Thursday, 22 February 2018

It’s not easy to get rid of Ghouta’s revolutionaries

 'The words “de-escalation zone” appear not to mean quite the same thing in Russian as they do in English.

 That, at least, is a conclusion one might draw looking at the present scene in Syria’s East Ghouta, where the Russian air force has assisted its Syrian client regime in an enormous escalation of what was already an extremely high level of violence in the district on the eastern fringe of Damascus that has been under choking siege for five years, and was also the site of the infamous August 2013 Sarin gas attack that killed over 1,000 in a single morning.

 The numbers speak for themselves: more than 250 people were killed by Syrian and Russian air bombardment, and over 1,000 wounded, on Monday and Tuesday alone, according to the Associated Press. At least four field hospitals have been rendered inoperative by apparently deliberate targeting, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, a relief organization with medical staff currently on the ground in Ghouta.

 The same goes for the sole bakery serving the estimated 350,000-400,000 starving residents of the besieged suburbs, per reports from local citizen journalists. Video footage released by the Syrian Civil Defense volunteer aid force, also known as the White Helmets, shows apocalyptic scenes of fireballs erupting on razed, dust-darkened streets as rescuers scour rubble for survivors; an instance of what they called a “double tap” air strike.

 All this in an area Moscow pledged last September, in an agreement reached with Turkey and Iran, to keep peaceful and bloodless.

 That was back then. The new plan, in the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is to repeat the “experience of freeing Aleppo” in Ghouta, a reference to what was in fact the massive, indiscriminate air and ground campaign in late 2016 that ended with the expulsion of opposition fighters, along with thousands of civilians, from Aleppo to Idlib Province.

 The last time the Aleppo “experience” happened, an official UN inquiry found it to have constituted a “war crime.” This time around, UNICEF could only issue a blank statement, explaining, “We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.”

 There is no doubt that, “on the humanitarian level, the situation is catastrophic,” said Orwa Khalife, a Syrian journalist and analyst who has previously lived in Ghouta. “By hitting all of Ghouta’s infrastructure and vital points, such as hospitals, medical centers, and Civil Defense positions,” the regime and the Russians have “suspended the most basic and essential services” for civilians.

 What is less certain is why this flare-up is happening now specifically, and what its ultimate outcome will be. According to Khalife, who writes regularly on military developments in Ghouta in the Arabic press, there have been a number of recent gains made by rebel fighters in the area that likely prompted the regime and its Russian patron to take decisive action to remove the mounting threat on the perimeter of the capital.

 “The recent battle for the Vehicle Management Base [a strategic military vehicles base held by the regime] in Harasta put the regime in a tight spot, for it lost one of its most important military positions close to Damascus,” said Khalife.

 “This loss was indicative of a general weakness in the regime army’s military striking force, and threatened it with the loss of further vital areas, which drove it to … focus on Ghouta, and try to tie it up militarily [and] impose an agreement on the opposition factions there.”

 That hypothetical agreement, assuming it were modeled on the Aleppo example, as Lavrov suggests, would potentially involve “the removal of the opposition factions, or at least the surrendering of their heavy weapons,” and perhaps their displacement to Idlib or Daraa Provinces, Khalife added.

 Of course, whether the leaderships of the opposition factions in Ghouta would agree to such a proposal is another matter. The symbolism of a total opposition defeat in Ghouta; one of the first regions to rise up against the regime in 2011, and the last stronghold of the rebellion in the capital’s vicinity; would be immense. Moreover, the numbers involved—of both fighters and civilians—are of an altogether higher magnitude than was the case in Aleppo.

 “To forcibly displace Ghouta would be tantamount to ending the revolution,” said Baraa Abd al-Rahman, a Syrian journalist currently present in Ghouta.

 “And it’s not easy to get rid of Ghouta’s revolutionaries, as we saw in recent months, when there was a campaign by the regime to take over Jobar, in Damascus, that lasted six months without success for the regime.

 “So, no, I think applying the Aleppo scenario in Ghouta is impossible.”

 For his part, Khalife thinks it is theoretically conceivable, “in the event that international pressure doesn’t lead to a suspension of the military campaign,” but it would still be considerably more complicated than the Aleppo precedent.

 “There are essential differences [with Aleppo]. In Ghouta, the number of opposition fighters is greater, and the fighting fronts have been clear and continuous for years, which has allowed the development of wider military defense mechanisms” on the opposition’s part.

 “Moreover, Ghouta contains between 350 and 400 thousand civilians, a large proportion of whom are wanted by the regime.” Such numbers of people can’t simply be swept off in buses, as was the case with East Aleppo’s residents.

 “So the regime and Russia are left with limited options.”

 Limited options, perhaps. But, in the meantime, apparently unlimited freedom to act as they please.'

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

#ThemToo: Syrian Women Tell Stories of Rape in Regime Prisons

 'In December 2017, a French documentary broadcast by TV channel France 2 featured a group of women who had survived rape and torture in the secret prisons of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. In the 72-minute film titled “Syrie, le cri étouffé” (Syria, the Muffled Cry), the survivors, who are now refugees in Turkey, Jordan and throughout Europe, speak about their arrest and subsequent detention, describing how the Assad regime used rape to settle scores with opponents and subjugate communities opposed to its rule.

 The documentary emerged at a global watershed moment which set off an avalanche of daring revelations by victims of sexual abuse who took to social media using the hashtag #MeToo. The campaign was sparked by the scandal of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein who used his leverage to sexually blackmail a long list of Hollywood stars. The trend soon spread like wildfire, with increasing numbers of victims speaking up, knocking celebrities and politicians worldwide off their pedestals.

 In a bold move rarely precedented, two women opted to speak about their harrowing experiences with full names and uncovered faces. In a patriarchal Syrian society rife with blaming victims of sexual violence, discussing the issue is an entrenched taboo. Blowing the lid off horrendous stories taking place in a dark underworld of torture and rape dubbed a ”torture archipelago” in a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, the documentary shattered the longtime silence that has haunted victims and kept the issue largely underreported.

 According to UN estimates, tens of thousands of people are detained by the Syrian security forces.

 "It was night..I was sitting at the bedside pondering what will happen next…the door opens..three enormous men entered. I heard one ask another: ”Who is to start first?” My blood ran cold. What does that mean?"

 The voice of one of the women featured in the documentary shakes as she remembers the dreadful moments leading up to her rape at one of Syria's notorious detention centers. Arrested at a military checkpoint in the southern city of Daraa for taking part in peaceful protests and medical efforts after a military crackdown, the woman says she was accused of “carrying weapons to terrorists,” a common charge leveled at Assad opponents.

 She describes how she was first made to watch another woman she identifies as Alwa being raped as a warning that should she withhold any information, the same fate will befall her.

 "Alwa's hands and legs were pinned down by three men, a fourth on top raping her. She was screaming. What an awful sight! Alwa was unmarried. The wedding dress, party, trills of joy, decoration…Everything she was robbed of came to my mind at that moment."

 Speaking in the dark and her face invisible, the woman's voice and movement of hands betray overwhelming emotion and visible agitation as she revisits these bitter memories.

