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 Zouhir al-Shimale:

 'A medium-sized, makeshift tent stands proud in al-Bab, Syria. Scrawled across its inner canvas are brightly coloured, hand-painted pictures. This is the work of a group of local schoolchildren aged 12 to 15, who gather here regularly throughout the week to learn the dramatic arts, as part of director Salman Ibrahim’s theatre group, Bread Way. “Each child drew what he thinks, loves or dreams [of],” says Ibrahim. “Some of them painted homes, some painted the Syrian revolution flag and freedom motto.” They did this to fit the theme of their new play, Dreamers Theatre, in which these same children share their ambitions, circumstances and memories of war.

 “The basis of Dreamers Theatre is freedom of speech, writing our scripts and conducting [plays] our way,” Ibrahim, 37, explains. He’s been penning plays since he ­graduated with a degree in Arabic literature from the University of Homs in 2005, but, for security concerns and reasons of censorship, it wasn’t until 2014 that one finally made it to the stage.

 Dakaken, Ibrahim’s first play, was performed in Aleppo that year by local activists and volunteers, but ensuring a nightly run became difficult due to instability in the city at that time. This uncertainty saw him move to Idlib in 2017, to focus on teaching, before he moved to al-Bab in 2018. Since then, he has been able to see his dreams of introducing troubled children to the theatre come to life. “There is no bombing or attacks here that risk children’s lives,” he says, while explaining how he recruited his current cohort from a local school. “[But] children in north Syria generally, and in al-Bab, have undergone desperate circumstances,” he adds.

 One of these young actors is Nesren Al Ward, 14, who came from Erben, in East Ghouta, where her two brothers, Ahmad and Ala’a, were killed in an air strike. “I was sieged and deprived from going to school or playing because of the bombing,” she says. She spent three months living in a basement with her parents and two surviving brothers, Aref and Bara’a, before moving to al-Bab. “We were unable to do anything at home, but with my mother and brother we spent time acting in the sleeping room of our house, inspired by local actors I used to see on TV.”

 In al-Bab, Nesren is able to study again, although she has been moved back by two grades. “It makes me feel sad to have lost those years, but I am studying now again and that is what matters,” she says.

 “When I came here, I finally found somewhere to sleep without [the sound of] bombs every night. It feels normal now, but for years, I could not have peace like this, or at least no fear of being bombed or killed and losing my family.”

 It is children like Nesren, who have been most affected by the war, that both Ibrahim and NGO worker Clare Payne wish to help heal through theatre. Payne, who is from Northern Ireland, works in Romania and is supporting Ibrahim independently, helping him to raise money for his plays. They first met at a ­peacebuilding course in Turkey last year. “One of my main purposes with Salman is to restore social dialogue, via theatre, as it’s the first brick in the path of new generations that should not keep paying the price of war,” she says. “Theatre is a way that ­communities can express themselves and find relief from the oppression they are living under.”

 Abdul Razak Kharar, 13, was bussed out of Aleppo with his two brothers, one sister and parents in December 2016. Just like Nesren, Abdul Razak had found it difficult to go to school regularly due to the bombings. Thankfully, his whole family survived and now, in al-Bab, he is able to live normally, returning to his studies and learning how to act in his spare time.

 For two months, four days a week, Abdul Razak headed to that tent, rehearsing the play, watching theatre on TV and talking through the script, ahead of the show’s opening night, which took place last month in al-Bab. “I have enjoyed working with Salman and my friends together every day,” he says. “I was shy, partially still now if I am honest, but I am hoping to stay longer with them because I do not have many friends from my city, as all of them are scattered across north Syria and some were killed, too.” Before he joined Ibrahim’s theatre group, Abdul Razak used to watch shows on YouTube and TV, and particularly enjoyed the work of Egyptian actor and comic Adel Emam and Syrian actor Abdul Rahman Eid. “Acting for me has become a way to express so many feelings I have,” he says. “I want to become an actor because I want to make people smile.”

 While Payne strongly believes theatre offers light moments of relief, she also sees her involvement in this initiative as an opportunity to peacebuild, which, she says, is complicated in Syria. “The communities have become shattered and unable to integrate with one another, thus the process of peace will take time. But, if we work with children … we will advance quicker.”

 One of the ways Ibrahim ensures the children are always learning is by giving them opportunities to ­discuss sensitive subjects and ethical dilemmas through the content of their performances. For example, at certain points in the play, he gets the guests involved. “This manifests when the actors on stage ask the audience’s opinion and what to do to solve this problem, [sparking] a public debate about local matters and making the society itself come up with a solution.” An example of this is when Abdul Razak, who portrays the father in the play, tries to prevent his daughter from going to school. “The actors move this conversation to the audience and try to find solutions and reasons behind this behaviour from the parents,” says Ibrahim.

 Addressing this scene, Abdul Razak, who knows well the pain of not being able to study, says: “I liked my role but not the idea of preventing anyone from going to school.”

 As a result of Ibrahim’s teachings, Nesren and Abdul Razak both say they have seen a marked difference in their confidence levels. They now want to pursue careers in the arts. “I want to become an actor,” says Nesren, “because I love and enjoy watching and acting. I want to make people happy and smile, and to make my family proud of me.”

