Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Here victory belongs to the Free Syrian Army

 'Dabiq was a great symbol for the Islamic State group. It was here that the Prophet Muhammed said Muslims would defeat the Romans. This is also the spot where Britain's Jihadi John murdered the American aid worker Peter Kassig.

 IS were right about one thing though. This is a place of reckoning, but it's the place of their defeat. They have now been driven more than a hundred kilometers from here, and these days they don't make much mention of Dabiq.

 "Our first enemy was IS, and we have defeated them. Now we face some separatist terrorist groups that want to divide Syria. So after the fall of Aleppo we have two enemies: the separatists and the régime. And for us there is no difference between the two." '

Pictures of corpses, some with eyes gouged out, part of shock evidence against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad

People march in Holland holding pictures of some of the tens of thousands of Syrians who remain missing in detention.

 'Thousands of pictures showing dead Syrian men, some with their eyes gouged out or with screaming expressions still on their frozen faces, are part of mounting and damning evidence against Bashar al-Assad.

 The shocking images were smuggled out of Syria in 2014 by a forensic photographer who worked for the country’s military police force.

 They sit with some 600,000 pages of records that investigators say paint a picture of systematic torture sanctioned at the highest levels.

 Stephen Rapp, a former American ambassador, quit his high-level posting in the Obama administration to help lead the investigation into atrocities in Syria.

 “I sat at a computer and went through (the photographs), one after the other, and it’s like pictures of hell,” Mr Rapp said in a powerful documentary aired on Four Corners on ABC on Monday night.

 “The most excruciating, painful things you can imagine, examples with eyes gouged. You see the pain on the face, frozen images of the last moments of life.”

 Among the corpses are young men — children and teenagers with ligature marks around their necks, he said.

 “The regime itself has taken these photographs … they were indexing and building files on people they’d tortured to death. They were keeping meticulous records … the regime is so bureaucratic that it’s stupid.”

 Mr Rapp said it’s some of the strongest evidence of state-sanctioned war crimes he’s ever seen in his career.

 He has no doubt that the arrest, torture and murder of thousands of Syrians over the past six years is part of a barbaric program operated by the regime itself.

 “You’ve got facilities that are part of the regime,” he said.

 “They can’t say this was a crazy thug doing it and they were against it … they know. They’re not doing anything about it. They’re not punishing a single soul.

 “We’re talking about State Security, the security services here. We’re talking about Military Security. Air Force Intelligence. Within the chain of command. Official forces. This is Syria.”

 The images and trove of documents smuggled out of the country — hundreds and thousands of pages of evidence, now kept in a secret location where investigators are building their case — are the “legal equivalent of a slam dunk”, he said.

 Bill Wylie, a veteran war crimes investigator, is working with Mr Rapp and says building a case against Assad will be “the final act in my career”.

 Among the stack of documents he’s examined are internal communications, memos to the Minister of Defence and heads of intelligence and security, and damning records of imprisonment, torture and death.

 “Too many people have died in detention of unnatural causes,” Mr Wylie said.

 Tens of thousands of people are still missing in detention.

 Those detentions began in 2011 when protests erupted throughout Syria, as the Arab Spring uprising swept across the Middle East.

 Assad’s forces responded with brutality, shooting people in the streets and killing scores.

 It only fanned the flames of unrest, so there were orders issued to arrest people on an unprecedented scale and some 200,000 were detained in months.

 One of those men was Mazen Alhummada, who told the program how he endured brutal abuse so extreme and depraved that “the human brain can’t imagine it”.

 Officers jumped on his back until his ribs were broken, hung him by his wrists off the ground and even put a clamp on his penis.

 “And he put the clamp and started tightening, squeezing, until you feel like he’s going to cut off your penis,” Mazen revealed. “And a man from behind puts a pole up your anus. And he is hitting you. Things that can’t be imagined.”

 When asked how he felt about the men who’d tortured him, Mazen sat quietly sobbing for 30 seconds before responding: “God will hold them to account”.

 Another man detained by the Syrian regime was Ayham Halaq, a dentistry student who started working with a Syrian human rights organisation.

 Their offices were raided and 13 people were detained. Ayham was beaten during interrogations but eventually released.

 Six months later he was arrested against and his mother Mariam desperately searched for him without luck.

 For 18 months she pleaded with government officials to tell her what happened to her son.

 “They didn’t tell me anything until an assistant felt sorry for me … and (wrote a note) … my attention immediately went to ‘corpse 320’,” she recalled.

 The note was a summary of a file on Ayham kept by officials, stating that he died six days after he was detained.

 Among the thousands of images of dead people was Ayham’s.

 “When I saw the photograph, I felt a great relief,” Mariam said. “Now I carry it with me on my mobile phone because it’s a confirmation, it’s his last moments, because we didn’t see his body.”

 While continually denying the atrocities, al-Assad labelled accusations of torture as “fake news” and propaganda designed to damage his government.

 Mr Rapp said the evidence was indisputable.

 “Even the Nazis sitting in the dock at Nuremberg looking at concentration camp films were still denying it. And we don’t expect confessions.” '
A blurred compilation of some of the thousands of photographs of dead Syrians, smuggled out of the country and now part of evidence against Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime.

U.S. missile strikes, rebel training in Syria re-energize a refined army against Assad

The author of a study calls the Free Syrian Army "the cornerstone of Syria's moderate opposition component." (Associated Press/File)

 'In the ramshackle town of Atareb, a Free Syrian Army bastion 15 miles north of Aleppo, Maj. Anas Abu Zaid said he has looted Russian rockets, American-supplied anti-tank missiles and other firepower to hold off the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

 He says it’s time to move on.

 “We were facing airstrikes on a daily basis, but now some civilians are coming back to Atareb,” said Maj. Abu Zaid. “We are working to put in place civil governance for the town and even rebuilding some houses.”

 His optimism reflects an energy that has infused the once-faltering rebel force in the wake of missile attacks that President Trump ordered on a Syrian air force base this month following Mr. Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons on civilians.

 Analysts say it doesn’t take a lot to tip the balance from one side or another in Syria’s grinding conflict, which is why the U.S. missile strike, limited as it was, had such an impact, said Alberto Fernandez, a retired State Department counterterrorism officer who is the go-to authority on capabilities and limitations of the multiple rebel groups in Syria.

 Add to that the fact that the much-derided U.S. effort to train the Free Syrian Army fighters is starting to pay dividends on the battlefield, boosted by substantial financial aid from wealthy Persian Gulf emirates, Mr. Fernandez said, “A war that has been going on so long is basically a war of attrition and exhaustion, and all parties are being worn down.”

 Mr. Fernandez, now president of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, said, “Those that remain from each part, unit or entity are the fittest, the most clever, the most savage and the most capable. So the question is: Who is going to be the last man standing?”

 “Too often, [the FSA has] been written off, and they shouldn’t be,” he said. “On the other hand, they have been limited — like everyone else — in what they have been able to do, so far.”

 Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, wrote in a lengthy study that the Brookings Institution released in November that the FSA was far better than its reputation suggests and has evolved into an effective fighting force while retaining a base of popular support that few of its rivals can match.

