Rumors of Assad’s fate. Valerie Szybala @vszyb @syriainstitute @elalusa Report w/Malcolm Hoenlein @conf_of_pres.
Find the original interview here.
Rumors of Assad’s fate. Valerie Szybala @vszyb @syriainstitute @elalusa Report w/Malcolm Hoenlein @conf_of_pres.
Find the original interview here.
By Heba Kanso
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.
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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.
Author Mat Nashed
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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Experts in Syria Deeply’s community comment on the important developments taking shape in Syria while the world has been focused on the U.S. strike and the chemical attack.
WRITTEN BY: Kim Bode
READ TIME: Approx. 4 minutes
Opposition fighters and their families wait to board buses to leave the al-Waer neighborhood of Homs, Syria, on March 18, 2017; they were bound for a town on the Turkish border. AP
THE CHEMICAL ATTACK in Idlib and the retaliatory U.S. strike on a Syrian government air base monopolized media coverage of the Syrian conflict in recent weeks. However, as the majority of headlines focused on the strike’s potential impact, and the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, many other important developments were unfolding on the ground in Syria.
Syria Deeply spoke to experts monitoring these situations, including the recent reconciliation deals and displacements in rebel-controlled areas, the tensions between Syrian opposition groups and the changing geopolitical landscape of the conflict.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Jihad-Intel research fellow at the Middle East Forum: One of the important developments we haven’t been hearing so much about is how “reconciliations” (musalahat) play out on the ground. These are increasingly important to watch, in my view, as the regime continues to regain ground. It is simply impossible to depopulate every rebel-held town, or bus the undesirable elements to the north. The regime’s approach has to be multifaceted and vary according to circumstances.
Thus, in north Daraa province, I have been watching how one of these reconciliations in a town called Sanamayn has meant that the rebel factions in the town basically remain as they are – just officially unaffiliated with the opposition now and working with the regime to maintain security in the town, while the regime provides state services to the population. Will the regime consider Sanamayn a model for the rest of the south? Could it apply such ideas as it tries to push into Idlib province?
Another important development is the internal tensions between rebel factions in the Euphrates Shield pocket of north Aleppo province: Though there are dozens of factions within Euphrates Shield, only a few factions stand out as the most important players, such as the Shami Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham. There are widespread accusations of criminal behavior and corruption particularly directed at the Shami Front, as it seems to have strong business assets by virtue of a monopoly over the Bab al-Salama border crossing. This has led to challenges against it from smaller, newer players such as the forces of Alp Arslan.
Sophie Spencer, research associate at The Syria Institute (TSI): It’s remarkable what has happened in the past month in Syria that hasn’t made the headlines. Here are a few developments that stand out. First, the Syrian government’s increased pressure on besieged communities, such as al-Waer in Homs and the communities in Damascus and Eastern Ghouta. A month ago, al-Waer signed a surrender deal with the Syrian government. Since then, ongoing weekly population transfers have moved civilians and fighters to northern Syria. The “Four Towns” (Fou’a, Kefraya, Madaya and Zabadani) have also signed an agreement and population transfers are currently ongoing.
In The Syria Institute’s work on this topic, we don’t use the term “evacuation” for these type of population transfers because – even in this unique case where two sides were swapped – people agree to be deported only under extreme coercion and the threat of continuing violence, and have no real choice but to agree to die. The start of the Four Towns transfers was delayed several times due to logistical challenges. This is the largest population transfer outside of Aleppo. The Syrian government is quite keen on forcing as many of these surrender deals as possible, which leads to the intensified attacks against besieged communities in Damascus and Eastern Ghouta.
Also, over the past month, armed opposition groups launched several offensives around the country in Damascus, Hama, Latakia and Daraa. The timing and apparent coordination of these offensives are strategically important because the Syrian military lacks the manpower to fight on so many fronts at once. The recent chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun may have been a response to the gains of opposition groups.
Ayham Kamel, director, Middle East & North Africa at Eurasia Group: One of the things that is often ignored right now in the conflict is, not only has it become internationalized, but also, actively in Syria, we’re developing zones of influence by different states. That’s effectively fragmenting the country where the central government or the Assad regime is no longer in charge of governance. That has been the case for a while, but his ability or the ability of any future government to reassert control over the Syrian territories is going to be extremely difficult.
The U.S. is establishing a zone of influence in eastern Syria and it’s very difficult to imagine that, after recapturing or liberating those territories from ISIS, the U.S. is going to simply leave these areas any time quickly. In fact, most of the dynamics would encourage the U.S. to stay there for a while. There’s also no sign of the Turkish forces leaving northern Syria. The same applies in the south where we’re going to see more signals in the next few weeks of efforts to create a power zone. And even in Assad’s area, it’s very difficult to imagine that either Russia or Iran would simply take their forces or redeploy their forces back home.
