Original, independent reporting on the Syrian conflict. 


Syria Direct Latest News Briefs Mapped by Location

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In Raqqa, a spate of Islamic State executions of women raises questions about whyAMMAN: The Islamic State has executed at least three women in as many weeks in A-Raqqa city in what activists from the locked-down city say is “a sign of weakness” that may be connected to recent IS losses in Iraq and Syria. Lina al-Qasem, a 45-year-old employee of the Raqqa postal service was executed by firing squad in a public square in the northern Syrian city last Wednesday. Known in A-Raqqa as “Um Ali,” the mother of Ali, al-Qasem’s killing made headlines in Arabic and English-language online media, largely because her own son, 20-year-old Ali Saker, an IS fighter, was reportedly among her executioners. Saker and other IS fighters killed al-Qasem “for apostasy,” the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) media campaign reported Friday, denying widespread reports that she was killed for urging her son to leave the organization. Syria Direct could not independently verify either narrative. Al-Qasem is one of the unknown number of Raqqa city residents publicly and privately executed by members of IS since the group took full control of the northern city two years ago. She is also the latest of up to four Raqqa women whose deaths at the hands of IS have been made public in just over three weeks. Last week, the family of female citizen journalist Ruqia Hassan was informed of her execution by IS for “espionage,” RBSS reported. Exactly when Hassan was detained and executed is not clear, though her social media presence went dark this past July. Writing under the pseudonym “Nisan Ibrahim,” Hassan had independently reported on daily life in A-Raqqa under IS rule via social media. She “continuously challenged IS and often reported on airstrikes in Raqqa as they happened,” Furat al-Wafaa, an independent citizen journalist in A-Raqqa told Syria Direct in an interview Monday. “Every day they ban, ban, ban, ban,” Hassan wrote of IS restrictions on daily life this past July. “I’d like for them to permit something, some day.” Other posts on her Facebook account describe the stress and fear of Raqqa residents living under threat of bombardment by coalition warplanes. A sense of poetry pervades her words. “People in the market are crashing on each other like waves, not because there are many, but because their eyes are planted on the sky,” she wrote. “Afraid, their eyes are above, their bodies moving unconsciously below.” Ruqia Hassan. Courtesy of Nissan Ibrahim. Two weeks before the news of Hassan’s execution, IS members killed a third Raqqa woman: Maria Hassan al-Shimas. The method and circumstances of al-Shimas’s execution are unclear, but she was RBSS media campaign member Hamoud al-Mousa’s aunt through marriage. Hamoud al-Mousa’s aunt was only the latest family member of his executed by the Islamic State. This past June, a member of IS contacted al-Mousa, a citizen journalist and activist who uses his real name in his work, in Turkey and made him an offer: Give up the names of activists working with you and we will let your father go free. Al-Mousa refused, and his father and two alleged activists were executed in connection with al-Mousa’s journalism work. “I don’t want anybody to give me their condolences,” al-Mousa posted on his Facebook page in late December, announcing al-Shimas’s death. “Rather, congratulate me and my blessing. No consolations [are necessary] for the wronged martyr,” referencing someone who dies for a greater cause. Most recently, RBSS reported that another, possibly fifth, woman was among three Raqqa residents executed “for being spies for the PKK and the Syrian regime” on Sunday. No other information is yet available. ‘Nobody is above the sword’ While IS executions in Raqqa city occur at times on a daily basis for offenses ranging from espionage to practicing magic, executions of women have been relatively infrequent, or at least less frequently publicized, in comparison to those of men. Three activists from A-Raqqa interviewed by Syria Direct for this article noted that life under the Islamic State is dangerous for everyone, all the time. Why execute women? The Islamic State is sending the message that “nobody is above the sword,” Furat al-Wafaa, formerly with the RBSS campaign, told Syria Direct, “no matter the sex or age.” Al-Wafaa said the media-savvy Islamic State may be using executions to “occupy public opinion” and distract from recent losses on the ground. “The dates of published executions of activists and civilians from A-Raqqa” often coincide with “the dates of IS losses or a lull in its media impact,” al-Wafaa told Syria Direct. For him, the “executions have other purposes, beyond carrying out sentences or sharia law, as they claim.” It is difficult to say to what extent IS executions of Raqqa residents are a sign of increased pressure on the organization, as al-Wafaa suggests, and to what extent they are driven by the simpler forces of ideology, intimidation and revenge. While videotaped executions may be interpreted as a bloody form of theater, it is less apparent to what extent IS fighters are aware of, or care about, how news about less dramatized, everyday executions in their de facto capital gets out. While some executions of civilians are videotaped or photographed, with IS fighters reveling in the display, others only come to light through the families of those killed or via anti-IS activists who report the executions. None of the four women reported killed over the past month or so was photographed or videotaped during their executions, or if so, those recordings have not been made public. Meanwhile, a video of five men accused of spying for the UK whose executions were part of a ten-minute video released by IS just over a week ago, comes at a time of territorial loss for IS forces in Iraq and Syria. Less than two weeks ago, Iraqi military forces recaptured the western city of Ramadi, roughly 110km west of Baghdad, after IS fighters took control of it last May. Around the same time, allied Kurdish-Arab forces in northern Syria recaptured the Tishreen dam, the second largest on the Euphrates River, along with a handful of villages in the far eastern Aleppo countryside. IS forces in Iraq and Syria have now “lost 30 percent of the territory they once held,” United States Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the US-led anti-IS international coalition, told a press briefing in Baghdad last week. A December report from British military and defense think tank IHS Janes estimated a loss of 14 percent of IS territory in Syria in 2015. Hamoud al-Mousa reads the recent spate of IS executions, including those of the three women, as a sign of weakness. “IS’s escalation of executions is clear, and they could be marching towards their end,” al-Mousa told Syria Direct late last week, citing defections by Syrian members as an additional strain. Living a double life For Raqqa’s citizen journalists, the constant threat of discovery is the price of reporting on the Islamic State. That threat extends to everyone, they say, regardless of gender. “I don’t think anybody in the world feels the way the people of Raqqa do, or can imagine how it feels for an activist to leave his house, saying goodbye to his family as though it is the last time they will meet, because he could die at any moment,” says Furat al-Wafaa. Ruqia Hassan was the fifth journalist to report on the Islamic State reported killed since October, as those who dare to speak out against IS policies continue to find themselves targeted both inside and outside Syria. Executions of opponents are used by IS as a form of psychological terror, an activist from A-Raqqa living in southern Turkey told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity. Fearful of discovery, citizen journalists “hide behind fake names and private phone numbers, and make people believe that they work in other professions,” he says. “We keep where we live and work a secret,” even after fleeing abroad, the same source said. The recent killings of three RBSS activists living in Turkey have highlighted IS efforts to assassinate citizen journalists abroad, most recently Naji Jerf, a filmmaker with RBSS who was shot in Gaziantep last month. IS violence does not threaten journalists alone, but has in the past extended to retribution against their families, as in the execution of al-Mousa’s father. The month after the video showing his father’s execution came out, al-Mousa expressed defiance in an interview with Syria Direct: “They did not kill anything except for our fear,” he said. His father’s death proves how “the most powerful factions fear civilian voices.” Furat al-Wafaa told Syria Direct in a recent interview that the threat of death, while ever-present, would not stop him or his fellow citizen journalists from working to report IS abuses. "I would like to say that the hunting of activists inside and outside of A-Raqqa only confirms how much they have been damaged by their pens and cameras,” al-Wafaa said. “I want to be clear: We don’t fear death.”January 12, 2016http://syriadirect.org/news/is-using-executions-as-a-distraction-raqqa-activists-say/January 12, 2016A-Raqqa province
After three years of ‘stagnation,’ Turkish market opens to Idlib merchantsIdlib merchants have a new, and only, market for export. After a three-year freeze, local traders registered with the Free Idlib Provincial Council will now be able to export to Turkey. The agreement between the Turkish government and the Victory Army will have a “positive effect on the economic situation in [rebel-held] territories,” says Suheil Musilmani, who heads the province’s legal office overseeing registration. “Exports will be products that do not affect food security in rebel-held areas, such as cumin and cilantro, for example,” Musilmani tells Syria Direct’s Muhammad al-Haj Ali. “There are no manufactured materials.” Q: What impact will registration have on trade in the province? Registration will positively affect the flow of trade between both sides. Coordination will organize import and export and eliminate the unmonitored and unregulated trade. The stimulation of trade and exchange will also have a positive effect on the economic situation in [rebel-held] territories. Syrian traders will be able to market their products to Turkey after [approximately three years] of stagnation due to the lack of access [to external trade partners] by sea or land. [Ed.: Thriving smuggling routes in northern Syria will remain largely unaffected by the step, which is aimed at legitimizing and expanding above-board trade with Turkey by Syrians in opposition-held territories.] Beyond that, the Turkish government needs a legitimate Syrian partner to do business with. The Turkish government will not accept the import or export of goods by Syrian traders unless they are registered with the Idlib provincial council, which is a legitimate civilian authority because it is elected by the people and recognized internationally [as part of the opposition interim government]. Q: Before this decision, what was the trade situation between Idlib and Turkey? The export of goods by Syrian traders stopped at the end of 2012 when [the Free Syrian Army] opposition took over the Bab al-Hawa crossing. A trader’s registration with the provincial council gives him a legitimate legal status recognized by both sides, particularly the Turkish government. Q: What goods might Idlib traders export to Turkey? Exports will be products that do not affect food security in rebel-held areas, such as cumin and cilantro, for example. There are also surplus goods in excess of the need in local markets, such as figs, olives and cherries. There are no manufactured materials.January 12, 2016http://syriadirect.org/news/after-three-years-of-%E2%80%98stagnation%E2%80%99-turkish-market-opens-to-idlib-merchants/January 12, 2016Idlib province
