Saturday, 22 July 2017

Inside Syria's militant-run prisons: Abuse, torture

 Loubna Mrie and Ahmad Zaza:

 'He was only 14 years old when he was first detained by the Syrian government for joining the 2011 protests against President Bashar al-Assad. When militants linked to al-Qaida began gaining ground in rebel-held Idlib province three years later, Jawdat Malas would once again find himself holed up in a dark and dingy detention room.

 The media activist from the Idlib town of Maarat al-Numan said that life in an al-Qaida prison comes with a cruel routine: For hours every day, he would crouch in a corner of a dark cell, where he would be tortured until his body was heavily bruised.

 "I reached a point where I was constipated. My whole body was dark blue," he said. "Other detainees were taking care of me. I had no idea what I did wrong. I was terrified."

 Malas says that he was arrested on charges of colluding with the Free Syrian Army, a confederation of nationalist forces fighting the Syrian government. He also says he was falsely accused of supplying video footage to the U.S.-led coalition fighting al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Syria.

 "They beat me up and terrorized me, asking me to give them the names of who I work with and whom I work for," he said. At one point, militants pressed a knife against his throat and shot a bullet on the ground to rattle him into submission.

 "I had nothing to tell them and nothing to confess. But they didn't care," he said. "If you are not serving their agenda and if you are not with them, you are their enemy."

 In rebel-held parts of Syria, Malas' story is not an anomaly.

 Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, civilians, activists and human-rights groups have consistently reported that non-state armed groups have subjected thousands of people -- including aid workers, doctors, lawyers, rebels and journalists -- to arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, unlawful detention and torture.

 Though pale in comparison to the number of people detained by the Syrian government, arbitrary arrests by armed militant groups is becoming a grave and often overlooked problem for Syrians living in rebel-controlled parts of the country.

 The exact number of missing and detained is unknown, but the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a local watchdog, estimates that more than 9,000 people, including at least 200 children, have been kidnapped or arrested by extremists, such as al-Qaida and IS, since 2011.

 Malas was eventually released by al-Qaida-linked militants after being detained for two months. He said that his captors had finally realized that he had no useful information to provide about either the FSA or the U.S.-led coalition.

 The media activist continued to document and track violations in Maarat al-Numan following his release, but this time his camera lens widened its focus beyond abuses carried out by the Syrian government.

 "This time I knew that I am not only fighting against Assad. I am fighting against all those who are trying to hide behind religion to dominate our struggle," he said. "And I have to document their violations like I do with the Syrian regime."

 In Idlib province, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaida-led alliance of insurgent fighters, has become a dominant force in the only governorate in Syria under near complete rebel control. The hard-line militant group has carried out several arrests against moderate Syrian rebels, activists, citizen journalists and even schoolchildren over the past year alone.

 An activist-run monitoring group sprung up roughly two years ago to document and track abuses carried out by HTS and its predecessor -- the Nusra Front -- in the province and nearby areas.

 One of its founders, Assem Zidan, who lives in Turkey because he is wanted by the group, says that it is difficult to provide accurate statistics on the number of people detained in al-Qaida jails. He says he believes, however, that the problem of arbitrary arrests in Idlib is only increasing.

 In one week this month, his monitoring group recorded the kidnapping of dozens of civilians in Idlib by HTS. On June 15, the monitor claimed that more than 50 FSA rebels were being detained in an HTS prison located in the northern Hama countryside, near Idlib.

 Zidan says that these HTS crackdowns and arrests target any individual or group that has a large following and is capable of "changing public opinion" in its respective area of control. These people are often presented with three options, he said: "detention, death or following their [HTS] ideology."

 Torture and arbitrary arrests have also rattled the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, which has been under the control of Jaish al-Islam, a hard-line armed opposition group, since late 2013. The city of nearly 140,000 people, has seen the arrest of women and children as young as 10 years old at the hand of the radical armed group. The Jaish al-Islam group is also accused of kidnapping and arresting Razan Zaitouneh, Wa'el Hamada, Nazem Hamadi and Samira Khalil, four human rights activists who were abducted in Douma on Dec. 9, 2013.

 Tellingly, the al-Tawba (Repentance) Prison, which is supervised directly by Jaish al-Islam, is one of the most infamous institutions in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, notorious for its abuse and torture methods.

 While there is a large network of activists in the area, there are no accurate statistics on the number of detainees in the jail. Abu Khaled, a 31-year-old media activist from Douma, says he is surprised by the absence of such reports since arbitrary arrests by the militant group have proven to be a serious problem in rebel-held areas east of the capital.

 "Random arrests take place all around Eastern Ghouta. Some former prisoners who had been detained by Jaish al-Islam have spoken of the abysmal conditions in Jaish al-Islam's prisons, and especially in al-Tawba prison," he said.

 "These prisons are as bad as those of the Syrian regime, and, according to former prisoners, many detainees stay in prisons for months without trial."

 Firas, a 32-year-old resident of the suburb was detained in the facility for a month in the summer of 2016. Unlike other prisoners who were accused of spying for the government or colluding with rival rebel groups, the Douma native says he was thrown into jail for raising a complaint against a well-connected neighbor who had links to the hardline Jaish al-Islam group.

 "I talked to my neighbor many times hoping that he could find a solution for the loud noise made by his generator, but he never responded," said Firas, who works at an Internet cafe in the suburb. "I finally decided to go to the police, but it was me who was arrested after they claimed I attacked my neighbor and destroyed his generator."

 Firas was confined to a small cell for one month, where he was subject to "torture and humiliation" by armed militants. He said, however, that he had to "overlook these abuses" because the militant group could easily accuse him of colluding with the government and end his life.

 He was eventually released from prison after agreeing to drop his complaint.

 "When I left prison, the generator was still in place. A little while after that, my house was hit by a shell and my neighbor's generator was destroyed in the attack. Now neither my house nor the generator is there," Firas said.

 Abu Muhammad, a 42-year-old father of three, was held for a month and a half by Jaish al-Islam in Douma last year on charges of colluding with the Syrian government. "I found it ironic to be detained by Jaish al-Islam [on charges of collusion] when I was one of the first in my town to join the Syrian revolution," the vegetable vendor said.

 Abu Mohammad described the torture he faced in the Jaish al-Islam prison as "brutal." He said that he was surrounded by dozens of other prisoners who also had no idea why they were being detained. He would eventually be released after residents connected to the group vouched for him and pledged to keep him out of trouble.'

Friday, 21 July 2017

Idlib is Green

Robin Yassin-Kassab:

'The people of Saraqeb, Idlib, a couple of days after holding a free election for their local council, push HTS (ex-Fateh al-Sham, ex-Nusra, ex-alQaida), out of town. Idlib is Green.'

 Raed Fares:

 'So she lured me this picture and I couldn't resist the magic to spread it.

 I tried to grow her up repeatedly to keep track of the cars, how they felt and what they were thinking.
 Strangers even though they're from the city, but they're strangers, strangers to their religion, their parents and their childhood dreams.
 Strangers from the garden of their grandfather, strangers from their past, their present and their future, strangers from life after they painted the lines of their west.
 Who are you to judge a gun? Who are you to stop a frenzy that has erupted in their chests seven years ago?
 Who are you? And how did you come? And who sent you?
 Leave and take with you my fear of you and take with you the idea that we are ad, and to learn very well that who broke the barrier of oppression and fear in 2011.'

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Thursday, 20 July 2017

As Trump Shores Up Assad's Genocidal Regime, America's Hard Left Is Cheering Him On

The U.S. far left and far right have found love in common: Assad and Putin. Max Blumenthal tells Tucker Carlson on Fox News "Russian hysteria has buried the Left". 17 July 2017

 Oz Katerji:

 'Prominent left wing blogger and self-declared "anti-imperialist" Max Blumenthal was recently the special guest of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. Blumenthal took to the airwaves of a hard-right, Islamophobic propaganda network to rail against sanctions and dismiss irrefutable accusations of collusion between Donald Trump’s election campaign and the Kremlin.

 Normally a situation in which the far-left find kinship with the far-right would raise more of an eyebrow, but in the world of Trump-Russia it barely registers anymore. This is because these voices have found ideological bedfellows on the Western far-right.

