Thursday, 22 June 2017

U.S. Taxpayers Are Helping Bashar Al-Assad in a Strategic City

U.S. Taxpayers Are Helping Bashar Al-Assad in a Strategic City

 'Almost every weekday, tons of lentils, salt, oil and wheat flour are loaded onto an Ilyusin-76 cargo plane at an airport in Jordan. Russian contract pilots then fly nearly 400 miles across the Syrian border and parachute the supplies from about 15,000 feet over the outskirts of a government-controlled neighborhood in Deir Ezzor.

 The costly air drop operation organized by the World Food Program has saved countless lives in the besieged Sunni-majority city, which has been encircled by hostile forces of the Islamic State for more than three years. But the operation — heavily funded by American and European taxpayers — has also benefited the Syrian regime, and its Russian and Iranian backers, providing a lifeline to a strategic eastern city.

 The feeding of Deir Ezzor provides a poignant illustration of how Syria and its allies have harnessed the good intentions of the United States, the United Nations and other international donors to advance its military interests during the country’s more than 6-year civil war.

 In contrast, Syria has been starving hundreds of thousands of civilians in opposition held towns, imposing an Kafka-esque set of regulations that systematically delay and deny the delivery of food and medicines to those in need. The impediments, U.N. emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien recently told the Security Council, reflects “a mindset and approach by the government of Syria that uses civilian suffering as a tactic of war.”

 Securing the support of locals has gained importance in recent months as Deir Ezzor has emerged as a major flashpoint in the battle to defeat the Islamic State. With U.S. backed forces on the attack in Raqqa, Islamic State fighters have been fleeing towards Deir Ezzor.

 Bashar Al-Assad’s military, backed by Russian and Iranian firepower, is advancing on eastern Syria in an effort to dislodge the Islamic State, reestablish government control over eastern Syria, and secure a government-controlled border crossing into Iraq.

 The conquest of Deir Ezzor, the administrative capital of eastern Syria, would ensure Assad’s dominion over the east, at least below the Euphrates. But it would also undercut a key strategic U.S. objective in the region: thwarting Tehran’s efforts to extend its influence in the Middle East by establishing a so-called “Shia Crescent,” a land corridor connecting Iran to its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

 “If you want to rule eastern Syria, Deir Ezzor is a very good thing to have,” said Aron Lund, and expert on the region and the Century Foundation, noting that possession of the eastern administrative capital is critical to laying claim to the region’s oil reserves and farmland along the Euphrates River. “It seems to me what’s happening is that Assad is on the way to being ruler of most of Syria west and south of the Euphrates, which includes the capital, the other big cities, and most of the population.”

 The Syrian advance has heightened tensions with the United States and allied Arab and Kurdish fighters, who are battling the Islamic State for control of Raqqa in northeastern Syria. The rival coalitions appear to be jockeying for position as they compete to fill a security vacuum that would follow the defeat of the Islamic State.

 On Sunday, a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane after it dropped a bomb near a group of U.S.-backed fighters in the town of Tabqa, near Raqqa. The U.S. has also shot down Iranian drones overflying territory occupied by U.S.-trained militia in southern Syria.

 Iran, meanwhile, has for the first time launched missiles strikes into Syria from its own soil, targeting Islamic State forces around Deir Ezzor. At the same time, Iranian-trained Iraqi militia are poised to advance from Iraq towards the city’s eastern border.

 The Deir Ezzor airdrops are part of a broader humanitarian relief plan brokered by the U.N. special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, and backed by Russia and the United States. The arrangement — which was endorsed by the 17-nation International Syria Support Group, or ISSG, in February, 2016 — placed the burden on key international powers, including the U.S. and Russia, to ensure that combatants on all sides abided by the agreement.

 The United States, which has footed the majority of the bill, poured more than $10 million into it its first months of operations, with Britain, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands throwing in several million more. There have been more than 260 airdrops to date, at a total cost of between $36 million and $65 million.

 Initially, the pact saw U.N. and Syrian Red Cross convoys delivering food and other goods to towns that had been cut off from basic supplies for years.

 “For a few months, it worked really well,” said one State Department official. “The government provided the approval for the convoys, ensuring that even the government besieged areas received assistance. We were shocked at how well it was working.”

 But over time, and as the world’s attention turned elsewhere, Syria resumed its policy of blocking aid deliveries to rebel-controlled towns. Those convoys that did get through were required to unload stocks of medicines. “The initial success had gone down the tubes.”

 Russia, which offered strong political support for the U.N. aid drops, but no funding, scored propaganda points as Russian media credited Moscow with shipping foods supplies to Deir Ezzor, paid for by the United States and its European allies.

 A WFP spokeswoman acknowledged that the source of the airdrops — which are carried out by a Russian company on contract to the U.N.– are “occasionally misrepresented in the media” as Russian and that the food agency “continues to address this challenge.”

 Inside the State Department last Fall, there were calls for shutting down the air drops, on the grounds that Russia and Syria had not lived up to their part of the bargain, and the West was being played for fools. The WFP drops, officials noted, simply freed up resources to supply their own troops.

 “The Americans paid while the rest of the opposition areas starved. Only Deir Ezzor got stuff,” said a former State Department official. “I pushed hard to end it since the Russians reneged. But the State Department’s humanitarian advocates, as well as the National Security Council, argued for maintaining the program because it was saving lives, according to the former official.

 “These are hungry people who are besieged” Jeremy Konyndyk, who served as the director of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance during the Obama administration, told FP. “We have a very fundamental humanitarian imperative to try to assist who we can.”

 In the end, a compromise was reached.

 The program would continue, but the U.S. and other donors would stop contributing to a special airdrop fund, leaving it to the World Food Program to determine whether it could meet the costs within its own operating budget. The expectation was that Deir Ezzor would no longer be a major priority.

 But the food drops to Deir Ezzor, continued. The food agency’s donors, including the United States agreed to increase its operating budget to accommodate the Deir Ezzor air drops.

 The airdrops are carried out by a Russian contract airliner, Abakan Air, which is owned by two Russian nationals, Nikolai Ustimenko and his son Patel Ustimenko. They had previously been barred from UN business following allegations that a separate company they owned paid bribes to a Russian UN procurement officer, according to a report in the New York Times. Abakan Air did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

 But it appears the ban does not extend to Abakan.

 Abeer Etefa, a World Food Program spokeswoman based in Cairo, Egypt, defended the decision to hire Abakan, saying the company was not on any U.N. blacklists, and that “it was the only company that was able to do the high altitude airdrops and was accepted with insurance.”

 Etefa acknowledged the operation poses “ethical and moral dilemmas,” but she suggested it would be unfair to punish civilians besieged by the terror organization.

 The crucial questions the food agency needs to weigh, she said, is “do the people who receive food need it or not? Will those people starve if they don’t get the food or not? That will determine whether we deliver to this area or not.”

 For many at World Food Program, the Deir Ezzor air drops have become a source of pride. The agency had never before dropped food from such a high altitude in a conflict zone, she said. The initial drops strayed from their target, sometime falling into the hands of the Islamic State. Some of the parachutes didn’t open.

 The food agency was forced to halt for two months, carrying out trial runs in the Jordanian desert until they could perfect the operations.