Despite truce with regime, two more Madaya residents die of starvationAfter beginning negotiations last week, the Syrian regime agreed to allow UN and Red Cross aid convoys to deliver food to rebel-controlled Madaya in West Ghouta on Monday. In exchange for this concession, rebel factions agreed to allow simultaneous aid deliveries to two rebel-encircled pro-regime villages of Kafariya and al-Fuaa in Idlib province. After much back and forth, negotiations resulted in a late September agreement between the Victory Army rebels and an Iranian negotiation committee representing the regime: A six-month ceasefire, currently in place, stipulates the entrance of aid to regime-controlled Kafariya and al-Fuaa in exchange for the regime doing the same around rebel-held Zabadani (including Madaya) in West Ghouta. Syria Direct can confirm that the UN aid destined for Madaya has arrived to the outskirts of the blockaded town. But pro-regime forces have not allowed them to enter, Amr a-Sheikh, a member of the opposition council charged with overseeing aid in Madaya, tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou. A-Sheikh was standing just 50 meters away from the regime checkpoint where the convoy currently awaits as he spoke to Hamou. A few truckloads of food is not a solution, says a-Sheikh. “This morning, two more people died from starvation,” he said, bringing the total number of starvation deaths in the town to 60. “The besieged people of Madaya do not care about the arrival of aid as much as they care about the opening of the road and a settlement to end the blockade once and for all,” says a-Sheikh. Q: Media sources have reported that UN aid convoys will enter today. What are the details? We have received confirmation from the UN office in Damascus that the convoys will depart for Madaya today. After hours of delay, Red Crescent convoy enters West Ghouta’s Madaya on Monday. Photo courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Q: Do you have any statistics about the number of deaths due to starvation? What is the medical situation under the siege? Sixty people starved to death and there were five additional deaths after the regime announced that it had approved the entry of aid. This morning, two more people died from starvation (one man and one woman). The medical situation is terrible, but hunger and death due to starvation are the biggest concern. Medical supplies in Madaya have been completely depleted—there are noanesthetics, disinfectant, or any kind of medicine left.Madaya does not have any medical supplies. Imagine, if someone gets wounded, there is no surgical thread, dressing or disinfectant available. Q: After the campaigns by activists, politicians and aid organizations, has the situation improved in Madaya? On the contrary, the situation has gotten worse. Money started coming in, but not food, which prompted traders to dramatically raise their prices. The daily expenditure of a single family on food reached $250. In Madaya there are 4,000 families. A kilo of any item (rice, sugar, bulgur, or lentils) can cost as much as $200, if you manage to find it at all. The price of baby formula has reached $400 (per kilo) due to scarcity. We are urgently demanding the opening of the road into Madaya as soon as possible. The besieged people of Madaya do not care about the arrival of aid as much as they care about the opening of the road and a settlement to end the blockade once and for all.We could have demanded the opening of the road before the arrival of aid, but we have been distracted by the deaths [from starvation] and the scale of the tragedy.January 11, 2016http://syriadirect.org/news/despite-truce-with-regime-two-more-madaya-residents-die-of-starvation/January 11, 2016Damascus
Aleppo neurosurgeon on the frontline: 'Textbooks never prepared us for the injuries we see'Since the Assad regime’s first attack on a medical facility in Aleppo on July 30, 2012, just one week after rebel forces gained major ground in the city, human rights organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented 336 attacks on medical facilities and the deaths of 697 medical personnel, according to a recent PHR report entitled “Aleppo Abandoned.” With only 10 of the 33 medical facilities in Aleppo city currently functioning and approximately 95 percent of doctors having fled, been detained, or killed, PHR calls on the international community to end its “indifference,” Donna McKay, the executive director of PHR, tells Syria Direct’s Samuel Kieke. “There has probably never been a war better documented in real time as we are seeing in the Syrian conflict, so it is not for a lack of evidence or story telling – it’s actually for a lack of political will,” says McKay. The number of attacks against health professionals in Syria is “unprecedented” in human history, she says. The deliberate targeting of medical infrastructure is “a weapon in Assad’s arsenal” to “strangle the civilian population by denying them basic healthcare at a time when the community needs it most,” says McKay. “The regime targets medical facilities everywhere because it knows that they are the key to survival,” Dr. Rami Kalazi, one of two remaining neurosurgeons in Aleppo city and one of the 24 medical personnel interviewed by PHR for their report, tells Syria Direct’s Ghardinia Ashour. “Without them, life stops.” Dr. Kalazi was born and raised in Syria’s second city and is one of the 70 to 80 physicians still working to provide healthcare to the approximately 300,000 residents of rebel-held Aleppo. After graduating from Aleppo University’s School of Medicine in 2009, Dr. Kalazi began his residency at the regime-run a-Razi public hospital in western Aleppo city where he met his wife, an endocrinologist who was doing her residency at the same time. In March 2013, eight months after rebel forces seized the city’s northern, eastern, and southern districts, Dr. Kalazi and his wife, Dr. Jadaan, started secretly working at in a field clinic in the rebel-held northeast Aleppo neighborhood of a-Sakhur. “The a-Sakhur neighborhood is one of the most targeted neighborhoods because of the clinic,” says Dr. Kalazi, adding that the clinic itself has been bombed 35 times. The types of injuries the doctor and his colleagues treat are like none in medical textbooks. A piece of shrapnel can generate a dozen different wounds in the body, all urgent. Dr. Kalazi describes an example: "When a piece of shrapnel enters the face and exits through the brain, the bullet causes injuries all along its trajectory: in the jawbone, the teeth, the tongue, the esophagus, the nose, the eye, the brain. So you have multiple injuries and there is only a narrow window of time in which you can treat all of those injuries at once." Below, part one of Syria Direct's two-part interview in which Dr. Kalazi shares his not only experiences as a neurosurgeon on the frontlines, but why he stays in Syria. Q: In the report that PHR published, it mentioned that medical personnel have seen unimaginable injuries that they never heard of or learned about before. What does it mean to be a wartime doctor? How are you tested when confronted with a case that you never saw before in your textbooks? The most difficult situation that we encounter is massacres, when many injured people and martyrs come to us at once, especially a large number of children. Unfortunately, in any massacre, over half of the martyrs and injured are children. The injuries are mostly critical injuries. You might find a child whose body has been severed in half, decapitated, one who has lost limbs or lost an ear or an eye, or maybe he is crippled because of critical injuries. Truly, these are the most difficult times for us. Not because of exhaustion, but because of emotional stress--we sympathize so deeplywith wounded children. When confronted with an injured child, I often feel helpless. We have some people who have become experts, especially after four years of working in field hospitals, particularly in general surgery, orthopedic surgery and thoracic surgery. These are the specialties of our hospital (a-Sakhour). I don’t know about other hospitals. In the beginning, we saw new injuries that we did not know how to treat. Fortunately, at the beginning of the revolution and when we began working in field hospitals, there was more freedom of movement. In 2012 and 2013, there was no such thing as “barrel bombs” and there was no violent shelling from airplanes, so many visiting foreign doctors came. Qualified experts from the Arab world and other countries taught us techniques that we did not know and personally trained us in treating fairly complicated injuries. But even so, they told us that they were seeing injuries that they had never seen before in books or textbooks or in the hospitals where they worked in their home countries. Unfortunately, reality forces you to learn. Q: Can you describe one of these unimaginable injuries? There was a young woman in her thirties with a shrapnel wound. Based on the entry wound, the shrapnel was not very big. The entry wound was on the inner thigh, around the pelvis and the abdomen. As you can imagine, this caused injuries to the bowels, and tore the uterus, bladder, rectum, and the aorta in the stomach. This caused extensive damage in the intestines and damaged the kidneys. You will never see this type of injury in textbooks. They tell you that there might be one or two injuries, or three at most. If there are more than three injuries, the books tell you that the injury is fatal. With this case, we had about 10 separate injuries from one piece of shrapnel. Thank God, we were able to treat most of the injuries, but unfortunately in the end, due to the intensity, the patient passed away. These types of cases are frequent and we see many of them. When a piece of shrapnel enters the face and exits through the brain, the bullet causes injuries all along its trajectory: in the jawbone, the teeth, the tongue, the esophagus, the nose, the eye, the brain. So you have multiple injuries and there is only a narrow window of time in which you can treat all of those injuries at once. For children, the situation is very difficult, because children are much less able to withstand and recover than adults, which means that such injuries are usually fatal for a child. Usually, with these kinds of unimaginable injuries, such as a body torn in two or when all four limbs are severed, injuries that cannot be treated, the victim dies before he gets to the hospital. Q: Why are medical centers targeted in Aleppo more so than in other locations? The answer is twofold: In general, the regime targets medical facilities everywhere because it knows that they are the key to survival. Without them, life stops. The second reason [for the targeting of the medical infrastructure] is part of the strategy that the regime follows. It appears that it focuses on Aleppo, more than other locations, for many reasons. Firstly, the city has a large population. Secondly, it is near the Syrian-Turkish border. There are some Shiite-majority villages around Aleppo, and for that reason Iran has more influence [in Aleppo] and thus a greater desire than the regime to retake control of Aleppo. Medical facilities in Aleppo are therefore targeted more so than in other areas. Q: How do you balance between caring for the sick and wounded and caring for yourself? I’ve lived through a lot of airstrikes. During them I was inside the hospital and thank God I haven’t been injured. This makes me feel braver. I am someone who is resolute to stay in Syria. Others may feel afraid and in danger. That fear will justify their decision to leave Aleppo and go to the [Turkish] border, perhaps even leave Syria completely. We definitely know that we are targeted, but the airstrikes we have lived through increase our resolve. As for the idea that we have to feel safe in order to make others feel the same, I don’t believe that is necessarily true. Safety is not equivalent to happiness. If you don’t feel happy, you won’t be able to make others happy, but I can make others feel safe in that the hospital is secure and fortified as much as possible. We take preventative security measures as much as we can, such as reinforcing [the structure of the hospital] and working underground. Unfortunately, we face many difficulties, the largest being a lack of monetary aid. I try and provide all of the medical services that the injured need as best I can. Consequently, they feel safe because they know that they are surrounded by people who care for their well-being. Q: Describe your daily routine. When do you begin work? How long do you work? Our shifts at the hospital last between 15 and 20 days and we have 10 to 15 days off in between. However, if something serious happens, we are always on call. Over these 15 days on shift, our work doesn’t stop until late at night because regime and Russian warplanes are continuously dropping bombs. Normally, there are at least one to two specialists from each field on duty, but some specialists [in certain medical fields] don’t need to be available 24 hours a day over the course of 30 days (such as plastic surgeons or even orthopedic surgeons). We neurosurgeons are always on duty. Each of us works 15 days, then the other will work the following 15 days. This is the case for general, vascular and thoracic surgeons as well. The number [of surgeons in each field] is limited, but we try and manage with whomever is available. Generally, I have 10 to 15 days of leave and I can go to Turkey or we can attend training courses to further develop our skills and get away from the stress. Merely sitting in the house or spending time with colleagues outside work gives us some relief. The longest period of time I spent on duty was 21 consecutive days. There wasn’t any other doctor to take my place, so I had to stay on duty as long as I could because the regime was targeting Aleppo more than usual at that time. I’ve had