 Her own rape took place at the notorious 215 security branch in Kafr Sousa, Damascus. She says:

 'Three monsters entered the room. The first started to unzip my jacket. He set off to forcefully remove my clothes. I was in denial as to what was happening. I was screaming…in so much pain…I felt my soul leaving my body. My whole world came tumbling down. I was stark naked when I woke up…the sheets were stained. I could not remember what happened…'

 On one occasion, five men took turns raping her.

 "With the fourth, I began to feel excruciating pain like I was in labor. I heard one tell another. ‘Go on, it's OK!’ I felt something unusual was happening. When I looked down, I saw a pool of blood underneath me. I tried to rise to my feet but I couldn't, at which point I lost consciousness.

When I woke up, I found myself in a hospital. A doctor told me that I suffered a stroke and lost a lot of blood. The nurse later told me that the doctor made them believe I was dead so that I can escape."

 Another rape survivor was Mariam Khleif from Hama, a university student, an employee as well as a mother of four. During the regime's crackdown on protests in her hometown, she engaged in rescue operations amid the staggering death toll and injuries, treating the wounded at a field hospital nearby. Mariam was arrested when security forces raided her house shortly after she secretly dropped by to visit her family whom she had not seen in four months. Speaking with her face uncovered, Mariam reflects on the day she was arrested:

 "They barged into the house, smashed the door and dragged me on to the street. Men stood watching with their faces cast down, unable to lift a finger."

 She was put in an armored vehicle in which five other women were rounded up, among them a 55-year old called Um Mustafa who was beaten and kicked all the way to the prison.

 Mariam describes the unspeakable physical torture she underwent that caused severe damage to her kidney.

 "I was hanged from the ceiling…My hands tied to the wall…severely beaten in an unimaginably brutal way."

 The beating happened as a song extolling Bashar al-Assad was being played all the time. As she describes the torture, her voice trails off and she bursts into tears:

 "I thought that was all and they were done with torture. How naïve I was! Everything that happened up to that moment was nothing compared to what was to come…

 When the night falls, they would pick beautiful detainees, take them to someone called Lt. Colonel Sulaiman from Tartous. His room had a door leading to another room, equipped with two beds and a table on which all kinds of alcohol were arrayed. He even invited friends to watch the rapings, one of them was a usual visitor called Colonel Jihad, who took part in raping women.

I watched them rape my friend. Another woman was seven months pregnant when they raped her. She had a miscarriage due to brutal rape and the kicks to her belly. I saw it with my own eyes. I was screaming hysterically. No one ever heard…

They would pour Arak [alcoholic spirit] on the bodies of women…"

 Mariam herself was gang-raped by four men, among them Colonel Jihad. She describes the daily torture routine for women in the prison as a cycle of beatings during the day and rapes at night.

 A female officer from Deraa who served for eight years in the Assad military before her defection says rape, in the beginning, happened only in detention centers. Speaking with her back to the camera, she says that later on, rape became more systematic: women were raped at checkpoints, in the streets, inside their houses before their husbands.

 "The regime used rape to humiliate the Syrian man. Women were detained to blackmail Syrian men. When a man is engaged in the revolution, his female relatives were detained as a blackmail tactic."

 Acting upon the orders of military commanders, female relatives of anti-Assad fighters were raped during raids. Rapes were filmed and the videos sent to the fighters to “crush the men's spirits,” she says.

 A recently released woman confirmed a sharp increase in the numbers of detained women lately, especially from rebel-held areas, attributing it to the regime's intention to use them as bargaining chips in prisoner swaps with the opposition.

 The raped women's tragedy does not end with their release. In another twist of the knife, the social stigma attached to rape and sexual abuse make their lives nearly impossible.

 While men who survive detention are mostly feted as heroes, women receive little or no sympathy, often blamed for bringing dishonor to their families.

 According to one of the women interviewed in the film:

 "In a conservative Syrian society, like all Muslim societies, rape shakes basic Islamic values. It desecrates a sacrosanct thing that is a woman's body. It is hard for a Muslim society to reconcile itself to such thing, that's why utmost secrecy is enforced. When the raped woman is a mother, the life of the entire family is upended."

 For another woman, death would have been easier than rape:

 "My self-image was tarnished because of a bunch of monsters. Rape is much worse than death. Many of the raped women were disowned by their families, stigmatized by society. People tell us that we should not have allowed it to happen. How is that possible? It happened against our will."

 This culture of intolerance plays into the hands of the regime which uses rape to inflict as much infamy and dishonor as possible.

 Fawziah Hussein al-Khalaf, who survived al-Houla massacre in Homs, also speaks with an uncovered face. Shabiha militia invaded her house. Her pleas for them to rape her but spare her daughters went unheeded. She was raped along with her daughters before the Shabiha militia members slit their throats one after another. Only Fawziah and her daughter Rasha survived the massacre. Engulfed with shame, they never mingled with people thereafter. They avoided gatherings and never took buses.

 A former prisoner in a secret prison called “Afaq” who was released in a prisoner swap between the regime and opposition factions said she counted five suicides by raped female detainees in the course of two months.

 “Raped women are caught between the anvil of the regime and the hammer of society,” says the woman from Deraa.

 Like many of the other women, Mariam became a refugee to escape the stigma and start a new life. As she describes how much she misses Syria, tears roll down her cheeks. She says that Alwa had a much worse fate. Her ambiguous death led many to assume she was killed by her father.

 "I am now divorced with four children. I am a stranger here…I am nothing…a soulless body."

 The documentary caused a stir on social media, with many sharing the video. Some changed their profile picture to the photos of the women who appeared in the documentary. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po at the Paris School of International Affairs, wrote an article urging the French President Emanuel Macron to revoke France's Legion of Honor (France's highest civilian distinction) from the Syrian dictator as he did with Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, reminding the French president of earlier statements demanding Assad's ouster and trial for war crimes.

 Syrian, Lebanese and French activists launched a campaign on social media led by the French philosopher Frederic Lonoir, signing a petition addressed to the French President, calling on him to intervene for the release of the Syrian female detainees.

 However, many saw nothing but a very slim hope of a concrete action despite the furor sparked by the documentary.

 Anwar al-Bunni, Head of the Syrian Center for Studies and Legal Research voiced pessimism over efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.

 "The Syrian people now realize that pleas for the world to stop these violations are futile."

 Speaking to Arabi 21, al-Bunni said the Syrian regime is blocking progress on this file which it considers a lifeline.

 "The regime is using this file as a weapon. It is impossible to make progress as long as Assad remains in power."

 Russia and China have repeatedly used vetos to block UN resolutions against the Syrian regime, shielding their ally from sanctions over war crimes and crimes against humanity.

 The French president has shown a softening attitude towards the fate of Assad. Rounds of peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition have failed to achieve a breakthrough in the file of detainees.

 Jaundiced by a history of inaction, this pessimism was echoed by the women in the documentary. For Mariam:

 "I am convinced that people will see the documentary, look the other way and carry on with their lives as normal. For over five years, we have been calling on the West to push for the release of Syrian women. Nothing has happened. This is a call for the women of the West…Do something to help Syrian women…" '

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Surviving as a child in the longest military siege in modern history

 Muhammad Najem:

 'I am from eastern Ghouta in the Damascus countryside, I am 15-years-old I live here with my mother and siblings. I am in eighth grade but I stopped studying three months ago because of the constant bombardment of the place in which I live. My school was bombed by warplanes more than once but after each raid, we would return and try to complete our studies. But my school was bombed until it was completely destroyed and I no longer have a classroom within which to study or a playground to play in. The other schools in Eastern Ghouta have also been targeted and destroyed. I want to tell the world what is happening to us today and convey my suffering, which I live through every day because of the bombings and the siege. I want to tell the truth and to tell people what is happening to us. We are besieged, we are hungry, we are under constant bombardment, we are exhausted from the displacement and the killing.