 “By late 2016, the FSA had come to represent an expansive, socially and symbolically powerful but complex umbrella movement, composed of dozens of semi-autonomous armed opposition groups that are united by the original moderate ideals of Syria’s revolution,” Mr. Lister concluded.

 He called the FSA “the cornerstone of Syria’s moderate opposition component.”

 “For the U.S. and allied countries seeking an eventual solution to the crisis in Syria, the FSA’s military preeminence does not necessarily have to be the sole objective, but sustaining its ability to represent opposition communities is of crucial importance given its mainstream positions,” Mr. Lister said.

 Maj. Abu Zaid was one of the Free Syrian Army officers selected by the Pentagon in 2015 for a U.S. program to boost moderate forces after previous training programs faltered.

 In February, that effort reaped results when, with help from the Turks, Free Syrian Army forces took over almost 1,250 miles of territory from the Islamic State group on Syria’s northern border.

 “The Americans made it clear that the regime was not the world’s priority, and the issue was defined as terrorism,” said the major, who added that Mr. Assad’s behavior since then has proved that the U.S. training was worth the cost. “With the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, Assad reminded them he was the biggest terrorist.”

 Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible for more than 90 percent of the 207,000 civilian casualties in Syria from March 2001 through February 2017, according to the Violations Documentation Center, a monitoring group working with human rights activists inside and outside Syria.

 Free Syrian Army fighters insisted that the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun revealed Mr. Assad’s fundamental weaknesses while highlighting their own stamina as a fighting force.

 “His only way to defeat the people is by punishing civilians with these weapons to put pressure on them to make local truces, forcing them to leave,” said Maj. Issam Al Reis, a 41-year-old spokesman of the Free Syrian Army’s southern front near the Jordanian border. Pro-Assad forces “don’t have enough manpower to defend their front lines.”

 Despite reports in the second half of last year that Mr. Assad’s forces, backed by Russian and Iranian support, had scored some major victories, facts on the ground support the rebels’ confidence.

 Analysts at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank in the United Arab Emirates, said that despite Russian and Iranian backing, the Free Syrian Army controls almost 17,700 square miles inside the country, compared with less than 14,000 square miles in 2015.

 Northeast of Damascus, Free Syrian Army forces briefly occupied the towns of Qaboun and Barzeh. The wins were ultimately reversed by the regime and Russian airstrikes, but they were a surprise to those who had written off the rebel group as irrelevant to Syria’s future after their defeat in Aleppo late last year.

 “Thanks to the Russian brutality, we tended to think a month or two ago that Assad had prevailed and that he can do whatever he likes,” said Mordechai Kedar, a Syria specialist at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “I would not repeat that assessment today.”

 As the civil war continues, the insurgents’ success should help them garner more aid from the West, said Fahad Almarsy, a former Free Army spokesman who now leads a loosely affiliated political organization in Paris called the National Salvation Front.

 “The United States and Israel can target [Lebanese] Hezbollah and Iranian forces propping up Assad in and around Damascus and help the Free Army advance and clear Syrian territory of foreign fighters,” he said.

 While most of the Islamic State’s losses in its Syrian base stem from Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, who now control 20 percent of Syria, the group’s links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey bar them from becoming close U.S. allies, said Ayman Abdul Nour, an early opponent of Mr. Assad and a leader of Syria’s exiled Christian community.

 “The Free Syrian Army is now positioned as America’s best bet if Washington wants to see a unified or at least a federal Syria,” Mr. Abdul Nour said in a telephone interview from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

 The rebels said they intend to keep up the pressure on Mr. Assad. Their “Victory Army” in west-central Syria recently turned their guns on the regime’s Hama Military Airport, using Russian missiles to destroy a Russian-made fighter jet. Like the American missile strike, which destroyed six Mig-23s at the Al-Shayrat Air Force base, the attack was designed to downgrade the size and shorten the reach of Mr. Assad’s air force.

 Refugees from regime-controlled areas, meanwhile, are joining rebel enclaves committed to Mr. Assad’s downfall.

 “The people suffer exhaustion from the war, but they are still loyal to the Free Army,” said Kamal Bahbough, a 36-year-old physician in the besieged town of Al Rastan, about 14 miles north of Homs. “The Free Syrian Army soldiers are the sons of this region.” '

Monday, 24 April 2017

Resistance is the message at Syrian independence event

Walid Alkabouni, 9, of Elmwood Park proudly waves a

 'Much like events for other Independence Days, the Syrian celebration Sunday involved a flag raised high and mighty. Unlike the ceremonies for other countries, the flag raised by many Syrian ex-patriots was different from the one flown by the governing powers. The difference was intended as a sign of political resistance.

 “This is the Freedom Flag, or they call it the Revolution Flag,” said Hassan Almaleh, who works with a New England nonprofit that offers humanitarian aid to people in Syria. “It’s against the regime in Syria. It’s different colors to show we’re different from those people killing. Those carrying the red flag, the regime flag.”

 On the steps of City Hall, more than 50 people gathered to celebrate Syria’s Independence Day. The raising of the Revolution Flag, which has a green strip at the top instead of a red one, was the culmination of an event that saw city officials, residents and Syrian refugees speak and listen to words of patriotism and revolution.

 Syria’s Independence Day, also known as Evacuation Day, represents the day the last French soldier left Syria on April 17, 1946. After World War I, France occupied Syria, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. More than 70 years after the French departure, the date stirs emotion, as Syria faces adversity and atrocities.

 Since 2011, Syria has been in the grips of an armed conflict between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and opposition forces. The fighting has killed and displaced thousands of Syrians. Assad has been accused of using chemical weapons against the people of Syria.

 The afternoon celebration, a week later than usual because of the Easter holiday, was held to offer support for the Syrian community, to thank those who have helped refugees and to remind everyone of the circumstances overseas.

 “It’s just a reminder for everyone that we still exist,” said Noha Alzouabi, who came from Daraa five years ago. “Syria still exists. And there will be one day when we come here again and celebrate the independence from the Assad family. Not just France.”

 Speakers included Alzouabi, Councilwoman Ruby Cotton, Councilman Luis Velez and Councilman Andre Sayegh, who has Syrian ancestors. Also speaking was Imam Dr. Mohammad Qatanani. Though Qatanani is originally from Palestine, he spoke of the need for solidarity in the face of war.

 “We are here to stand beside our brothers and sisters in Syria,” Qatanani said, “who are suffering; who are taken out from their homes.” '

Syrian Independence

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Syrians take to the streets in anti-Assad protests

 'Syrians in Damascus’ Douma took on Friday (April 21) to the streets to protest against the Assad regime and its allies’ brutal airstrikes, barrel bombs attacks, chemical attacks and forced displacement policies conducted on a sectarian basis.'

Friday, 21 April 2017

Absurdity is questioning a dictator's motives

A child receiving treatment at a field hospital after an alleged chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in north Idlib province. [EPA]

 Malak Chabkoun:

 'News flash: Bashar al-Assad is bad. He has been murdering his own people for more than six years now. Before that, his father did the same. And not once in the decades the Assad family has held power in Syria did it need "justification" for its crimes against humanity.

