Thursday, 18 January 2018

Civilians being targeted in schools, mosques, entire districts

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 'When fighting drove Bahr Diab from his home in southern Idlib last month, it was the fourth time he and his family had been displaced since the start of Syria’s seemingly endless conflict.

 From his pre-war home on the Lebanese border, Diab moved first east and then north searching for safety, finally taking shelter near Turkey where he hopes his wife and four children will be safe from air strikes and ground assaults.

 “Every time I get to a new place I build a house, but we are forced to leave it and move on,” he said at a makeshift camp a few miles from the border, where hundreds of people endure the mud and winter weather.

 “That’s my tent over there, that’s my home. Four homes later we decided to settle for blankets for winter.”

 Diab is part of a wave of Syrians fleeing an offensive by Syrian government forces and their allies, which several people at the Kelbit camp said involved the heaviest bombardment they had seen in nearly seven years of conflict.

 The Idlib area is the largest remaining opposition-held territory in Syria, its population swelled by insurgents and civilians retreating from shrinking rebel strongholds elsewhere. The scale of this latest upheaval has overwhelmed local authorities in Islamist-controlled Idlib.

 They say around 36,000 families have been uprooted, nearly half of which have fled to the Turkish border region. The United Nations said this week it had tracked 212,000 displacements in the last month alone, though some may have been counted more than once on their journey.

 Neighbouring Turkey, already hosting 3 million refugees, says that further fighting could trigger another mass exodus. But it has built a wall along the frontier and tightened control at crossings, leaving tens of thousands of Syrians near the border with nowhere left to flee.

 Diab, who reached Kelbit three weeks ago, said people were suffering from the cold, wet weather and sickness was rife. But compared to his last home in the Idlib town of Sinjar, where people lived in daily fear of air strikes, they felt secure.

 “The Turkish border region is safer,” he said. “Where we were before, you would hear planes 20 times a day. The children and women were terrified.”

 Another man displaced from the Sinjar region said the ground and air assault by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran, was the most ferocious he had experienced.

 “There were situations when you would get civilians killed, but not like this,” said the 43-year-old father of six, who gave his name only as Abdulhamid. “This is hysteria at an insane level. It’s the first time I’ve seen civilians being targeted in schools, mosques, entire districts.”

 Abdulhamid said his home in Sinjar had been destroyed and he had lost contact with relatives during his three-day trek to the border. “My cousins, I know nothing about them. My sisters, brothers and wives, I don’t know where they are”.

 Next to the canvas and blue tarpaulin structures of the improvised camp, Turkey’s Red Crescent has built 500 new tents which will soon be ready for families to move into.

 But Hassan Darwish, an official with the local authority running the opposition-controlled Idlib region, said they desperately needed more food and shelter to support the displaced population.

 He said there were 1,300 displaced families in Kelbit area, 300 of which could not be housed at the camp. In the wider border region, he said there were 71,000 displaced families.

 The World Food Programme is helping feed tens of thousands, but WFP provisions cover less than half the needs, Darwish said.

 “People who have been displaced from all the governorates (in Syria) have nowhere apart from this region. But this region ... cannot absorb any more people,” he said. “In several camps, you find five or six families in one tent.”

 The overcrowding may only get worse if the army and its militia allies continue to advance from the south, eating further into opposition areas.

 Rakkan Khalil, who said he was first uprooted by the violence six years ago, said that given the chance he would cross the border to Turkey, but he saw no way to make the short trip with his wife, four sons and two daughters.

 “They’ve closed the borders, it’s hard for us,” he said.

 At the approach to the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Syria to Turkey, a large sign in the centre of the road encapsulates the sense of entrapment and resignation in the Islamist-controlled region.

 “All crossings and roads may be closed,” it reads. “Except the path to God.” '

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Russia’s ‘Victory’ in Syria is Debunked, Derailed and Defeated

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 'Premature announcements of political triumphs often result in negative blowback, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of victory in the Syrian war was debunked particularly swiftly (see EDM, January 11, 2018). Putin’s definition of victory included three key points: asserting the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its control over most of Syria’s territory; strengthening the partnership with Turkey and Iran as the main framework for managing the residual conflicts; and withdrawing about half of the Russian forces, while expanding the naval base in Tartus and the Khmeimim air base. All three propositions have been badly shaken, if not shattered. Furthermore, Putin intended to sell the Russian victory to the West, thus pressuring the United States to accept the al-Assad regime and engage in cooperation with Russia, while cajoling the European Union into paying for Syria’s post-war reconstruction. Such bargaining has gone nowhere in both cases, and Russian tensions with US policy in Syria (muddled as it is) have reached a new high.

 The affirmation of al-Assad’s grasp on power was supposed to happen at the gathering of those opposition groups that subscribe to the arrangement for “de-escalation zones,” negotiated through the so-called “Astana process” (Russian Council, January 8, 2018). Putin wanted to stage this “congress” in Sochi immediately after his declaration of “victory” last November, but too many parties objected; so a new date in late January or early February is still uncertain (RIA Novosti, January 9, 2018). Turkey remains adamantly against any representation of Kurdish forces in this zero-trust process. And without Ankara, the “Russian peace” plan makes little sense. In order to stimulate the pacification, Syrian government forces have launched an offensive in Idlib province, which is supposed to be the largest “de-escalation zone.” However, this encroachment on Turkish interests has angered President Recep TayyipErdoğan even more (RBC, January 10, 2018).

 Putin is trying to mollify his capricious Turkish counterpart, but a more serious problem has been simultaneously growing in the relationship with Tehran (Kommersant, January 10, 2018). One factor is the al-Assad regime’s increasing dependency on the Iranian-sponsored Shia militia, which controls large parts of Syrian territory, including close to Russian bases (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 9, 2018). Israel refuses to accept these facts on the ground and keeps hitting Hezbollah bases with airstrikes; Russia neither interferes with nor has protested these attacks (RIA Novosti, January 9, 2018). A new and unexpected element related to the Iranian problem has been the explosion of street protests, which amplifies Putin’s angst about popular revolutions. The high point in this turmoil may have passed, but it has become clear for the Iranian leadership that foreign engagements—and in particular the huge expenses of waging the war in Syria—are a major cause for domestic discontent (New Times, January 9, 2018). Putin has no real insight into the decision-making in Tehran, and so he cannot know how and whether the behavior of this key but difficult ally might change.

 The most direct blow to Russian “victory” was delivered by a series of attacks on the Khmeimim airbase, which remains the main operational base for all Russia forces in Syria, including the semi-legal private contractors (see EDM, March 16, 2017; March 22, 2017; January 11, 2018). The Russian Ministry of Defense boasts about the success in intercepting the “drone attack” on January 6, but it has given scant information about the deadly attack on December 31, which was exposed by the media (Novaya Gazeta, January 9, 2018). The high command insists that the militants involved had received technical and targeting support from abroad, even if the captured drones are primitive plywood models fixed with tape (Kommersant, January 11, 2018). Russian generals have also announced that the terrorist group responsible for the attacks was destroyed by a high-precision strike, which is impossible to verify since no group has claimed credit for inflicting the unprecedented damage (RBC, January 12, 2018).