 Abdul Razak wants to be both an actor and ­director, just like Ibrahim. “I want to act my own ideas, which is what ­Salman is teaching us to do, and ­become famous in the future,” he says.

 Ibrahim is convinced that this confidence has been built as a result of him giving the children freedom to develop their own ideas. He simply points them in the right direction. “People were deprived of freedom’s tools and it’s my quest to bring it back to life,” he says. “It is all about freedom and that is what we are trying to teach our children: to learn, practise and do it as a lifestyle, and that is what will bring Syria back.” '

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 'Prisoners are suffering different types of brutal torture that the human mind cannot imagine at the Syrian régime dungeons, according to former detainees.

 Muhammed Abdullah said he was arrested for participating in pro-democracy protests in the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2011.

 Abdullah was taken into custody along with his mother and father during a régime raid in Morik district in the northern Hama province on July 8, 2011.

 "They burned my father's vehicle and his shop and took us to the intelligence unit at the Hama military base, where 80 people were held in a narrow ward,” Abdullah recalled.

 "They interrogated the three of us," he said. "We were beaten in the presence of each other."

 Abdullah said that he was held at a small prison cell less than one square meter for 50 days.

 "They gave me only a piece of bread with olive grains from the cell window," he recalled.

 "They were dropping water. I had to open my mouth and catch up while the water was dropping. Otherwise I would be dehydrated," Abdullah said.

 After 50 days in detention, Abdullah was taken to a ward in the Mezzeh military base.

 Highlighting that he was questioned for 68 days at the ward, Abdullah said: "The sound of those who were tortured was terrible."

 "They locked us up in a room in where about 800 people were naked. The scenery was horrible. There were 60 children among us," he recalled.

 "People either died of grief or torture or went crazy," he said.

 "The warden used to rape a child from our ward every day,” he said.

 "One day, 40 people with masks and batons raided the ward. We were trying to escape by pressing each other. They were beating us to death.

 "Twenty-two people died that day,” Abdullah said, adding that this scene will always remain in his memory.

 Abdullah was finally released in poor health conditions as part of a prisoner exchange with the Syrian régime.

 "My kidneys and lungs were infected. I threw up blood for a year,” Abdullah said.

 Returning to Syria after two months of treatment in Turkey, Abdullah was unable to sleep regularly for a year.

 A woman, who was formerly jailed by the Syrian régime on charges of treating civilians injured in régime attacks, also highlighted the cruel torture methods during incarceration in régime prisons.

 Meryem Hileyf was detained on Sept. 27, 2012 from her home in the northern Hama province.

 "They ruined my life. We had the same pain every day,” Hileyf said.

 “The most painful moment was when they wanted us to undress. We figured they weren't undressing us for questioning," she said.

 Held in an underground cell, Hileyf said: “They put me in a tiny cell. There was water dripping from a tap. The sound of the water was imprinted on our brains.”

 “A torturer, called Lieutenant Colonel Suleyman, used to take beautiful girls to his room every day at midnight. We heard the girls screaming for help, but we couldn't do anything,” she recalled.

 "'Let the Free Syrian Army (FSA) come and save you', they said while torturing us," Hileyf said.

 The Syrian woman was released as part of a prisoner swap between the FSA and Syrian régime.

 "My husband divorced me. My mother hasn't spoken with me for eight years," she said.

 Stressing that she has been crying for her sufferings for eight years, Hileyf said: "People asked me if I was raped instead of asking if I need help."

 Praising Turkey’s help, she said: “I've attempted suicide three times. Only Turkey looked out for me. Turkey is my second mother.” '

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 'Away from the frontlines, volunteers are helping in the war against Syria’s Bashar Assad by cooking, filling sandbags, collecting old tires and digging trenches, aiming to help ward off his assault on northwestern Syria.

 It is part of the civilian effort to help defend the last major opposition stronghold from Assad and his Russian allies who have been pounding it for weeks.

 Abu Abdo, 51, says he is playing his part by collecting old tires to be burned by fighters to create a smoke screen from hostile warplanes.

 “We go to places where tires are repaired, collect them and take them to the fighters,” said Abu Abdo, 51, as he piled tires into the back of a truck with the help of his sons in the town of Salqin.

 “These tires have no value but protect (the fighters) and keep the enemy busy,” said Abu Abdo, as two of sons sat atop the pile of tires in the back of the truck.

 In recent years, Assad’s opponents have poured into northwestern Syria from other parts of Syria that have been taken from opposition. The region, which includes Idlib province and parts of neighboring provinces, has an estimated 3 million inhabitants, about half of whom had already fled fighting elsewhere according to the UN.

 With nowhere else for these people to flee, many have a stake in fending off the attack on the northwest. To this end, activists and religious leaders launched a campaign in May called “fire an arrow with them.”

 Volunteers at work in a kitchen in the town of Atarib are preparing 2,000 meals a day for fighters as part of the campaign. Yellow rice is spooned from large vats into polystyrene trays and lentil soup is poured into bags ready for delivery to fighters.

