By Scott Lucas
Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham
After nearly six years of uprising, conflict and chaos, the partition of Syria is imminent. President Bashar al-Assad will of course rail against it; his crucial ally Iran will probably resist too, and the marginalised US won’t even acknowledge the prospect. But the lines are nonetheless being drawn.
With pro-Assad forces back in control of Aleppo city, a newly co-operative Turkey and Russia are ready to pursue partition as a short-term resolution. The Syrian opposition and many rebels will embrace it as their best immediate option, and the leading Kurdish political and military groups will settle for whatever autonomy they can get. If things continue shaping up this way, by the end of 2017, Syria will quite probably become a country of four parts.
The Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime is set to hold much of the south and west, and most of Syria’s cities. There’ll most likely be a Turkish/rebel area, effectively a “safe zone”, in parts of northern Syria; the Syrian opposition will probably control Idlib province and possibly other pockets of territory in the northwest; while the Kurds will have some form of autonomy in the northeast.
A settlement like this has been a long time coming. Neither the Assad regime nor its enemies will settle for just a part of Syria, and both have survived years of intense conflict. The opposition and rebels still control territory from the north to the south; Assad clings on with the help of Russian aerial bombardments and Iranian-led ground forces. All the while, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia are still defending territory against both IS and the Assad regime.
If the lines of a potential partition were clear some time ago, what stood in the way of recognising them was the challenge of Aleppo city. Without recapturing it, the Assad regime had no hope of claiming an economic recovery (however disingenousouly) in the areas it controlled, let alone in the entire country. But the city was surrounded by opposition-controlled territory; Assad’s military was far too depleted to change the game, and even with outside support, its campaign would be protracted.
The turning point came in August 2016 when Turkey and Russia began to reconcile. The two countries had always been on opposite sides of the conflict, Turkey supporting the opposition and rebels and Russia Assad. Their relations had been tense since November 2015, when Ankara’s jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border. But within a year, both saw the advantages not only of reconcilation, but of agreeing on what their respective spheres of influence in Syria should be.
A deal was quickly established: Turkey would accept the reoccupation of all of Aleppo city by pro-Assad forces, supported by Russian-Syrian siege and bombing tactics, while Moscow would accept a Turkish military intervention alongside rebels in northern Syria, including much of Aleppo province.
Which is where we are now. Civilians and rebels have been evacuated from or allowed to leave the last opposition holdouts in eastern Aleppo city. The Turkish-rebel offensive continues to push back IS, although it is facing difficulties in its assault on al-Bab, the group’s last major position in Aleppo province.
A national ceasefire, brokered by Turkey and Russia in the last days of 2016, but pro-Assad forces are breaking it in offensives near Damascus. The two countries are trying to arrange political talks between the regime and the Syrian opposition later this month in Kazakhstan.
As Andrey Kortunov, director of a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, summarised it to Reuters: “There has been a move toward a compromise … a final deal will be hard, but stances have shifted.” The same story quotes a “senior Turkish government official” explaining that the convergence “doesn’t mean we approve of Assad. But we have come to an understanding. When Islamic State is wiped out, Russia may support Turkey in Syria finishing off the PKK.”
So can the Turkish-Russian initiative win over (or put down) everyone else who has a stake in the outcome?
The biggest immediate challenge is in the opposition-controlled areas near Damascus. The Assad regime has already taken back many of the suburbs, but two key areas are still beyond its control: Wadi Barada to the northwest, and East Ghouta and Douma to the northeast.
Wadi Barada is home to the al-Fijah springs, which provide more than 60% of Damascus’s water. Since mid-December 2016, the Assad regime’s forces and Hezbollah have been trying to overwhelm it with bombing, shelling, and ground assaults. In the process, the pumping station for the springs has been damaged, cutting off or limiting water to about 5.5m people.
At the same time, the Syrian Army and its allied militias are trying to take more territory near Douma, which is the centre for the leading rebel faction Jaish al-Islam. Turkey is critical of the offensive, Russia is staying silent, and the Iranian government and possibly its military are backing it.
Then there’s the Syrian Kurdish movement. The PYD would like to unite its area in the northeast with a Kurdish canton in the northwest, while Turkey would like to push back any Kurdish zone of influence and elevate other Kurdish groups over the PYD. With the Assad regime opposed to Kurdish autonomy of any sort, the only agreeable option may be containment: Turkey will probably accept a Kurdish area east of the Euphrates River, limiting any zone of control or potential military advance. The PYD, knowing it has no powerful backing, will accept the offer, even if it isolates the Kurdish area in and near Aleppo city.