 This muddled emergency makes clear that Russia cannot reduce its military grouping in Syria, because the task of guarding the bases cannot be delegated to Syrian or Iranian forces. Moscow seeks to explain away the “post-victory” casualties by alleged hostile operations of US Special Forces and their proxy-rebels. But simultaneously, Russia is trying to maintain the “de-conflicting” arrangement, particularly since one of the most dangerous air incidents happened immediately after Putin’s declaration of “victory” (, December 15, 2017). While Russian propaganda insinuated US involvement in the attacks on Khmeimim, Chief of the General Staff Gennady Gerasimov and Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a useful phone conversation on Syrian matters (RIA Novosti, January 11, 2018).

 It is convenient for Moscow to pin the blame for every Syrian setback on US “sabotage,” but it is also quite important to preserve a cooperative pattern because Syria is perhaps the only place where Russia has assets to bargain with in the high geopolitical game. Moscow has nothing against Washington arming the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), but it needs to dissuade the US from turning the Kurdish-controlled territories into a base for training anti-al-Assad rebels (RBC, January 10, 2018). Russia has won some time for the regime in Damascus, but its grasp on power remains tentative because it is shunned by regional stake-holders, ostracized internationally and is deeply disagreeable for Washington. The EU, for that matter, has flatly turned down Russia’s invitation to engage in post-war reconstruction of Aleppo and other cities conquered by government forces (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 11, 2018).

 Putin needs to prove that his declaration of victory was not a mistake but a somewhat premature mark of a real turn in the course of the protracted war, in which the dictatorial regime is the only solution to the chaos of revolution and menace of terrorism. Quietly rebuilding the reduced grouping of forces can be a part of this reaffirmation of triumph (of which there are too few). But the war is increasingly unpopular in Russia, and every new casualty casts a pall over the presidential election campaign, tightly controlled as it is. Despite launching the intervention and sustaining the air war for more than two years, for a time Putin was still open to propositions of gently removing al-Assad from power. Yet, he has now embraced the Syrian authoritarian leader, who is implicated in the use of chemical weapons, and so the flexibility is lost. The road to Damascus has led Putin into a blind alley. He can neither bomb his way out nor hope for guidance from his Iranian comrades-in-arms.'

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Syrian rebel delegation in Washington seeking revival of CIA aid

 'Free Syrian Army envoys have urged U.S. officials at talks in Washington to resume a suspended CIA program of military aid if it is serious about challenging growing Iranian influence in Syria, according to Syrian opposition figures.

 Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in Syria’s mainstream rebel group, said the envoys described to U.S. officials the damaging impact of President Donald Trump’s decision last year to stop equipping and training certain rebel groups.

 Trump’s move was driven by a wish to focus on fighting Islamic State militants and to improve relations with Russia, as well as a lack of results from the CIA’s support of the FSA, U.S. officials suggested.

 “We endorse President Trump’s statements about the need to confront Iranian hegemony in the region. It is time to turn words into action. Until now on the ground it’s the Iranian militias that are expanding without serious resistance,” Sejari told Reuters by telephone from Washington.

 “With every U.S. statement about the need to confront Iran’s influence, Iran has been expanding in Syria while moderate forces that are backed by Washington see aid being dried up and are weakened,” Sejari said.

 “We asked for the resumption of aid and explained the dangers of leaving moderate FSA forces without support.”

 Sejari said the delegation’s meetings had included members of the U.S. Congress and officials from the White House, and they hoped for sessions with Defense Department and State Department officials as well.

 The White House and Defense Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

 The FSA delegation, Sejari said, included recipients of the CIA-led program, which began in 2013 and funneled, via Jordan and Turkey, weapons, cash and trainers to vetted FSA groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

 Sejari said his delegation had briefed U.S. officials on Iran’s “destructive” role in Syria, where Shi‘ite Muslim militias led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah have, along with Russian air power, have turned the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor.

 The FSA also says that Iranian Shi‘ite militia fighting in Syria have stoked wider sectarian conflict in which mainly Sunni Muslims have been driven out of former opposition strongholds.

 “In all our talks with U.S. officials there was common ground, and on top of the matters discussed was the war on terrorism, (and) expelling Hezbollah and Iranian militias from Syria,” Sejari said.

 Another delegation member who requested anonymity told Reuters they told officials U.S. inaction in Syria would only allow Iran and its regional allies to recreate a land corridor linking Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut - often termed the “Shi‘ite crescent” by Iran’s regional enemies.

 The Syrian opposition said the previous U.S. administration of President Barack Obama had given “Iran a free ride” in Syria.

 FSA rebels have long complained that U.S. support has fallen well short of what they needed to make a decisive difference in the war against Assad’s army and the Iran-backed militias helping it, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

 While cutting support to Syrian rebel groups that have fought Assad, the United States has deepened ties with a Kurdish-led militia alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, with which it partnered against Islamic State.

 The SDF is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, and has mostly avoided conflict with the Syrian government while seeking to entrench Kurdish autonomy over regions of northern Syria.'

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In Syria, only ‘The Octopus’ and a motley crew of rebels keep Iran from Israel

Abu Muhammad al-Akhtubut, a commander from National Syrian Liberation Front rebel group from the Syrian Golan Heights. (Courtesy)

 'As Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and the Iran-backed militias in his employ move toward Israel, the only thing standing in their way is a ragtag group of beleaguered rebels fighting for their homes and “viciously” defending the border.

 Over the past few days, a rebel officer — Abu Muhammad al-Akhtubut al-Asmar, whose nom de guerre means, literally, “The Dark Octopus” — has been speaking to The Times of Israel about their plans to fight back against the Syrian military, Hezbollah and Shiite groups, following the fall of the town of Beit Jinn, some nine kilometers (less than six miles) northeast of the Israeli border, late last month.

 His group, known collectively as the National Front for the Liberation of Syria, is made up of about a dozen groups from the Quneitra region that joined forces this summer. With various ideologies and a wide range of military capabilities, they don’t necessarily agree on much, but the hundred or so officers who make up the loose umbrella organization have recognized the need to keep Assad and the Iran-backed forces away from the border, al-Akhtubut said.

 “The issue now is defending this area because we want to preserve it,” said the Octopus, who acts as something of a spokesperson for the group. (His nickname was bestowed on him by an older comrade early in the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, who used to tell him, “You’re like an octopus — you have a hand in everything.”)

 “The borders with Israel are important politically and internationally,” he continued. “I’m not just saying this because you’re Israeli and I’m talking to you. And that’s why we are protecting this area so viciously.”

 These opposition forces have been largely isolated in the past few years, surviving in large part because of outside humanitarian assistance, not only from Israel, but also from Jordan and international aid groups.

 The need for support is acute. Al-Akhtubut, speaking via an in-and-out Skype connection, stressed that Beit Jinn — also known as Beit Jann — did not suffer a military defeat, but fell because of the extended siege placed on it by Assad.

