up against Assad exclusively members of the Sunni majority, nor does the affiliation with a minority entail automatic protection. Some of the attendees today can give their own painful accounts of that.
Those representing the “Assad is the guardian of minorities” dictum lose sight entirely of the fact that the protection of minorities is a question of guaranteed rights. Whoever, for better or for worse, tethers the matter of minority rights to a person – especially a person who tramples all over human rights – denies minorities their rights and renders their fate a question of mercy.
Just like all others, members of minority groups in Syria also cannot count on legal rights and legislation. They have been taken hostage by the regime and have thereby become pawns; the decision of whether to grant them protection or not has been a bargaining chip at Assad’s disposal throughout the entire conflict.
Just as important as it is to demand guarantees for the rights of minorities from opposition forces, it is necessary to speak about rights for members of a majority and, when they are being killed and prosecuted, it is crucial not to remain idle. The desire for simple explanations should not entice anyone to indulge in the regime’s rhetoric of “us” and “them” or to contemplate the conflict exclusively through a denominational prism.
Like in every other conflict, the majority of people in Syria is made up by unarmed civilians whose rights and lives we carry the responsibility to support, notwithstanding their denomination.
All parties who commit crimes in the course of this conflict need to be held accountable. Suffering cannot be measured in numbers. And yet, failing to act for the reason of supposed balance when evaluating the difference in the extent of crimes committed by each party in the conflict falls short.
While the Assad regime is responsible for an overwhelming proportion of deaths and violence in Syria, it remains unfazed and continues to lay claim to international legitimacy. This legitimacy however does not find representation in form of a seat in the UN, but rather through actions. Legitimate rule brings with it not only rights, but also duties.
Assad has claimed the right to destroy the Syrian population whilst he should actually commit himself to its protection.
Syria has been part of the international Convention against Torture since 2004.
Syria is, as documented by a UN resolution from 2015, the only state that is part of the Chemical Weapons Convention in which chemical weapons continue to be deployed. By the very regime which joined the convention.
The achievements made in the realm of international law during the past decades, in the areas of unconventional weapons and the responsibility to protect, are being systematically dismantled in Syria. That constitutes an encouraging signal to dictators worldwide – devastating for civilians and problematic for the vision for a world which aims to abandon the rule of the most powerful.
The reticence in Germany, the silence of other countries when faced with the overwhelming body of evidence leaves survivors aghast.
Garance Le Caisne, in her book “Operation Caesar”, quotes one of those who assisted Caesar in smuggling photographs abroad, Sami:
"The war has already been ongoing for four years. And yet diplomats speak of reconciliation and transitions. Does that mean the intelligence officials will retain their positions? After all that has happened? And Caesar and I will continue to be pursued by the regime?"
The release of prisoners is the main concern of various Syrian activists, amongst others, the “families of the disappeared” and the ”Save the Rest” campaign. In reference to the typical procedure whereby most prisoners are first taken to the mostly underground detention centres of the Syrian intelligence services, “Save the Rest” reminds us: “Not everyone underground is dead, there are thousands of lives waiting to be saved.”
To all intents and purposes, international efforts should be aligned in order to put an end to the murders in Syria. However, as long as there are no genuine efforts discernible, it is essential to offer activists and civilians at least some form of outlook. For this reason, the legal review of unjust ongoings is crucial.
I extend my deep gratitude and great respect to those who with their reports and witness statements disclose the happenings in Syria and to those who have seized the courage to take legal action. Courage not only because they speak of the unspeakable, but also because it carries danger for themselves and their relatives. The long arm of the Syrian regime reaches farther than just the states bordering Syria in which the witnesses of inconvenient proceedings against the regime frequently fall victim to attacks and arrests.
Likewise in Germany, we can find examples of how perpetrators sent by the Syrian regime have intimidated regime opponents, at times not shying away from physical violence.
It therefore becomes all the more important – now and in future – to enable survivors of tyrannical regimes to seek justice.'