Round-Up: Palmyra, Contingency Planning for Regime Losses, UN Response to Enslavement Crisis

As some are saying that IS now controls 50% of Syria, see this thorough post on the significance of the regime’s loss of Palmyra: Islamic State captures Tadmur (Palmyra) in new sudden streak of offensives – Oryx Blog

In a surprising new streak of offensives launched at targets in both Iraq in Syria, the Islamic State has managed to capture the ancient city of Palmyra, known today as Tadmur. With the strategically important town of al-Sukhna falling just over a week before, and the Iraqi city of Ramadi just days before Tadmur, it appears the Islamic State is far from being under control, and possibly attempting to revive the seemingly unstoppable upmarch of last summer.

Tadmur, which is also home to Tadmur airbase, is of high strategic importance due to its position at the base of the vital M20 highway, which leads through the recently fallen al-Sukhna to the regime’s last holdout in the East of the country: Deir ez-Zor. Without access to this highway and with little prospect of retaking both of the Islamic State’s newest gains, the Assad-regime will face extreme difficulty in keeping its troops in Deir ez-Zor supplied, and the fall of the city and associated airbase might soon become inevitable. …

Tadmur, Palmyria, regime loss IS advantage

… Also of great importance are the massive weapon depots located in Tadmur, one of the largest in Syria. While the exact contents of the depots remain unknown, there are reports of ballistic missiles being stored here. Should this be the case, it is likely images of such missiles in Islamic State’s hands will surface again soon, even though it is unlikely that they will get any to work. Perhaps more of interest is the fact that many other types of weaponry captured by the fighters of Islamic State as Ghaneema (spoils of war) will provide the means for future offensives, allowing the Islamic State to exert pressure on fronts throughout the region. …

The article Marshall refers to is The Cell of Survival: Bara Sarraj from Dec. 2011, about a young man who spent 12 years in Syria’s prisons, including the notorious prison in Palmyra.

His story begins on March 5th, 1984, an ordinary Damascus morning. He was on route to university, where he was a second year electrical engineer student. He decided that morning he would read Ahmad Shawqi’s play, The Death of Cleopatra, on his two hour bus commute from al-Mezzeh to the university. He also brought his small English dictionary to study during the often boring lectures. At his destination, he saw a double line of students waiting to be searched before entering the building. He thought, “I feel sorry for the guy who is going to be taken.” He knew the lines meant the mukhabarat  were looking for someone specific. After passing through the doors, someone called him by name, he turned, and a man said, “We need you for five minutes.” He felt “his heart drop to his feet.” After a few hours of waiting and interrogation, he was blindfolded and placed in a car. He thought he was on his way to General Intelligence in Kafar Souseh, outside Damascus, but he wasn’t. Instead, the car took a cross-country detour to a prison in his home town, Hama.

He would disappear for the next twelve years, touring the depths of Assad’s dungeons, in Hama, Tadmor, and Sayd Naya. Bara Sarraj was twenty-one years old. …

… While he experienced several of Assad’s prisons, the most horrific was Tadmor. The city of Tadmor or Palmyra, is the jewel of ancient Syria. An archeological treasure, Palmyra is Syria’s prized tourist attraction: an authentic site of Roman ruins set within an authentic Arabian desert landscape. This isolated location, far from the cities and population became home to Tadmor, the prison, where thousands of political prisoners were tortured and executed. On June 27, 1980, Rifaat al-Assad ordered the execution of a thousand prisoners in one day. (This is a very conservative number, it may have been up to four thousand. It also took two weeks to clean the prison from the bloody aftermath.) When a prisoner entered Tadmor, it was unlikely he would leave undamaged, or even alive. According to Bara, Tadmor is a synonym for fear, in all of its definitions: terror, horror, panic, dread. “Language cannot describe it. Fear is the internal sensation when you physically feel your heart between your feet and not in your chest; fear is the look on people’s faces, and their darting eyes when the time for the torture sessions comes near.” Bara learned to be first in line to go to the torture cell, because “the fear was worse than the pain.” …

Dulaab torture

Bara demonstrates dulaab technique at a Walmart.

… Tadmor was closed in 2001, at the beginning of Bashar’s presidency, perhaps to end one of his father’s darkest chapters, perhaps it had become obsolete—there was no longer a need to fight a defeated people. On June 15, 2011, Tadmor opened its gates once more to welcome the first wave of 350 people who had participated in the uprising.  …

Aerial view of Tadmor prison, Bara Sarraj

Aerial view of Tadmor Prison. Image courtesy of Bara Sarraj.

 

Palmyra: Syrian forces trapped civilians, UN says – BBC

The United Nations says it has received reports that Syrian forces in Palmyra prevented civilians from leaving, ahead of its fall to Islamic State militants.  The UN, though not present in Palmyra, cited “credible sources”. …

IS has also taken control of a military airbase and a notorious prison near to Palmyra.

Meanwhile, IS has seized the last border crossing between Syria and Iraq after Syrian government forces withdrew, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The loss of the al-Tanf crossing in Homs province means the Syrian government does not control any of the country’s border posts with Iraq.

The fall of Palmyra comes just days after IS captured the major Iraqi city of Ramadi.

The US has acknowledged the militants’ gains are a “setback” for coalition forces targeting IS, but President Barack Obama insisted the US was not losing the war with the group. …

ISIS in Palmyra – Dexter Filkins – New Yorker

Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty

Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty

 

In their rampage across Syria and Iraq, the zealots of ISIS have wrecked and looted countless sites of archeological wonder: in the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Khorsabad, they’ve smashed temples and icons; in the Mosul Library, they’ve torched ancient manuscripts; at the Mosul Museum, they’ve turned deities and statues to rubble and dust. They even sacked Jonah’s tomb. Happy in their work, the ISIS wrecking teams have posted videos of their deeds. We can now only wonder if Palmyra, an ancient city in central Syria that fell to ISIS fighters this week, is next.

I visited Palmyra in the summer of 2003. It was a strange time to be in Syria. The Iraq War was only a few months old. The situation inside Iraq was deteriorating fast, but in Damascus, among the members of Bashar al-Assad’s government, there was still a pervasive fear that Syria would be the next American target. There was a wild rumor about government officials streaming to a certain palm reader in Aleppo, in order to have him divine whether and when the American invasion would come; even Assad himself, the rumor went, had paid the soothsayer a visit. I stayed in a Sheraton, then the nicest hotel in Damascus, and every night the senior officials of the Baath Party, some of them wearing pistols in their belts, would gather to drink and dance and carouse. When I asked one of those senior officials, Bouthaina Shaaban, whether the regime would ever loosen its grip, she told me, “We will always believe in the vanguard role of the Baath Party.” One day, I drove to the Iraqi border, where I found dozens of jihadis waiting to cross over to fight the United States; the Assad regime was only too happy to let them pass. …

… What will happen to Palmyra now? With ISIS in control, we should fear the worst; the place is filled with just the sort of religious likenesses that ISIS fighters have been smashing in their lunatic journey. What they don’t destroy they will likely loot and sell; ISIS has made millions this way. There is reason to hope that some antiquities will survive. Syrian officials say they managed to cart off many of the most priceless icons to Damascus before ISIS arrived. “This is the inheritance for the nation and for humanity,’’ Muhammad al-Shaar, Syria’s Interior Minister, told reporters this week. (Shaar, otherwise known for his iron fist, must have been grateful to be able to sound so humane.) …

Islamic State militants break into Palmyra museum, but artifacts safe – Toronto Star

… Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, told The Associated Press that militants entered the museum in the town’s centre Friday afternoon, locked the doors and left behind their own guards. He said that the artifacts earlier had been moved away to safety.

“We feel proud as all the museum’s contents were taken to safe areas,” he told reporters. But Abdulkarim warned that the Islamic State group’s control of the town remains a danger to its archaeological sites. The group has destroyed several sites in Syria and Iraq, and also has had a lucrative business by excavating and selling artifacts on the black market.

Activists had said the government emptied the museum of its content before the Islamic State assault on the town.

The city’s museum and artifacts have been damaged and looted earlier during Syria’s four-year civil war. In a 2014 government report prepared for the U.N.’s cultural agency, damage already was recorded because of fighting in the area around the Temple Bel. Bullets and shells hit the temple’s columns, while two of its southern columns had collapsed. The report also recorded looting.

Abdulkarim said some 6,300 artifacts from Syria were seized and smuggled out of the country in the last four years. …

Thanks to Jeurgen for posting the following article:

 Good article on the fall of Palmyra in french. Use google or bling to translate. Palmyre : «L’Etat islamique méprise la notion même de patrimoine»  –> Palmyra: “The Islamic state despises the very concept of heritage

Excellent: Anyone who bothers about the stones of Palmyra will also care about the souls of Tadmur – Boyd Tonkin – Independent

The distinction between a concern for the fate of people and of antiquities is a false dichotomy

palmyra-5

 … A visitor to Palmyra who has just posted pictures on the BBC website writes that he found something “slightly disquieting about feeling so strongly about the destruction of such astonishing cultural artefacts given the likely human toll”. Only a marble-hearted aesthete would not share that twinge. Yet Heinrich Heine wrote the first, and last, word about such pangs of conscience: “Where they burn books, they will in the end burn people too.” Many people know Heine’s line, which now graces a plaque on the Bebelplatz in Berlin, where the Nazis stoked their literary bonfire in May 1933. Fewer know its original context. It comes from his 1821 tragedy Almansor, and refers to burnings of the Koran by the Spanish Inquisition.

With Isis, the breaking of “heathen” statues and “heathen” bodies belongs to the same jihad. Both serve the struggle for absolute monotheism against idolatry. Yazidis, Shias, Christians, Jews and indeed anyone who offends the Isis leadership no more deserves to survive than a carved Assyrian bull or a sculpted Roman goddess. Some 2,000 miles from the battlefront, we can respond to this iconoclastic mayhem with mourning, rage or defiance. The one reaction in which we should not indulge is bafflement at some alien, exotic passion. For Palmyra’s, or Nimrud’s, present was our past. “And this also,” says Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, as his ship lies at anchor in the Thames at the start of Heart of Darkness, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” …

Palmyra, ISIS’ Latest Conquest, Has Dark History Of State Torture And Abuse – HP

When Dr. Bara Sarraj heard that Islamic State militants had overrun the city of Palmyra and its ancient desert ruins, he began to cry.

But he wasn’t crying over the World Heritage Site that now may be destroyed by hardline fighters keen on erasing history and selling off antiquities. Instead, his mind drifted to a place of nightmares just a stone’s throw from Palmyra’s tall, cream colored pillars — Tadmor military prison. …

… Infamous for what were said to be summary executions and massacres in the 1980s and 1990s under former Syrian President Hafez Assad, the military prison was shuttered — at least on paper — in 2001 after his son, Bashar Assad, assumed power. There remains uncertainty over whether or not it was truly closed. After the Syrian revolution and subsequent war exploded in 2011, Syrians allege that Tadmor was reopened as a place to imprison dissidents.

Under the first Assad, the prison was a “kingdom of death and madness,” according to a 1996 Human Rights Watch Report that detailed a 1980 massacre in which at least 500 prisoners were killed in one day. An Amnesty International report from 2001 says the prison, in which detainees are “completely isolated from the outside world” seems to have been designed to “inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners.”

Torture tactics included hanging victims from suspended tires, full-body beatings with sticks and cables and strapping victims to the “German chair,” a metal contraption that would forcefully bend their spine. …

… “It’s an indictment of the free world,” Sarraj said. “If Daesh freed Tadmor, then what is the free world doing?” he asked, referring to the Islamic State group by its Arabic nickname.

The irony that ISIS opened the doors of such a symbol of repression in Syria is not lost on Nadim Houry, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. …

… A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, said Thursday in Geneva that the Syrian regime blocked civilians in Palmyra from fleeing in the face of the Islamic State group until the government forces themselves were able to leave. She also cited grave concerns about ISIS’ crimes in the city.