to work for 21 consecutive days once or twice, but general surgeons have to do this on a regular basis. In my field, neurosurgery, we can treat some cases, but others we transfer on [to Turkey]. Generally, serious injuries are fatal. For that reason, we don’t perform a lot of neurological operations. However, I like to help with general surgical operations. When there are massacres that involve a lot of injuries, I assist the orthopedic surgeon that is on duty since there are only two of us who alternate shifts. I remember that one time we worked for 40 consecutive hours without even noticing how much time had passed. Q: If you are forced to choose between treating someone who is sick that you think is untreatable and someone who you think could possibly be helped, whom do you choose? How do you feel when forced to choose who will get treatment? We might initially try to treat the severe injury for five minutes, during which we determine if there is a possibility to save the patient or not. Generally during those five minutes, if the vital functions fail, then he will be brain dead. Even though he continues to live, he will be in a vegetative state and clinically dead. In those instances, we choose to move on to other patients who we can more likely treat successfully. It is a difficult decision. We feel severe sadness when we are forced to make that choice, but this is part of triaging. Q: So you agree with the principle of mercy killings? Yes, in the worst cases I am in favor of it, unfortunately. We do not make this decision unless we are forced to do so and there is no other option. For example, if we have a patient who needs to be on a respirator but we only have three or four such devices. If they are all being used by other patients and one of those patients has been on a it for a long period of time and we know that recovery is unlikely, then we may decide to take him off life support. This is only if we have run out of all other options to save him, including communicating with other clinics to see if they have an available respirator, and trying to transfer him to Turkish clinics. If we have two new cases and one of them has a 90 percent or higher chance of dying and the other has a 50 percent or lower chance of dying, then we try to resuscitate the individual with a 90 percent or higher chance of death for five to six minutes. But if he doesn’t make it, then we can’t give him any more time because there is the other patient waiting.January 11, 2016http://syriadirect.org/news/barrel-bombs-unimaginable-injuries-and-emotional-stress-life-as-a-wartime-doctor-in-aleppo-city/January 11, 2016Aleppo city
‘Imagine how it feels for an activist to leave his house, saying goodbye to his family as though it is the last time they will meet’Nearly all of the reliable, detailed information available about life inside the de facto capital of IS’s self-styled caliphate in Syria comes from citizen journalists. Over the past three months, the Islamic State has killed five citizen journalists from A-Raqqa city. The most recent was Ruqia Hassan, 30, whose family was informed of her execution for “spying” one week ago. Late last month, Naji Jerf, an anti-IS filmmaker working with the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently media campaign from Turkey, was shot and killed in Gaziantep. No one has claimed credit for the assassination, but the Islamic State is the top suspect. “I don’t think anybody knows what it is like to walk along feeling as though somebody is following him, like a shadow, to kill him with a treacherous bullet, the smell of death clinging to everything,” Furat al-Wafaa, an independent citizen journalist in A-Raqqa, tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou. Q: How do you feel as an anti-IS activist from A-Raqqa amidst the ongoing executions of citizen journalists? I don’t think anybody in the world feels the way the people of Raqqa do, or can imagine how it feels for an activist to leave his house, saying goodbye to his family as though it is the last time they will meet, because he could die at any moment. I don’t think anybody knows what it is like to walk along feeling as though somebody is following him, like a shadow, to kill him with a treacherous bullet, the smell of death clinging to everything. Death surrounds us. I want to be clear: We don’t fear death. It’s the inevitable end for all human beings. But we hate treachery. We don’t want to be an easy mark for the killers of the revolution and the revolutionaries. Q: Raqqa city and its activists have been widely covered in the media as a result of IS’s cruel practices against them. Why this media interest in A-Raqqa in particular? Raqqa activists are the most at risk for death among Syria’s activists. Even if an activist escapes the near-daily bombings of A-Raqqa city, he won’t escape the grip of the Islamic State if it doubts him and his activities. Even if he is able to get out of A-Raqqa, IS can still get to his family, and they will never hesitate to blackmail him by arresting a family member and bargaining for his own life or that of any member of his family. IS arrested the father of my friend, the activist Hamoud al-Mousa, and an IS leader [emir] made him an offer: He could either turn in his friends in the RBSS campaign or they would slaughter his father. When he refused, they killed his father along with two Raqqa activists in an IS video. They were charged with “communicating with foreign parties.” Q: Many activists from A-Raqqa work from outside of the city now. Does that provide any relief? Unfortunately, activists in neighboring countries are no less likely to be killed or assassinated. The bullets and knives of treachery have reached beyond the boundaries of A-Raqqa. Recently, we lost two of our own: Ibrahim Abdulqader and Fares Hamadi. They were murdered by a member of IS claiming to be a defector. They were murdered for their generosity. Q: Will these dangers make you stop your work? Completely the opposite. IS and all the killers seem not to realize that the blood of the martyrs only fuels our determination to continue our work. What they will understand later is that injustice does not last and that the truth will prevail sooner or later. I would like to say that the hunting of activists inside and outside of A-Raqqa only confirms how much the Islamic State has been damaged by their pens and cameras.January 11, 2016http://syriadirect.org/news/%E2%80%98imagine-how-it-feels-for-an-activist-to-leave-his-house-saying-goodbye-to-his-family-as-though-it-is-the-last-time-they-will-meet%E2%80%99/January 11, 2016 A-Raqqa province
Tribes’ Army disbands in north amidst accusations of YPG blockadeAMMAN: Citing a “lack of support” and an “inability to function,” Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa has dissolved its Tribes’ Army, allegedly due to a “strangling Kurdish siege,” the latest in a series of squabbles and skirmishes that appear to have strained its alliance with the YPG in northern Syria, journalists and a Raqqa-based rebel commander told Syria Direct on Tuesday. The reportedly 2,000-fighter strong Tel Abyad-based Tribes’ Army formed by Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Syria’s northern A-Raqqa province just over two months ago was, before Monday’s announcement, aligned with local brigade Liwa Thuwar a-Raqqa. Liwa, a former FSA affiliate in Raqqa province, had previously fought alongside Kurdish forces to wrest the Syrian border towns of Tel Abyad and Kobani from the Islamic State. The Tribes’ Army and the brigade then merged to form a larger fighting force called Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa. In November, Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa became the predominant Sunni Arab component of yet another larger alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. The SDF, supported by the United States, was created to take on the Islamic State (IS) in north Syria. Given past cooperation on the battlefield, the partnership between the Kurds and the tribes seemed to be a promising alliance, at first. As part of Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa, the Tribes’ Army’s initial statements showed a willingness to work alongside YPG forces to achieve a shared objective to drive out IS fighters from northern Syria. “The Kurds are our brothers, with the shared objective of liberating A-Raqqa province from the oppression of IS,” a Tribes’ Army commander proclaimed in an October 2015 video announcing the army’s formation. However, cooperation between the Tribes’ Army and Kurdish forces in pursuit of that “shared objective” seems to have fallen apart three weeks ago, when the former issued a strongly worded announcement accusing the YPG of a litany of crimes against Arabs in north Syria. The allegations included the machine-gunning of a Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa fighter in the Tel Abyad village of al-Anter, and the “systematic” forced displacement of Arab village and townsfolk. In the same December statement, the Tribes’ Army warned the YPG to stay out of Arab lands, while calling for a United Nations investigation into reported YPG war crimes. In response, Kurdish forces reportedly began a now three-week blockade of the Tribes’ Army in the Tal Abyad countryside after the army issued a written statement denouncing the YPG, reported al-Araby al-Jadeed on Wednesday, citing sources once close to the now-dissolved Tribes’ Army. What remains unclear is why the Tribes’ Army disbanded rather than simply drop out of its alliance with the YPG. Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa’s announcement did not blame any specific party for the dissolution of the Tribes’ Army. A senior Raqqa-based rebel commander who requested anonymity told Syria Direct Tuesday that it was the blockade against Liwa Thuwar and Tribes’ Army rebels in Tel Abyad that made the disbanding an “inevitability.” “The YPG and its allies are imposing a strangling siege on Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa and the Tribes’ Army for the 15th consecutive day–they’re preventing them from entering Tel Abyad with their wounded, and depriving [those inside] of foodstuffs and all essential supplies,” reported the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently media campaign on December 29, indicating a prolonged Kurdish effort to choke once-allied Arab rebels in Tel Abyad. Kurdish YPG forces have reportedly used the weapons of blockade and encirclement to punish or sideline ostensibly allied Arab fighting brigades before, the same rebel commander told Syria Direct, even at the expense of the larger objective of battling IS. “The YPG even stopped ammunition supplies to its ally Liwa Thuwar a-Raqqa during the fight for Kobani last June when it was battling the Islamic State,” said the Raqqa-based commander Tuesday. It was not immediately clear what role the alleged blockade actually played in Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa’s dissolution of its two-month-old tribal partner. By removing a group whose recent statements threatened to unsettle an already-fraught alliance with Kurdish SDF forces, however, the Arab faction may have sought to sidestep outright conflict with its Kurdish partners. Jabhat Thuwar as of publication remains in the SDF alliance. Although multiple sources confirm the Kurdish blockade of Arab rebels in Tel Abyad, at least one Kurdish journalist denies the allegations. “There’s been no blockade; the Tribes’ Army was spread over a too-wide an area [to effectively blockade], and in addition to that, in areas where there are no Kurdish forces at all,” Mustafa al-Abdi, a Kurdish journalist reporting out of Kobani, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “A lack of support, and an inability to carry out its charged function … has made the Tribes’ Army a burden on Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa, compromising its essential mission to liberate A-Raqqa from the IS gangs,” reads Monday’s announcement. Source: Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa. Available on Facebook. 2015. The internecine roots of a frayed alliance The YPG’s reported blockade of its nominal allies in Tel Abyad is the latest escalation in a months-long string of tit-for-tat accusations and provocations between Arabs and Kurds in north Syria as a shared fight against IS collides with aspirations for territorial control. Syria Direct has reported on tensions between Kurdish YPG forces and their allies, Sunni Arab rebel brigades in north and northeast Syria, over what they call the YPG’s encroachment of Arab territory. In March, Syria Direct reported on YPG units burning Arab homes in the far northeast Al-Hasakah province. In a February report, Amnesty International denounced the “deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages in areas under the Autonomous Administration … led by the Syrian Kurdish political party PYD.” The YPG is the armed wing of the PYD. Akram Salih, a correspondent embedded with YPG forces in Al-Hasakah told Syria Direct this past May in response to reports that the YPG was expelling Arabs from their lands in Al-Hasakah, east of A-Raqqa: "It's merely talk." The YPG has denied driving Arabs from Kurdish territory. YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Kurdish journalist Mutlu Civiroglu in an interview this past October: Ethnic cleansing is "not what is happening on the ground."January 6, 2016http://syriadirect.org/news/tribes%E2%80%99-army-disbands-in-north-amidst-accusations-of-ypg-blockade/January 6, 2016Al-Hasakah province