As for Assad himself, the Syrian opposition continues to demand that he step down – but few others are bothering any more. The US effectively gave up the cause in 2012, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have gone quiet, and Turkey seems not to care much. He may one day be offered the chance to step down peacefully when elections are arranged, but in the meantime he will stay where he is.
Confronted with the increasingly effective Turkish-Russian axis, a US official opted for condescencion: “So this country that essentially has an economy the size of Spain, that’s Russia, is strutting around and acting like they know what they are doing. I don’t think the Turks and the Russians can [negotiate] without us.”
This is pure bluster. For three years now, Russia has been feigning co-operation with the US, and in the process has deftly manoeuvred its Western rival onto the sidelines. If Washington pushes back too hard, it could wreck its relationship with Turkey – which grants it access to key airbases – and end up framed as the main obstacle to a major breakthrough.
The events of the last seven months have only reconfirmed what’s been clear for some time: there is no optimal solution to the Syrian crisis. Partition is far from ideal, and it may only be short-term — but at this point, it’s the only viable alternative to endless slaughter, displacement, and destruction.
Although the event was standard U.N. practice and Jaafari was not the only ambassador to receive honorifics during the ceremony, many were upset to see Jaafari grouped in with other ambassadors due to the extraordinary violence the Assad regime has unleashed upon civilians in Syria.
“How can the UN secretary-general be taken seriously on the Syrian’s regime’s mass murder in Aleppo when he pins awards on the chest of Bashar Jaafari, the murderer’s most infamous mouthpiece?” asked Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based NGO U.N. Watch.
“Equally troubling is that Dutch ambassador Karel van Oosterom tweeted this out as something normal, just as he also has been a frequent cheerleader for the Venezuelan regime that oppresses its people and causes mass hunger”, Neuhel added.
Ban Ki-Moon pinned honorific medals on the participants as part of the event, which was organized by the International Association of Permanent Representatives (IAPR).
“I could not believe that Ban Ki-moon in the last few weeks of his 10-year tenure would do such a thing”, said the editor of the National Council of the Resistance of Iran (NCRI)’s website.
“On the same day that Ban Ki-moon gave Jaafari a memento, dozens of Syrian civilians were killed and wounded due to Assad’s murderous bombing. Three days later, a school in Idlib was bombed in which dozens of children were killed. Ban himself described the incident as a war crime.”
Syria has been accused of war crimes several times by U.N. and Western officials, including by French president François Hollande and by Ban Ki-Moon, for its use of illegal weapons and its indiscriminate bombing of civilians.
It was recently discovered that the Syrian regime used chlorine gas for third time (other suspected uses of chlorine gas were not proven). The Assad regime, with Russian support, has also used incendiary bombs which burn victims alive. Schools and hospitals are frequently struck by Russian bombs. Syria has not, however, been formally investigated for war crimes.
Published on Dec 29, 2015
Just when you thought ISIS couldn’t get any worse, they have now put out guidelines for how to rape your sex slaves. Probably not the best PR move… Cenk Uygur, host of the The Young Turks, breaks it down. Tell us what you think in the comment section below.
“Islamic State theologians have issued an extremely detailed ruling on when “owners” of women enslaved by the extremist group can have sex with them, in an apparent bid to curb what they called violations in the treatment of captured females.
The ruling or fatwa has the force of law and appears to go beyond the Islamic State’s previous known utterances on slavery, a leading Islamic State scholar said. It sheds new light on how the group is trying to reinterpret centuries-old teachings to justify the rape of women in the swaths of Syria and Iraq it controls.”*
In late January 2013, during the Syrian Civil War, the bodies of approximately 110 men and boys, most with hands bound behind the back, mouths sealed with tape, and gunshot wounds to the head, were found on the edges of the river in a part of Aleppo controlled by opposition forces. Very few of the victims were over 30. Many victims showed signs of torture.
‘This video shows in shocking close-up detail what civilians in Daraya have had to live through’ – Magdalena Mughrabi
The shocking reality of the Syrian government’s barrel bombing of the besieged city of Daraya, near Damascus, is shown in brutal detail in a new video released by Amnesty International today amid the latest round of peace talks in Geneva.
The video, shot by civilians in Daraya between 2014 and late February this year, includes unseen footage not previously made public. It shows scenes of Syrian government forces’ barrel bombs falling and exploding inside the city, interspersed with civilians – including children and the elderly – describing the sheer terror of living under such relentless attacks in a city under siege.