 Blumenthal’s appearance on Fox wasn’t an anomaly, for the editor of the 'Grayzone Project’, supposedly dedicated to "combatting Islamophobia", has long been at the forefront of a group of Western bloggers, pundits and academics promoting pro-Kremlin propaganda and regurgitating widely debunked Islamophobic conspiracy theories about Syrians.

 Blumenthal, along with his colleagues and frequent Russia Today contributors Gareth Porter, Benjamin Norton & Rania Khalek have spent the best part of the last 18 months publishing smear attacks against NGOs, medics, journalists, first responders and Syrian civil society groups.

 Virtually any group that speaks out on the Assad regime’s campaign of systematic slaughter have been targeted by this coterie with the express intention of defending a regime guilty of human extermination. This work is focused squarely on painting any grassroots opposition to the Assad regime as either the work of U.S. imperialism or borne from violent Sunni extremists. Blumenthal and his crew have also positioned themselves as the enemies of truth, by frequently using their platforms to deny or dismiss the war crimes of the Assad regime.

 The irony is that Blumenthal used his appearance on Fox to dismiss the credibility of irrefutable Trump-Russia connections on a supposed lack of evidence, whereas in Syria, Blumenthal and his AlterNet Grayzone colleagues have repeatedly ignored evidence in favour of fact-free war crimes denial narratives, even when those narratives contradict each other.

 But those who have followed Blumenthal’s evidence-free approach to Assad should not be shocked by his desire to jump into bed with the pro-Putin right-wing chorus.

 Take for example the Assad regime’s air strike on the Ain al-Fijeh water springs in the Damascus enclave of Wadi Barada. When the spring was bombed, temporarily cutting off fresh water supplies for large parts of Damascus, the regime claimed that the rebels poisoned the water supply with diesel fuel. Despite there being no evidence of this, Blumenthal ran with this lie. Following a UN investigation that found the Assad regime responsible for the war crime, not only did Blumenthal fail to retract the lie, his colleague Rania Khalek rejected the UN investigation and again mouthed the regime line.

 The same thing happened following the regime’s bombardment of the Aleppo aid convoy in September 2016. Again, AlterNet writers started pushing the Kremlin line and, following the United Nations conclusive report finding the regime culpable, they refuted the conclusions of the investigation in favour of Russian claims. This has been repeated time and time again by these bloggers, whether dismissing recorded attacks against field hospitals or outright denying regime culpability for chemical weapons attacks based on claims from one anonymous source. The reality is these pundits aren’t interested in the veracity of evidence when it comes to using fabricated claims to defend Russia or Assad from allegations of war crimes, even following conclusive independent United Nations investigations.

 This evidence-free, propaganda heavy position on Syria has been fawned over by the far-right. Blumenthal’s work has received gushing praise from America’s leading racist commentators including Ann Coulter, Pamela Geller and former KKK leader David Duke.

 Earlier in July this year in an interview Blumenthal declared: "The [American] national security state has completely abrogated what should be its top mission, which is to take on these [anti-Assad] Sunni jihadist organizations which have repeatedly attacked soft targets in the West and caused chaos. They should be fighting them."

 Blumenthal is conflating all anti-Assad forces with ISIS and Al Qaeda, as he has frequently denied the existence of any moderate Syrian rebels, a frequent trope to delegitimize all anti-Assad forces.

 These are the words not of a Leftist or "anti-imperialist", but of a Westerner fully embracing the expansion of Bush, Obama and now Trump's 'war on terror’, with a specific remit to target Sunnis. With a healthy dose of sectarian hypocrisy, a longstanding defender of the designated Shia terrorist organisation Hezbollah has openly called for the expansion of Trump’s bombardment of civilians in the Middle East.

 What Blumenthal fails to disclose is that this campaign is already firmly under way and has already seen civilian deaths jump from 80 per month under Obama to 360 per month under Trump. As well as openly supporting the Russian-backed offensive against Aleppo, which was labelled a war crime by the UN, it seems Blumenthal is not opposed to the bombing of Syria as long as Assad’s enemies are the target.

 The U.S. is bombing Syria, and the thousands of coalition air strikes carried out against ISIS in favour of pro-Assad militias around Palmyra or Deir ez-Zour or against al-Qaeda-affiliated opposition militants in Idlib or Aleppo prove this, however Blumenthal’s loudest protests are saved for Assad’s air bases, not Trump’s coalition bombing civilians in mosques. It is no coincidence that during the campaign trail Benjamin Norton endorsed Trump’s foreign policy, sentiment that was also echoed by mainstream backer of AlterNet’s pro-Assad crowd Glenn Greenwald.

 The sectarian rot of these bloggers isn’t even particularly well hidden, as evidenced by Benjamin Norton’s faux-media outrage over the use of the word ‘stronghold’. When it comes to Beirut and Hezbollah, Norton is enraged by the use of the word stronghold to describe areas under its control, however in Idlib, the entirety of the population is reduced to a ‘stronghold’ belonging to a terrorist organisation.

 This kind of language is deliberately used by these bloggers exclusively to dehumanize Syrian civilians, and on this issue, these far-left activists have found ideological kinship against "manufactured liberal hysteria" with the most reactionary elements of the far-right.

 While these supposed leftists continue to present themselves as "anti-war" or "anti-imperialist", they are in fact acting as full-time advocates for Russian and Iranian military imperialism in Syria and to provide them immunity in the American public square from war crimes charges. This American far-left: far-right coalition on Syria looks set to keep flourishing, on the backs of millions of almost exclusively Syrian Sunni Arab victims, whom they’ve thrown to their eager Assad-supporting predators.'

Syrians memorialize victims of a a suspected toxic gas attack on Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, reported to have killed 88 people, including 31 children. July 12, 2017

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Putin, Trump

 Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 'In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

 To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

 The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

 Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

 Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

 Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

 But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down.

 The United States has also struck Iranian-backed columns in the southeast of the country three times in recent weeks, as well as destroying at least two Iranian drones. The Shiite militias were advancing near Al-Tanf, where Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. From the Al-Tanf base, the U.S. military has supported local rebel groups as they won large swathes of the southern desert from ISIS, and from here it hopes to drive ISIS out of the Euphrates valley. But as the rebels advanced eastward against Sunni jihadis, Iran’s Shiite jihadis came from the west and claimed the newly liberated territory.

 After six years, and the interventions of a myriad of states and organizations, each with competing agendas, the war in Syria is immensely complex. This doesn’t stop people reaching for simplistic total explanations, both ethnic and sectarian.

 Some in the region will frame the intensifying tensions as the U.S. siding with Sunni against Shiite Muslims, a perception reinforced by President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and the multibillion-dollar arms deal he signed there. Likewise, President Barack Obama ignoring the Iranian build up in Syria, and the disappearance of his chemical “red line” in August 2013 when Assad gassed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburbs, led many to believe then that America was siding with Shiite over Sunni Islam.

 Many in the West too—politicians, academics and journalists as much as anyone else— assume that the Middle East’s current wars are symptoms of ancient, unchanging enmities. Obama, evading his own share of responsibility, asserted that regional instability is “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” In other words, in “ancient sectarian differences.”

 But it’s not “the Kurds” occupying Arab-majority towns; it’s one political party-militia claiming to speak for the Kurds. Likewise, ISIS in no way represents Syria’s Sunni Arabs, though it says it does. Neither does the externally based Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has proved incapable of recognizing Kurds’ right to autonomy in areas where they do form a majority. And Iran’s goals are strategic, though it exploits sectarian identity in order to achieve these goals.

 Proponents of the “ancient conflict” thesis are unable to explain why religion matters in politics in some moments but not in others. The main cleavage in Lebanese politics, for instance, appears today to be Sunni vs. Shiite, but during the country’s 1975-90 civil war battle, lines were drawn between Christians and Muslims. Similarly, Sunni and Shiite communities in contemporary Iraq seem largely closed to each other, but before 2003, a third of Iraqi marriages were made between sects.