 Etefa said the food is distributed on the ground by representatives of the Syrian Red Cross, which oversees much of the humanitarian assistance throughout Syria. But she acknowledged that the U.N. food agency, which has no access to Deir Ezzor, can’t independently monitor how the food is delivered.

 That said, she noted that there are indicators suggesting that civilians are being fed. Prices for basic food commodities in Deir Ezzor have fallen. For instance, in the first six months of 2016, when the air drops were started, prices of food staples dropped by 52.7 percent.

 Critics say the airdrops are potentially aiding the Syrian military operation and several observers indicated that food may be diverted to the Syrian military, or locals who are loyal to the regime. The aid drops “pull civilians into your orbit. If they want the aid they have to deal with the government. But that is the story all over Syria,” said Lund.'

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Philosopher: Iconic Syrian academic on freedom, oppression and the origins of the war

 'One month after Dr. Ahmad Barqawi fled Syria, the University of Damascus announced that he had been fired from the department of philosophy after 30 years as a professor. Barqawi was born in 1950 to two Palestinian refugees in the Damascus countryside and went on to study philosophy at the Leningrad State University in St. Petersburg.

 After the outbreak of the Syrian war, the government security apparatus called Barqawi in for interrogation on what they considered to be the pro-revolutionary themes in his work—the brutality of authoritarian governments, violence perpetrated in the name of nationalism and the necessity of calling for freedom.
 The philosopher fled the country for Dubai in 2013, fearing for his own safety.

  Dr. Ahmad Barqawi:

 "An individual or community can have a multiplicity of relationships with what is happening in Syria: belonging, partisanship, neutrality, indifference, justification and understanding.

 To understand reality—theoretically, intellectually or scientifically—is the task of philosophy. However, understanding does not mean taking a stance. Rather, philosophy and its understanding of the Syrian reality provides the foundations [to form a stance] in my mind.

 Philosophy tells us that what is happening in Syria is the result of a fundamental contradiction between the power structure—oppressive, restrictive, dogmatic and fixed—and the society it imposes itself on through a series of primitive methods for the sake of self-preservation.

 Society develops spontaneously. Its structure becomes wider and richer than the power structure. This then leads to the explosion of the societal structure that is no longer able to coexist with the power structure. This is to say that what happened and what is happening [in Syria] is a revolution in the precise meaning of the word.

 Philosophy, revealing the possibilities encompassed in revolution, reinforces the active, rational will that helps one practice truth.

 Where is Syria heading? To a new world.

 After the catastrophic coup in 1970, Hafez al-Assad built a regime that was structured around three core and functionally interrelated elements: the presidency, the army and the security forces.

 The secondary, more ornamental elements included the Baath Party, which, according to the constitution, leads ‘society and the state,’ as well as a ‘patriotic and progressive front.’

 Other secondary elements include the appointed People’s Council, a forged, forced election process, and a series of institutions dominated by key members [of the ruling party].

 The three core elements [presidency, army and security] monopolized power, wielding it without any moral or legal justification. No societal powers could deter them.

 But when these core elements grow weak, those in power establish their own special militias. The militias are almost independent in their power, not subject to the authority of the collapsing army and security forces.

 International powers are invited [to the country] through proxy militias due to the governing authority’s desire for survival. At this point, he loses more and more of his monopoly over power, becoming an instrument of the new powers [domestic and international militias].

 It becomes a power struggle. The core structural elements collapse, no longer functioning within the formerly cohesive structure. The ornamental elements also lose their function because they are firmly related to the [three] core elements.

 With the multitude of active forces—both internal and external—rebuilding the old structure becomes nearly impossible, especially since the sources of manpower, the impoverished classes, are nearly depleted. A dependence on outside sources [of manpower]—e.g. the impoverished in Lebanon and Iraq—emerges. But this is unsustainable if the conflict goes on for a long period of time.

 From here, the demise of a historical structure is inevitable. It is not history’s natural disposition to restore life to a structure that has collapsed, and we do not know of such cases.

 Philosophy puts the human being at the center of the world—they are the highest of the high. Moral philosophical discourse, specifically, provides humans with a consciousness of their value and existence.

 Philosophy looks at war from two angles: a moral perspective (defending human life) and an epistemological perspective (explaining the war’s causes and effects).

 Philosophy does not advocate for killing and war. It does not see anything more valuable or precious than the individual. Freedom is not something that stands alone; it is the individual.

 To ask if freedom or human life is worth more implies that one can imagine freedom without man or man without freedom.

 The ego exists under various forms of oppression. Any authority is a form of oppression. The relationship between those who hold power and the ego can be defined as oppressive power, and I will here map out the creation of authoritarian oppression.

 Every individual lives under what we can call a hegemonic regime, meaning that the individual is subject to a sort of subordination. Individuals harbor a tendency toward liberating themselves from the hegemonic structure that controls the ego.

 The world of ethics is a structure of hegemony, one that is historically constituted. These ethics, or values, try to prevent me from overstepping the bounds of the structure. Transgressions [against the structure] result in punitive measures—moral and, perhaps, physical ones as well.

 Therefore, the ethical structure in all of its forms—in a traditional society in particular—is oppressive and imposes submission, for instance through the concept of chastity, the concept of honor, religion, etc.

 Conflict arises when the individual grows and reaches the point of desiring liberation from the hegemonic structure. In doing so, he feels free from this hegemonic structure.

 Religion, for instance, is a hegemonic structure. It is a strong authority and includes behavioral and moral imperatives. My belonging to religion as a being makes me subject to this hegemonic structure that has both concrete and theological forms of punishment. Therefore, it is more dangerous and problematic than a [nonreligious] ethical system because [religion] supports its dogma through a divine mandate. When I feel that this structure is a burden on my behavior, I feel my freedom.

 The state—a strong, tangible body which enacts laws—becomes a repressive, hegemonic structure if there is incompatibility between that state and society. The state oppresses the ego to an extraordinary degree. However, we do not see this distinction clearly, as we live our lives under a fully formed oppressive state.

 So, the idea of freedom emerges only from feeling one’s freedom denied. Whoever does not feel their servitude does not feel their freedom.When the slave becomes aware that he is a slave, this is the first step toward an awareness of freedom.

In Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, there is chapter entitled ‘The Master-Slave Dialectic’.

 This is before Marx proposes the development of the slave and the master, portraying them as two individuals with the spirit of life and the spirit of adventure, respectively. The slave did not venture, pleased to remain a slave, while the master was pleased because he did venture and became a master.

 These relationships synthesize: the master owes his existence to the slave, because, in reality, his life is not possible without the slave and the slave’s work. The master becomes the slave, theoretically and dialectically.

 The slave, simply through becoming aware that master is indebted to him, begins to feel that he is not enslaved. He begins to feel free.

 ‘The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom,’ says Hegel.

 Let us set aside those terms and move to a discussion about the inability to become conscious of freedom in the Arab world. Building off of what I said about the relationship between the ego and the hegemonic structure, the definition of freedom is the disappearance of the gap between the manifest ego and the latent ego.

 The hegemonic structure strangles the true self, coercing the true ego to disappear. The false ego—the one adapted to the demands of a compulsive, oppressive force—then appears.

