This article was taken over from Syria comment to bring it into attention of Informed Comment community for discussion.
by Matthew Barber
A fabulous documentary about the situation of children in Syria is being shown on Canadian and British television. The documentary, “Children on the Frontline,” will be available for viewing for a limited time online, but unfortunately only for viewers in Canada or the UK. The documentary contains enlightening footage of life inside war-torn neighborhoods of Aleppo, and interviews with a number of children who talk about their experiences living on the frontline of the Syrian war. One little girl talks about how she searches for salvageable scrap metal that she brings home to her father who makes bombs. She describes, as though it is perfectly ordinary, seeing the head of a man split open when a bomb in their workshop was accidentally detonated. Another girl, about 5 years old, relays a dream of being surrounded by a circle of snipers who begin opening fire on her. “They hit me here, here, here,” she says, touching her body in the places where she dreamed the bullets hit. The scene that brought tears to my eyes was seeing several sisters searching through abandoned homes, looking for weapons. The harsh juxtaposition of the world of children and the world of war is depicted so clearly: One of the girls is carrying a gun and they are discussing finding weapons, when suddenly they become distracted by a stash of little toys and stuffed animals they discover. The gun is laid aside as colorful little bears and plastic balls are examined. Their older sister then won’t allow them to remove the items from the house, because “it would be stealing” from the people who own the house. The mother of the girls explains on camera that she won’t allow her children to loot anything from any home, whether it had belonged to regime-aligned people or not.
A well-known activist named Aboude is also profiled, who lives in Aleppo and is 13 years old. He began taking the courageous stance to criticize the government openly, at school, two years ago when he was only 11. No one put him up to this; his parents were against his involvement in activism, but he has been leading protests ever since. The documentary also examines the plight of the area that is now threatened by al-Qaida-linked Islamists who punish even the most stalwart revolutionaries for “un-Islamic” behaviors. The area in which the documentary was filmed is an FSA stronghold at the edge of rebel territory, directly adjacent to regime positions. Though sniper fire is a serious threat, one of the fighters explains that ”being close to your enemy is the safest place to be,” because aerial bombardment is unlikely on the frontline where rebel positions are so close to regime forces. In addition to daily confrontations with regime forces, the people of the area now have to contend with the threat of kidnappings by al-Qaida rebels who target even the most committed activists who pioneered dissent in the early days of the uprising. Those who follow events in the country have known for a while that this has been a growing problem, but there are still plenty of FSA-controlled areas that are feeling increasingly hampered by the oppressive involvement of ISIS members who are more interested in imposing their own religious norms than in uniting with rebel forces to provide defense. (A significant example of this occurred this week when Raed Fares, the man behind the famous protest artwork that comes out of Kafranbel, was shot—likely by ISIS—but survived the assassination attempt.)
Something evident in the area depicted in the documentary, still controlled by FSA forces, is that food is available. Other areas of resistance that become surrounded or captured by the regime do not remain so fortunate.
Over the past month or more, a high number of photos and narrated accounts have emerged that present evidence of horrific levels of suffering, due to starvation.
Starvation is a weapon of torture employed against the regime’s opponents; it is less about any military strategy but more about collectively punishing political enemies and breaking the will of those who defy the state. Starvation in Syria has been taking place in two contexts: 1) opposition areas that fall under regime control and are subsequently blockaded, food supplies being prevented from entering these districts, and 2) prisoners in custody who are not fed by their captors.
Through the course of the now-ending Geneva peace talks, the regime’s narrative has been unsurprising. It highlighted instances of terrorism committed by jihadists and then portrayed itself as trying to combat the terror problem. Even as we near the beginning of the 4th year of the conflict, regime figures at the talks would not acknowledge that their opponents were Syrian or that a great portion of the Syrian population does not recognize Assad as president. They portrayed their own narrative as “the Syrian side” or “the Syrian story” implying that contrary views were not Syrian. For regime proponents and members of the Ba’athist cult of unreality, a Syrian is not someone originating within the geographical bounds of the historical place called Syria; to be a Syrian, one must embrace and endorse the rule of the current state.