In one harrowing scene, an injured young boy lies alongside the corpse of his brother who was killed in a barrel bomb attack, weeping and begging: “My brother, please don’t leave me.” In another scene, a bespectacled young girl with curly hair says when asked about the bombs: “They want to kill me”.
Daraya has endured thousands of barrel bombs on top of more than three years of crippling siege by Syrian government forces. According to data collected by the Local Council of Daraya City, around 6,800 barrel bombs have been dropped there between January 2014 until the “cessation of hostilities” agreement on 26 February 2016.
The resulting damage and destruction is evident from countless videos and other images. At least 42 civilians, including 17 children, have been killed by these imprecise explosive weapons. According to local activists, a further 1,200 civilians have been injured. Local activists believe that the death toll would almost certainly be higher except for the fact that residents have become so used to rushing to shelters whenever helicopters are spotted.
Although no barrel bombs have been dropped on Daraya since the partial “cessation of hostilities” came into effect on 26 February, there have been attacks with other weaponry and thousands of civilians who remain in the city continue to suffer from severe food and medical shortages and no electricity. Most of Daraya’s original residents fled the devastation years ago and now only between 4,000 and 8,000 remain, a fraction of its original population.
Amnesty International interim Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Magdalena Mughrabi said:
“This video shows in shocking close-up detail what civilians in Daraya have had to live through.
“It is absolutely outrageous – though not surprising – that the Syrian government has continued to bombard and starve its own civilians. And it is unacceptable that the UN and other influential international players are not doing more to address the critical situation in Daraya and other besieged locations.
“Every day that goes by without aid delivery means that the humanitarian crisis in Daraya worsens.”
Humanitarian crisis amid siege of Daraya
In addition to widespread and large-scale destruction caused by the thousands of barrel bombs dropped on Daraya, government forces have cut off the city and not allowed in any humanitarian aid at all since November 2012.
Medical workers are severely under-resourced to cope with the scale of the humanitarian crisis they face. The besieged city’s only remaining field hospital has been targeted 15 times by government forces. Daraya’s Medical Office sent Amnesty lists of more than 100 medicines, supplies and equipment it urgently needs. Among the items they lack are: antibiotics, painkillers and anaesthetics; disinfectants and other cleaning supplies; and equipment including dialysis machines, CT scanners and hospital beds and cots.
Amnesty is insisting that the Syrian government allows urgently-needed aid into Daraya, in compliance with its obligations under international humanitarian law and binding UN Security Council resolutions. The International Syria Support Group and UN agencies, especially the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, must ensure this is made to happen for Daraya and all other besieged locations.
Crude but deadly weapons
Barrel bombs are crude but deadly weapons fashioned out of oil barrels, fuel tanks or gas cylinders, which are packed with explosives, fuel and metal fragments and dropped from helicopters and planes. They are by definition imprecise and must never be used in the vicinity of civilians. Amnesty hopes the harrowing eyewitness footage from Daraya will spur the international community to re-double its demands on the Syrian government to grant immediate lifesaving humanitarian access to Daraya and all areas still under siege.
#360Syria “virtual tour” website
Last month Amnesty launched a #360Syria “virtual tour” website showing the devastation wrought by Syrian government barrel bombing of the besieged city of Aleppo. The site (www.360Syria.com) comprises specially-created 360-degree photography, narration, sound recordings, 3-D data graphics and videos gathered by Amnesty-trained Syrian media activists. The innovative site is designed to take the viewer into Aleppo’s rubble-strewn streets for an “immersive” virtual reality-like experience. Visitors can navigate around full-screen “photospheres” which capture the apocalyptic scenes and sounds after barrel bombing attacks. The images also feature the brave rescue efforts of unarmed civilian volunteers – the “White Helmets” – from the Syrian Civil Defence teams.
A Syrian bodybuilder in prison: Rife with contagious disease, starvation, ‘I buried prisoners with my own hands’
A recent SNHR report estimates the number of arrests by all parties over the course of the Syrian war at 215,000 people, the vast majority detained by Assad regime agents.
One of these detainees was Ibrahim Shahabi, a well-known bodybuilding champion from Aleppo. He was arrested at his gym on charges of selling pharmaceuticals without a license in late January 2011, charges Shahabi calls “preposterous and totally untrue.”