 Thus, a confirmed nerve agent attack on Khan Sheikhoun, one of many chemical weapons attackscommitted by the regime, is not out of the ordinary! Pro-Syrian revolution individuals or organisations who say that Assad committed chemical attacks on Khan Sheikhoun are not calling for World War III - they are simply naming the aggressor, as they have been doing for more than six years.

 Assad knows, six years in, that the entire international community isn't willing to take concrete steps resulting in his removal. And that is why it is completely ridiculous to even entertain questions like: "Why would the regime do this?"; "Why would the regime use chemical weapons?"; "Why would the regime use chemical weapons on Khan Sheikhoun?"

 Dictators kill because they can. They use chemical weapons because they are simply another tool at their disposal. It is not surprising that a regime which has dropped countless barrel bombs on its own people and invited occupiers into its country would use chemical weapons, and it is quite absurd that Syrians who have had to physically and ideologically fight Assad, Russia, Iran, ISIL and al-Qaeda all at once are constantly called upon to combat the narratives of these "woke naysayers" when their bigger concern is surviving whatever the regime and its allies throw at them next.

 Located about 90km from the Turkish border, the town of Khan Sheikhoun falls on the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway. Its civilian local council is led by Osama al-Sayadi. No armed factions maintain a presence in the town after Jund al-Aqsa tried but failed to capture it earlier this year.

 Since its liberation from regime forces in June 2014, the town has been and continues to be subjected to air strikes by the regime and its allies, including a strike hours after Trump ordered the attacks on Shayrat airbase. The city is also home to thousands of internally displaced families from surrounding areas such as rural Hama.

 Initially, the regime and Russia claimed they had carried out an air strike on "terrorist chemical weapons stores." But journalists from the area, as well as a journalist from the Guardian, provided video and photographic evidence that in fact, what regime and Russian media sources were calling a chemical weapons storage facility were actually abandoned silos the regime had destroyed in air strikes months earlier.

 Late 2013, the UN Security Council charged the US and Russia with removing the Assad regime's chemical weapons stockpile. After several delays and missed deadlines, the country was declared to be rid of its chemical weapons by mid-2014. Mere months later, the UN raised concerns the Assad regime had not fully disclosed all its chemical weapons facilities.

 Furthermore, the regime and Russia have continued to use chlorine to bomb Syrian civilians and Internally displaced people, as well as napalm, white phosphorus (or incendiary) bombs, cluster bombs, anti-aircraft missiles and vacuum bombs, among others. Russia has even bragged about the weapons it has tested on Syrian civilians.

 Given this, the US' declaration that its attack on Shayrat airbase was a direct response to the use of chemical weapons was quite puzzling. It became even more puzzling when the US admitted it had notified Russia, an ally of the regime, that the air strikes were coming.

 But perhaps most puzzling of all is that even given these facts about Russia's role as an enabler of the regime, self-proclaimed analysts still insisted on circulating the regime's official line: Syrians had orchestrated the Khan Sheikhoun attack, with the help of al-Qaeda, in order to incite a response from the US.

 When the Israeli army bombs Gaza, it is rightfully taken to account by both Arab and western pro-Palestine activists. After Israel's major assault on Gaza in 2014 (Operation Protective Edge), the very same people now questioning whether Assad's regime was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack were organising protests at that time and pushing for Israel to be punished.

 Assad, with the assistance of Russia and Iran, has been doing the same and worse to his own people. So why is it that these activists aren't expressing any outrage against the Assad regime, instead choosing to defend it? They do not question the fact Israel is using internationally prohibited weapons on civilians when "it clearly has the upper hand".

 Russia and Iran have been in Syria for years now, both as occupiers, and both committing crimes against humanity. Yet, it is only when the US or Israel strikes an Arab nation that anti-war groups wake up to protest, publishing statements on the sovereignty of Syria and protesting while holding photos of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And when Syrians against Assad, living in the West as refugees, counter their narratives, they are silenced or accused of supporting terrorism.

 This type of selective solidarity wastes the time and energy of Syrian journalists and civil society activists who are continually being put on the defensive. This dehumanisation of the Syrian people by the very activists who say they stand for human rights is incomprehensible. They send a clear message: they will never be convinced of the regime's brutality, even if they witness it themselves.'
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After Trump's air strikes, a Syrian asylum seeker remembers revolution and imprisonment in Damascus

Abu Shadi

 'Just after Trump's missile strike, I shared a meme on Facebook. It was of Trump wearing a tarboosh [the traditional Syrian red tasseled cap], with "We love you!" written below—a slogan that any Syrian knows from photos of Assad inscribed with the same message. Propaganda slogans were forced down our throats in posters, books, and photos. "We love you" is a phrase that you couldn't escape in Syria. It's about the cult of dictatorship. People who aren't Syrians might assume we now love Trump, and I can't deny I'm happy about his missile strike on the Syrian government. But the irony is that he is someone who made us the enemy just a few months ago.

 [On this image] I commented, "I believe in you," in a reference to a Fairuz song because I love her music, as all Syrians do. It's a dark joke, I guess, because Syrians have very little to believe in these days.

 On one hand, I'm happy that, finally, a world power acted in Syria to stop the use of chemical weapon attacks against our people. On the other, we all know that Trump warned Putin—our new Syrian president—before the strike. Somehow, even if the strike is just a political game, it still it gave me a sense of hope that I haven't felt in a long time. Usually the world only presses "like" or "dislike" for Syria, but this time it felt different.

 I've developed a complicated relationship with social media because, honestly, I can't see dead Syrian civilians anymore. For us, the images of dead bodies are not just news; they are our family members, friends, and people. I see my family in the photos of the dead, but most of all, it's a reminder that the world watches us and does nothing.

 It's hard to believe that it has been six years since the revolution. I was just a 20-year-old computer engineering student in the beginning. I remember sitting with friends in 2011, and one asked me, "Do you think what happened in Libya or Tunisia will happen here?" We all agreed that the Arab Spring would never spread to Syria. The regime was too strong and the people were too afraid to stand up for themselves. But it did, and everything changed.

 When I went to my first protest, I was so afraid. Just after Friday prayer, everyone poured out into the streets from the mosque. Even at that time, protests could mean death. We had all heard about protesters getting shot by the mukhabarat [the Syrian military intelligence]. At first I felt fear, but then in the streets this fear disappeared, and I just felt free among thousands chanting, singing, wanting to be heard.

 After a few months my friends and I were protesting every day, sometimes even twice a day. I chose to document this revolution, and I felt it was my duty to share it with the world as a photographer and videographer. I couldn't use a real camera because it would make me a visible target, so I learned to shoot good video on a Samsung Galaxy S1, then upload the footage to YouTube for the world to see. I would find an elevated area slightly above the protesters and shoot the scene from behind so as not to identify anyone's face, as I knew the government would watch these videos on YouTube. I filmed around 400 protests before I was caught.

 My friends and I heard that the government knew my group of friends had been attending and filming protests. To be safe, we hid out in a friend's apartment who was out of the country, but they found us.

 It was like any other night: I fell asleep, while one of my friends talked to his girlfriend on the phone, another was up studying for his classes. Around 2 AM I woke up to the cock of a gun over my head. Four officers were standing above me while I lay on my back looking up. "Don't move," they said, while pointing their guns at me.