 Under a dictatorial regime, the true ego is always in hiding. It cannot show itself, while the false ego—the one the tyrant demands—can manifest itself.

 If freedom is the disappearance of this gap between the latent ego and the manifest ego, every oppressive power forces a being to conceal what he fears. From here, we derive the link between freedom and fear, as well as courage. European society is a courageous society because there are no lies, there is no fear, up to a certain point. There is no latent ego or manifest ego.

 How then can we, the Arabs, become conscious of the idea of freedom?

 The word ‘freedom’ does not exist in the Arabic lexicon—only the word “free” which is the opposite of slavery. But freedom as a concept is absent. We cannot return to history [for a precedent] because [Arab] societies have suffered under a hegemonic regime.

 How can we raise an awareness of freedom, ideologically and discursively, considering that we have only as of late become aware of the importance of a consciousness of freedom in our speech? It is critical that we are aware of the importance of speech in ideology.

 The nationalist ideology [championed by the Baath Party] tethers the idea of freedom to the idea of ‘the freedom of the homeland’—freedom from the Other, from colonialism. The idea of colonialism gave birth to this method of thinking: ‘The freedom of the Arabs and their independence from the Other.’

 As a result, the individual does not see himself through the lens of freedom, but rather through his relationship to the ‘free homeland,’ which has achieved its freedom from the control of the [colonial] Other.

 All totalitarian ideologies go against individual freedom.

 The freedom of the homeland does not trickle down to the individual whatsoever—it is the complete opposite. Oppression of the individual is linked, or becomes a requirement, to defending the freedom of the homeland.

 Individual freedom becomes constricted alongside freedom of the homeland, and as the freedom of the homeland narrows, so does the freedom of the individual. The individual is no longer a ‘self.’

 Nationalism and Marxism are ideologies which can be rebelled against, rejected and demolished. But when we look to a religious movement, we find an absolute servitude to God in the text, in the text’s explanation, exegesis and interpretation, all being fully subservient to this hegemonic system.

 There is nothing deeper than the slogan “the people want,” because it is linked to will.

 If you want, then you are free. Servitude is the dispossession of one’s will, whereas freedom is assigning will.

 There’s no doubt that for a mother, her son is more important than all the freedoms in the whole world.

 But freedom for the people—those who “want”—is not a question of whether the torturous struggle for freedom outweighs the price of freedom." '

FSA Commander: I swear we will not be defeated in Daraa

 'Our people in Daraa and all of Syria: Hundreds of warplanes and helicopters are striking our cities. Hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in this battle. Most of them are women, children, and the elderly. We tell you that we don't suffer from cowardice or greed, but we suffer from abandonment.

 Why does the régime want to take over Daraa city? Why does it want to break Daraa city? Daraa city must fall because it represents the symbol of the revolution. Why is there this determination to defeat the city? Did you ask yourself that? Simply, because the city is the heart of Daraa, and if it falls to the régime, all of Horan may be divided. And the remaining areas will fall one by one, village after village, and town after town. In the east and the west.

 The régime was just 200 metres from the gates of the old border crossing. It was preparing the final blow, and betting on our division and disagreements. But the free people of Daraa and Horan managed to ignore their disagreements. The revolutionary spirit came back, and they formed the Bunyan al-Marsous operations room. They took the régime by surprise. Under our blows, régime forces retreated thousands of metres in three months. In a hundred days, for each metre, we lost one man, woman and child. We paid a bloody price, and filled the streets with the dead bodies of Iranian and Hezbollah terrorists.

 I swear, we repelled them while warplanes were bombing us, missiles hitting us, and helicopters filled the sky. We have nothing to confront these warplanes, since everyone decided that they wouldn't give us anything to confront these warplanes.

 We have men capable of smashing Hezbollah élite fighters, and defeating Iran's sectarian militias, but we blame those who let these militias infiltrate us easily. We blame those whose ineffectiveness made birds nest in the barrels of their tanks, which are the tanks of the revolution and the revolutionaries. We blame those whose arms depots will soon be looted by Hezbollah if Daraa falls to the régime, God forbid! We blame those who are waiting for us to become weak and lose our strength, so they can achieve their goals.

 We complain about lying, deception and false excuses. We complain about those who think Astana is a gain, and sit there to represent countries supporting them. We know that Assad, guided by Russia, is procrastinating and manoeuvring. What is worse, the sponsoring states are the ones who are killing us. What blindness! What silliness! How can we accept guarantees from countries whose warplanes are killing us?

 If they had been honest, and told us to sign a surrender agreement in Astana, we would have had respect for those who have gone, and maybe we would have gone with them. Or we would have told them, as we do now, "Death over humiliation!" But they say, "Come to Astana, so we can fool and distract you, then we can eliminate you one by one."

 Isn't it time now to understand this game? It's time now to understand how they dealt with us one by one, so they can easily break and defeat us. But we will not be defeated in Daraa, I swear, we will not be defeated. We still have faith in God. And we still rely on an uprising of factions against their leaders, and an uprising of leaders against foreign states.

 To our brothers we say, every day our men kill dozens of Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters. We kill them and see with our eyes their yellow flags, hoping not to see them fluttering on your hills.

 Peace, mercy, and blessings of God be upon you.

Image result for FSA Commander: I swear we will not be defeated in Daraa

First moment of entry of FSA forces into Airforce Defense Battalion, west Daraa

 "As we promised the people of Daraa, we captured their tanks and bulldozers, and dragged them through the streets of Daraa city. And we dare them to try it again. No matter if they bring Afghans, Iranians, or whoever, we will kill them. This is our country, and we are here defending it. Let Bashar and whoever supports him hear these words."

Diala Brisly, the guardian artist of Syria's children

Diala Brisly, the guardian artist of Syria's children

 'A year ago, artist Diala Brisly was painting murals inside the tents of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to help children forget about the war. Now she resides in Pélissanne, a picturesque village in Provence, southeastern France, so quiet that few French people have ever heard of it. 

 While Brisly may now be in France, her mind continues to rest with the children of Syria. Brisly was among the few artists taking on an activist role at the beginning of the Syrian uprising. 

 "Out of the ten artists I shared a studio with in Damascus, I was the only activist. It was really sad but they were terrified," she said. She used to attend protests, deliver medical supplies to hospitals under siege, and design and distribute political posters.

 But it all came at a high price. During one protest, she was beaten by mukhabarat [secret state police] with batons, but managed to run away and continued her activism shortly after.
Until 2012, Brisly published political art under the pseudonym Elvis Presley. But after a massacre by government forces in Daraa, she was moved to paint a boy holding a balloon with lost limbs, her first illustration signed under her real name.

 "A few activists, and myself, thought that if people were getting arrested and dying in prison, it was shameful for us to hide behind fake names on Facebook," she explained.

 Brisly's revolution started long before 2011.

 At an early age, she began rebelling against both the Syrian school system and her parents.

 "When I moved to Syria from Kuwait at age 10, I was surprised to find that my school resembled a prison. Then I began wondering, why do I have to wake up every morning to recite strange chants like 'long live Hafez al-Assad' and 'our mission is to destroy terrorists like the Muslim Brotherhood?'

 "When we had classes to learn about Hizb al-Baath [The Ba'ath Party], I always tried to escape by jumping from the bathroom window."