 Any serious analysis of these shifts and reversals must pay attention not to theology but politics. A new book—Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, a collection of essays focusing on crises from Pakistan to Yemen—does just that. The introduction (written by editors Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel) defines sectarianization as a deliberate policy pursued (or perpetrated) by authoritarian regimes, the better to divide and rule. By this reading, the problems of the Middle East arise from tyranny and political underdevelopment, not from inherent cultural divides.

 In its early stages, the Syrian Revolution was explicitly anti-sectarian. Protesters hoisted such slogans as “My sect is freedom” and “The Syrian people are one.” Christians attended mosques so they could join the demonstrations after prayers, and Arabs chanted azadi—the Kurdish word for “freedom.” As land was liberated, Syrians of all sects cooperated in elected local councils. How did this promising start degenerate in six short years to today’s seeming tangle of ethnic and religious wars?

 In the essay on Syria in Hashemi and Postel’s book, Paulo Hilu Pinto identifies four channels of division: “top-down (state generated); bottom-up (socially generated); outside-in (fueled by regional forces); and inside out (the spread of Syria’s conflict to regional states).”

 The most significant is top-down. From the start of the revolutionary challenge, the Assad regime made “strategic use” of visible state violence against Sunnis while mobilizing minority groups to police their “own” revolutionaries. To shore up minority support, and to pose to the West as the lesser evil, the regime helped create a Sunni-jihadi opposition by organizing massacres of Sunni civilians (in 2012) and releasing thousands of extremists from prison (in 2011) even as it rounded up, tortured and murdered democrats.

 Greater division grew out of the trauma of war. Rumors, jokes, songs and media platforms expressed a sense of communal victimhood and demonized the other side. The chief regional forces contributing to the broth were ISIS—an Iraqi Sunni organization—and Shiite-theocratic Iran. Both broadcast their presence in April 2013. Iran did so through its Lebanese client Hezbollah, which recaptured Al-Qusayr for the regime. In the same month, ISIS declared itself a “state.” At this point, some Sunnis came to believe that Iran’s Shiite International was attacking them not because they had demanded democracy, but simply because they were Sunnis. And some non-Sunnis came to believe the regime was the only alternative to annihilation.

 Both ISIS and the Assad-Iran alliance have practiced sectarian cleansing. ISIS does it for ideological and propaganda reasons. Assad does it more politically, to clear rebellious populations from strategic points and often to replace them with loyalists. To a lesser extent, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also contributed to communal hatred, through propaganda and by funding Sunni-identity militias.

 But Saudi Arabia’s divisive influence, as Madawi Rasheed’s essay shows, is most pronounced at home. There’s a long history to this, but most recently the Arab Spring, and the specter of a national opposition movement, “pushed the regime to reinvigorate sectarian discourse against the Shiite.” Just as Iran portrayed Syria’s uprising as a Saudi plot, so the Saudi Arabians described their restive population as a tool of Iranian imperialism.

 Shiite Muslims form a majority in nearby Bahrain. Toby Matthiesen’s essay remembers that the country contained an active workers' movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The (Sunni) al-Khalifa royal family responded by banning unions, disbanding parliament (in 1975), building an exclusively Sunni security service (staffed by foreign mercenaries) and promoting Islamist parties. In February 2011, in response to pro-democracy protests, Saudi troops moved into Bahrain, supposedly to foil an Iranian-Shiite plot.

 Today the U.S. maintains a naval base in this dictatorship. When Trump told the Muslim dictators massed in Riyadh to drive out extremism, he missed the main point. Dictatorship is the problem. The long-term solution to extremism is democracy. Sectarian division is just one of the obstacles that dictators deliberately throw in its way.'

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Two Testimonials Shed Light on Syrian Life and Death

 ' “I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood,” the writer Svetlana Alexievich said in her 2015 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “We were taught death.” Alexievich was speaking of Belarus, where she grew up and where, during World War II, 2.2 million people died — nearly one person in four. The scale of this suffering seems impossible to fathom, numbers so large that the mind snaps shut. Yet one needn’t cast back in history for such figures. Since the war in Syria began six years ago, 6.5 million people — more than one in three Syrians — have been internally displaced, and another 470,000 are dead. Now, as the war grinds into its seventh horrifying year, literature written in English and borne out of the conflict is finally beginning to reach the rest of the world.

 Alia Malek’s memoir, “The Home That Was Our Country,” is one of the finest examples of this new testimonial writing. Born in Baltimore to Syrian-American parents, Malek is a journalist and attorney who landed a job in the civil rights division of the Justice Department less than a year before 9/11. Unable to endure the political climate under President George W. Bush, she quit the United States for the Middle East, where she traveled and taught human rights for the better part of a decade. Her political and cultural fluency, as well as her deep familiarity with the landscape, allow her to become “a human ear” as Svetlana Alexievich calls it, recording the tragic absurdities of daily life that give way to dark humor. On an earlier trip, she had visited southern Lebanon and toured a prison that was recently closed. Her guide, a former inmate, instructed the group’s members to cover their noses and mouths, “so as not to inhale the germs of diseases that he was convinced still lingered.” The disease that lingered, of course, was despair. She spotted a sign for the “suffering yard” — suffering, she writes, “was their translation for torture.”

 In April 2011, Malek moved to the Syrian capital of Damascus to report in secret for The Nation and The New York Times. The country was in the initial throes of what many hoped would become a democratic uprising born out of the Arab Spring. Yet there were already terrible signs that the regime of Bashar al-Assad wasn’t going to give up without bloody reprisals. In February, his security forces had rounded up and tortured at least 15 children for anti-Assad graffiti in their town of Dara’a. Ordinary Syrians, long oppressed by two generations of the Assad family’s brutality, were taking to the streets in protest. In an attempt to quell reports of dissent, the regime banned many foreign journalists. Malek went to work anyway. As a cover story, she tells her Syrian cousins that she’s writing a book about her maternal grandmother, Salma, the daughter of a Christian businessman, Sheikh Abdeljawwad al-Mir, born in the Ottoman Empire in 1889.

 Her cover story wasn’t entirely false, as that book becomes this one, and Malek grounds her narrative throughout in her grandmother’s story. Salma, a charismatic and embittered matriarch, grew up as the chain-smoking daughter in a family that prized only men, and after suffering a stroke, spends the last seven years of her life in her Damascus apartment, “locked in” her body, paralyzed yet alert, able to communicate only with her eyes. When Salma dies, she leaves behind a chic flat for Malek’s family, which, after decades of feuding with a hostile tenant, they succeed in reclaiming.

 As Syria burns, it falls to Malek to renovate the flat — haggling for light fixtures from the Electricity Souk during a blackout, and keeping an eye on a corrupt contractor while the Assad regime gasses its own people, drops barrel bombs — oil drums loaded with shrapnel — from helicopters, and disappears thousands to be tortured in underground prisons.

 Malek observes almost none of this firsthand. Instead, her war is largely made up of what she can’t see. She lives day to day under the cloud of claustrophobia and menace that dominates the Syrian capital, where her presence poses a significant risk both to herself and to her Syrian family. Attempting, at one point, to communicate to Malek the kind of danger she’s putting her family in, a beloved cousin grabs her own hair, imitating the treatment the security forces mete out upon women, which can include gang rape. “That’s what they will do,” she tells Malek. “They will take all of us if you do something.”

 Although it becomes increasingly clear that her family would prefer that Malek leave Syria immediately, she stays on for two years, conducting clandestine interviews with ordinary Syrians undertaking extreme acts of courage — from those shuttling medical supplies to besieged areas to others launching ingenious and nonviolent protests against the regime. Some have survived unspeakable horrors in the basement of the nearby office of the security forces. Malek often walks past “with a shudder.” Its cells, she learns from torture survivors, are smeared with blood.

 This office dominates her waking life, as Malek, both insider and outsider, is forced to pass it most days, thinking about much that others would rather ignore. In her neighborhood, as elsewhere, she realizes, the proximity of the mukhabarat, as the security forces are called, has a double purpose. Their nearness terrifies local civilians into submission. “But most insidiously, no matter how much we averted our gaze, the fact that we knew what was happening inside and yet went about our lives made us complicit.” This quotidian collusion takes a moral toll. By the time she leaves for good in May 2013, she realizes that, whether she likes it or not, she too has become an unwilling collaborator: “By going about our lives, we had become bit players in the regime’s effort to maintain that everything was normal.”