 They searched the home for weapons, guns—anything to prove that we were terrorists—but they found only books. Unfortunately, they found our laptops and discovered footage of protests as well as photos and songs about the revolution, sealing our fate. My friends and I were then blindfolded with our own shirts pulled over our heads. My last memory before detention was being led by soldiers down the stairs of the building and glimpsing through the stretched brown fabric of my T-shirt to see a soldier stationed every second step. Why were they so afraid of us? We were just students. Someone called the police on us and turned us in, but I will never know who made us disappear.

 At first I was taken to a station in Mezze, and for six hours we were beaten with hands, feet, guns—any object they could find. I had never been beaten before. A lot of people die during this first interview. While you are being beaten you wonder, will I live? Afterwards, I was taken to a basement where I was tortured by four men.

 Two held me down while the others twisted my foot, grabbing it with a tool. As they pressed my foot, they demanded to know what I had done. "Why did you bomb Mezze neighborhood yesterday? Where are your guns?" they screamed. After 30 minutes of torture, you get smart and you will confess yes to everything. You just want to make the torture stop. With everything he asked, I said "yes." Anything he demanded to know, "yes."

 It was just one day of my life, but it felt like two. There were no lights, no clocks. After that I was taken to a mukhabarat jail where I was held for one and a half months. Just know that you go to these types of places in Syria to die. I remember for over two weeks, every day I thought, "Is today the day I will die?" Sometimes during torture I left covered in blood; sometimes I left with marks returning to the small room with around 100 men.

 There was [usually] no space to sit down on the floor, so we could only stand together, and if I could sit on the floor it was for just for a couple of hours. There were no windows, no air. It was a room so small that the I could feel the moisture of our sweat on my skin and in my breath. There was a constant liquid on the ground that made us feel so warm that none of us wore clothes, just our underwear. I remember there were people of all ages in that room. Some talked. Some prayed. Some were silent.

 My friends and I thought that once we made it to court that this would all be over. I remember on the day of our trial, we lifted our shirts to show what the soldiers and mukhabarat had done to our bodies, and we explained how during torture we said yes only to make it stop. Somehow we believed that the truth would set us free, but instead we were sent to prison for crimes we never committed.

 This time, it was better than before, with edible food and a chance to talk to your families. I was there for just 24 hours, before my family bribed the government for my release. I was told to leave Syria or face rearrest. So I left to Egypt, then eventually I acquired a student visa to come to America.

 After five months, I claimed asylum in Chicago. My case has been pending for four years now, but in the beginning, I would check the mailbox every day for updates on my asylum case. After a few months, it was every week. Now, I don't check the mailbox. It's not that I don't care. I care a lot, actually, but what can I do?

 Despite everything, within my first week in Chicago, I went to a protest held downtown for Syria. I wasn't nervous about going back to protest because I love this freedom, but most of all, I still go to protests here because I want Americans to know what is happening. I want them to see a face representing those who have disappeared.'

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Why so many Syrians living abroad support U.S. intervention

 'On April 4, the Syrian regime dropped a toxic chemical on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, killing at least 69 people, including many children. This incident was the most widely publicized chemical weapons attack since the 2013 attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed more than 1,400 civilians. In both cases, victims suffered excruciating deaths from sarin, a nerve agent that is banned under international law.

 After the onset of the revolution in 2011, Syrian activists and humanitarians in the United States called upon President Barack Obama to take decisive actions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S.-based lobbying organization Syrian Emergency Task Force brought regime defector “Caesar” to testify in Congress and has worked to publicize his documentation of torture and starvation in Syrian prisons. The Syrian American Council has worked to lobby for no-fly zones and increased assistance to factions within the Free Syria Army. Syrian American doctors have made powerful appeals in support of calls for intervention.

 The election of Donald Trump initially left many of these advocates frustrated. Activists were aghast at Trump’s executive orders banning refugees from Syria. Syrian organizations expressed alarm at recent comments by the administration that the United States would have to accept the “political reality” of Assad’s authority. Now, however, many Syrians across the diaspora are praising President Trump’s retaliatory strike against Assad, and, in some cases, are asking him to do more. Mr. Trump has taken note, posting a grateful response by Syrian activist Kassem Eid on his Facebook page.

 Scholarly accounts of diasporas have long been concerned with the effects of diasporas on foreign policy. Critics such as Benedict Anderson and Samuel Huntington have decried these long-distance nationalists as incalculably damaging, framing exiled elites as pro-war and dangerous meddlers in home-country politics. The role of Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress in the 2003 invasion of Iraq exemplifies the dangers of expatriate hawkishness.

 But are Syrian advocates of intervention more of the same? I find that Syrian activists are far from the hawkish interventionists depicted in prior accounts. On the contrary, each of those interviewed had opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many had participated in antiwar protests and have worked to support nonviolent civil disobedience in Syria. These respondents also supported the revolution because of its initially peaceful character.

 Nor did I find that these activists were professional or elite lobbyists. In fact, the Syrian American community did not have any organizations or associations actively lobbying against Assad before the Arab Spring. Instead, a range of émigrés, exiles, students and second-generation youths came together gradually only after the onset of the 2011 revolution to publicly condemn the regime.

 I also find that their pro-intervention views were not the product of shared identities or political support for Republican politicians. Rather, these activists varied in their ages, emigration histories, regional and ethnic origins, religious affiliations and voting preferences.

 Given the controversies and complexities of U.S. intervention in Syria, why then have so many of these diverse activists come together to support Trump’s punitive action against Assad?

 My research shows that Syrians in the United States and Britain came to advocate for a no-fly zone and targeted strikes because they see no other way to stop the violence. They have watched as diplomatic efforts have failed time and time again in Geneva and the United Nations. Meanwhile, civilians at home have been slaughtered and subjected en masse to bombings, starvation, rape, torture and execution in Assad’s prisons. After years of disappointment and almost half a million casualties, many Syrians have come to think — along with many Republicans and former Obama administration members — that military intervention is the only viable means to stop state-sponsored mass killings and the outpouring of refugees.

 The diaspora’s responses have been shaped by transnational ties to kinand compatriots under siege. In my experience, it is rare to meet a Syrian who has not lost family members to the war or does not have relatives who remain at risk. Activists abroad also view their role as amplifying the demands of Syrians on the ground, such as activist-artist Raed Fares and dissident Eid — also known as Qusai Zakarya, who testified at the United Nations about being gassed in the Aug. 21, 2013, attack.

 Furthermore, many of these activists have witnessed the carnage firsthand while volunteering to treat victims of war in Syria. As such, calls for intervention in the diaspora have evolved in conjunction with demands by those inside Syria for a no-fly zone.

 Somewhat paradoxically, Syrians’ calls for military intervention cannot be understood apart from recent changes in humanitarian norms against mass murder. Echoing the arguments of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, activists think that Syria’s problem from hell warrants decisive action. This does not mean that Syrians think state leaders act out of altruism — if anything, the past six years have taught them the opposite. Rather, they argue that upholding the “responsibility to protect” doctrine is the legal and moral responsibility of democratic states and that failing to do so enables autocrats to wield state sovereignty as a shield against international law and civilian protections.