The Guardian reports that during the Geneva talks this past week, nearly 1,900 people have been killed in Syria. Allegations of blockades that result in starvation continue, reportedly occurring in multiple locations within the country. In addition to the accounts of starvation, Human Rights Watch yesterday released a detailed report on the Syrian regime’s systematic use of punitive housing demolition—the destruction of entire neighborhoods—over the last two years. The report can be accessed here: “Razed to the Ground.”
After hearing the tired yet predictable deceitful language propagated by regime figures at the Geneva talks, it is important to remember that yes, terrorism has been rampant among many Syrian rebel factions—typical in asymmetrical warfare, and in this conflict often directed at sectarian targets—but nevertheless, no single player in the conflict has utilized terrorism as widely as the Syrian regime.
The places currently under siege in Syria that we could identify (that may experience the risk of a lack of food or from where reports of the absence of food have been received) are: Babila, Beit Sahem, Duma, Harasta, Zamalaka, Deir al-Asafir, Mukhayam Yarmook, Yelda, al-Mo’adamia, Daraya, Qabuun, Jobar, Berzeh, Homs, Homs al-Qadima, al-Qasour, al-Qarabiss, Jorat al-Shayah, al-Waer, Rastan, Telbissa, Hola, al-Dar al-Kabira, Qal’at al-Hosn, Zara.
The following are a few of the examples of starvation that have been circulating recently.
An old man from Rif Dimashq (Damascus countryside or suburbs) cries while talking about the imposed blockade and the inability to find food.
Starvation in the Yarmouk Palestinian neighborhood of Damascus, showing recently deceased emaciated body and an emaciated man still alive:
Emaciated infant dead from starvation in Jisreen:
An article in Arabic describes how a family in Yarmouk was poisoned after eating cat meat
“We are now eating anything that comes out of the ground, plants, even grass. We pick it, then cook it with some water using wood because we have no gas…
“These shrubs and grass that we’re eating causes illnesses, such as indigestion and fever. A few days ago an elderly man died within six hours from eating the grass and shrubs.”
An Amnesty International article discusses, in addition to the absence of food, the danger of being shot by snipers while trying to bring leaves/grass for family members to eat:
… “Every day, we receive around four people – probably half of them women – who were shot at by snipers as they were picking plants and shrubs in the fields. The women say they prefer to risk their own lives to spare their children. On one occasion, we received a teenager, probably aged 16 or 17, who was shot dead. His father started talking to him, saying: ‘You died for the sake of bringing hibiscus leaves for your siblings.’ It was heartbreaking,” he said. …
BBC article from today describes some aid reaching Yarmouk:
… In a separate development, the UN relief agency UNRWA said it had delivered 720 food parcels to a besieged Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus on Thursday.
Yarmouk camp, which is held by the rebels, is suffering severe shortages of food and medical supplies, with activists reporting dozens of deaths there from starvation.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described “chaotic scenes” as 700 of the total 900 food parcels brought into the camp were distributed to residents.
He said it was the first aid to reach the remaining 18,000 residents since 21 January, when UNRWA distributed 138 food parcels. …
In addition to the issue of blockades that will not allow food to those inside, evidence emerged recently confirming widespread starvation within Syrian prisons. On Jan. 20, the Guardian published a report it had received from an independent commission on the issue. The report, available here, consisted of an analysis given by several individuals who examined photographic evidence of torture and starvation. The photographs had been smuggled out of Syria by a regime defector who worked inside the prisons. The evidence consisted of 55,000 photographs of around 11,000 bodies. A large percentage of the photographed corpses showed signs of emaciation. I won’t relay the story of the defector or details of the investigation. The report is worth reading. Aspects of the report’s methodology were criticized, as were the political motivations behind the timing of its release just prior to the Geneva talks, in addition to scrutiny on those who funded the report. This notwithstanding, the findings of the report deserve attention.
One article to discuss the report was published on Mail Online: Starved, tortured then throttled: The true horror of how Assad’s soldiers execute rebel prisoners is revealed in new images
The article contains a number of the leaked photos of tortured and starved bodies, a few of which I will post. On the one hand I feel apologetic for posting these, but on the other I believe its important to consider the extent of suffering experienced by prisoners in Syria. This is a reality we must not ignore, and it should disturb us.