“ISIL has reportedly been carrying out door-to-door searches in the city, looking for people affiliated with the government,” she told Reuters. “At least 14 civilians are reported to have been executed by ISIL in Palmyra this week.” …

… Unconfirmed reports circulated on Twitter Thursday claiming that ISIS militants released prisoners from Tadmor, including over two dozen Lebanese. The WorldPost could not independently confirm these claims. …

… Sarraj worries that any remaining detainees — cut off from the outside world inside Tadmor — will be recruited by the Islamic State.

“When I was released, I had no idea that the Soviet Union collapsed,” he said. “I had no idea what Bosnia and Herzegovina was. You are in another world and suddenly you are out.”

“They would be happy with anyone who liberates them,” he continued. “Maybe they will end up fighting against the West.”

See also these FB comments from Prof. Stephennie Mulder:

Some thoughts about Palmyra, partly in response to many Syrian friends who have been rightly criticizing the outcry over ancient stones while untold millions of people are suffering. I just finished an interview with Al Jazeera English and they did a very nicely balanced report. It discussed the 140,000 people, including many refugees, living in the nearby modern town of Tadmur, the atrocities of the Syrian Army, both human and cultural (we should not forget the Syrian Army has been filmed looting the site already last year, see the photo below), and the infamous prison there, where Assad has tortured political prisoners for decades. All of this context for the discussion of the archaeological site is what is needed.

Clearly, we must have have concern for people first, but culture is also an essential part of us as people, as human beings. It seems so hard to imagine now, but someday this war will end, and a people without history, with nothing left of their past, will be a people doubly traumatized. ISIS knows this, and that is one reason they’re targeting such sites – just as happened in the war in the former Yugoslavia with the destruction of the Mostar bridge – which, after the war, became a reminder of the city’s integrated Christian and Muslim past. Its rebuilding became a powerful symbol of the ongoing significance of its value to actual people. Stones do matter, and they matter to people, because they tell us who we are. I also think that sometimes culture galvanizes outside concern not because people are callous and don’t care about human life, but because sometimes the death of so many innocent people, so unbearable and unspeakable, is so awful to contemplate that people simply can’t bear it. Most people simply feel helpless in the face of death on this scale, and turn away in despair. Having concern for culture then becomes a way to express concern that seems concrete, in some sense. I don’t think this is right, nor am I defending it, I’m just trying to explain the phenomenon in less cynical terms. I also tried to make the point in the interview that the safety of the people in Tadmur should be our first concern, and the heroic efforts of Syrian heritage workers who are valiantly trying to save these sites is also an important part of the story.

A last thought – to return to the question of why I think it is problematic to speak about cultural heritage and people as though they are separate and unconnected. And that is that in fact, people *do* die because ISIS is destroying culture. Every day. Why? Because ISIS’ sale of antiquities looted from sites like Palmyra funds their reign of terror, and because, as Elyse pointed out so eloquently, destruction of cultural heritage is a primary tool of genocide. So each one of these sites and the looting that will take place there can, quite literally, be cataloged in human lives. If ever there was a reason to fight to ‪#‎SavePalmyra‬, that is it. We cannot disentangle human lives from the culture humans have made and cherish. Does that mean we should save an ancient temple before we save a Syrian child? Of course not. But it also means we can’t think of them as separate and unconnected, and that the fight to save one should also be seen as the fight to save the other.

 

Recent Regime Losses and Contingency Plans for Potential Mass Displacement

Many observers are wondering whether the regime’s recent losses portend its demise, and debate how much of a fight it still has:

Why Assad is losing – Brookings – Charles Lister

Syria’s rebels are making sweeping gains, as foreign powers up support and work with Islamist fighters. But the regime isn’t about to go down without a fight.

After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country. In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013.

However, while much of the subsequent commentary proclaimed this as the beginning of the end for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we are still a long way from that. In fact, the regime reacted to its dramatic losses in the north by carrying out hundreds of air strikes, barrel bombings, and chlorine attacks in rural Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. Regime ground offensives were launched in eastern Damascus, in areas of Homs, and in the mountains around Zabadani near the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, a major joint regime-Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun mountains now also looks imminent.

So what is happening in Syria? Recent events have clearly tipped the psychological scales back into the opposition’s favor: Losses in Idlib and the southern governorate of Deraa have placed great pressure on Assad, whose severe manpower shortages are becoming more evident by the day. Frustration, disaffection and even incidences of protest are rising across Assad’s most ardent areas of support on Syria’s coast — some of which are now under direct attack. Hezbollah is stretched thin and even Iranian forces have begun withdrawing to the areas of Syria deemed to be the most important for regime survival.

The regime is no longer militarily capable of launching definitively successful operations outside of its most valuable territories, while its capacity for defense against concerted attack now appears questionable at best. It also looks diplomatically weaker, as Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability. Meanwhile, Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the United States and its expected involvement in talks in Geneva convened by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may open the door for, at the very least, discussions of a negotiated solution in Syria.

However, diplomacy alone will be unlikely to provide a path out of Syria’s conflict. Even as a broad swathe of the international community talks behind closed doors about launching a major new diplomatic initiative on Syria, it will ultimately be military pressure inside Syria that will determine whether such an initiative has any chance of success. …

Is Assad Losing the War in Syria? – Aron Lund

Judging by a lot of the media coverage of the Syrian war, President Bashar al-Assad runs a curious sort of regime: it is always either crumbling or on the verge of victory.

The narrative shifts every now and then. Assad was losing from March 2011 until around October 2013, then he was winning for about a year and a half, and now he is back to losing again. The story is consistent only in that it remains reliably hung up on the extremes of victory or defeat.

Only rarely will the Assad regime be described as what it most probably is: a decomposing rump state plodding through a confused civil war toward an uncertain future, with no one quite sure anymore what victory would even look like. The Syrian government may lose more territory and break down structurally, perhaps even rapidly and catastrophically, but its constituent parts are not about to vanish from the face of the earth. In the hypothetical event of Assad’s death or withdrawal from Damascus, his armed forces would not cease to exist. Some would flee and some would die, but what remained would melt into a new ecology of militias and mayhem—and the war would go on. …

Assad’s regime is brittle, and it may fall fast – Bob Bowker

It is not yet possible to say whether, when and how the Syrian regime may fall. But recent military setbacks, and an objective analysis of the challenges the regime faces in the longer term, strongly suggest that its future is increasingly precarious.

army tank Syria

 

The momentum of the military conflict has shifted in favour of the rebel movements, foremost of which are the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey. Much of the reversal of rebel fortunes appears to have been derived from a deal between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, brokered by Qatar, under which a joint operations room facility has been established among the rebel forces. Having captured Idlib and the even more strategically important town of Jisr al-Shughour, they are now within striking distance of Hama to the south and Latakia to the west. They have cut the Aleppo-Latakia highway.

In contrast, efforts by the regime this year to win back Deraa, near the southern border with Jordan, and to secure control of Aleppo, have failed. With Hezbollah support, the regime is now engaged in a battle for control of the Qalamoun mountainous region straddling the border with Lebanon west of Damascus. It is trying to recover Jisr al-Shughour, and a major offensive to remove rebel forces from the Ghouta area adjacent to Damascus is widely anticipated. …

…The outcome of the battles for Jisr al-Shughur and the Qalamoun region will provide a clear indication of the regime’s military situation in areas of high strategic value. Elsewhere, however, with a few exceptions, the military effectiveness of the regime has been reduced to such a degree that an assertion of territorial control is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Even within what might be regarded as the regime’s strategic core, and despite its monopoly on air power, it is at risk. It may lose control over the Hama air base, as well as land routes to Aleppo from the south.

These risks may yet be mitigated by a variety of factors. Conflict has been reported between Islamic State fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra amid the pressure of the Qalamoun offensive. The external backers of the various rebel forces do not share a single vision of the ultimate objectives of the struggle to remove Assad. The Saudis may yet become bogged down in their campaign in Yemen. Iran and Russia have strategic interests invested in the Assad regime (though not in Assad personally) that they will not readily relinquish.

Weighing against those factors, however, are the challenges and painful choices faced by the Syrian regime. It is increasingly difficulty for the regime to raise and sustain additional regular military forces. The regime appears increasingly dependent on inputs from Hezbollah to boost its military capability (among the reasons for losing Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour may have been the absence of such support). It is anxiously awaiting promised financial support from Iran. There have also been indications of friction within the upper echelons of the regime. …

… At the strategic level, the regime is being forced to choose between a politically-driven desire to maintain a military presence, however vulnerable, across most of the country, or withdrawing its forces to concentrate on the defence of the regime’s centre of gravity: Damascus and its surrounds, and access routes through Homs to the Mediterranean seaboard and adjacent mountains which comprise the historic Alawite heartland.

Whatever the military case may be for consolidating defensively around Damascus and a predominantly Alawite enclave, it is a strategy which entails enormous risk. It would signal to the regime’s support base (and to the rebels and their backers) that there is blood in the water. In contrast to the experience since 2011, the Syrian battle space would no longer be shaped by the regime. The regime would be on the defensive, and would have to find ways to sustain its supporters’ will to fight rather than flee. The psychological impact of terrorist actions that until now have been fairly readily absorbed by the population in Damascus would probably be enhanced.

For the first time on a large scale in this conflict, Syrians would witness atrocities against the Alawite inhabitants of mixed villages in the north and west that were no longer protected. In predominantly Alawite and Christian mountain villages, and coastal towns largely untouched by the war to date such as Tartous, the inflow of Alawite and other minorities fleeing the conflict and jihadist advances would likely damage morale.

As a recent program on al-Jazeera Arabic highlighted, there is a strong possibility that historical as well as more recent grievances against the Alawites will be given concrete expression in the most horrendous ways as the regime weakens. A substantial number of Syrians, unable to vent their anger on Assad personally for the hardships they suffered under his father and since 2011, will want Alawites to share the fate of the regime. …

Considering the potential effects of a regime lose, Bowker raises the issue of contingency planning regarding the mass flight of Alawites that would most certainly ensue:

Syria’s Next Potential Crisis Could Turn the Middle East Upside Down – Bob Bowker

With the Assad regime now more vulnerable in its fight against rebel groups, there is a strong case for the preparation of contingency plans to deal with a new and even greater humanitarian disaster that may unfold in and around Syria.

The potential for a genocide of the Alawites cannot be discounted. But the more likely impending threat is that of a sudden and massive population movement, especially from the western seaboard of the country into Lebanon. As noted in my previous piece (Assad’s Regime is Brittle, and it May Fall Fast), fear of genocide, amplified by actual incidents and social media campaigns, could produce a population movement on a scale not witnessed in the region since Palestine in 1948.

Any substantial outflow of the Alawite community (whose total number is uncertain, but if estimated to comprise 10% of the Syrian population, could be up to 2 million people) would almost certainly risk overwhelming the institutions and confessional balance of the Lebanese state.

Given the recent weakening of the momentum of the Syrian regime in its military contest with the rebel forces, and the historical precedents (Palestine in 1948 and more recently the Yazidis and Kurds of Iraq), the international community should prepare for the worst.

If the Syrian regime is seen to be collapsing, attempts by the Alawites to flee will be all but unstoppable. And for the vast majority of the refugees, particularly the Alawites and other minorities, there will be little prospect of returning to Syria. The consequences are grave. Should there be such an outflow, its legacy will reverberate around the region for decades at humanitarian, political and strategic levels.