 This war is not ending, but we are forced to grow up in these conditions and no one has done anything to protect and support the vulnerable here. Conferences and meetings and false peace talks fail while the Arabs and the rest of the world are still silent. In this war we have already lost everything, and we are still losing more, every single day, every single one of us has lost something precious. Losing my home and my father I lost my house, which my father built with with hard work and the sweat from his forehead. Then my father was killed two years ago after a shell landed on the mosque where he was praying. Many of the children here have lost their fathers or their mothers, many of us have lost siblings and many of us have lost our homes. We have been dismembered, we have lost parts of our bodies, our hands, our feet and our eyes. The world will not be able to compensate us for anything that we lost. We have lost sight of the sky and the sun because of the war planes that fly over us day and night in order to bomb civilians.

 The siege surrounds us. The specter of death and starvation hovers over us. Last week the regime began to escalate its violent campaign against us. Planes indiscriminately drop bombs of hatred and destruction on us. On Thursday, warplanes mounted yet more raids on residential buildings. Everyone went down to the cellars and we could hear the roar of the jets above us as we held each other’s hands.

 I was walking in the street with some of my friends, including my friend Salim who lives next door to us when we heard the sound of jets approaching. We fled to the cellar, but Salim ran to his home to hide with his family and uncle. He did not know that at that moment six missiles were on their way to his house. Smoke and black dust filled the cellar, choking us and filling the cellar with darkness. Children cried and the women screamed as they tried to check on their terrified children. When the dust settled, we saw that Salim’s house was completely destroyed and the Civil Defense teams were attempting to rescue the people, including Salim and his family, trapped under the rubble. After hours of searching through the rubble, I found out that Salim had miraculously survived. But his younger sister had died, his mother suffered life-changing injuries and his younger brother is still missing. Salim’s little cousins Mohammed, Majid and Raghad were also killed in the air strike. I find it hard to believe the life we are witnessing here in Ghouta. Today I am reassured at least because Salim has left the hospital, he is unable to move because of his injury. We do not know what tomorrow will bring.'

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Kurdish fighters join Turkey's Afrin operation

Image result for Kurdish fighters join Turkey's Afrin operation

 'The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Turkish forces have made remarkable advances against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin. According to the Turkish command, Operation Olive Branch has managed to take control of seven villages and strategic locations in the Afrin countryside, including the main road connecting Rajo and Shaykh al-Hadid.

 Several Kurdish factions affiliated with the FSA are participating in Olive Branch, launched Jan. 20, 2018, to fight the YPG — the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) controlling Afrin in the northwest of Aleppo.

 Kurdish fighters in the FSA had participated in Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield to expel the Islamic State from north Aleppo between August 2016 and March 2017. But their inclusion in Olive Branch could be more about the demographic composition of the region, which is mostly Kurdish. The Kurdish-speaking fighters no doubt make it easier to work with the local population and belie YPG allegations that the battle has ethnic motivations.

 Media activist Massoud Ibo (also known as Abu Majd Koumala) said, “Several Kurdish factions affiliated with the FSA are fighting in Operation Olive Branch — Mashaal Tammo Brigade, the Kurdish Front, Saladin Brigade and hundreds of Kurdish fighters in other factions like Faylaq al-Sham, Sultan Murad Brigade, the Levant Front and Ahrar al-Sham. These factions include Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens with a common goal in the operation.”

 Kurdish militants affiliated with the FSA said in a video posted a few days after the onset of the operation: “We, Afrin citizens, are participating in Operation Olive Branch against the PYD and the YPG to spare our people in Afrin injustice. This operation is dedicated to the citizens who migrated to Europe and the West to escape the tyranny of the PYD, and it is for the sake of our friends in jail, and for peace and freedom. Do not believe that we are abusing civilians or destroying their houses. We are here for your freedom and protection from injustice. We want to return to our land, liberate it and topple [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad’s regime. Freedom is ours and our people’s.” The video shows six men wearing military clothes and holding weapons, with the flag of the Syrian revolution fluttering in the background.

 Ahmed Othman, head of the Sultan Murad Division, said, “The YPG are lying to Kurds in Afrin and are telling them the battle is targeting them because of their ethnicity. The truth is that the FSA participating alongside the Turkish forces in Operation Olive Branch includes militants from different ethnicities like Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. There are many Kurdish fighters in the ranks of the FSA, including brigade leaders and military fighters working on different battlefronts. We cannot say this battle is Kurdish-Kurdish or Arab-Turkish-Kurdish. Syrian Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen fighters are partaking to target an organization the FSA considers terrorist.”

 Kurdish fighters affiliated with the FSA promise to liberate Afrin from the YPG and assert that the organization does not represent Kurds. They believe that the YPG does not have Kurds’ best interest at heart and that it is a tyrannical organization that arrests its opponents, confiscates property and forcibly mobilizes youths and the elderly and makes them carry arms to fight in its ranks.

  Azad Shaabo, leader of Azadi Battalion, affiliated with the FSA’s Elite Army, said, “Azadi Battalion includes around 100 Kurdish fighters affiliated with the FSA, and they are participating in Operation Olive Branch to liberate Afrin from the YPG. Afrin will return to the arms of the Syrian revolution and will win back the rights of its people. The YPG is no different from Assad’s regime. They have both practiced tyranny and murder against Kurds. Operation Olive Branch will liberate Afrin’s inhabitants.”

 Abu Maryam al-Hasakawi, field leader of the Martyr Mashaal Tammo Brigade, said, “The villagers of liberated areas in Afrin were relieved by the presence of Kurdish fighters in the ranks of the FSA. They welcomed us because we told them we came only to fight the YPG. We will protect their lives and properties, and we will not meddle in their affairs. We told them they are our people and that we are here to liberate them from the YPG’s tyranny.”

 Mohammed Hawash, leader of Saladin Brigade, said, “There are 1,000 Kurdish fighters in the ranks of the FSA participating in the operation. We intend to increase this number during the second stage of the battle.”

 He went on, “The YPG is a terrorist organization that killed Kurds and left them homeless. It forbade them from joining the Syrian revolution and bred tyrannical regimes. … The YPG does not represent Kurds in Syria, and the operation in Afrin paves the way for the liberation of the remaining Syrian lands from any form of terrorism. The FSA includes different ethnicities, and they all want a united and free Syria.” '

Friday, 16 February 2018

DEALING WITH THE DEVIL: Assad’s ISIS entanglement


 'On February 9th a large number of Islamic State (IS) fighters surprisingly appeared south of Abu al-Douhur airbase in Idlib province in the contact zone between the government army and the Al Qaeda linked jihadist group of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Salafi jihadists strode in a blitz maneuver, seizing several settlements along the vital parallel road, linking Hama with Abu al Dahur via Qasr ibn Wardan – an ancient Byzantine fortress, which has stood a silent witness to the rising tension between the pro-Government forces and the rebel-Islamist opposition.

