TSI Exec. Dir. shares insight on south Damascus deal

With evacuations looming, ‘de-escalation zone’ announced for south Damascus

New “de-escalation” initiative presents new status quo for south Damascus suburbs, but how will it work?


The last remaining rebel-held suburbs of south Damascus may soon fall under a new “de-escalation zone,” according to a tentative agreement announced by rebel representatives in Cairo on Oct. 12.

Jaish al-Islam political representative and former chief rebel negotiator Mohammad al-Alloush announced the deal, reportedly signed with Russian guarantees, in an address broadcast by Egyptian state TV.

Alloush described the agreement as “preliminary,” but added that it would “provide for the continued opening of crossings in the south of the capital … to allow in humanitarian aid,” and protect against forcible displacements in areas where the deal was implemented.

The agreement, which was signed by Jaish al-Islam, another rebel faction and a Hamas-affiliated Palestinian militia originally from Yarmouk camp, took effect at noon Cairo time Oct. 12.

The new deal would impose a de-escalation zone in south Damascus, similar to the ones formed in the wake of the international agreement signed in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in May. The deal set out tentative cease-fires in four — mostly rebel-controlled — areas of the country with Russia, Turkey and Iran acting as guarantors.

There was no mention in the deal of two other districts of south Damascus, Yarmouk camp and Hajar al-Aswad, which remain under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State (IS). On Oct. 13, Syrian jets launched at least 14 airstrikes on IS-controlled Hajar al-Aswad.

And the incredibly complex state-of-play in and around the last rebel-held south Damascus suburbs could pose problems in the future, said Valerie Szybala, The Syria Institute’s executive director.

“The regime was not part of the talks in Cairo, so its reaction will be important in determining how things play out,” Szybala told Al-Monitor on Oct. 12. “Given Iran’s interest in this geographical area, I imagine it is a place where they [with the regime] would be willing to challenge or undermine a deal made by Russia that they don’t like.”

She added, “Many of the armed opposition groups in the southern suburbs were not part of the negotiations either, so there is the potential for them to create issues as well if they decide at some point that they don’t like it.”

Rebel groups, despite signing partial truces with the regime in 2014, still control four areas of south Damascus: al-Qadam in one pocket, and Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem in another. Only three local rebel forces signed the Oct. 12 document in Cairo.

Prior to this latest announcement, the fate of south Damascus hung in the balance.

An imminent evacuation deal meant to remove hundreds of rebel fighters from the most isolated of the last rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, al-Qadam, was postponed without explanation in late September.

That deal was supposed to see evacuations from al-Qadam to either Idlib or Jarablus in Syria’s north. However, on the day evacuations were set to begin — Sept. 26 — al-Qadam’s local council said the deal had been “postponed until further notice.”

A source at al-Qadam’s local council told Al-Monitor last week that evacuations had indeed been “delayed,” albeit for “unknown reasons.”

Local activist and journalist Mattar Ismail told Al-Monitor that IS had “threatened to bomb [al-Qadam] if people tried to leave,” while Lebanese Hezbollah made its own threats “to stop the convoy and arrest people, to advance its demand to get families of fighters out of Kefraya and Fua.”

South Damascus neighborhoods had previously been included in the “four towns agreement” negotiated between rebels, Qatar, Iran and Iranian-backed Hezbollah in late March. That agreement connected the fates of four besieged towns — Fua and Kefraya in the north besieged by rebel and jihadi groups, and Madaya and Zabadani in the southwest besieged by Hezbollah — so that evacuations from one pocket would be replicated in another.

Under the deal, south Damascus was given a formalized nine-month cease-fire beginning March 28 that would have run out in two months.

Ismail said that those two months would have been “critical in deciding the future of Damascus,” before adding that the Oct. 12 announcement “sets out a cease-fire to stop military clashes with the regime, with terms and conditions — that are very clear — to give the regime authority in [south Damascus] again and the opportunity to control the area.”

The Syrian government has long-attempted to “regularize” the status of civilians and fighters in south Damascus through “reconciliation” — regime-speak for a slew of truces that are usually followed by sieges and forcible evacuations. Some suggest the agreements are in contravention of international law.

While fighters and civilians in al-Qadam were due to be evacuated, in Babila, Beit Sahem and Yalda the regime has previously tried to negotiate for fighters to join a pro-government militia force tasked with providing local security. Negotiations in the three villages have been ongoing since October 2016 without tangible results.

