Mourning the Syria That Might Have Been

How Assad’s forces bombed a democratic experiment into oblivion.

By Christian Caryl
September 16, 2016

The photo shows a March 9, 2016 protest by local women and children in Daraya, who were calling on the government to allow for the delivery of food to the besieged city.

The photo shows a March 9, 2016 protest by local women and children in Daraya, who were calling on the government to allow for the delivery of food to the besieged city.


Earlier this week, when the latest ceasefire in Syria’s long-running civil war took effect, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized the opportunity to embark on a triumphant tour of a place that has long defied him. He paid a visit to the city of Daraya, a Damascus suburb where rebels managed to resist his forces for four long years until they finally agreed to give up control in the last week of August.

For those four years the government threw everything it had at Daraya.

For those four years the government threw everything it had at Daraya. The troops surrounding it tried to starve it out, refusing to let aid convoys bring food to residents. Syrian helicopters pounded the city with barrel bombs, weapons of indiscriminate terror that have little or no military utility. In August, the Syrian air force used rockets and napalm to obliterate the city’s last surviving hospital. Some observers believe this was part of a calculated effort to make the place completely uninhabitable.

We’ve seen the same brutality in far too many places in this war. But there was something different about Daraya — something that helps to explain why Assad was so keen to celebrate its fall.

If you only follow the headlines, you can be forgiven for seeing this war primarily as a fight between two equally nasty alternatives: the totalitarian Baath Party regime of Assad or the totalitarian theocracy of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. But this is a drastic simplification — one that both Assad and the terrorists want their own supporters, and the world, to believe. But it is certainly truer today than it was back at the beginning of the conflict. By their very nature, civil wars have a tendency to foster extremes. The ruthless are rewarded, while the moderates and the evolutionary reformers tend to get culled out.

The first protests against Assad’s dictatorship were peaceful: Demonstrators were demanding democracy, not rule by Al Qaeda.

That’s exactly what has happened in Syria. Today, five years later, it’s easy to forget that Syria’s revolution started off amid the optimism of the Arab Spring. The first protests against Assad’s dictatorship were peaceful: Demonstrators were demanding democracy, not rule by Al Qaeda.

And Daraya was one of the birthplaces of this movement. In the revolution’s early stages it was the home of the activist Ghiyath Matar, known as “Little Gandhi” for his quixotic embrace of non-violence. When Assad’s soldiers arrived to crush local protests, he greeted them with flowers and water. They responded by torturing him to death. His corpse was later returned to his family with its throat torn out. The country’s downward spiral began.

In The Morning They Came for Us, her bloodcurdling account of the early stages of the war, journalist Janine di Giovanni explains what happened next. When she visited Daraya in 2012, locals gave her detailed accounts of a massacre conducted by government troops who had briefly managed to wrest the town away from the rebels. “It was punished,” she told me, “because it was a symbol of peaceful resistance.”

Yet even amid the descending darkness, the people of the city tried to hold on to their ideals. When Assad’s generals realized they couldn’t take the place back, they placed it under siege. Hunger became the government’s most potent weapon. “‘What did you eat today?’ I’d ask them,” di Giovanni recalls. “‘Grape leaves, some salt.’ They took leaves from the trees and made soup out of them.” Much of the population left, but several thousand locals, many of them activists, remained. In October 2012 they set up a council to govern themselves, and in the years that followed, even as life became nearly impossible, they persisted in holding regular elections — “every six months, inside every single office and department of the local government,” says Hussam Ayash, a spokesperson for the local council.

Most importantly of all, he told me, the local government persisted in maintaining its independence from the city’s militia, a non-jihadist unit of the rebel Free Syrian Army. In many other rebel-controlled parts of Syria, Ayash explained, local governments have frequently fallen under the sway of fighters, many of them Islamist extremists. By contrast, Al Qaeda and its ilk never managed to get a foothold in Daraya. “We had no services,” says Ayash. “We had no communications. We had no water. But also nobody could get in or get out. The only fighters in Daraya were the local people. So we had no jihadists.”