The situation is very toxic, and it creates a real risk. In the past, the risk of fragmentation or the risk of the country actually splitting up was minimal and negligible if anything. I think today a balkanization of Syria is a more realistic scenario that can emerge over the long term.
I wouldn’t say that, at this stage, either the U.S. or Russia is interested in splitting up the country, but certainly over the long term, if they have forces in these areas and they’re unable to reach a deal or an agreement whereby the minimum requirements of their allies are met, then I think the de facto balance at that point creates a scenario where Syria is effectively split.
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — After nearly two years of punishing siege and bombardment by their enemies, more than 7,000 people were bused out of four towns in Syria on Friday in the most recent population transfer during six years of war.
The evacuations of civilians and fighters highlighted the prevalence of siege warfare in Syria and the extent to which prolonged violence has altered the human fabric of communities across the country.
As President Bashar al-Assad has fought to crush a rebel movement seeking his ouster, his forces have frequently surrounded rebel communities and blocked aid deliveries and trade as a way to impose hunger and force surrender. Where they can, rebels have done the same.
Many of those squeezed from their communities do not expect to return, joining the half of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million that has been displaced by the war. Five million of those have become refugees in neighboring countries, Europe and elsewhere.
“The world, Europe and the Middle East can expect more refugees, and nobody wants that,” said Valerie Szybala, the executive director of The Syria Institute, adding that using encirclement to force people from their homes also risked sowing the seeds of future conflicts.
“In some ways, it means that this conflict will never be over,” she said. “It is creating a permanent rationale for conflict and creating schisms that are not going to be easy to heal.”
According to Siege Watch, a project run by The Syria Institute and the Dutch organization PAX, more than 900,000 Syrians are living under siege in 37 areas across the country and more than a million more are under threat of siege.
In his quest to subdue rebellious communities, Mr. Assad has blockaded rebels along with civilians, forcing them to agree either to leave or to surrender their arms and reconcile with his government.
Such tactics, often accompanied by bombardment, have helped Mr. Assad regain control of a number of communities near the capital, Damascus, as well parts of the cities of Homs and Aleppo.
Critics say the strategy equals forced population transfer, which can be a war crime. An inquiry by the United Nations said that the evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo last year amounted to a war crime because it was coerced by Russian and Syrian military action. More than 20,000 people were transported out of the city before Mr. Assad forces consolidated their control.
“It is no surprise to the government that if you block aid deliveries and continue airstrikes, people are going to eventually surrender and withdraw,” said Lama Fakih, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division for Human Rights Watch, adding that displacing people separates them from their livelihoods and fractures their social networks.
“People are literally being uprooted along with everything that comes with that,” she said.
Friday’s evacuations concerned four towns. Fua and Kefarya, two Shiite communities in Idlib Province loyal to Mr. Assad, have been surrounded by hard-line Sunni insurgents for about two years. Madaya and Zabadani, two mostly Sunni towns near Syria’s western border with Lebanon, are surrounded by Syrian government forces and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
About 5,000 residents were removed from the Shiite villages on Friday and 3,000 more were to be taken out by day’s end, according to Firas Amoura, who helped coordinate the evacuation on behalf of the Syrian government. More than 2,200 people were bused out of Madaya and about 150 rebel fighters were waiting to removed from Zabadani.
The evacuations were brokered by the Syrian government and Iran on one side and Qatar, representing the rebels, on the other, and carried out by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The United Nations did not play a role.
The people who left the Shiite villages were taken to Aleppo. Buses departing the rebel-held towns headed for Idlib Province.
Leaving home was bitter for many, but came after a long period of deprivation.
“Everybody wants to leave,” Medhi Kirbash, a resident of one of the Shiite towns said while waiting to board a bus. “We hated even the clothes we have been wearing for the past two years of siege.”
As the departures proceeded, the foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran warned the United States against any further attacks on the Assad forces, and called for an international investigation of the chemical weapons attack in Idlib that killed more than 80 people, according to The Associated Press.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who hosted his Syrian and Iranian counterparts, Walid al-Moallem and Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Moscow, denounced last week’s American missile strike as a “flagrant violation” of international law. American officials said the strike was in response to the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.
The evacuations on Thursday appeared to clear the way for permanent population shifts.
Mr. Amoura said that thousands of people would remain in the two Shiite villages. But others involved in the process doubted whether the communities would survive in the long term. That would leave no Shiite communities in Idlib Province.
Most of the tens of thousands of people in Madaya were expected to remain when the Syrian government retook the town. But only about 150 fighters remained in Zabadani, and all were expected to leave, depopulating the town.
For one of those fighters, Qassem al-Qawayfi, the siege had made his hometown unlivable as many of his fellow fighters were killed and food became scarce.
“Nobody is happy to leave the town where he was born and raised, but it has become misery here,” he said through WhatsApp, a messaging application. “People have become skeletons.”