 “The car leaves from here to the frontlines under airstrikes and surveillance sometimes,” said a 40-year-old man at work in the kitchen who gave his name as Abu Wael. “God willing we continue so these meals reach the fighters.”

 At a nearby quarry, sacks that once contained rice were being filled with grit for use as sandbag defenses.

 “We are filling according to the demand of the frontline. The command center, for example, requests 200 bags or 1,000 bags for one position,” said Khaled Al-Jamal, 26, at work with a group of other volunteers.

 He finished his high school education but was unable to register at university once the war began in 2011. He hopes his effort will help fighters so “all their effort is directed at repelling the regime.”

 In Salqin, men use shovels, pick axes and pneumatic drills to dig a trench in an olive grove as part of another civilian campaign, this one called “the Popular Resistance Battalions.”

 A long way from the frontline, Yehya Al-Sheikh, 38, says the trench he is digging with others will provide protection from airstrikes for a family living nearby.

 “We came to dig trenches to defend ourselves and our people and to support our Mujahideen brothers against Bashar Assad.” '

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 'Dozens of demonstrators took to the streets on Friday (June 28) in Akhtarin town in Aleppo northern countryside, chanting anti-Russia and Assad militia slogans and confirming that the resistance is their choice against the continuous offensive launched on Idlib and Hama by the Assad militias.

 Demonstrators from the villages and towns around Akhtarin joined the demonstration in Akhtarin.

 Similar anti-régime demonstrations took place in Khan al-Asal city in Aleppo countryside where the demonstrators said they aimed to show solidarity with their fellow Syrians in Idlib and Hama.

 Idlib is the largest part of Syria controlled by opposition with a population swollen by Syrians who were displaced by the Assad regime and its allies’ advances in other parts of the country.

 Assad-Russian warplanes and Assad militiamen have killed more than 500 civilians, including children and women. The Russian and Assad attacks also injured more than 1500 civilians in Hama and Idlib countryside since April 26.'

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 'Four-year-old Khaled al-Bakour was trying to hide in his bedroom with two of his brothers to avoid attacks by Syrian warplanes when the walls of the concrete house fell down and buried him under the rubble.

 His screaming brothers looked on, too young to do anything, surrounded by what was left of the house in Maarat al-Numan, south of Idlib city.

 "He's here, help us for God's sake," the brothers cried as White Helmets, members of the civil defence team that operates in rebel-held areas of Syria, arrived at the scene and desperately tried to remove broken pieces of stone to find him.

 Having been rescued from the building, Khaled was taken to a nearby hospital following the attack.

 Khaled's father said: "My son has two fractures and a loss of the skin and muscles of his left hand.

 "He lost one of his fingers, and the doctors told me he might lose another finger. Yesterday he underwent surgery. There is also a loss of skin and muscle and a sharp fracture of his right foot."

 Khaled is just the latest child to fall victim to an escalation in attacks on Idlib province by Syrian and Russian forces since late April, where on average two children are killed and a school is targeted everyday, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) activist group.

 The SNHR says that between 26 April and 27 June 2019, at least 518 civilians were killed in Idlib, including 128 children and 97 women, and at least 1,612 civilians injured.

 The organisation said that the Russian-Syrian alliance had also targeted 77 schools.

 "We emphasise that targeting schools with guided missiles is a systematic process by the Damascus forces and their allies," Fadel Abdul Ghany, the chairman of SNHR, said.

 "Schools are protected by international law, and deliberate targeting is a war crime."

 Syrian and Russian warplanes constantly fly over the area, with inhabitants not knowing where the next attack will be launched or which school might be hit.

 "Children were killed in their seats, and others were targeted in kindergartens, systematically to instil chaos and panic and force people to return to the authority of Damascus, or live without services and facilities,” Abdul Ghany said.

 "Damascus aims to stop the educational process, push children to join the ranks of the fighters, and build an uneducated generation dominated by ignorance."

 After Damascus took control of the governorates of Daraa, Homs and rural Damascus, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced to Idlib province, where the population now numbers about three million people.

 In late 2018, an agreement in Sochi between the Turkish and Russian presidents forestalled an expected attack on Idlib by Syrian pro-government forces.

 However, since late April, Syrian and Russian forces have repeatedly attacked the southern parts of Idlib province and adjacent parts of Hama and Latakia.

 The area under attack is mostly under the control of former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Syrian state media outlets say that the escalation is intended to target "terrorist groups" present in the region.

 In a less than two-month period in Idlib, in addition to the 77 schools, SNHR said that the attacks by the Syrian and Russian forces had targeted 33 medical facilities, 46 houses of worship and three camps.

 Brigadier Ahmed Rahal, an analyst and military expert who defected from the Syrian government, said: “Ninety percent of the military operations and the attacks led by Damascus and Moscow are against civilians [in a bid to] pressure the fighters. The systematic targeting of infrastructure aims to cause the greatest possible destruction, break the morale of civilians and cut off all [their] services. These military operations are aimed to shock, to create a desperate public that puts pressure on the rebels to stop fighting, like what happened in Daraa, which is now controlled by Damascus."

 Earlier this month, in a briefing to the UN Security Council regarding the situation in Idlib, Rodney Hunter, political coordinator for the US Mission to the UN, denounced Syrian and Russian activities in the province.