Ayash spoke to me on Skype from northern Syria, where he is now living after being “evacuated” from Daraya by government forces in the days following the city’s surrender on August 25. When the Syrian army managed to capture a key position on the outskirts of the city, Daraya’s leaders saw the writing on the wall, and accepted a government offer of safe passage to the north in return for their surrender of control over the community. This uncharacteristically lenient gesture by Assad was a shrewd move, one that enabled him to finally seize control of a key rebel stronghold at relatively low cost to his own troops. It was also calculated to undermine the resolve of rebel holdouts in other hard-pressed areas, who may now see a deal with the government as a more palatable option than continued resistance.

It’s hard to overestimate the psychological impact of the city’s fall.

It’s hard to overestimate the psychological impact of the city’s fall. Fadi Mohammed, another Daraya activist, told me that the city embodied the hopes of the many Syrians who reject extremists of all stripes. He cites one occasion, early on, when protesters formed a human chain around the local government building to protect it from attack by pro-government forces, and recalls the city’s devotion to the principle of civilian control. “If the experience in Daraya had been protected and supported by the international community, it could have been a model,” he says. “Many people around Syria regarded Daraya as something special.” That’s a big “if,” of course. But it’s hard to dismiss the thought out of hand.

“The loss of Darayya is a watershed in Syria’s war,” wrote analyst Sam Heller of The Century Foundation in a recent blogpost. “For many in Syria’s opposition, Darayya represented the best of the Syrian revolution — a bastion of civil activism and nationalist, ‘Free Syrian Army’ rebels that held together and persevered for years against overwhelming odds, even as rebel-held areas elsewhere slid sideways into jihadism and factional infighting.”

To be sure, Daraya is also a place of considerable military significance. As Faysal Itani, an analyst at Washington’s Atlantic Council, points out, the city is just a few miles south of Damascus proper, and close to a key government airfield. “My own perception has always been that this is the most important geography of the war,” he told me. The surrender of Daraya and other areas near Damascus to government forces are, he says, “the most significant military victories of the war” — victories that owe a great deal, he says, to Russia’s forceful intervention on Assad’s behalf.

Now the government has succeeded in completely emptying the city of the people who lived there, and there are rumors that Assad intends to replace its rebellious Sunnis with members of other sectarian groups who are loyal to his regime. “What happened in Daraya is ethnic cleansing,” says di Giovanni, who notes that the practice of expelling civilians and replacing them with others is a direct violation of international law. “This will set a terrible precedent.” The situation is so dire that even the otherwise mealy-mouthed United Nations has seen fit to utter a few critical words about the expulsion of the city’s last inhabitants.

Daraya’s supporters often speak of it as an “experiment” in self-government and democratic practice. The question now is whether that experiment should be regarded as a failure, or whether its survivors can keep it alive at a time when their spirit of moderation and pragmatism looks like a throwback to a distant era.

Its example remains tantalizing. Here is a case where Syrians stubbornly stuck to the principles of civilized government even under the most forbidding circumstances. And that, clearly, amounts to a particularly potent challenge to Assad’s ruling Baath Party. “This idea of the choice, that you only have Assad or ISIS, it’s not right,” as Ayash put it. “Actually you have another choice, and this choice is us. We are looking for a future, and we think that we’ll have a decent future if we are free, with dignity.”

The sad reality, though, is that Daraya’s fall is a huge blow to this dream, and democratically minded Syrians everywhere are mourning. And this is precisely why the Syrian president decided to take his victory lap there. “It’s a real coup for Assad,” says di Giovanni. “He hated Daraya. It was everything he loathed.”

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Epidemic warning over ghost refugees stuck at Jordan-Syria border

Plight of tens of thousands of Syrians could undermine Jordan’s role as co-host of major summit on refugees, activists warn
By Emma Graham-Harrison
Sunday 4 September 2016

syrian refugees stuck between Jordan and Syria border

A photo taken in May shows Syrian refugees waiting to cross the border into Jordan. Photograph: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images


Tens of thousands of “ghost” refugees who have been trapped in the desert along Jordan’s border with Syria for more than two months face food and water shortages and are at risk of epidemics, aid workers say.

The refugees, who have no sanitation or medical facilities, are living in some of the worst conditions experienced by people fleeing Syria’s five-year civil war. Activists say the situation could undermine Jordan’s role as co-host of a major summit on refugees in New York this month.