 “[Assad’s troops] didn’t win in Beit Jinn — it wasn’t a military victory. [The rebels] were under siege for a year. It was attrition,” the Octopus said.

 On December 29, dozens of opposition fighters and their families left the Beit Jinn area as part of a ceasefire agreement, traveling on buses to the rebel-held Idlib area, in northwestern Syria, after holding out for nearly a year following a renewed push by the Assad regime to starve out the town.

 Now that Beit Jinn has fallen, al-Akhtubut fears that Assad’s army and the Iran-backed militias supporting him can better turn their attention to his group’s last holdouts and further cut off their access to supplies.

 “We can tell that they are working to take over this area and we are trying to stop it from happening,” he added.

 On Thursday, the top brass from the various opposition groups in the Quneitra region gathered at an undisclosed location for one of a series of discussions on their next steps.

 On Friday morning, the Octopus said in a message that the groups decided to plan various offensives “in order to free up some locations,” while also preparing “defense plans in case there’s an invasion by Assad and Iranian forces.”

 He said the main area under threat is the town of Jubata al-Khashab, along with Khan Arnabeh and Hamidiya, all of which lie either in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria or adjacent to it.

 “We see from that behavior that they’re trying to cut off access to Jubata,” he said. “They’re trying to put Jubata under siege. They’re trying to do what they did in Beit Jinn, because it worked there.”

 The regime’s control of Jabah, in particular, makes it possible for Assad to cut off Jubata al-Khashab from the rest of the rebel-held area, he said.

 The remaining rebel forces in the Quneitra region are also boxed in, as Assad forces control the towns of Dayr al-Adas, As Sanamayn, Barqa and al-Sheikh Maskin.

 It is not entirely clear how large a role the Iran-backed Hezbollah and Shiite militias have played in the fighting in southern Syria.

 Israeli and pro-rebel officials stress their involvement. Al-Akhtubut said these Iran-backed groups — including Hezbollah — are “the scariest thing right now. They are our biggest problem.”

 But according to analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi of the Middle East Forum think tank, not all of those claims are backed by facts on the ground. In a recent article on his website, al-Tamimi said the Syrian army’s 7th and 4th divisions are leading the effort on the Syrian Golan Heights, with limited assistance from Iran-backed forces.
 As the National Syrian Liberation Front prepares for its offensive and defensive campaigns, it must cope with limited weapons stores.

 “Our military support has been cut off for the past year,” al-Akhtubut said. “Several of our materiel sources have dried up as well.”

 He noted that the various groups’ limited access to weaponry and supplies was a major factor in them coming together as a group in July, after a Jordanian training and support program ended.

 When asked what specific types of weapons and munitions the groups have left in their arsenals, al-Akhtubut declined to answer, joking that it sounded like he was in an interrogation with the mukhabarat, or intelligence service.

 Beginning in 2013, Israel began providing medical treatment to Syrians wounded in the fighting who came to the border. The army initially set up a field hospital, but eventually moved to transporting them to hospitals in northern Israel.

 As Russia entered the civil war in 2015 and Assad started scoring more battlefield victories, Israeli officials grew concerned that if the Syrian dictator succeeded in routing the rebels from the Golan Heights, Iranian proxies could take up positions on the border. From there, the Iranian proxies could open up a second front should Israel go to war with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist group.

 Last year, the army dramatically expanded its humanitarian aid program, code-named Operation Good Neighbor, and started not only providing medical care to people injured in the war but also to civilians with chronic illnesses. Israel also began sending over shipments of food, fuel and other goods.

 According to the Israel Defense Forces, in 2017, the army facilitated the transfer of nearly 700 tons of food, half a million liters of fuel and over 14,000 containers of baby formula.

 The army has been upfront that while its primary mission is simply to help the beleaguered civilians in war-torn Syria, its secondary or peripheral goal is to engender goodwill toward Israel among those same people in order to plant the seeds of better relationships for the future.

 In recent months, the amount of aid has been somewhat “scaled back,” al-Akhtubut said.

 The humanitarian aid sent into Syria from Israel — as well as military assistance, according to foreign reports — has been a controversial issue, in light of the two countries still technically being at war with one another.

 The Assad regime has repeatedly used this assistance in its propaganda to “prove” that the opposition forces are actually Zionist stooges in attempts to discredit them.

 Some of the first images to come out of Beit Jinn after it was taken over by the Assad regime were of food products bearing Hebrew labels.

 According to the Octopus, despite this, most people in southern Syria do not remove the Hebrew labels from the food and other humanitarian products that come across the border, with the exception being those who try to resell the aid for profit.

 “People who have special interests do take the labels off — they’re the only ones who do,” he said.

 But al-Akhtubut said most people do not try to make money off the aid, but give it away for free.

 “There are people who do good work, and we’re trying to keep things under control so that we benefit from the aid as much as possible,” he said.

 “But there are those looking out for themselves, instead of having it benefit everyone equally so that we can endure the pressures [from the Assad forces],” he said.

 The rebel commander said the main things the civilians in the area need are baby formula, flour and medicine.

 Baby formula, which is difficult to produce locally, was in especially short supply, he said. “It’s something we always need and we’re always short on,” he said.

 However, al-Akhtubut said that while “of course there are shortages,” the rebel-held areas are able to survive for now. “It’s not that severe — we’re not there yet — but it is enough for us to feel the burden of it,” he said.'

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Tehran Seeks Reduction in ‘Cost’ of Syria Involvement

 'For more than six years Syria has been on front pages and top headlines of the media in Iran as the most important international news story. The Syria “story” also enjoyed an almost unique position in the media scene in Iran because it was of keen interest to both those in power and society at large.

 Those in power regarded Syria as of urgent importance because “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has described the struggle there as “decisive” for the future of the Khomeinist revolution and its ambition to dominate the Middle East.

 “The Tehran leadership believes that without maintaining control of Syria it would be unable to consolidate its gains in Lebanon and Iraq and spread its message to other Arab countries and Turkey,” says Iran media analyst Massoud Barazandeh. “In no other country has Iran spent so much money and offered so much blood. What Iran pays to use Hezbollah in Lebanon is chicken-feed compared to what it has spent in Syria.”

 Khamenei’s interest in Syria isn’t limited to his need for a base to extend the Khomeinist zone of influence. It has deep emotional roots as well.

 In 1984, Khamenei, then President of the Islamic Republic, visited Damascus for talks with then Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad. In a speech, Khamenei recalled that Damascus had been the capital of the Bani Umayyad who had “martyred” Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Imam of Shi’ism in 680 AD. Hussein had been killed in Karbala, Iraq, but his mortal remains and his captive family had been transported to Damascus.

 In a speech, interrupted by his tears, Khamenei whose full-name is Husseini Khamenei, claimed that his visit as “a descendant of Hussein” to Damascus was in itself a symbol that the martyred imam was being avenged.

 For the past six years, Khamenei has been repeating the mantra “We shall never leave Syria!”

 In other countries of interest, Iran has shown a degree of pragmatism, toning down its involvement when the price gets too high.