 “We need to see a full and immediate de-escalation of violence by all sides and, in particular, the Assad regime forces and the Russian Federation in and around Idlib province," said Hunter.

 "The regime’s military escalation is unacceptable and it poses a reckless and irresponsible threat to the security and stability of this region.”

 In addition to the deaths and casualties to children caused by the upsurge in violence, many, like Khaled, have lost their homes and seen their education curtailed.

 According to UNICEF: “This latest escalation follows months of rising violence in the area which has reportedly left at least 125,000 children displaced since the start of the year.

 "Nearly 30 hospitals have come under attack. Approximately 43,000 children are now out of school and final exams in parts of Idlib have been postponed, affecting the education of 400,000 students.”

 Sitting among olive trees in a camp north of Idlib, looking through her mother's mobile phone, is seven-year-old Fatima.

 She and her family were displaced from the south of the province by the recent escalation in violence.

 "I cannot complete my studies. My school and the rest of the schools are under attack," she said.'
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 'Despite years passing since her release, a woman who was jailed by the Syrian régime keeps the memory of her ordeal alive in order to help other women like her who struggle after escaping prison.

 Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Sundus Fulfule said she was pregnant when she entered Adra prison in Damascus on May 16, 2011, which is when her life turned upside down.

 Before that, Fulfule was living in Latakia, where she was teaching Islamic law to grade 10 and 11 students as a theology graduate. She also graduated from nursing school.

 After 11 months of incarceration, she had to provide for her daughters in a new environment and became involved in humanitarian aid work.

 "Obviously, in the Syrian revolution, the weakest ones are women and children, so I have chosen to work in this direction. Every day, I would make new experiences, train women and give them psychological support," she said.

 She said the most vulnerable ones are women who were released from prison.

 "Women who survive prison need all kinds of support, such as economic and psychological as well as shelter."

 She said she works with many women who were victims of rape, noting that no one takes care of them properly.

 "There are too many cases to count, and they continue to rise," she said, calling for immediate action for women who continue to be exposed to sexual violence and incarceration.

 According to the Conscience Movement, an international nongovernmental organization, more than 13,500 women have been jailed since the Syrian civil war began in early 2011, while more than 7,000 women remain in detention, where they are subjected to torture, rape and sexual violence.

 The movement is an alliance of individuals, rights groups and organizations aiming to secure urgent action for the release of women and children in the prisons of the Syrian régime.

 The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) announced Wednesday that more than 14,070 civilians have died of torture by forces of the Bashar al-Assad régime since the beginning of the civil war, including 173 children and 45 women.

 When the revolution started in Syria’s southwestern Daraa province, Fulfule said that women in Latakia were inspired by this and began taking to the streets to hold peaceful protests.

 "With our manners and morals, without disobeying our state, we started protests. We only demanded change and improvement and called for ease of detention procedures. In the beginning, these protests were not carried out for the fall of the Assad régime," she said.

 She said the demonstrations would call for the rights of arrested people, justice and the increase of salaries.

 Recalling the day she was arrested, the 40-year-old said she was attending a peaceful protest staged by women.

 "All of a sudden, the entrances and exits of the area we were in were closed, and men started to join the protest and together with them also intelligence security forces," she said, which is when they detained her.

 "Once the investigation started, we understood that everything was prepared already, including the accusations against us," Fulfule said, noting she was accused of terrorism.

 "When I was arrested, my first daughter was eight months old and I was pregnant [with a second child]," she said.

 After spending four months in prison, her family was falsely informed by régime soldiers that she had died.

 "My birth contractions started and they took me to a military hospital," she said.

 Fulfule used this opportunity to ask a nurse to call her family.

 "Thankfully she helped, and I called and told them I’m alive."

 After giving birth in the hospital, she was transferred back to prison.

 She witnessed every kind of abuse against other inmates, from human rights violations to sexual abuse.

 "When they wanted to torture someone, they would take them to the [prison] corridor. The sounds of torture and smell of burnt skin were everywhere," she said.

 "Frankly, I didn't witness rape [of other inmates] with my own eyes, but I saw the results of it -- pregnancy," she said.

 "Most of them gave birth in prison and got out, hiding their babies from everyone.”

 When she reached out to her family, they spent a large amount of money to bribe the prosecutor at the time.

 "After 11 months, I could walk out [from prison]."

 "Nothing I've experienced during the time in prison was as difficult as my child not recognizing me," she said, adding her daughter was nearly two years old when she saw her again.

 Speaking about the struggles she faced as a woman released from prison and the neglect from her husband, Fulfule told of her migration to northern parts of Syria.

 "One of the things which affected me the most was my husband not accepting me. 'You deserved it. Who told you to attend protests?' he said. I took my children [and left].”

 When she was released, she could no longer return home and had no choice but to escape the region as the intelligence security forces were still searching for her.

 Noting that the Syrian conflict had entered its ninth year, she expressed her main concern: the future of her children.

 "My only fear now is the future of my children," she said.

 "I don’t want my children to be in this situation. I want them to live a beautiful life in a safe environment." '

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'Though I am only 23, I have lost so much of what I love to war.