Commentary on the report appeared here and in the following article: Syrian regime document trove shows evidence of ‘industrial scale’ killing of detainees
Senior war crimes prosecutors say photographs and documents provide ‘clear evidence’ of systematic killing of 11,000 detainees
Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the “systematic killing” of about 11,000 detainees, according to three eminent international lawyers.
The three, former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, examined thousands of Syrian government photographs and files recording deaths in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to last August.
Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.
The UN and independent human rights groups have documented abuses by both Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebels, but experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis.
… The authors are Sir Desmond de Silva QC, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, and Professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court. …
“This is amazing. This is the type of evidence a prosecutor looks for and hopes for. We have pictures, with numbers that marry up with papers with identical numbers – official governmentdocuments. We have the person who took those pictures. That’s beyond-reasonable-doubt-type evidence.” …
“These photos – if authentic – suggest that we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria’s notorious dungeons. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this and that is for the negotiating parties at Geneva II to grant unhindered access to Syria’s detention facilities to independent monitors.”
ISIS has also starved their prisoners. The narrator in this video says that after being imprisoned by ISIS and not being given food or water, prisoners had to eat rats. The video shows the mutilated body of a man who was in prison with him. He says there were 325 prisoners. ISIS guards came and led out a group of them, including some militia commanders, after which they heard gunshots. The guards came back and took out another group, including a 14 and a 15 year old. More gunshots were heard. When they asked the guards where they were taking these people, they were told that they were letting them go home, but then one of the prisoners who was arrested for a trivial reason and tortured at the hands of a British interrogator was shot and killed in front of them for not being able to move after being tortured. That’s when they realized that they were all being executed in turns. One of the prisoners was arrested for simply walking past an ISIS headquarters building and looking at them. Another was a 73 year-old diabetic man with very swollen fingers and feet. The arrested children were more resistant to the hunger and thirst than were the adults. As the cameraman moves the camera around, people standing near the narrator cover their faces out of fear of being seen by ISIS.
For those interested in more translations of the @wikibaghdady leaks, the folks over at reddit continued them. See here
The Other Syrian Peace Process – Aron Lund
… On January 23, Moheisini launched a peace plan called the Umma Initiative…
…The plan is as follows: after an immediate ceasefire between the ISIL and other rebels, the factions will elect a joint arbitration court from a list of ten independent religious scholars. …
… Just as this post went online, the ISIL announced that it is rejecting the Umma Initiative. The group demands that all signatories must first cut their ties to states like Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and of course the West, and to non-Islamist groups like the SMC and other foreign-funded entities. Until this happens, it will continue to fight its enemies. While this is a clever way of trying to play the ball back to the signatories of the Umma Initiative, the end results seems to be that the ISIL has opted for increasing isolation instead of reconciliation. It will attempt a military solution to the conflict, in the hope that the anti-ISIL ranks will splinter with time.
Fascinating article: At Neutral Site, Syrians Feel Free to Confront the Other Side – Anne Barnard & Hwaida Saad
For Syrian officials, a lakeside idyll here, far from their country’s war, has been marred by what plainly feels to them like an endless stream of impertinent questions.
They have been asked why their government is bombing its citizens, when their president is leaving office, what happened to a British doctor who died suspiciously in a Syrian government prison. They have even been offered the coordinates of jihadist fighters — and asked if they will drop bombs on them instead of on civilians.
The questions that gall them the most, judging by their reactions, are not from the foreigners whose queries they are accustomed to viewing as part of a “media war.” The ones that really nettle them come from Syrians.
… It is an encounter that neither side has experienced before, and in some ways it is the most significant thing taking place at a peace conference that has been more about optics than results. Here in neutral and secure Switzerland, Syrian government delegates used to meeting journalists only inside a government-controlled bubble are finding that almost anyone can come up to them anytime, anywhere, and ask anything.
It is a surreal experience, too, for Syrian activists like Adnan Hadad of Aleppo, who sees it this way: “If we tried this in Syria, they would torture us to death.” …
Yet the government bubble is far older than the war. An Arab journalist who worked in Syria for years said government delegates probably had “never seen, let alone spoken to, anyone in the opposition.”
So for them to sit across from Haitham al-Maleh, an opposition delegate in his 80s who is a former political prisoner, is “historic,” the journalist said, “as if people from the Stalinist system suddenly sat down with Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov.”