And so began 30 months of a prison sentence that left those who did not die so hungry that they ate pieces of the wall. Shahabi’s description of prison life resembles the Middle Ages in every way, down to the guards fearing contagious diseases from the increasingly ragged prisoners: “They would throw us our measly rations from the bottom of the cell door, and if someone died, they would throw us the key from the cell window so we could bury the victim in the yard,” he tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.
Shahabi, who had family and friends active in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was one of seven detainees released during an FSA-regime prisoner exchange in July 2013.
After leaving prison 176 pounds lighter along with several unhealed broken bones and other injuries, Shahabi is now back to training. Today he lives in Turkey, and is competing again in international bodybuilding competitions—under the revolutionary banner.
Q: When was your arrest? What were the charges against you, and why was your release delayed if these charges were fabricated?
I was born in 1977 in the city of al-Baab a-Shamali in Aleppo province to a well-off family. I opened a gym after finishing my compulsory service in Syria and I too was doing well.
I was arrested on January 28, 2011 and sent to the central prison in Aleppo after being accused of illegally selling pharmaceuticals without a license. These accusations are preposterous and totally untrue. I was a member of the Syrian Sports Federation and a certified international referee. I had won more than 15 awards in Syrian and Arab bodybuilding competitions.
Before my arrest, I was traveling and studying in Europe. I was learning how to design women’s shoes and training young people in gyms. In 1996, I came back to Syria to see my parents after a long time away, but the authorities stopped me at the airport and immediately dragged me off to perform my compulsory military service, believing me to be a deserter.
I spent five years in the military and subsequently in prison as a punishment for fleeing my service. After I finished my prison term, I decided to open a gym in Aleppo and settled down in my hometown. That is, until 2011 and the arrest.
At the time of my arrest, I was at my gym, which I opened in the Hanaano district [a neighborhood in northeast Aleppo city]. I was arrested on drug smuggling charges. Obviously, I had absolutely no connection to this. I was an international athlete and won international medals across Europe and in Syria.
With regard to my delayed release, the prison officials cheated everyone out of their money. Every single dollar that was spent to secure our release was in vain; the regime did not release a single person. On the contrary, we were exposed to the worst types of abuse and torture in prison, and I was one of those victims. Just compare the pictures and videos of me from before and after my arrest and you will see the violence and starvation that I faced in prison.
While in prison for nearly two-and-a-half years, Shahabi went from 273 pounds to just 97. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Shahabi.
Q: Tell us about what you experienced in prison.
One time I tried to escape along with 13 other prisoners, but once we reached the prison wall, the sniper locked in on me. The guards arrested me along with 10 prisoners, though three were able to escape. They later appeared on Al Jazeera together where they talked about their suffering in the prison. Meanwhile, we returned to our cells where the guards tortured us and broke our bones. Despite these incomprehensible struggles, I did not surrender; rather, what I saw and what I experienced in the prison strengthened my resolve and my determination not to become a victim of these heinous crimes.
Since the beginning of the revolution and our arrest, we were isolated from the rest of the prisoners in an attempt to portray us as terrorists. There were approximately 630 prisoners, with five people to a cell, rooms no bigger than 1 x 1.5 meters. After our failed escape attempt, each person was individually isolated.
During this time, people died, whom I buried with my own hands. In the end, only one other person besides me survived. It was only because of my athletic physique that I was able to bear the physical pressures, psychological torture, and the slow death in comparison to those prisoners who were less fortunate.
The guards forced us to bury our dead in the prison yard out of their fear of getting infected by our diseases.
I don’t know where to begin in describing the regime’s brutality towards its political prisoners; it’s unspeakable. The methods of torture were unimaginable, something that no human mind can comprehend. Even as we filed out after being tortured, one by one we would be struck without reason with metal rods—blows raining down on our heads and bodies with reckless abandon.
I came out of prison with three fractures to my head, one to my shoulder, and a deformed back all due to these beatings. Since leaving prison, I have undergone 11 plastic surgery operations for my back, and still I suffer from the fractures that I sustained while in prison. The operations, which are still ongoing, have cost $30,000.
As prisoners, we received monthly rations of one loaf of bread and two liters of water. That’s it. In spent 30 months in this environment with many prisoners. I came in weighing 124 kilograms (273 pounds). By the time I left, I weighed only 44 kilograms (97 pounds).
Worms were eating at my friends. Those who managed to cling to life were filthy beyond imagination. We had such little water and were not allowed to bathe, which led to the spread of tuberculosis and diarrhea, which I suffered from. Having bread and water, this was a dream for us. We were eating the wall out of sheer hunger. Throughout all of this, it was forbidden for any guard to speak with us.