 By contrast, “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” chronicles Syrian lives that are anything but normal. In it, Wendy Pearlman, a professor of politics at Northwestern University, collects the accounts of refugees, most of whom have fled the brutality of the Assad regime. Pearlman speaks fluent Arabic, and between 2012 and 2016, she travels to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Europe to record their stories.

 Many of these voices render themselves unforgettable. A doctor named Annas tells Pearlman during an interview in Turkey how he and others found unconventional ways to treat protesters gassed by the regime: “People were choking on tear gas and we’d pour cola on their faces, which counters the effect of gas. Their faces were sticky and glistening.” Another, Adam, a media organizer interviewed by Pearlman in Denmark, debunks facile Western talk about ancient religious divisions in Syria: “Our children are in prison ... and you’re talking about Shia and Sunnis?”

 Amin, a physical therapist, shares an ingenious bit of activist tradecraft on how to elude security forces, who often dial the contacts in the phone of someone they capture in order to ensnare others. “If someone dies, don’t delete his number. Just change his name to ‘Martyr.’ That way, if you get a text from him, you know that someone else has gotten a hold of the phone.” He adds, “So I’d open my contact list, and it was all Martyr, Martyr, Martyr.”

 These oral histories aren’t dutiful case studies. Instead, Pearlman shapes her subjects’ narratives, winnowing interviews down to stirring illustrations of human adaptation. In a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Pearlman finds a woman named Bushra, a mother who has, five years into the war, raised her children largely on the move and out of doors by necessity. One day, she took her young daughter to a woman’s center, which was in an actual building. “After living in a tent, she was amazed by the real walls and real floors,” Bushra tells Pearlman. Astonished, her daughter exclaimed, “Take a photo of me next to the wall!”

 One slight issue, however, with these accounts: The more compelling they become, the more questions they raise about how exactly they were fashioned. Pearlman could tell us more about the process of deposition and translation. In the introduction, she describes working with more than 20 researchers to transcribe the interviews, which she then edited, she says, for “readability,” a word that calls for more explication. The stories would benefit from being framed by a detailed accounting of this process. In some places, their seamless beauty grows distracting, as we become unsure of where the speaker ends and where Pearlman’s editorial hand begins.

 Nevertheless, Pearlman’s oral histories, like Malek’s memoir, will remain essential reading in the emerging body of literary reportage from Syria in English. (Two other memoirs that will be published here this fall include the journalist Deborah Campbell’s “A Disappearance in Damascus,” and the photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie’s account of his captivity, “The Shattered Lens.”) What makes Pearlman’s and Malek’s books particularly necessary is their insistence on foregrounding the extraordinary heroism of ordinary Syrians — both those who remain trapped in the yoke of an oppressive regime, and those struggling to make new lives in unwelcoming places. Such stories couldn’t be more urgent. “I was writing history through the stories of its unnoticed witnesses and participants,” Svetlana Alexievich tells us. “They had never been asked anything.” '

Monday, 17 July 2017

US-Syrian woman keeps school going in al-Qaida-run region

US-Syrian woman keeps school going in al-Qaida-run region

 'When Syria's uprising broke out, Rania Kisar left her job in the United States and returned home to join what she dreamed would be the ouster of President Bashar Assad and the building of a new Syria. Her main focus these days has been to keep al-Qaida-linked militants from taking over the dream.

 Syrian-American Kisar runs a school in the last main enclave in Syria held by the opposition, the northwestern province of Idlib. The strongest power in the territory is al-Qaida's affiliate, and it is increasingly intervening in day-to-day affairs of administering the province. That means Kisar has had to become adept with dealing with them to keep her school running.

 Sometimes that means making concessions to them, sometimes it means pushing back. Throughout, she knows why the militants keep trying to get their way: "If they don't interfere, they won't be considered powerful."

 Al-Qaida's branch leads an alliance of factions known as Hayat Fatah al-Sham that dominates the opposition administration running Idlib. But the group has to tread carefully, balancing between its aim to control and its wariness of triggering a backlash from residents and other factions. So far, it has stayed relatively pragmatic: it takes every opportunity to show it is in charge but has shown no interest in a wide-scale imposition of an extremist vision of Islamic law.

 They halted public killings of criminals; there are no religious police patrolling streets, arresting or beating people — and they haven't forced women to wear the niqab face veil.

 That is a sharp contrast to the Islamic State group in the stretches of Syria and Iraq where the rival militant group has ruled the past three years.

 Instead, al-Qaida administrators and fighters try to enforce some rules on a smaller scale while avoiding heavy-handed confrontation and presenting themselves as the champions of Syria's "revolution" against Assad.

 Idlib now stands in a tenuous position among the international and regional powers that are effectively carving up Syria. Assad's Russian-backed military is focused on fighting Islamic States militants further to the east, as are the United States and its Kurdish led-allies. Turkey and its allies have seized a pocket of territory neighboring Idlib. Eventually, all these forces will turn their attention to the fate of the opposition enclave.

 In the meantime, Idlib, swelling with more than 900,000 Syrians displaced from fallen rebel enclaves elsewhere, is the refuge of an opposition movement that only a few years earlier appeared to have the momentum in the conflict.

 Now Kisar and others like her are trying to keep al-Qaida's influence at bay.

 "Everyone sold us out," she said in a recent interview in her office in Istanbul, where she regularly travels.

 Kisar said the international community's fear of radical Islamists taking over Syria is exaggerated and reflects a lack of understanding of the Syrian opposition. She and others argue that the militants are needed, they provide services and infrastructure as well as skilled fighters for now, but will not have support later.

 From the start, Kisar has been a true believer in the uprising. After the revolt began in 2011, she left her administrative job at a Dallas university and joined the opposition.

 She traveled with fighters on the front lines, helping displaced people. She organized services in opposition territories. Along the way, she survived an airstrike and lost a colleague who was kidnapped by Islamic State group militants and was later believed killed.

 Finally, she settled in Maaret al-Numan, Idlib's second largest city. It was one of the few strongholds of the moderate Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group for the internationally-backed opposition factions. In recent years, radical factions like al-Qaida have grown in influence and gained a foothold. But Maaret's residents largely continued to support the FSA. They held repeated protests whenever al-Qaida fighters went too far, arresting journalists or cracking down on opponents.

 In 2015, Kisar launched her foundation — SHINE, or the Syrian Humanitarian Institute for National Empowerment.

 It provides classes for adults in computers, programming and web design. Registered in Dallas and funded by donations from Turkey and private citizens in America and elsewhere, the foundation has so far graduated 237 students.

 Kisar takes great pride in the result: a "geek squad" of tech-savvy men and women who can fix smart phones and computers. That is vital in opposition-held areas, where there are no telephone lines and the population relies on satellite internet for communication.

 "There are no private institutes, no universities, there are no hospitals," she said. "It is us, a bunch of locals, volunteers, stepping forward and saying, OK, I am going to clean the street, I am going to go volunteer in a hospital and I am going to build a school. ... This is my part. This is my honor."

 Her first brush with the militants came when she had to explain her work to gain accreditation from the bureaucracy they control.

 She bickered with one official, arguing that armed groups should not control civilian affairs. He wouldn't look her in the eye since she's a woman. But "when he heard I am from America, he said: 'We have every honor that an American Muslim is here and wants to be here'," she recalled.

 Even in heated debates with the militants, she said, she has always kept a respectful tone, something that has helped keep her operating.

 It also helps that she is a woman. "I can get away with a lot of things," she said with her characteristic giggle. "There is a lot more leniency toward me because I am a woman."

 The ultraconservative militants were concerned that SHINE provides classes for men and women. So she kept it going by segregating the space — men on the bottom floor, women on the top. When airstrikes hit the top floor, she set up separate areas on the ground floor.

 Before graduation, an inspector told her not to play music at the ceremony. She argued back. Then on graduation day, the ceremony started with a nod to tradition with a Quranic recital in line with the inspector's wishes.

