In Harasta, force overpowers freedom—for now

by Fadi Dayoub

Today we are at the end of a story that is more than five-year-old.

A bittersweet story for sure, but one that saw people reach and touch the dream, even if they did not get to experience its full potential.

Only six months ago, we were debating what’s next for Harasta. We had just concluded the direct elections of a local council, a process that upheld electoral standards within our means–we even had debates among the candidates.

Harasta, to be fair, was not the first to lead the way with direct elections of a local council; Saqba did it only a month before.

And so, we were discussing what our next step should be. How to work with the council to increase the participation rate in the next elections, particularly that of women. We decided that the ‘Center for Social Engagement”–which was established a few months prior and had taken part in overseeing the elections in Harasta producing a detailed report–should focus on encouraging higher electoral turnout.

We did not know at the time those would be the last elections in Harasta…

Harasta today, as those who remain there tell us, is almost completely destroyed. Part of its people has been made, under fire, to leave and go north. They wanted to still be able to smell free air, even if away from home. Another part decided to stay back, even deprived of their basic freedoms.

A few days ago, several hundred people in Kafr Batna were filmed demonstrating, chanting “We do not want Freedom anymore!” They, thus, agreed to the trade the regime had asked of them: Their Liberty for their Life.

And so, as some Harastans choose to let go of their freedom, while others choose to let go of their homes, remember that none of this was actually their choice. They made their decision at gunpoint.

Today, as we turn the page on the five-year story of Free Harasta, I only hope for the safety and well-being of its people, wherever they are, and wherever they are made to be. We bow our heads to you in humility and we raise them with pride.

Advertisements

Statement by the civilian block in eastern Ghouta

In response to the fierce campaign launched on eastern Ghouta by the forces of the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran and the sectarian militias which resulted in killing, destruction and the deterioration of the humanitarian situation of the population of East Ghouta. The regime used in this campaign all kinds of weapons including those prohibited internationally such as the chlorine gas, napalm, phosphor and cluster bombs.

This campaign resulted in mass massacres and more than one 1300 victims in 30 days most of them are civilians, including children and women. These acts amount to war crime resulted mainly because of the Russian violation of UNSC resolutions.

We representatives of institutions, CSOs activists, humanitarian workers, local councils’ members, and media activists announce the formation of a civilian block in East Ghouta to represent the civilians and their will and aspirations in the situation of their absented voice about what is taking place in East Ghouta.

This civilian block aims at: Continue reading “Statement by the civilian block in eastern Ghouta”

The Ghouta Slaughter and Arab Responsibility

This article was first published at the New Arab.

AFP photoIn 2011, people in the eastern Ghouta (and throughout Syria) protested for freedom, dignity and social justice. The Assad regime replied with gunfire, mass arrests, torture and rape. The people formed self-defence militias in response. Then the regime escalated harder, deploying artillery and warplanes against densely-packed neighbourhoods. In August 2013 it choked over a thousand people to death with sarin gas. Since then the area has been besieged so tightly that infants and the elderly die of malnutrition.

Seven years into this process – first counter-revolutionary and now exterminatory – the Ghouta has tumbled to the lowest pit of hell. This didn’t have to happen. Nor was it an accident. Local, regional and global powers created the tragedy, by their acts and their failures to act. And Arab and international public opinion has contributed, by its apathy and relative silence.

Blame must be apportioned first to the regime, and next to its imperialist sponsors. Russia shares the skies with Assad’s bombers, and is an equal partner in war crime after war crime, targeting schools, hospitals, first responders and residential blocks.

Then Iran, which kept Assad afloat by providing both a financial lifeline and a killing machine. Iran’s transnational militias provided 80% of Assad’s troops around Aleppo, and some surround the Ghouta today. Their participation in the strategic cleansing of rebellious (and overwhelmingly Sunni) populations helped boost a Sunni jihadist backlash and will continue to provoke sectarian conflict in the future.

