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Thursday, 30 July 2015

SOS Zabadani


Smoke billows from sites in Zabadani targeted by Hezbollah and Syrian army forces, Saturday, July 4, 2015. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

Urgent appeal from the people of Zabadani to avert massacres and ethno-sectarian cleansing. Please share widely. Via Radio Free Syria.


Appeal to all human rights bodies and to the United Nations Security Council

‪Zabadani‬, ‪Damascus‬ province, 30-07-2015: Assad regime forces have today broadcast the following message from the minarets of mosques in the village of Bloudan and the surrounding area in Qalamoun region of Damascus province.

“On the orders of the Syrian Arab Army, the people of Zabadani now in Bloudan and the surrounding area are ordered to prepare to evacuate their homes and depart to the town of Madaya when requested to do so.”

We wish to emphasize the seriousness of this latest move and its implications and effects.

1. The people of Zabadani who fled to Bloudan and the surrounding area have been there for almost three years, with the areas under the regime’s full control and no clashes in the area.

2. The displacement of the people of Zabadani to Madaya means that they will be confined to a narrow and very densely populated geographic area already populated by a large number of displaced civilians and will be again besieged in an area which is being continuously targeted with barrel bombs by Assad’s warplanes and with heavy artillery bombardment by regime ground forces. The area is also surrounded by regime checkpoints where regime troops are already hunting civilians (men, women and children) from Zabadani, as well as warning them to prepare for a massacre and long-term siege.

3. These moves follow the latest mass displacement of the town of Zabadani, which remains under relentless regime bombardment, leading to the latest exodus of more than 3,000 civilians to Madaya.

4. The number of civilians from Zabadani displaced to Bloudan numbers 12,000, with a further 3,000 in the surrounding area. A further 10,000 were already displaced from Zabadani to the besieged town of Madaya, whose own population is 20,000. Along with the further 3,000 displaced on Wednesday (July 30th, 2015), this will force nearly 48,000 people into the area and under imminent threat of genocide.

5. These threats against the people of Zabadani are the start of the regime’s and its accomplices’ planned ‘demographic change’ which we have warned repeatedly of. This threat to the people is not limited to Sunni Muslims but also includes the town’s Christian and other population, with all the town’s people being driven out in order to ‘cleanse’ the area and prepare for it to be resettled by foreign occupiers.
Accordingly, we call on all international bodies, human rights groups and other concerned parties to intervene and assume their responsibilities towards protecting civilians.

From: Zabadani Council

LINKS

Syria conflict: ‘Unprecedented’ assault on Zabadani, BBC News, 22 July 2015.

U.N. envoy sounds alarm over battle at Syria border, Reuters, 23 July 2015.

Syrian Coalition Sends Letter to the UN Security Council Underscoring the Urgency to Protect Civilians in Zabadani, 23 July 2015.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Six questions about Syria

A guest post by Bob from Brockley

Firt posted here.

What does the Iran deal mean for Syria?

Many liberal and mainstream voices are talking up the "historic" Vienna deal allowing Iran to continue its nuclear proliferation as some kind of "triumph of diplomacy", simply because the two sides actually reached an agreement.

The deal has been welcomed by Bashar al-Assad and greeted with dismay by the Syrian opposition and rebels. The economic benefit to Iran, and relaxation of control on its arms trade, will boost Russia and China's weapons (and fuel) sales to Iran and its proxies. This can only benefit Tehran's Damascus partner, who will reap that benefit in increased firepower and increased finance - which will be felt by the Syrian civilians on whom Assad's bombs fall day by day. Aron Lund spells it out here, and Hassan Hassan here.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Discussing UK policy on ISIS and Syria

By Kellie Strom

Clive Lewis, the new Labour MP for Norwich South, hosted an event last Wednesday at the House of Commons: a discussion with Professor Paul Rogers on UK policy towards ISIS, on whether the UK should expand air strikes against ISIS into Syria, and on what alternative strategies might be of use in fighting ISIS.

Paul Rogers is Global Security Consultant to the Oxford Research Group and Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University.

A reaction to the Tunisia massacre?