Almost every actor involved in the Syrian conflict is now in some way engaged in the south Damascus suburbs. The regime negotiates with the rebels. Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias, stationed around the nearby Sayyida Zeinab shrine, use the hugely symbolic Shiite site as a rallying cry for their own interests in Syria and a staging post for influence in the city’s south. Northwest Yarmouk is under the control of a small Hayat Tahrir al-Sham force that is besieged by an IS contingent still controlling much of the camp and neighboring Hajar al-Aswad. The force was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra.

“In a sense, the southern suburbs enclave is a condensed window into the complex nature of Syria. It distills down the essence of how there are no clear rules,” Szybala said.

Read the original article HERE.

Valerie Szybala talks to Syria Direct about siege of Raqqa

US-backed ‘scorched-earth’ siege traps Raqqa civilians in fight to drive out Islamic State

Syria Direct

Up to 25,000 civilians are now trapped inside Raqqa city, according to the latest UNOCHA count. For them, the ongoing fight to drive out the Islamic State is nothing less than hellish.

Since the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces surrounded the city in June, residents face devastating airstrikes and artillery fire from the US-led coalition, as the SDF closes in on the Islamic State’s last remaining holdout districts of Raqqa city.

The UK-based airstrike monitoring group Airwars estimates more than 1,000 Raqqa residents killed since the start of the battle, with one coalition bomb or artillery round hitting the city “every eight minutes” during the month of August.

But residents have few options to leave. They are trapped inside Raqqa by Islamic State-planted landmines, and risk being targeted by US-backed forces whose apparent strategy is to “shoot every boat we find,” American Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsendtold the New York Times in July. Townsend, who commands the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve against IS, subsequently walked back that statement.

Earlier this week, the Syria Institute and the Dutch NGO Pax released their seventh “Siege Watch” report, detailing ongoing and possible future sieges across Syria. For the first time, they looked at American actions in Raqqa while assessing siege criteria. 

“We’re used to sieges waged by the Syrian government, where the target is civilians in a collective punishment strategy,” Valerie Szybala, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Syria Institute, tells Syria Direct’s Madeline Edwards.

“We don’t believe that the coalition’s intent is to punish civilians, but practically speaking, the effect is the same.”

Raqqa city is included in the report’s “watchlist,” which classifies communities at “high risk of being under long-term siege.”

“Raqqa was a challenge for us,” says Szybala. “It was the first time we were looking at this type of situation with the US.”

Q: What factors did you consider when classifying Raqqa as part of Siege Watch’s “watchlist” for the first time?

We look for locations that are intentionally surrounded as part of a military strategy by a force—in this case, the US-backed SDF—and have a civilian population trapped inside.

Raqqa was a challenge for us because it was the first time we were looking at this type of situation with the US. We’re used to sieges waged by the Syrian government, where the target of the siege is civilians or a collective punishment strategy.

We don’t believe that the coalition’s intent is to punish civilians, but practically speaking the effect is the same. Civilians are not allowed out, in part because they’re held by ISIS as human shields. But [we also asked ourselves]—are the US-backed coalition and SDF taking extraordinary measures to assist civilians who are trying to flee the city?

We found that they aren’t. There seem to be indiscriminate attacks on vehicles that are fleeing the city, and there are reports of civilians, [whether traveling in] boats or cars, being targeted by the coalition. But they seem to be not just indiscriminate—they seem to be targeted attacks on groups of individuals fleeing the city.

So speaking with networks of activists in Raqqa, they said they really have no way out. And for this reason, we’re going to soon be designating it as fully besieged.

An SDF fighter in western Raqqa city on September 5. Photo courtesy Delil Souleiman/AFP.

Q: So would you classify Raqqa city as fully besieged?

It is besieged. The titles we’re putting on these places are, by their very nature, superficial. They don’t define the place. We just try our best to follow a methodology that we’ve determined, these artificial categories, to make some sense in the madness.

Q: You mentioned that you keep in contact with a network of activists inside Raqqa city. How are you able to ensure that the information you receive from inside Islamic State territory was trustworthy?

It’s always a challenge with this location. In other places [in Syria], we have years of trust built up, but in a place like Raqqa, direct contact inside the city is incredibly difficult.

We’ve been forced to rely on activist networks that have contacts inside the city. That’s the reality of the situation right now. The electricity, and all the ways you communicate—sometimes it’s just not possible to talk to someone who’s in an ISIS-controlled area directly.