I was born in northwest Syria, in the Aleppo countryside, where I lived with my parents and eight siblings; I was the third child. Both my mother and father were uneducated, but they were more open-minded compared with other parents in our conservative community. They encouraged all of us to read and work hard so we could get a decent education. My father had a huge library at home, with books on science, literature, philosophy, and religion, which I still read today.

I remember how my dad used to read to us every night when we were kids. He started a poetry contest in our house, where we’d split into two teams, one with him and one with mom, and we’d challenge one another to see who could come up with a line of poetry that began or ended with certain words. I really miss those times. My mom used to help us with our homework; today, we all have good writing skills because of her.

Growing up, my dream was to become an architect. To meet my goal, I had applied to study the scientific baccalaureate when I was starting high school, something I’d need to pursue a degree. But in 2011, when I was just 15, the Syrian revolution began. Our hometown was liberated by the opposition, but the shelling, conflict, and insecurity forced us to flee to east Aleppo. There I had to study literature because it was easier to manage and didn’t require full school attendance. This was the first love I Iost to the war: a passion for architecture and my zeal for studying it.

In 2014, realizing that I would never be an architect, I enrolled in an Arabic literature degree program at Aleppo University. Not long into my studies, I received a phone call that my brother had been arrested by the régime while he was taking a law school exam. The régime had arrested him for participating in peaceful protests, something they did to so many innocent people.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, nearly 128,000 detainees remain missing, believed to be dead or still in prison. My sister and I knew that the régime would likely come for us, too, so I dropped out of college and headed back with her to our family. That day, the war took my education, but it also took my brother, who I’d never see again.

After I moved back home, I knew I wanted to do something to help other people. I started volunteering with local groups providing education and psychological support to those in need. But when I was 19, my parents arranged a marriage for me, and I lost all that I had accomplished when my husband moved us to Turkey in 2015.

I enrolled in college there, again to study literature, and tried to rebuild my life. But normality proved impossible.

One year into my new life in Turkey, my family was told my brother had died in régime detention. Two months later, my father, who was the head of a small town’s chapter of the Syrian Red Crescent, a medical-aid organization, died when an aid convoy he was leading was targeted by Russian airstrikes. For two hours, the planes had targeted the convoy, killing 20 civilians and aid workers. In the space of a single season, I lost my brother — again — and my father to the war.

By 2017, I felt like I had fallen apart. I was struggling with losing my brother and father. I was also dealing with what felt like my husband’s overwhelming attempts to control me, to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do. Eventually, I decided to get a divorce, to leave college again and go back to my family in Syria, though I felt, deep inside, that I had lost every reason to live.

Despite all the shocks I had endured, I was blessed to have the most wonderful mother, who kept encouraging and empowering me. I realized that I needed to embody her strength and not give up, though that’s all I wanted to do. I challenged myself to pursue a career in journalism, and to follow my passion for photography. After I went back to Syria, I resumed my former work volunteering and providing psychological support, and I began working as a freelance journalist.

I published around 35 articles in different local and regional newspapers and blogs. A year later, I enrolled in a photography workshop, learning how to produce filmed news reports. I love to capture human stories with my camera, to show my community and reflect their suffering.

Though I am now making a living as a journalist, my life has been forever altered by the horror of the Syrian conflict. Many of the Syrian women I know have faced what I have faced, or worse, and have experienced other yo-yo effects of leaving and coming back.

I have a friend who used to live with her husband and their little girl in Raqqa, under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS). Tragedy struck when her husband and father were killed in a car bombing; around the same time, her daughter died from an illness. She lived in the utmost misery, but refused to be beaten.

When a relative of hers who had joined ISIS tried to force her to remarry, she refused, despite witnessing firsthand the horrors the group inflicted on people who disobeyed it. She fled to Turkey with her brother to start a new life. But it didn’t last long, and she found herself in the middle of the war again after her new husband moved them back to Syria for work.

Another woman I know from a nearby village fled the conflict more than four years ago, moving to Lebanon with her husband and two girls. Lebanese authorities arrested her husband, suspecting that he had ties to an extremist group. She waited a year for his release, until her family in Syria begged her to come home because they were worried that she couldn’t take care of herself independently.

Since her return, she has lost three brothers, one to ISIS and two to the régime. She’s now started her own small business in our village to support herself, her mother and her little girls, waiting for her husband to show up one day.

Another woman I know had lost her husband long before the 2011 revolution. Following the revolution, she lived with her four children in a village outside régime control, but she’d often go to visit her relatives in régime-controlled areas. When militias loyal to the régime learned that she was visiting from the opposition side, they reported her to intelligence officials. Days later, she was arrested by régime forces and accused of smuggling weapons to rebel fighters. She remained in prison for almost four years, during which two of her teenage boys, left with no one to take care of them, joined an armed group.

Her 13-year-old son was killed during a battle. When his mother received the news in prison, she had a breakdown. A while later, her 20-year-old son, married and expecting a newborn, was killed while fighting, too. Two months later, she was released with a pardon and returned to her broken home. Her community rejected her for being an ex-prisoner. Now, she has to look after her remaining children, her daughter-in-law, and her grandchild alone.