About four in five of the refugees scraping an existence in the open desert are women and children, according to the UN.

No aid or food deliveries are allowed across the border and irregular water supplies barely cover drinking needs in temperatures reaching 50C (122F) over the summer, with nothing left for sanitation.

Some people have reportedly dug themselves holes in the ground because they have nothing at all to improvise shelter against regular desert sandstorms. One settlement was bombed by Russian planes in July.



“These are some of the most extreme conditions on Earth. Then you add to that not having any access to healthcare or enough water or food, and being under threat of aerial attack,” said Natalie Thurtle, the medical team leader for charity Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF). “This is a critical humanitarian emergency.”

Jordan is co-hosting the major international Leaders’ Summit on Refugees on 20 September, on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, a role that sits uneasily with its treatment of the crowds on its own border, now estimated to be more than 80,000 strong.

“At a time when Jordan is positioning itself at the forefront of efforts to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, having tens of thousands of people struggling without food, water or medical care at their border undermines their credibility and that of any solutions they are offering,” said Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International researcher on Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Jordan says it is hosting nearly 1.4 million Syrian refugees, of whom 630,000 are registered with the UN. The huge numbers have placed a massive strain on the kingdom’s economy and resources as well as raising security concerns.

The crowds began building up when the border with Syria was tightened last November. This meant that people who might previously have passed into Jordan began collecting instead in a disputed no man’s land, sometimes known as “the berm” after the sandy mounds that border the area where refugees have settled.

“They are completely out of options, they are not able to move forward, and can’t go back into Syria,” Thurtle said.

On a visit to north Jordan last week, Stephen O’Brien, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, described flying over the berm area. “In between two berms are tens of thousands of tents quite sparsely populated compared to a normal organised refugee camp,” he said. “You have to imagine [what it is like] completely out in the middle of desert … in very, very hot [conditions], baking in the tents.”

From May, some aid groups were allowed in to offer limited supplies of food, water and medical help. The MSF team spent at least six hours a day driving a mobile clinic to reach a “services area” on the fringe of the camp.

“It was an extremely challenging logistical operation, leaving at 6am from the nearest town where we could be based. We had to drive the entire operation for three to four hours, half of it off-road, then return the same way before evening,” a member of the MSF team said.

However, even that access was cut off in June, on security grounds, after Islamic State militants drove a suicide bomb into a Jordanian army checkpoint and killed at least six soldiers. But Sammonds said there was no connection between the refugees and the attack.

“That suicide vehicle came from some distance to the north and at speed, with no link that I have ever heard of with the would-be refugees,” he said. “I would suspect that Jordan is using the security incident politically to ‘justify’ its overall closure policy.”

Since June, authorities have given permission for one severely ill boy to be evacuated, and allowed aid groups worried about starvation to make a single drop of food supplies by crane. That was on 4 August. Distribution inside the camp could not be monitored so the most vulnerable may not have received supplies, and since then there has been nothing.

There are credible reports of malnutrition, and water supplies are just five or six litres per person in some areas. That is barely enough to meet drinking needs in the sweltering heat, leaving nothing for sanitation, and disease has already set in.

“There is almost certainly a hepatitis outbreak at the berm,” Thurtle said. “We haven’t witnessed it, but I am pretty confident that is happening.”

Credible sources are reporting 30 cases of severe jaundice each day, Thurtle said, and there have been at least 10 deaths in the last month. Hepatitis E is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, with a mortality rate of 20-25%, and there have already been reports of deaths during childbirth.

Thurtle is part of a team on standby near the border, currently campaigning to be allowed back in and keep the plight of the refugees on the international radar.

“It’s like they don’t exist, they are stuck in purgatory,” she said. “I haven’t seen them, nobody has for eight weeks. It’s really easy for them to disappear from the consciousness of the international community, the Jordanian government, everybody.”



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Aleppo: Chlorine attack reported by doctors

Published on Sep 6, 2016

Today, doctors in Aleppo have reported that a ‘chlorine attack’ has hospitalised dozens of people, most of them children. Barrel bombs that appear to have been filled with an irritant, fell this afternoon in an opposition held area in the city’s South West.
Channel 4 News has been sent disturbing images of the chaos that followed. These images filmed by Waad Al-Khateab.