Rebel negotiator: Waer truce ‘about to go up in flames’AMMAN: A month-old truce between regime forces and the opposition in a holdout district of Homs city is “about to go up in flames,” an opposition negotiator told Syria Direct on Monday amidst rebel accusations of regime forces and their allies hindering humanitarian aid, killing rebel fighters and mistreating civilians. “I believe that the truce is about to go up in flames,” a member of the al-Waer negotiating committee responsible for overseeing the opposition’s implementation of December’s truce told Syria Direct on Monday, requesting anonymity. Syria Direct has spoken with this same source on multiple occasions while covering the Waer truce process. A UN-backed truce negotiated between rebel negotiators from the Waer neighborhood and the Syrian regime early in December promised to bring relief to the west Homs city district after being completely encircled by regime forces for more than two years. Among the terms of the three-stage Waer truce: A bilateral ceasefire, the departure from Waer of some rebel fighters and their families, the reopening of a checkpoint connecting the rebel district to regime-held Homs city and the entry of humanitarian aid. Other terms stipulated that rebels hand over heavy weapons and that the regime release 5,000 detainees held in its prisons. The rebel negotiator Syria Direct spoke to on Monday says that the regime's failure to adhere to the terms of the truce leaves the opposition with little to lose if it falls apart. “The regime broke the truce more than 20 times in the last week,” the negotiator told Syria Direct, citing restriction of movement and “mistreatment” of civilians leaving Waer, in addition to the construction of earthen berms and bunkers by regime forces around the district and planes “hovering at low altitudes.” State security forces also reportedly arrested and interrogated a rebel negotiator at length shortly after the truce went into effect, he said. One Waer rebel faction announces Saturday that its fighters would not abide by the ceasefire. Photo courtesy of Waer24. Only a portion of the agreed-upon humanitarian aid has entered Waer since the truce began, the same source added. “No more than 7,200 parcels” from the UN and other organizations have arrived, covering 60 percent of an estimated 12,000 families inside, he says. The Waer negotiating committee closed its side of the Duwwar al-Mohandiseen checkpoint connecting the district to the rest of Homs city on Monday morning “pending a solution to repeated violations by regime forces,” Abu Muhammad al-Homsi, a member of the pro-opposition Homs Media Center reported Monday. Before its closure on the rebel side, the checkpoint, operated by both rebel and regime forces, was the only way in or out of Waer. The Waer district itself is still controlled by rebels, though 300 of them who rejected the truce left for rebel-controlled areas in the north last month. Syria Direct could not independently confirm alleged regime violations, and Syrian state media has not commented. Multiple pro-opposition media sources have reported alleged violations in recent days. In Waer’s southwestern corner, the ceasefire has already fallen apart after Shiite militias from a bordering pro-regime village reportedly fired on and killed two rebel fighters inside Waer last week. In response, local rebel brigade Kataib al-Huda al-Islamiya called the killings of its members “an unforgivable breach of the truce” in an announcement posted online Saturday. Kataib snipers in the neighborhood would consider “every enemy” spotted on the southwestern edge of Waer a “legitimate target,” read the announcement. In a meeting between rebel and regime forces this past Sunday about recent infractions, “the changed face of the regime surprised” rebel negotiators, Syria Direct’s source said Monday. “In contrast to the beginning of negotiations and the truce, it was as though it blessed those violations.” It is not immediately clear whether the Syrian regime has in fact changed its view of the Waer truce, or what it would have to gain by doing so. However, there has been criticism of the Waer truce by regime supporters in Homs since it began, particularly from families who believe their kidnapped relatives are still being held by rebels in Waer. Most recently, in the nearby Alawite-majority al-Zahraa neighborhood of Homs city, twin car bombings claimed by the Islamic State that killed more than 20 civilians one week ago sparked protests by regime supporters who called for the fall of Talal al-Barazi, the provincial governor, and asked that the Waer truce be cancelled. Continuing uncertainty has led some in Waer to fear for the future, particularly following the departure of hundreds of rebel fighters this past December. “This is what we feared, and is why we called for the rebels to stay and protect us,” Samer al-Salibi, a Waer resident told Syria Direct on Monday. “The regime has no security and doesn’t control the sectarian Shiite militias which support it.”January 4, 2016http://syriadirect.org/news/rebel-negotiator-waer-truce-%E2%80%98about-to-go-up-in-flames%E2%80%99/January 4, 2016Homs province
In one Aleppo town, parents flock to psychological center as some children ‘violent, stressed’AMMAN: In a northwestern corner of Aleppo province, a new psychological support center is directly helping more than 900 local children cope with the stresses of war and ongoing bombardments, including tantrums, night terrors, and severe anxiety. The West Aleppo Project to Support Children’s Mental Health Center opened its doors in the town of Darat Izza last November with logistical support from the Local Coordination Council and a grant from IHSAN Relief and Development, a non-governmental organization based 100km northeast in Gaziantep, Turkey which funds local Syrian initiatives to improve the daily life of Syrians. “Initially it was difficult to get the mothers to agree to send their children to the center,” Khuduj al-Hilo, the center’s director told Syria Direct. She and her colleagues faced resistance from parents, as people who seek psychological treatment, even during a time of war, are commonly perceived as broken or mentally ill. The center’s staff chose to tackle that taboo head-on, bringing their teams into local schools to hold sports and recreational activities. As the children play, professionals evaluate what they can see of students’ psychological conditions while they participate in group games and activities, said al-Hilo. “Psychologists and guidance counselors attend to assess the students’ behavior in a school setting to identify those who need additional psychological support and transfer them to the center.” Play therapy in session. Photo courtesy of Nadia Rashid. At the same time, the staff simultaneously educates teachers on “dealing with children during wars and crises, along with special-needs children in emergency situations,” Tariq Aqad, a child psychologist at the center, told Syria Direct. “The project’s impetus is that children need a place suitable for playing, recreation and repairing what has been damaged by the burdens of war,” said al-Hilo. Located 25km south of Afrin and 28km northwest of Aleppo city, Darat Izza and the surrounding countryside are controlled by several different Islamist factions including Jabhat a-Nusra, which took over the town in mid-June 2012. Russian and regime warplanes have heavily targeted northwest Aleppo since Moscow began its air campaign in early October. This “daily bombardment” makes children constantly fearful and anxious, said Aqad, adding that this can lead to night terrors and bedwetting. The air raids have driven 350 families to flee the countryside to Darat Izza, where the population has swelled in recent months from a prewar population of 13,500 residents to approximately 36,000. In early October, Russian warplanes reportedly launched an airstrike on Darat Izza that killed five civilians including a child, prompting residents to demonstrate against Russia’s “occupation” of Syria. Since the center opened the following month, parents have already registered 900 of the town’s 2,950 children for recreational activities and therapy sessions. Family-related issues such as financial problems caused by a weak wartime economy or the death of a parent can also lead to psychological and behavioral challenges, said Aqad. “All of these factors negatively affect the children’s behavior, making them violent, stressed and short-tempered.” Parents and the center’s employees say they are already seeing results. “This center has really encouraged my daughter and strengthened her confidence in herself,” one mother told Syria Direct, adding that this is especially important “since our children are deprived from such activities at school due to the circumstances of the war and little free time.” “We have gotten surprising results in the first month of training from this program,” Nadia Rashid, a psychologist with the center, told Syria Direct. “A lot of the mothers have thanked us for what we are giving their children because it has helped to form their personalities and improved their cognitive abilities.” One mother whose daughter was having tantrums before said her daughter’s behavior has “improved” and that she “is herself again.” On a recent Sunday, psychologists and therapists at the center held the first session for a group of 116 students from Darat Izza’s schools who they had identified over the last month as needing additional support, said the center’s director al-Hilo. After breaking the students up into groups of 14 according to their specific needs, the psych team led recreational and educational activities with specific goals for each different group, Rashid said. The students appear pleased to have structure and fun in their days, director al-Hilo said, adding that for two months, 112 of these students will meet daily with the center’s staff for therapy. “Most of the selected students have been greatly affected by the circumstances of the war and are happy to have something new in their lives,” he said. Though the center provides support for children and adolescents between the ages of six and 18, staff psychologists have determined that the war has a greater effect on younger children between six and 10 years old. Recently, the program’s outreach team has expanded its awareness campaign to other areas of rebel-controlled Aleppo by holding seminars at universities and with other local opposition councils to spread their psychological-support model. “In my opinion, our success is putting a smile on our children’s faces and developing their abilities and cultivating their talents so that they become a generation strong of both mind and body,” said al-Hilo.January 4, 2016http://syriadirect.org/news/in-one-aleppo-town-parents-flock-to-psychological-center-as-some-children-%E2%80%98violent-stressed%E2%80%99/January 4, 2016Aleppo province