The Lebanese Government is struggling to cope with the present burden of around 1.2 million Syrian ‘persons of concern’ (to use the UN High Commission for Refugees terminology). It is anxious to prevent an additional inflow further distorting the confessional political balance of the country in general and exacerbating the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in northern Lebanon in particular. It will be keen for a further wave of refugees to be protected or absorbed elsewhere. …

…The primary and immediate aim of the international response should be to minimize the risk of an additional outflow. In that regard, the UN and Western countries should encourage and influence Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to urge their client rebel groups to refrain from victimizing Alawite populations. They should insist that their partners avoid the use of the imagery of retribution as a weapon to weaken the Assad regime. They should highlight their responsibilities, both religious and under international humanitarian law, to protect civilian lives and property. The rebel forces should be encouraged to see the value of creating a clear distinction between their standards of behavior and those of the Assad regime.

UN agencies and NGOs will also need to negotiate directly with rebel groups to obtain security assurances for Alawites. The work of building strategies and approaches for negotiating such arrangements, and identifying the key individuals and other factors likely to shape the outcome of such efforts, needs to begin now. …

 

Yazidi Crisis and the Enslavement Project

In one encouraging development, it appears that the UN is beginning to draw attention to the real scope and seriousness of the Yazidi enslavement phenomenon, and is talking about a real response. Hopefully this will translate into action.
Yazidi women look on at Al-Tun Kopri health centre, located half way between the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and Arbil, after they were released with around 200 mostly elderly members of Iraq's Yazidi minority near Kirkuk on January 17, 2015 after being held by the Islamic State jihadist group for more than five months. Medical teams from the Kurdistan Regional Government carried out blood tests and provided emergency care to the group of Yazidis, many of whom looked sick and distraught. Yazidi officials and rights activists say thousands of members of their Kurdish-speaking community are still in captivity.

AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMID

Middle East Eye speaks with Zainab Bangura, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, about the latest IS crimes

A United Nations unit of sex crime investigators has probed the world’s war zones for evidence of forced marriages, slavery and mass rape since 2009. According to its head, Zainab Bangura, the Islamic State (IS) group has taken atrocities to a whole new level.

Bangura has just returned from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where she gathered data on IS sex crimes, including those against captured Yazidi women. She spoke with Middle East Eye about her trip, and how she plans to counter the group.

MEE: What did you learn on your IS fact-finder?

Bangura: During my recent five-country Middle East visit, I met officials, frontline workers and survivors. My focus was IS’s war on women, including from Yazidi, Christian and Turkmen Shia minorities.

After attacking a village, IS splits women from men and executes boys and men aged 14 and over. The women and mothers are separated; girls are stripped naked, tested for virginity and examined for breast size and prettiness. The youngest, and those considered the prettiest virgins fetch higher prices and are sent to Raqqa, the IS stronghold.

There is a hierarchy: sheikhs get first choice, then emirs, then fighters. They often take three or four girls each and keep them for a month or so, until they grow tired of a girl, when she goes back to market. At slave auctions, buyers haggle fiercely, driving down prices by disparaging girls as flat-chested or unattractive.

We heard about one girl who was traded 22 times, and another, who had escaped, told us that the sheikh who had captured her wrote his name on the back of her hand to show that she was his ‘property’.

Our research will feed into the annual UN report on conflict-related sexual violence and advocacy work.

MEE: Are they organised or ad hoc?

Bangura: IS is organised, coordinated and operates on a widespread and systematic basis to commit a staggering array of atrocities. They are institutionalising sexual violence; the brutalisation of women and girls is central to their ideology. They use sexual violence as a “tactic of terrorism” to advance key strategic priorities, such as recruitment, fundraising, to enforce discipline and order – through the punishment of dissenters or family members – and to advance their radical ideology.

They commit rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and other acts of extreme brutality. We heard one case of a 20-year-old girl who was burned alive because she refused to perform an extreme sex act. We learned of many other sadistic sexual acts. We struggled to understand the mentality of people who commit such crimes.

The number of foreign fighters involved remains a problem for us. In other conflicts, such as Democratic Republic of Congo, we can deal with fighters from five or six countries. For IS, it’s tens of thousands of fighters from 100 nationalities. In some attacks, there are more foreigners than Iraqis and Syrians.

MEE: Are all IS women enslaved?

Bangura: Most women get enslaved when their villages are attacked. We were also informed of parents who had given away their daughters to IS, particularly in Mosul. To understand this, we must examine the concept of jihad al-nikah, or sexual jihad – whereby women’s bodies are used as part of supporting the IS campaign. There are tens of thousands of men who expect that they will “get” women to “marry”. A woman’s contribution is to marry them and cater for them in many ways, including sexually. IS men may have a wife, as well as several slaves. We heard few stories of wives who helped the slaves to escape.

MEE: How do they escape?

Bangura: Some are released when a ransom is paid. When parents or community leaders are informed about the whereabouts of the women and girls, they would raise money – as much as $5,000 – and use an intermediary to “buy” the girls back.

Yazidi communities have suffered discrimination for a long time and have strong social networks. It is a closed and conservative community and recent events have been a real shock to them. But they show resilience and impressive coping mechanisms, including a willingness to welcome girls back.

Of course, not everyone escapes. When IS discovered girls used their headscarves to hang themselves, they forced them to remove them. I learned of three girls who tried to commit suicide by drinking rat poison, which had been left in a room. They started vomiting and were rushed to hospital and washed out. When they came back, they were brutally attacked.

MEE: You met escapees in Iraq’s Kurdish zone. Do they get the support they need?

Bangura: They do get support from their families, communities and the government, but the needs are huge. I met one woman who was in shock – most of her family had either been taken or killed. She was looking after her four-year-old son and trying to track down her 15-year-old daughter, who was taken by IS. She was so traumatised that she insisted her husband was missing, although he was dead.

Women like her need qualified medical and psycho-social support that is not readily available. Kurdish officials told me they are struggling to cope with a massive influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq. They are worried about an extra 500,000 people fleeing from Mosul when Iraqi forces try to recapture the city later this year. For its part, the UN is supporting and sheltering the affected population, but everyone agrees that assistance needs to be scaled up.

It was painful for me. The countries I have worked on include Bosnia, Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and Central African Republic; I never saw anything like this. I cannot understand such inhumanity. I was sick, I couldn’t understand.

MEE: Besides the US-led military campaign, what can the UN do to tackle a militia that cares little for international legitimacy?

Bangura: In addition to the military intervention and the sanctions tools that we have, we need first to tackle their access to communication means including social media that they use to terrorise communities and the whole world and attract new recruits. Information is its oxygen – we must suffocate them. Their tactic is to destroy individuals, communities, laws and society and build a medieval social order. We also need to use economic divestments to halt IS sources of income and supply lines. We must also explain the scope of the atrocities being committed, and look at accountability, which is difficult in the context of more than 40,000 fighters from more than 100 countries. We need to look at jurisdiction – does it fall under Iraq? Syria? We cannot only react emotionally, we must understand their tactics and defeat them.

The UN official interviewed above also spoke to Canada’s The Star:

UN envoy Zainab Bangura calls for global response to Islamic State’s sexual atrocities – The Star

… And now Zainab Bangura is calling for a global flexing of humanitarian muscle to restore hope to these shattered young women.

“We need a humanitarian surge. It can’t be just Canada, it can’t be just Europe — everyone has a role to play in attending to the sheer scope to the damage,” Bangura told The Star in an interview Thursday.

“There are 40,000 men from more than 100 different countries inside the Islamic State using brutal sexual violence as a strategic tactic to terrorize. We need all 100 countries involved, helping to deal with the aftermath.”

In Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and finally northern Iraq, Bangura sat with escapees from enslavement. Some Christian, others Turkmen Shia. But mostly Yazidis — worshippers of a Mesopotamian faith that claims direct lineage to the Garden of Eden.

One 10-year-old Yazidi girl told her, “How can I be worth anything now?” Another described being traded 22 times as a sex slave before fleeing her last captor. Another described being among a group of 14 Yazidi women who consumed diluted rat poison in a collective attempt at suicide. Rescued by their captors, some were treated at hospital, and then beaten for disobedience. Seven managed to escape out a window and slip away to freedom.

Bangura met with the mother of 20-year-old Zuhour Kati, who was set on fire in January by an Islamic State fighter from Saudi Arabia for refusing to perform “extreme sexual acts.” Rescued by a brother with burns to nearly 90 per cent of her body, the young Yazidi woman died in hospital in the Turkish city of Malatya.

“Her mother told me, ‘My daughter is better off dead.’ ” Bangura tabled her findings at the UN two weeks ago, briefing Security Council members. She spoke separately to Arab League delegates. Then it was wheels-up for Europe — consultations with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, then to Sweden and now Germany, where she met Thursday with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Bangura, a native of Sierra Leone whose work has taken her to Bosnia, Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic, said nothing in her past travels remotely compares to the “systematic war on women” being waged in Iraq and Syria.

Isis ‘jihadi bride’ claims forced sex with Yazidi girls is never rape because Koran condones it – Independent

A jihadi bride whose husband took a Yazidi girl as a slave has claimed sex with kidnapped women is never rape because it is an Islamic practice inspired by the Prophet himself.

On this new attempt to justify the enslavement project, see the previous Syria Comment post.

‘Has Anyone Here Been Raped by ISIS?’ – Daily Beast – Sherizaan Minwalla

The public’s interest in knowing explicit details of sexual violence must not outweigh these victims’ urgent need for safety and privacy.

…Does the public’s interest in knowing explicit details of sexual violence outweigh these victims’ urgent need for safety and privacy? I don’t think so and there are indications that victims would agree.

In extreme cases, journalists have tricked victims into giving interviews. In its report “Escape from Hell,” Amnesty International tells the story of a woman who had requested medical assistance because she was having panic attacks. Instead of being taken into a doctor’s office, she was taken to a room full of journalists waiting to interview her.

In another reported case, a man who seems to have been a journalist but who claimed to be a doctor videotaped victims while telling them that he would not show their faces. The women reported to Amnesty International that the doctor advised them, “To cure our depression we should get out of the house and go for walks in the fields and sit in the sun.” …

New Dabiq Issue Reiterates Justifications for Yazidi Enslavement

Dabiq issue 9, They Plot and Allah Plots

Click here to download Dabiq issue #9.

A new issue of Dabiq was released today (#9, They Plot and Allah Plots), which contains another article justifying the practice of slavery against enemies. (Thousands of Yazidi women were kidnapped and enslaved as concubines when IS attacked Sinjar in Northern Iraq, in August 2014. See: 1, 2, 3. A previous issue of Dabiq presented IS’ first public justification for the practice; see this post.) Scores of survivors have described how Yazidi women (including prepubescent girls) are subjected to continual rape by the jihadists who took them captive, and are sold or exchanged among multiple men. This new article seeks to present IS’ response to the world’s discussion of this atrocity.

The article (entitled “Slave-Girls or Prostitutes?”) is purportedly written by a female author, contains religious justifications for the enslavement of Yazidis, and is designed to inflame the anger and sorrow of the reader through provocative language. Some excerpts follow.

The article presents IS’ assertion that it is religiously permissible to take slaves of women whose husbands were enemies:

… The right hand’s possession (mulk al-yamīn) are the female captives who were separated from their husbands by enslavement. They became lawful for the one who ends up possessing them even without pronouncement of divorce by their harbī husbands.

Sa’īd Ibn Jubayr reported that Ibn ‘Abbās (radiyallāhu ‘anhumā) said, “Approaching any married woman is fornication, except for a woman who has been enslaved” [Al-Hākim narrated it and said, “It is an authentic hadīth according to the criteria of al-Bukhārī and Muslim”].

Saby (taking slaves through war) is a great prophetic Sunnah containing many divine wisdoms and religious benefits, regardless of whether or not the people are aware of this. The Sīrah is a witness to our Prophet’s (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) raiding of the kuffār. He would kill their men and enslave their children and women. The raids of the beloved Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) convey this to us. Ask the tribes of Banī al-Mustaliq, Banī Quraydhah, and Hawāzin about this.