 IS’ 9th February attack happened on the exact same spot where a few days before, the rebel-Islamist forces of HTS and FSA have been conducting a successful local offensive against the positions of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). In less than 24 hours the IS jihadists managed to push HTS from a few settlements. It was a day later and at the cost of many casualties by the defending forces when the offensive was stopped in the vicinity of Umm al-Khalakhil. The village itself is a mini-crossroad center with important local value. Control over it would allow IS to establish a solid presence in the border area between the provinces of Idlib and Hama.

 Eventually, after four days of almost nonstop violent clashes, the HTS and FSA detachments prevailed, forcing 300-400 militants to surrender along with their families. Thus, the territorial gains of IS in Central Syria were permanently eradicated for the first time since 2015.

 However, it is curious how the Islamic State was able to reach Umm al-Khalakhil. Its offensive occurred on the same day when the government army and its allies finally asserted full control over the former IS territory in the area between the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama (e.g. the pocket established in November 2017 – ed. note) in direct proximity to Umm al-Khalakil. Between 1st and 9th of February the IS forces retreated from some 1000 km2 of territory and about 80 settlements, leaving them to the SAA without putting up any resistance.

 The natural assumption is that some kind of a deal for joint action against HTS and the FSA must have been brokered between the government army and the Islamic State. Reaching Um al-Khalakhil could have happened only by passage via heavily guarded areas, controlled by the Syrian army and its allied militias. What is even more interesting is that this scenario repeats for the fifth time within a year.

 In the summer of 2017 the regime forces were in the midst of a large-scale offensive against Islamic State. In the spring, Damascus’ offense against Palmyra finally achieved its goal, after Russian mercenaries and paramilitary groups spearheaded the advance east of the Tayfur (T4) military airfield.

 The fall of Palmyra left a considerable IS contingent trapped between the advancing government forces around the Jabal Abu Rujmayn mountain in central Syria – a region rich of oil and gas fields. Intense fighting to destroy the jihadist pocket dragged on throughout the summer. It is at that point where Damascus struck its first deal with the Devil. Parallel to the offensive against IS in central Syria, the government was carrying out a mopping up operation along the Lebanese border.

 After bringing down most of IS and Nusra’s (now HTS – ed. note) positions, the Assad administration decided to allow 150-200 ISIS fighters and their families to depart eastward toward Deir ez-Zor province, then still largely held by the jihadists. Along the way, in the vicinity of Furqlus and Ayfir, many of those people shifted north and joined the ISIS pocket around Uqayribat.

 In mid-August, while the 5th Corps and the elite pro-government militia known as the “Tiger” forces were advancing towards Euphrates river and Deir ez-Zor, the government army was also conducting successful assault against IS westward – in the border area between Hama and Homs governorates.

 Supported by the Russian air force, the Qalamoun Shield Forces, the Palestinian brigade of Liwa al-Quds and some local tribal factions, the Syrian Arab Army managed to surround completely all militants in the remote desert area east from Salamya and south from the Homs – Raqqa main road. In the next few weeks the government army advanced, shrinking the jihadist pocket. The IS combatants fought fiercely, but only until they lost the key town of Uqayribat.

 It may have been at that time when the second deal between the surrounded units of IS and the government army took place. The reason to believe in such a deal is because from then on, the jihadists were retreating almost without resistance from all settlements under their control in Central Syria. In the end of September, the Uqayribat pocket was officially proclaimed eradicated.

 Unofficially, government sources spoke of continuing ISIS presence just south of the Ithriya-Hama highway, in an area, that was supposed to be carefully watched by the SAA, since the highway was, at the time, the only major supply line for the Government forces in the Aleppo province.

 On October 6th the high command of the SAA announced that the operation in Homs has been completed with full success. Some 1800 km2 were freed from the presence of the Islamic State, and the pro-government media outlets exulted over the major achievement.

 However, only two days later the IS forces, that should have been destroyed or captured, actually emerged again. This new advance took place only 50 km north of Uqayribat and close to Al Saan, or otherwise said – the frontline between the regime army and the joint forces of Hayat Tahrair al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army. This was the first case in which ISIS forces freely moved through government-held area, even crossing the Ithriya-Hama highway. In a swift advance, the IS captured dozen villages from the unexpecting Islamist and rebel forces around Abu Ghar and Rahjan.

 This prompted the intervention of HTS, who brought in fresh forces and occupied the entire area, using the fight against ISIS as an excuse to oust other opposition groups. The HTS-IS struggle would continue for a month around Abu Lafah, until on the 8thNovember 2017, HTS proclaimed victory, after the ISIS fighters were reportedly beaten back into government held areas.

 Their success was short-lived though, since a day after, the SAA and its allies began their own offensive on the exact same spot, where previous IS positions stood.

 At the end of November, the Syrian army launched a new offensive northward towards the strategic Abu al-Duhur airfield in Idlib province. Abu Lafah was one of the first settlements to be targeted and captured. And while the regime army was progressing with minimal success, the IS forces again appeared mysteriously at the right moment. This time they pushed HTS out from Suruj on the main road between Aleppo and Hama, 30 km. west from Abu Lafah.

 The presence of IS in this area forced HTS to engage a large number of combatants and resources as well. A fact that granted opportunity of the SAA to unfold its offensive. The arrival of new reinforcements from the “Tiger” forces, which took the initiative, gave a further impetus to the progress towards Abu al-Duhur.

 Even if they didn’t act in a coordinated way (at least in appearance) IS and the SAA attacked HTS without any serious clashes between them. The only significant exception was a surprise attack of IS units in a attempt to break through the government defensive lines around the town of Sinjar. Eventually, the SAA captured Abu al-Duhur and the Islamic State forces once again occupied territory at the expense of HTS and the rebel-islamist opposition, leaving itself surrounded by the regime army in a pocket. This situation continued until February 9th when the same pocket disappeared only to pop up again in convenient place for the Syrian army – once more against HTS and far enough (but not too far) from the Turkish observation posts, that have been established recently in Idlib.

 The interesting issue here is, that no matter how obvious it was that the IS units constantly passed unchecked through government held territory, somehow the issue still went under the mainstream media radar. While in 2017 all sorts of media were reporting on the Kurdish deals with Islamic State in the last days of the battles for Raqqa and Tabqa[1], now it seems no one notices the curious cooperation between the Syrian army and IS. On the contrary, it has been concealed and renounced.

 Pro-government media even reported that the IS militants had made their way out of the pocket by force, though no actual footage of any fighting has been presented.[2]In addition, pro-government media fail to mention how this has been the third consecutive time, in which pro-Assad offensives go hand in hand with ISIS advances.

 In this particular situation, the SAA might have had the opportunity to achieve two main objectives. The first one of course is to let some of the regime enemies fight each other, and for Islamic State to weaken the positions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army. The second goal was that after IS conquers some territory, the SAA could legitimately take it without breaking their tacit agreement with Turkey not to advance into the Idlib deescalation zone.

 Of course, these objectives were not reached. The Syrian command would hardly have expected such quick collapse and surrender of the IS combatants given their successful operations against HTS so far. Here, no credit can be given to the military intelligence which most probably has been misled for the real strength of the IS units. Looking at the issue from another perspective, the en mass surrender of IS fighters much resembles a few similar cases, which took part in Iraq and served as a tool to distract the groups enemies from far more important processes, taking place elsewhere.