Taking refuge in abandoned buildings, civilians battle ‘bitter Aleppo cold’Finding IDP camps full and feeling the chill of winter settling in, tens of thousands of civilians have fled the intensifying fighting in Aleppo, Idlib and Hama over the past two months for the relative safety of unfinished apartments in Aleppo city. Since the beginning of October, the UN estimates that Russian bombing and new regime offensives displaced more than 120,000 civilians from Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces. Many have sought refuge in houses and apartments whose construction was abandoned in the early days of the war. Last week, the Syrian Red Crescent led a winterizing effort providing lumber and other materials for 90 families living in unfinished apartments in regime-controlled areas of Aleppo city. Souhaib Misto, a reporter from Aleppo city, told Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani that while people prefer living in skeletal apartment buildings to the exposed tents of the ad hoc camps, the situation is still far from ideal. “People use tarps to cover the window openings and cloth is sometimes used for doors, which doesn’t keep out the bitter Aleppo cold.” Q: When did Aleppo start seeing people taking up residence in unfinished houses? This phenomenon has been spreading significantly, especially in the western Aleppo countryside. A large number of displaced people, up to 100,000, have arrived since the beginning of October due to the increase in fighting between the opposition and the regime, as well as Russian airstrikes. The camps in the countryside can no longer accommodate this huge number and people consider these houses safer than the camp with the arrival of winter. Q: Why weren’t the buildings completed, and what about the owners? These are apartment buildings whose owners were unable to finish constructing them due to the circumstances of the war: there is always the risk property might be bombed, and besides that nobody has money for new houses when they are focused on getting bread. Some people rent these houses from their friends who own the building and pay a cheap monthly rent of between 5,000-10,000SP [20-45 USD]. Others let displaced people stay there for free out of sympathy for their difficult situation. Q: What are these houses like to live in? Because the houses are unfinished, people use tarps to cover window openings and cloth is sometimes used for doors, which doesn’t keep out the bitter Aleppo cold. There is no electricity or running water in these houses. It is an especially depressing situation, a misery tinged with the pain of war. The Red Crescent is rehabilitating unfinished houses in regime areas with lumber. Those houses are the priority, and then whatever assistance remains goes to the opposition-held areas, but it is not enough to meet people’s needs.December 6, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/taking-refuge-in-abandoned-buildings-civilians-battle-%E2%80%98bitter-aleppo-cold%E2%80%99/December 6, 2015Aleppo province
Russia strikes vital Aleppo water treatment plant: ‘The sight of water flowing from a faucet has become almost like a dream’Russian warplanes struck the al-Khafsa water treatment plant in the Islamic State (IS)-held eastern Aleppo countryside last Thursday, cutting off water to some 3.5 million people. Although pumping has been partially restored, 1.4 million people in rural Aleppo are still suffering from water shortages. “Life in the shadow of war no longer resembles life,” Zain Halabi, an Aleppo-based journalist, told Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani. “Imagine that you want to bring water to the upper floors of a building. You have to walk one kilometer to reach the well, and then stand in line for hours in the heat of summer or the cold of winter–to say nothing of regime warplane rockets or barrels of death, often targeting crowds of people," explained Halabi. Q: Aleppo’s water crisis began before Russia struck the al-Khafsa water station. To what extent has the airstrike exacerbated water shortages? The water crisis before the airstrike was caused by electricity cuts. People would get potable water from the al-Khafsa station, but when the electricity was cut, they could not pump water to the upper floors of their apartment buildings. Increased fuel prices also contributed to the problem. Now the water itself is actually cut, not just electricity. So even if some people could get ahold of scarce and expensive fuel to run their pumps, they can’t get any water. A bomb slams into the al-Khafsa water treatment plant in a pilot’s-view video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) on Twitter Wednesday. Although the Russian MOD called the target in the same tweet “an oil refinery,” the ordnance hit al-Khafsa, one of the most important water treatment plants in Syria. The facility processed some 18 million liters of Euphrates River water each day. Q: As the water station lies in Islamic State territory, how was it partially repaired? Regime engineers repaired the station under the auspices of the Red Crescent, as IS possesses neither the expertise nor the materials to do it themselves. In this case, the regime had no choice but to in a way cooperate with IS–if they hadn’t, then water would not be delivered to regime-held areas in Aleppo city. Q: How are people getting water now? People depend almost entirely on wells, so much so that the sight of water flowing from a faucet in the house has become almost like a dream, to the point that no one even thinks about it anymore. Life in the shadow of war no longer resembles life. The water situation is similar to the electricity situation. Some people have turned their refrigerators into closets for clothes because they are useless now. Imagine that you want to bring water to the upper floors of a building. You have to walk one kilometer to reach the well, and then stand in line for hours in the heat of summer or the cold of winter–to say nothing of regime warplane rockets or barrels of death, often targeting crowds of people. The suffering does not end there. Even after people get water, it isn’t clean, yet it still costs between SP80-150 for 220 liters, depending on the area. Dirty water in turn spreads disease. There are so many ways to die here. Q: What is your position on the Russian airstrikes against IS? Most recent Russian airstrikes [against Aleppo city] have targeted the city center and vital infrastructure, such as bakeries, electricity stations, schools, grain storage facilities and humanitarian aid trucks, causing dozens of civilian casualties. Most strikes have targeted opposition groups, not IS, so the people who have been the most affected are civilians. In my opinion, the Russian strikes are causing civilian massacres.December 3, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/russian-knocks-aleppo-water-treatment-plant-offline-%E2%80%98the-sight-of-water-flowing-from-a-faucet-has-become-almost-like-a-dream%E2%80%99/December 3, 2015Aleppo province
Accusations, recriminations and bloodshed in north Aleppo arena as Kurds fear for AfrinAMMAN: An investigation into an ongoing turf war between the newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces and rival FSA and Islamist factions in northwest Aleppo province reveals an arena where a tangled web of conflicting agendas is crashing into aspirations for the Kurdish region of Rojava. A smattering of villages west of the town of Azaz, just south of the Turkish border, have witnessed days of fierce battles between the two-week-old Aleppo branch of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces on one side, and a collection of FSA-affiliated and Islamist rebels on the other. Dozens of fighters on both sides have been killed, injured and captured. Why are they fighting? It depends on who you ask. Arab SDF member Jaish al-Thuwar says the past week and a half of fighting began when Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham fighters attacked their positions southwest of Azaz early last week. Nusra and Ahrar have not commented, but the commander of an SDF rival, the FSA-affiliated Marea Operations Room currently fighting in northern Aleppo,said that Jaish al-Thuwar fighters started the wave of fighting by firing on his men and cutting the nearby Aleppo-Gaziantep highway, a main supply road for rebel forces in northern Aleppo. But what these battles really appear to be about is a culmination of tensions following the formation of this regional branch of the US-backed, mostly-Kurdish SDF coalition in the northern Aleppo countryside last month. SDF fighters listen to a speech at a funeral on Sunday for four of their colleagues killed near Azaz. Photo courtesy of Jaish al-Thuwar. Jaish al-Thuwar, a coalition of mostly FSA rebel brigades formed this past May, joined the new branch of the SDF alongside at least 13 other Kurdish and Arab factions to fight “terrorism represented by the Islamic State, its sister [organizations] and the criminal Baath regime,” as it said in a statement two weeks ago. The repercussions of Jaish al-Thuwar joining the SDF are now being played out after initial threats, accusations and ultimatums aimed at its main Sunni Arab component have escalated in recent days into outright bloodshed. Fighters in the mostly-FSA Marea and Fatah Halab operations rooms as well as Ahrar a-Sham and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra have pushed back SDF advances, reopened the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway, and continue to battle Kurdish and Arab SDF forces on multiple fronts as both sides trade accusations of massacres and forced displacement of villagers. But the question of what is driving the northwest Aleppo fighting goes beyond the strategic importance of the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway and a few villages west of Azaz. Rather, it is a question of deep mutual mistrust between the non-SDF Arab brigades in northwest Aleppo and the SDF in Aleppo. Jaish al-Thuwar, by openly aligning itself with the Kurdish-led SDF, has inherited this enmity, thereby inflaming pre-existing tensions with rebel brigades such as Jabhat a-Nusra. Those Kurdish forces in the SDF are the People’s Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/J) based in Afrin, the main pocket of Kurdish-controlled territory in Aleppo, nestled in its far northwest corner. Even before this latest spate of fighting, the Sunni Arab brigades in the Aleppo countryside have watched with trepidation as Kurdish forces consolidate their hold on a swathe of territory running east to west along nearly the entire Syrian border with Turkey. Kurdish groups call their band of de facto autonomous territory Rojava, describe its founding as a revolution and maintain in it a civil administration, security forces and schools. Rojava’s five administrative cantons are ruled by a joint administration dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) ideologically aligned with Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK party in Turkey, and protected by the YPG/J, the armed wing of the PYD. The establishment and expansion of these territories has often intersected with a fight against the Islamic State, but has been dogged by accusations of YPG abuses, encroaching on Arab land, appropriating and demolishing homes and conscripting young men and women in the areas they control. The YPG has denied many claims of abuses. Then there is the matter of the YPG’s stated territorial goals to close the 140km gap between the Afrin and Kobani cantons in the north along the Turkish border. “We in the YPG have a strategic goal, to link Afrin with Kobani,” Polat Can, a senior YPG official told US-based McClatchy late this past October. “We will do everything we can to achieve it.” Asserting that SDF-aligned Jaish al-Thuwar forces instigated the last 10 days of fighting, FSA and Islamist rebel factions in northern Aleppo have framed recent battles as necessary step to combat aggression by Kurdish forces and their allies. “Jaish al-Thuwar and Kurdish forces are trying to advance and take control of areas in the northern countryside,” an officer from Fatah Halab told Syria Direct on Monday, requesting anonymity. “We are taking these battles seriously,” he added, “to preserve the supply route of our forces battling the Islamic State.” Fighters from the Marea Operations Room (MOR) offered Jaish al-Thuwar fighters an out from their alliance with the YPG. A group of rebels from the MOR called on “our brothers in Jaish al-Thuwar to stop their support and their connections to the PKK,” in a video posted online Monday. “You are true revolutionaries and heroes. We call on you to break your ties with the PKK and help us fight the regime and IS.” Existential threat When Kurds look towards the battleground of villages in the eastern border of Afrin they see an existential threat to the weakest, most isolated canton in Rojava and an attempt to wipe out the new SDF forces by what they claim are “terrorist groups” backed by Turkey. “The opposition forces aim to take control of Afrin,” Akram Saleh, a Kurdish journalist embedded with the YPG in Tel Abyad, told Syria Direct earlier this week. “Afrin has been chosen to attack because it is the weakest point in comparison with the other areas under Kurdish control,” mostly encircled by opposition factions with IS positions 20km to the east. YPG forces in the SDF did not participate in initial clashes between Jaish al-Thuwar and non-SDF rebel groups when the fighting was limited to the area immediately west and southwest of Azaz. Rather, they joined in when non-SDF counter-advances threatened villages such as Maryamin at the eastern edge of Afrin, just 5.5km northeast of the canton’s eponymous capital. YPG allegations of Turkish backing for rebel groups in Aleppo is not new, as Turkey’s government views the prospect of a contiguous Kurdish autonomous region along its border with northern Syria essentially ruled by the PYD, a party with close ties to the PKK, as “a threat.” “All they [the Kurds] want is to seize northern Syria entirely,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech last month. “This constitutes a threat for us, and it is not possible for us as Turkey to say ‘yes’ to this threat.” This position seems to make Turkey a natural ally for rebel brigades with similar objections to a potential expansion of Kurdish territories along the border, fueling Kurdish accusations of a conspiracy. Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham, among others, “are attacking the Kurdish forces to prevent them from establishing any Kurdish entity, in keeping with Turkey’s recent statements,” the YPG-embedded journalist Saleh told Syria Direct. Ongoing battles with YPG forces and their allies “do not accomplish any strategic goal for the opposition in its war against the Assad regime or IS.” The YPG, likely deliberately, is conflating Nusra and Ahrar with the Islamic State, painting recent fighting as purely for self-defense and survival. “Turkey supports terrorist groups in Syria in order to hit the SDF,” Jamal Alo, a Kurdish SDF commander in Afrin told Kurdish ARA News Monday. The attacks, he says, are “an attempt to impede the efforts of the SDF in building a democratic pluralistic state.” “Groups of mercenaries are using fighting Jaish al-Thuwar as a cover to launch attacks on Afrin canton,” Furat Khalil, a YPG commander in Afrin told Kurdish Welati network last Sunday. Despite the variety of hardline Islamist and FSA groups currently fighting the SDF in northern Aleppo, SDF and pro-SDF media sources have consistently referred to those they are fighting as “mercenaries” from Jabhat a-Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham and IS, although the latter’s closest positions lie dozens of kilometers away to the east. “All the military factions in the areas of Azaz and the northern Aleppo countryside are extremist and have a relationship with IS,” Rojar Mamou, a YPG fighter told ARA News Sunday. “The presence of these factions” near SDF-held territories “poses a danger.” Jaish al-Thuwar doubled down on those claims this past Monday, posting a video in which a fighter named Abdullah al-Obeid captured in Maryamin supposedly confesses that his brigade is led by the Islamic, which Jaish al-Thuwar claims “proves” IS participation in the battles. Identifying himself as a fighter in a small battalion fighting alongside Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham, al-Obeid answers questions fired off by a Jaish al-Thuwar fighter in the 30-second clip. He says that his faction, Katibat al-Sahaba, has funding “from Turkey,” and says its leadership is “from IS,” and adds that he alongside Nusra and IS fighters had attacked Maryamin “under the guise of the FSA.” The civilian administration of Afrin canton also views recent fighting as an existential threat. “Groups claiming to be moderate” had “systematically encircled” Afrin, a statement posted online Sunday by the joint presidency of Afrin’s executive council read, while expressing confidence in the SDF to fend off an attack. Marea Operations Room fighters call on Jaish al-Thuwar to cut ties with the YPG on Monday. Photo courtesy of Khaled Alale. Proxy war This past week, Turkey has gone on the offensive, charging Russia, aware of Ankara’s discomfort with the SDF along its border with Syria and eager to lash out at Turkish interests after the downing of a Russian warplane last week, has carried out air strikes in support of the YPG. “Russia is providing air support for the PYD, the Syrian affiliate of the terrorist PKK organization,” Turkey’s Anadolu agency alleged on Monday. Turkish state media has published three reports in the past week of what it calls Russian air support for Kurdish SDF forces in northern Aleppo. In a report on Friday, Anadolu cited reports by unnamed “local sources” to bolster its claim that “PYD has reportedly begun its rapprochement with Russia.” Russian state media has not mentioned airstrikes near Azaz or deepening relations with the PYD. At least one pro-regime Syrian media source reported Russian airstrikes on several northern Aleppo villages last Sunday, “amidst violent clashes between the Kurds and the so-called FSA.” Even if the airstrikes were carried out, the overlapping of Russian and SDF operations in northern Aleppo does not necessarily translate into direct coordination, but rather each taking advantage of the other’s actions for the sake of its own objectives: Russia to trouble Turkey, the SDF to protect Afrin. Meanwhile, the US-led international coalition has reported four airstrikes in Aleppo province since the beginning of clashes between the SDF and opposition forces in northern Aleppo, but all reportedly on IS targets near Marea, 16km southeast of Azaz. One Kurdish journalist and frequent Syria Direct contributor who was on the ground during for the battle to drive the Islamic State from Kobani, reports potential future US-led coalition air support for SDF forces near Afrin, citing confidential sources. “A decision has been made to protect Afrin… from the air,” Mustafa Ebdi, who is currently in Turkey near the border with Afrin posted on social media, citing “private sources” and claiming “air operations are fully coordinated with SDF forces.”December 3, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/accusations-recriminations-and-bloodshed-in-north-aleppo-arena-as-kurds-fear-for-afrin/December 3, 2015North Aleppo province
Daraa recruits female first responders to assuage patriarchal concernsIn the first training of its kind inside Syria, the Civil Defense in rebel-controlled parts of Daraa province graduated 15 female volunteers late last month. The Civil Defense, active throughout rebel controlled-Syria, is the first-responder network that arrives at the scene following air raids, ground attacks and barrel bomb drops on civilians. The training in Daraa included practice drills on evacuating victims and emergency first aid as well as how to run educational campaigns around issues such as unexploded ordnance and hygiene. Muhammed Adeeb, a Civil Defense spokesman in western Daraa, tells Syria Direct’s Yaman Yosif that the conservative nature of Syria’s southern province makes female trainers a necessity. “It became necessary for us to include women … a member of the household might refuse to let males treat his wife or daughter.” Q: Why did the Civil Defense start including women in their first responder training? The most important reason is that the community in Daraa is a conservative one, so it became necessary for us to include women in the Civil Defense teams to help in cases where women were injured in their homes. Another member of the household might refuse to let males treat his wife or daughter. Additionally, it is important we have female volunteers to help with our campaigns to raise awareness about health and medical issues. Q: Are there any policies or rules for their work? Traditions and cultures have an effect on any work, especially if it involves going into people’s houses and working with a family where there are girls and women. Many instances have required women to be part of the evacuation team. There are no rules limiting the scope of the work of our female Civil Defense volunteers. They are part of the Civil Defense team. We do not put any restrictions on their work. However, on the ground, some families may impose restrictions, as they might not be accustomed to female emergency rescue workers. We are very proud of all of our female volunteers in Daraa’s Civil Defense.December 3, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/daraa-recruits-female-first-responders-to-assuage-patriarchal-concerns/December 3, 2015Daraa province
Regime ‘serious’ about Waer truce, says opposition negotiatorAMMAN: A negotiating committee from the last rebel-held district in Homs city reached an oral agreement with the regime to begin a truce in what appears to be the first serious effort to end the two-year siege affecting 90,000 residents of Waer, a participant present at the meeting told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “This time we saw that the regime was serious about concluding a truce and quickly implementing it,” said a member of the rebel committee present during Tuesday's talks, who requested anonymity. “I think that the regime is trying to show that it is capable of negotiating and working out settlement agreements before the upcoming international conference” slated for January, he added, which is expected to include representatives from the Syrian regime and opposition, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, the United States and others under UN auspices. The regime and rebel committees reached an oral agreement, not yet codified in writing, at the A-Safir hotel in Homs on Tuesday that includes the release of an unknown number of detainees from regime prisons and the entrance of food and medicine into the neighborhood, to begin on Wednesday. As part of the agreement, 200 to 300 rebel fighters are slated to leave Waer this coming Saturday. The regime’s goal is for the district to eventually to become “free of weapons and militants,” Governor Talal al-Barazi was quoted by Iranian news agency al-Alam as saying Wednesday. Al-Waer in Homs, in February. Photo courtesy of SPC. Yet the opposition and regime negotiating committees came to an informal understanding that not all rebels are required to leave Waer, said the attendee. Only those who refuse the truce initiative, a “small minority,” he said, will leave for the rebel-controlled Idlib and Hama countrysides. It is unclear what role, if any, the remaining rebels in Waer will play in enforcing the truce, or whether they will eventually be asked to give up their arms. Two civilians living in Waer who spoke to Syria Direct Wednesday emphasized their support for a truce only on the condition that rebel fighters, who number in the thousands, remain in the southwest district to protect civilians from future regime excesses. Ahrar a-Sham and Kataib al-Jihad al-Islami, affiliated with Feilaq a-Sham are the two largest factions active in the neighborhood. “We support a truce, our children need it more than we do, but we won't accept one if it stipulates the exit of the rebels—they protect us,” Waer resident Abu Ibrahim told Syria Direct. “We don't trust the regime and its paramilitary militias that it doesn't have control over.” A Waer rebel fighter who spoke to Syria Direct Wednesday, requesting anonymity, agreed: “We won't leave and abandon our families to become a target for the shabiha's hatred...the truce we recognize is one that allows rebels to stay in the neighborhood to protect civilians. In that case, we'll abide by all conditions including a ceasefire.” The participants in Tuesday's negotiations included Deeb Zeitun, head of the Syrian mukhabarat, and Talal al-Barazi, the governor of Homs, according to the opposition committee representative. Also in attendance, said the source, were Yaqoub al-Helo, the representative of the United Nations Development Program in Syria and Khoula Matar, head of UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura's political office. Waer has been completely surrounded by regime forces for more than two years, and is the only remaining rebel holdout district in Homs city after opposition fighters left Old Homs as part of a truce deal in May 2014. Aid caravans enter Waer sporadically. Residents grow plants, such as beets, lettuce and parsley, in private gardens as a source of food. Previous attempts to reach a reconciliation were scuttled either by regime shelling of the neighborhood or by mysterious bombings carried out in nearby pro-regime Alawite neighborhoods of Homs, such as the infamous twin Akrama bombings that targeted a primary school in October 2014, killing dozens of children. In the aftermath of that attack, for which no one claimed responsibility, regime supporters blamed Waer residents and the Syrian army began a new wave of air strikes against the neighborhood. Now, faced with the possibility of serious truce negotiations, Waer residents appear supportive provided that armed rebels are allowed to remain. “We agree to a truce as long as rebels stay to protect the neighborhood,” Samir Awwama, a current Waer resident who fled the nearby Bab a-Sabaa neighborhood, told Syria Direct Wednesday. “In order to stop the bloodshed between the two sides, stop the fighting and suffering.”December 3, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/regime-%E2%80%98serious%E2%80%99-about-waer-truce-says-opposition-negotiator/December 3, 2015Homs province