 Of course, not all anti-regime Syrians are pro-intervention, and many who are readily admit that it is highly problematic. After all, it is these same activists who are leading the charge to monitor and condemn civilian casualties caused by U.S. strikes targeting the Islamic State militant group. As one respondent lamented, “Whatever they’re going to shoot, they’re not smart, and Iraq is the proof.”

 Yet dismissing Syrians’ pro-intervention views as pro-war or pro-Trump would be a mistake. As Fares puts it: “We are antiwar. We are against Assad killing our children.” Syrian Americans are continuing to critically evaluate the Trump administration’s conflicting policies on their home country and refugees. At the same time, under extraordinary circumstances, these activists are left with few options but to lobby states and international institutions to uphold purported commitments to human rights. For this reason, activists in the diaspora are likely to continue imploring Western powers to heed the call of “never again” and eliminate Assad’s capacity for mass killings.'

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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Daraa city battle has returned popular support for the revolution

 'Syrian rebels are close to capturing the southern half of Daraa city on Tuesday, two months after the combined force of hardline Islamist and moderate opposition fighters launched a preemptive battle to prevent the Assad regime from regaining a nearby border crossing with Jordan.

 If the alliance succeeds in its campaign, it will create a buffer zone that blocks the Syrian government from bifurcating rebel-held Daraa province, a swathe of territory that sweeps down and forms a “U” shape all the way to the border with Jordan.

 Daraa province, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising, has been a base of opposition strength. Over time, the Assad regime carved a sphere of influence both throughout the northern countryside and within the eponymous provincial capital. Most notably, the regime maintains control over the M5 highway, the main artery that connects Daraa city and the outlying towns to the capital and the rest of the country.

 A rebel victory in the al-Manshiya district, the regime’s primary base in south Daraa city for bombing nearby opposition territory, would also provide the rebels with a high-ground position capable of seriously threatening the provincial capital’s government-controlled northern half.

 Syrian regime forces currently hold the northern and western neighborhoods of Daraa city while on the other side of the Yarmouk River, which runs through the provincial capital, Islamist and Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions control the south and east. Daraa city lies just four kilometers from Syria’s southern border with Jordan, and one of the province’s two inactive border crossings.

 In February, rebel forces launched their campaign—dubbed “Death Rather Than Humiliation”—two and a half months after Jordan indicated its willingness to reopen its border points with Daraa province only if regime forces held them.

 In what is the largest battle in Daraa city since 2015, opposition forces say their preemptive strike focuses on capturing two regime-held districts—al-Manshiyah and Sajnah—the government’s heavily fortified and last remaining holdings in the southern half of the city.

 On Tuesday, opposition sources said that they now control more than “85 percent” of al-Manshiyah, an elevated district from which the regime bombardment has menaced rebel-held positions across the provincial capital and the wider province for years.

 Rebel forces made rapid advances in the initial days of the surprise campaign in February, capturing as much as 50 percent of the contested district. But fighting quickly reached a stalemate in subsequent weeks, as the opposition faced dug-in regime fortifications, supported by “hundreds of Russian airstrikes.”

 Despite near-daily airstrikes, opposition forces resumed their advances this past week with rebel sources pointing to heavy and sustained firepower, regime attrition and simultaneous battles elsewhere in the country as reasons for their success.

 Rebel forces are leaning heavily on suicide car bombs and other conventional weapon strikes. Meanwhile, the regime’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allied militias appear to have redirected resources in recent weeks to their other campaigns, including the fighting in northern Hama.

 “Any operation in Syria will of course lighten the pressure on another ongoing battle by spreading out the regime,” Abu Shaimaa, the spokesman for the al-Banyan al-Marsous operations room carrying out the battle, said on Tuesday. “That being said, there’s been no let-up from the regime’s warplanes or their helicopters.”

 Since the rebels targeted regime positions in al-Manshiyah with two suicide car-bombers and a massive tunnel bomb on February 12, regime and Russian aircraft have reportedly launched more than 550 airstrikes and dropped nearly 500 barrel bombs on rebel frontlines and surrounding areas, multiple opposition sources said. Meanwhile, the block-by-block urban warfare has killed scores of combatants on both sides.

 With rebels fighting on Tuesday to recapture the final blocks of al-Manshiyah, once considered to be “an impenetrable fortress,” says Al-Buraq al-Mafalani, a local media activist, the prospect of an opposition victory “will turn the entire calculus in Daraa city on its head.”

 Together, al-Manshiyah and the northern adjacent Sajnah districts overlook all regime territory north of the provincial capital’s dividing Yarmouk River. From this position, opposition forces could theoretically shell regime military holdings in the city’s northern half, also known as Daraa al-Mahatta, with greater ease.

 The rebel groups currently battling SAA forces in Daraa city include Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—a hardline Islamist coalition including former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—as well as Ahrar a-Sham and the FSA factions working in Daraa city.

 While rebel spokesmen remain tight-lipped regarding any potential next steps, Abu Shaimaa of al-Banyan al-Marsous seemed to indicate that fighting will be “advancing towards the liberation of all of Daraa city.”

 Both regime and Russian state media are providing limited coverage of the Daraa city fighting beyond the occasional reference to “terrorists” killed. One pro-regime outlet reported on Sunday that the “Russian Air Force saves the day in Daraa,” preventing the “jihadist rebels” from capturing more than what they estimate to be “70 percent” of the al-Manshiyah district.

 Inside the rebel-held southern side of Daraa city, also known as Daraa al-Balad, sources on the ground describe a scene of devastation in the wake of the regime’s two-month bombing campaign.

 More than “80 percent of all infrastructure in the districts of Daraa al-Balad” is destroyed, Abu Mahmoud al-Hourani, a spokesman with the pro-opposition Daraa media outlet Horan Free League, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. Few civilians remain inside the city’s southern half as thousands of families fled for surrounding villages and camps across the province in the early days of fighting back in February.

 Despite the destruction and displacement, local sources uniformly relayed a sense of excitement about the rebel military campaign.

 “The battles have given us hope again,” Abu Ahmad al-Qateifan, a resident displaced from Daraa city to the countryside said on Tuesday. “These battles are real, they are sincere and they are led by true revolutionaries.”

 The Daraa city battle has “returned popular support for the revolution and the hope of salvation from the criminal regime,” he added.

 Abu Mahmoud al-Hourani of the Horan Free League said the “Death Rather Than Humiliation” campaign has “reinvigorated the spirit of those who had so much despair in their hearts with the worsening situation in Daraa.” '

Image result for A rebel fighter stands amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in rebel-held Daraa, March 2017. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images.

Revolutionary factions thwart an attack west of Aleppo

 'The revolutionary factions confronted a fierce and large scale attack launched by the forces of the Syrian regime and allied foreign militias in many areas west of the city of Aleppo, causing great losses among the attacking forces.

 According to Al-Faruq Abu Bakr, the commander of the western Aleppo countryside sector of Ahrar al-Sham, in exclusive statement to the network of ElDorar the that the Assad forces and their allies from the Afghan militias and the al-Quds Brigade attacked after midnight on Monday until dawn on Tuesday, The attack is mainly focused on the areas of Jmiat al-Zahra, Al-Rashidin, Mansoura and Jabal Shuwehana. The campaign is considered the most violent attack since the beginning of attempts to break into the area several weeks ago.

