dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Raqqa, City of Contrasts

Raqqa ISIS convoy

Today’s reality in Raqqa, claimed since 2014 as the capital of Islamic State, is hard to reconcile with its illustrious past as a leading city of the Islamic Golden Age. 

But Matthew Heineman’s powerful new film ‘City of Ghosts’, difficult to watch at times, does not concern itself with history. Its focus is the here and now, the story of the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), whose members are risking their lives to send the outside world painful footage from inside Raqqa, in their mission to counter ISIS propaganda. The documentary – in Arabic, with subtitles – follows four of the group’s leading members over the course of a year, starting from late 2015, and includes material recorded covertly in the city by RBSS and other footage from the Syrian revolution.

Nothing in Syria is straightforward and there are cruel ironies. The bird’s eye view given by aerial drone footage in the film’s early shots of Raqqa’s desolate flat landscape with its sprawling mess of modern buildings, is the same bird’s eye view the US-led coalition pilots will be getting from their cockpits as they bomb “a forgotten city in Syria” as Aziz, the main RBSS spokesman, calls his hometown.

“A few thousand extremists,” he laments, “are deemed justification to blow up civilians.” But he was talking back in 2016, not about the massive aerial bombardment campaign currently being waged on Raqqa by the government of the same country that has just given his activist group a top press freedom award, but about the handful of token airstrikes the Assad regime and its Russian ally had seen fit to conduct against the ISIS capital up to that point.

Raqqa bombing August 2017

Over the coming months it is sadly inevitable that Raqqa’s civilians will be slaughtered all too loudly, as they get caught in the crossfire between ISIS mines and the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seeking to ‘liberate’ them. The UN estimates that up to 50,000 of Raqqa’s original 300,000 inhabitants remain trapped inside the city as human shields, prevented by ISIS from leaving.

The famous Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, immortalised in the tales of A Thousand and One Nights, moved his capital in 796 from Baghdad to Raqqa on the banks of the mighty Euphrates River.

Raqqa Old City overview

He built five hectares of palace complexes to symbolise his dominance of the region, from which his recreational summer palace Qasr al-Banat (Palace of the Maidens) and a colossal courtyard mosque with a 25m tower are all that remain today.

The Syrian astronomer Al-Battani (858-929), who calculated the 365-day length of the solar year to an accuracy of within two minutes and who is quoted as a major source by Copernicus over 600 years later, lived and worked in Raqqa.

 

But while future generations will forever associate Raqqa with savagery and Islamist terrorism, the University of Nottingham’s excavations of the 1990s focussed almost exclusively on another of Raqqa’s claims to fame – its 2km-long industrial complex where, from the 8th – 12th centuries, the city manufactured glass and pottery, becoming the Islamic world’s most important glass-making centre.

Raqqa glass 13th century

The well-preserved glass furnaces produced green, brown, blue and purple glass on a commercial scale, made from quartz pebbles of the nearby Euphrates river-bed, combined with the ashes of plants that grow in the surrounding semi-desert environment. The skilled artisans were both Christian and Muslim, buried side by side in an area close to the kiln sites.

“Death is death, as we say in Raqqa” declares Aziz, claiming he has gone beyond fear in his fight against the jihadists. Yet it is clear, as the film follows its four main members of RBSS, that their constant battle to report ISIS atrocities has taken its toll on all of them, as they chain-smoke to settle their nerves and steady their shakes. The opening scenes, juxtaposing the high glitz of the New York awards ceremony with horrific shots of decapitated bodies in Raqqa, capture this well, exposing the gulf between the two worlds. A female US photographer tries to shoot photos of Hamoud, the RBSS photographer, urging him to smile for the camera: “You’re so serious, my friend!” she exclaims.

As the film moves back to Syria, it charts the heady days of the 2011 Revolution with its singing and peaceful demonstrations. “After forty years of Assad, we started to scream for freedom,” Aziz recalls, and the footage moves to Dera’a where “the deaths of fifteen children were the spark that ignited revolution”. He explains how he had no political background before then, and how his father, well-aware what would happen, warns him to stay away from journalism.

The film’s main focus throughout is the danger to the men as activists, a shared danger which deepens their bonds of friendship. As ISIS seeks to silence them, and as their colleagues and family members start to be assassinated, they decide to leave for Turkey’s Gaziantep, assuming it will be safe to continue their work from there. But ISIS is not so easily deterred and their co-founder and mentor Naji Jerf is shot in broad daylight on the city’s streets. The intimate scenes shot at his funeral are among the most moving in the entire film.

Naji Jerf funeral

Some of the activists, including Aziz, are then granted expedited visas, immediate refugee status and free housing by the German government. Only Muhammad, a maths teacher, is married. His wife Rose is the sole female character to appear, and the film now shows footage of them all enjoying snowball fights in Berlin juxtaposed with surreal videos from Raqqa of casual street executions carried out by young ISIS recruits, their victims’ heads impaled on public railings. Mass destruction of satellite dishes is secretly filmed as ISIS cracks down on their activities, determined to cut them off from the world. Safely in Germany, they all suffer from survivors’ guilt. Hamoud, a self-described introvert, watches the video of his father’s assassination, posted online by ISIS, to “give me strength.” Meanwhile the friends experience the harsh reality of a Pegida anti-immigrant rally with heavily tattooed Germans chanting “One-way ticket to Turkey! Deport them!” Aziz is offered German police protection, from ISIS and from Pegida, but refuses it, feeling he cannot accept a protection that his friends lack.

A clear sense is given of how ISIS’s own films and propaganda material has become more professional through recruitment of media specialists, using Hollywood-style special effects to boost membership, making the ISIS lifestyle seem like a glorified video game. “Why play it online when you can play it for real?” reflects Aziz.