 Brisly recalls tension between her parents during her childhood. Her siblings encouraged a divorce so that the incessant fighting would halt.

 Years later, when her father discovered Brisly's involvement in the revolution, he blocked her on Facebook because he, too, was terrified of the consequences. Her mother has long sustained good relations with the regime. Nonetheless, Brisly's revolutionary efforts strengthened while the situation in Syria turned more precarious by the day, and her friends began getting arrested. She recalls a distinct moment that compelled her to finally leave. 

 "One day, I was driving to deliver medical supplies and I had serum under the car seat, which was enough to be sentenced for life. I was stopped at a checkpoint, and at that moment, I saw my life flash before my eyes," she said.

 "I was shaking uncontrollably but luckily for me, one of the soldiers was drunk, and told me that beautiful women like me should not be stopped, so he let me go."

 Releasing a sigh of relief, Brisly was quickly smuggled to Istanbul. There were many activists there and she wanted to continue her work. But she soon grew tired of the language barrier; she did not fit in with the large bureaucratic Syrian charities funded by Islamists, and she felt useless.

 While there, she received a call that her brother, who she practically raised, had stepped on a landmine and died while being forced to serve in the Syrian army.

 "I lived with my brother for a long time and I felt like I had to help him - but I didn't, so I felt guilty. Because of this, I respect and appreciate life more. When I dance or paint, I remember him," she said.

 Depression set in following her brother's death.

 So Brisly set out to Beirut to visit her sister and friends. She met a woman who was opening a public library for Syrian refugee children in Arsal, Lebanon, a town near the Syrian border, and she promised to return to paint a mural.

 "I thought, life for Syrians is really tough here. They need any help they can get. This is the place I have to be."

 Brisly kept her promise, returning to Lebanon with a two-year deadline for moving on - no more, she was certain, because the "materialistic lifestyle" of Beirut did not suit her. After completing the Arsal mural, she began painting murals as a volunteer project in refugee camps, sometimes painting with children, and holding workshops.
Brisly admits that it can be difficult working with traumatised children.

 "They draw dead people; their paintings are full of blood; they paint shelling, tanks, and, in the best scenario, they draw about separation," she said. "It's important for me to talk to them like adults, because that's what they are now."
Though countless children inspire and influence her work, one experience in particular sticks.

 "I was working inside this empty school, so children in the courtyard began wondering what I was doing. They started throwing stones at the building which made a distracting noise. I ran out and declared a friendship pact with the group of children, promising them that if they stopped throwing rocks, in return I would give them a tour.

 "When I showed them round inside the school, one little boy said to me, 'Miss, I have seen many cartoons like Mickey Mouse but yours is the best one ever.'" Holding onto this memory keeps her motivated, she says.

 With her passport quickly expiring and the risk of being stuck in Lebanon forever, Brisly was encouraged by friends to apply for asylum in France - understood to be the only country accepting refugee applications separate from the UN.

 Through a mutual friend in Beirut, she met a French girl studying at the prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB) who offered her a place to stay at her parents' home in sleepy Pélissanne. Seeking asylum was a laborious decision and process, as she did not want to abandon her work in the refugee camps.

 After nine months of waiting, she was granted a visa and packed her bags. "I didn't have a good childhood," she said. "So I want to have a good rest of my life."

 So far, France has been serene, exactly what was needed after undergoing the psychological impact of war.

 "People are very generous and nice. Best of all, when they find out you're from Syria, they don't treat you any differently."

 Living with a host family was a gamble, but Brisly feels like it was the best decision she could have made. She is now embraced as part of that family.

 "I don't like very much to share all my family for a long time with someone I don't know. This is my fault, but I admit it," explained Dominique Aubert, her host father, a professional photographer. "But after having Diala in the home for a while, I have accepted that she is no longer a stranger, she is like my daughter now, and she can stay forever."

 Though Brisly feels perfectly at ease and grateful to be in France, she is trying her best to preserve cultural aspects of her Syrian identity too. "Now, because I am being hosted by a French family, I feel like I only want to cook Syrian food. I want to both thank them and show them something about us, so food is the easiest way."

 She spends most of her days in a detached cabin in the garden where she currently resides, keeping herself busy by working non-stop on various projects dedicated towards empowering the children of Syria.

 While in France, she is currently working on an animation film for the White Helmets, and an illustrated book about child labour. She has also accepted a six-month art fellowship in Berlin to make a children's comic book, and has painted and shipped two large murals to refugee camps in Lebanon.

 "I thought, if I painted these on a canvas before, why can't I do this here and send it to Lebanon?"

 Dominique added: "Her message is so powerful that you really can not be untouched by this, you can't. How? She is taking care of those kids when so few people in the world seem to be doing anything."

 Brisly chimed in: "I am trying my best." '

Sunday, 18 June 2017

FSA Launches Offensive On PKK-Affiliated SDF In Aleppo Countryside

FSA launches offensive on PKK-affiliated SDF in Aleppo countryside

 'Opposition fighters launched in the first light of Sunday (June ‎‎18) an offensive on the positions of the PKK-‎affiliated Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) in al-‎Madeeq Hill in Aleppo northern countryside. ‎

 Opposition fighters ‎managed to control the Mukhtar farms ‎near the village of al-Madeeq Hill southeast of ‎ Marea after clashes with the Kurdish ‎Units, SDF.

 The opposition offensive resulted in killing 18 ‎SDF members and injuring many others.

 Fierce clashes also erupted ‎between opposition fighters and SDF on ‎fronts of Maranaz, Kafr Khashr, Bersaya Mountain, ‎Ma’areen and Kaljreen in Aleppo northern ‎countryside without any reports of losses.

 Five civilians killed by SDF shelling on Marea.

 The offensive
 announced by the opposition on SDF today came after the latter shelled the city of Marea with heavy artillery, killing at least five civilians and injuring tens.

 Many towns and villages in Aleppo northern countryside are occupied by SDF, including Tal Rifa’at and Efrin.

 Opposition fighters launched earlier this month an offensive to restore their villages from the PKK-affiliated group.'

Civilians are subjected to murder, rape and arbitrary arrest by Shabihas amid a security breach in Aleppo

9 Alternates to rape an Underage girl ,a new ugly crime added to the record of the Assad militia in Aleppo

 'Violations of Assad’s forces in Aleppo have reached an unprecedented level that they are now bragging about their crimes against civilians in public. The locals are now living in a state of fear for they are afraid of falling victims to the barbarity of those ‘Shabiha’, whom Assad regime and Russia, who has imposed a trusteeship in the city of Aleppo since late 2016 in which the city was handed over to Assad’s forces, have not held accountable for their awful actions.

 Nine of Assad’s forces, or Shabihas, have kidnapped a 17-year-old girl in the Sayf Dawlah neighborhood of Aleppo and took turn on raping her. Last Wednesday, shabihahs w kidnapped and raped a girl in public in the Maydan neighborhood, and dispersed the crowds of civilians by the firing of live bullets. This coincided with the opening of fire on a civilian named ‘Amar Al-Aqra’ in Aleppo’s New City. A day before these cruel events, a child was run over by Assad militiamen in the Furqan neighborhood, resulting in his immediate death. Another child died after being hit on purpose by a car driven by Assad’s forces in the Heidariyah neighborhood.