 Only time will tell whether the fifth deal between Damascus and IS was a failure or something else completely. It is essential to remember that the ISIS surrender near Maarat al Numan came at the same time when Israel struck the joint Syria-Iran facilities and when Turkey proclaimed its intention to extend its military cordon in the Idlib province.'


Thursday, 15 February 2018

Airstrikes catch up to displaced Aleppans in Idlib

Image result for Airstrikes catch up to displaced Aleppans in Idlib

 ' “What has been happening in Idlib province in recent weeks — and in Ghouta in the past few months — is exactly what we witnessed in Aleppo during November and December 2016,” Mohammed Shabeeb, a former citizen journalist from Aleppo city, said Feb. 2. “The [Bashar] al-Assad regime, covered by Russian airplanes and Iranian militias on the ground, is trying to annihilate the governorate of Idlib by bombing the civilians, the hospitals, the markets … every sign of life.”

 Shabeeb was studying English literature at the University of Aleppo but had to stop in his second year. Joining the demonstrations in his city to demand freedom and dignity, he was soon wanted by the regime forces and so could not finish his studies. “On Dec. 22, 2016, the regime displaced us from Aleppo and from that moment, I have lived in Idlib,” he continued. “Today I came to Saraqeb to see what was happening and to stand by the people close to the tragedy.”

 The city of Saraqeb, located in Idlib province in northwest Syria, was one of the first to participate in the demonstrations against Assad’s regime in March 2011, in solidarity with the people of Daraa. Its strategic location, connecting the main roads of Aleppo-Damascus, Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Idlib, means the regime has made great efforts to take control of the city, as is reported in detail in the book “The Story of a Place, The Story of a People,” compiled by the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution.

 “When some civilians were trying to escape from Saraqeb by car, taking the Aleppo-Damascus highway yesterday, Russian airplanes targeted them and left seven civilians dead and many injured. The highway is often attacked.” Shabeeb covered the fighting around Aleppo over the past few years as a freelancer, but stopped writing when he left Aleppo.

 “When I was displaced, I was disappointed about what happened to us, about the silence of the international community. I was feeling hopeless about what I was doing, thinking it’s useless communicating with the international media. The war will not end,” he said. As Shabeeb spoke, the sounds of bombs interrupted the conversation. Saraqeb continues to be under persistent, heavy attack. While many citizens have fled, one who signs his graffiti as Ali. K wrote on a Saraqeb wall after the Feb. 4 chemical attack on the city, “Saraqeb is the strongest. It is stronger than war planes and chlorine. It is stronger than napalm and fire.”

 The fall of Saraqeb would cut the northern part of Idlib province off from its south, impeding displaced people from returning to their homes, Rasha al-Shahad said in a phone interview. She said, “I am from a small village called Ghadafa, between Maarrat al-Nu’man and Jarjanaz, in southern Idlib province. My village is being hit every day, and all the people have left. My family and I are in Salqeen, at the Turkish border in the north.”

 In her village, Shahad was a member of the women’s bureau of the local council and director of a women’s center called “Brightness of Tomorrow.” The bombs forced it to close on Dec. 29, 2017. “We used to have teacher training, professional classes for hairstyling, a nursery, a theater for children, campaigns against early marriage. … But now we don’t know if we will ever see our village again.”

 Women's centers run by the nongovernmental organization Women Now for Development were destroyed in Maarrat al-Nu’man and Saraqeb in January, as well as in eastern Ghouta, where the regime continues to attack despite UN pleas.

  Another former resident of Aleppo’s southern countryside who withheld their name for security concerns chattedr online during the last few weeks of intense strikes. This person left almost three years ago for the small village of Tal Touqan and was injured and displaced again in the January strikes.

 Working as a humanitarian activist to support the population since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, this person claims to be independent and not support any side. “But I can’t tell you where I am right now after having left Tal Touqan. The regime is advancing very quickly in the eastern countryside of Idlib and what remains of southern Aleppo’s countryside. It can enter at any moment and take revenge on those of who worked as activists on the field. I am afraid for my children.”

 A person originally from Bab al-Hadid in Aleppo’s Old City who also spoke on condition of anonymity is working as a logistics officer for the Polish Humanitarian Aid organization, distributing humanitarian aid to Aleppo’s displaced in Idlib city, villages and towns. “The situation is very dangerous for everyone,” including aid workers, the officer concluded.'

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Story of Kfr Nobol Hospital: ‘41 Minutes of Hell’

Hand in hand1
 Fadi Al Dairi:
 'Kfr Nobol Hospital is no different from other health facilities inside Syria that have paid a heavy price in the conflict.

 The hospital in Idlib province, operated by the British NGO Hand in Hand, has been targeted by airstrikes multiple times throughout the war, like so many other medical facilities in Syria. In the past, our hospital survived with minor damage that could normally be fixed within days and would not hinder our ability to provide services. This is partially because, before Russia entered the war in Syria, with its sophisticated weaponry and spot on the U.N. Security Council, things were slightly better.

 This time, however, it was different. On Monday (February 5, 2018), airstrikes were so intense that we immediately moved our operations underground. But it seems that the weapons used that day were intended to reach staff underground; thermobaric, or so-called guided bombs, can penetrate many levels of concrete, for a maximum level of destruction.

 Four airstrikes by Russian fighter jets ensured that the hospital is now completely out of service. It was the only surgical hospital within a 30-mile (50km) radius.

 It took 41 minutes. Forty-one minutes of hell is what I would call it, where all I could think of was the number of those at risk and their families.

 10:01 a.m.: As the Syria country director for Hand in Hand, I am based in Turkey, and on the day of the attack I was in my office in Gaziantep with the senior team managers.

 The first airstrike missed the actual building and hit the concrete fence outside, about 80ft (25m) away. It set fire to the “guards” room. At this point, we knew we would be targeted. We knew our time had come, and that this time they intended to finish the job. Patients and staff were moved to shelter in a “safe underground space” but equipment could not be moved.

 10:06 a.m.: The team saw the second attack, and it was getting closer to the building.

 10:14 a.m.: The third attack took place, hitting the second floor.

 10:18 a.m.: We received a warning through our Safety & Security WhatsApp group of an imminent fourth attack.

 10:20 a.m.: The fourth and final attack hit. The missile made devastating damage to the structure and penetrated through three levels of concrete.

 10:21 a.m.: We received a message advising us that the attacks were over. We assume it’s because fighter jets can only carry four missiles.

 10:26 a.m.: Evacuation began from the dialysis unit, which performed 2,133 services in 2017. It is next to the emergency room, where 15,588 lives were saved in 2017.

 10:42 a.m.: We received confirmation from the hospital manager that none of the team are injured.

 I could relax. I took a deep breath and only then did I begin to think about how to open the hospital again. We were adamant that the bombing was not going to stop us from delivering emergency aid. We still did not know the full scale of the destruction.

 Forty minutes later, the field medical manager arrived at the hospital to inspect the damage. He and his team started to send images showing the scale of the destruction.