But the blame stretches further. American condemnations of the current slaughter, for instance, ring very hollow in Syrian ears. The Obama administration, focused on achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, ignored Iran’s build-up in Syria. It also ensured the Free Syrian Army was starved of the weapons needed to defend liberated zones. And by signalling his disengagement after the 2013 sarin atrocity, Obama indirectly but clearly invited greater Russian intervention. Since the rise of ISIS, the United States has focused myopically on its ‘war on terror’, bombing terrorists – demolishing cities and killing civilians in the process – but never deploying its vast military might in a concerted manner to protect civilians. Objectively, despite the rhetoric, the US has collaborated with Russia and Iran.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, called for a humanitarian truce to allow civilians to evacuate. This sounds humane, and if the fall of Aleppo is any guide, it’s probably the best scenario Ghouta residents can expect. But the proposal’s lack of ambition illustrates the current dysfunction of the global system. Instead of acting to stop the slaughter and siege, European statesmen support mass population expulsion, requesting only that it be done as gently as possible.

Continue reading “The Ghouta Slaughter and Arab Responsibility”

Burning Country New Edition

hi-res-cover

A new edition of our book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War has now been released. That’s it in the picture bearing a Folio Prize Shortlist rosette.

This edition contains a long new chapter called Syria Dismantled, which attempts to update the situation from the summer of 2015 to the present. It covers the stages of defeat through Daraya to Aleppo, the Russian assault and Iran’s militia surge, and the sectarian cleansing, and the PYD’s expansion, and Turkey’s intervention… Of course it’s already out of date.

But buy it, do, and ask your local library and bookshop to stock it. In order to understand the current situation (globally, not just in Syria), it’s necessary to understand how the democratic revolution started – and how the counter-revolution’s response sparked an endless series of wars. More importantly, our book does its best to give voice to Syrians themselves, those who dared to create new possibilities, and who paid an unfathomable price.

Published by Pluto in the UK, distributed by Chicago University Press in the US.

Here it is on British Amazon, and here on the American site.

Syria’s Opposition Should Support Kurdish Autonomy

This was published first at The New Arab.

ocalan
‘There is no life without the leader’. PYD militants raise Abdullah Ocalan’s picture in Raqqa

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a Marxist-Leninist turned authoritarian-anarchist (yes, that is an oxymoron) Kurdish separatist party-militia at intermittent war with the Turkish state. The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a PKK-offshoot set up while Abdullah Ocalan was hosted in Syria by Hafez al-Assad. Given its focus on the war against Turkey rather than civil rights in Syria, the PYD was usually tolerated by the regime.

As the revolution began liberating territory in 2012, Assad forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight, handing them over to PYD control. Thereafter the PYD monopolised arms and aid money, repressed opposition parties, and shot at protestors.

At the same time, it won an undoubted national victory for the Kurds. After decades of enforced ‘Arabism’, locals finally policed their own neighbourhoods and children were taught in their mother tongue. Through the commune system, the PYD also promoted a measure of local democracy. The allocation of 40% of commune seats to women is evidence of the party’s impressive commitment to gender equality.

As well as the PYD’s avowed secularism, the fact that its territories were not subjected to Assad’s scorched earth inoculated them against penetration by transnational jihadists. The PYD’s political innovations, meanwhile, won the admiration of many leftists and anarchists in the west. Sadly this support was often uncritical, and generally ignored similar democratic self-organisation experiments in the liberated but heavily bombed territories beyond PYD rule.

At first, the PYD governed Syria’s three Kurdish-majority areas, that is the Afrin, Kobani and Jazira cantons. These areas (collectively called Rojava, or Western Kurdistan) are non-contiguous. Kurdish autonomy could work there, but not statehood.