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Inside Aleppo: A new life in a deadly city

Published on Aug 18, 2016

Warning: this film contains graphic and distressing scenes inside the operating theatre.

The film-maker Waad Al Katib is in Aleppo, to document the suffering of its people caught up in the siege and under regular bombardment.

This film focuses on one woman – Mayissa – who, at nine months’ pregnant, was injured in one of those airstrikes. But it features, too, the phenomenal dedication and skill of the ill-equipped doctors and nurses in the city’s hospitals – who battle to save both her, and her baby’s life.

‘Completely Abandoned’ Imprisoned and Tortured in Syria—and Then Rejected by Washington



Assad’s victims are being denied U.S. visas to come testify about their experiences—and one who did make it to D.C. for an award left in disgust at what she saw as U.S. indifference.

By Tim Mak 03.30.15

“Do you love your husband?” the interrogator asked.

During her first interrogation session, Bayan*, a Syrian activist, had resisted physical abuse and refused to answer questions.

So the Assad regime’s jailers tried a different tactic.

For her second interrogation, they dragged her husband into the room—naked, wet, blindfolded. He looked like he had been tortured, she said, with lacerations and the marks of abuse all over his body.

Then they began beating him with a thick green hose. She was helpless to intervene.

“I can still hear his voice,” she told The Daily Beast.

After that session, she stopped resisting.

For female detainees of the Assad regime, three of whom spoke to The Daily Beast, it was the psychological trauma, not the physical abuse, which scars the most.

Their worst memories behind bars, the painful reverberations of which resound to this day, are when their jailors played off their affection for family and close friends.

Some Syrian torture victims have had trouble obtaining U.S. visitor visas to come testify about their personal experiences and instead had to speak to The Daily Beast from abroad.

On the other hand, one female former detainee came to the United States to receive an award from the State Department in mid-March, only to leave prematurely and in disgust after meeting with first lady Michelle Obama and other government officials, having come to the conclusion that policymakers were not interested in intervening to stop the violence in Syria.

Bayan, 41, had been a teacher with a degree in literature before she began organizing demonstrations during the early days of the Syrian revolution in 2011.

She was detained in October 2013 and taken first to the notorious Military Intelligence Branch 215 in Damascus, where tales of sexual violence were rampant among the women held there.

In subsequent interrogations, her jailers threatened to bring her children to join her if she did not cooperate. She confessed under pressure that she knew a prominent Syrian activist—even though she didn’t.

She admitted to a lot of things she hadn’t done.

She was eventually released in March 2014 through a prisoner swap and fled to Lebanon with her three children. Her husband remains behind bars—if he’s alive—as do three of her siblings.

Noura Al-Jizawi, another Syrian human rights activist, was shocked with an electric rod more times than she could count during detention.

But it is the sounds that haunt her most.

Her friends’ voices as they were being tortured have melded with the sound of slowly dripping water—a sinister, looping soundtrack that she endured for 30 straight days.

“I still cannot listen to the sound of water dripping,” she said.

The Assad regime had kidnapped Al-Jizawi on the way to a transit depot and regularly threatened to harm her family in an effort to get her to inform on her activist friends.

There were many women in detention, she said. Very old women and children. Sick women and pregnant women. Many women give birth deep in the confines of the Assad regime’s intelligence branches, where they interrogate prisoners, Al-Jizawi said.

Bayan and Al-Jizawi both spent time in Military Intelligence Branch 215. And they are the lucky ones. They survived to tell the tales of their abuse.

Not all the women imprisoned in Syria’s prisons were so lucky. When a Syrian military photographer codenamed “Caesar” snuck out of the country with thousands of photos depicting the dead, many of them came from came from that same military intelligence branch, including this photo of a woman who died in detention.

35. Female victim. Death Attributed: Syrian Government Intelligence Branch 215. Photo location: Mezze Military Hospital 601, Damascus.

35. Female victim. Death Attributed: Syrian Government Intelligence Branch 215. Photo location: Mezze Military Hospital 601, Damascus.