But I’m sure you know, working on Syria, that the data is never going to be perfect. That’s something we always try and be clear about at Siege Watch. But it’s so important to report on what are, in many cases, atrocities. The best we can do is to be transparent about gaps or flaws, or what we don’t know.

Q: Can you talk a little bit more about what exactly your sources said about “atrocities” taking place on the ground in Raqqa city? Did you see any change in humanitarian conditions there since SDF forces surrounded the city in June?

These are people who are going from one life threatening circumstance to another.

Of course, conditions have been deteriorating rapidly since the US-led global coalition began its offensive against the city for all the reasons one might expect—because of the devastating scorched-earth bombardment. All forms of infrastructure have been targeted. [US-backed forces] appear to have little regard for civilian vs. military, but in Raqqa we know this is a challenge because ISIS is embedded with civilians.

The besieging force still has a choice on how they proceed, and it seems that under the current US administration there is less caution taken, and that’s really the only way that this type of situation can come about.

The lack of food and water is of course devastating. I don’t believe there are any functioning medical facilities left. People who are near enough to the [Euphrates] river that they could have previously gotten water there can’t because they’ll be targeted.

And because of the severity of the situation with the difficulty of access and communication, the fear of ISIS we don’t even have the types of photos and videos to [coming] out of the city that I’m sure would help galvanize world attention to the effects this extended deprivation, of the diseases that are being spread because of the dirty water, of the medical cases that are dying for lack of care. That’s a shame. We know that in other cases, having imagery has really helped focus attention. In Raqqa, this [deprivation] is happening—it’s just so difficult to get imagery out of it.

Q: Does this lack of imagery coming out of Raqqa contribute to any sort of Western media bias against classifying the city outright as besieged? Is there an implicit bias to begin with?

I don’t know if it’s implicit bias—definitely the different circumstances make it a much more complicated situation. I think the presence of ISIS is real and the global coalition’s anti-ISIS campaign is largely seen as legitimate and justified in the global community. I think that complicates things.

The aspect that we struggled with was the extent to which we had been thinking of sieges as intentionally targeting civilians, as sieges up to this point have been causing maximum pain to civilians by destroying hospitals, by withholding baby milk. This has been commonplace, making it kind of unambiguous that civilians are the target.

That’s not the case in Raqqa, which adds this extra layer of difficulty in naming it [a siege]. But it clearly meets all the criteria. We’ve been looking at sieges that violate international law because of the impact they have on civilians—the deprivation of medical aid, the targeting of hospitals and bakeries. So this definitely meets all those categories. Whether or not they’re intentional or they are casualties of war, if you will, that is what’s happening.

Q: With the plight of Raqqa’s residents in mind, what steps can the US-led coalition realistically take to protect civilians while also driving IS from Raqqa city? 

We’ve heard [Operation Inherent Resolve] commander [Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend] say something like “We’re going to hit any boat or life raft that goes across the Euphrates.”

That kind of blanket policy of targeting is completely inappropriate for a situation where you have tens of thousands of civilians trapped.

[Ed.: In early July, Townsend told the New York Times that US-backed coalition forces in Raqqa “shoot every boat we find…If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft.” The American commander later published an op-ed in Foreign Policy, claiming that the coalition applies “rigorous standards to our targeting process” and strike “only valid military targets after considering the principles of military necessity, humanity, proportionality, and distinction.”]

Taking more caution—even if it means slowing down—in assessing each individual threat so you don’t have situation where they’re bombing a group of civilians who are trying to get out of the city…I think it would be one of the best ways [to limit civilian casualties].

I also think that [US-backed forces] could designate a corridor or safe zone within the city—not that it’s safe from ISIS, but that it can be used as a zone for people to be picked up into safety.

Right now the only way that we’ve heard civilians [leave the city]—the lucky ones who happen to be bunkered down in a neighborhood that is taken over by the SDF, who weren’t killed in the fighting, weren’t forced by ISIS into a more heavily bombarded area—they’re generally picked up and taken to holding centers by the SDF. But people who aren’t lucky enough to be in one of those neighborhoods aren’t given a way out. So the US coalition could look at offering any sort of option for these people.

It’s not enough [for US-backed forces] to say that “we warned them beforehand, so if they stayed inside there are risks.” But people were being held by ISIS—they didn’t have the decision to leave beforehand, and now they still don’t have the decision.

Q: Looking further down the line, after the Islamic State is presumably driven from Raqqa and later from Deir e-Zor, is this the end of siege warfare in Syria? What other communities do you consider vulnerable to a similarly devastating siege—what about East Ghouta, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus?