The essence of Paul Rogers’ argument was contained in this written briefing which he provided to the meeting. My notes from the meeting are not comprehensive, and not verbatim.

In his talk, Professor Rogers said that he saw the UK government intent to extend air strikes into Syria as a reaction to the Tunisia attack, and that he believed it would be ineffective or counterproductive in combating ISIS. (Note however that prior to the election Conservative ministers declared their wish to expand strikes into Syria.) He described the air war against ISIS to date as more intense than is generally realised, with high numbers killed by Coalition airstrikes, though he said there was no clear information on the proportion of people killed that were civilians or that were paramilitaries.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

A children’s cinema in Aleppo

Khadija and her cousins, refugees in Reyhanli.
Photo: Watanili

Watanili is a grassroots initiative dedicated to providing support for displaced Syrians through arts therapy, educational programmes, and community orientated projects. We asked Yara Tlass to tell more about their current project.


Watanili works directly with civilians within and outside Syria to empower communities to restore the social and intellectual fabric of their lives. When Watanili launched in May 2014, it all started with wanting to offer a different image of the conflict. Initially, we were mainly focused on shedding light on civilian stories and pressing issues that we thought were not being covered enough by the mainstream media. We did that through a series of videos and by sharing photo stories on social media. Today our focus is primarily on creative education and community-building.

Our latest project is a mobile cinema in the city of Aleppo, providing the kids with a safe space of solace, exposing them to educational animation and video cartoons in order to create a happy environment in one of Syria’s darkest zones.

Could you tell us a little about the films you chose to show, some examples of individual titles and what they were about?

We choose to show films that the children can relate to. The content is very carefully chosen depending on the context, age and level of education. Most of the films are about stories of hope, optimism, social responsibility, good behaviour and citizenship. Through animation, we seek to entertain, put smiles on their faces, and take their minds off the gloomy war situation, but also we want to give them something to learn from, something to look forward to. By creating a sense of positivity and excitement in their heads, we stimulate their hope in a better tomorrow.

Some examples of individual titles include a video animation series created by Save the Children. It is about children who were forced to flee Syria, animated by Syrian children. Another film is called ‘The Tent Flew Away’ – it was initially a book for young adults, published by Books for Syria, about a young girl who is forced to flee from home and adapt to her new life in a refugee camp. She learns to make new friends, faces challenges and reminisces over her past. The book and the screening in this case leaves us with many questions: Will she be able to adapt to this new environment? Will she able to start a new page and pursue her dreams?

Another one is called ‘Dir Balak’ (Watch out) and it aims to educate children in basic first aid and principles of good behaviour through engaging words and pictures, so that children can better cope in emergency situations when an adult is not there to help them.

Were there particular films that got an especially good reaction? Were there some that didn’t work well?

The ones that got a really good reaction were the ones which were narrated by children themselves. With the Save the Children series, we remember them watching and asking us questions afterwards such as where is this young girl now? What happened to these refugee children?

We noticed that the younger kids between the age of 3 to 7 were much more distracted than the older ones during the screenings as the concept of film was uncommon to them. But we still feel it is important to introduce it to younger kids. Most of the screenings, however, occur in schools and informal settings where kids are aged between 8 and 14.

Were there particular things any individual children said about the mobile cinema or about particular films that made a strong impression?

What they liked most about the mobile cinema was the diversity of the films. It created a curiosity and they started wondering about the next screening. They were impressed by the openness of the team as no one enforced anything religious given the religious atmosphere they are being surrounded with.

Residents of Aleppo, and families  said that it is bringing a little life to the city and their children are looking forward to the next event. And that is why we decided to pursue the project and launch another campaign.

We usually interview the kids after the screening and get their feedback: what they liked or disliked and what they learned. We iterate and tailor the films depending on their answers and feedback, and that is the best part.

What kind of things do the children normally get to watch outside of the cinema? How is the cinema experience different?

The children of Aleppo today are not being exposed to educational films or entertainment for that matter. Most of the kids in the city are living under harsh conditions. Being under siege, watching TV has really become a luxury. The cinema experience is different in that it creates a cheerful atmosphere where they can come together, learn, and enjoy themselves for a while.