What the film does not explain is why ISIS chose Raqqa in the first place. They borrowed the black banner of the Abbasids, but their choice was much shrewder than their awareness of the city’s former glory. The last fifty years of Assad rule left Raqqa’s population neglected and exploited. Its poor and disadvantaged population, ripe with resentment and hatred of the regime, made it fertile ISIS recruiting ground. It is the only place in all of Syria where I have had stones thrown at me as a westerner. The takeover by a handful of extremists of an insignificant provincial backwater was considered unimportant by Assad, so his forces made no attempt to displace the ISIS fighters who first appeared in the city in early 2013. It was a bad miscalculation. The regime did not understand that Raqqa’s strategic location on the Euphrates,

Raqqa Euphrates banks

downstream from Syria’s largest reservoir Lake Assad, and the main hydro-electric dam at Tabqa, together with its proximity to the country’s oil and gas fields, would give the pretender caliphate a disproportionate stranglehold on Syria’s infrastructure from the start. This part of Syria, well-watered, fertile, cotton and wheat-rich, should be the wealthiest in the country, but Bashar al-Assad’s regime, unlike his father’s, has always been urban-focussed, treating the assets of the provinces like possessions to be milked as if they belonged to his personal farm.

The film ends with a warning. In his speech to the assembled New York glitterati, Aziz explains that the conditions and structural problems in Syrian society which enabled the rise of ISIS are still there. Even if their territory is lost, he reads in halting English from his script, their ideology will continue to find supporters among the brutalised and unemployed youth with nothing to lose. When Hamoud becomes a father in Germany (his wife is invisible) the responsibility changes everything for him: “I don’t want my child to struggle like me without a father.” He names his new-born son after his assassinated father, and footage moves from the German hospital where the naked baby gurgles and kicks, to a chilling scene showing Raqqa’s Caliphate Cubs chanting death slogans. A child barely older than a toddler uses a huge knife to saw the head off a startlingly white teddy-bear, then beams, holding up the head triumphantly for the camera and squealing Allahu Akbar on cue.

To recover from such barbarity I recommend a visit to the glass displays of London’s V&A Museum. Gaze at the exquisitely delicate Raqqa perfume bottles, and ponder the fall of such a city, which in happier times centuries ago was known for its beautiful artisanal creations, its earth-changing scientific inventions, its multicultural environment and its magnificent summer palaces – all fostered by an enlightened, outward-looking Islamic state.

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Exquisite glass perfume bottles made in Raqqa, displayed in London’s V&A Museum (DD)

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Syria’s ‘Lourdes’ – the other Saydnaya

Saydnaya pilgrimage

The US State Department has just released satellite images of what they say is a crematorium at Saydnaya prison, built in 2013 to burn the bodies of prisoners who were starved or tortured to death. Saydnaya, in the Qalamoun Mountains just 26km north of the capital Damascus, is one of the Assad regime’s most notorious prisons, long used to detain and silence political opponents. According to a report by Amnesty International published in February 2017, between 5,000 and 13,000 prisoners have been executed at Saydnaya prison since the conflict began in March 2011. Most will have been Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of those opposing Assad, but body cremation is not permitted in Islam, so mass graves are the usual way of disposing of the dead. Such niceties are irrelevant however when the intention is to destroy the evidence.

As all Syrians and former visitors to Syria know, Saydnaya has a namesake. While the prison is tucked away out of sight, standing in full view on the hillside at an altitude of 1,650m is the Greek Orthodox Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya. The Syrian ‘Lourdes’, it is the second-holiest pilgrimage site for Greek Orthodox Christians after Jerusalem, famed for its holy relic, an icon of the Virgin Mary reputedly painted by St Luke, and credited with miraculous powers.

Saydnaya convent, St Luke grotto

The devout, Muslim and Christian, mainly women, come to the convent’s inner shrine sanctum to be blessed by the holy oil said to ooze from the icon and to seek cures for illnesses and disabilities. The gift shop sells trinkets that sometimes show the blending of the two religions, such as a Madonna and Child inside a Hand of Fatima – a double dose of blessings.

The current war has left the buildings unscathed – except for a missile which crashed through the wall early on but never exploded, blamed by the regime on the rebels and by the rebels on the regime – but earlier wars and earthquakes have necessitated many rebuildings over the centuries. Saladin’s sister was said to have visited many times, making generous donations. The convent today dates from a hotchpotch of periods, a new part added whenever a large donation permits. Among the most recent is a wing added thanks to a donation made in 1958 by an American couple from Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

Saydnaya Convent

Like nearby Ma’aloula, the town of Saydnaya still boasts residents who speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, dominant language in the Near East from the 4th to the 6th centuries and the most important language of the eastern Roman Empire after Greek. It gradually gave way to Arabic after the 7th century Islamic conquest, but is still used as the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Classified by UNESCO as a ‘definitely endangered’ language, the most famous Aramaic words are those spoken by Christ on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?” – My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? A question many trapped inside Saydnaya Prison must, tragically, be asking today.

Saydnaya prison

Relevant articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39926914

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38885901

Syria: From “beautiful little babies” to “beautiful big safe zones”?

metrograb: A devastated father has been pictured cradling the bo

Russian state television has not been showing pictures of the victims, lifeless or still writhing, which have been flooding Western media channels since the sarin gas attack of April 4 on Khan Sheikhoun, a town between Aleppo and Hama. After all, Russia is supposed to be the guarantor of the deal under which President Assad of Syria signed up to the international treaty banning chemical weapons. Under threat of US military action, he quickly agreed to the removal and destruction of his stockpile, declared at 1,300 tonnes of chemical agents including sarin.

The deal was hailed as a great success. The international community congratulated itself on the historic Russian/American cooperation. That was back in 2013 after Obama’s notoriously illusory “red line” was crossed by the Syrian regime dropping sarin on the agricultural eastern Ghoutasuburb of Damascus. 1,500 died overnight. Only twice in history had sarin been used before this week: first in Halabja by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds in 1988, the second in Japan in 1995 by a new religious movement on the Tokyo subway. There have been nine recorded chemical weapons attacks in Syria this year alone, but this is the first where the agent has been sarin as opposed to chlorine, mustard or phosphorus. This time around 100 were killed, most dying from suffocation before they reachedhospital. Doctors Without Borders confirmed the signs – constricted pupils, muscle spasms and involuntary defecation – as have autopsies carried out by WHO and OPCW officials on corpses rushed to Turkey. Israeli and British intelligence report that the attack was ordered at “the highest levels” of the Assad regime. It comes hard on the heels of a spate of documentaries about the “disappeared” in his prisons and the decision of a Spanish court, last week, to file a case against some of his top officials for war crimes.