 He stressed that the factions stationed in the western countryside of Aleppo represented in Ahrar al-Sham ,HTS ,Faylaq al-Sham and the Islamic Brigade of al-Huria thwarted the attack, and killed more than 25 militants, in addition to capturing others as the rest of the attacking groups withdrew left behind some of the bodies of soldiers of the Assad forces.

 "The regime seeks to divide the western countryside of Aleppo into two parts, and focuses its attacks on Tamoura and Jabal Shwehana, to isolate the areas and block them, in preparation for a gradual control " Abu Baker said.

 The warplanes of the Syrian regime and Russia intensified raids on Idlib and the western Aleppo countryside with the first hours of dawn, leaving 16 civilian casualties, including 10 in Maarat Herma and 6 in the town of Urum al-Kubra in rural Aleppo.'
 'West Aleppo: huge defeat for Assad's forces more than 30 fighters killed & their leader of operations is now POW.'

Aki reveals the death toll of "Alawite" in the “Defend Assad" war

 'The Italian agency Aki revealed the death toll of the Alawite community over six years during the battles of the defense of "Bashar al-Assad" noting the elimination of the entire generation of this community, numbered in Syria 2.6 million.

 The agency quoted a Russian source as saying that "150 thousand" Alawi belonging to irregular militias, and the national defense and security branches were killed in six years, that is, a generation of the entire community was eliminated.

 The same source said that the number of Hezbollah fighters killed since the beginning of its intervention in Syria, amounted to 7000 militants, considering that the high proportion of large losses in the militias supporting the Syrian regime pushed the later to raise the military service age, especially in the Alawite areas in order to introduce a wider age range among those wanted to join the army and Security forces.

 There are no official statistics on the number of dead militants of the Syrian regime forces and its military institutions and militias supporting them, but the media man close to the regime admitted in 2013 that the death toll of those forces exceeded 100 thousand.'

Friday, 14 April 2017

‘I felt that my soul would leave me’: Evacuation feels more like eviction for Syrians

A convoy of buses drives into the besieged oppositon-held town of Zabadani in preparation for the town's

 ' “After four years of siege there was nothing to eat, no water, no gas - nothing at all,” says Dani Qappani, a Syrian activist from Moadamiyeh, Damascus. He was “evacuated” from the opposition-held town on October 19 2016, but says that the considers himself displaced because he had no other option.

 “There was no choice. You cannot chose to be with the side which has been killing your people with sarin, detaining and torturing them. You can’t be with that side. Your only choice is to leave.”

 It is a view shared by a photojournalist, Ahmad, who was besieged in Darayya, Damascus.

 “The news of the “evacuation” was really hard for me. It’s hard for someone to leave their city and its ruins, the grayeyard in which their friends are buried. On the day of the displacement I felt that my soul would leave me.”

 The organization Siege Watch, which tracks the numbers and conditions of Syrians living under siege, said in a report in March that 913,000 people were trapped in 37 besieged communities across the country. The majority were besieged by the Syrian government.

 Syrians trapped in besieged areas have been subjected to indiscriminate bombing and shelling, chemical attacks by government forces, and suffered starvation.

 “One employee of the UN said to me, “how do you live in this city that’s unfit for life?” And of course he only saw the ruins, not the terror of the barrel bombs or chemical weapons,” said Ahmad of the day he left Darayya.

 A series of so-called evacuation deals have seen opposition fighters and civilians leave previously besieged areas for opposition-held Idlib. The deals have been criticized by some Syrians and the international community for constituting forced displacement, a war crime under international law.

 The Syria Justice & Accountability Center said in a statement about the Waer deal that, “although the sign-up for the “evacuation” was characterized as voluntary, pro-government forces coerced people to leave, and civilians feared retribution if they remained in their homes. International law clearly prohibits involuntary displacement as a strategy of war.”

 “The regime was always saying that the wanted to kill all of us in Darayya. The options I had were to remain and die of hunger or from barrels of TNT - or to leave my homeland. All the options are hard,” said Ahmad.

 Qappani said that people who stayed behind in Moadamiyeh have faced conscription and detention, despite the Syrian government committing to a deal that prohibited such arrests.

 Despite the denunciations, however, the deals continue, with the latest expected today. Populations of two towns besieged by opposition forces in Idlib are being allowed to leave in return for the lifting of the sieges on opposition-held Madaya and Zabadani.

 “I was shocked when I watched the news of other displacements - it was the same exact situation, and the same exact deal: leave or be destroyed,” Qappani said

 The Syrian-British author Leila al-Shami has previously written that she sees the deals as part of a strategy on the part of the Syrian government: “The regime is re-conquering territory through evacuating a civilian population it can never hope to rule through consent. Through such demographic engineering the Syrian regime is attempting to ensure a loyal constituency in the areas it deems useful.”

 The areas in Idlib where people are being displaced to are not safe either, however. “The situation in Idlib is not comfortable, ever,” said Ahmad. “There’s always bombing from the air, there’s no security. There’s harassment from extremist groups.”

 “Either people are living in camps, in terrible conditions, or they must find money to rent a house. That’s difficult, and if you can’t find money then you have to join a military group to get it,” Qappani said of the situation in Idlib. (He is now in Turkey.)

 Ahmad said that despite the fact he saw Idlib as a “big prison” he did not want to leave Syria. “I don’t want to live as a refugee. I just want the international community to help us live in security.”

 Qappani said that the deals were a loss for the opposition. “We lost because we were forced to leave, and we won’t be able to return unless the Assad regime falls.” '
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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Assad must go, but support for transition is essential

Assad must go, but support for transition is essential

 Anisa Abeytia:

 'Last week, Trump made good on his campaign promise to maintain an "element of surprise" as a battle tactic in Syria, and stunned the world by authorising an attack on the al-Shayrat airbase in northern Syria.

 Trump's Syria policy remained ambiguous in the run up to the strike. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's comments contradicted statements made by Nikki R. Haley, American envoy to the United Nations, who, on 6 April warned the UN Security Council of a potential unilateral US attack against Syria's Assad.

 President Trump's remarks following the airstrike made it clear the attack was punitive and limited. There was no indication there was a push to unseat Assad, or that the strike was part of a wider policy and military trajectory change.

 A few days later, Ambassador Haley asserted in an interview there can be no political solution while Assad remains in power. So for the time being, Washington's intentions in Syria remain nebulous to outsiders, perhaps intentionally as an extension of Trump's expressed surprise battle tactic.

 "It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," Trump said.

 This marks a critical break with Obama's Syria policy, that refused to recognise the threat posed by the use of chemical weapons by Assad.

 Linking Assad's violation of international law to US security interests, as well as making it a point of contention worthy of action is tantamount to George W. Bush's stance on Iraq in the run-up to war. Saddam Hussein was removed as president of Iraq on the mere suspicion of stock piling weapons of mass destruction, while Assad has openly used them for years with impunity.