 On June 05, pro-Assad forces arrested an old man in the SalahEdeen neighborhood on charge of appearing on a tv channel and speaking about the Sheikh Maqsud’s passageway. On June 03, Assad militiamen raped a woman and her daughter in the Qaterji area east of Aleppo, without their neighbors being able to save them from those rapists due to fear of being killed. The Assad-air intelligence branch in the city also arrested several civilians, including women and children, in the Firdawss neighborhood on May 30, 2017. This was in connection with the arrest of an old man at the Razi oven after a fight between him and some Shabiha, who had severely beat him.

 A month ago, a group of Assad’s forces arrested and assaulted a chairman in the Mirdan neighborhood for unknown reasons. The Shabihas are taking advantage of the power and authority given to them by Assad in the city to do anything they want to without being held accountable.

 A raid campaign was also carried out by the air intelligence on civilian-owned houses in Tariq Al-Bab neighborhood, arresting 14 civilians, including three women and two children. A day before the raid campaign the branch humiliated and arrested a woman and her husband in the Shaar neighborhood.

 There are unconfirmed reports about Russia withdrawing 200 of its security members in the city of Aleppo after a Russian patrol was attacked on the highway of the Aleppo airport, which Assad’s forces are prevented to enter it by Russia. On Thursday, Russian patrols raided headquarters of the people’s committees, arresting all those they found inside.

 The crimes of Assad’s forces are not limited to Aleppo city, but also the countryside. Several days ago, as Assad’s forces were executing five civilians, another group of Shabiha raped a woman before executing her in the village of Rassm Faleh Saghir near Maskana in Aleppo’s eastern countryside.

 Assad’s forces also set fire to several civilians homes in the village of Umm Hajra near Maskana before looting all their property. They also executed three civilian in the village of Al-Farriyah in the same region. Iran-backed militias executed eight people in the Batushiyah area on alleged charge of affiliation with Daesh.

 June 14 marked the third anniversary of the death of ‘Almah Shahud’, known as Al-Hura, in Jordan after being subjected to all kinds of psychological torture and rape in Assad-run prisons.'

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The political Entity of Idlib calls on two military factions to implement seven items

The political Entity  of Idlib calls on two military factions to implement seven items

 'The political body in the province of Idlib on Friday, called for the movement of Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to implement seven items, to stabilize the liberated areas.

 "In keeping with the aspiration of the Syrian people for greater freedom and security, arrests of activists and members of the Free Syrian Army continue to be carried out by Ahrar al-Sham and HTS Organization as well, amid a clear absence of independent judicial courts," the statement said.

 The entity called on the factions to stop the arbitrary and indiscriminate arrests, to release the detainees immediately, reveal the disappeared persons, open all cases before an independent judicial court, to immediately apply their last amnesties and to allow human rights and medical committees to visit prisons.

 It is noteworthy that dozens of activists and media individuals have launched a media campaign last month, calling on the military factions to "whitewash" its prisons, release all of the detainees of the youths from the Syrian revolution, but not those involved with the blood of the Syrian people, where the movement of Ahrar al-Sham responded to the campaign, and a number of judicial and Shari'a authorities in the province, and called for a general amnesty for all those who spent half sentence era.'

The political Entity  of Idlib calls on two military factions to implement seven items

Friday, 16 June 2017

Assad Still Must Go

 Michael J. Totten:

 'Like it or not, the United States is getting more involved in the Syrian war despite President Donald Trump’s promise to stay out of it.

 First, on April 6, after Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad again massacred civilians with chemical weapons, Trump ordered two American battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean to strike Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase with Tomahawk missiles. According to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the U.S. damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s air force in ten minutes.

 Then, on May 18, American warplanes bombed a vehicle convoy belonging to a pro-government militia that encroached upon a restricted area where American and British soldiers are training local fighters to battle ISIS.

 America’s Syria policy is just as incoherent now, though, as it was when Barack Obama was president. In August of 2013, the former president refused to enforce his own “red line” when Assad murdered over 1,400 people and wounded thousands more in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with chemical weapons. He meekly called for Assad’s removal but did virtually nothing to bring it about, choosing instead to lift sanctions against Assad’s staunchest ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in exchange for a temporary halt to its nuclear program.

 The Trump administration hasn’t figured out what to do either. “Our priority,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in April, “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said more or less the same thing at the same time. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” he said, “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

 Both reversed themselves within a week. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson later said, followed by Haley who said, “It’s hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”

 Since then, though, little has happened and less has changed. Like the Obama administration, the Trump foreign policy team recognizes that Assad is bad news but is unwilling to do much more than talk about it. At some point, though, we’re all going to have to come to grips with an unpleasant truth: If the invasion of Iraq proved to the American public how dangerous intervention can be, the Syrian apocalypse should have proven by now to the American public that non-intervention can be equally perilous.

 Eventually, one way or another, Assad has to go.

 One could make the case on humanitarian grounds. Assad, after all, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. One could also make the case on geopolitical grounds. The Syrian war, after all, triggered the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The strongest case, though, is on national security grounds. Whether or not most Americans realize it, replacing the Assad regime with just about anything but a radical Islamist terrorist state will make the U.S., Europe, the greater Middle East, and even most of the world safer places than they are now.

 Destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria is our first priority. That’s not going to change. ISIS has conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks on every inhabited continent except South America, and that’s without factoring its brutal conquest of Syrian and Iraqi cities; its medieval punishments such as amputation, crucifixion and stoning; its cultural and historic erasure of ancient sites like the Roman-era city of Palmyra; and its genocidal extermination campaign against Iraq’s Yezidi minority.

 The last thing the U.S. should do, though, is partner with the Assad regime. Never mind the fact that Assad is allied with Iran, America’s principal foe in the Middle East, and with Russia, America’s principal geopolitical foe. ISIS itself is a creature of Bashar al-Assad.
ISIS didn’t exist in its current form until 2013, two years into the Syrian war, but Assad’s culpability goes back more than a decade.

 After the U.S. demolished Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, both the Syrian and Iranian governments had excellent reasons to fear that they might be next. For decades now, Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime has been the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the Arab world while the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the entire world. If moderate governments were to arise in Tehran and Damascus as well as in Baghdad, the number of worldwide terrorist attacks would likely plummet substantially.

 So Syria and Iran needed to ensure that regime-change followed by nation-building in Iraq failed spectacularly. The Iranians did so by funding and arming Shia militias like Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah, while Assad facilitated the rise of Sunni terrorist organizations, especially Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.

 In their book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan quote former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who freely admits that “[Assad] started to work with the mujahideen” after the fall of Saddam. Assad dispatched Syria’s resident jihadists to fight American soldiers and Iraqi Shias, and most of them signed on with al-Qaeda. With one diabolically brilliant move, Assad managed to purge Syria of his own potential enemies while teaching the entire world a terrible lesson. Regime-change and democracy in an Arab land can be as dangerous as Ebola.

 The rationale was so obviously cynical that even those Assad used knew what he was up to and why. “Syria wanted to prolong the Iraq war and the attacks on U.S. forces,” former Syrian Islamist fighter Anas al-Rajab told Roy Gutman at The Daily Beast, “so that the Americans couldn’t come into Syria.”