 It was only then that we realized the building had been totally destroyed. It would cost $650,000 to repair the building and $300,000 for the equipment. But thinking of the cost could not rattle me, as I had found out all medical personnel and patients were safe and sound in the designated safe space.

 The next day was different.

 I tried to remain calm despite feeling helpless, but I was filled with feelings of guilt. These were my employees and I am not there to support them. I tried to hide these feelings and appear strong in front of our senior management team. They did not realize what I was going through, so I may have been successful.

 At some point I thought to myself, why am I doing it? Why do I have to go through this?

 Then I thought about how many lives this hospital has saved during its existence. I reminded myself of the 83,845 services provided in 2017. I knew it was worth it, and resolved to double that number in 2018.

 After all, there is nothing I can do but become more determined to continue my work with my colleagues to find funds that will allow us to reopen the facility again and resume operations.

 We will not give in to this cruel war. Life is a big lesson we learn from and build on. You win with strong will.'

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Eliot Higgins: What is the truth about the chemical attacks on Syrian civilians?


 'Since the earliest reports of chemical weapon use in the Syrian conflict, a growing community of denialists has emerged, comprising online commentators, bloggers, pro-Assad activists, and fringe websites.

This in itself is not usual. From 9/11 to the Las Vegas mass-shooting, online communities have coalesced around opinions and theories about what “really happened.”

 What is unusual about this community is how their views are beginning to creep into mainstream discourse about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and how that is being used to undermine investigations that attempt to establish the facts surrounding these crimes.

 The Russian government has played a key role in amplifying these theories to undermine genuine investigative work. Their reaction to the August 21 2013 Sarin attacks that killed hundreds was to embrace various (often contradictory) conspiracy theories from fringe figures absolving the Syrian regime of responsibility.

 On August 23 2013, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich stated that “on the Internet, in particular, reports are circulating that news of the incident carrying accusations against government troops was published several hours before the so-called attack. So, this was a pre-planned action.”

 This assertion was based on the claim from various pro-government sites that the YouTube videos of the attack had time stamps from August 20 2013. This was, in fact, a result of the display date being based on the local server time from the US west coast, which meant that a video uploaded in the early morning in Syria would carry a timestamp that was 9 hours ahead of California.

 Despite this simple explanation, the allegation persisted. It was even repeated by Russia’s Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov a few days later.

 As this conspiracy theory became untenable, the Russian government turned to another, courtesy of the Syria based Mother Superior Agnes Mariam de la Croix. She claimed that the attacks had been staged, and that the victims were in fact kidnapped Alawites from pro-government areas, killed as part of the deception.

 This claim quickly collapsed as it failed to substantiate its claim. Meanwhile an investigation by Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, found that among other problems with her claims, the claim was dismissed even by families of abducted Alawites. All the same: Lavrov promoted this claim too.

 It is not enough to present alternative theories . One of the key weapons in the chemical weapon denialist arsenal is discrediting and demonising individuals and organisations who witness and document events on the ground, including chemical weapon attacks. Whatever their disposition, they end up being branded as belonging to or being in cahoots with Al Qaeda or ISIS.

 With access to opposition held areas severely restricted, these groups and individuals are usually the only source of information in the aftermath of chemical attacks. Labelling them terrorists is a convenient way for the chemical truthers to dismiss their testimony.

 Chief among these targets are the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, and their key supporter, Mayday Rescue. As the only organised rescue service in many opposition held areas, information collected by the White Helmets, often with body cameras worn by rescuers, has become an important source of information about the situation on the ground in Syria. In recent years they have played a key role in documenting chemical attacks and passing information onto the OPCW and other investigators.

 At the centre of the effort to discredit the White Helmets is Vanessa Beeley, a person plucked from obscurity by Russian state media. She has emerged as a vocal and persistent critic of the White Helmets and their supporters and she is featured heavily on international Russian state funded news such as Russian Today and Sputnik. Beeley, who has described the White Helmets as “ legitimate targets ”, recently elaborated her views:

 "The White Helmets franchise is a terrifying extension of soft power infiltration deep inside target nations, exploiting trust, vulnerability and poverty with the “First Responder” construct that “everyone trusts” as James Le Mesurier [Mayday Rescue’s Founder] so clearly stated in a recent interview in Brazil.

 This pseudo Humanitarian, NATO state-sanctioned fist will be used to crush many more nations in the future if it is not stopped in Syria. Just as Syria has contained the terrorist fire within its borders, so has it exposed the White Helmets as the terrorist alter ego, but for how long will both be contained?

 Terrorism is fanning out into Europe via the EU funded Turkish exit routes, the White Helmets are also establishing themselves further afield, in Venezuela, Malaysia, the Philippines to name a few. Terrorism and the White Helmets march in lock-step and can only be stopped by confronting the cancerous cultures in which they are cultivated — US Necolonialism, British Imperialism, EU Globalism, Gulf State Extremism & Israeli Parasitism."

 Russia promotes Beeley’s views (and those like hers) on Russian state funded media. But, more consequently, it also uses her views in more august fora.

 After the April 4 2017 Sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Russian Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Peter Illichev, submitted a presentation by Beeley, The White Helmets - Fact or Fiction, to the United Nations General Assembly.

 In the debate that followed the publication of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) report which blamed the Syrian government for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, the Russia’s deputy representative to the UN Vladimir Safronov, told the security council:

 "All conclusions of their work were based on indirect testimonies, most of which was provided by the opposition and by NGOs that have no credibility, such as the White Helmets which are closely associated with Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists."

 Thus demonising those organisations who are best placed to gather information on chemical attacks and other war crimes has become a key strategy of chemical weapon truthers and denialists in their attempts to undermine the work of investigative bodies, from NGOs to OPCW-UN JIM.

 While chemical attack denialism has often been relegated to fringe and Russian state media, there have been occasions where more mainstream voices and media organisations have promoted claims about chemical attacks that are riddled with inaccuracies.

 Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh has become particularly notorious for his work on chemical attacks in Syria, first on the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks in Damascus, then the Sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4th 2017.

 In articles for the London Review of Books, Hersh laid out a narrative where the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks in Damascus were a carefully orchestrated false flag attack by rebels using Turkish help.

 The problem was, Hersh’s story was full of holes, inaccuracies, and fanciful claimswith no evidence to support them. Hersh only spoke about “homemade” rockets, when some of the rockets used were Soviet era M14 140mm artillery rockets.

 He had no explanation for the massive volume of Sarin used requiring an expensive and complex chemical process and supply chain. Nor could he explain the presence of rockets known to be unique to Syrian government forces used in the attack.

 After the April 4 2017 Khan Sheikhoun Sarin attack Hersh returned with his latest chemical weapon investigation, this time published in Germany’s Die Welt . In the article ( Trump‘s Red Line ), Hersh claimed that Russia had provided the regime with a precision bomb to target a terrorist meeting, but the bomb also incinerated a room full of cleaning supplies, which created a toxic cloud resulting in the massive number of casualties.

 The problem was, as the OPCW-UN JIM report into the attack showed, this was a complete fantasy, that not even the Syrians and Russians supported. Even though the body set up to investigate chemical attack in Syria showed Hersh’s scenario was complete fiction, Welt has never issued a correction, and Hersh’s response to the criticism was that he had “learned just to write what I know, and move on”.