 But as the students filed out in front of an audience of relatives and local officials, Kisar played an anthem. It was a calculated gamble: she was betting the militants would not make a scene.

 "It was matter-of-fact. They did nothing," she said.

 Even as it interferes more in administration of opposition-held areas, al-Qaida's affiliate is struggling between its identity as a hard-line jihadi movement and its ambition to lead the rebellion with its variety of factions, wrote another Syria watcher, Mona Alami in a recent Atlantic Council article.

 When that balancing act breaks down, violence can explode.

 In June, Maaret al-Numan was shaken when pitched street battles erupted between al-Qaida militants and the FSA, bringing gruesome revenge killings and leaving at least six civilians dead. HTS fighters opened fire on residents protesting against their presence in the streets.

 For a moment, the chaos seemed to shatter Kisar's spirit. "It is going to break loose," she said over the phone at the time. "Everybody is fighting everybody."

 She left town for several days to "breathe."

 Eventually, calm was restored with a shaky reconciliation, though one that increased the militants' influence: the FSA faction running the town had to leave their offices, replaced by an agency linked to al-Qaida.

 Kisar resumed her work — and her own balancing act. This time, she was preparing festivities for local children to celebrate a major Muslim holiday.

 "You must check out the videos," she said, giggling. "It is like Disneyland. It is SHINEland. It is majestic." '

US-Syrian woman keeps school going in al-Qaida-run region

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

How the Russians Suckered Trump in Syria, and Iran Comes Out the Big Winner

 Charles Lister:
 'The core principles underpinning the Trump administration’s new Syria policy are roughly as follows: The United States is only in Syria to fight the so-called Islamic State (widely known as ISIS) and is not in a position to directly challenge the legitimacy of the Bashar al-Assad regime, despite its many crimes. Meanwhile, it is to be conceded that Russia has invested heavily in Syria and its proposed establishment of “de-escalation zones” is the best path forward to securing stability.

 With U.S. troops actively supporting our Syrian partners in a major assault on ISIS-held Raqqa, the second portion of U.S. Syria policy is being newly revealed by our expressed diplomatic support for Russian-mediated ceasefires and our direct role in negotiating one in Syria’s southwest.

 While de-escalation by itself is a highly desirable state of affairs for humanitarian reasons, the U.S. is lending diplomatic cover to what is, in all respects, Russia’s foremost strategic mechanism for methodically guaranteeing an Assad victory by selectively freezing front lines in order to free up pro-regime forces to fight elsewhere.

 By lending American support to such schemes, the Trump administration is failing to learn from recent history in Syria, where such agreements brought short-term stability to the benefit of one party over the other.

 At the core of the agreement, which was sealed during a meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg last week, the U.S. and Jordan are responsible for coercing opposition groups to stop fighting, while Moscow will ensure the Assad regime, Iran, and Iranian-backed militias do the same.

 This is not a new strategy—it is a consolidation of a policy developed by President Barack Obama, whose administration frequently called for Assad’s departure, but never seriously sought to realize it. By acknowledging the limits of our objectives in Syria, the U.S. is effectively admitting its defeat to Russia and Iran. Gone are the days of “leading from behind”; today we are following from the back.

 The greatest weakness in this Syria strategy is short-termism. The U.S. may not have existential interests in Syria, but we have created a stake by intervening against ISIS and putting boots on the ground. If U.S. interests are limited and dominated by combating terrorism, then we need to begin pre-empting those threats, rather than reacting to them after they have developed and matured. There are four major problems with our Syria strategy as it currently stands.

 First, by limiting its actions to counter-terrorism, the United States continues to treat illogically a symptom of a crisis, while allowing its root cause (the Assad regime) to survive. Extremism has never been the primary cause of instability; instead, extremism feeds off pre-existing conditions that give its radical narrative credibility. Our current strategy does little if anything to address those underlying conditions.

 Assad’s horrendous brutality is well-known. Roughly 500,000 people have died since his refusal to consider the opposition’s peaceful demand for political reforms in 2011. Assad’s subsequent use of chemical weapons has shocked the world, but such agents have been responsible for less than 1 percent of civilian casualties. Recent documentation showed that 13,029 Syrians had been killed by torture since March 2011, 99.2 percent (12,920) of whom were killed by the Assad regime. Similarly, 24,799 child deaths have been documented throughout the conflict, and 85.2 percent (21,123) of them were killed by Assad regime weapons.

 Those realities, and many more besides them, are the real drivers of extremism. Whatever form ISIS takes next will undoubtedly benefit from and seek to exploit continued instability in Syria, but it is al Qaeda that stands to benefit the most. Through its presence in Syria, al Qaeda has embedded itself deeply within the anti-Assad movement, attaching its fate to that of the indigenous revolution. By that standard, a U.S. admission of Assad’s survival, and thus of Russia and Iran’s victory, would likely embolden nobody more than al Qaeda.

 Second, the U.S. does not look set to invest in long-term stabilization efforts in territories captured from ISIS. Instead, local decision-making is being devolved to our Syrian partners: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and its lead force, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF and YPG maintain an ambiguous relationship with the Assad regime, sharing power in some areas, coordinating militarily elsewhere, and abiding by mutual d├ętente in others.

 Senior U.S. administration officials have suggested—publicly and behind the scenes—that we expect the Assad regime to eventually re-establish influence in SDF areas and that this would not be an issue for U.S. policy. Looking beyond the YPG’s documented human rights abuses and refusal to allow party political diversity, the eventual return of the Assad regime to towns and cities we liberated from ISIS contradicts every moral and ethical value that the U.S. should uphold and will do nothing but embolden the very reason for groups like ISIS in the first place.

 Third, beyond the fight against the Islamic State, the U.S. looks set to lend its support—publicly or not—to Russia’s de-escalation zone initiative in Syria. This suggests we have some faith in Russia’s intentions and trust in its ability to deliver calm, and that we have forgotten that Russia has failed to secure a single neutral, meaningful and durable ceasefire since it intervened in Syria two years ago.

 Russia may genuinely want to achieve calm in certain areas, but it does so only to strengthen Assad’s hand. Moreover, there remains no evidence that Moscow has the necessary leverage to control the behavior of Assad, and more importantly, of Iran. Repeatedly entrusting this responsibility to Russia, while repeatedly watching its failure, means the U.S. is pursuing a strategy of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

 It is highly unlikely that Russia’s de-escalation zones will prove durable mechanisms for stability. Moreover, by placing trust in their chance of success, the U.S. is emboldening a regime whose survival precludes the likelihood of more than 6 million refugees returning to Syria and instead sustains the drivers of conflict, radicalism, and divisions that have existed since 2011.

 Fourth, a limited counter-terrorism strategy paired with a tacit admission of Assad’s victory means Iran has won a huge strategic victory. Over the past several years, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have exploited instability in order to establish a large and intricate network of Shia militias across the Middle East. Today in 2017, Iran may exert overwhelming influence, if not de facto control over more than 230,000 militiamen in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon combined. That number includes 150,000 in Syria alone.

 This is the realization of a long-time Iranian strategic ambition: to undermine American influence in the Middle East and to pose an acute threat to Israel. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pointed to this victory on June 23, when he proclaimed that the next war with Israel would be strengthened by “thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of fighters” from across the region. Though the latest de-escalation agreement for southwestern Syria includes a clause requiring the withdrawal of Iran-linked militias from territory bordering Israel, Tehran has a history of extracting its assets from the area due to external pressure, before again re-infiltrating them when conditions allow. There is no reason to believe this time will be any different.

 It is true that the U.S. does not have an interest in forceful regime change in Syria, but it does have an interest in stability. The U.S. has intervened in parts of Syria and has acquired a stake in its fate—we should own that stake and protect progress made in those areas. Holding and stabilizing territory, protecting it and its inhabitants from extremism or other forms of aggression, and fostering an environment in which interim reconstruction and localized governance can take shape would serve to create an alternative reality to that of the Assad regime.