RT-syria-ml-170405_4x3_992 sarin victim 4 April 2017

Sarin is not easy to manufacture, say the chemical weapons experts. If, as the Assad regime claims, Isis or al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have the capability to manufacture it, why have they not used it, given they are not known for their restraint? The sarin is likely to be from old stockpiles not surrendered – 200 tonnes’ worth is the current OPCW estimate. Anyone who knows the Assad regime and how it operates can assume that it held some back as a “contingency”.

Khan Sheikhoun is in Idlib Province where the rebels and their families, all labelled “terrorists”, have been herded into a giant corral awaiting their extermination. It was the option they chose after being forcibly evacuated from areas like Homs, Darayya and most recently Aleppo and Wadi Barada under what the regime calls “reconciliation” deals. Almost everyone rejected the alternative on offer – to rejoin the regime and face a similar fate, but this time as cannon fodder for their own side. Madaya, Zabadani and Douma are next in line. So many of the victims are among the newly displaced that not all their identities have yet been established. Idlib has been targeted so heavily and for so long that its medical supplies were utterly unequipped to deal with something of this scale. Already there are rumours of a mass offensive on Idlib Province planned by the Assad regime, backed by Russia from the air and the Shia militias of Iran, Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah on the ground. The sarin attack is thought to have been conceived as a “softening-up” of the rebels in advance of this offensive. Dropping a sarin bomb is a way of extracting an early surrender, just as the US dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese to end the Second World War.

Trump

But it is Trump who has stunned the world with the speed of his reaction. Up to now his policy has been that strongmen are the best thing for the Middle East, to keep extremism at bay. Overnight he has swung US policy from tolerance of Assad to outright attack, launching fifty-nine cruise missiles from US warships in the eastern Mediterranean. The target, totally destroyed, was the Shayrat airbase near Homs from which the sarin attack was launched. Six Syrian soldiers were killed. He has done some “softening-up” of his own.

What next? Will he make good on “beautiful big safe zones”? Does he have plans for one in the huge swathe of Syria’s eastern desert that will fall to the West when Isis is driven out of Raqqa?  Or in the north along the Turkish border, something the Turks have been calling for since the summer of 2011? He could take out all Syria’s air bases in a matter of days if he wanted to. He would not target the Russian base at Hmeimim, Lattakia, leased in January of this year to Russia for forty-nine years, extendable for another twenty-five. No short-termism there. But Russians embedded in Assad’s bases, as advisers, engineers and even as contracted mercenaries, could still be killed, just as some were in the recent coalition bombing of Deir ez-Zor.

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The Americans have already intervened in favour of the PYD (Syrian) Kurds, using them as their preferred ally over Turkey to lead the fight against Raqqa, the Isis capital. The Kurds have also been courted by the Russians, granted an office in Moscow, in the full knowledge that through them Russia might gain a valuable land bridge from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. Turkey is determined to block Kurdish ambitions for autonomy, fearing the consequences for its own restive Kurdish population in southeast Anatolia. One in five Turks is a Kurd, a balance that is tilted in Kurdish favour through ongoing high birth rates. For a short time it looked as if President Erdoğan had given up on his long-held policy of ridding Syria of Assad, but after the sarin attack he has reverted, declaring: “Hey, the world that remains silent, the UN that remains silent. How will you be brought to account for this? Hey, murderer Assad, how are you going to escape their [the victims’] curse?”

Timings are never random in the Assad regime. The fact that the strike came the day before the EU conference on reconstructing Syria is no accident. Assad was pushing the boundaries, laughing at the world’s impotence and revelling in his own immunity. The Brussels conference was planning to kick-start reconstruction quickly, hoping the promise of funding would lure him into reforms. Any attempt to rehabilitate Assad and “reward” him for his war crimes will simply be like a sticking plaster to cover a running sore. While short-sighted European governments looking for a quick fix may see this as the answer for tomorrow, it will not be the answer for next week. If reconstruction contracts flow in from Europe and the UN organizations via the Assad regime through the usual corrupt channels to enrich and favour regime-held areas, the same corrupt cycle will repeat itself in Syria as it did so tragically for the exploited people of Somalia and South Sudan.  Assad’s budget is heavily dependent on UN and international NGO aid, much of which disappears into companies affiliated with Assad’s relations, as investigative journalists have shown. If the gap between rich and poor, urban and countryside, a major trigger of the 2011 uprising in the first place, is allowed to get worse, the result will be more extremism, more refugees and more terrorism, leading inevitably to more destabilization in Europe.

It has always been delusional to think that Assad could be part of the solution to the future of Syria – the best outcome from this sarin attack would be that his arrogance has derailed his own rehabilitation. That at least would be a first step in the right direction. Meanwhile Trump’s decisive action will stop sarin attacks from becoming the new normal in the Middle East.

This article first appeared on the TLS website 7 April 2017:

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/sarin-attack-trump-assad/

Related:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/29/un-pays-tens-of-millions-to-assad-regime-syria-aid-programme-contracts

UNHCR tents used by regime as base for Assad election posters 2014

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/donald-trump-full-statement-syria-missile-strikes-170407061519587.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39529264

Lessons from Lebanon’s Tyre: waiting for a parallel miracle in Syria

IMG_20170120_120631Lebanon’s southernmost city of Tyre once drew crowds of tourists to visit its magnificent marble Roman remains. Today, sitting on the grandstand steps of its colossal World Heritage status hippodrome, there is only the Shi’a call to prayer for company.

IMG_20170120_111905Wars and inter-communal battles between Muslims, Christians and Jews over the border in Israel meant it was for decades a no-go area, off-limits even for most Lebanese. The Foreign Office coloured it “red” on their Travel Advice website. But now it has turned green.