… The Sahābah and their followers in goodness treaded upon the path of the Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) after him. Therefore, we almost cannot find a companion who didn’t practice saby. ‘Alī Ibn AbīTālib (radiyallāhu ‘anh) had nineteen slave-girls.

After all this, the ramblers dare to extend their tongues with false rumors and accusations so as to disfigure the great shar’ī ruling and pure prophetic Sunnah titled “saby”? After all this, saby becomes fornication and tasarrī (taking a slave-girl as a concubine) becomes rape? If only we’d heard these falsehoods from the kuffār who are ignorant of our religion. Instead we hear it from those associated with our Ummah, those whose names are Muhammad, Ibrāhīm, and ‘Alī! So I say in astonishment: Are our people awake or asleep? But what really alarmed me was that some of the Islamic State supporters (may Allah forgive them) rushed to defend the Islamic State – may its honor persist and may Allah expand its territory
– after the kāfir media touched upon the State’s capture of the Yazīdī women. So the supporters started denying the matter as if the soldiers of the Khilāfah had committed a mistake or evil.

… I write this while the letters drip of pride. Yes, O religions of kufr altogether, we have indeed raided and captured the kāfirah women, and drove them like sheep by the edge of the sword. And glory belongs to Allah, to His Messenger, and thebelievers, but the hypocrites do not know!

… Therefore, I further increase the spiteful ones in anger by saying that I and those with me at home prostrated to Allah in gratitude on the day the first slave-girl entered our home. Yes, we thanked our Lord for having let us live to the day we saw kufr humiliated and its banner destroyed. Here we are today, and after centuries, reviving a prophetic Sunnah, which both the Arab and non-Arabenemies of Allah had buried.

… some slave-girls in our State are now pregnant and some of them have even been set free for Allah’s sake and got married in the courts of the Islamic State after becoming Muslims and practicing Islam well.

… Rather, let me add to the heartache of the spiteful. Indeed, from the slave-girls are those that after saby turned into hard-working, diligent seekers of knowledge after she found in Islam what she couldn’t find in kufr, despite the slogans of “freedom” and “equality.” Indeed it is our pure Islam, which upraises every lowly-one and puts anend to every deficiency.

The author claims that Yazidi women are not forced to convert to Islam, while ignoring the fact that Yazidi men in IS captivity (to the best of our knowledge) are able to remain alive only by converting:

Yes, this is our – as they allege – “savage” Islam, ordering us with kindness even towards slaves. This is demanded even if they were to remain upon their kufr. And I swear by Allah, I haven’t heard of nor seen anyone in the Islamic State who coerced his slave-girl to accept Islam. On the contrary, I saw all of those who accepted Islam had done so voluntarily, not against their will.

The author then tries to justify enslavement by making a comparison with prostitution in other countries:

Are slave-girls whom we took by Allah’s command better, or prostitutes – an evil you do not denounce – who are grabbed by quasi men in the lands of kufr where you live? A prostitute in your lands comes and goes, openly committing sin. She lives by selling her honor, within the sight and hearing of the deviant scholars from whom we don’t hear even a faint sound. As for the slave-girl that was taken by the swords of men following the cheerful warrior (Muhammad – sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), then her enslavement is in opposition to human rights and copulation with her is rape?! What is wrong with you? How do you make such a judgment? What is your religion? What is your law?

In a further attempt at provocation, the prospect of Michelle Obama being sold at a slave market is suggested:

And who knows, maybe Michelle Obama’s price won’t even exceed a third of a dīnār, and a third of a dīnār is too much for her!

The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis – by Fabriche Balanche

Sectarian Distribution in Syria Fabrice Balanche

The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis

by Fabriche Balanche – original post here

“Alawis to the grave and Christians to Beirut!” This troubling slogan was chanted during demonstrations against the Assad regime in spring 2011, and exactly who was behind the chanting remains a controversial question. The Syrian opposition claimed that the slogan’s authors were members of the intelligence services who had infiltrated the demonstrations. According to this view, Syrian government agents were seeking to portray the opposition as primarily motivated by sectarianism and dominated by Salafis in order to frighten minorities and those wishing to live in a secular Syria.

It is still unclear whether the menacing anti-Alawi chants were the result of meddling by the intelligence services or the expression of sentiments held by a part of the Syrian opposition. But it is indisputable that Syria has since been gripped by a civil war between Sunnis and Alawis, and that other minorities have become collateral victims. Syria’s descent into intercommunal conflict has resembled the Lebanese civil war and, more recently, the ethno-sectarian fragmentation of Iraq. Sunni fundamentalists who dominate the military opposition in Syria consider the Alawis heretics unfit to live in dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam), let alone to rule the country.

… Alawis were officially recognized as Muslims thanks to a fatwa issued by the mufti of Palestine, Imam Haj Amin al-Husseini, in July 1936. In 1973, due to the pressure exerted by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad on Musa al-Sadr—the Lebanese imam who founded the Amal movement—the Alawis were formally recognized as members of the Shi‘i community.

However, these two “certificates of Islamic-ness” did not convince some, including the Muslim Brotherhood, who killed many Alawis during the 1979-1982 uprising because of their religion. More recently, in his sermons on al-Wisal, a Saudi satellite channel, the Salafi Shaykh Adnan al-Arour has threatened to chop them up with a meat grinder. …

Changes in Minority-Majority Population Growth

Demographic Growth in Syria by District, 1994_2004 - Frabrice Balanche

The relative decline of the Syrian Alawi population since the 1980s is due to an accelerated demographic transition experienced by all minorities—Alawi, Christian, Druze, and Ismaili. In 2011, the non-Sunni population of Syria shrank to about 20 percent, compared to 30 percent in 1980. This is due largely to women’s improved access to education and their integration into professional life. Fifty years ago, when Alawis experienced higher poverty and illiteracy rates, their fertility rate was also high, but it fell sharply as access to education and administrative jobs increased. Moreover, the Alawis, unlike the Sunnis, are not compelled to have a male descendant. While the Alawi fertility rate has fallen, that of their Sunni counterparts remains above three children per woman, even in higher social classes. This demographic decline challenges the power relationships within Syrian society. Over time, for example, the proportion of Alawis in the army and the intelligence services decreased. At the time the civil war began, Sunni soldiers constituted a majority of the Syrian Army, though Alawis retained a disproportionate share of the posts held by senior officers. Since the beginning of the conflict, however, the composition of the army has changed, with Alawis the majority at all echelons. This is why it has been so difficult for the Syrian Army to defeat the insurgency and why the regime has had to depend heavily on the support of Hezbollah. Indeed, the Alawi community is unable to provide enough soldiers to fight against the numerous rebels coming from abroad and from the large Sunni population.

The Civil War’s Impact on the Alawi Community

The Alawis have privileged access to state employment thanks to their deep integration into the networks of Syrian power. Obvious discrimination in public sector hiring has caused frustration among Sunnis, but the fact that Alawis are generally more assured of getting jobs does not mean that they have a higher standard of living since government salaries are relatively low. Hafez al-Assad used the Alawi community to build his political system, but he did not seek to create prosperity for Alawis because he knew that their loyalty to the regime was mostly based on economic dependence.

An Alawi middle class emerged with the growth of the civil service, and over the past decade the freezing of public sector recruitment has affected the Alawi community less than any other because Alawis are protected by a system of political patronage. But the freeze has resulted in a high rate of unemployment among Alawi youth in the coastal region and has also had disastrous political consequences for Bashar al-Assad, because more than 80 percent of the Alawi community works for the state. In fact, since coming to power, Bashar has supported the Alawi community less than his father, calculating that it would feel obliged to support him anyway in order to maintain its privileges. Instead, he made it a priority to integrate the Sunni and Christian economic elites into his inner circle and share with them the benefits of economic liberalization.

The Alawi community has not always given its full support to the regime. In the 1980s, the main Marxist opposition movement, the Communist Action Party, attracted many young Alawis. In the ongoing revolution, large protests against the regime have not mobilized the Alawi community, but some Alawis have joined demonstrations, and the opposition includes many Alawi figures (such as Aref Dalila, an academic who spent 10 years in prison for his criticism of the government). However, in March 2011, when the demonstrations began in Baniyas, the majority of Alawis did not support the Sunni imams, who were asking for single-sex schools and the communitarian rebalancing of public employment “confiscated by the Alawis.”

Protests in the coastal region did not lead to an escalation of violence as occurred in Homs because the Sunni rebel enclaves were quickly contained by the army. The protests found fertile ground in Homs because Alawis represent a minority of the population in the city and the surrounding countryside. In spring 2011, the tension in Homs between the communities was palpable. Taxis refused to drive passengers from Sunni to Alawi areas, and clashes proliferated along the borders of these areas. Kidnappings and assassinations on religious grounds have also been reported. The Alawi neighborhoods have been targeted by snipers and mortars from Sunni rebel areas. Many observers have compared the ongoing violence in Homs with the disintegration of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

The conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of people to migrate, and many Alawi families have returned to their villages in the coastal mountain range. Fleeing Christian families have settled in the seaside resorts of Mashta al-Helu and Kafroun—near Tartus—though Christian men continue to work in Homs. The Alawis of Damascus have not left for the coast because most of them live far from the areas of insurgency (such as Douma) and from the military camps in the suburbs. But if the regime falls, the coastal region could become a haven for hundreds of thousands of Alawis fleeing Damascus and the purge of the army and the administration that is likely to follow—not unlike what the Sunnis in Iraq experienced after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Military situation in Syria_May 2015, Fabriche Balanche

Conclusion

For centuries, the Alawis lived as prisoners in the coastal mountains and came out only to serve as labor for the landowners of Latakia, Tripoli, Homs, and Hama. The rise to power of Hafez al-Assad provided the community a chance for upward mobility. Even if the economic and political context has changed since the days of Ibn Taymiyya, the re-Islamization process within Syrian society raises concerns in the Alawi community, especially since the military opposition is dominated by ISIS and the Nusra Front.

If the Bashar al-Assad regime is ousted, the Alawis may choose a territorial partition. They could rebuild the former Alawi state created between 1920 and 1936 by France in the coastal region, though this time the external support would come from Russia and Iran. …

Read the full article at its original location here

Conference Announcement—Syria: Moving Beyond the Stalemate

Syria moving beyond the stalemate university of St AndrewsAnnouncing the St Andrews Third Biennial Conference on Syria: “Moving Beyond the Stalemate,” 1-3 July in St. Andrews, Scotland. The international conference will bring together in one place the largest and most diverse concentration of scholars of Syria. It will feature papers by some 25 based on innovative and cutting edge research. The Roundtable discussions feature the biggest names in the field of Syrian studies, diplomacy and conflict resolution. Roundtable participants David Lesch, Steven Heydeman, Nir Rosen, Samir Aita, Michael Williams and Carsten Wieland have all been intimately involved in diplomacy, track II and conflict resolution projects regarding Syria. I William Zartman is the world’s most famous expert on conflict resolution in failed states. The workshops will give all conference attendees a chance to interact with these scholars and practitioners in debating the way forward in the Syrian crisis.

Conference Aims

The conference aims at attracting scholars at all career levels, including post-graduate students, from a broad range of disciplines. Original research based on empirical data and/or new theoretical approaches are encouraged. Contributions by Syrian scholars are especially welcome. Papers may cover a variety of topics and are not confined to the following suggestions:

  • The nature of the Syrian war: actors, identities and interests
  • The Silent and Marginalized voices: Is there a “third force/way”?
  • The Islamist opposition and the evolution of Syrian Islam amidst the conflict
  • Regime survival
  • State collapse, violence and the disappearance of borders: the rise of ISIS, sectarian transnationalism, and international intervention.
  • The future of Syria: Is a diplomatic solution viable? Is an Iranian-Saudi détente over Syria possible? Is a power-sharing formula (or consociational democracy) possible?