 Trump's post-strike comments, and subsequent remarks by his administration seem to be a nod in the direction of establishment republicans who are hawkish on Syria.

 Tillerson's comments at the G7 summit reinforce this interpretation, "I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end."

 Trump further stated, "As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilise, threatening the Unites States and its allies."

 These are the critical links Obama failed to make and his inability to contain Assad's genocidal tirade in Syria created a refugee crisis that allowed IS to gain power and territory.

 Assad is a threat to the US and its allies, Trump has made this much clear. The question now is, will Washington continue to retaliate against Assad, and will Europe adopt a similar stance?

 The European Union finds itself in a tailspin, dissolving under the weight of a refugee crisis created by Assad, Iran and Russia. Western democracies are now facing a crisis created by their inability to see the danger posed by a lackadaisical response to the war in Syria, and to Assad's Iranian and Russian allies. It is in their interest to remove Assad.

 Washington however, should not act unilaterally in Syria, nor without congressional oversight. In turn, the international community has an important role to play and it is time they recognised this.

 The Trump administration should now seek to remove the Assad regime, to end the bloodletting and to defeat IS. But in doing so, Washington and the international community must be careful to take steps to maintain stability in the country, in order to ensure the transition to a new, democratic government in Syria.

 The international community and the US should equip vetted factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), strengthen the governance structures of the Syrian National Coalition, and lastly seek to implement and enforce a ceasefire.

 Those arguing against the removal of Assad claim it would create a power vacuum for IS to fill, and cause a chaotic environment in which extremism would flourish. Iraq and Afghanistan are often used as examples.

 However, the context surrounding the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan differs substantially from that of Syria's popular uprising. The US invasion of both these countries received very limited support among the Iraqi and Afghani people.

 In addition, the liberated regions of Syria already have local governing structures in place. As well as the stabilising effect offered by Syrian Local Governing Councils (LGCs), the FSA and local law enforcement are local entities that are not imposed on communities by foreign governments.

 The FSA, particularly in Deir Az-zour - the region bordering Iraq - were an effective counter weigh to IS until they were castrated by the lack of US and international backing, contributing to the growth of IS. The FSA can be relied on as allies in the fight against IS, but the US needs to view them as such.

 The recent successful FSA offensive in Hama against Assad forces, and the rapidity with which a well-supplied FSA was able to liberate large parts of northern Syria early in the conflict, demonstrates their competency as a fighting force.

 The Syrian people do not require boots on the ground. The FSA successfully carried out a military strategy that prevented the rise of IS and dealt substantial blows to regime forces. The Syrians are more than capable of fighting their own battle, but they require supplies and air cover.

 Along with a successful military strategy, the Syrian people require the cultivation of strong governance structures to prevent the potential quagmire of another failed state.

 Cultivating democratic governance requires decades of dedicated coalition-building, and cannot be expected to occur spontaneously.

 The Syrian National Coalition has not enjoyed support from the international community. As a result, their bargaining power at the negation table was weakened, and their legitimacy diminished. They will require support and the space to evolve and transition into a democratic Syrian state.

 Currently the Syrian National Coalition's stated goal is the establishment of an executive branch. Yet, democracy is inclusive of three branches of government and neglecting to cultivate a legislative and judicial branch to balance an executive office clears a path to future despotism.

 Establishing a parliamentary structure should be a priority, championing inclusiveness - despite its difficulty - as the hallmark of democracy.

 War criminals and those who provided material support must be held accountable for their crimes, for revenge killings will only prolong the violence and instability.

 South Africa faced a similar challenge after years of brutal apartheid. When I meet with Patrick Chamusso, South African freedom fighter, member of the African National Congress and subject of the film, Catch a Fire, I asked him, "If you could give any advice to the Syrian opposition, what would it be?"

 He replied, "Unity, purpose and perseverance." Chamusso explained that Syrians face a challenge similar to South Africans - the ability to remain united. "Without unity, you won't succeed," he said.

 The African National Congress was a diverse organisation whose members had roots on three continents and various faith traditions. They did not share a common culture or history. Their commitment to a shared purpose kept them united; their cause was their bond.

 All Syrians have an interest in the future success and rebuilding of their country, but this will require a bond that transcends political divisions.

 Establishing a cease fire is now a foundational requirement for initiating a transition to a new government, and would mark the international community's firm commitment to a process.

 Though a cease fire without the capability and will to enforce it, will be futile. An enforced cease fire would signal to the Syrian regime and its handlers the US coalition's commitment to the removal of Assad, and the coming of a transitional government. In addition the US coalition could be instrumental in delivering Assad and his supporters to The Hague for trial.

 The African National Congress did not succeed on its own. Many historians assert that it took a large and well organised boycott of South Africa by individuals, organisations and celebrities to finally inflict a fatal blow to the apartheid government.

 It was not only the actions of nation states, but the actions of people of conscience who used their purchasing power. However, it was ultimately the South African people who ended the apartheid system when they voted to end it on March 17, 1992.

 The Syrian people have learned to not rely on the support of the international community, and to respond to promises made by western governments with a healthy dose of skepticism.

 Washington's Syria policy remains undefined, but in the long term, it will be the Syrian people who must decide the trajectory of their country.'

Syria: World 'watched us die and did nothing', Madaya doctor says ahead of evacuation

Mohammad Darwish stands next to a fence.

 'When the Syrian revolution began, Mohammad Darwish was a young dentistry student in Damascus.

 For the past two years, the 26-year-old has been one of just two "doctors" treating about 40,000 residents in his hometown of Madaya — where children were famously starved to death as a tactic of war.

 Dr Darwish and hundreds of other residents are due to evacuate the besieged town after months of negotiations.

 "No matter what words I use, I still can't tell you enough about what we endured in this town," Dr Darwish said.

 A mountainous village about 40 kilometres from Damascus and close to the Lebanese border, the rebel-held town of Madaya has been cut off from the world since June 2015.

 Surrounded by Syrian Government forces and their allies, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, the town's residents have had little chance to escape and no way of bringing food in.

 "It's a very tight siege, the town is completely sealed. Checkpoints were closed. No-one was allowed in or out — no civilians, no-one," Dr Darwish explained.

 "During the days of the starvation, almost no people were walking on the streets, people had no energy to walk or to stand up.

 Dr Darwish was part of the town's medical team that sent photos and videos of emaciated, starving children to ABC News in a desperate attempt to inform the world of their plight.

 "Shelling, shooting can hit or target some people, but starvation … it targeted all the residents of the town," he said.

 After global outcry over the images, the Syrian Government was forced to allow a UN food aid delivery to the town, but not before 28 residents, including six babies, starved to death.

 "The UN Security Council and the other UN bodies are only names and slogans, they are not effective on the ground," he said.

 "Remember it was only after the regime and its militants were forced to give the OK did they supply aid, food for people who were dying from starvation."

 For Dr Darwish, the hardest part in the past year was knowing the world was aware of their plight — but nothing changed.

 Despite intermittent aid deliveries, residents continued to starve to death and to die from preventable conditions he and his team did not have the facilities to treat.

 "Because of the lack of food, 81 people died," Dr Darwish said.