Before 2011, what cinema was available to children in Aleppo?

Before 2011, children used to watch TV in their houses as part of a family gathering. This is different as in it is a collective activity where children from different backgrounds, ethnicity, age and religion are brought together to cherish a moment of peace, being in a safe space where they can start expressing their thoughts, feelings and impressions despite everything that is going on around them; and that for us is very important as we seek to create a collaborative hub for cultural expression, using the power of education and films to alleviate the suffering and bring about hope and joy.

 • Fundraising page for the Aleppo children’s cinema project

 • www.watanili.com

 • Watanili on Facebook, and on Twitter.



Friday, 10 July 2015

Never again, and again, and again

Reckless Diplomacy Disguised as Caution Cost Lives in Srebrenica. And It’s Happening Again, This Time in Syria

Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations joined with Najib Ghadbian, Special Representative to US and UN, National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces to write this comparison of two avoidable man-made disasters.
“As Bosnia & Herzegovina’s first Ambassador to the UN and the Syrian opposition’s first Ambassador to the UN, we are struck by the painful parallels between our two conflicts, and how indecision and a lack of moral courage are once again leaving innocent civilians to pay the ultimate price.”
Sacirbey and Ghadbian argue that although a no-fly zone in Syria lacks the wide support given to the no-fly zone in Bosnia, it would be even more effective in saving lives, it would counter extremism, and it would make a political solution more possible. Read the rest.

From an interview with Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and former U.N. humanitarian chief, at Syria Deeply:
“We have Srebrenica happening every few months in Syria in terms of civilians killed and maimed.”
Read the rest: Jan Egeland: It’s Time to Change the Narrative for Syria’s Refugees.

James Bloodworth also writes of UK complicity with the Srebrenica massacre, and compares it with Syria.

For more detail on how British, French, and US government decisions helped pave the way for the Srebrenica massacre, see How Britain and the US decided to abandon Srebrenica to its fate, by Florence Hartmann and Ed Vulliamy.

As it was in Bosnia, so also in Syria it is within the power of the UK, France, and the US, acting singly or together, to stop much of the killing.

The single greatest culprit in the killing of civilians is the Syrian Air Force.


Chart from Violations Documentation Center in Syria report for May 2015. More details.

Last month, 81 NGOs called on the UN Security Council to enforce its own Resolution 2139 to end the barrel bombing. Realistically, this won’t happen by collective Security Council action. Russia has blocked any effective Security Council measure, including blocking a resolution to give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction in Syria. This week Russia even blocked a resolution recognising the Srebrenica massacre as an act of genocide.

On Syria, as on Kosovo, in the absence of Security Council unanimity, individual Security Council member states must act.

Assad’s barrel bombings kill mostly civilians, and mostly in areas not held by ISIS but held by the Syrian rebels who are fighting both Assad and ISIS.

Assad’s air attacks have actually been helping ISIS attack Syrian rebels.

As the greatest danger to civilians, Assad’s air attacks are the greatest driver of refugee flows. The number of refugees has more than doubled since the UK, France, and US, turned away from military intervention in 2013.

Aid for Syria is becoming the most expensive sticking plaster in history, costing billions and still woefully underfunded. The need will not end until the violence is stopped, and the violence is mostly Assad’s.

If you are in the UK, write to your MP here.

If you are in the US, write to Congress here.

Download and share Syria Solidarity UK’s document: Ongoing chemical weapons attacks and bombing of civilians by the Syrian Air Force: A call for action (PDF)



Thursday, 9 July 2015

The highest fatality rate of any job in the world



A message from Raed Al Saleh of Syria Civil Defence, AKA The White Helmets.

Dear friends around the world,

By the time you go to bed, more than 40 barrel bombs will have been dropped today from regime helicopters, submerging entire families into the rubble of their homes. Trapped in darkness, people have one hope: that the White Helmets will find them and dig them out.

My name is Raed Al Saleh and I am head of the Syria Civil Defence - or the White Helmets as we’re also known. Our 2,697 volunteer rescue workers have saved more than 21,967 lives. We face bombs, chemical attacks and sniper fire to reach people caught in the violence and bring them to safety.