 The problem with these stories in respectable publications is the majority of readers are understandably not up to date on the minutiae of the conflict, which means these stories make a great deal of impact, even though they are demonstrably wrong.

 Through respectable publications, conspiracy theories acquire broader legitimacy corroding the factual basis of public discourse. When facts and opinions are put on equal footing, it destroys the very basis of informed judgment. It also suggests that people on the ground are lying, the evidence cited by the OPCW-UN JIM is fake, and that Western governments are actively participating in a conspiracy against Bashar al Assad, with all the people opposing him as their accomplices.

 Newsweek itself has recently published an opinion piece that is symptomatic of this trend. In Now Mattis admits there was no evidence Assad used poison gas on his people, Ian Wilkie, claims that Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated there was “no evidence” the Syrian government used Sarin, stating that “ Mattis offered no temporal qualifications, which means that both the 2017 event in Khan Sheikhoun and the 2013 tragedy in Ghouta are unsolved cases in the eyes of the Defense Department and Defense Intelligence Agency.”

 Seemingly a damning statement, but one taken out of context, with Mattis’ full remarks referring to the 2013 and 2017 attacks:

 Q: "Just make sure I heard you correctly, you’re saying you think it’s likely they have used it and you’re looking for the evidence? Is that what you said?"

 SEC. MATTIS: "That’s — we think that they did not carry out what they said they would do back when — in the previous administration, when they were caught using it. Obviously they didn’t, cause they used it again during our administration.

 And that gives us a lot of reason to suspect them. And now we have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used.

 We do not have evidence of it. But we’re not refuting them; we’re looking for evidence of it. Since clearly we are using — we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions, okay?"

 Wilkie takes this misrepresentation of Mattis’s statement as confirmation that the theories surrounding 2013 and 2017 attacks claiming the Syrian government wasn’t responsible were correct all along, and in turn, the community of chemical weapon denialists and truthers has spread the Newsweek piece, citing it as proof that they were right all along.

 Presenting these views in mainstream publications, be they the London Review of Books, Welt, or Newsweek, is not presenting another perspective, or encouraging debate; it’s promoting the idea that facts are no longer sacred; truth is a matter of opinion; official bodies set up to investigate these incidents are compromised; victims are performers; and rescuers are belligerents.

 This is dangerous, Orwellian inversion of reality. This is not the debate on Iraq’s WMD, this is the debate on whether or not Sandy Hook victims were really crisis actors, or if Israelis were told not to go to work at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

 This is what Russia wants, and this is what Assad wants, as it lets the perpetrators escape justice, and leaves the victims to rot.'

Oscar-nominated Syrian film screened in rebel-held Idlib

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 'An Oscar-nominated Syrian documentary following rescuers under regime bombardment in Aleppo was screened Monday before dozens of spectators in the rebel-held city of Idlib.

 "Last Men in Aleppo" by Syrian Feras Fayyad and the rebels' Aleppo Media Centre shows the work of the feted White Helmet volunteer rescuers during the brutal government seige.

 Government forces are now conducting a Russian-backed offensive to regain territory in Idlib province, the last one that had remained fully outside the regime's control.

 Spectators on the campus of Idlib University laughed, cried and sat in stunned silence as they watched scenes of carnage and loss in the documentary.

 "It stirred memories of the last difficult days in Aleppo and the many people who died before our eyes," said Mohamad al-Shaghel, who fled the city.

 The December 2016 defeat of the rebels in Aleppo after a ferocious onslaught proved a major turning point in the war as leader Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers seized the upper hand.

 "What the heroes of this film lived through is what all Syrians have lived through," said Alaa al-Abdallah, the director of the university's media institute.

 The film which already won a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival is nominated for best documentary at this years Oscars.

 Last year another film about the White Helmet civilian rescuers won an Oscar for best short documentary.'

Monday, 12 February 2018

This man stayed in Aleppo to make a film as the bombs fell

Image result for Feras Fayyad

 'I didn’t make Last Men in Aleppo to ask people to do something. I made this film to express my personal feeling. I grew up in Aleppo. I know every street, every smell, every wall, the colour of every building. When I put this story in front of an audience, and they get the same feeling about Aleppo as I do, as I’ve had since my childhood, that’s not just a success for the film - that’s a success for us as Syrians. What I wanted most is to show the Syrian war as a personal story.

 Syria doesn’t only need peace, Syria needs justice. There have been millions of people killed, families and children. And there have been people involved in these crimes.

 Talking about justice means addressing war crimes. A huge number of people have been killed or thrown in prison because of their political opinion or their background. These are crimes that should be addressed as war crimes. War criminals should be recognised and taken to court. This must be part of any peace process.

 How can you ask people to come back to their country if they know that the people who were involved in killing their children and families, and who might threaten them in the future, are still there?

I was in jail for eight months. I had heard stories about Syrian prisons and what happens inside them since my childhood, from family, friends, whispers. Growing up, it was our biggest fear, worse than losing your mother. Every year I got older, the fear would grow twice as strong.

 From your childhood, you hear people say that once you’re inside, you will wish to die. And that’s what happened. I wanted to be killed, because I couldn’t handle more torture, psychological or physical.

 They took my food away, they put electricity on my body, they beat me. They try to make you lose your dignity. But I realised however scared I was of them, they were ten times more scared of me. As a filmmaker, they see you as a leader and as someone whom other people follow, whose opinion others listen to. After I realised that, I started to release myself from my fear.
 It was one of my worst experiences. But it was important, because I saw with my own eyes how people are killed and tortured. I heard the voices and the sounds. This government is torturing its own people for their opinions, their expressions, their freedom of speech, their activities and their films.

 For years and years these people have wanted to build a wall around Syria, to stop the international community and politicians from seeing what is going on. They don’t want to open anyone’s eyes to it.

 There’s a moment in the film when the characters are sitting on a roof, looking at all the destruction. It’s then that beauty starts to be created, through their friendship, their care for each other. These are human values. All our history we have fought for them. All the time we have been threatened by a regime or a system which tries to break down these kinds of relations and make us lose trust.

 I want to show that human relationships have been the only way to survive, and to survive for years, under Assad, father and son. Our friends and our families is how we make our lives continue.

 I search for hope and the best of humanity, because I have seen the ugly side. I’m motivated to use what I can do as an artist, to understand human values through these characters volunteering as White Helmets. I wanted to understand what makes them stay. The meaning of displacement through history is important to me. What makes some people leave and some people stay?

 The guilty survivor is a part of it. You feel you survived and you have to do something for others.

I am working on a film about a group of female doctors in Syria who established an underground hospital to save lives.

 Cinema is always representing women as a beautiful bodies, or as queens, or as victims. This film is about these women being no different from men in that position. Whether man or woman or transgender - that’s just our sexual or gender identity. That’s nothing to do with what we can do or make in this life.

 I am thinking about Lady Macbeth a lot, about the conflict between her independence and her being controlled, by society or by a male character. This project is also about seeing #Metoo in a different way. It’s not just a social media movement. It’s about practical, real change, in unique circumstances. I hope these women’s position as doctors in a war like the Syrian war starts a discussion.'