 In Lebanon, for example, Khamenei agreed to propel Michel Aoun, who had been Tehran’s bete-noire because of his collaboration with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, into the presidency because that was expedient. According to Tehran sources, the Lebanese branch of “Hezbollah” has also had to accept a modest pay-cut.

 In Bahrain, Khamenei has so far refused to arm the Khomeinist groups challenging the monarchy or to organize attacks on the US naval base there.

 More recently, in Yemen Khamenei ordered the transfer of Iran’s embassy from Sana’a to Muscat, Oman, and the withdrawal of at least half of the estimated 200 “military advisers” stationed to help the Houthi rebels.

 Even in Iraq, the dire economic situation in Iran itself has forced Khamenei to order a cut in money spent on some 23 pro-Iran militia groups there.

 But, at least until the end of 2017, support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has remained constant.

 That, however, may be changing.

 One sign is that for the past two weeks at least Syria has been relegated to inside pages in the Tehran media. Even when Bashar’s army, backed by the Russian Air Force, launched what it boasted would be “the last great battle” in Idlib, the news didn’t make the front pages. The key reason, of course, was that Iran itself was shaken by more than 10 days of nationwide protests in which the slogan “Forget about Syria! Attend to our problems!” was a popular slogan.

 There was no sign of multi-page reportages, dotted with photos in color, and TV footage “from the front-line” that have been dished out for more than six years.

 There was also no sign of Jerusalem (Quds) Corps commander Qassem Soleimani, whose “selfies” have shown him leading the liberation of parts of Idlib as he had liberated Aleppo, Albukamal and Deir Ezzor before.

 More importantly, perhaps, the usual hullabaloo regarding the martyrdom of “Defenders of the Shrines” was toned down significantly. In the first week of 2018 the remains of four Iranian officers killed in clashes around Damascus were buried in four cities without attracting the usual publicity.

 To some observers, this was a sign that the decision-makers in Tehran begin to appreciate the deep unpopularity of Iran’s involvement in Syria’s seemingly endless tragedy.

 One indication of that “appreciation” came in a long editorial in the daily Kayhan, believed to reflect Khamenei’s views.

 The editorial expresses deep dissatisfaction with how things are going in Syria and the “political plan” proposed by Russia.

 “Russia is making a lot of propaganda about its plan, presenting it as the best and most complete plan” the editorial says. “However, this plan is full of major defects that must be removed before Iran, the Syrian government and the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah agree with it.”

 The editorial then singles out Khamenei’s opposition to three key features of the “Russian plan”.

 “Iran,” it says, “cannot accept the creation of a parliamentary system, as opposed to the present presidential system, in Syria. “Nor can it accept the formation of a transition government composed of the (Syrian) government and its opponents.”

 The editorial also rejects Russia’s proposal for the creation of a federal system in Syria.

 Iran cannot accept a situation in which “Kurds, Alawites and Sunni Muslims each have their own zone of domination”, the paper says.

 One reason, as far as Tehran is concerned, is that there are not enough Shi’ites in Syria to receive their chunk of territory in a federal Syria.

 However, the deeply hidden purpose of the editorial is revealed in a short sentence.

 “The process of future security developments (in Syria) can be pursued in a less costly way compared to previous years,” the Khamenei organ asserts.

 This may well be a thinly disguised threat to Russia which is anxious to disentangle itself from Syria as fast as possible and transfer more of the financial burden to Iran. The message is: We want cost reduction, not an increase!

 However, it may also be a message to Iranian protesters that the regime is contemplating a lower and less costly involvement in Syria, using Russian “double-dealing” as an excuse.

 For more than two weeks there has been no news of new Iranian forces, or even “volunteers for martyrdom” from Pakistan and Afghanistan, being dispatched to Syria while Gen. Soleimani remains in purdah.

 Iranian leaders may be beginning to understand that helping Bashar al-Assad kill more Syrians may prove too costly at home and abroad.'

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Current situation & dynamics in NW. Syria

 'Rebels took back 20+ locations from Regime - Regime & IRGC almost encircled Jebal Hoss - ISIS pocket keeps extending.'

Friday, 12 January 2018

Syrian regime arrests one of the most prominent leaders of its militias because of Harasta

Syrian regime arrests one of the most prominent leaders of its militias because of Harasta

 'Syrian intelligence arrested one of the most prominent leaders of local militias in Syria after a series of defeats in the military Vehicles Base in the city of Harasta of Eastern Ghouta.

 Pro-regime Facebook pages such as "Republican Guard Lair" have confirmed the arrest of the commander of the Qalamoun Shield militia, Captain Firas Jazaa, and referred to the investigation after confiscating his weapons and the equipment of his own group.

 On the other hand, the news network "al-Asema" dedicated to report the news of Damascus province and its countryside reported that the leadership of the Third Division in the army of the regime dismissed the officer, "Firas Jazaa" from his post as commander of the militia, "Qalamoun Shield" and sent him to be investigated against the background of what happened in the battles of Harsta as several groups and militants escaped withdrew and defected from the Jazra militia.

 The militants of Qalamoun Shield are taking part in several fronts, notably Homs, Hama and in various areas of eastern and western Qalamoun, as well as their recent attacks on the eastern Ghouta fronts.

 The Qalamoun Shield militia was founded in early 2014 and includes fighters from cities and towns that have entered into reconciliation with the regime, such as Yabrud, al-Tal, Qarra, Jeroud and Nabek, and are supported by Russians via the Hameimim military base.

 In November, the eastern Ghouta factions announced the start of a battle "They Were Wronged" to control the Military Vehicles Base in Harasta, and after several attacks they were able to capture the Base and caused losses for the Syrian regime of dozens of human lives , as well as material losses in equipment.'
'Harasta's Vehicle Management base has been taken, it's estimated there were 200 régime force members there, some were captured, others killed.'

Options for Syrian opposition factions after funding cuts


 'When the Free Syrian Army was founded by dissident officers and leaders in the revolutionary move in early 2012, the issues of financial support and overlapping agendas were not as complex as they are today. The “Free Army” factions were linked to two Military Operations and Support Coordination Rooms, known as MOC and MOM, which played a significant role in the military momentum on the ground and the organization of the internal affairs of the factions. They also played an important role on the opposition deterioration on the ground, as happened after the United States announced ending military and logistical supply, which led to a new phase of disproportionate powers.

 In the beginning of 2018, the factions of the Free Army are facing a big challenge accompanied by questions and speculations about the possibility of pursuing operations against al-Assad forces in the absence of support and possible solutions to overcome this restriction, whether by relying on other sources of funding or introducing new measures that will fill the financial and military vacuum.
 Going back to the early years of the “Free Army” formation, the fronts witnessed clear progress in favor of the opposition, but gradually began to withdraw after the foreign supporter interfered in the ammunition and field plans and directed targets to fight ISIS away from the sites of the Syrian regime.

 The cut of support for the factions was not recent as it was stated by the media earlier this year. It has started and gradually diminished since the beginning of 2017, and later became related to the conditioned of fighting against ISIS.