Despite the risks, we go in always. Yet I know that if one of the volunteers is critically injured during a rescue operation, there is no money to pay for medical care. We have volunteers who right now still need surgery. A night in the intensive care unit is $300. Surgery can cost between $300-$5,000. These life-saving measures are out of our grasp.

I’m asking for your help to change this. If you and others around you contribute what you can, we can build a Hero Fund to get wounded White Helmets back on their feet. We can build a safety net so every volunteer knows that their hospital bills are covered should they get hurt. And if a White Helmet dies while saving others, I can make sure the families of our fallen heroes will not struggle to survive. Please give what you can to make this Hero Fund a possibility. Our brave men and women give everything.

https://herofund.whitehelmets.org/donate/crowdfund/

The White Helmets have the highest fatality rate of any job in the world - and it’s gotten even more dangerous. Because of the lives we’ve saved, we are now a target. The Syrian regime’s helicopters wait until we rush to a bombing site to help the victims, then they come back to drop another barrel. 92 White Helmets have been killed - most of them in these “double-tap” strikes.

Just last week two ambulances were destroyed by the regime in Idlib. Six civil defence volunteers were wounded. Thankfully, all survived.

Last week I travelled to New York to ask the UN Security Council to tell me what they were going to do to enforce their promises to stop the bombs - they had no answer for me. This is why for Syrians they have become the Insecurity Council. We have lost faith in them in many ways, although we continue to make appeals to awaken their conscience. Whilst world leaders fail us, we have been humbled by the support of people like you around the world. People who share our vision of a Syria free from bombs. Now I ask you to stand with us again. We cannot build this fund to treat wounded volunteers and support the families of the fallen without you.

https://herofund.whitehelmets.org/donate/crowdfund/

Most White Helmet volunteers are young men and women from all walks of life who never expected to be digging their neighbours from the rubble of bombings. They were flower sellers, teachers and students who joined the White Helmets as a way of resisting hopelessness. As well as helping wounded White Helmets get back on their feet, your support for the Hero Fund will let these volunteers know that someone is still listening and people around the world still care.

https://herofund.whitehelmets.org/donate/crowdfund/

Yours sincerely,
Raed Al Saleh
Head of the Syria Civil Defence


Via The Syria Campaign. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Related posts:

NGOs unite in urging UN Security Council to take urgent action to stop civilian attacks in Syria

And still no No-Fly Zone

Opening contributions to the No-Fly Zone debate

Barrel bombs killed 71 people today: Call for action

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Caesar exhibit, 13-16 July at the European Parliament



Following the reversal of an earlier decision by the College of Quaestors, the European Parliament will host a public exhibition showing showing a selection from the Caesar photographs. The organisers write:
The Caesar Exhibition displays photographs of detainees’ bodies transferred from the Syrian regime’s prisons and detention centres to military Hospitals 607 and 601 where former military policeman of the Syrian army – known by the pseudonym “Caesar” – was assigned to photograph and document the bodies.

Caesar fled Syria in 2013 and smuggled out over 55,000 photos of approximately 11,000 Syrians tortured by the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011. The bodies show evidence of physical injury of the sort that would result from starvation, brutal beating, strangulation and other forms of torture and killing. The 11,000 victims photographed represent only a fraction of the systematic torture and killing that take place inside Syrian regime’s prisons.

The “Caesar” photographs were analysed by a first-rate legal and forensic team in early 2014 and then shared with and processed by the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) which cited them as clear evidence of systematic human rights violations by the Assad regime.

Location: European Parliament, PHS Building, 3rd Floor, Right side of the Hemicycle.

Hosted by: MEP Alyn Smith (Greens/EFA); MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt (EPP); MEP Marietje Schaake (ALDE); MEP Vincent Peillon (S&D); MEP Fabio Massimo Castaldo (EFDD); MEP Ana Gomes (S&D); MEP Antonio Panzeri (S&D); and MEP Ignazio Corrao (EFDD).

Co-Hosted by: Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees; National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces; Euro-Syrian Democratic Forum; and No Peace Without Justice.