 Everyone knows what happened next. Iraq was consumed by blood and fire. Arabs from one end of the Middle East to the other looked at the poisoned fruit of regime-change and shuddered. The American public entirely lost its appetite for democracy promotion abroad, and not until Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in a relatively peaceful revolution in early 2011 did Middle Easterners themselves believe that an internally-driven regime-change was either possible or desirable.

 The Iraqis partnered with American forces under the leadership of General David Petraeus and destroyed al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. Hardly any members of Zarqawi’s organization even survived. The few who did hid in the shadows for years.

 When the non-violent protest movement against Assad began in 2011, inspired by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, his security forces opened fire with live ammunition and ludicrously claimed they were waging a war against terrorism. The entire world knew they were lying, but Assad had to say something. The West was still busy bombing Moammar Qaddafi in Libya and, once again, Assad had plenty of reasons to fear he might be next. The only thing he could do that might save him, he wagered, was convince the West that he really was fighting a war against terrorism, that beyond him was the abyss. The only problem was that he was not fighting terrorism.

 So he created a terrorist menace to fight.

 For years Assad had been keeping radical Islamists quarantined in his jails, many of whom had fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq and came home, and in the most cynical “criminal justice reform” in history, he let them out of their cages. They did exactly what he knew they would do — coalesced into terrorist armies out in the desert.

 One of them was the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front and the other was ISIS, forged from the shattered remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq whom the world hadn’t heard from in years.

 After conquering some new piece of territory, ISIS fighters filmed themselves acting out in the most bloodthirsty and psychopathic ways possible. “Letting black-clad terrorists run around a provincial capital,” Weiss and Hassan write in their book, “crucifying and beheading people, made for great propaganda.”

 That propaganda now matched Assad’s earlier ludicrous claims that he was fighting a war against terrorism at a time when he plainly wasn’t. He finally had the war that he needed. He made himself indispensable by creating problems that only he could supposedly solve and removed himself from the West’s to-do list.

 And here we are. If it weren’t for Bashar al-Assad, ISIS wouldn’t even exist.
Assad is nothing if not a brilliant manipulator. Against all evidence, he managed to convince secretaries of state John Kerry and Hillary Clinton that he was a “reformer” at a time when he was precisely the opposite, and he managed to convince President Donald Trump that he’s fighting ISIS even though he and the Russians have spent more than 99 percent of their time, energy, and ammunition on every rebel army in the country except ISIS.

 He still has plenty of supporters in the West, though, because he’s “secular” and therefore preferable to Islamists. As an individual, yes, Assad is secular. The problem is, his chief political and military backers — Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — are radical Islamists. His own army has been reduced to a shattered husk of its former self and will likely never again be able to impose secular rule on the entire country.

 “After five years of war,” Tobias Schneider writes at War on the Rocks, “the government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords.” The country is awash with Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and Islamist militias consisting mostly of Iraqis and Afghans trained by Iran.

 Matthew DeMaio put it this way in Muftah magazine: “the Syrian regime is neither secular, sovereign nor independent.” His piece includes a telling photo of four banners that show who rules the city of Aleppo right now: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

 Look. It’s virtually impossible now for the 12 percent Alawite minority to subjugate the 74 percent Sunni majority without outside assistance, and until the Russians showed up in September of 2015, that assistance came entirely from the Iranian Islamists and their regional allies. Assad’s secularism barely warrants an asterisk at this point.

 Even if none of the above were true, if Assad hadn’t nurtured first al-Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS for his own nefarious purposes, if “government-held” territory weren’t under the control of foreign theocratic militias, Assad still could not be the solution to ISIS for one simple reasons — ISIS is the yin to Assad’s yang.

 Support for ISIS among the general public in the Arab world is in the low single digits, from 6 percent in the Palestinian Territories and 3 percent in Jordan to zero percent in Lebanon. The only reason terrorist armies like ISIS and the Nusra Front are tolerated by civilians right now in Syria is because so many perceive Assad as the greater of evils. Never mind his ideology; Assad is responsible for the overwhelming number of casualties and refugees. Hardly anyone in Syria would even temporarily support ISIS’s and the Nusra Front’s deranged revolution if there were no one in Damascus to revolt against. If these people weren’t under daily siege by Assad’s machinery of death, his barrel bombs and chemical weapons, they’d violently overthrow the Islamists just like the Iraqis did.
The real problem is larger than ISIS, though, and it’s larger than Bashar al-Assad.

 Syria, like Lebanon and Iraq, is fractured along sectarian lines. All three countries have suffered devastating and protracted civil wars, fomented in part by foreign governments, during the last quarter-century. The only reason Syria managed to hold itself together until relatively recently is because the Assad family effectively exported Syria’s own instability to its neighbors — which just so happen to be Lebanon and Iraq.

 “Syria before Assad was a playground of foreign intervention,” Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me after the crack-up of the country was well underway. “Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a regional player in its own right—occupying Lebanon, running his own Palestinian factions, and enabling Hezbollah. But now Syria has reverted to what it was before: a jumble of clashing interest groups and resentful sects pitted against one another, all seeking foreign backers who might tip the balance in their favor. In the long view, fragmented weakness may be Syria’s default condition, and the Syria of Assad père an aberration.”

 Assad relieved pressure from Sunni Islamists by dispatching them to Iraq to impale themselves on American forces and Shia militias. He relieved pressure from would-be Kurdish separatists by sponsoring the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (or PKK) against Turkey. And he justified his regime’s own inherent illegitimacy as a minority Alawite act ruling a Sunni majority by championing the Sunnis’ great cause and exporting terrorism in the form of Hamas and Hezbollah to Israel.

 Now that the jig is finally up, Syria is a net importer of terrorism rather than a net exporter. Yet the terrorists Syria does still export are striking targets as far away as San Bernardino and Paris rather than Tel Aviv, Beirut, and Baghdad.

 The case for keeping Assad in power requires one to believe that he can keep a lid on things if he wins the war. An iron-fisted regime can only keep a lid on things until it can’t, but the truth is that Assad never actually tried. Indeed, he and his father Hafez have been doing the opposite since the 1970s, and after more than 40 years there is no reason whatsoever to believe that government will ever change. Assad isn’t a force for stability — he’s a chaos engine.

 Syria needs a strong and politically moderate government — democratic or otherwise — where Sunni Arabs make up the majority and serve alongside non-token representatives from the Alawite, Christian, Druze, and Kurdish minorities. Under no other system can Syria be at peace with itself and with its neighbors.

 Eventually, however, one way or another, Assad has to go.'

Syrian children from Kobane in a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. [Photo: radekprocyk / 123RF]

Thursday, 15 June 2017

FSA Groups & Revolutionary Bodies in Deir Ezzor Announce Rejection of Iranian Occupation

FSA Groups & Revolutionary Bodies in Deir Ezzor Announce Rejection of Iranian Occupation, Emphasize FSA Role in Liberating the City

 'Representatives of armed opposition groups as well as civil and tribal bodies in the province of Deir Ezzor stressed that Iran is occupying Syria and has expansionist ambitions in the region.