The registration fee includes three nights accommodation, plus many meals, teas and coffee, etc. For details and registration please visit: http://syriaconfstandrews2015.co.uk

“Did Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s Spy Chief, Try to Carry out a Coup?” by Joshua Landis

[Addendum: 3 hours after posting: A trusted source says that Mamlouk has been working as normal this past week.]

I have been asked about what I think of the latest Telegraph news story that claims that Ali Mamlouk, the head of intelligence in Damascus, has been arrested for trying to carry out a coup and talking to the opposition because he has qualms about Iranians calling the shots in Damascus.

It doesn’t make sense to me. What does Mamlouk have to gain by talking with “the opposition”?

Ali Mamlouk, the head of the country’s National Security Bureau

1. His throat will be cut as soon as opposition members get their hands on it. His only hope is the Iranians; It has been since the beginning.

2. There is no “opposition” for him to productively talk to. Who could he be talking to from the opposition? Nusra? Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar? None of them would accept Mamlouk in any other condition but dead. Why would he talk to the Syria Opposition Coalition? They cannot deliver anything. They certainly cannot stop the fighting or save his life or that of the regime. It doesn’t make sense.

3. The regime lost Jisr ash-Shaghour. This was a big loss. It is of immense strategic value – much more so than Idlib, which was surrounded by a sea of opposition controlled territory. Jisr guards the Ghab valley, the back door to Hama; it also stands at the entrance to Latakia, which is some 45 miles away.   It is right along the Turkish border and cuts the main road from Latakia to Aleppo. The regime is making a big push to retrieve the city. We will see what sort of success the Syria Army will have in this effort. The rebels are determined to keep it. Only a day ago, they blew up a large hunk of the main hospital, where many regime soldiers remain surrounded inside the city.

4. The narrative about the top Sunnis in the regime getting cold feet about working with Persians seems too neat and too manufactured. Of course, if the wheels are falling off the regime, people will try to find a way out, but it is much more likely that they will simply flee, rather than try to pull off a coup and then negotiate a deal for the regime. It would be like the first mate of a sinking ship trying to negotiate with the sea. If the regime splinters, there will be no saving it. This rumor follows the Ghazaleh affair in March, at which time, the opposition insisted that Mamlouk (the other top Sunni in the regime) would be next to die mysteriously, be arrested, or come to a sudden end. There are many rumors. Last week, everyone was saying that Mamlouk was in a hospital; now this.

5. I cannot believe that Mamlouk would think of Rifaat al-Assad as a possible successor to Bashar. Rifaat expiry date passed long ago. He has no following. It all seems too far fetched.

6. The regime still has punch left in it, and the rebels are far from Damascus. Of course, if the Saudis and Turks are willing to send a lot more money and weapons, the rebels have numbers on their side. Their best strategy is the war of attrition. But the regime continues to maintain the upper-hand today. It has an air force and more armor. Iran and Russia have made no indication that they are giving up the fight or willing to throw Assad overboard.  Losing Assad and his regime would be a tremendous blow to both. They can also play the long game. Saudi Arabia with its new king and thirty year-old defense minister is not a combination one would want to bet on for the long run. The war in Yemen may be popular in Saudi Arabia today, but it will be disastrous for the new King in the long run. His opponents, who have been pushed from power, will come out of the woodwork when Saudis sour on it. We are far from an end-game.

For these reasons, I am skeptical of the notion that Assad regime principals, such as Ali Mamlouk, believe that they have better options than sticking with Assad, the Iranians, and the hand they have been dealt. I am sure none of them particularly like the hand they have, but reshuffling the deck now, would likely bring their swift and certain end.

“The evolving humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis,” by Marika Sosnowski

The evolving humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis
Marika Sosnowski – @MikiSosnowskihttp://marikasosnowski.com/
For Syria Comment, May 2015

In 2015, the UN has requested a staggering US$8.4 billion to help 18 million people within Syria and the immediate region. This is a huge sum and the largest humanitarian appeal in UN history. Five years in to the brutal civil war, the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis has predominantly focused on providing immediate relief in the form of food, health and sanitation. However, the complex and extended nature of the Syrian conflict now means that humanitarian actors are grappling with the medium to long-term issues the conflict has caused for Syria and its neighbours. These challenges include civil society development and increasing the rule of law within liberated Syrian communities, providing children with access to education as a normalising measure and an increased focus on livelihoods and creating economic opportunities in refugee populations.

At a meeting of donor countries in Berlin in December 2014, the UN announced the Strategic Response Plan for Syria that ‘incorporates, for the first time, significant development aspects’ in addition to addressing essential humanitarian needs (my italics). The Strategic Response Plan shows that the situation in Syria is no longer all about immediate disaster relief but has shifted to also include resilience and development aspects. As the term suggests, rather than addressing immediate needs, the aim of resilience and development programs is to act as a crucial bulwark against future instability and violence spawned by the Syrian conflict regionally and globally.

The medium to long-term advantages of resilience and development programming not only include regional stability but domestic benefits for national security and counter-terrorism. However, in order to be fully effective, donor requirements in the allocation of aid funding, particularly towards small Syrian NGOs, need to be rethought as well as supporting greater access for larger donors to hard-to-reach areas within Syria. These initiatives will hopefully provide more effective programming, value for money and ultimately, benefit people searching for some level of stability amongst the chaos.

Aid as a counter terrorism measure

A concern for most donor countries has been the threat posed by foreign fighters returning from the Syrian conflict or homegrown terror attacks inspired by the likes of ISIS. Given that many Western countries are now directly involved in military action against ISIS, an increasing number of foreign fighters may be likely to view their circumstances through the prism of a global war. This places countries in the military coalition at greater risk of blowback. Additionally, the dominant counter-terrorism response in many countries such as Australia, the US and France has so far been punitive and involved blanket prohibition and imprisonment of foreign fighters. For example, France recently jailed two underage boys who had returned voluntarily from Syria and Iraq after becoming disillusioned with IS and Australia has passed wide-ranging counter-terrorism legislation that includes imprisonment for entering areas of Iraq and Syria.

A recently published policy paper by the Brookings Institute suggests that instead of over-relying on punitive measures to combat terrorism, increasing funding and involvement in humanitarian programs that aim to help people affected by the conflict in Syria has the potential to deradicalise a significant portion of foreign fighters who were originally motivated, not by violence, but by a genuine desire to defend the Syrian people against the brutality of the Assad regime. Older research by AidData also suggests that foreign aid has the ability to decrease incidents of terrorism especially when the funding is targeted towards resilience and development sectors such as education, health, civil society and conflict prevention.

Agile and targeted aid

Syrian NGOs and local community organisations such as local councils are well placed to play a larger role in the delivery of these resilience and development programs given that they have direct access to many hard-to-reach areas and communities within Syria, local knowledge, language skills and are well connected with the ability to negotiate between different groups and areas. Unfortunately, the international community has so far been somewhat suspicious of supporting Syrian humanitarian organisations because many are considered unknown entities that cannot fulfil various funding and reporting requirements. These requirements include being in existence for more than five years (many were only created as a result of the uprising that began in 2011), being registered in Syria (there were various restrictions placed on the registration of civil society organisations under the al-Assad regime) or having undertaken a number of audits. While there are genuine donor concerns with monitoring and evaluating aid delivery – ISIS’ distribution of World Food Program marked packages early this year remains a very public example of failure – restrictions on funding Syrian organisations need to be rethought in light of the benefits they can offer.

Additionally, Security Council resolution 2191, and its two predecessors 2139 and 2165, succeeded in securing authorisation for UN agencies to use the most direct routes available for delivering relief inside Syria without the prior approval of the Assad regime. This includes through border crossings and across conflict lines. Thomas H. Staal, acting assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance said in a recent statement that, ‘this resolution [2191] has allowed us to access people in need in an average of 66 hard-to-reach areas each month.’ In practice, many issues remain. A recent multi-author report assessing the impact of the resolutions suggests that in order to be effective, influential countries must continue to press for the streamlining of administrative processes for aid agencies and maintain timely access through border crossings. However, the fact that they were passed by the Security Council at all does potentially mark an important shift in international humanitarian law with repercussions for humanitarian access going beyond the Syrian crisis.

Rethinking aid to Syria

Jordan and Lebanon have recognised the need for longer-term development and stabilisation initiatives to address the structural deficiencies and challenges to social, economic and environmental sustainability associated with the influx of large Syrian refugee numbers. However, the international community has generally been slow to recognise the ongoing and complex nature of the Syrian conflict and see that shifts in humanitarian response cannot be linear, from humanitarian to resilience to development, but rather need to consider and address all these elements in tandem. While some donor countries, such as the USA, UK, Denmark and Canada have begun to adopt this approach, other countries like Australia lag in this area.

Large and reputable humanitarian agencies like the UN, Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children continue to play a significant role in the delivery of the humanitarian response to the Syrian quagmire. However, new thinking is also necessary in diversifying the allocation of aid money as well as supporting the implementation of SC resolution 2191 as ways to effectively access areas within Syria given the vast scale and rapidly changing nature of the conflict.

In uncertain times citizens crave even basic levels of stability. Sadly, there remains a very real need to continue life-saving essential support to millions within Syria and regionally. The additional focus of the international community and the UN on development and resilience initiatives inside Syria and for refugees can also hopefully contribute to increasing levels of stability and normalcy for the all too many people affected by this conflict.

How Far is Hezbollah Willing to Go in Syria?

1_VahikHow Far is Hezbollah Willing to Go in Syria?
By Vahik Soghom,
BA. AUB, MA. Univ of St. Andrews, Humboldt Univ of Berlin
For Syria Comment April 20, 2015

The melting of snow in the Qalamoun mountains signals the end of the especially harsh winter of 2015. By extension, it opens the door for the much anticipated “Spring battle” of Hezbollah and the Syrian army against Islamist factions stationed in Qalamoun. The battle is meant to achieve Hezbollah’s goal of cleansing the area of Takfiri militants, who consist mainly of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra units. Hezbollah is confident of its impending victory in Qalamoun, yet one question that has received little attention revolves around the strategic implications of such a victory in the broader context of the Syrian civil war and the regional struggle against the Islamic state.1_Ranqous Plain

Regime forces fight for Ranqous plain in Qalamoun region

The fight for control of the strategic Qalamoun region separating Lebanon from Syria really began with the May 2013 battle of Qusayr in the North. Hezbollah learned to fight in dense urban settings there. Since then, Hezbollah has been bogged down in constant clashes with the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun, clashes which extend not only to the Syrian-Lebanese border, but within Lebanese territory itself. In the summer of 2014, fierce clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamist forces in Arsal highlighted the severity of the Takfiri threat faced by the Lebanese. Due to fears of heightened sectarian division within Lebanon, Hezbollah refrained from participating in the battle, and its operations have thus been limited to the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Syrian Qalamoun region.

1_Qusayr

Central square of Qusayr after fierce battle b/n pro-regime forces and rebels

There are two questions to ask about the upcoming Qalamoun war: what are Hezbollah’s immediate strategic objectives and what are its long term goals? How far is Hezbollah willing to go in helping Assad and Iran reconquer Syria and defeat the Takfiri militants in the region? The first objective is to protect Lebanese border villages from militants, a threat that has been hanging over Bekaa residents for the past two years. Secondly, the objective is to impede the infiltration and spread of Takfiri ideology in Lebanon. The under-equipped Lebanese army does not stand a chance against a Takfiri assault, especially one that is coordinated among rival Islamist factions. Thirdly, by pacifying the roads between Lebanon and Syria, Hezbollah will secure access to Damascus and Homs.

But what if Hezbollah is victorious in Qalamoun, what will it do next? Almost certainly, Hezbollah will expand operations to key fronts crucial to the survival of the Assad regime. Given the heavy losses Hezbollah has suffered in Syria, it will be hesitant to spread itself too thin.