Top Iranian general prevented Assad from leaving power

Top Iranian general prevented Assad from leaving power: agency

 'In a report published by the Iranian Mehr agency, Ali Agha Mohammadi, an official in the Diagnostic Regime Service in Iran, the country's highest ruling advisory body, revealed that al-Assad was about to leave power entirely and leave the palace, but Iran dissuaded him from this decision and pushed him to hold on to his position.

 Mohammadi reported that the Major General Hossein Hamedani, who was killed in Syria in 2015, had returned from Damascus to Iran at one point to inform the leadership that al-Assad was determined to leave power and leave the palace where he was trapped.

 Mohammadi said, “the martyr Hamadani told Bashar al-Assad that he should not worry, and that he should allow the distribution of arms to 10,000 civilians as they will keep the threat at bay after they are organized.”

 Hamedani was the most senior Iranian military officer to be killed in foregin mission in 36 years since the 1979 Islamic revolution. He was killed by rebels in Aleppo in 2015.

 Mohammadi said, “Commander Hamedani recruited 80,000 Syrian militants, and the intervention of Hezbollah also, which made the [Syrian] army stronger, and today we see that the Syrian army was able to shoot down a Zionist aircraft.”

 Iranian officials have been repeating statements that attribute al-Assad's steadfastness and survival to them alone, without caring to mention the hundreds of thousands of pro-regime supporters who have been killed or wounded to keep al-Assad in power. Regime supporters see Tehran's words as scorning them and the sacrifices they have made, and highlighting the debt they own Iran in a provocative manner.'

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Revolutionary women: Makers of the new media in Syria

 'My name is Kholoud Helmi. I am an activist and a journalist. I began my activism at the very beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. At the end of that same year a group of friends and I realised that there was no media coverage of the situation on the ground in Syria. I come from Darayya, a city about 20 minutes’ drive south west of Damascus by car. We were part of the revolution very early on, going out onto the streets and marching in the earliest wide scale demonstration on the 15th March 2011. Shortly afterwards, in April 2011 government checkpoints started appearing and the regime began besieging my city. There were barriers regulating our entry and exit.

 Likewise, there were no international media organisations in Syria to report on what was happening, [as they were] prevented by the regime, and the state-owned media only reported the regime’s point of view, so we took the decision to start our own platform in order to provide an opposing perspective. We were eyewitnesses to what was happening, both eyewitnesses and actors on the ground. Thinking back to the end of 2011 when we made that decision, it was the craziest decision we could have ever made, but certainly the right one.

 At that time, the danger we were in — being surrounded by the regime and government security forces — meant that my family couldn’t know that I was working as a journalist. Only very few people knew and as we couldn’t meet in person due to restrictions on our movements and the danger we were putting ourselves in by meeting, we had to use Skype. We used it to plan our actions, organize the layout of the newspaper and discuss what news to cover.

 It was crucial for me to focus on being an active woman in the revolution. Of the 25 co-founders of the newspaper, around 75% were women. It was our choice to be part of the newspaper as we had been present for every single moment since the revolution’s beginning. We were taking to the streets and organising demonstrations. We were not just witnessing but participating in everything that was happening.

 Women specifically were very important to the resistance movement because until 2012 we were able to pass unrestricted through checkpoints, the regime agents would not search women. Our male colleagues were not able to cross through checkpoints at all, so most of them had to walk for three hours to get from where they lived to Damascus, walking through rural areas to avoid the checkpoints so as not to be scrutinized and arrested by default.

 Thus, as women we had greater freedom of movement than our male colleagues and so were better able to take up the mission to go to other towns and cities in order to document the massacres, brutal repression of the demonstrations and other events of the revolution.

 We physically printed all our material from the very first edition and began distributing copies in the streets, not just to our friends and acquaintances but to the wider Syrian people. I used to cross checkpoints carrying around one hundred copies in my bag. I knew full well that I could have ended up disappeared, in prison or dead had they even opened my bag. I was stopped by the security forces several times and I knew I was standing between life and death. We had to be so brave, pretending we were doing nothing unusual, that we were just ordinary people going about our daily lives just trying to cross the street. When I think of those moments even now my heart beats faster. I still remember pretending that I was only carrying ‘feminine items’ so they wouldn’t search me.

 I was also stopped at mobile checkpoints — checks that would randomly happen out of the blue with no warning and no way to plan for them. They once searched my handbag but stopped just short of looking inside the plastic bag I was carrying with 15 copies of our paper. I had to risk my life many times to circulate our magazine, Enab Baladi.

 In January 2013 my hometown fell to the regime. Until this point it had been constantly besieged, with my friends and family having been forced out of homes the previous November. Despite that, my friends and I kept going to back to Darayya taking the rural routes.

 In the second week of January as we were leaving the town, one of my friends was captured by the regime. She was married with three children. A week later, the regime arrested her mother, forcing her to entrap us. She called us, her daughter’s friends, saying that she wanted to see us and of course we rushed to her — she had lost her daughter and we wanted to comfort her. The first two women to arrive at her house were immediately arrested by the regime. Luckily a third friend of mine called them to asked where they were and heard them say the phrase we had agreed on should we ever find ourselves in danger: Akhlas, khalast, I’m over, things are over, I’m done. We knew then that the threat to our lives was too great and we had to leave.

 One week later we were smuggled to Beirut where we started our new life as part of the Syrian diaspora. First to Lebanon — Beirut, then Egypt and finally Turkey. I ended up in Turkey where the team of Enab Baladi were reunited. We started operating again from Turkey and continue to do so to this day.

 We still cover news from all over Syria and have reporters working all over the country. We used to have reporters even in regime-held areas — most of them are women. We even had a reporter in an ISIS occupied area. Our reporter in Damascus quit some time ago because she was feeling the pressure of operating from there and couldn’t take the risk anymore. She felt like she was constantly under scrutiny and being controlled by the regime. We lost a lot of friends on this journey.

 One of the co-founders and the first to structure the newspaper took the decision to stay in Darayya after it was besieged by the regime. He was the first one to die, we lost him at the end of 2012. A few months later, we lost the managing editor, he was hit by a missile. Later we lost a third friend, our reporter in Darayya who was also hit by a missile. Four of our guys were then arrested by the regime. We heard three months ago that Nadi, one of the four, was killed under torture in a regime detention centre. My brother and one of the co-founders of the newspaper were taken from their homes in May 2012. There was only one week, during August 2012, that Enab Baladi was not published, when the first massacre committed by the Assad regime in Darayya took place.

 Regime forces raided my hometown, slaughtering over a thousand people in three days. Some of our team stayed in Darayya at the time but I had left the town for three days. When I returned it was unrecognisable, horrible. That week we couldn’t report anything. I still remember crying. I had been writing the news of other massacres committed elsewhere but when it happened in my hometown I felt too weak to write about it.

 The next week we made the decision to continue. We had to continue spreading the message that a change must come, everybody has to know what is happening in Syria. After seven years we continue to publish Enab Baladi. We have kept the same structure, we have an editor-in-chief, a managing editor, a full team operating. At first our office was very small but we have now moved into larger premises.

 Our team has grown in number and now we have reporters based in many cities. We also have reporters from other countries writing about Syrian refugees and are lucky enough to be considered one of the most prominent Syrian platforms. More than six years ago a group of women decided to join the forces of the revolution. We took the streets and had to struggle to be respected but in the end we proved ourselves and here we are now, as founders of something that had never existed before.'