There are so many painful stories about young girls and women in Syria, I’d need a book to tell them all. The stories of Syrian women’s struggles are of the forced marriages resulting from wartime pressure, of loneliness and displacement, of having to leave school and abandon their dreams. This war is a curse that women have suffered from the most. It made some of us stronger, but it also broke many of us. I worry especially about the girls growing up now in northwest Syria, which is under heavy bombardment from the régime and Russia. How can they continue an education under such conditions? Already, White Helmet volunteers say the recent bombardments have displaced 300,000 people in northwest Syria alone, their lives in limbo.

I want to tell them, and every girl who’s been through the pain of abandoning her dreams or losing someone she loves, to try and turn the pain into inner strength. Despite the tragedy, there is hope, and you can overcome your sorrow. Though I am also living through the régime and Russia’s attacks, I refuse to give up on my hopes and ambitions. I will continue down the road I chose for myself and do the job that I love, no matter what comes my way.'

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 'Northern Latakia has long been an important junction in smuggling networks running from Turkey into Syria. When Hafez al-Assad came to power in the 1960s, groups that had been previously marginalized were now able to use their familial and clan connections to take advantage of and expand the smuggling networks. Today, these smugglers and other paramilitary groups, such as the National Defense Forces (NDF) and Coastal Shield Brigade, have been tasked with guarding the régime’s heartland.

 Until the past few years, the existential threat from rebel and Islamist fighters deterred pro-régime groups from openly defying the government. While the régime has permitted loyalist militia groups to profit off of smuggling into rebel-held areas and even from extorting local populations, it has consistently drawn a line against allowing them to use their weapons on the régime. Until recently it has been able to act swiftly and decisively against wayward groups, such as when it dismantled the pro-régime Desert Hawks militia in 2017 after the cousin of group’s head violently confronted the president’s motorcade in Qardaha. While it was considered an “elite” unit and deployed on special assignments, such an armed affront to the régime — and indeed the president himself — was beyond the pale and the group was disbanded and its leader, Ayman Jaber, sidelined.

 Fast forward to the past year and the balance of power seems to have shifted: There has been a marked increase in crimes reported in Qardaha and Latakia perpetrated by loyalist militias. Car theft and kidnapping for ransom both appear to be on the rise. In March, régime and Russian-backed Republican Guard forces attempted to arrest Talal al-Assad, cousin of the president and the leader of the local NDF. The reasons for his arrest remain murky but it appears he refused a direct order to send one of his subordinates to Damascus for investigation after he was caught smuggling drugs in the area. When confronted with Republican Guard forces, Talal escaped to Qardaha, where he expelled all other régime civilian and military personnel and proceeded to fire rockets down on Latakia city as a warning. To date, no loyalist militia in Syria has acted so brazenly against the régime — and remained standing.

 While Talal al-Assad and Ayman Jaber were both smugglers-cum-militia leaders, the former is a member of the ruling clan and the latter is not. Although members of the Assad family have always been untouchable to a degree, if Bashar is unable to rein in a rogue militia leader, what kind of message does that send to those looking to him to restore stability? Moreover, such open defiance could be seen by rival elites, some possibly within the Assad clan, as an opportunity to push Bashar aside.

 As Bashar tries to battle rebels and internal opponents alike, he is also struggling to balance the interests and objectives of his foreign backers, Iran and Russia, both of which have been instrumental in defending the régime. Their support, however, has come at a price. The régime has been forced to make economic concessions such as oil and gas exploration rights, preferential trade agreements in sectors such as agriculture, and contracts for reconstruction of war-ravaged areas. In addition, Iran and Russia have been seeking to expand their military footprints in Syria by building bases and fostering proxy forces. Iran has sought to create and support paramilitary forces in Syria, both domestic and foreign, to aid the régime and provide leverage for Tehran after the war concludes. Russia has provided air support on the battlefront and worked to professionalize the Syrian armed forces and (re)integrate paramilitary units into a formal military structure. The fight over the spoils of war has brought Russia and Iran into greater competition in Syria, with increasing direct confrontations — particularly in eastern Deir-ez-Zor Province — between their proxy forces.

 As both countries seek influence in post-conflict Syria, the growing insecurity in coastal areas presents an opportunity to exploit. Iran may look to empower the president’s brother, Maher Assad, who leads the army’s 4th Division and is known to have pro-Iranian sympathies. So far, Bashar has proven to be a useful and pliable ally for Iran, but doubtless they would prefer to have an alternative should he prove unreliable. Encouraging, or at least not actively discouraging, insecurity in Latakia and Tartous may be a way to empower Maher at Bashar’s expense. While Iran may not have been aiming for a palace coup, encouraging paramilitaries to act out could have been a means of applying pressure on Bashar as he wavered between Iran and Russia.