East Ghouta is besieged, and we highlight it as incredibly vulnerable and very likely the next target of the government’s scorched-earth policy—the same type of Aleppo-style [tactics].

We see worrying signs, such as the effort to cut off [the eastern Damascus suburb of] Jobar from Eastern Ghouta, and repeated chemical attacks. It really points to a government that is not about to honor any real sort of de-escalation or ceasefire zone. I believe that Eastern Ghouta is probably the highest risk.

[Ed.: Jobar, currently split between areas of regime and rebel control, is the western gate to the rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs. The district has been the focus of battles since rebels launched a ground offensive from it this past March, Syria Direct reported at the time. In early June, bombardment and ground fighting broke out again, with regime missiles and shellfire still pummeling the district, as well as neighboring Ain Tarma, despite a Russian-backed ceasefire deal implemented in July.]

But you also have continuing challenges in northern Homs, and ultimately we saw this large spate of airstrikes in Idlib this morning. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that parts of Idlib could become besieged in the future.

Q: Going back to East Ghouta, we’ve heard civilians there quietly expressing fears that what happened in east Aleppo could happen to them. But do you really see an east Aleppo-style bombardment happening in East Ghouta, so close to the capital?

Absolutely, I do. We have to remember, it’s a different physical layout so it’s not going to look exactly like east Aleppo, which is a dense, urban area. But they’re showing every sign of wanting to take back Eastern Ghouta by force. Over the two years that we’ve been running Siege Watch, we’ve seen the enclave shrink notably on the eastern and southern portions. Over the summer and the spring, we’ve seen [regime forces] do a kind of short-term “surrender-and-die” blitz against the nearby adjacent neighborhoods of Damascus that were seen as weak spots in their siege.

I’m absolutely worried about the future of Eastern Ghouta.


You can read the original article HERE

Szybala comments on Assad’s future in Syria on The John Batchelor Show

Rumors of Assad’s fate. Valerie Szybala @vszyb @syriainstitute @elalusa Report w/Malcolm Hoenlein @conf_of_pres.

Find the original interview here.


Reuters Article quotes Szybala on new Omran Daqneesh photos

New images emerge of Syrian boy bloodied in iconic Aleppo photo

By Heba Kanso

A photograph of the wounded boy, sitting blankly and alone in the back of an ambulance after an airstrike, was circulated worldwide last August.

BEIRUT, June 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A young Syrian boy, whose stunned image covered in dust and blood became an iconic symbol of suffering in Aleppo, has appeared in new footage posted by a pro-Syrian government television presenter.

Omran Daqneesh and his father appeared in a video clip, apparently still living in Aleppo telling the reporter, Kinana Allouche, he didn’t want to leave Syria.

A photograph of the wounded boy, sitting blankly and alone in the back of an ambulance after an airstrike, was circulated worldwide last August, highlighting the suffering of civilians in besieged east Aleppo. His older brother, Ali, died from his wounds after the attack.

Daqneesh’s father told the reporter his son was in good health in Aleppo – now under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. He said he had cut his son’s hair and changed his name to protect him from being kidnapped and accused rebels of intimidating the family.

It was not clear whether the family had been coerced into taking part in the short video posted on Facebook, the first time the boy had been seen publicly since he was wounded.

However, Valerie Szybala from the Syria Institute, an independent research organisation focused on Syria, said the family was unlikely to have been speaking freely.

“They are under government control now and this is a government that we know arrests and tortures anyone that speaks out against it … to me the situation seems to suggest this is probably coerced,” Szybala told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Rebel resistance in Aleppo ended last December after years of fighting and months of bitter siege and bombardment that culminated in a bloody retreat, as insurgents agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire.

Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011 has killed an estimated 465,000 people.

Read the original HERE

TSI’s Exec. Direc. on property records in Homs in DW article

Syrians struggle to reclaim stolen homes

Millions of Syrians have been forced from their homes and may never return. Their houses risk being stolen or confiscated, compelling activists to focus on how to help civilians reclaim their property once the war ends.

Date 02.05.2017

Author Mat Nashed

Destroyed houses in Homs, Syria due to Assad government military attacks

When the radio started blaring, warning of regime shelling nearby, Abou Hadi (a moniker to protect his identity) didn’t sound scared. He was already displaced from al-Waer, the last rebel held area in Homs, where he witnessed the worst parts of the Syrian war: indiscriminate bombardment, and enforced starvation, wielded by the state to bring an entire population to submission.