The PYD, however, was able to take advantage of both Russia’s war on the rebels and the American-led coalition’s war against ISIS to join up and expand its territory. In February 2016, in alliance with Russia, the PYD captured Tel Rifaat, Menagh, and surrounding areas close to Afrin. These Arab-majority towns were governed by civilian local councils and defended by non-jihadist rebels. Both people and rebels were driven out by Russian air power (Russian bombs destroyed all three of Tel Rifaat’s health centres during the assault) accompanied by the PYD’s troops on the ground. Next, in July 2016, the PYD captured the Castello Road leading into Aleppo, assisting the Assad regime’s siege on the city and eventually its fall (in December) to Assad’s Iranian-backed militias.

Continue reading “Syria’s Opposition Should Support Kurdish Autonomy”

Two Upcoming Screenings of SYRIA’S DISAPPEARED in Chicago

The film Syria’s Disappeared has been called “brilliant and sickening” and a “must-view can’t-look documentary…about the 200,000 people arrested and detained after the Arab Spring took hold in Syria.”

Amnesty International is partnering with the filmmakers on a series of screenings and panel discussions around the world. Amnesty International – UK recently hosted one in London.

Amnesty International – Chicago is hosting two screenings: one at Loyola University’s lake shore campus on Wednesday October 25 at 6pm; one at DePaul University’s downtown campus on Thursday October 26 at 6pm. Following both screenings, Sara Afshar, the film’s director and co-producer, ​will discuss the film and take audience questions. At DePaul, she’ll be joined by Elisabeth Ward, executive director of the university’s International Human Rights Law Institute. Both screenings are free of charge and open to the public.

Want to organize a screening in your city? Want to review the film? Get in touch with Sara Afshar.

Highly recommended reading:

‘Please don’t forget us’: the hellish search for Syria’s lost prisoners (Nicola Cutcher)

The Syrians Campaigning for Justice for Those ‘Disappeared’ by Assad (Nicola Cutcher and Sara Afshar)

“Syria’s Desaparecidos (Budour Hassan)

“Syria’s Disappeared” (Bente Scheller)

Did a Kremlin Pilgrimage cause Alternet blogger’s Damascene conversion?

A blogger who once supported the Syrian revolution has reinvented himself as an advocate for Bashar al Assad. Did his pilgrimage to Moscow occasion this conversion?

by Sam Charles Hamad and Oz Katerji

Last March, a live performance in support of Syrian first responders by a flashmob orchestra at New York’s Grand Central Station was physically disrupted by a group of six protesters. Within hours, the video of the disruption was uploaded to social media and promoted by an RT employee. Max Blumenthal, a blogger at Alternet, soon released documents that revealed the performance was organized by a pro-Syrian campaign group. In characteristic inversion of reality, RT billed the disruption as a triumph for “anti-war” direct action.

Three participants in the protest have so far been identified: all have links to RT, the Russian state-funded propaganda network now under investigation by the U.S. government for its alleged interference in the last presidential election. Alexander Rubinstein, the man who filmed the protest, is an RT employee, and Taryn Fivek and Sara Flounders, the two protesters, are RT contributors. Blumenthal, who amplified the story, is also a regular on RT.

Fivek was an officer with the International Organization for Migration until she was found to have used the pseudonym Emma Quangel on Twitter to cheer Russia’s actions in Syria and mock civilian suffering. Flounders, a steering committee member of the pro-Assad Syria Solidarity Movement, has graduated from denying Serb atrocities in Bosnia to denying Assad regime atrocities in Syria. Both have limited influence.  It is Blumenthal who with Alternet has created an effective beachhead in the US for Kremlin propaganda.

Things were not always thus. In 2012, Blumenthal had publicly resigned as a columnist from the pro-Assad Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, citing as his reason the paper’s publishing of cheerleaders who blamed Assad’s victims and maligned critical journalists. He likened their behavior to that of Israel’s apologists. Blumenthal has now dramatically resurrected himself as an apologist for Assad, a scourge of critical journalists, and a mirror image—by his own logic—of Israel’s apologists.

What happened in between to occasion this dramatic reversal?  Continue reading “Did a Kremlin Pilgrimage cause Alternet blogger’s Damascene conversion?”