Syrian opposition representative to the U.N. Najib Ghadbian estimates the number of Syrians behind held in the country’s prisons at between 150,000 and 230,000.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented cases of torture and sexual abuse by Syrian military and pro-government forces on female detainees, describing electric shocks, stress positions, beatings, and rape.

Even the women who are not in prison are subjected to suffering.

Sami*, 44, a mechanical engineer before the Syrian uprising, told The Daily Beast that when he was in detention his jailers forced him to call his wife under duress—as a way to humiliate him and inflict an emotional toll. Without elaborating, he said simply that they forced him to say things that were untrue.

He listed that phone call as one of the worst experiences of his detention in 2013, along with prolonged hanging from the ceiling in a stress position and waking up chained to a bed next to a naked dead body in three separate incidents.

Some Syrian detainees and torture victims blamed the State Department for their trouble obtaining visas to testify about their experiences in the United States, accusing the agency of not doing enough to make exceptions for torture victims. Problems with visas have scuttled events ranging from a play by Syrian women refugees that had been scheduled at Georgetown University to cross-country talks about the killing and torture in Syria.

Bayan said she was “shocked” when her request for a visitor visa to the United States was denied. She had not even entertained that possibility of a rejection and had been organizing a series of events where she would bear witness to what happened to her.

“Every visa case and application is evaluated on an individual basis…several victims of Assad regime’s crimes against civilians have been admitted to the United States,” a State Department spokesman told The Daily Beast. “All visa applications are reviewed and accepted the same way.”

From a legal perspective, victims of the Syrian regime’s torture and detention face difficult obstacles to gaining temporary access to the United States, said Muna Jondy, a Michigan lawyer who has consulted with numerous Syrian victims on the immigration process.

“Proof [of] a residence to return to is difficult for displaced people,” Jondy said.

Suhaila*, a humanitarian worker who lives in Damascus, was also denied a visa to come to the United States to discuss the ongoing conflict.

“I’m sitting here in Damascus and I don’t know where to help…I’m here and I feel shackled, and there are others who feel like we can’t do anything where we’re at,” she said through a translator.

But access to the United States is no panacea.

In mid-March, Majd Chourbaji came to the United States to receive the International Women of Courage Award from the State Department. Despite being honored for her work with Syrian refugees, she left the United States ahead of schedule—abruptly and in disgust.

Chourbaji had been detained by Syrian military intelligence, and her husband had been tortured and killed. But meetings with first lady Michelle Obama and State Department officials left her acutely aware that the United States was quite well informed about the violence in Syria—and had done, in her eyes, not nearly enough to stop it.

“I have never hated myself before as I hated myself when I was in America,” Chourbaji wrote in a letter, translated from Arabic. “I was nauseated when I was telling people…about our struggles and our pain, when the response was ‘sorry’!! People are dying in my country and your country can help them, but all you can say to me is ‘sorry’??! Because of the silence of your nation, every minute there is a child or woman who is being killed, and you say to me ‘sorry’??!”

While Chourbaji was in the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would eventually need to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in order to remove him from power.

The State Department tried to walk back those remarks soon after.

“There always has been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of that process. It would not be and would never be, and it wasn’t what Secretary Kerry was intending to imply, that that would be Assad himself,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The secretary of state’s apparent openness to negotiation with Assad or his representative was, Chourbaji argued, a shameful stance from a government she saw as indifferent to the killing in Syria:

“I broke down. I cried uncontrollably and asked myself, ‘…How can you trust a government that has been silent on the killing of your people for four years, and you come to them to accept an award and share your silly story?’”

More than 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Syria, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The conflict entered its fifth year on March 16.

“I want to talk to the average American and tell them about Syria and the revolution, and the great and high ideals which the Syrian people came out to demand,” Al-Jizawi told The Daily Beast.

“And,” she continued, “how the Syrians were completely abandoned.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the former detainees, many of whom still have relatives in prison or elsewhere in Syria.

The Daily Beast corroborated the testimony of the Syrian detainees mentioned in this story by obtaining documentation as evidence that they had been jailed by the Assad regime. Al-Jizawi’s detention was publicized as a means of pressuring the Syrian government for her release. Bayan was part of a publicized prisoner swap. The State Department has acknowledged Chourbaji’s detention.

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