As conscription campaign intensifies, three Damascus brothers who chose neutrality ‘running out of options’At the hundreds of security checkpoints spread throughout Damascus, regime soldiers pull young men off buses and check IDs, constantly on the lookout for those of military age to conscript and deploy to the frontlines. Recent tactics like recruiting farmers and men as old as 70 into ‘Self-Defense Divisions’ represent part of this new drive to recruit manpower. One family of three brothers in Damascus decided early into the revolution “not to take any side.” They are not loyal to Assad, but they did not want to pick up arms against the Syrian regime either, says Khaled, a public-sector employee in the Zablatani district of the capital who earns SP20,000 (around $50) per month. While flying checkpoints and random ID checks formerly served to find those avoiding mandatory service, “now it includes everyone,” Khaled tells Syria Direct’s Futoun a-Sheikh. Hiding at home, they are running out of options, he says. “I used to be one of those people who labeled emigrants as traitors, even if they were my friends… But now, we have no other choice.” Q: What is the situation of young people in Damascus who aren’t loyal to any side? At the beginning of the revolution, my brothers and I decided we would stay away from the conflict and not take any side. We are not loyal to Assad, but at the same time, like most families in Damascus, we have to pretend to be loyal in order to receive services and stay in our home. Everyone in our position is constantly on guard. There are three young men in our family. The youngest, who is 23 years old, studies dentistry at the Damascus University. My older brother, who is married with two children, works as a pharmaceutical distributor. Q: How does the conscription campaign affect the youth in Damascus? The latest campaign launched by the regime is the most dangerous one yet for us. Since the beginning of the revolution, people have been arrested and conscripted into the reserves, but it was limited only to those who did not complete their military service. Now it includes everyone, even if you have deferment papers. Lately, all we hear is ‘the interests of the nation are more important than anything else.’ All of this has started to change our lives. We no longer dare to go to work or university out of fear. About a month ago my younger brother was arrested. We were only able to get him out of jail by paying a lot of money. Now we are stuck at home, and my mother and sister do all of the household shopping. This situation isn’t unique to us. Most of our friends have been forced to quit their jobs or drop out of university due to fear of flying checkpoints which are used to force people into military service. Q: What options are available to you right now? Living a normal life of work or studies is no longer an option. Now there are only three options available to us, and we must choose soon before we run out of options. The first option is to join the regime and fight with it. To me this isn’t a real option. How could I do that? Joining the regime forces contradicts my beliefs. Everyone who goes with regime forces is guaranteed martyrdom, but without honor. Most of the youth are convinced that the regime is weak. It will not pay us a single lira in return for risking our lives. The regime protects the people from other countries who fight on its behalf. The second option is to join the opposition in liberated areas. It is not only the groups themselves who are calling on the young men to join them, but also all of our friends and relatives in the liberated areas. They all call us to take refuge in the liberated areas. This choice comes with many dangers. We all have families. How could someone leave his family behind, knowing that regime would kill them if it discovered that he was a revolutionary? The third option, which is the most logical choice right now, is to travel. What the future looks like no longer matters, because anywhere other than here would be fine. I used to be one of those people who labeled emigrants as traitors, even if they were my friends, and I would end my relationships with them when they left. My argument was, ‘Who will be left if you leave the country?’ But now, we have no other choice. We haven’t witnessed chaos like this in the capital before. Now all of us, good and bad, meet the same end. Our only value in this country is our bodies, standing on the front lines of the conflict. Now, it doesn’t matter if you were a doctor or a janitor. The only thing that matters is your political stance. Many young people must choose between the first two options, because they cannot afford a plane ticket.December 2, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/as-conscription-campaign-intensifies-three-damascus-brothers-who-chose-neutrality-%E2%80%98running-out-of-options%E2%80%99/December 2, 2015Damascus city
Starving residents leave Qudsiya as rebels mull deal to end blockadeMore than 100 residents and a handful of rebel fighters left Qudsiya, 10km north Damascus, for Idlib province on Monday, the first sign of acquiescence to a regime demand that all rebel fighters lay down their arms or else leave for opposition-controlled Idlib province in order to lift the blockade. A sense of hunger and defeat now prevails over the residents of the FSA-run city, which has been subject to four different regime blockades in the past two years. Despite the gesture, the regime maintained the blockade and issued additional, undisclosed demands resulting in Monday’s withdrawal. Muhammed al-Assad, a member of the Local Coordination Committee activist network in Qudsiya, told Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani that the regime’s starvation strategy is working. “The people’s only concern is getting flour, food and medicine.” Q: There have been blockades and then reconciliations before in Qudsiya. How is this one different? This is the fourth blockade imposed on the city, and it is currently in its fifth month. Every blockade ends with a temporary reconciliation agreement, but this is the first time the agreement has included transporting a number of civilians as well as fighters from the town. Approximately 135 people were moved out, the majority of them civilians, along with a small number of rebel fighters. All this was done under the supervision of the Red Crescent and the United Nations. Q: What about the regime soldiers who remain in the city? One of the regime’s conditions for ending the blockade was that rebel fighters who refused to give up their guns withdraw to Idlib. This agreement is supposed to happen in phases. Most fighters have stayed inside the city. So up until this point, the regime has not ended its blockade because not all fighters have left. Q: How do residents feel in general about the mediation? The people’s only concern is getting flour, food and medicine. The regime knows that the rebels’ weak point is the civilians, so it exploits their presence to pressure the rebels. The regime relies on a starvation strategy to make the people submit. Most people don’t want their sons to leave the city, but those who were displaced there are requesting to leave because of their hunger. They feel defeated. Q: Do you expect that the blockade will be lifted? We’re accustomed to the fact that the regime can’t be trusted. However, I think the rebels will agree to the regime’s conditions completely in order to end the starvation of their people. They also want to show that it is the regime, not the rebels, who are the cause of the blockade.December 2, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/starving-residents-leave-qudsiya-as-rebels-mull-deal-to-end-blockade/December 2, 2015Damascus city
Alleged Islamic State affiliate in south Syria still viable after Nusra wipes out top leadershipAMMAN: Days after the assassination of a top Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk (LSY) commander, the suspected Islamic State affiliate demonstrated its organizational resilience on Monday by carrying out three simultaneous car bomb and IED attacks against Jabhat a-Nusra’s leadership, reportedly wounding one commander, in southern Syria. LSY and Jabhat al-Nusra have skirmished since late 2014, with tit-for-tat assassination operations picking up this month. On November 8, LSY claimed an assassination attempt on Nusra security commander Rami Abu Auwan in a roadside IED attack in the eastern Daraa countryside. Nusra in turn assassinated the leader of LSY Muhammad “Abu Ali” al-Baridi, also known as al-Khal (the Uncle) along with several of his top associates, in a suicide attack on November 15. Monday’s double car bombing and same-day roadside IED attack is the first of its kind in the wake of al-Baridi’s death, demonstrating that LSY is still capable of launching coordinated attacks against high-level Nusra targets, even in the absence one of its most prominent commanders. “Two LSY car bombs targeted Nusra’s leadership in Quneitra Village–the first struck Nusra’s headquarters, while the second exploded just outside another of their bases,” a Quneitra eyewitness, who wished to remain anonymous, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. As LSY car bombs exploded in Quneitra on Monday, the alleged IS-affiliate detonated a roadside IED targeting a Nusra vehicle in the town of Inkhil, 43km northwest of Daraa, on the same day, a Quneitra-based rebel source who requested anonymity told Syria Direct Tuesday. It was not clear why LSY chose this third location. LSY’s Quneitra headquarters attack reportedly wounded Nusra commander Abu Mansour, said the rebel source. Syria Direct was unable to independently verify whether LSY fighters piloted either car bomb. Although pro-regime news site War Media claimed on Monday that the LSY attack wounded Abu Mansour, a Nusra-linked Twitter account reported only women and children were wounded in the Quneitra explosion. Quneitra province, located in southwest Syria, borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. “Destruction wrought by the (IS) car bomb in Quneitra Village,” reads the caption of a Nusra image, using the anti-IS term “Kharijite.” Kharijites, or “those who went outside [Islam],” refers to a seventh-century school of Islam noted for rebelling against Muslim leaders, and for its unorthodox practice of takfir, or excommunication.Source: Jabhat al-Nusra. Available on Twitter. The antagonism between Jabhat a-Nusra and LSY is a result of Nusra's perception of LSY as an IS affiliate. Although LSY has yet to officially claim affiliation to IS, LSY has incorporated the IS flag into its logo, and operates an IS-styled administration in the Yarmouk Valley.December 1, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/alleged-islamic-state-affiliate-in-south-syria-still-viable-after-nusra-wipes-out-top-leadership/December 1, 2015eastern Daraa province
Trapped Deir e-Zor city residents living on ‘a cup of rice, boiled wheat and water’AMMAN: A stifling Islamic State encirclement of two remaining regime-controlled districts of Deir e-Zor city is causing inflation and scarcities, with citizens living mainly on bread and water, with tea now being sold by the gram, local activists told Syria Direct on Monday. “The average family meal in Deir e-Zor consists of a cup of rice, boiled wheat and water,” local citizen journalist Ahmed al-Alou told Syria Direct Monday. "A kilo of rice now costs SP3,000 ($15.80), a kilo of sugar SP3,700 ($19.50) and tea costs SP20,000 ($106.00) per kilo,” said Rami al-Hakim, the director of the Deir Ezzor24 news outlet. Prices are so prohibitive that “tea is being sold by the gram,” al-Hakim told Syria Direct on Monday. A teabag, by way of comparison, weighs two grams. A woman leaves a bakery after a long wait in regime-controlled Deir e-Zor on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Deir e-Zor is Being Slaughtered Silently. The people living in the regime-controlled districts of al-Joura and al-Qusur have been completely trapped since mid-2014, when IS militants swept across the eastern Syrian province expelling FSA-affiliated rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra. In September 2014 the Siyasiya Bridge, which was the only main route into the provincial capital across the Euphrates River, was destroyed in fighting between the regime and the Islamic State. Since that time, the only way in or out of Deir e-Zor city, for goods and people, is through the Syrian army’s military airbase a few kilometers to the southeast. “The small amount of food that enters the city is completely controlled by regime brokers,” said Alou. It is not just food that is barred from entering the two districts. Medicine is in such short supply that unusual diseases such as leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating disease prevalent in malnourished populations, have appeared, Mujahid a-Shami, director of the Deir e-Zor is Being Slaughtered Silently media campaign, told Syria Direct Monday. “Our campaign has documented the deaths of 18 children due to hunger and 12 adults from lack of access to medicine since the beginning of the siege,” said a-Shami, referring to the Islamic State’s near-complete takeover of the provincial capital in the late spring of 2014. Other documented diseases afflicting citizens include stomach ulcers and hepatitis, he said. The Islamic State is blockading the two districts as the regime strictly controls the food supply, making both parties complicit in starving Syrians, activists say. “IS and the regime are trading in the lives of the families in the besieged neighborhoods,” said a-Shami. November 30, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/trapped-deir-e-zor-city-residents-living-on-%E2%80%98a-cup-of-rice-boiled-wheat-and-water%E2%80%99/November 30, 2015Deir e-Zor city