 The fighters training stopped in July 2017 and the movements of the factions supported by the operating rooms were restricted, which was confirmed by the decision to withdraw support from the Martyrs of Islam Brigade faction and to cut the heavy weapons supply after it attacked the Iranian militias in the Syrian Badia area. This was followed by Russian raids on the faction’s controlled sites.

 After the change of administration and the election of the new president, Donald Trump, Washington has opted for to reducing support for the Syrian file at the military level, considering that this support is inappropriately provided, and that all the fighting factions in are supposed to integrate within one military platform.

 So far, the main reasons for the decision have not been made clear. While in July 2017, Trump justified the decision and said that the support program was “huge, dangerous, and ineffective,” the Washington Post published an article entitled “Cooperation with Russia becomes central in Trump strategy in Syria,” in which it said that the resolution is the result of US-Russian agreement.

 MOC is a military coordination room with US, British, French, and Arabic representatives of Intelligence agencies formed in 2013 and based in Jordan.

 It provides military support to FSA factions, especially in the southern region.

 MOM, however, is a support coordination room for the Free Army factions. It is constituted by almost the same countries, but supports the northern fronts in Syria and is based in Turkey.

 According to the military adviser in the “Free Army,” Ibrahim al-Idlibi, the political rapprochement between Russia and America had a major role in the interruption of factions’ support program, which negatively affected the Syrian revolution in general and militarization in particular.

 Another reason of the factions’ failure in receiving support is due to an internal confusion from within, especially with regard to al-Nusra Front earlier fighting, which has cut ties with to al-Qaeda organization and has joined Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. It is deployed in various areas in the south of Syria and most of Idlib governorate and its countryside in the north.

 In the Syrian context, the beginning of each year is marked by new political plans on the relief, military, or logistics levels. What happened in the beginning of 2017 is the openness of the American policy on the “Free Army” and increased support to defeat the extremist factions and even defeat the regime and Iran. According to al-Idlibi, the timing of fighting al-Nusra Front “was the point of disagreement, which led to the cessation of support, as the factions do not intend to wage a bloody war with al-Nusra,” despite its military power which is capable of eliminating it at the time.

 He added to Enab Baladi that in July 2017, the US administration asked the “Free Army” factions to be unified within one body, and then the so-called Military Operations Room was formed, which constitutes an assembly of all factions led by a person named Abu Yamen. It is affiliated with Faylaq al-Sham faction and divided into sectors (Homs, Idlib, Hama), but it has not been implemented, as it carries a tendency to eliminate the factions and work by a central decision in the battles.

 Later, in early April, the ammunition decreased and problems have surfaced with regard to logistics equipment, heavy weapons and tanks, which led to a big power difference reflected on the ground. Al-Idlibi described the current situation, saying, “today’s fighter fires a bullet which is irreversible.”

 The factions today are unable to withstand the pressures, as they previously found reliable support warehouses, but Tahrir al-Sham completely took control of, mainly after the recent fighting against the Ahrar al- Sham Movement, which further weakened the factions fight capacities.

 From the point of view of the military analyst, Col. Ahmad Rahal, the factions did not need support in previous years for two reasons. First, the weapon in their possession could liberate Syria completely. The second goes back to the beginning of the Syrian revolution when borders were closed and controlled by the Syrian regime. The factions, however, were able to obtain the ammunition. This is confirmed by the Eastern Ghouta factions, which relied in their operations on the booty they took from the regime in battles that were launched from time to time.

 “The problem now is not about arming, but about the structure of the factions to continue fighting against al-Assad forces and the different militias which are combatting with it. Some factions are linked to political and military agendas, and others to the financial sources which contributed to its establishment in previous years,” said Colonel Rahal.

 The northern Syrian fronts are witnessing battles in which al-Assad forces are trying to make incursions into the southern and eastern Idlib countryside, as a step to reach Abu al-Duhur Military Airbase, amid the talk of non-serious participation of the military factions in the region.

 Military sources from the region told Enab Baladi that the response is limited to four factions in the Free Army only, which are Jaysh al-Izza, Jaysh al-Nasr, the Central Division, the Free Idlib Army as well as Tahrir al-Sham that were charged with handing over areas to al-Assad forces in the vicinity of the Sinjar village without fighting.

 According to Ibrahim al-Idlibi, the factions are in a great dilemma since they are divided to two different standpoints, namely participating or abandoning in the battles. al-Idlibi pointed out that the factions must attack Tahrir al-Sham warehouses to seize and obtain ammunition, in light of international funding interruption.

 He said that the Free Army factions in the south-east of Idlib (al-Nasr, al-Izza, and Free Idlib armies) revenues after the end of the support reached 35%.

 In his view, the factions must consider preserving the geographical area before looking for internal alternatives to the organization process. He pointed out that the Free Army factions must defend the land in order to gain the support of the international community, which gives territories basic considerations.

 Enab Baladi has conducted a poll on its website, which asked the following question “In your opinion, what is the fate of the military factions in Syria after international support halted?”

 Forty per cent of the participants, 300 people, considered that the best solution for the factions of the Free Army is to dissolve itself. They held the faction leaders responsible for the current situation they have reached.

 “At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, there was no international support. The factions liberated three quarters of Syria with light weapons. However, after the support, the regime restored three quarters of Syria,” wrote Ali Ibrahim in his comments.

 The other 39% of the participants felt that integration into a unified military body would change the reality of the military factions. In early 2107, this suggestion was put forward by the US administration and it is currently being discussed.
According to the young man Anwar al-Ahmad, if the factions unite and disengage from external support and return to the years of the Syrian revolution, the Free Army will be much more influential and will overcome the support difficulties it is currently witnessing.

 “I think that the factions of the Free Army should unite and start a new revolution as they did in the beginning of 2011,” said Walid Haddad.

 The option of relying on self-financing was not agreed upon by the participants, and the rate of approval for this solution was only 21%, although some military analysts confirmed its success, especially in eastern Ghouta.

 Hamza Shibli commented on the poll saying that “self-armament should be implemented from the beginning since the regime is buying weapons for Syria.

 The stronger deserves to own weapons.”

 Some observers rejected the proposals, and considered that the opportunity was over, due to the control over the past years and the fact that the factions depended on what they described as “America’s charity”

 In the south, the fighter’s salary dropped to less than 40 dollars per month, whereas before fighter’s salary used to exceed 200 dollars. Therefore, the south factions lacked financial resources and were left only with little support.
 The situation in the north did not differ much from the south. A leader of the Sham Legion faction, who preferred to remain anonymous, stated in an interview with Enab Baladi that the salaries within the faction had turned into grants that differed from one sector to the other, for Idlib sector differed from Hama and Aleppo’s.

 The grants range from 70 to 100 dollars. The leader pointed out that this does not apply to all fighters, but to some of them.

 The talks in the sixth version of Astana held in September 2017, along with the demarcation of de-escalation areas marked the major turning point in the support process. The outcome of the conference rejected several factions including the Southern Front in Daraa and the factions operating in northern Hama countryside, most prominent of which are Jaysh al-Izza, Jaysh al-Nasr, and the Central Division.”