The fame of the ancient port, birthplace of Queen Dido, was built on colour – a royal dye, known as Tyrian purple, made from local murex shells. Its native Phoenicians, astute navigators and merchants, set sail in their celebrated cedar wood boats in search of fortune, founding new colonies like Carthage and Cadiz on the Mediterranean and Atlantic shores, just as today’s Lebanese have left in droves to seek more stable commercial opportunities abroad, often in America.

There are four times as many Lebanese outside the country as there are inside. Most have retained strong ties through frequent visits and remittances. The offices of money transfer companies like Western Union and OMT are everywhere.

Now the new Lebanese government wants to lure them, their brains and their investment back. Adverts have been running on US TV aimed at top Lebanese businessmen, telling them: “Lebanon is calling, I’m back on my feet again. Home is waiting.” Some are answering the call, and in Tyre a handful of boutique hotels have opened, anticipating new arrivals.

So what has changed in Lebanon’s mood music, and why? The answer is simple – the various communities have tired of war and decided to focus instead on rebuilding their economy together.

Tyre, known in Arabic as Sour, feels calm these days. A tangible cooperation has grown up between its Christian and Muslim residents. Last year a dazzling white statue of the Virgin Mary was erected in the picturesque harbour. She rises above the wooden boats and nets, arms outstretched as if to bless the city’s predominantly Muslim fishermen.

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Christmas is celebrated for 40 days, so a huge Christmas tree still stands on the corniche. and festive red poinsettias hang from porches.

IMG_20170120_130019Alcohol is freely available in restaurants and grocery stores; scarlet underwear hugs lurid female mannequins in shop windows, alongside fashion outlets selling full-length loose black Islamic gowns and headscarves.

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The Christian Evangelical School includes Muslim staff and pupils, while across the street a Shi’a mosque is under construction. Muslim charity boxes on the main street invite donations for orphans, the poor and disabled. The enthusiastic congregation at the cathedral of the Maronite Archbishopric sings melodically in Syriac, ending each prayer with “Aameen”. The pews are strewn with colourful cards marking a week of prayer for church unity, saying in Arabic “Our Beloved Messiah urges us towards reconciliation.”

IMG_20170128_094631

Heaven knows Lebanon desperately needs reconciliation. In its complex 15-year civil war nearly every faction allied with and subsequently betrayed every other faction at least once. There are 18 officially recognised sects, five of them Muslim, 13 of them Christian, making Lebanon the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East.

But after a dangerous political vacuum of nearly three years, Lebanon has now formed a national unity government, where all the communities are represented – and the former warlords, too. An anti-corruption minister has been appointed. The top priority is to decide a budget, the first since 2005. All parties have realised that to prosper, they need each other.

And anyway genetic studies have shown that the populations of Syria and Lebanon – Muslim and Christian alike – mostly share the same Phoenician DNA.

A short drive into the hills above Tyre the village of Qana – 83% Shi’ite – is claimed as the site of Christ’s first miracle, the Marriage at Cana, where the water was turned into wine. It has a pristine pilgrimage grotto complete with souvenir shop and vast car park, opened jointly by the Christian President and the Shi’ite leader.

IMG_20170121_094002But there is also a reminder of recent conflict. Nearby, a well-tended Shi’a cemetery marks the spot where 28 people, many of them children, were killed in an Israeli airstrike in July 2006. The photos of the dead are still displayed.

IMG_20170121_102217IMG_20170121_102537Since then, 15,000 UN troops from 40 countries have helped keep the peace.

In some future miracle, maybe it could be Syria’s turn to change from “red” to “green”. All parties would surely say a heartfelt “Amen” – or “Aameen” – to that.

[All photos copyright Diana Darke 2017]

This article was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent on 16 February 2017:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dr5r2

(starts at 11.40 minutes in)

 

Syria conflict – the biblical river at the heart of the Damascus water war

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The Roman aqueduct system is still visible in the cliffs of the Wadi Barada gorge (2011, DD)

The flashpoint for Syria’s war, six years old this March, took the form in recent weeks of an elemental struggle over water. Drinking water to some 5 million residents in the Syrian capital Damascus was cut on 23 December by the Damascus Water Authority, blaming diesel contamination of the supply by the rebels.

The historic water source of Ain al-Fijeh lies in a valley 18km northwest of the capital in Wadi Barada, where a cluster of 13 villages has been under rebel control since 2012. Local people joined the revolution early in protest against government neglect, corruption and land grabs made legal under new state land measures, where whole hillsides were requisitioned for sports clubs and luxury hotels.

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The hillsides of Wadi Barada, with a Roman quarry in the bottom left (2011, DD)

On 22 December the Assad government, using barrel bombs dropped from helicopters and supported on the ground by Lebanese Shi’a militia fighters of Hezbollah, began a campaign to take control of the strategic valley and springs. The timing was significant, just days before the announcement of the countrywide ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey on 29 December.

The Barada Gorge was cut through the Anti-Lebanon Mountains geological eons ago by the Barada river, which still runs through the centre of Damascus. Today it is just a shadow of its former self, diminished for most of the year by drought and pollution to a dirty trickle by the time it reaches the city-centre. But in earlier times it was the source of the city’s legendary fertility, and the reason for its location in an oasis of gardens and orchards known as the Ghouta. The river was and still is fed by the melt waters of Mount Hermon, Syria’s highest peak. Mentioned no less than 15 times in the Bible, it retains its snow-capped summit till early June. The amount of snowfall in winter is a direct indication of how much water Damascus will have throughout the year.

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The distant snows of Mt Hermon, seen from Damascus rooftops (2011, DD)

The Barada, the ancient Abana, was supplemented through seven further rivers whose course was diverted by means of elaborate channels as far back as Roman times. Guided by aqueducts into the centre of Damascus, the city was fed by a complex network of waterways and channels that allowed water to flow in and out of every house. Sophisticated Ottoman water distribution points throughout the city also allocated water in agreed quantities to the public bathhouses, mosque ablution areas and public drinking fountains. Even today most houses have a special drinking tap in their kitchen directly connected to the spring.