Q: Can you describe the process of being tortured?
For the first six months, the torture was every hour. It came in so many ways, without mercy or compassion. However, after tuberculosis, diarrhea, and other infectious diseases came into the barracks, the guards refrained from entering out of fear that they too would be infected. They would throw us our measly rations from the bottom of the cell door, and if someone died, they would throw us the key from the cell window so that we could leave to bury the person in the yard.
Q: How did you learn of the deaths of your friends? How did you inform the prison guards of the news?
I would shout loudly and continuously until they responded. We were all isolated, trapped behind bars, and so everyone was accountable for the person in the next cell over. We would call to the next cell, and if the person responded, he was alive. If he didn’t respond, that meant he was dead, in which case we’d call the guards so that we could bury him.
One of my relatives was an assistant officer in the prison, and he was shocked when he saw me still clinging to life. I didn’t take advantage of his being there because the guards were prohibited from entering except for one Alawite officer [names officer.]
It’s also worth mentioning that my relative left with the Red Crescent and defected during the course of our release.
Q: When and how were you released?
I was released on July 10, 2013 following negotiations that the Red Crescent mediated between the opposition and the regime. Seven people were released from prison, myself included, in exchange for three officers, including a shabiha commander.
My name was the first one to be submitted for release given my close ties with the Free Syrian Army. Several of their leaders, particularly my brother in the a-Tawhid Brigade, were demanding my release.
Q: How did you rebuild your life following your release?
After my release from prison, I left Aleppo and went to Turkey on April 2, 2014. I got back into sports and physical training, and, thanks to God, began working as a trainer at a sports club in Istanbul.
I’ve coached five Syrian champions in Turkey, including Hassan a-Nasan, Mahmood Hassan, and Hassan al-Khalid, who have performed very well on the national level. I am now training to participate in the European Bodybuilding Championships under the Free Syria banner.
I have been very vocal in my dissent against the regime, and when I participate, I will raise a photo of Erdogan because he is the only one who has supported me in my recent competitions.
Q: Describe the challenges you faced as an athlete before the revolution. Contrast that with your participation in the Public Authority for Youth and Sports, an organization funded and supported by both the opposition in exile and the Turkish government.
Regarding the pressures that we faced before the revolution, the regime always played dirty and trampled on our rights. For example, every year in the city of Basil in Latakia province, there was a tournament called “Mr. Beach.” These Alawite guys would participate, and, of course, every year they would come in first place in the tournament even if the competitors had better bodies.
We also never received any of the prize money that the Sports Federation provided for the athletes. It was either stolen or distributed to the Alawite athletes.
Today, the situation is completely different. It’s possible for us to voice our opinions, work together, and do everything in our power to comfortably train our young men and women with the support and cooperation of the Public Authority. We are working to foster a new generation of professional athletes, far removed from the disgusting politics of the Baath Party, which robbed us of our rights.
I have promised that I will establish myself once again and come back to my fitness club stronger than ever. This last year I have been training a team called “Free Syria” for the bodybuilding championships, and for the second time in a row, we got first place in Turkey, and our people are getting ready for the European championships. This year, I will participate in the tournament in Spain.
Q: Can you describe what it is like dealing with countries in order to participate in the athletic championships? Who is funding you and the Syrian teams?
Funding and support comes from the Turkish Sports Federation. I will participate in the world championships through Turkey, joining the league and training participants, given that I do not own a club. In addition to being an athletic trainer, I work on the side as a designer of women’s shoes for Schuster’s Shoes. After I finish my day with the company, I go down to the gym and start training. When I was in Italy, I was working as a women’s shoes designer before I ever entered the field of professional sports.
Q: How do you see the Assad regime today?
Since the moment I was arrested at the airport in 1996 before I even got the chance to see my parents, I have viewed the regime as broken and a failure. In my opinion, since the start of the revolution, there is nothing that remains that can be called a regime.
The regime fell when it began destroying the country and killing its people. I am unable to describe the brutality, criminality, and sheer barbarism of its actions. Even though I have seen it first-hand with my own eyes in the prison, my mind is still unable to fully comprehend what I experienced.
Samuel Kieke was a 2014-2015 CASA I fellow in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Arabic Language and Literature, Middle Eastern Studies, and International Relations and Global Studies.
Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.
Footage captured on Idomeni refugee camp the 14th and 15th of March 2016
Published on Mar 15, 2016
Footage captured on Idomeni refugee camp the 17th of March 2016
Published on Mar 17, 2016