Suwayda journalist: Province’s sons will not be ‘offerings for Assad’Several villages in Suwayda’s Jabal a-Druze region released statements last week denouncing a rumored regime conscription policy following the arrest and forced conscription of 11 Suwayda youths at a regime checkpoint in Suwayda city on November 15. The authenticity of the new conscription policy is unclear. Opposition media outlets reported a decree on November 14 authorizing state security to arrest any young man between 17 and 42 years old and force him into military service. No official government announcement has been reported by regime media. Residents were nonetheless enraged when reports of the decree reached them. The village of Amtan circulated a statement accusing the local military police chief of “spreading confusion and shaking the stability of Jabal a-Druze,” while another village said it would “do the impossible” to retake anyone forced into service. Basil Azam, a journalist in Suwayda city, told Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali that resistance to regime conscription in Suwayda is the legacy of the assassinated Druze sheikh Abu Fahd Waheed al-Balaus. “Abu Fahd stood up to the regime several months ago when he refused to allow Suwayda’s sons to be conscripted as offerings for Assad to stay in power.” Q: What leads you to believe the regime is carrying out this new conscription policy in Suwayda? The regime’s soldiers and its security branches across Syria over the last 10 days have engaged in a wide campaign of arrests at checkpoints and at government institutions to take young men born between 1973 and 1988 for military service. And they did this in Suwayda. They arrested 11 young men who were on their way back from Damascus at a checkpoint near the Suwayda Cemetery. Police patrols have also spread out through Suwayda city’s markets. However, in the villages of Jabal Druze, residents released statements threatening to confront any officer who tries to arrest anyone for military service. Q: What are the reasons for Suwayda residents’ refusal to send their sons to join the Syrian army? A large segment of Suwayda’s population is trying not to involve themselves or their sons in the regime’s war on itspeople. [Refusing mandatory military service] has taken on more significance since the founding of the Sheikhs of Dignity by the martyr Abu Fahd Waheed al-Balaus. Abu Fahd stood up to the regime several months ago when he refused to allow Suwayda’s sons to be conscripted as offerings for Assad to stay in power. He also helped release those wanted for mandatory service on at least 20 occasions. This is probably the main reason why he was killed. Q: Who is responsible for protecting Suwayda now? Suwayda’s relationship with their neighbors in Daraa is good, and the city is not facing any imminent danger. The regime occasionally publishes reports in state media of battles with the Islamic State in areas bordering the province and near the desert. There are isolated instances of fighting in the province, but Suwayda’s own take care of its defense, not the regime or its security branches. November 30, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/suwayda-journalist-province%E2%80%99s-sons-will-not-be-%E2%80%98offerings-for-assad%E2%80%99/November 30, 2015 Suwayda province
Nusra reportedly attacks newly pledged SDF forces in AleppoAMMAN: Instead of battling the Islamic State, the recently announced Aleppo branch of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces alliance appears to be bogged down in low-level, localized fighting with Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham. Just over a week ago, 15 Arab and Kurdish factions in Aleppo and Idlib provinces aligned themselves with the YPG-led SDF to fight “terrorism represented by the Islamic State, its sister [organizations] and the criminal Baathist regime.” Instead, Jaish al-Thuwar, the largest Sunni Arab faction participating in the Aleppo SDF, has become embroiled in a series of provocations involving non-SDF rebels such as Jabhat a-Nusra in northern Aleppo. Jaish al-Thuwar says that its forces were “subjected to a terrorist attack by Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham” on Monday, leading to hours of fighting in a village under their control near the town of Azaz, 6km south of the Turkish border, that produced casualties on both sides. The Jaish al-Thuwar, a Sunni Arab coalition of FSA affiliates, did not elaborate on exactly how the alleged attack began, but at least one non-SDF rebel commander has cast doubt on the coalition’s narrative of the attack. There was no Nusra assault, Capt. Abu al-Baraa, a commander with the rival Marea operations room, told pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl on Tuesday. Al-Baraa’s forces are stationed near Azaz where the alleged attack took place. Jabhat a-Nusra is not part of the Marea operations room, a united front consisting of a mix of mostly-FSA rebel brigades in north Aleppo. Al-Baraa alleged that Jaish al-Thuwar fighters had fired on fighters from al-Jabha al-Shamiya, a large rebel faction with a presence in northern Aleppo, al-Baraa said, thereby sparking clashes near Azaz on Monday. Kurdish media sources reported Tuesday that Jaish al-Thuwar been attacked by Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham on Monday leading to several hours of fighting, without providing further details. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the sequence of events near Azaz. Jaish al-Thuwar took the opportunity to use the alleged attack Monday to justify a lack of movement toward its supposed battle against the Islamic State. “We in the leadership of Jaish al-Thuwar condemn those terrorist attacks as we prepare to begin operations against the terrorist organization IS in the northern Aleppo countryside,” an announcement posted on the group’s official website read on Monday. The SDF, of which Jaish al-Thuwar is a prominent member, “was aiming to launch a large battle against the Islamic State in the Aleppo countryside,” Khaled al-Zino, a Jaish al-Thuwar spokesman told Syria Direct Wednesday. “If not for the presence of Jabhat a-Nusra in the Aleppo countryside, we would be trying to liberate [territories there] from IS.” The YPG, the dominant faction of the SDF, has not officially commented on the Jaish al-Thuwar skirmishes in north Aleppo. Local Kurdish media are quoting sources “close” to the YPG acknowledging the tensions, but little more besides that. Nusra strikes back While the motives behind the reported fighting between Jaish al-Thuwar and Jabhat a-Nusra earlier this week remain unclear, several journalists based in Aleppo and adjacent Idlib province told Syria Direct that the alignment of Jaish al-Thuwar with the SDF could put them on a collision course with Jabhat a-Nusra. “If FSA factions in Aleppo city and its countryside work with the SDF, then Nusra will attack them,” said Aleppo-based journalist Mustafa Sultan. The Jaish al-Thuwar spokesman went even farther, linking Monday’s incident with joining the SDF. “Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham have accused us of apostasy,” al-Zino said, “the same claim they make against all the SDF factions.” The Al-Qaeda affiliate also launched attacks Tuesday against YPG/YPJ forces in a Yezidi Kurdish village in the northern Aleppo countryside and the provincial capital Aleppo’s YPG-held Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood. “Attacks with heavy weaponry” that originated from a nearby village controlled by Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham fighters struck Basufan, 18km due south of Afrin city, the capital of the Kurdish-controlled territories in the northwestern corner of Aleppo province. “YPG repelled the attacks by a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham mercenaries,” a local news site reported late Tuesday. Coinciding with operations near Afrin, Nusra forces shelled YPG-held Sheikh Maqsoud on the northern edge of Aleppo city and attempted to storm the neighborhood, Kurdish ARA News reported Tuesday. “The operation led to the death of at least nine civilians” and damaged buildings, an unnamed source with the YPG told ARA News. While YPG forces kept Nusra from entering, the group “imposed a blockade on the neighborhood, cutting off the Shuqayf and Castello roads,” vital lifelines for the neighborhood. Jabhat a-Nusra has not yet commented on operations against the YPG or Jaish al-Thuwar in northern Aleppo. As Nusra has sporadically clashed with both Jaish al-Thuwar in northern Aleppo and the YPG in Afrin and Aleppo city in recent months, it is not immediately clear whether this week’s fighting is directly related to the formation of the SDF in Aleppo and Idlib last week. However, Jaish al-Thuwar, the YPG and other groups overtly aligned with the SDF, while their effectiveness has yet to be tested, could be seen as a greater threat in light of their new allegiances to a coalition whose forces in al-Hasakah have received US-led coalition air support and weapons shipments.November 25, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/nusra-reportedly-attacks-newly-pledged-sdf-forces-in-aleppo/November 25, 2015Aleppo province
The slow destruction of the Aleppo citadelAMMAN: Once a public park with winding paths, ice cream vendors and picnic benches where families would spend afternoons grilling kebabs and smoking shisha pipes, Aleppo’s historic citadel is facing an existential battle, the likes of which it has not witnessed in nine centuries sitting atop a formerly grassy knoll in the heart of Syria’s second city. Recent video footage of the medieval castle, once a base for resistance against Crusader advances, shows a crumbling structure in what may be a metaphor for the cultural damage wrought by nearly five years of war. While the damage has not been closely catalogued due to ongoing fighting in the area, Aleppo residents tell Syria Direct the change in what was once a pristinely preserved monument is palpable. “It makes our souls ache to see our heritage and our civilization destroyed,” Huda al-Halabi, a resident of Aleppo, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. The destroyed walls and ramparts of the Aleppo citadel. Photos courtesy of Halab Today. Since 2012, various incarnations of FSA and hardline Islamist rebels have tried to wrest the citadel from the regime, who has used the UNESCO World Heritage site as a military base since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. As a result of this battle of attrition, “both the regime and the rebels are responsible for damage to the historical site” both in Aleppo and Syria writ large, Muhammad a-Shafai, a correspondent with pro-opposition Alsouria and a resident of the city, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. The fact that Syrian regime forces are actively using the 12th-century stone structure as a modern-day fortress makes it more responsible for damage incurred to the site, the activist said. “The regime carries the bigger responsibility given it has concentrated [its forces] inside the citadel.” The citadel is located in the heart of Aleppo’s old city. Like the spokes of a wheel, all major roads run through the surrounding neighborhoods and end at the citadel mount. From its ramparts, regime forces command a 360-degree view the surrounding neighborhoods from where any attack could be launched from the rebel- controlled neighborhoods to the east, northeast, and south. Regime snipers and artillery teams also use this high ground to rain down fire on the surrounding rebel positions and neighborhoods. “Snipers are spread out along every part of the citadel to target residents,” said a-Shafai. Meanwhile, the regime has resorted to using tunnels around the citadel in order to penetrate rebel-held areas, said a-Shafai, though the regime blames such tunnel explosions on “terrorist” groups. Two weeks ago, a tunnel running form the citadel into a rebel-controlled neighborhood blew up, damaging part of the main entryway to the citadel, reported pro-opposition Aksalser on November 8. It is a sad fate for a medieval fortress that staved off repeated Crusader assaults on Aleppo in the 12th century. “Residents never expected a day would come when this citadel would become a source of death for them,” said a-Shafai. Aleppo resident Huda Al-Halabi reiterated how the citadel, once a symbol of Syria’s culture and heritage is now “tantamount to a hell.” “The regime has destroyed everything from stones to humans and nothing remains,” Hanaa al-Qassab, president of the Aleppo-based and Syrian Women’s Association and a resident of the city told Syria Direct Wednesday.November 25, 2015http://syriadirect.org/news/the-slow-destruction-of-the-aleppo-citadel/November 25, 2015Aleppo city

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