 "And that doesn't include the people who tried to break the siege and went to leave the town to look for food and they died because of landmines or snipers."

 He's bitterly disappointed in the international community and the United Nations.

 "It's shameful, they let us down," he said. "Specifically us the people of Madaya and the Syrian people in general.

 Shelling and sniper attacks on the town in recent months have created near daily casualties for the exhausted and under-resourced medical team in Madaya.

 "We as doctors, we also starved," Dr Darwish said. "During the shooting and shelling, we had hard casualties to treat.

 "We had internal injuries, nerve system injuries, so we had to try out best to operate on these patients, because we couldn't refer then outside.

 After months of trying to secure an evacuation deal, Dr Darwish and hundreds of other civilians, as well as opposition fighters and their families, are due to leave Madaya.

 The Syrian Government has struck numerous local deals with besieged rebels under which they leave for insurgent-held parts of northern Syria that border Turkey.

 The opposition calls it a deliberate policy of demographic change to forcibly displace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's opponents away from the main cities of western Syria.

 Residents of two pro-Government Shi'ite towns, al-Foua and Kefraya — which have been besieged by opposition fighters — are also due to be evacuated.

 Despite the horror Dr Darwish has experienced, he said he was heartbroken to leave Madaya.

 "I'm leaving my homeland, my childhood place, where I grew up," he said.

 Dr Darwish said he would never forget what he and others went through in the town.

 "I will remember them one by one, forever and ever, the people who suffered with me at the same time," he said.

 "Those who lived with me during the hunger, during the shelling and the suffering, who helped the patients with me, these are the people who I'm going to miss most."

 Dr Darwish cannot believe six years after daring to dream of a free Syria, this is where he is today.

 "I'm leaving with nothing on me, without any achievements of the goal we've aimed for from the beginning," he said.

 It has been nearly two years since Dr Darwish has eaten meat and fresh vegetables, but he said it was not food he is allowing himself to dream of.

 Escaping safely is his only concern, he said.

 "I lived on oats and rice," Dr Darwish said. "We had days where we had nothing to eat, only water and weeds or leaves or water with spices. This is how we survived and stayed alive." '

Starving boy in Madaya, Syria

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Assad Used Nerve Gas Because He’s Desperate. Expect Worse to Come.

 Roy Gutman:

'Not long after U.S. cruise missiles tore into the Syrian air base that apparently served as the launch point for a chemical-weapons attack, the Syrian army’s chief of staff arrived to inspect the damage and commend the pilots.

 They were the same pilots who flew their warplanes to the town of Khan Sheikhoun, where more than 100 civilians died.

 Embracing the base pilots, presumably including those responsible for the chemical attack, Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayyoub praised the “high morale and fighting spirit” of the officers and soldiers at the Sharyat base. They in turn pledged to continue “rooting out terrorism wherever it exists in the homeland,” the official SANA news agency reported in a video.

 In actual fact, Syrian forces probably carried out the gas attack out of desperation, according to U.S. military officials and Syrian rebel officials. And morale among regime forces may have hit a new low.

 Since the attack, the Syrian air force has moved warplanes from several bases to the Russian-controlled Hmeimim base near Latakia, and Russia has taking over most air operations in central and northern Syria, according to rebel plane-spotters who monitor regime and Russian air movements.

 These sorties included at least seven assaults against civilian targets on Friday alone, and as many again on Saturday. In a Russian air attack Saturday on Urom al-Joz, a small town in Idlib province, 20 civilians were killed. Khan Sheikhoun was targeted as well both days.

 Regime forces have been plagued by desertions at every level since 2012, but ever since Russia’s air intervention began in September 2015, the government has managed to recapture rebel-held territory. It achieved its biggest victory in December, when forces led by Assad’s Iranian and Hezbollah allies expelled rebel troops and much of the population from east Aleppo.

 But morale plummeted again a few weeks ago when U.S.-backed rebel forces, supported by Islamists the U.S. view as terrorists, scored rapid advances in Hama province. U.S. officials and rebel spokesmen say the dramatic advances are probably what prompted the Syrian military’s turn to chemical weapons.

 “The Syrian regime has been under intense pressure,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters in Washington on Friday. He said rebels in an advance last month threatened to capture the Hama airfield, a key base for helicopters and a suspected barrel bomb manufacturing facility.

 Barrel bombs, consisting of shrapnel and metal scraps packed into a barrel with explosives, are dropped routinely from helicopters over residential areas in rebel-controlled zones throughout Syria.

 Losing the Hama base was a “significant risk” to the regime and U.S. analysts judged that the use of chemical weapons was “linked to a battlefield desperation decision to stop the opposition from seizing those key regime elements.” The official could not be named under the rules of the briefing.

 A Syrian rebel spokesman spoke of enormous government losses on the ground since the offensive began March 21. Hours after the battle began, the U.S.-supported force captured more than 20 towns and villages, as well as 50 military outposts in the Hama countryside, said Lt. Mahmoud Mahmoud, spokesman for the Izza Army, a moderate rebel group, in a WhatsApp conversation. Regime forces “withdrew without showing any resistance,” he said, and rebels advanced to within a few miles of the military airport, which is about 50 miles northwest of Shayrat.

 The surprise attack threw regime forces off-balance, and at one point regime warplanes were bombing regime positions, Mahmoud said. He claimed the regime lost more than 700 fighters. He said rebels have documented the capture or destruction of 40 regime tanks and armored personnel carriers, the destruction of 13 tanks and a great many artillery pieces.

 Mahmoud said Syrian conscripts fighting for the Assad regime appeared exhausted, and commanders judged that government-sponsored Syrian militias do not have the will to fight. The only force that moderate rebels have to reckon with is the Lebanese Hezbollah and other militias Iran has shipped into Syria from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.

 The U.S. had cut support to the rebel fighters late last year when the latest cease-fire went into effect, but Mahmoud said rebels began receiving TOW anti-tank missiles and other small weapons after they regrouped and established a new joint operations center in Hama province.

 Within days of the setback in Hama, Syrian regime forces began using chemical weapons.

 On March 25, a date also confirmed by the senior Pentagon official, a regime helicopter dropped a barrel bomb full of chlorine gas on a medical center in the town of Lataminah, north of Hama, killing two people, injuring 30 and putting the medical facility out of service. The next day a second barrel bomb containing chlorine was dropped on an Izza Army position in the same town, and at least 20 fighters reported difficulty breathing.

 On March 30, additional barrel bombs containing chlorine were dropped on Lataminah and a nearby village, causing vomiting, dizziness, and breathing difficulties. Then on April 3, a barrel bomb was dropped on the town of Habit, south of Khan Sheikhoun, causing at least 20 people to experience difficulty breathing.

 The munitions had the intended impact. “With these weapons in use, we thought it a big mistake to hold the ground, especially because so many of our fighters were affected by the gasses,” Mahmoud said. “We were forced to withdraw to rear locations.” He said the regime’s gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun was clearly “revenge against civilians” for the rebel advances.

 “The regime was simply trying to press the rebels to stop their military advance in north Hama,” he said. “They think the rebels’ morale will be destroyed by the attack on Khan Sheikhoun and other places. But we have simply become more determined and we will continue our battles,” he said.'