In high summer families would come to Wadi Barada on Fridays and holidays, often renting a riverside platform for the day. Rigged up as tent awnings open only onto the river side, they formed an idyllic private arbour where families could relax, enjoying the coolness of the fast-flowing river. Little iron ladders were fixed onto the platforms, so that children could climb down and swim.

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A swimming platform and ladder used by picnicing families along the river (2011, DD)

In the 16th century it was along the banks of the Barada river on the outskirts of Damascus that the first coffee houses grew up. Pilgrims would be assembling, waiting for the annual Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca to set off in one huge joint caravan, protection in numbers from raiding desert tribesmen. Many engravings from the 19th century show scenes of coffee houses on the banks of the brimming Barada.

Near the village of Souq Wadi Barada, huge gaping holes in the cliff above can be still be scrambled into. They are part of the original Roman water system, elaborate tunnels cut into the rock conducting the melt-waters into the aqueducts of Damascus.

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Wadi Barada’s ancient Roman aqueduct system, cut into the cliff, to guide water from Ain Fijeh to Damascus (2011, DD)

Sections of the old Roman road between Baalbek and Damascus, inscriptions in Greek, the official language, and in Latin, the language of the soldiers, can still be seen, describing how the road was rebuilt higher up to avoid destruction by flooding.

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A Latin inscription above the Roman road in Wadi Barada connecting Damascus to Baalbek (2011, DD)

For Hezbollah too the battle is a geographical one. They regard this area as their backyard, connected to their Baalbek stronghold in Lebanon. They have been determined to take it, along with the Qalamoun Mountains a little further north, to ensure total control of this area which they see as vital to their and their sponsor Iran’s strategic interests, part of their Shi’a Crescent linking Tehran to the Mediterranean.

The Syrian government claimed there were fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) present in Wadi Barada, to justify its ongoing campaign, since that group was excluded from the countrywide ceasefire. Local residents have always insisted there were only ever Free Syrian Army moderates present in the valley.

After two attempts at local ceasefires failed and the key mediator was killed in a targeted assassination, the battle continued for a month, till the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah ally shelled the valley into submission. Under a deal, some fighters were permitted to leave for rebel-held Idlib province in the north. Others were permitted to stay if they agreed to join Assad’s army. Russian media says the repairs to the Ain Fijeh water source are nearly complete and Damascus’s drinking water will soon be restored after nearly eight weeks of shortages where the residents had to use wells or bottled water.

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Syrian soldiers reclaiming the source of the spring at Ain Fijeh, Wadi Barada 29 January 2017 (Sputnik News)

Each side continues to blame the other.

Since both UN monitors and Russian officials were denied access to the area by Hezbollah checkpoints, the truth remains hidden – as so often in Syria – behind the fog of war, or in this case, beneath the waters of the Barada.

This article is an updated version of this BBC feature which first appeared on 8 January 2017 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38532338

On 14 March 2017 the UN published a report confirming that the Ain al-Fijeh spring was deliberately bombed by the Syrian air force:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39266213

Other related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38782935

https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/01/04/wadi-barada-happened-damascuss-water/

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/syrian-army-captures-wadi-barada-170129131830656.html

https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/201702071050429093-wadi-barada-damascus-water-supply/

 

 

Advice to Donald Trump – do Marshall Plan-style deals in Syria and the wider Middle East

trump

The multibillionaire businessman who is shortly to become President of the United States of America is an ace deal-maker. Since his shock victory in the elections of 8 November the world has wondered how on earth this larger-than-life figure who has never before held political office will handle the complex challenges of the Middle East where wars are destabilising entire nations, leading to refugee exodus, extremism and terrorism. Trump has yet to appoint his Secretary of State, the person who will take over from Obama’s man John Kerry, whose valiant efforts have so far failed to secure peace in the Middle East on any front.

My advice to Trump, based on a lifetime’s living and working in the Middle East, most notably of late in Syria, where I still own my courtyard house in the Old City of Damascus, is to play to his own strengths – and the region’s – and combine them to mutual advantage.

His own deal-maker abilities are legendary, but so are those of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel – the area which for 400 years under the Ottoman Turks was known as ‘Greater Syria’.  Located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, these communities have always been outward-looking, open to trading opportunities from east, west, north and south. The very identity of these countries has been shaped by their engagement in commerce and deals. Across the centuries as civilisation after civilisation crisscrossed the terrain, some stayed and settled, leading to a society that is multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic. The merchants and businessmen in the Middle East are actually the true power holders, not the politicians or the armed forces.

What he should do therefore, in my view, when he becomes President on 20 January 2017, is to devise a massive Marshall Plan-style deal for the Middle East from which everyone will benefit. Negotiations will be tough and complex as to who gets what, just as they were in 1947 with the Marshall Plan. It described itself as “An Act to promote world peace and the general welfare, mutual interest and the foreign policy of the United States through economic, financial and other measures necessary to the maintenance of conditions abroad in which free institutions may survive and consistent with the maintenance of the strength and stability of the United States.” In other words, entirely consistent with his “Make America great again” slogan, while simultaneously solving many of the world’s destabilising foreign policy crises. Sometimes called “The European Recovery Plan”, the Marshall Plan, named after then Secretary of State General George Marshall, the fund of $12 billion (equivalent today to roughly $120 billion), was administered over a four-year period. It rebuilt regions devastated by war, removed trade barriers, modernised industry, dropped regulations, encouraged increased productivity and the adoption of proper business procedures.

The Trump administration would not need to start from scratch. It could cooperate with the 1,000-strong team already in Beirut working on  a project called the “National Agenda for the Future of Syria.” Under the auspices of the United Nations’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, a team of regional experts including civil engineers, agricultural specialists, architects, water experts, conservationists, hospital administrators, traffic coordinators and more, is planning for “Day One”, when the fighting ends. Their Deputy Executive Secretary, Abdullah al-Dardari, was till 2011 the Deputy Prime Minister of Syria for Economic Affairs and Minister for Planning, a highly skilled and dedicated man, and the work is apolitical, designed to be implemented irrespective of who the future political masters may be.