 In a joint statement issued on Tuesday, the FSA groups as well as civil and tribal bodies said that Iran is exploiting the “de-escalation zones” agreement and has deployed its militias to take control of Deir Ezzor province. They stressed that Iran is seeking to link Arab cities and capitals with Tehran to achieve its "expansionist ambitions” having deployed militias in the eastern Qalamoun area, the Syrian Desert, and on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

 The statement stressed the groups’ outright rejection of "the Iranian occupation" in all its forms, underscoring that the local FSA groups in Deir Ezzor and its tribes are the "sole and legitimate representative" of people of the province with the exclusive right to recapture the province from the ISIS extremist group.

 The recent advances by the Iranian-backed militias towards Deir Ezzor “complicates the efforts to combat ISIS, threatens civil peace and risks undermining efforts to reach a political transition," the statement added. Signatories called on the political, military, and civilian forces in Deir Ezzor to form a unified political and military leadership to defeat ISIS and thwart the Iranian plans in the province.'

Aleppo's Warlords and Post-War Reconstruction

 Tobias Schneider:

 'Six months after the heavily publicized defeat of Syrian rebel forces in Aleppo to the Assad government, the once magnificent metropolis and largest city of northern Syria is still reeling from the consequences of years of violent conflict. The elaborate communal, economic and material threads that for centuries had made up the social fabric underpinning the city’s wealth, as well as its physical and societal integrity, may have been irreparably damaged. Today, much of the city lies in rubble and many of its once proud inhabitants have been reduced to abject poverty. The immediate challenges of post-recapture life, from reconstruction to the Assad government’s attempts to restoring services and order, may give us a first glimpse into what Syria would look like after a complete regime-recapture.

 The most visible injury to Aleppo’s splendor has been the material damage suffered in more than four years of near-constant fighting. So vast is the destruction that it is most efficiently surveyed by satellite imagery. An initial damage assessment combining both geospatial and ground-level qualitative analysis commissioned in the second half of 2016 estimated that at least one-third of housing units across the city have either suffered significant material damage or been destroyed entirely. These numbers are from before the worst onslaught in November and December.

 Months after the fall, international aid organizations and local authorities are only slowly foraying into these “newly accessible neighborhoods,” as the U.N. terms them. Many roads leading into the rubbled quarters remain damaged, blocked or degraded. Restoring the more than 70 kilometers of streets in need of urgent repair alone is estimated to cost more than $1 billion. A similar sum should be required to restore Aleppo’s single large thermal power station, the country’s most important electricity production facility that, prior to the war, covered 60 percent of the governorate’s needs. By comparison, the Syrian government’s entire 2017 budget amounted to no more than $5 billion.

 While state media has been busy highlighting the occasional symbolic reopening of plazas, shops, and restaurants to project a sense of normalcy, the reality for Syrians in the area is far from ordinary. Only a slow trickle of civilians has returned to the once densely inhabited popular quarters of the east. As of last month, the U.N. registered 153,012 individuals as residing in the “at best damaged” formerly rebel-held communities. They are essentially functioning almost entirely without services and highly dependent on aid. Many are returnees, as well as the poorest of the poor overflowing from the overcrowded and strained eastern districts, whose population had almost doubled with IDPs during the height of the conflict.

 Reflecting the unequal firepower of the warring parties, as well as the indiscriminate tactics employed by the Assad regime during the fighting, the destruction is very much unevenly distributed. Entire neighborhoods in formerly rebel-held quarters, such as al-Amerriyah, Tal az-Zarazir, Old City, and Karm al-Jabal, with all their accompanying infrastructure, have essentially been razed to the ground, while government areas only suffered sporadic damages. The city’s water and electricity infrastructure is largely defunct, and rationing remains in place for all essential goods and services.

 The socio-economic, and thus political, implications of this are especially noteworthy. Most accounts of the outbreak of fighting, and the subsequent division of the city, stress the initial class divide between the more urbanite loyalist quarters in the west and popular neighborhoods to the east. While the more affluent residential areas in the west suffered mostly sporadic damage from indiscriminate rebel artillery fire, around 58 percent of popular (sha’bi) residences, primarily in the rebel-held east, have been assessed to be damaged or destroyed. Together with Assad’s notorious Presidential Decree 66— which allows for the expropriation and re-development of destroyed and “informal” settlements—this could potentially open the doors for a more permanent re-engineering of the city’s demographics by the regime.

 The close interlinkage of political, economic and military power among regime militants further complicates the issue. War in Aleppo had always had a local dynamic to it, with fighters on both sides of the front lines hailing primarily from the city and its immediate environs. Among the defenders of West Aleppo was a varied medley of militia groups: Hilal al-Hilal’s Baath Brigades as well as the National Defense Forces led by former businessman and land-holder Samy Aubrey recruited from the city’s own youth.

 Indeed, following a 2013 presidential decree that permitted the raising of militias for the protection of capital goods, some of the richest men in Aleppo, such as industrialist Mohamed Jemmoul, have moved into the burgeoning militia sector. With Aleppo’s industry in ruins (a famous amusement park owned by Aubrey became a notorious battle field), war profiteering is the last remaining profitable sector in Syria. Thus, after years of conflict, a new politico-economic constituency has emerged in the city.

 For example, with no more than two hours a day of electricity from the public grid, more than 100 privately owned neighborhood generators have sprung up across the Western part of the city. Experience from Lebanon and Iraq show that such opportunistic entrepreneurs can quickly become a political force. This, and similar business models, are a new vested interest with which any reconstruction plan for Aleppo must contend. Rebuilding the destroyed metropolis without buy-in from loyalist powerbrokers who arose in the vacuum of war appears an unlikely prospect, especially considering the central government’s inability to curb their power and reach.

 Since the recapture of the opposition-held pockets, long-standing but previously muted grievances by local residents against the armed men fighting for Assad have increasingly burst out into the open. Journalists, activists and local officials accuse the “armed gangs” of robbery, looting, murder, infighting, and especially checkpoint extortion, leading to increased prices and further humanitarian suffering inside Aleppo, as well as creating anxiety about the business environment. Reda al-Pasha of the Hezbollah-friendly Lebanese Al Mayadeen TV station was notably barred from reporting in Syria after he criticized criminal elements among the regime’s forces (especially the Tiger Forces of General Suheil Hassan, who has since risen to chief of the powerful Air Force Intelligence Directorate in Aleppo).

 Even some of the most prominent regime figures in the city have added their voices in complaint. Firas Shehabi, a member of parliament and head of Syria’s Chamber of Industry, recently uploaded a video to his social media presence railing, Kalashnikov in hand, against the extortion system. An initial decree issued by Major General Ziah Saleh, head of the provincial security committee, in February aimed at expelling militias from the city, appeared to have had little effect. Recently, and following Shehabi’s intervention, Damascus is said to have intervened against the road taxes on trucking into Aleppo. The underlying power dynamics, however, remained unchanged.

 Beyond local warlordism, Iran’s influence in the city continues to grow as well. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has not only consolidated its already formidable network of foreign Shiite militias, but also expanded and formalized its role among Syrian nationals across Aleppo province. Formally outside the Syrian command structure, the so-called Local Defense Forces brand, an umbrella for Iranian-controlled groups such as Liwa Imam al-Baqir, has grown to almost 26,000 militants in Aleppo province alone.