On September 1, 2016, Abou Hadi boarded a bus with his wife and children and left the city, knowing that he may never return. Transported to the countryside of Homs, the evacuation was the first of many to come. But his parents refused to join the exodus, not wanting to leave their home behind.

“They are afraid to lose their house,” Abou Hadi told DW, speaking through WhatsApp. “Regime forces will soon retake the city, and my parents know anything can happen to their home in that time.”

Read: From Madaya to Idlib – ‘defeated but safe’

Their fears aren’t unfounded. Civilians say criminals have exploited the chaos in opposition controlled areas by forging property documents, which lay claim to houses that aren’t their own. Rebels have also looted houses and turned others into barracks. Yet activists and rights groups say that property confiscation is more widespread in areas the regime has retaken.

Death toll rises in Syria evacuee bombing

The scale of the issue is impossible to determine. But with nearly half of Syria’s prewar population – 12 million people – uprooted from their homes, some civil society groups have started to focus on how to help people reclaim their houses once the war ends.

Proof of ownership 

Amr Shannon, the program manager for The Day After (TDA), a Syrian advocacy organization based in Istanbul, says that they coordinate with activists inside the country to collect as many government records as possible.

“Most property records were never digitized in Syria, so we are trying to make copies of as many as we can,” said Shannon. “The situation is very complicated, especially for detainees and refugees. These people have dreams of returning [to their villages] and reclaiming their homes after the war.”

For that to happen, Syrians will need proof of ownership, yet many don’t have it. In 2013, Shannon said, the property registry in Homs was burned, destroying thousands of files. Three years later, Bashar Assad issued a decree to digitize all property records.

Beginning in November 2016, civilians who were uprooted from Homs had four months to head to the nearest government registry office, check the accuracy of the new records, and then file an objection if they spotted an error. But most were reluctant to go due to fears of being killed, arrested, or conscripted into the army.

Others no longer have a home to claim. A report by the UN Human Right’s Council found that regime forces have deliberately destroyed the houses of rebel supporters. The government has also passed a law that allows them to seize assets of human rights activists who defy them.

Children play during ceasefire in Douma, Syria.

If returnees are lucky enough to find their homes intact, they may still not be able to move back in

Valerie Szybala, executive director at the Syrian Institute, a non-profit in Washington DC, which has followed the issue of population displacement in Homs, told DW that Syrians who never registered their houses are at the highest risk of being permanently displaced.

Read: Syrian refugee is the UNHCR’s new ambassador

“Before the conflict, there was so much informal property ownership. Many people were living in houses that they never actually registered,” she said. “With all the stories of people being forced from their homes despite having documentation, you can just imagine what’s happening to the people who don’t have any records.”

A parallel system

Activists in Douma, a besieged city on the outskirts of Damascus, have opened their own property registries, which keep track of ownership, inheritance and transactions in the community.

Adnan, a former government employee who didn’t disclose his last name, is now part of Douma’s local council, which consists of a team of technocrats who have administered basic services in replace of the state. He oversees the property registries, which he opened after his team secured all the records that the regime left behind.

“It took us four to six weeks to sort through everything,” he told DW, over WhatsApp. “But we did it. And we invited people to call or come to our office if they wanted to buy, sell or claim their homes.”

Civil war in Syria turned many Syrians into internally displaced people and forced many to leave their homes to IdlibAbou Hadi (shown here with his child in his garden) doesn’t expect to see his home in al-Waer again

When the regime imposed a brutal siege on the community four years ago, civilians started crowding into Adnan’s office to sell their homes so they could afford to purchase basic, but increasingly scarce, supplies.

Refugees, stranded in neighboring countries, would call to check if their homes had been bombed. If they registered their houses before the uprising, then Adnan could tell them the status of their homes. New registries, modeled after the ones in Douma, have opened across Syria.

In a climate of chaos, these offices have protected civilians from property theft. But questions linger. Shannon, from TDA, suspects that the following government won’t recognize records that were entered without the state’s approval, meaning more civilians may have their houses confiscated after the war.

Abou Hadi, for one, is too scared to return home, yet his parents say they would rather die than lose their house.

“My parents are old so I don’t think the regime will harm them once they move into (al-Waer),” Abou Hadi said, with resignation. “But I can’t be sure. They have killed so many people. They have done so many terrible things.”

Read original HERE