440px-abdallah_dardari

Thierry Grandin, consultant to the World Monuments Fund, describes their work, saying: “It is good to do the planning now, because on day one we will be ready. It might come in a year, it might come in 20, but eventually there will be a day one. Our job is to prepare.”

In Iran a similar approach could be adopted. A policy expert in the US is reported as saying Trump is so unpredictable “he could open hotels in Iran or go to war with Iran.”

Iran has an acute accommodation shortage and cannot meet demand for the new surge in tourism that followed the dropping of US sanctions. Doing deals to build hotels – something Trump has plenty of experience in – would be an ideal way to maintain good relations with Iran.

What a turn-up it would be if Trump could harness his business acumen to steer the ultimate deal for peace in Syria and the wider Middle East that no politician before him has achieved. Maybe I am a hopeless dreamer, but that really would be a deal to remember.

Relevant articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38086933

https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/02/21/daring-plan-rebuild-syria-matter-who-wins-war/oD5IxhqveGjfPQryW6q3OJ/story.html

http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/264225/trumps-marshall-plan-inner-city-kids-matthew-vadum

http://sa-news.com/trump-said-africa-should-be-recolonised-now-germany-announces-marshall-plan-to-rescue-africa/

 

Syria’s Cultural Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen a country has been at war for over five years, it might seem natural to assume that all cultural life is suspended. In the case of Syria, this is far from true. But just as with the war itself, there are many levels and layers to be unravelled, and the definitions of “culture” vary according to who, and where, you are.

In the areas firmly under the control of the Syrian government, the Assad regime has, from the start, kept to a “business as usual” narrative. In September 2016 Damascus boasted several “cultural” events on its SANA (Syrian state media) website under the title of “Arts and Culture”, including the“St Ephrem the Syrian Patriarchal Choir”, staging a performance at Al-Thawra Sports stadium (al-thawra means “revolution” in Arabic – not the current revolution of course but the Ba’athist revolution of 1963 which ultimately brought Hafez al-Assad to power). Christian events like this are always high on the agenda since the Syrian government is keen to project itself as the “protector of the minorities”, who then give their loyalty in return.  There was also the twenty-eighth Book Fair at Al-Assad National Library – “beyond disappointing” was the comment of one hopeful Syrian who visited but who wishes to remain anonymous, “we cannot fool ourselves”.

Dar al-Assad (the Damascus opera house) still holds concerts, music festivals, cinema screenings and poetry readings in its three halls, the largest of which seats 1,200 people. In April 2014 it was struck by a mortar and closed briefly. Fewer than half of its employees and musicians remain, the other half having either fled or been conscripted. Prices have been slashed to increase audience size. Many Syrians might question whether “culture” is the right word for such contrived and unreal occasions, when “propaganda” might be closer to the truth, but many would also acknowledge the strong public desire to keep the wheel of life turning.

dar-al-assad

Beyond Damascus, other festivals have also been held across the summer in the government-held areas on the Mediterranean coast, such as Tartous and Safita, while at the village of Ma’aloula in the Qalamoun Mountains, north of the capital, a widely publicized song festival was held in Aramaic to preserve the language of Christ – another example of the government showcasing support for minorities.

Even in Aleppo, divided between the regime-held west and rebel-held east, the population remains highly receptive to cultural events. In fact the need for them is arguably greater than in Damascus as people seek respite from the horrors of daily life. Abdul Halim Hariri, a sixty-year-old violinist, feels it is more important than ever to run theatre performances and festivals for filmmakers in defiance of the political situation. “We have turned our anger and sorrow into a source of music”, he says, echoing the widely held sentiment that war can drive creativity, as people struggle to prove they are still human despite the inhumanity that surrounds them. Abdul Halim holds his concerts “for young people who are lost. I also wanted to show through art that Aleppo is still united and that its thought is still progressive and civilised . . . as soon as the war is over, Aleppo will be reunited. Aleppo citizens don’t hate each other. Their life is love and intertwined”. Audiences for his concerts, a mix of classical and traditional pieces, have been huge, with hundreds gathering inside the theatre and hundreds outside, even as mortars fall, and despite the fact that many musicians, including Abdul Halim’s own son, have now left.

During the holy month of Ramadan, soap operas, musalsalat, grip audiences in all Arab countries, and Syrian soaps are generally the most popular – one of the country’s most prized exports, especially to the Gulf. In 2010 no fewer than forty soaps were made by Syrian television production companies, but the number has now dropped to less than half that because so many actors and producers have left the country. One of the most popular, Bab al-Hara, depicts life in a Damascus quarter of the Old City under the French Mandate of the 1920s and 1930s. Rife with political digs and overtones, it has just completed its eighth season, but Syrians outside the country, such as the actress Sawsan Arsheed, the actor and theatrical director Maher Sleibi, and the director Abdulrahman Dandashi, say the regime is increasingly using such soaps to promote its own version of the crisis, to distort the image of the moderate opposition, portraying them all as armed terrorists and radical Islamists.

bab-al-hara-6

In rebel-held parts of the country, the lack of infrastructure makes life very difficult, with limited electricity, water, cooking gas or fuel. Yet even there, in areas like the Idlib countryside, culture is flourishing. Though they do not have the financial means needed to produce competing TV dramas, local people have started their own radio channels such as Radio Fresh (recently closed down by extremists for employing a woman), and internet channels such as SouriaLi (a clever play on words meaning both “Syria is mine” and “surreally”).