 If Iran’s intention was to draw Bashar closer, then the rug was pulled out from under it when Russian military police began to deploy across Tartous and Latakia to quell the rising crime and violence. Although Russia has positioned military police in Syria previously, this is the first time it has done so in an area not previously held by rebel forces. Often, Russian military police were seen as a more neutral security guarantor by civilians and former rebel fighters than régime or Iranian regular or proxy forces. The deployment of Russian military police across Tartous and Latakia demonstrates both the inability of the Assad régime to effectively police its own territory and the degree to which Russia will go to take over a basic function of the Syrian state. By being allowed to deploy Russian forces directly in the régime’s heartland, President Vladimir Putin has further reinforced the view that only Russia, and not Iran, can provide true security and stability.

 However, Russia’s move is certainly not wholly altruistic, as it has considerable investment in both the Hmeimem air base in Latakia Province — where it headquarters its forces for the whole country and from which it directs air campaigns — and its Tartous naval base. If loyalist militias, some of which are more partial to Iran than Russia, wrestle more power in these coastal areas, they could conceivable threaten two of the greatest geopolitical prizes Russia has won through its intervention in Syria. At the Hmeimem air base, Russia has deployed its advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which has a range sufficient to deny any NATO or otherwise unfriendly aircraft in the whole of the northeastern Mediterranean. In addition, Russia has signaled its intention to expand the Tartous naval base, which it leases under a long-term deal with the Syrian government and is its only warm water port. In short, Russia sees the security of these two military bases as a top priority and is willing to put its own forces on the line to safeguard them.

 The increasing lawlessness of loyalist militias in key areas certainly spells trouble for the régime. Unable or unwilling to act against Talal and his gang, Bashar called on Russia for help. Seizing the opportunity, Moscow deployed its military police to restore security and track down Talal, rather than letting the instability fester or orchestrating Bashar’s removal. The move both undermines Iran and reinforces Russia’s role as the régime’s protector while further indebting Bashar, from whom it can continue to extract economic and potentially military concessions.'

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 'Former ambassador of France in Syria, Michel Duclos has just published a book on the diplomatic impasse in Syria. He explains why Bashar al-Assad survived eight years of war. In addition to the US disengagement and the return of Russia in the regional game, it points the inner springs of a scheme ready for anything. 

 "It is above all the nature of the system that explains the Syrian tragedy. It is impressive to see that in the series of Arab Spring, Bashar al-Assad is the only tyrant who held. It must be asked why. One of the answers is what I call Ottoman demography, the sociological division of Syria between different denominations, where the Alawite minority holds the upper hand with other minorities, especially Christian. The other element is the very particular nature of this minority, clan-dominated régime, which has held its own community and the rest of the population hostage. A régime that obeys a code, a legacy of the history of an oppressed Alawite minority who must defend himself, and who wants to take revenge. This legacy was transformed into a method of power by the Assad clan who seized the Baath party, the army, and finally the country. This method of power prepares the people who practice it to hold whatever the circumstances, because they have no way out. Every day is a victory. At the same time, everything is allowed, there is no limit to inhumanity. It is the mark of this régime with which it is illusory to believe that one can make accommodations.

 For the Americans, Syria does not exist as an active country, it is a strategic object. The tragedy of the Syrian uprising is that it came as the United States of Barack Obama was in the process of disengaging from the Middle East. All of this has been accentuated by Obama's desire to reach an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue. The international panorama was limited for the United States, which did not want to interfere with the Syrian question, while the Russians were in the process of expansion and return in the region.

 On the Iranian side, the Syrian uprising was a strategic issue from the beginning, even if, at the beginning, the president of the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wanted to support the uprising. It was the Revolutionary Guards who convinced Ali Khamenei to support Bashar al-Assad, that it was a strategic issue. It is therefore the demands of supporters of Iranian expansionism that have prevailed.

 The interests of Europeans are not entirely consistent with those of the Americans. The United States has a specific goal that is to contain the Iranian influence. And even if Trump sometimes gives the impression of wanting to withdraw, there is still a strategic logic to keep a foot in Syria. For Europeans, the effects of terrorism and immigration make them uninterested. At the crossroads of the two, there is Turkey. So, for all Westerners, there are still reasons for trying to guide things. And then there is the metapolitical impact, Syria is an incubator of the new authoritarian régimes. All humanitarian norms and laws of war that we had somehow managed to get into the international rule at the end of the XX th century were destroyed. All this has disappeared. If this continues, as the authoritarians take power everywhere, whenever there will be a revolt, the récipe of Al-Assad will appear as accessible since Westerners do not react.

 Yes, the régime of Al-Assad has been victorious, but he is in trouble with his own base because of American sanctions and the choking of the economy. Moreover, it is dependent on an international game where the Russians can betray it, either with the Turks, with the Israelis, or with both at the same time. It is finally dependent on the alliance with the Iranians that leads to the curse of the Americans. He won, but he still has a lot of obstacles to overcome. Westerners can exploit this rottenness. Everyone says that the only bridge is Russia, we must try, tirelessly repeat to the Russians that we are ready to work with them on an exit solution but on our terms, not theirs." '

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 'Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies have escalated aerial bombing of Idlib in northwest Syria, the last rebel-held province in Syria. A major offensive to capture Idlib, where three million people live, is expected.

 Idlib has been the refuge for large numbers of Syrians who were displaced from towns and cities captured by Mr. Assad’s forces. There will be no Idlib after Idlib. The régime and its Russian backers have displayed utter disregard for the catastrophic number of civilian deaths that an all-out attack would cause.