In recent weeks, the Islamic State has been targeting crucial supply lines that, if successfully disrupted, will prove fatal for the survival of Assad’s forces in the north of the country. On March 23, fierce clashes were reported around Sheikh Hilal village on the eastern edge of Hama province. This assault by the Islamic State, which included a reported massacre of civilians, was meant to cut off the Salamiyah-Khanasir-Aleppo highway, a vital regime supply line for its Aleppo front. Another goal is accessing Idlib province, which is mostly dominated by al-Nusra and its coalition of Islamist forces. If IS successfully blocks the highway, Aleppo will run the risk of falling entirely to rebel and Islamist factions.

1_Idlib

Jaysh al-Fatah coalition celebrates after capture of Idlib

Another crucial front that has made the headlines in the past couple of weeks is Idlib, where a coalition of Islamist forces, headed by al-Nusra, managed to expel regime forces from the city. Though the regime has referred to its defeat as a “regrouping operation” and sent reinforcements from Hama to recapture the city, this battle will likely be extremely challenging. Part of the difficulty, and one that applies to all major fronts, is the Syrian army’s drastic losses in men over the past few years. The regime has long lost the luxury of recruiting soldiers from its civilian population, and only by calling in reinforcements from other fronts can it manage to deal with military crises. But what makes recapturing Idlib particularly difficult has to do with al-Qaeda and its newly-formed Jaish al-Fath coalition. Over the past year, al-Nusra has been overshadowed by the Islamic State’s expansion and public display of brutality, but looking at al-Nusra’s success in Idlib province as well as the Southern front, it is giving the IS a run for its money. And with fertile ground for expansion and episodes of success in Yemen and North Africa, al-Qaeda will improve rather than decline, and al-Nusra will benefit from this general resurgence. If, as expected, Idlib remains in the hands of the Jaish al-Fath coalition, the regime will virtually have lost Idlib province. Assad’s Syria will then only be limited to the western stretch of the country, comprised of the provinces of Latakia and Tartous on the Mediterranean, the central to western portions of Hama and Homs provinces, Damascus province, as well as parts of Aleppo.

But there is another crucial province the fate of which is at stake—Daraa. Though the regime still has a significant presence in the province, half of the city and most of its countryside is controlled by a mix of FSA and Islamist factions. Its neighboring Quneitra has witnessed a growing presence of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is most worrying for both Hezbollah and the regime due to the invaluable strategic importance of the Golan. In the event of the fall of these provinces, the regime will no longer enjoy its status as an Arab resistance state, and Damascus will be further squeezed in and surrounded from all sides. All three fronts mentioned—the eastern, northern, and southern—are crucial for the survival of the regime as well as the total disintegration of Syria.

But for the same reasons, these fronts are equally important for Hezbollah. For now, its priority is to secure Qalamoun and Lebanon’s borders. But in the event of victory in the Qalamoun, Hezbollah will extend its operational activities to other Syrian provinces in which it now lacks a strong presence. Which fronts it will prioritize will depend upon circumstances. Hezbollah’s participation will improve not only the regime’s chances for survival, but also allow the Assad regime to maintain its access to Aleppo, as well as launch a more effective offensive on Idlib. Finally, Hezbollah will increase its role in Quneitra and Deraa provinces. And let us not forget that the regime still has a presence both in Deir el Zor itself as well as the eastern edge of Homs bordering Deir el Zor. If, with much needed assistance from Hezbollah, it is able to fend off IS attacks in Hama, it may even be able to start planning an offensive in Deir el Zor. Whether it will be capable—or even willing—to do so, will depend on the outcome in Qalamoun. Should Hezbollah suffer an unexpected defeat in Qalamoun or a decide to reduce its exposure in Syria following a tough fight, the country will be on the road to partition.

Hezbollah will likely win in Qalamoun. Jabhat al-Nusra and IS will remain its strongest of enemies. Their limited cooperation in Qalamoun will not likely translate into cooperation elsewhere. In fact, a recent report suggests that both factions are ready to hand over Qalamoun to Hezbollah in order to migrate to other fronts in Syria. If so, Hezbollah may be spared a grueling battle near home and be drawn further into Syria. It is worth noting that neither the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, nor IS will be the biggest obstacle to Hezbollah’s expanding operations. The strongest opposition will come from its Lebanese supporters who, although ready to sacrifice their sons to protect Lebanon, may not be so willing to commit to slaying distant enemies. For now, however, we must await the outcome of the battle for Qalamoun.

HRW: “ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape”

Human Rights Watch today released new findings about IS’ sexual enslavement project that targeted Yazidi women and girls. Their report, entitled “ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” contains many new interviews with survivors who escaped IS, some as young as 12 years old, who describe the forms of abuse experienced while in captivity. The report also details the important issue of the survivors’ need for health care options, both medical and psychological. Portions of the report are quoted below (though I recommend reading the entire report), followed by a round-up of several other recent articles on the Yazidi situation.

Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape – HRW – April 15, 2015

Yazidi refugee IDP girl in Kurdistan

Displaced Yazidi girl living in an unfinished building near Dohuk. Photo: Samer Muscati/HRW 2015

Human Rights Watch conducted research in the town of Dohuk in January and February 2015, including interviewing 20 women and girls who escaped from ISIS, and reviewing ISIS statements about the subject.

Human Rights Watch documented a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces. Such acts are war crimes and may be crimes against humanity. …

The 11 women and 9 girls Human Rights Watch interviewed had escaped between September 2014 and January 2015. Half, including two 12-year-old girls, said they had been raped – some multiple times and by several ISIS fighters. Nearly all of them said they had been forced into marriage; sold, in some cases a number of times; or given as “gifts.” The women and girls also witnessed other captives being abused.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed more than a dozen international and local service providers, medical workers, Kurdish officials, community leaders, and activists who corroborated these accounts. A local doctor treating female survivors in Dohuk told Human Rights Watch that of the 105 women and girls she had examined, 70 appeared to have been raped in ISIS captivity.

All of the women and girls interviewed exhibited signs of acute emotional distress. Many remain separated from relatives and sometimes their entire families, who were either killed by ISIS or remain in ISIS captivity. Several said they had attempted suicide during their captivity or witnessed suicide attempts to avoid rape, forced marriage, or forced religious conversion.

… The director general for health in Dohuk told Human Rights Watch that local authorities had identified fewer than 150 women and girls who had escaped from ISIS and that only about 100 had received medical treatment. According to the KRG Directorate of Yezidi Affairs, 974 Yezidis had escaped ISIS as of March 15, 2015, including 513 women and 304 children. …

Sexual Violence and Other Abuse

The women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch described repeated rape, sexual violence, and other abuse in ISIS captivity.

Jalila (all survivors’ names have been changed for their security), age 12, said that Arab men whom she recognized from her village north of Sinjar accosted her and seven family members on August 3, 2014, as they were trying to flee ISIS. The men handed the family over to ISIS fighters, who separated Jalila, her sister, sister-in-law, and infant nephew from the other family members and took them to Tal Afar. Later, the fighters took Jalila and her sister to Mosul. Thirty-five days later they separated Jalila from her sister and took her to a house in Syria that housed other abducted young Yezidi women and girls. Jalila said:

“The men would come and select us. When they came, they would tell us to stand up and then examine our bodies. They would tell us to show our hair and sometimes they beat the girls if they refused. They wore dishdashas [ankle length garments], and had long beards and hair.”

She said that the ISIS fighter who selected her slapped her and dragged her out of the house when she resisted. “I told him not to touch me and begged him to let me go,” she said. “I told him to take me to my mother. I was a young girl, and I asked him, ‘What do you want from me?’ He spent three days having sex with me.”

Jalila said that during her captivity, seven ISIS fighters “owned” her, and four raped her on multiple occasions: “Sometimes I was sold. Sometimes I was given as a gift. The last man was the most abusive; he used to tie my hands and legs.”

Another 12-year-old, Wafa, told Human Rights Watch that in August ISIS fighters abducted her with her family from the village of Kocho. The men took the family to a school in Tal Afar filled with other Yezidi captives, where the fighters separated her from her family. From there they took her to several locations within Iraq and then to Raqqa, in Syria. An older fighter assured Wafa that she would not be harmed but he repeatedly raped her nevertheless, she said.

“He was sleeping in the same place with me and told me not be afraid because I was like his daughter,” she said. “One day I woke up and my legs were covered in blood.” Wafa escaped three months after her abduction, but her parents, three brothers, and sister are still missing.

The women and girls who said that they had not been raped said they endured constant stress and anxiety when witnessing the suffering of other women, fearing they would be next.

Dilara, 20, said ISIS fighters took her to a wedding hall in Syria, where she saw about 60 other Yezidi female captives. ISIS fighters told the group to “forget about your relatives, from now on you will marry us, bear our children, God will convert you to Islam and you will pray.” She told Human Rights Watch she lived in constant fear that she would be dragged away like so many women and girls before her:

“From 9:30 in the morning, men would come to buy girls to rape them. I saw in front of my eyes ISIS soldiers pulling hair, beating girls, and slamming the heads of anyone who resisted. They were like animals…. Once they took the girls out, they would rape them and bring them back to exchange for new girls. The girls’ ages ranged from 8 to 30 years… only 20 girls remained in the end.”

Two sisters, Rana, 25, and Sara, 21, said they could do nothing to stop the abuse of their 16-year-old sister by four men over several months. The sister was allowed to visit them and told them that the first man who raped her, whom she described as a European, also beat her, handcuffed her, gave her electric shocks, and denied her food. She told them another fighter later raped her for a month and then gave her to an Algerian for another month. The last time they saw her was when a Saudi ISIS fighter took her. “We don’t know anything about her since,” Sara said. The two sisters said they were also raped multiple times by two men, one of whom said he was from Russia and the other from Kazakhstan.

Some women and girls told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters beat them if they resisted or defied them in any way.

Zara, 13, said that ISIS fighters accused her and two other girls of desecrating a Quran while holding the girls captive on a farm. “They punished the three of us by taking us to the garden and tying our hands with wire,” she said. “We were blindfolded and they said they would kill us if we didn’t say who had done this. They beat us for 10 minutes and they fired a bullet in the air.”

Leila, 25, managed to escape from the house where she was held captive, but because she was behind ISIS lines, she realized she was trapped and felt compelled to return. The commander, an Iraqi, asked her why she had tried to escape. She said she replied: “Because what you are doing to us is haram [forbidden] and un-Islamic.” He beat her with a cable and also punished the guard who had failed to prevent her escape attempt. The guard beat her as well. “Since then, my mental state has become very bad and I’ve had fainting spells,” she said.

… Nadia, 23, said she was separated from the men in her family when ISIS fighters abducted them in her village near Sinjar in August. She tried to convince the ISIS fighters that she was married to escape being raped, because she had heard that ISIS fighters preferred virgins. However, after they took her to Syria, one of the men said that he would marry her. “The other girls with me said it’s forbidden to marry married women,” Nadia said. “He replied, ‘But not if they are Yezidi women.’”

Suicide Attempts

The women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch described their own suicide attempts or attempts of others as a way to avoid rape, forced marriage, or forced religious conversion. They described cutting their wrists with glass or razors, attempting to hang themselves, trying to electrocute themselves in bathtubs, and consuming what they thought was poison.

Rashida, 31, managed to speak to one of her brothers after her abduction by secretly using a fighter’s phone. She told her brother that ISIS fighters were forcing her to convert and then to marry. He told her he would try to help her but if he couldn’t, “I should commit suicide because it would be better than the alternative.” Rashida said:

“Later that day they [ISIS fighters] made a lottery of our names and started to choose women by drawing out the names. The man who selected me, Abu Ghufran, forced me to bathe but while I was in the bathroom I tried to kill myself. I had found some poison in the house, and took it with me to the bathroom. I knew it was toxic because of its smell. I distributed it to the rest of the girls and we each mixed some with water in the bathroom and drank it. None of us died but we all got sick. Some collapsed.”