In the Damascus suburb of Darayya, subjected to a “starve or surrender” siege for over four years and now forcibly evacuated since its fall in August, the local residents established a secret library deep underground with over 14,000 books, including poetry, plays and novels in Arabic, French and English. It was hugely popular with children out of school reading to their mothers, doctors and dentists looking for academic or technical handbooks, and even Free Syrian Army soldiers taking a supply to the frontline with them. Particular favourites were books about earlier rebellions, such as those by the Syrian author Al-Tantawi. “We read about how in the past everyone turned their backs on a particular nation, yet they still made it”, says Omar Abu Anas, a former engineering student. “So we can be like that too. Books motivate us to keep us going. They help us plan for life once Assad is gone. We want to be a free nation. And hopefully, by reading, we can achieve that.”

secret-library-darayya-summer-2016

Many of the library users were students whose studies had been interrupted. “In a sense,” says Adbulbaset al-Ahmar, a former student in his mid-twenties who discovered Shakespeare and especially Hamletthanks to the books in it, “the library gave me back my life. It’s helped me to meet others more mature than me, people who I can discuss issues with and learn things from. I would say that just like the body needs food, the soul needs books. I believe the brain is like a muscle. And reading has definitely made mine stronger. My enlightened brain has now fed my soul too.”

The fate of this secret library is currently unknown.

Russian and Iranian tentacles dig deeper into Syria

lattakia-beaches-and-hotel-august-2015-holiday-beach-resort-near-tartous

Recent days have seen increasing evidence of both Russia and Iran, the key supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus-based regime, consolidating their military occupation of Syria. Their clear intention is to make it impossible for their interests to be displaced from those parts of the country that matter to them, namely Damascus and the two corridors that connect first west to Lebanon and Hezbollah and then northwest via Homs to the Tartous and Lattakia provinces on the Mediterranean.

Russia has its naval base at Tartous and its airbase at Hmeimim south of Lattakia, converted from the former Basil al-Assad airport, from which it flies all its sorties Aleppo and the rest of the country.

russia-flag-and-bashar

New infrastructure is being built around the airbase  to accommodate Russian servicemen. Now it has been announced that Russian companies will be investing in Syria’s electricity and tourism industries in Tartous and Lattakia provinces, by setting up electrical generators and supplying houses and factories direct according to their needs. Syrian contractors had sought to do the same in the past but were turned down. Russian-financed hotels and chalets are being built along the coast near Jableh and Lattakia and in the summer hill resorts of Slunfeh and Kasab, as well as Qardaha, Assad’s home village, as part of the tourism drive which is seeking to draw visitors under the slogan “Syria Always Beautiful”. Exact locations are decided based on recommendations from Assad’s security services and the presidential palace. Bit by bit Syria is being sold off to Putin’s Russian mafia friends, while Syrian investors are being frozen out.

Meanwhile in Damascus Iran is making sure its interests are secured, the latest announcement being a new “coordination office” ostensibly to bring together the Sunni and Shia ideologies, but financed by Iran and located in the dominantly Shi’a quarter of Al-Amin in the walled Old City. Under Bashar al-Assad’s presidency an unprecedented 15 Iranian seminaries have been set up inside Syria, now with over 5,000 Shi’a students mainly from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. The first public Shi’a rituals took place in Damascus in 2005 with the “Kerbala March” along the main Old City artery of Medhat Basha, the biblical Street Called Straight. The spread of Shi’ism in Syria however goes back to Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad when the first Shi’a seminary was set up in 1976 near the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Midan, south Damascus, still the most important Shi’a shrine in the country. Its founder, one Hassan Mehdi al-Shirazi who had fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1975, made himself useful to Hafez al-Assad by issuing a fatwa that “every Shi’ite is an Alawite doctrinally and every Alawite is a Shi’ite in ideology.”

sayyida-zainab

With every week that passes, Syria is being sold off to the regime’s supporters. Russia and Iran are digging their tentacles deeper and deeper into Syrian soil, even altering the local demographic in their favour by resettling their own people in areas evacuated under “starve or surrender” sieges, as in Homs and Darayya.

Cushioned by Russian and Iranian support, Assad sleeps well in his bed while the West, the UN and the international community express righteous “outrage” at the bombing of aid convoys but little else. They are powerless to change the dynamic on the ground, leaving ordinary Syrians in despair that their country can ever return to the single entity that it was pre-2011.

Relevant articles:

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/31646/New_Stage_Submission_Lattakia_Electricity_Coastal_Tourism_Russian_Custody/

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/31645/Damascus_Iranian_Operations_Room_Spread_Shiism/

Vladimir Putin resurrects the KGB

http://europe.newsweek.com/russia-plans-permanent-naval-base-syria-tartus-tension-airstrikes-508436?rm=eu

http://www.syria-report.com/news/economy/iran-visit-seeks-enhance-bilateral-business-ties

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/31800/Ashoura_Damascus_Publications_Farsi_Children_Flogging_Selves_Streets/

 

 

 

 

 

Aleppo, the endgame

APSA Aleppo-souk-AFPGetty-Feb201

Syria’s civil war came late to Aleppo. It was July 2012. But after four years of bitter bloodshed between its regime-held west and rebel east, the beating heart of Syria’s commercial and industrial capital has entered cardiac arrest. The Castello Road, last rebel artery north towards the Turkish border, has been choked off by President Assad’s forces backed by Russian air support, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian government militia. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last month  declared Syria’s “real, strategic, greatest battle is in Aleppo and the surrounding area.”

Aleppo is no stranger to sieges – there have been at least eight recorded across its turbulent history. But this one promises to last longer than all the others put together.

Many of the 400,000 unfortunates trapped inside expect to suffocate and slowly starve as extortionately-priced food, medicine and fuel supplies are systematically blocked. Some will die before then from the Syrian and Russian government barrel-bombing. Latterly supplemented by incendiary cluster munitions burning to 2,500 Centigrade, the bombers are steadily eradicating schools, hospitals and markets from above with impunity. Months of such punishment lie ahead for Aleppo, as the stage is prepared for the Syrian endgame, a game the rebels look doomed to lose, along with their entire anti-Assad revolution.

Aleppo’s dramas have gone largely unnoticed by Europe and the West, preoccupied with their own dramas closer to home – the Nice attacks, the US shootings, the Turkish coup attempt, the Brexit fallout. Last week’s OPCW report accused the Syrian government of failing to declare its stocks of sarin and other illegal warfare agents for the Russian-brokered 2013 chemical weapons deal: it raised barely a murmur in the western media.