 Having been exempted from Syrian army conscription and regulation, the Iranian umbrella provides opportunities, and crucial humanitarian, social and veterans services to otherwise economically destitute Aleppines. During the fall of the opposition-held eastern pocket, besides fighting on the front lines, Liwa al-Baqir ran the most important exit checkpoint for civilians fleeing the fighting. More recently, their officers have advertised themselves negotiating re-entry of displaced into the eastern districts, and leading offensives deep into the country’s interior.

 In absolute terms, the reconstruction of Aleppo is clearly beyond Iran’s financial means. Still, the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah have gained tremendous legitimacy among loyalists for their role in the recapture of the city, and they appear willing to leverage this popularity into more permanent influence. In January, in the wake of the collapse of the rebel pocket, Damascus and Tehran signed five memoranda of understanding, pertaining primarily to economic investment. Aleppo governor Hossein Diyab stressed that Iran was going to “play an important role in reconstruction efforts in Syria, especially Aleppo.” While details of the arrangement are still hard to come by, the so-called “Iranian Reconstruction Authority” has publicized its first initiatives, most prominently the renovation of 55 schools it plans to restore across the Aleppo province. While the project name is clearly reminiscent of the “Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon” established after Hezbollah’s the 2006 war with Israel, the degree of Tehran’s actual commitment to rebuilding this very Sunni city is still unclear.

 More than four years of fighting and war economy have left Aleppo a destitute city and its social fabric in rags. Considering the regime’s limited capacity and fiscal bind, the ancient metropolis is unlikely to be rebuilt, and the suffering of its citizens not permanently alleviated without international assistance. However, any eventual donor should remain conscious not only of the scale of the reconstruction problem itself, but also of the complex local political, economic and military environment, so as to not reinforce or reward the Assad regime’s absolutist aspirations.'

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Regime's Current Strategy to Ending the Revolution

 Ghaith al-Ahmad:

 'The Syrian regime and its allies did not hesitate to use military force to suppress the popular uprising that began in March 2011, nor have they hesitated to obstruct the negotiations taking place in Geneva under the umbrella of the United Nations to reach a political solution that would end the crises affecting the Middle East and the world – including the refugee crisis and cross-border terrorism.
This comes amidst declining US and coalition support for the Syrian opposition, the prioritization of the fight against terrorism represented by the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, the ongoing fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, and its components’ inability to agree on a unified vision for the future of Syria.

 The regime is attempting to play on the international margins, especially among its main supporters, Russia and Iran. While it may be leaning towards Tehran, whose designs are tied to the long-term survival of President Bashar al-Assad and a number of other leaders in the army and security apparatus; it knows full well that Moscow entered Syria with several objectives, including securing its place within the international community. But the Kremlin is also looking to take advantage of the global community's need to limit the influence and interference of Iranian militias inside Syria’s state apparatus, in return for a trade-off on other outstanding issues with the EU and the US, in particular those revolving around Ukraine and natural gas.

 After having paid large sums to support him, particularly in matters related to the military operations that led to the retreat of the armed opposition away from Damascus, Assad seeks to leverage Moscow’s need for him at the present time by rejecting any agreement in which power is shared with the opposition, according to the Geneva Communique or UN Security Council Resolution 2254, particularly under the current circumstances when the opposition is beset by division.

 The regime is exploiting the support provided by Tehran and Moscow, in the form of money, weapons, and men, to achieve important military victories at the expense of the Syrian opposition, which receives support from Turkey, the Arab Gulf states, the European Union, and the United States. The success of regime forces in expanding their control over the entirety of Aleppo in December 2016 was the culmination of their growing strength in recent years, giving the regime hope of returning to the international community and once again controlling all of Syria.

 The regime recently seized the opportunity to reach the outskirts of the Euphrates River for the first time since 2013. Its forces reached the western outskirts of Manbij in an agreement with the YPG dominated US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to prevent Syrian opposition forces, supported by Turkey in the “Euphrates Shield” zone, from advancing towards the city.

 In order to present itself as an international partner in the fight against terrorism, the regime has recently taken advantage of the “de-escalation” agreement signed by the guarantor states Russia, Iran, and Turkey in the Kazakh capital of Astana. The signed agreement was in the presence of the regime and opposition delegations and established four de-escalation zones in Syria. This agreement allows the regime to make use of a large portion of its troops in preparation for a new battle and opening the way to Islamic State-controlled Deir Ezzor in the east; which contains significant oil, gas, and water resources including the largest gas plant in the Middle East, the Conoco plant. At his press conference from Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Al-Muallem, announced that, “the primary goal of the country’s forces is to go to Deir Ezzor,” which would seemingly come with the goal of connecting the Damascus-Baghdad highway.

 In the vicinity of Damascus, the regime has adopted a military tactic that differs from those used in its battles elsewhere in Syria that focused on dividing and preventing communication between opposition areas to relieve pressure on itself in the capital, and over time creating fully-enclosed areas under siege.

 After years of siege and shelling, targeting health facilities and preventing relief teams/first responders from providing humanitarian and medical aid, the regime began signing so-called “reconciliation agreements” with representatives of these areas, demanding that opposition fighters hand over their weapons in exchange for the Syrian government’s guarantee that they can remain, while transferring anyone who rejects to the agreement to Idlib or Turkish-controlled areas in northern Syria.

 As a result, the regime has been able to empty a large number of areas around Damascus and Homs, a corridor for Hezbollah, linking Lebanon to Syria, the most recent being the al-Waer district in Homs and the Damascus suburbs of Tishreen, Qaboun, and Barzeh. In doing so, the regime seeks to replace the residents of these areas with families loyal to it in order to ensure its security and stability.

 After convincing the United States to support their fight against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Kurds have become a de facto power in northern Syria. The Syrian regime has welcomed this new reality and dealt with the Kurds cautiously, courting Kurdish leadership and building a network of common interests in order to isolate the Syrian armed opposition and exclude it from any role in the future of Syria, particularly in light of its intransigence towards fighting the regime rather than reasoning with it to find a political solution in accordance with UN resolutions.

 The regime has crafted a number of understandings with the Kurds on the basis of partnership rather than animosity, through which the authority of the state and its institutions have been maintained in those areas far from Damascus that still fly the flag of the regime and recognize the legitimacy of its existence. Pledging to continue paying the salaries of employees working in public institutions, the regime has given the Kurds the freedom to partition and manage their areas as a type of administrative decentralization to which the ethnic minorities that make up the majority of northeast Syria aspire. The regime also allowed them to speak Kurdish (which was previously forbidden) and integrate it as the primary language in schools.

 The regime sees its participation in the Geneva negotiations as an opportunity to restore credibility lost on the international stage and to emerge as the reasonable party, taking full advantage of Moscow, its most powerful ally, over the course of these negotiations in light of the US retreat. At the same time, the regime is carrying out radical reforms within the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, spearheaded by President Bashar al-Assad since 2000. The party led the country since 1963 and these reforms have affected all of the party’s leading figures, known as the “old guard.” Newspapers loyal to the regime indicate other changes, even those affecting the party slogan, from “unity, freedom, socialism” to “one nation, bearing an eternal message.”

 Observers believe that by making such a move, Assad is preparing for a possible election battle, particularly as Moscow insists that he remain in power during the transition period in which parliamentary and presidential elections will take place, giving him the right to participate in any future elections.'