 The Military Operation Center (MOC) decided to dissolve the Southern Front and restructure Daraa and Quneitra factions at the end of July 2017.

 The move came after the Southern front factions boycotted “Astana 5”, on July 4, attributing this decision to the “inability of the successive international conferences to take any serious decision that would stop the shedding of Syrian blood.”

 The factions of Badia, which were directly supported by the United States, are also suffering. According to military sources in the faction of the Forces of Martyr Ahmed al-Abdo, the salaries are currently ranging from 100 to 150 dollars per member, while it ranged previously from 300 to 1,000 dollars during the thrust of military operations.
The sources pointed to the current dependence on the reserve, whether financial in terms of salaries, or military in terms of weapons and ammunition. The sources also noted that the international reduction affected only the heavy military equipment.

 On the side of the forces opposing the Syrian regime, there are also Islamic factions which are not affiliated to the Free Army, and their financial situation varies according to the sources on which they depend.

 Ahrar al-Sham’s loss of Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham left a significant impact on its financial composition. The fighters’ financial granting stopped for three months after the faction withdrew from the crossing and then returned in “small amounts”.

 According to the information, which Enab Baladi has received from a fighter who is familiar with financial matters in the movement, the average fighter’s grant ranges from 40 to 60 dollars, while the married one gets an additional ten or twenty dollars only.

 As for staff or administrators, their salaries are higher and range from 80 to 100 dollars.

 The fighter noted that, in some cases, grants are more or less according to “efficiency”.

 Before the withdrawal from “Bab al-Hawa,” the salary of the unmarried fighter amounted to 70 dollars while the married gets 90 dollars and the administrative member gets 100 to 150 dollars.

 He explained that previously, the fighters used to receive relief basket and warm clothing, in addition to salaries, which amounted to 20 dollars, as well as irregular financial incentives.

 As for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Enab Baladi has been able to obtain a little amount of information about the salaries of the fighters which have not changed since the formation of the former Fateh al-Sham front.

 Salaries range from 100 to 350 dollars per specialty, in addition to a relief basket in some cases apart from some privileges offered to some fighters which include rent-paid homes and means of transport (motorbike).

 Speaking of the military forces affiliated to the Free Army in northern Aleppo, the National Syrian Army, which formation has been announced by the Ministry of Defense of the Syrian Interim Government, on December 30, 2017, relies on the revenues of the northern Aleppo countryside crossings. According to its affiliated factions, these revenues are the only source of support for the financial sector, which is responsible for three newly formed troops in the region.

 Turkey has set the financial map to support the factions to which it had been previously providing military and logistical support against ISIS since August 2016, with the launching of the military Operation Euphrates Shield that led to the expulsion of ISIS from the entire northern and eastern region of the province.

 The military structure includes a unified military command for all factions in the “Euphrates Shield” area. Three troops emerge from within, namely the National Army, Sultan Murad Division, and Sham Legion.

 After the formation of the troops, the factions were stripped of their names and divided into three teams in each corps and three brigades within each division, in addition to including three battalions of fighters in each brigade, according to the New Staff.

 Colonel Haytham al-Afeesy, the deputy Chief of Staff, to which The National Army is affiliated, stated to Enab Baladi that the Army relies on self-support, provided by the interim government.

 He explained that the distribution of revenues of the crossings “will be supervised by specialized committees to ensure fair distribution among all.” He stressed that “all fighters of the three corps will receive the same salary, after considering the military rank.”

 “The support of the fighters is not unified in the region,” said Abu Walid al-Azi, a leader of the Sultan Murad Division. He pointed out that “until the end of last year, support was distributed between Turkey, America, and MOC room.

 According to the leader, the Turkish-backed fighter receives a monthly salary of 300 dollars, while the former US-backed fighter used to receive 200 dollars and the MOC room had earlier provided 150 dollars.

 The financial support of the three corps did not start until January 6, 2018. According to the leader, two months ago, the MOC paid the fighters the last salaries until the end of December 2017. MOC’s financial support has stopped since then.

 Al-Azi explained that “the support of the corps will depend on the crossings of Bab al-Salamah, Al-Rai, Jarabulus, and new crossings under Turkey’s supervision, provided that the revenues are transferred to the Agricultural Bank of Turkey to be then equally divided at the end of each month between the factions of the Free Army, the interim government, and the opposition coalition, as he put it.

 There are no specified salaries according to the new mechanism until now, nor did any combatant in the three corps receive any financial revenue, according to the leader of the Sultan Murad Division, who pointed out that the division’s leader determines the salaries of his officers, stressing that all combatants will receive the same amount of money after the distribution begins.

 The Syrian borders with Turkey are linked with 10 border crossings, only three of which have been partially operational: Bab al-Hawa Crossing Border in the northern countryside of Idlib, Bab al-Salamah near Azaz in northern Aleppo as well as Jarabulus in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, and finally Al-Rai crossing which was officially opened in December 2017.

 Syrian opposition factions are currently running the four crossings under direct supervision of Turkey.

 Some opposition factions have started looking for self-support instead of external support, which would enable them to continue their work by controlling important economic outlets in the areas under their control.

 Within this framework of self-support emerged the experience of the two factions Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman in eastern Ghouta, in addition to the experience of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which dominated Idlib’s economic parts.

 According to Enab Baladi’s information, Faylaq al-Rahman established projects inside and outside Ghouta, which started with digging two commercial tunnels between Ghouta and the regions of Qaboun and Barzeh that have reconciled with the regime.

 Faylaq al-Rahman worked on operating its tunnels through the trade of food supplies, electrical appliances, mobiles, computers, and solar panels, as well as the currency conversion and exchange, which led to huge revenues that reach millions of dollars.

 It also founded the Rahma Foundation for the management of the tunnels, which had monthly profits of 30 million liras, according to one of Rahma Foundation directors, whose name Enab Baladi was reserved to mention in a previous investigative report entitled: Ghouta Economic Map… Tunnels and Cavities. The management of the tunnels was ended with the control of al-Assad’s forces over Qaboun and Barzeh.

 In addition to the aforementioned, Faylaq al-Rahman faction entered into a series of development projects through institutions it established in early 2016 such as cattle and broiler farms and shops, as well as investing in the agricultural sector through the planting of hundreds of dunams of land and the establishment of an agricultural unit managed by engineers to finance the formation of necessary foodstuffs to feed its employees.

 Faylaq al-Rahman has a series of traders who work in collecting copper, aluminum, and raw materials which had been previously sold to Damascus through tunnels.

 As for Jaysh al-Islam, which is considered as the largest formation in al-Ghouta, like Faylaq al-Rahman, it managed commercial, profit, and development projects to finance its military body and support its combatants. It worked on opening a series of commercial projects inside and outside al-Ghouta. In addition, it managed the “Al-Wafedeen” (incoming) camp crossing through establishing an economic office which runs its projects and discharging its goods in the market.

 It also set up offices for the disposal and transfer of funds, in addition to its work in the agriculture field as well in the suburbs of Duma to supply and finance itself.