 The U.S. must urgently assume a more long-term view when it comes to Syria, based on a continued and genuine commitment to the idea of a negotiated settlement that includes as much of the opposition as possible. By sticking to the short-term vision pursued today, we risk having to intervene again in Syria further down the line, when the consequences of our limited approach come back to haunt us. By then, our options will be even more limited and risk-laden than they are today.'

A blind girl killed by snipers

Image may contain: 5 people, people sitting


This is the blind girl "Rayan Omaian
". She has been killed by a sniper of the Assad Regime.

Now she'll celebrate her 5th birthday in paradise...'
Image may contain: 1 person, sitting, child and close-upImage may contain: one or more people

Monday, 10 July 2017

Prison in Hama (Syria): Detainees take control

 'Since May 2016, Sijin Hama al-Markazi Central Prison in Hama, Syria, has been completely under the control of the prisoners. Starting from the protest against the transfer of four detainees to a detention center run by the Syrian secret services, political and ordinary prisoners united and took control of the building. The doors of the cells were broken, the outer doors barricaded. The remaining supervisors were locked up and no one can enter or leave the prison without the permission of the detainees. Since the authorities have not yet regained full control of the building and hundreds of prisoners have been released as a result of negotiations.

 En Route! Was able to contact by telephone with two mutineers, Hamid and Urwa, political prisoners still currently detained. Here we reproduce the fruit of several telephone interviews with them. They tell us how they took control of the prison, how they organize themselves inside, the negotiations with the authorities ... At their request and for obvious reasons of security we only give here part of what they told us.

 The unique and little-known situation of the Hama mutiny is the very example of the kind of tension that could spread in a Syria where armed rebellion is unable to hold but where new forms of struggle can emerge in "pacified" areas. It is likely that this experience, far from the front lines, foreshadows the challenges facing Bashar al-Assad's regime: resistance from the areas under its control.
 Following the interview with Hamid and Urwa, you will find a brief description of the Syrian prison system and its operation since the uprising.

 Can you tell us how the mutiny started? It all started in May 2016 when four prisoners from Hama's central prison were to be transferred to Sednaya prison. We know that they would be transferred there for execution. They had been sentenced to death by a military court without any possibility of defending themselves. Then their families had paid a corrupt judge so that the penalties were not applied. The judge pocketed the money but it did not change anything. The secret services then tried to transfer them and we opposed it. We tried to negotiate and in the face of their refusal to discuss, we closed the doors of the prison, barricaded all the issues.

 After a walk, we took control of all parts of the prison, the courtyard, the canteen, the officers' offices, and so on. Inside we destroyed all the doors that separate the cells, to make it impossible to regain control of the prison, even if they managed to return to the prison.

 For eight days we received neither water nor food. The situation was very difficult. By closing the gates of the prison we had locked up with us several employees of the administration of the prison. They were not armed and we did not do anything to them, they were just in jail when we took control of the building. We are in conflict with the secret services and the judges.

 After eight days, the regime agreed to start negotiating. Gradually we released the employees of the administration of the prison in exchange for the release of some prisoners. It started with the release of a policeman against the release of 46 inmates. Then, in tranches, 380 prisoners were released. Finally, we reached an agreement that was only partially respected. The mutiny was terminated, and we all had to be released within four months. In reality it did not happen. Admittedly, the administration took over part of the operation of the prison, notably administrative management and the canteen. But inside we are the ones who take care of the rest as we want. The cell doors are still not closed despite their demands and threats.

 How did it happen between the prisoners? We know that you do not all have the same status, did it make it difficult to organize? The mutiny was initiated by a group of political prisoners, but it was successfully extended to prisoners of war. common right. It was not easy to make a junction with ordinary prisoners. They are judged and they know the date of their release, which is not our case. We have nothing to lose when they do not have an interest to join us in this fight. But fortunately all the prisoners were united.

 Of course we must be careful, the regime has certainly infiltrated us. But we almost all come from the city of Hama which has facilitated the building of bonds of trust between us.

 What has made this trust possible is that we do not have a leader and we are not affiliated with political movements. In general, for decisions taken urgently, we improvise with the principle of always remaining together. For the other decisions we discuss it among ourselves in each cell, we decide on something and the coordinators of each cell come together to decide together. If we do not agree we vote but generally we try to all agree.
Subsequently, committees are appointed to negotiate with the administration of the prison and with the State.

 What did the mutiny actually change in your daily life? Before we could rarely get out of our cells, we were crammed into closed cells with a ban on going out for a walk. Now everything is open and we go out for a walk whenever we want. We choose in which cell and with whom we sleep. And above all, there is no danger of being transferred to a prison of the secret services. The policemen and the masters who enter come in only when they are given permission and without their weapons. They are harmless. The mutiny, even since the partial return of the administration of the prison, allows us to protect ourselves from the secret services. On the other hand, we have very little food and no access to care.

 And where are you today? Despite the promises, there have been no new releases so the fight continues. There have been several visits by representatives of the regime, including the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Justice. Also of the so-called "opposition of the interior", deputies presented as opponents in Syria but who in reality are affiliated to the regime. Each time they come to give us guarantees, we make promises. They are afraid that the movement will grow, make noise and spread to the city or other prisons. So they try to save time like that.

 What we are asking for is not only the cancellation of the transfer of our four comrades, but the release of all prisoners from our prison.

 Currently we have control of the prison but the security forces are all around. We can not go out and they can not enter. It's been a hard year. Sometimes members of the prison administration and police officers enter the prison, but without their weapons. On the other hand, they can not question anyone or summon anyone. There are distributions of food, but in insufficient quantity. We are obliged to buy most of our food from the administration of the prison, which makes good use of it. There is a shortage of medicines and there are several serious illnesses. The situation in the prison is very difficult, but it is better than before the mutiny because we are free of our movements and we are all together.

 Do you know how it happens in other prisons? Are there similar movements? I believe that there were attempts at an uprising in Tartous Prison. But no mutiny situation like here in Hama. In some prisons, police officers find it difficult to enter and take one of the prisoners to transfer or interrogate. They must come in groups to intervene in the cells. But at home it is not at all possible. In other civilian prisons, such as Adra prison in Damascus, a mutiny like home is more difficult because the prisoners come from all over Syria and do not necessarily know each other. So it's more complicated to create bonds of trust, everyone suspects to collaborate with the regime. In addition to Adra the political prisoners and common law are mixed. So the political networks, from which the mutinies, the trusted groups, are separated and divided. Common prisoners are often responsible for monitoring political prisoners, so there is internal control by the prisoners themselves. It is well known that the regime did not hesitate to starve or bomb whole districts to resume them To the rebels. How do you explain the fact that they have not already done so for Hama prison? 

 Did they not have the means to forcibly restore it? The regime repeatedly tried to force it back into prison by sending tear gas and firing live ammunition. But it must be understood that there are technical reasons but also political reasons for his inability to return to prison. Technical, Because we completely barricaded the whole prison and they can not enter. The only solution would be to bomb the prison and exterminate us. The regime would certainly have no problem doing that in another prison, especially in a military prison or a prison run by the secret service. Except that, and this is the more political reason, our prison is a civil prison and all the prisoners come from Hama. Hama is a Sunni city, traditionally hostile to the Assad regime (an insurrection was violently crushed in 1982). Since 2011, the regime has invested heavily so that the insurrection does not take in this city. Indeed, the rebels never managed to take it and the front line is about 30 km to the north. So we're really in the back of the front line with the rebels, it's an area that the regime can not afford to see wavering. I think that here, more than anywhere else, the regime must keep the population safe. They cannot afford to risk an insurrection some kilometers from the Idlib front. This is partly why he is trying to avoid the passage in force here. Then, the regime has no special interest in losing that card there. He certainly thinks he can appear as making concessions by releasing prisoners. If we are in this prison and we are not in a prison managed by the secret services, it is because they do not consider us to be really dangerous. If we were rebel fighters or mere supporters of the armed rebellion we would have been tortured to death. So we say that the regime wants to keep us as a bargaining chip, to be able to make a move when the time comes. It must be realized that such a mutiny in another prison would probably not have been possible.