 On Syrian State TV, a propagandist for the Assad régime likened the solution for Idlib to the processing of garbage: “You collect trash, separate it, recycle what can be recycled and bury the rest in the ground.”

 Yasser, 33, construction worker, Khan Shaykhun:

 "I wake up and watch the news. We talk relentlessly about Idlib’s fate. People think Russia is going to attack no matter what.

 The small shops that sell bread and vegetables are still open, but most other businesses have shut down. Farming has stopped. So has construction. The warehouse that sells cement has shuttered. A few days earlier, a nearby school was bombed. Thankfully, it was closed and nobody was hurt.

 Some people are digging underground shelters and stockpiling food. We fear more chemical gas attacks. People are trying to make gas masks with whatever they have, but it won’t even work.

 Turkish soldiers are still positioned in the nearby town of Morek, which is on the front line (with Syrian government forces). We keep hearing reassuring statements from Turkish officials, but most people don’t think Turkey can prevent the assault.

 I was here in Khan Shaykhun last year when the régime attacked with chemical weapons. My family and I live on the opposite side of the city and weren’t affected. I went to the site of the chemical attack the next day. The streets were empty. Many in the neighborhood had died, especially those who had hidden in shelters. Those who had climbed on rooftops had survived.

 America has warned the Assad régime against using chemical weapons, but we don’t exclude that possibility. We are defenseless, without even the basic equipment to protect our families from such attacks.

 I am not preparing for the invasion. I am trying to flee to Turkey with my family. We will soon leave for the border.

 I was a police officer in a nearby village in 2011 when the crackdown on protesters began. We were ordered to beat them. First with sticks, then with cattle prods. Soon the government wanted us to shoot. I had to defect or kill people. I defected.

 Rebels took Khan Shaykhun early. We have been living here for years with aerial bombing, but now, if the régime advances, there is no other option for me but crossing into Turkey. I have to save my family. All we want is to stay in our homes and live our lives."

 Um Mohammed, late 40s, homemaker, Kafranbel:

 "I live in Kafranbel with my three sons and their families. My 27-year-old son dropped out of law school in Aleppo after the uprising in 2011 and became a construction worker to support us. Two years ago, an airstrike wounded his younger brother. It took a year of recovery and the insertion of metal pins into his leg for him to be able to work again.

 We fall asleep to the roar of fighter planes. We wake up to the same sound in fear. It is very difficult to worry all the time about my children. Everyone is talking about the offensive. We are going to flee and become homeless. If we stay, the régime is going to arrest my sons, if only because they have been dodging the draft for years.

 We are very tired. The war, and with it our suffering, has been going on for years. When I talk to people around me, I hear many wanting Turkey to control this area. “At least we won’t worry about our children,” they say. If the régime comes here, everyone will be targeted.

 Women I know who survived the capture of Ghouta have told us lots of stories, about murders and mass arrests. The Syrian Army rounded up young people, either to arrest them or conscript them into the army. They humiliated them.

 We fear nobody would be spared in Idlib."

 Hanin, 25, activist and writer, Idlib:

 "I was studying at Aleppo University when the demonstrations began in the spring of 2011, and I started attending the protests. The régime arrested many of my friends and classmates. I quit school out of solidarity with them. Quitting the university was one of the great losses of my life. Since then, the revolution has occupied my life. I grew up during — and through — the revolution.

 I came back to Idlib city and tried to find my place in the revolution. I couldn’t fight and still don’t believe in the revolution’s militarization. I don’t support any armed group. I became an activist. I help organize protests and I write essays, especially about issues affecting women and children.

 I married and divorced during the revolution. I now live with my family. They support me despite the negative views our society holds about divorced, independent women.

 In Idlib, I have been repeatedly detained and harassed by Islamist groups. Once, I took a minibus home from work. All the other passengers had gotten off, so it was just me and the driver, when we passed through a checkpoint run by Hayat Tahrir al Sham (a former Al Qaeda affiliate that is the most powerful armed faction in Idlib).

 The fighters detained me for traveling without a chaperone. When I tried to reason with them, they brought up my colorful shoes and handbag.

 I have naturally long eyelashes and they accused me of wearing makeup. They forced me to wash my face in front of a bunch of fighters and people passing by. It was humiliating. Most people in and around Idlib do not support them.

 Because of my activism, I am sure I am wanted by the Assad régime’s security branches. Still, I am against fleeing. I have to stay, even when the régime soldiers come. I might die, but I prefer it to slow death in another country. For others, being killed by border guards’ bullets is preferable to being arrested by the army.

 Although it hurts, I don’t blame people who believed in our cause and our freedom but who got bored by this conflict. They didn’t live our lives. People who stopped caring about Syrians after the rise of Islamist groups shouldn’t have forgotten us. We need a revolution against those groups as much as we need it against the Assad régime.

 We won’t give up after all these years. Recently, we organized and gathered for a series of demonstrations against Russia, the régime and Hayat Tahrir al Sham, and we will continue to demonstrate.

 Idlib is not the end. We may die, but this fight will last for generations." '

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