Leila said she saw two girls try to kill themselves by slashing their wrists with broken glass. She also tried to commit suicide when her Libyan captors forced her to take a bath, which she knew was typically a prelude to rape:

“I went into the bathroom, turned on the water, stood on a chair to take the wire connecting the light to electrocute myself but there was no electricity. After they realized what I was doing, they beat me with a long piece of wood and with their fists. My eyes were swollen shut and my arms turned blue. They handcuffed me to the sink, and cut my clothes with a knife and washed me. They took me out of the bathroom, brought in [my friend] and raped her in the room in front of me.”

Leila said she was later raped. She said she tried to commit suicide again and showed Human Rights Watch the scars on her wrists where she cut herself with a razor.

Forced Conversions

About half the women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch said the ISIS fighters pressured them to convert to Islam. Zara, 13, said she was held captive in a three-story house in Mosul with girls ages 10 to 15:

“When they came to select the girls, they would pull them away. The girls would cry and faint, they would have to take them by force. They made us convert to Islam and we all had to say the shahada [Islamic creed]. They said, “You Yezidis are kufar [infidels], you must repeat these words after the leader.” They gathered us all in one place and made us repeat after him. After we said the shahada, he said you have now been converted to our religion and our religion is the correct one. We didn’t dare not say the shahada.”

ISIS fighters held Noor, 16, in various places including Mosul. “The leader of this group asked us to convert to Islam and read the Quran,” she said. “We were forced to read the Quran and we started to pray slowly. We started to behave like actors.” …

Provision of Health Services

Medical Care

KRG authorities have made significant efforts to provide health and other services to Yezidi women and girls and have designated a health committee in Dohuk to coordinate the identification and referral of survivors to services. The director general for health in Dohuk, Dr. Nezhar Ismet Taib, who heads the committee, said that some families do not wish to reveal that their female relatives were abducted and this has made it difficult for the committee to identify and support those in need.

Almost all of the women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they had received medical examinations. A local doctor said the medical tests included blood tests for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. In some cases, medical workers provided emergency contraception and post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

It is not clear that doctors have always obtained informed consent before conducting examinations. Narin, the 20-year-old woman from Sinjar, told Human Rights Watch that she was abducted on August 3 and given as a “gift” to an ISIS fighter, who tried to force her to marry him:

“I wasn’t raped – [the ISIS member] didn’t touch me because I told him I was sick.… I got a forensic gynecological exam in Dohuk, which cleared me of abuse. I wasn’t comfortable during this exam, and [the doctor] didn’t explain what she was doing to me beforehand.”

Those who take the medical tests do not always receive the test results. The two sisters, Rana and Sara, said that they spent five months in ISIS captivity and that ISIS fighters raped them multiples times. They said that soon after they escaped in December they received medical treatment and tests, but six weeks later, they had still not received any test results. Eighteen-year-old Arwa, from Kocho, managed to escape in December after ISIS fighters raped her. She told Human Rights Watch that she was still waiting for her test results seven weeks later.

Local authorities should ensure that health workers inform women and girls of the purpose of each test and that they consent to each procedure. The World Health Organization has provided guidelines for carrying out such tests and obtaining informed consent.

Withholding test results, whether positive or negative, can compound women’s and girls’ fears about the state of their health. Health workers should ensure that there is follow up for such women and girls, including providing test results and any further treatment and information they need.

Psychosocial Support

Psychosocial support for women and girls who escaped ISIS is a crucial service that is largely lacking in Iraqi Kurdistan. All the women and girls interviewed showed signs of trauma. Jalila, the 12-year-old raped by four ISIS fighters, said she “can’t sleep at night because I remember how they were raping me. I want to do something to forget about my psychological problems. I want to leave Iraq until things get better, I don’t want to be captured again.” She had not received professional counselling.

Sixteen-year-old Noor told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters abducted her on August 3 from Tal Afar and held her until September, when she escaped. An ISIS fighter raped her multiple times over a period of five days, she said. In the first two months after her return, she said she remained traumatized and cried most of the time.

Noor did manage to get psychosocial support. A local activist arranged for her to visit a psychotherapist in the hospital three or four times and visited her frequently to encourage her to get regular psychosocial counselling. Noor was undergoing regular psychosocial treatment as well as attending a handicrafts course and leaving the camp for social activities with activists from local organizations.

However, representatives of international agencies and nongovernmental groups told Human Rights Watch that there was not only a lack of available psychosocial support, but also reluctance by the community to accept such help. One activist said that he had to visit girls and their guardians repeatedly to encourage the girls to participate in psychosocial counselling before they would agree.

Several of those Human Rights Watch interviewed stated that they would like to receive psychosocial therapy. Narin, the 20-year-old from Sinjar, said:

“No one has offered me one-on-one counselling of any kind. I’d be interested in receiving professional counselling to help me process my experiences if it was available.… I have trouble sleeping at night, and only sleep a few hours at a time. When I sleep, I often see my parents and siblings in front of my eyes, especially the image of my brothers being forced to kneel on the road, and my mother’s face.”

International and local groups agreed that there are not enough psychosocial therapists available to the women and girls to meet the need, given the number of escaped women and girls and the prospect of more to come.

Dr. Taib told Human Rights Watch that although he was not aware of any suicides of women or girls who had escaped, many were suicidal. He said that women and girls who sought treatment with local officials were assessed by a psychologist at the same time they received medical treatment. The health team designated to help Yezidi women and girls has two psychologists and two psychosocial therapists but plans to increase the number of psychosocial therapists to ten. In addition, some groups and international agencies are providing psychosocial support. A psychosocial therapist at Jian Centre for Human Rights said she and her colleague had provided support to 20 Yezidi women and girls who had escaped.

In the short term, psychologists and social workers, particularly those who speak the local Yezidi dialect, need training on counselling methods. This should be in addition to recruiting psychosocial therapists to deal with the urgent cases. More efforts are also needed to encourage and educate people who might need the services about how the services can help them.

Another recent article deals with the release of some abducted Yazidis, mostly elderly or very young. According to aid workers cited in this article, as many as 200 escaped or released Yazidi women are now pregnant from rape. These included a 9-year-old girl that had been raped by at least 10 fighters, whose life is endangered by the pregnancy:

Yazidi girls kidnapped by Islamic State return traumatized – Olivia Ward – Toronto Star – Apr. 9, 2015

… The youngest of these is 9, according to volunteers working in the refugee camps and abandoned buildings where they are sheltering.

“This girl is so young she could die if she delivers a baby,” said Yousif Daoud, a Canadian-based aid worker who recently returned from the region. “Even a caesarian section is dangerous. The abuse she has suffered left her mentally and physically traumatized.”

…“I don’t know what the future would be for their babies,” said Daoud. “The girls and women don’t want them. They have suffered so much they just want to forget. If they are married, their husbands won’t take them back if they are pregnant. And it’s clear that the babies will never be accepted.”

The kidnapped 9-year-old girl, he said, “was sexually abused by no fewer than 10 men. Most of them were front-line fighters or suicide bombers who are given girls as a reward. She was in very bad shape.”

This week a Kurdish aid group took her to Germany, where a medical charity is looking after her.

Fortunately, the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram—and still missing—received some media attention this week with the anniversary of those kidnappings. This, however, is a sad reminder that despite many good articles on the Yazidi disaster, considering the several thousand women and girls enslaved, the Yazidi case has received far less global attention, relatively.

Thankfully, Foreign Policy on Monday published an article reminding readers that this trauma is ongoing:

The Preteen Sex Slaves of the Islamic State – Samer Muscati – FP – Apr. 13, 2015

The nightmare of 12-year-old “Jalila” began when Islamic State fighters abducted her, along with her family, in northern Iraq. They separated her from her family and imprisoned her in a house in northeastern Syria with other abducted Yazidi women and girls. Then the jihadi fighters came, one after another, to inspect them. One singled Jalila out, took her home, and proceeded to rape her for three days. Six other Islamic State fighters eventually took possession of Jalila during her captivity, she told me recently — three of them raped her.

… Jalila eventually escaped, but her ordeal is far from over. When I visited Iraq in January and February to interview Yazidi women and girls about their experiences, I found that many of them desperately need psychological counseling and other medical care, which is often unavailable or inaccessible.

“I can’t sleep at night because I remember how they were raping me,” Jalila told me in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk. “I want to do something to forget about my psychological problems. I want to leave Iraq until things get better; I don’t want to be captured again.”

As an investigator of human rights violations, I have documented many atrocious acts of sectarian violence and wanton bloodshed over the last decade. But the Islamic State’s targeting of Yazidi women and girls is unique in its ferociousness. This apparently systematic abuse constitutes war crimes, and may well amount to crimes against humanity. …

… However the conflict against the Islamic State plays out, the needs of the survivors and their communities should be addressed. While, in many ways, Jalila is lucky to have escaped captivity, her family is still missing and she is ensnared by her harrowing past. By ensuring that girls like Jalila receive the psychological help that they need, the world can rehabilitate former captives, restore broken communities, and prevent the Islamic State’s misogynist cruelties from ruining lives forever.

Depicting horror: Iraqi artist puts Yazidi trauma to canvasJonathan Krohn – April 14, 2015

Ammar Salim - Photo: AFP

Ammar Salim – Photo: AFP

A jihadist fighter slits a man’s throat, another brandishes a severed head spiked on his rifle while more militants dump bodies into a trench overflowing with corpses.

This is how painter Ammar Salim depicts the massacres the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group perpetrated against his Yazidi minority in northern Iraq last summer.

In his tiny apartment in the city of Dohuk in Iraq’s Kurdish region, Salim has attempted to put the collective memories of his community to canvas in a series entitled “The Yazidi Genocide”.

This particular piece, his most recent, includes more than 100 characters and was inspired by mass graves found in the Sinjar area.

“Most people fight through weapons, writing, or the press. I said I’d fight through art,” Salim says. “I want people to see what they haven’t seen.”

The paintings, including many crowded and colourful scenes reminiscent of Renaissance depictions of hell, are intentionally shocking.

One work depicting the fall of Sinjar shows women being raped, killed, and carried away. Another presents cackling jihadists buying and selling Yazidi women in the city of Mosul, their main northern Iraqi hub.

Salim fled the town of Bashiqa when IS fighters took over Mosul in June 2014 in an onslaught that overran large areas of Iraq. …

Yazidis wary amid stalled Sinjar offensive – Shelly Kittleson – al-Monitor – April 12, 2015

 … Peshmerga fighters allied with various other forces say they will move forward as soon as the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorizes them to do so.

Meanwhile, several members of the Yazidi ethno-religious minority expressed bewilderment to Al-Monitor about the halt of the offensive in late December 2014, after major gains were obtained with the help of US airstrikes, when over 3,000 square kilometers (1,864 square miles) in the Sinjar area were reportedly taken back from IS in less than 48 hours.

… As to why they were not trying to advance, Zaway replied, “If we get the order from [KRG President] Massoud Barzani.” He continued, “We need two to three days to ‘clean up’ the entire city,” implying that the operation would be relatively easy as soon as orders were received to go forward.

… Domle told Al-Monitor of a new program that would relocate many of the women and girls who suffered torture and rape at the hands of IS to Germany for health and psychological support.“The first group arrived [in Germany] last Saturday,” he told Al-Monitor earlier this month. The second group will leave April 15. “This is the result of an official agreement between the KRG and Baden state in Germany to take more than 600 women and children.”

“They are happy with the military operation,” he added, in reference to the community, “but they don’t know why it stopped and are waiting for the other Yazidi areas north of Mosul to be liberated.”

… Domle said, “The problem is that it is now eight months and nothing has been done to rebuild the trust between the Yazidis and their neighbors.”