“‘Darkness at Noon,’ you have to think in these terms,” the journalist added, referring to the book about Soviet repression and speaking anonymously to freely express his personal views. …
An example of the kinds of encounters that Anne was describing above can be seen in this video of Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi running from a reporter who keeps asking “Why won’t the regime bomb ISIS targets?” (It was recently reported that an ISIS defector claimed he and his comrades always slept soundly in their bases, knowing that the regime wouldn’t be bombing them.)
Even if the Syrian regime doesn’t attack ISIS bases, the Turkish military attacked an ISIS convoy on Wednesday. Turkey’s longstanding policy of leaving the border open to jihadists was certain to return to haunt them at some point. ISIS and others seeking to create what they term an “Islamic state” will recognize the legitimacy of Turkish borders as much as they do Syrian borders. The irony is that after tacitly (and actively) supporting the jihadists, Turkey may at some point begin fighting them. The attack was in retaliation for cross-border fire. al-Arabiya – Turkish army strikes ISIS convoy in Syria
The Turkish armed forces opened fire on the convoy of an al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group’s vehicles in Syria in retaliation for cross-border fire on Tuesday, destroying three vehicles, Turkish media said on Wednesday.
“A pick-up, a truck and a bus in an ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) convoy were destroyed,” Agence France-Presse quoted published by Turkish media. There were no casualties on the Turkish side.
The army said the attack, carried out Tuesday, came after two Turkish military vehicles had been fired upon at the Cobanbey border post in the south of the country.
The Turkish military targeted ISIS positions in northern Syria after a mortar shell fired from Syria landed in Turkish territory during clashes between ISIS and the rebel Free Syrian Army, Reuters reported broadcaster NTV as saying.
The incident is considered to be the first pitting Turkey against ISIS which has been fighting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad as well as fellow rebel groups in the north of the country since January.
Al-Qaeda in Turkey?
The Turkish military action also comes after Israel’s military intelligence chief said some of the al-Qaeda militants fighting in Syria have set up bases in Turkey, where they can also easily access Europe.
Al-Qaeda fighters from around the world enter Syria weekly, but they “do not stay there,” Major-General Aviv Kochavi told a security conference, while presenting a map of the Middle East marking areas with an al-Qaeda presence. According to the map, there are three al-Qaeda bases in Turkey. …
If you missed it before, make sure to view a documentary released at the beginning of this month, on the struggle of the Kurds in northeastern Syria. The Kurdish fighters in the video point out that Turkey keeps its border with Arab areas of Syria open, allowing fighters and journalists in and out. However, they keep the portion of the Turkish border adjacent to the Kurdish area of Syria tightly sealed. The Kurds believe that Turkey is worried about the success of the Kurds, and is happy to allow ISIS fighters through to fight them. That those ISIS fighters may eventually pose a terror threat inside Turkey, or become a force that Turkey itself will have to fight, highlights the irony. Another significant moment in this film is a scene in which a Kurdish fighter displays a knife he retrieved from a fallen ISIS fighter. He says the knife was bloody when he got it and had been used to cut someone’s throat. Printed on the side of the knife was “Made in USA” and the words “9/11 – We Will Never Forget.” The implication was that US military equipment, complete with pro-US nationalist (and ultimately anti-jihadist) slogans, destined as aid for FSA rebels, wound up in the hands of ISIS jihadis who were using that very equipment in their executions. Layers of irony.
While Turkey worries about its border, Israel is worrying about its border as well, going so far as to take an active role in supporting rebels. Israel’s Growing Role in Southern Syria Arabic version here: دور إسرائيل المتنامي في جنوب سوريا
Concerned about the possible drift of al-Qaeda affiliates to areas adjacent to the Golan Heights border, Israel finds itself obliged to increase its assistance to local rebel militias in southern Syria.
As the fighting in Syria rages, Israel has been moving cautiously and often reluctantly toward assuming a modest role in the civil war, restricted to areas along the Golan Heights frontier line. What began as a purely humanitarian step — extending emergency medical aid to injured and sick Syrians from neighboring villages — has by now reportedly expanded into a well-developed mechanism for providing a whole range of items, from medications to food, fuel, clothes, heaters, and more. …
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