 In its turn, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in the north of Syria sought self-support, although external support has not been reduced. It managed to take control of all the economic resources in Idlib and its countryside after a military clash with Ahrar al-Sham, as whoever seizes the governorate’s economy would eventually extend its military control in it.

 Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham established the so-called General Organization for Cash Management and Consumer Protection, which aims to regulate exchange operations and prevent monopoly and manipulation of currency prices. This was also meant to control the market of money management and control the movement of funds and exchange offices.

 It also took control over the files of the water institutions, the real estate register, the civil registry, the local administration and agriculture through its Civil Service Administration, which imposed itself on the electricity sector.

 In July 2017, it worked on merging its electricity institution with the institution of Ahrar al-Sham in an effort to harness any service objects that stood in front of its expansion project. Whoever holds the power lines would eventually hold the region’s economy, due to their high dependence, especially in bakeries and water pumps. In addition, they knew that Idlib’s economy is mainly based on agriculture and therefore needs water and electricity, which are the lifeblood of any society, according to what the economic researcher Ayman Desouky, have previously stated to Enab Baladi.

 As part of its economic plans, in November 2017, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham handed over all the civil services that are run by the civil administration to the Salvation Government which was formed in the city of Idlib, and which is considered as the civilian body of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

 It is impossible to not to talk about the strategic border crossing of Bab al-Hawa, of the northern region, which is under the authority of a civil administration of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, because it constitutes a financial revenue to the party that controls it, whether from the entry and exit of persons or the entry of goods.

 Since 2013, the supporting countries started to put their hands on the factions of the Free Syrian Army by providing their conditioned support. Those who accepted the conditions, continued receiving support, while those who did not, were sidelined and even killed in many cases, and the assassinations of some of the leaders that were carried out on the liberated lands’ area are a clear testimony.

 After the supporting countries managed to clearly control the decisions of the factions, these factions started implementing the agendas of their funders, and so, the revolution’s objectives were lost, and the areas were handed over one after the other, which weakened these factions themselves and thus they gradually started to make concessions under the pretext of the cessation of support.

 With this process, Al-Assad has been indirectly supported by the funding countries that are carrying out agendas dictated by those who control the world and who clearly wish to reproduce al-Assad and his regime.

 The military factions that receive external support are doomed to dissolution and disappearance after accomplishing the mission of burying the revolution as a result of selfish, factionist, and partisan interests over the interests of the Syrian people and their main cause of protest.

 It is possible that the supporter gives gratification rewards to some leaders and some parties in a fifth position in a state ruled by al-Assad and his gangs. unless something emanates from the factions and the Syrian people which may turn things upside down.

 Those who seek support sources will not find any support unless they rely on self-financing, which some factions have succeeded in implementing, especially in the eastern Ghouta, as the nucleus of the “Dawn of the Nation”.

 There is a decision that has been made and heard by many of the world’s decision-makers: It is not permissible to have two armies in Syria, al-Assad’s army or any other army. Otherwise, why have they weakened the Free Syrian Army? Why was every effort made to unify the leaders of the Free Syrian Army hindered? … This is totally clear, as for what is happening now from the formation of the Ministry of Defense and Staff, it represents only those who created it, and who control the coalition and the interim government for personal and partisan agendas, or else how to explain the exclusion of many officers who are leaders and recognized for their patriotism, and the appointment of some officers who are highly questioned in leadership positions. This is a farce which our people paid for with their blood and suffering. What is happening now in Idlib is the biggest proof. Thousands of our people are being displaced under the trees with no shelter, while the interim government and the Ministry of Defense are blindly busy in issuing data and sharing positions.

 In this context, it is difficult to form a unified army, especially if those who are in charge of forming the army represent a particular category of people who only care about higher positions and who brought our revolution to such a gloomy condition.'

Members of the Free Syrian Army cleaning their weapons in the city of Aleppo - November (AP)

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

We are seeing the worst days for the revolution now

Families cowers in a hole in Idlib province to avoid warplanes in the skies

 'The Syrian government has increased pressure on the rebels’ last-remaining strongholds with deadly air strikes and bombings, as it looks to reclaim every inch of the country.

 Syrian and allied Russian aircraft pounded targets in the northwestern region of Idlib on Sunday and Monday, pressing an offensive targeting the only province outside of regime control.

 Air strikes left at least 21 dead, including eight children and 11 members of the same family west of the town of Sinjar, according to monitors. Meanwhile, an explosion near an Islamist rebel group base on Sunday night killed 34 people, including 19 civilians.

 The Syrian army lost Idlib, which borders Turkey, to insurgents when the provincial capital fell in 2015.

 Idlib has seen fierce clashes in recent weeks, as the army pushed to seize a pivotal road between Damascus and the city of Aleppo.

 The province is part of a so-called de-escalation zone agreement struck last year by President Bashar al-Assad’s sponsors, Russia and Iran, and opposition ally Turkey. However, the regime has failed to abide by the deal and has targeted all but one of the four areas covered.

 At the same time, the regime has stepped up its bombing campaign on the besieged Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.

 Shelling and bombardment of the enclave, where the humanitarian conditions have sharply deteriorated, has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians in recent weeks.

 At the height of the fighting, in 2015, the Syrian government controlled less than a sixth of the country. Since offensives in the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Deir Ezzor in the east, they have regained control more than half of Syrian territory.

 Assad has repeatedly vowed to retake “every inch” of the country, including Raqqa and other areas taken from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) by US-backed forces.

 “The regime is doing now what it did in Aleppo,” said Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a teacher from Aleppo who was displaced to Idlib. “The bombing is unbelievable in the south. We are seeing the worst days for the revolution now.”

 Pictures shared by Syrian activists showed a family who had fled fighting in their village in the south of Idlib hiding in a hole in the ground in an attempt to escape circling warplanes.

 Fighting has driven tens of thousands of residents of the Aleppo and Idlib countryside to areas further north and to the closed Turkish border.

 According to aid agencies, more than 80,000 have arrived in camps in the last two weeks. While Turkish security forces caught a record number of nearly 10,000 attempting to cross the frontier in the last 10 days of December.

 "If the strikes on civilian centres continue, there is the possibility of an additional 400,000 civilians trying to make their way to the Turkish border,” said Selim Tosun, from the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation. “This area is already saturated with people and is currently housing roughly one million people.” '

Saturday, 6 January 2018

"Russia will not be able to stay in Syria for more than 6 more months"

 'FSA Free Alawite Movement claim responsibility for the Hmeimim drone attack taking out an S-400 Missile System, stating that Russia will not be able to stay in Syria for more than 6 more months, and promising “painful” days for them especially before Putin’s next election.

A similar attack on Hmeimim Air Base occurred on Dec 31 and damaged 7 Russian aircraft (which Russians claimed was due to rebel “mortars”), while another attack happened yesterday. This latest attack also damaged aircraft in addition to destroying a S-400.'

Image result for Free Alawite Movement

Where are the leaders of the factions?