“The KRG and the central Iraqi government should make a plan to start rebuilding the area as soon as it is liberated,” he suggested, calling for Yazidis to be given a leading role.

And the military offensive must go forward, he stressed. The central government “doesn’t promise anything,” he said, “it just says we hope you will all return to your areas.”

The Children of Syria: A War and Image Industry

by Asaad Al-Saleh

Photo: IMB

When writing my new book, Voices of the Arab Spring, I did not feature the testimonials of children. Though the book surveys participants from various backgrounds, differing in age, politics, and education, it doesn’t address the Arab Spring from the perspective of children, even though they are also actors in it. I chose not to cover their stories because they are being used and abused to promote propaganda in Syria. The immoral exposure of children to the war is heightened by the disturbing fact that they have been used repeatedly throughout the conflict to endorse various political positions. During the bloodiest confrontations of the Arab Spring, those between the Syrian regime and the hundreds of factions fighting it, children have become victims of the violence resulting from both the uprising and the subsequent civil war. Despite this tragedy, children are still used in the rhetoric of revolt, war, and jihad.

Reports and studies marking the fourth anniversary of the uprising and civil war in Syria show that more than 4 million people are refugees outside the country and 7.6 million are internally displaced. Almost half of these are children whose need for assistance (such as shelter and education) is only partially being met. Of the 200,000 killed in the 4-year span of the conflict, over 10,000 were children, some of whom died as a result of torture. Citing the international standard that the percentage of civilians targeted in war should not exceed 2%, reports on Syria point out that the percentage of targeted children and women reached 4.5%. On the same occasion, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) raised awareness about the emotional trauma affecting Syrian children, some of whom are suffering the effects of rape and the loss of parents. Labeling them the “lost generation,” UNICEF also reported that more than 20% of Syrian schools have been either destroyed or rendered effectively unusable because they are currently used for shelter by displaced families.

As if this tragic plight were not enough, images of children are used in Syria as a propaganda tool by many sides. For the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a rhetoric of defending children has been employed to portray its enemies as abusers of children and the regime as their protector. In September 2013, the regime aired on television the testimony of a 16-year-old girl named Rawan Qadah, who gave details about the alleged “jihad sex” she was asked to perform at the request of her father. The opposition immediately responded by stating that Rawan had been kidnapped, forced to tell the same lies the regime was spreading about its opponents, and appeared too young to be a reliable witness in regards to verifying the regime’s claims. Rawan’s story demonstrates how children can be easily used for political agendas in the context of war. For some revolutionaries, or those who revolted peacefully in Syria four years ago, it was likewise customary to use children while calling for regime change and to attract the world’s attention to al-Assad’s crimes. This position comes from the assumption that children are “part of the revolution” and that their role must therefore be presented. The world cares about children, and the situation in Syria has been exceedingly desperate. Thus, children are used to provoke emotions and elicit more attention, political pressure, and eventually humanitarian or military intervention to “help” or “save” the children. The regime’s behavior is highly unethical concerning Syrian children considering the widespread displacement and death that occurs for the sake of al-Assad’s staying in power.

As for rebel groups that use terrorism in Syria, children are considered the future of Islam—as it is envisioned by al-Qaeda or ISIS. Their participation in the terrorists’ programs, most of which are symbolic but are sometimes extremely graphic, is done without the least attention to legal, moral, or psychological considerations. One of the early instances of the use of children’s images was performed by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. In June 2013, a video of a child about 5-years-old was circulated by al-Nusra to promote their dogma. The child, who was carried on a man’s shoulder, was chanting a song full of bigotry and terrorist rhetoric:

Our leader is Bin Laden … O you who terrorized America

We destroyed America … With a civilian airplane

The [World] Trade Center became a heap of sand

O you Nusayri Police … Wait for us O Alawites

We are coming to slaughter you … Unheeding any convention

[The child is then handed a knife to pretend that he is killing someone, before continuing:]

They say I am a terrorist … “It is my honor,” I replied

Our terrorism is highly praised … It is a divine call.

Children often play games imagining themselves as heroes with guns to fight the bad guys. But in Syria they are being dragged into a real war zone, even as instigators. The image industry in Syria uses journalistic and political outlets to make children represent a cause that is not theirs. It circulates hundreds of images of children carrying conventional weapons or dressed in military costumes, and more recently playing with slaughtered heads as part of ISIS propaganda. Such visibility is hardly the outcome of genuine consent of the child since he or she is not cognizant of the meaning or the consequences of participating in such functions. These children are growing up in one of the ugliest war zones in the world. One day, they will tell stories full of bad guys, including those who let this war drag on and on.Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions

The regime, the opposition, and the jihadis in Syria are all responsible for such unethical manipulation of children and their images. These players need to grow up and leave children alone.

 

Asaad Al-Saleh is Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Utah and author of the new book Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions

Syrian Rebels Capture Idlib, by Aron Lund

— Guest post for Syria Comment by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

On March 28, Syrian rebels and jihadi fighters announced that they had captured the city of Idlib, posting pictures and videos online that showed them in control of government buildings and other landmarks. This followed a lightning offensive of several days, by a coalition of Sunni Islamist militias that assaulted the city from several directions.

After the security forces of President Bashar al-Assad violently put down protests inside the city in 2011 and 2012, resistance had been relegated to the countryside. With most of the surrounding Idlib Province captured, rebels had in the past year slowly but surely increased pressure on the city itself. They repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to block access roads as a way to force concessions and prisoner exchanges, which must have been a demoralizing experience for pro-Assad forces inside the city. In December 2014, the bell tolled for Idlib City, when the opposition overran the long-besieged Wadi Deif base, freeing up hundreds of crack rebel fighters for new campaigns.

At the time of writing, the situation remains unstable and it cannot be ruled out that Assad’s forces will launch a counterattack from areas still under their control. The government-run SANA news agency only speaks of “repositioning forces” in the southern neighborhoods of the city. Still, the apparent collapse of government defenses in Idlib has punched a gaping hole in the government’s narrative of approaching victory and boosted the opposition politically as well as militarily, spelling trouble for Bashar al-Assad.

A Sign of Government Overstretch

Out of thirteen provincial capitals, Idlib is only the second to be lost to the government, after the northeastern town of Raqqa was captured in early 2013. And like Raqqa, Idlib is a regional center rather than a major city – it would not fit on a top-five list over Syria’s most important cities. But the blow is heavy nonetheless.

The government remains much stronger than any rebel group on the national level, controlling perhaps two thirds of the population. Assad’s semi-cohesive central leadership and his control of a fully functional air force makes him Syria’s by far most powerful political actor, but his regime suffers from serious shortcomings nonetheless. It lacks enough reliable troops to conduct multiple offensives while also controlling its current territory and has been forced to farm out sensitive security tasks to local militias and Iranian-backed Shia Islamist foreign fighters.

Meanwhile, the state-run economy is withering, with a currency crisis and increasingly debilitating lapses in the fuel supply system and electricity production. The falling oil price is likely to cap Russian and Iranian support at levels too low to sustain the current ambitions of their Syrian ally. In short, it seems that Assad is still trying to bite off more of Syria than he can swallow, and the recent defeat in Idlib underlines how dangerously overstretched his regime has become.

The Islamic Emirate of Idlib?

The fall of Idlib is not without its risks for the rebels. Previous attempts by opposition groups to govern urban areas in Syria have been disastrous failures. Of course, a major reason has been Assad’s systematic bombings of civilian areas and infrastructure, which have killed and maimed tens of thousands of Syrians and forced millions out of their homes – a treatment now likely to be extended to Idlib. Even so, the rebels themselves are far from blameless. They have by and large failed to produce anything other than chaos and economic collapse, with what they refer to as liberated territory now suffering from chronic infighting, predatory criminal bands, and the brutal imposition of ultra-conservative Islamist norms. Most infamously, Raqqa has since its capture in 2013 transformed into a local capital of sorts for the self-declared Islamic State.

In the case of Idlib, many different groups were involved and all of them are hostile to the Islamic State, but the offensive appears to have been spearheaded by jihadis from the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front and the large Islamist faction known as Ahrar al-Sham. While there are important sources of friction between these two groups – Ahrar al-Sham refuses to endorse al-Qaeda’s anti-Western attacks and is seeking local allies to avoid being swallowed up by the Nusra Front’s increasingly bold bid for hegemony in Idlib – they are both overtly anti-democratic, hostile to religious minorities, and committed to establishing a Sunni Islamist theocracy in Syria.

There is already great concern in the United States and Europe over the riseof jihadi groups in Syria. Now, early headlines in the Western press speak of a city that has “fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda,” which is hardly the kind of coverage that Syrian rebels were looking for.

This will be a serious problem for the rebels in the coming weeks and months. If Idlib becomes the scene of public floggings and streetside executions of “immoral” women, such as the Nusra Front has committed elsewhere in Idlib Province, or if it collapses into a turf war between rival groups, it would not only weaken more moderate rebel factions – it would also provide Bashar al-Assad with an opportunity to turn military defeat into political gain.

Where Next?

Militarily, however, the Idlib defeat puts Assad in a difficult spot as he needs to foresee the next rebel assault and deploy accordingly. Rebels already controlled most of the Idlib Province, but some pro-regime pockets remained apart from the provincial capital – notably the twin Shia towns of Fouaa and Kefraya, near the Sunni Islamist-controlled town of Binnish to the northeast of Idlib City. On March 27, Ahrar al-Sham announced that it had cut the last remaining supply route via Idlib City to Fouaa and Kefraya, meaning that these towns will now have to sue for peace with the rebels or risk destruction and perhaps a sectarian massacre.

To the south of Idlib City, the government controls a string of towns in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region, the largest being Ariha, that served to supply forces inside Idlib. If that is no longer an objective, the regime may decide to abandon some of them to focus on defending territory of larger strategic value. However, at the other end of the road controlled by Ariha, we find the city of Jisr al-Shughour which connects the Idlib province to the Sunni-populated and rebel-friendly northern areas of Latakia Province. While Jisr al-Shughour is of little value in itself, Assad will presumably be reluctant to allow for increased pressure on his strongholds on the Alawite-majority coast. According to some sources, the government transferred its provincial government offices from Idlib to Jisr al-Shughour already two weeks ago.

South of Jisr al-Shughour lies the Ghab area of Hama, a heavily irrigated agricultural plain that butts into the Idlib Province alongside the Alawite Mountains. This religiously mixed powder keg has seen fierce fighting and may be of particular value to some rebel groups – for example, many of the founding fathers of Ahrar al-Sham hailed from villages in the Ghab. It is also possible that rebels from Idlib could move further south past Khan Sheikhoun and the battleground town of Morek, thereby attempting to put pressure on Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city. It is a Sunni stronghold that has remained under Assad’s rule but could prove difficult to control once rebels gather critical mass on its outskirts. A rebel advance on Hama would certainly force the army to concentrate forces there, even at the expense of other fronts.

To the east, there is another very attractive target: the Abu Duhour air base. Capturing it would not only hobble Assad’s air campaign, it would also open up an area of coherent rebel control from the Turkish border to the desert south of Aleppo. In so doing, the rebels would also expose Assad’s only remaining supply line into Aleppo, a desperately improvised logistics trail through the rural towns of Khanaser and Sfeira that would be tremendously difficult to defend against multi-pronged attacks, especially if air cover falters. Under that scenario, the rebels could turn the tables on Assad in Aleppo, threatening his control over the city by cutting it off entirely from the rest of Syria.

At the end of the day, however, Idlib City is of limited value in itself. It is possible that the regime will counterattack or that none of the scenarios sketched out above will materialize. But considering the military and economic resources invested by Bashar al-Assad in its defense over the past four years, the loss of Idlib would undoubtedly signal to many of his supporters that the government’s current strategy is untenable in the long term.

— Aron Lund is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs and the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Affairs.


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