 In Syria, there are several types of prisons corresponding to several detention regimes.
First of all, there are civilian prisons for ordinary prisoners. Prisoners pass before a judge, are tried and know the length of their detention. Since the beginning of the revolt, due to lack of space, political prisoners are also detained in civilian prisons. This is the case of the Hama central prison. Civilian prisons are administered by the prison administration and the police, and are under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. Political prisoners are generally arrested and tortured by the secret services in various centers, which depend on their authority, and therefore have no connection with the police and the judiciary. Then these prisoners with special status are sometimes transferred to civilian prisons, Where conditions of life are better (access, no interrogation under torture, the possibility of purchasing food, and an easily corruptible prison administration).
 Finally, there are detention centers depending on the regimes of exceptions: that is, centers run by the army or the secret services directly. It is the case of the Palestine Branch, the prison of Palmyra (before its destruction by the Islamic State) and Sednaya , as well as numerous clandestine detention centers scattered in the buildings of the various secret services, military bases and hospitals. Mass executions and systematic torture have been reported by Amnesty International, including the Sednaya prison.

 The organized and bureaucratic nature of these massacres was revealed following the defection of "Caesar" [ 1 ].
 The vast majority of political prisoners, especially when accused of supporting the rebels (having taken up arms, But also nourished, cared for, welcomed ...) are locked there.Torture is systematic and the living conditions are terrible. It is rare to get out alive. These prisons existed before the outbreak of the insurrection. After the 1980s, the Syrian regime massively locked up Islamist militants, far-left or pro-Palestinian. [ 2 ]

 Since the beginning of the insurgency, new detention centers have emerged to deal with the massive influx of prisoners. In hospitals, military bases, cellars, clandestine torture and detention centers are set up. Each secret service, Syrian or foreign militia has its own detention centers.
 The issue at the outset of the Hama mutiny was precisely to prevent the transfer of prisoners from a civilian prison to one of those detention centers which are not alive and which depend on the exception regime of the secret services.

 While attempts at a political settlement of the Syrian conflict have been proliferating for many years without any results, the issue of the release or exchange of prisoners is regularly highlighted in the negotiations as the only way there may be some progress.
At the international conferences in Astana (since January 2017) and Geneva (2012, 2014, 2016, 2017), the issue of the release of prisoners is systematically raised. At the same time, the actors of the conflict regularly sign local agreements which can allow the release or exchange of prisoners (for more details consult the article Diplomacy against the Syrian rebels which revisits the agreements of Astana,

[ 1 ] Caesar is the code name given by international lawyers and Syrian activists who interviewed this official military police photographer, who defected in January 2014. Caesar was responsible for photographing the bodies of dead detainees in order to archive. He left Syria with tens of thousands of images, many of them showing the bodies of deceased detainees in Syria's detention centers.

[ 2 ] The book The Shell , by Mustapha Khalifa, is one of the best stories about Syrian prisons before the insurrection.'

Assad Supporters Protest Face-to-Face With Regime Forces Amid Aleppo Security Breakdown

Assad Supporters Protest Face-to-Face With Regime Forces Amid Aleppo Security Breakdown

 'Loyalists of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Aleppo protested on Thursday against violations by its forces and allied militias amid growing anger at the regime’s failure to control the abuses of the shabeeha members.
 The Aleppo News site on Thursday published images of dozens of regime loyalists protesting in the industrial city near a military barrier called the “prison checkpoint.” The protesters held up placards denouncing thefts by regime forces manning the checkpoints, chanting “no to the barriers of theft” while calling on Assad to control the abuses.

 Images showed the protesters standing up to the regime forces at the military checkpoint, a development warning of the growing state of discontent in regime-held areas, as most loyalists are content to express their anger on social media rather than take to the streets in direct confrontation with government forces.

 Residents in the regime areas of Aleppo live in constant terror as a result of increasing kidnappings, especially of women and girls, and extortion by the loyalist shabeeha militias. In some cases captives have been killed at the hands of the kidnappers either because the family is unable to pay the ransom or to settle personal accounts.

 According to regime media, hardly a week goes by without Aleppo being shaken by a new crime, the most recent of which was on June 11 when a popular committees member shot a child named Ahmad Jaweesh while he was selling chewing gum in the Al-Mojambo district. The culprit is still in hiding, amid calls from residents to impose the death penalty on the member of the pro-regime forces.

 The many abuses, killings, kidnappings and thefts in the city indicate the clear inability of the Assad regime to control its forces. According to a media activist from Aleppo, Mohamad al-Shafei, the reason for that is that some of the fighters in the regime forces are backed by official figures and it is not possible to approach them or to hold them to account for their crimes.

 The people of the city live in constant anticipation, not because they are subjected to killing and kidnapping, but because of the spread of crime in their districts, and the fear of what could result from any dispute with regime fighters.

 The situation in Aleppo’s districts resembles the remaining areas under regime control in which local and foreign militias are deployed at military checkpoints, especially in Homs and Damascus. The “ta’feesh” (looting) carried out by regime forces in the areas where they are located are considered a characteristic associated with them, while the regime has not appeared to respond to the appeals of residents of these areas harmed by the practices of the shabeeha.'

 Infighting between Syrian regime militants in Aleppo city*
 'In the past two days the city of Aleppo witnessed violent clashes and mutual shootings between militias loyal to the Syrian regime and groups of National Defense Forces (NDF).

The clashes resulted in fatalities and injuries from both sides, Following the inability of the regime forces to control the insurgency of these militias in the city.

 Activists reported that a dispute between members of the “Marrdel” militia and the National Defense Forces ,outskirt of the Arts faculty in the ‘villaat’ street in Sheikh-Taha neighborhood in the center of Aleppo, and escalated later into violent clashes during which the parties used light and medium weapons in addition to hand grenades.

 The incident sparked a wide trending on the social media platforms , as loyalists considered it as the most prominent example of the security chaos and the absence of state and power.'
Infighting between Syrian regime militants in Aleppo city

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Syrian revolutionary flag flying over Ahrar al-Sham controlled border crossing for first time in years

Syrian revolutionary flag flying over Ahrar al-Sham controlled border crossing for first time in years

 'Syrian rebels raised the revolutionary flag above a border crossing with Turkey on Saturday, the first time the green-white-black banner has flown over the Bab al-Hawa in many years.

 Ahrar al-Sham fighters hoisted the huge banner on the Turkey border on Saturday, where it will fly alongside a white "Shahada" flag - bearing the Muslim testimony of faith - which the Islamist group commonly uses.

 The flag is 17 metres in length and was hoisted on a 25 metre flag post at the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

 The green-white-black banner was Syria's national flag before the Baath Party ruled the country and has been adopted by anti-regime revolutionaries since near the start of the 2011 revolution.

 It is believed to be the first time since at least 2013 that the flag has flown over the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib province.

 The flag is used by Syria's opposition government and the Free Syrian Army which has been one of the rebel camp's more moderate forces.

 The decision by Ahrar al-Sham to raise the flag at the border point it controls comes at a significant time.

 Tensions are simmering between the Islamist coalition group and its al-Qaeda linked rival Tahrir al-Sham northern Syria's Idlib province, according to activists.

 Both coalitions are competing for influence in the only Syrian province fully in the control of rebels, with some analysts suggesting a potential intra-opposition battle could break out at the border crossing.

 In an attempt to appear the moderate party, Ahrar al-Sham issued a fatwa permitting the use of the colours of the revolutionary banner in its branding and for supporters to fly the flag.

 A leader from the group also appeared next to the flag during a video statement last month.'

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Syrian Refugee: ‘It Was Pretty Much Suicide To Stay In’ Aleppo

 'The United States and Russia have reached an agreement on a cease-fire in southwest Syria.

 Although details about the agreement and how it will be implemented aren’t yet available, the cease-fire is set to take effect Sunday at noon, Damascus time.

 “Honestly, when I hear something like that, I get a little happy and hopeful,” said Syrian refugee Mahmud Hallak.

 Hallak grew up in Aleppo, a Syrian city hit the hardest by the country’s civil war.

 He came to Philadelphia in 2012, after he was forced to flee his home country.

 “The government was able to get our names, who we are, and what we did,” said Hallak. “That point it was pretty much suicide to stay in the city.”