 Hadi Abdullah:

 "Of course, we all know the ferocity of the military campaign of the al-Assad régime, Iran and Russia against the areas of the Idlib and Hama countryside. Everyone knows that not a day goes by without a massacre, blood in the streets, without that which displaces hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes.

 But there is a thing we don't understand. 
Why do the areas fall one after the other in the Idlib and Hama countryside? Why?

 In this video, we don't address anyone outside Syria, not the UN, the Security Council, or anyone else. We got tired of addressing messages to them for a whole seven years without any result.

 My message is to the leaders of the factions. Leaders of the factions, where are you? Where is the faction that said, we are two-thirds of the military force in Syria? Where are they? Where is the faction that attacked many other factions, for fulfilling the agreements of Astana? The decisions of Astana you fulfil exactly, only there is an increase in the daily bombing of civilian areas.

Good. Put this group aside. Where are the other factions? Where are the leaders of the factions? When was the last time a leader of a faction or military commander appeared in the media, to tell the people what is going on? Is it not the people's right to know what is happening?

 Where are the leaders of the factions? If someone is sick, we will visit and take care of them. Seriously, where are they? If someone is sick, we will visit them. If someone has a problem, we will help to solve it. But at least, come out and clarify to the people that one-two-three are happening. It's the people's right to know.

 I wish the leaders of the factions would walk in the streets, appear in the media walking the streets, see the refugees sleeping in the streets, sleeping in their cars, those who were expelled from the Idlib and Hama countryside. I wish they would walk in the streets, and listen to those people.

 We aren't stupid. If there is an agreement by particular countries to draw the borders, to surrender certain areas, let us know to whom and where. At least come and make it clear to the people, so they will have a bit of time to prepare, check their houses for the last time, leave before the time arrives, remove their property in time, that they have an idea what is happening, that all of us understand this event.

 Many journalists and even ordinary people don't talk about this. I don't know why. It is our right to know. For sure, we aren't afraid of anyone. We only fear the Lord of the worlds. It is our right to know what is happening. And we have the right to demand that someone comes and makes clear that one-two-three is happening. 

 This is not a message of defeat or despair. Never. Because we have everlasting certainty. We are in Syria, and we are not leaving it. The thing that lets us stay in Syria is the certainty in our hearts that they are all transitory - occupiers, Iranians, Russians, the Assad régime along with them, even the factions - and what stays is the people with the Permission of Allah."

Friday, 5 January 2018

Go to defeat Assad

 'Demonstrations in Idlib city demanding all the factions unite under one command and go to defeat Assad Regime in the frontlines. Syria Jan 5.'

Sunday, 31 December 2017

One Year Later, Residents Mourn the Fall of Aleppo

 ' “The moments we are living now in Aleppo could be the last moments of our lives,” Ameer al-Halabi wrote in a Messenger conversation last December. “Regime forces are a few meters from here: We could be killed or imprisoned once they enter, especially us … because we are journalists.”

 Halabi, whose real name is Walid Mashhadi but still uses his pseudonym professionally, is still alive. He was only 25 when he left his city to survive the Syrian regime. He lives in Turkey now, while his family, his wife and son, remained in Aleppo. But they will soon reunite in France. Halabi will travel there in January 2018, and his wife and son will join him the same day from Aleppo via Beirut.

 "I was studying engineering when the revolution started. I began going to the demonstrations against the [Bashar] al-Assad regime. Then, we the protesters soon understood it was important to work in the media. For example, I dropped out of university and worked for a local radio station, Radio Hara, and for the Aleppo Media Center in 2012 and 2013."

 Halabi also worked for international media and humanitarian organizations such as the Qatar Red Crescent. “My wife is still in eastern Aleppo and many checkpoints surround the area. They know she is my wife and so she doesn’t go out too much.”

 While Halabi made it out, many friends from Aleppo — everyday citizens, journalists or activists working for the Aleppo City Council — are now in Assad’s prisons and it is difficult to know exactly where they are. “When people were evacuated to the western part of the city, they let them go and stay safe for a while. After a few weeks, the intelligence services went to arrest them. They knew all the people they wanted,” Halabi added.

 Another journalist, Salah al-Ashkar, sent a goodbye message from Aleppo last year, too, but he is now safe in France thanks to the French organization Reporters Without Borders. Ashkar confirmed to Al-Monitor the same account of Aleppo’s citizens, saying, “An activist of the Aleppo City Council, Mohammed Hayyo, was arrested after the regime retook the city a year ago, and nobody knows his fate.”

 Ashkar, 29, first worked for Agence France-Presse and then Al Jazeera during the battle for Aleppo as a freelance photojournalist.

 "Many of my childhood friends unfollowed or unfriended me from Twitter or Facebook, and I can imagine why: They are afraid that at any checkpoint a soldier could find my name on their social media accounts and arrest them. I know they are living in fear like before 2011 — and even worse, because Russian police are also there."

 Ashkar is now learning French and would like to study journalism in France. He graduated in 2011 from the University of Aleppo in banking and finance.

 Today, 75% of the city’s eastern neighborhoods are destroyed, including houses and public service facilities. But Halabi — the 2016 second-prize Spot News World Press winner with his series “Rescued from the Rubble” — says in the video “Eyes of Aleppo”, “The city is less destroyed than its people are.”

 The short video briefly explains the story of Halabi and two other photographers, Fouad Hallak and Zakaria Abdelkafi, who documented the war in Aleppo: Abdelkafi lost his right eye in an explosion, but he continued to work as a photographer and is now living in France.

 “Before the revolution I was a normal student; I was going to school like everyone else, I used to have my favorite song, I used to dream,” Halabi told Al-Monitor. “I photographed Aleppo for 3½ years, concentrating my attention on children, especially those rescued after bombs. My work has been influenced by the picture of the naked child running and crying during the war in Vietnam.” Halabi’s father volunteered with the White Helmets and died in one of the explosions.

 During the offensive when the Syrian army retook the city, many Aleppans were evacuated to the western part and others to the rebel-held Idlib countryside, where some still live, while others fled to Turkey, crossing the border illegally. Many citizens went back home, but their exact number is unknown.

 A year after the last fight and wave of displacement, the Assad government tried to restore the city’s image with sport or cultural initiatives. But among those Aleppans who came back, many could not bear the destruction and poor conditions and left again for Turkey, where many Syrians rebuilt their businesses or created new ones.

Aleppo’s last year of death and starvation is East Ghouta’s current reality, with people struggling to survive and evacuation plans for medical emergency cases still being formed. The regime and its allies have been talking in the past few months about reconstruction, which the opposition considers the latest of Assad’s war crimes since its clear purpose will also be to erase proof of the regime’s crimes.

Syria is still far from living in justice and peace. Many of the Aleppans who survived last December’s brutal offensive are still trying to find their way in their countries of refuge. Ashkar said:

"If the regime one day falls, I will go back to Syria. We tried to build some democratic institutions, but with the extremist rebels and the dire conditions of fighting and siege, we couldn’t. My homeland is Aleppo. I miss every single tiny detail. My country is my city, Aleppo. But I would like to live in a country where every four years a different president is elected." '