Broken promises

Syria’s moderate opposition groups have suffered years of broken promises of support from the international community. Myriad proclamations of “Assad must go” were followed by handwringing from the sidelines. But even the rebels were not prepared for the latest twist that took place in Moscow a few days ago when John Kerry agreed with Sergei Lavrov to coordinate US-Russian military strikes on ISIS and Syria’s Al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

lavrov and kerry

Nusra’s aim has always been to set up Islamic emirates inside Syria, an ideology at odds with Syria’s FSA-linked moderate opposition, yet the two have often found themselves allies of convenience in the fight against Assad. The dynamics of the battlefield are such that, were Nusra to withdraw their military support or be targeted, the FSA rebels would be left even more vulnerable to attack. North of Aleppo they are already battling on three fronts – against ISIS, the Kurds and the Syrian regime. In Aleppo itself there is no ISIS presence and very little Nusra either – yet civilians on the ground do not trust the bombs will stop simply because of the new US-Russian deal.

Destabilising factors

In Turkey the climate is also changing. Heavily destabilised by a series of ISIS and Kurdish PKK attacks, the subsequent collapse of its tourist industry, the absorption since 2011 of two million Syrian refugees and then by last week’s coup attempt, even Turkey, once solidly pro-rebel, is talking of future ‘normalising’ of relations. Like Europe and the US, it has too many problems at home to worry about Syria.

But therein lies the biggest danger. The international community is forgetting that all these destabilising factors – the surge of refugees, the exporting of ISIS terrorism and Jabhat al-Nusra extremism – have been incubating undisturbed inside Syria for the last five years. The link between our inertia and their rise was denied, leaving Syrian civilians little option but to flee. Thousands more will follow once the new US-Russian deal ‘legitimises’ the bombing.

Aleppo is no stranger to refugees. Across the centuries it welcomed many, as has Syria. Some were Christians escaping persecution from fellow Christians in Europe. Aleppo has long been multi-cultural, a complex mix of Kurds, Iranians, Turkmens, Armenians and Circassians overlaid on an Arab base in which multi-denominational churches and mosques still share the space.

While the West obsesses about fighting ISIS and Nusra, this colourful tapestry of Aleppo’s innately tolerant population is being shredded. Despair will inevitably drive some to copy the extremists. If we help stop the fighting, extremism will become impotent and disappear. But if we turn away and leave Aleppo’s wounds to fester, the infection will spread back to us in an even more virulent form.

This article was published on the BBC website 22 July 2016 in the following format:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36853689

Related articles:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-doctors-plea-to-president-obama-please-act-to-save-civilians/2016/07/21/092e081a-4f42-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/27/dozens-dead-in-syria-bomb-blast-qamishli

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/28/syrian-rebels-offered-amnesty-as-regime-tightens-aleppo-siege

 

 

 

 

 

 

The siege of Aleppo – last chapter of Syria’s civil war

APSA Aleppo Souq destruction Picture1Today the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad completed its stranglehold on Aleppo. Its forces cut off and sandbagged the Castello Road, the last road north via which rebel fighters and residents of east Aleppo could escape from the city. Weeks of relentless aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian planes, aided on the ground by Hezbollah fighters and Iranian militias have led up to this point. Hospitals and schools have been savagely targeted. The final chapter of the war has begun. Many Syrians see it as the beginning of the end.

The rebel opposition is in despair after the recent deal struck between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov his Russian counterpart in Moscow. Although the details are being kept under wraps, the consensus is that it involves US-Russian military coordination to target and eliminate Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS elements. This is a particularly difficult pill for the moderate rebel opposition to swallow since Jabhat al-Nusra have consistently been helping them to fight the Assad regime. The US-led coalition has been almost exclusively engaged in fighting ISIS, who in turn have been annihilating the moderate opposition groups. Assad and ISIS, the two extremes in this war, have only rarely fought each other – both extremes know that their real threat comes from the moderate middle.

Friday’s attempted coup in Turkey  will add to rebel despair as it will inevitably lead the Turkish government even further down the road of normalising relations with Bashar al-Assad’s government. Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim just days ago appeared to do a volte-face in its foreign policy towards Syria of the last five years, as it now seeks to stabilise its borders, mend fences with Israel and Russia, and focus its energies instead on its internal threats and troublesome Kurds.

All of this affects us in Europe and the West whether we like it or not. Our failure to challenge Assad’s barbarous barrel-bombing of his own civilian population, our failure to set up a safe zone along the Turkish border, has led to the surge of refugees driven out of Syria with nowhere to go except Europe. The sight of this tide of desperate humanity was too much for most Europeans to deal with. Instead of following the noble example of Germany’s Angela Merkel  in welcoming them, other European countries erected barbed wire fences. Britain voted for Brexit to keep them out, a disgrace that will surely come back to haunt its people and for which history will judge them. Russia’s President Putin is back on top and laughing. Through his intervention in Syria’s war last September to support his faltering protege Assad, he has created waves of new refugees, destabilised Europe and projected himself as a superpower once again. Watch Russian state TV (Freeview channel 135) to see for yourself.

Bashar and Putin virility poster

In Damascus much of Syria’s uprising is conducted underground these days. Tunnel warfare in the suburbs has become the new normal. Residents regularly feel the earth shake but the sounds of battle are muted. In Aleppo on the other hand the battle is all too audible and everyone in Syria knows that Aleppo’s fate, as the country’s second city, will determine the outcome of the war.

We are entering the final chapter, where that once unthinkable outcome, an Assad victory, is beginning to look inevitable. God forgive us.

Relevant articles:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/syrian-troops-cut-rebel-held-parts-aleppo-160717101330517.html

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/17/syrian-regime-troops-besiege-rebel-held-parts-of-aleppo

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/17/rebels-fear-assad-victory-in-syria-as-noose-tightens-around-aleppo

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/13/turkey-pm-greatest-goal-is-to-improve-relations-with-syria-and-iraq

 

 

 

 

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