 Hallak – just a teenager back then in Syria – was part of a protesting group of Syrian people fighting for freedom, trying to overthrow the country’s oppressive government.

 While he was able to flee to America, his father did not and was killed during the war.

 Over the past five years of the unrest in Syria, Hallak also lost a cousin and several friends.

 He is hopeful that this new cease-fire, backed by the U.S., Russia and Jordan, will work.

 He also hopes the world understands it is not a victory for the Syrian people.

 “At this point, there is peace, but not really,” he said. “It’s just a government taking over full control. Seeing that, it’s just like all that happened was pointless. All these people died, all this distraction and we did not come up with anything.”

A Half-Million Syrian Returnees? A Look Behind the Numbers

 'On June 30, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that nearly one-half million Syrians had returned to their homes between January and May 2017. The report expresses optimism that millions could return if "peace and stability in Syria increases." A research mission by this author to Lebanon focusing on Syrian refugees, however, prompts much circumspection about whether or not Syrians should be returning at all, even if the pipe dream of peace becomes a reality.

 The first point to emphasize in analyzing the recent UNHCR figure is that 443,000 returnees are actually internally displaced persons (still living in Syria), out of a total 6.3 million IDPs registered. Just 31,000 were refugees (living outside Syria), who had fled to neighboring countries (Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan). Moreover, even as a small number of refugees return to Syria, the number of exiting refugees continues to rise at a greater rate, a reality caused largely by persistent instability throughout the country. Between January and May 2017, the number of registered Syrian refugees increased from 4.9 million to 5.1 million, according to the UNHCR. While the IDP figure has been declining steadily from 7.5 million since the fall of 2015, anyone assessing such trajectories must be extremely careful to account for manipulation of data for political purposes.

 The concept of IDPs is much broader than that of refugees, entailing anyone who has left home -- and who, in turn, might have traveled very short or longer distances. Indeed, shorter distances create a greater likelihood of return. Among the returnees recorded by the UNHCR, several hundred IDPs living in West Aleppo came back to East Aleppo, and suburban Damascus IDPs returned to al-Qabun or Qudsaya when these areas were reoccupied by the Syrian army in fall 2016. A similar phenomenon may play out after Raqqa is reclaimed from the Islamic State. By contrast, for the rebel-oriented families of Daraya, the al-Waar district of Homs, or Zabadani -- who were sent to Idlib following an agreement with the regime -- little chance exists for an imminent return to their homes.

 A complicating factor in this discussion is that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the entity responsible IDPs, does not conduct the census itself. Instead, Syrian government administrators and rebels alike overestimate their IDPs to obtain maximum food aid and prove that each respective camp controls the majority of the population. Such manipulations led OCHA to reassess its statistics in fall of 2015, with the result being a substantial drop in the estimate from 7.5 to 6.5 million IDPs. According to UN sources, the IDP data suggests rebels inflated their numbers more than government officials did. Such variance may seem logical given that many residents fled to regime-controlled areas for security, unless they were involved in the insurrection. The government areas offered greater security because they were not subjected to frequent aerial bombardment or embargoes and because public services were maintained.

 As compared to Syria, refugee data from UNHCR and the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey (AFAD) -- the Turkish organization in charge of the refugees -- is more reliable. Both organizations take seriously registration of applications, and neither skews its data. Potentially driving down figures is the reality that many refugees do not want to be registered. In Lebanon, a study conducted by Beirut's Saint Joseph University showed an underestimation of refugees by 23 percent in 2016. Among this proportion, many are no longer registered because single refugees or those without small children, for instance, are usually ineligible for humanitarian aid. Moreover, most Syrian refugees who came to Lebanon after 2015 are ineligible for humanitarian assistance and therefore have less incentive to stay in their adopted country. Nor do refugee cards exempt them from residence permit taxes -- $200 per year for those older than fourteen. Many Syrians thus obtain fake employment contracts, even though the bosses providing such fraudulent paperwork are often simply smugglers. This helps explain why the actual number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon seems not to decrease, with the situation in Syria still discouraging their repatriation.

 The main obstacle to return remains lack of security. This perception varies according to geographic origin, socioeconomic level, and, of course, potential involvement in resistance to the Syrian regime. However, a common thread links all Syrian men ages fifteen to forty-five: fear of being conscripted into the Syrian army or rebel groups or the larger Syrian Democratic Forces, depending on their place of residence. Many families still therefore prefer to leave Syria preemptively when their sons approach their eighteenth birthday, the age of conscription. As long as the fighting keeps up, refugees will continue to flow out of the country -- and the return of significant numbers will be limited. Once the fighting is over, only amnesty could reassure the hundreds of thousands of "deserters."

 Corruption from Syrian officials is the second reason for staying in Lebanon. For their part, men do not dare return to Syria for fear of being arrested arbitrarily and having to pay a large sum to be released. One interviewee in Lebanon related that he'd had to pay $3,000 to be set free from prison while he was in good standing with the Syrian authorities. His uncle, who works in Kuwait, paid the Mukhabarat (secret police) $15,000 to release his seventeen-year-old son, who was jailed arbitrarily in Damascus. Furthermore, since the beginning of the civil war, a tremendous number of kidnappings have occurred in Syria, with the principal targets being men of military age, sons of wealthy families, and those with families abroad.

 The Syrians who return to their former homes often do so with horror stories. The testimony of a refugee from Aleppo who visited his house in April 2017 carried a particular eloquence, while appearing to represent a broader reality: "I went back to our apartment in Ashrafiya [a neighborhood in northeast Aleppo]. From the Lebanese border to Aleppo, I had to pay a $100 bribe [two months' salary for a civil servant]. I had packed a food bag for my sister: tea, coffee, powdered milk, and so on. But once I arrived at Aleppo, my suitcase was empty because at every checkpoint on the road they took something. Our apartment could be rehabilitated with some work, but it is too expensive and there is almost no electricity. Our shop was destroyed and looted. We prefer to stay in Lebanon and wait for a visa to leave for Europe or Canada."

 The family just mentioned is relatively well established in Lebanon: all are supported by the UNHCR (with $27 of food per person per month and healthcare coverage), the husband has a permanent job, and all four children are enrolled in school. Back in Syria, the economic situation, corruption, and rampant insecurity all deter a return, especially since doing so would forfeit their status as refugees and consequently the possibility of emigrating elsewhere. Even if only a few hundred visas are distributed a year by the European Union, Canada, Australia, and the United States, such slim opportunities still nourish dreams for a future departure. Further arousing desires for emigration are the millions of new Syrian refugees since 2012 living in northern countries (mostly Germany, Sweden, and Canada) who share their experience with their relatives. Moreover, the EU border is not protected by a wall, people are sometimes rescued at sea, and the right to family reunification has not been removed from the European Treaty of Accession 2003.

 In Lebanon, the UNHCR's humanitarian aid and support from numerous NGOs allow Syrian refugees to extend their stay. Food and healthcare are largely covered, as noted in the example before, with the main expense being rent. The Syrians agree to work for a lower net wage than that of the Lebanese and, unlike the Lebanese, they do not report their earnings to social security. In northern and eastern Lebanon, where the refugees are concentrated, the World Bank is financing the construction of rural roads in order to create jobs for the refugees while also investing in the host community. The situation for Syrian refugees is far from pleasant, but for most it exceeds the alternative in Syria. For the international community, the dilemma remains wherein provision of aid alleviates suffering but, in doing so, potentially sends misleading signals to the refugees regarding their future.

 The latest UNHCR poll shows that only 6 percent of Syrian refugees want to return to Syria in the near future and 8 percent say they will never return. Some three-quarters are officially hesitant.

 The way in which these sentiments develop will, no doubt, depend on security conditions and the speed of reconstruction in Syria. However -- as a general rule -- the more time refugees spend abroad, the less likely they are to return to their countries of origin. Yet should conditions deteriorate dramatically in their host country -- Lebanon, in this example -- Syrian refugees would be persuaded to return home regardless of any improvement in the security and economic situation. The deterioration of living and security conditions in Lebanon could also lead to the radicalization of people who cannot return to Syria and who, somewhere along the way, succumb to desperation.'