There will also be an exhibit of Caesar photographs at the US Congress from 15th July. We hope there can soon be a similar exhibition at the Palace of Westminster, as there are still some in the UK who entertain ‘lesser evil’ ideas about Assad, as heard most recently from Lord West and from Alison Phillips of the Mirror.

Links:

Images of Syrian torture on display at UN: ‘It is imperative we do not look away’, by Raya Jalabi, The Guardian, 11 March 2015.

Syrian torture: Will photos turn US opinion?, by Kim Ghattas, BBC News, 27 January 2015.

Documenting Evil: Inside Assad’s Hospitals of Horror, by Adam Ciralsky, Vanity Fair, 11 June 2015.

Earlier posts on the Caesar photographs: Whistleblowers, and Let’s talk about Crime.

Monday, 6 July 2015

A response to last Thursday’s debate in the House of Commons


Image via BBC.

PDF version of this letter.

To Members of Parliament,

A response to the House of Commons debate on Britain and International Security, 2 July 2015.

Two points need to be made clear following Thursday’s debate on possible UK action against ISIS in Syria: that protection of civilians must be at the centre of any action, and that the choice to be made in Syria is not between Assad and ISIS.

Protection of Civilians

Syrian civilians need protection from ISIS. Last month saw one of the worst massacres of Syrian civilians by ISIS to date, when 233 to 262 civilians were killed and at least 273 wounded by ISIS in Kobani on 25 June, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 14 children, 67 women, and 18 elderly people were amongst those killed, according to local human rights groups.(1)

That massacre helped bring the total number of Syrian civilians killed by ISIS in June up to 451, according to the Syrian Network For Human Rights. In the same month the Assad regime killed 1,072 civilians. Amongst those killed were 218 children and 124 women. Even in this, one of their worst months of killing, ISIS killed less than half as many Syrian civilians as were killed by Assad.(2)

The vast majority of the civilians killed by Assad are not in areas under ISIS control; they are mostly in areas under the control of Syrian rebels who are fighting both Assad and ISIS.

The majority of those now being killed by Assad are being killed by air attacks. There is a chorus of calls from NGOs and civil society groups inside and outside Syria for action to stop the air attacks.

Last month 81 NGOs including Amnesty International, CARE International, Human Rights Watch, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and The Helen Bamber Foundation, presented a letter to the UN Security Council calling for consequences for violations of UN Security Council Resolution 2139. That resolution, passed in February 2014, demanded an end to bombardment of civilian areas, such as barrel bombing.(3)

In considering action by the UK in Syria, MPs must have protection of civilians foremost in their thoughts. Any action which fails to protect civilians will also fail by any other worthwhile measure.

The choice is not between Assad and ISIS

In the House of Commons debate, Dr Julian Lewis asserted the following:
“In 2013, the Government wanted to remove Assad without helping al-Qaeda or similar groups that later became Daesh. Now we apparently want to remove Daesh but without helping Assad. Those two things are incompatible. It is a choice of two evils.”(4)

In this Dr Lewis ignored a wealth of reporting to the contrary. Syrian rebel forces are fighting both Assad and ISIS. Assad had a long history of backing the precursor of ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, in order to destabilise any efforts to establish democracy in Iraq. Assad’s government has traded with ISIS, supporting them financially.(5) Assad forces have avoided fighting ISIS for much of the conflict,(6) and have been repeatedly accused of helping ISIS to fight Syrian rebels, most recently by Assad’s air force bombing rebels who were under attack by ISIS.(7)

A related distortion of history was presented in an exchange between John Spellar and Vernon Coaker, where Mr Spellar said the following:
“Before my hon. Friend moves on to the more general issue, will he clarify the fact that the House’s refusal in 2013 to become involved in a brief bombing campaign against Assad—Members of all parties were involved in that decision—has absolutely no logical connection with taking military action against Daesh? Linking the two does not serve the interests of developing a proper national policy.”

This ignores that prior to Assad’s chemical weapons massacre of 21 August 2013, Syrian rebels were already under attack from ISIS as well as from the Assad regime. Denied serious international support in the form of arms and training, Free Syrian Army rebels in Raqqa were easy prey for ISIS invaders. The subsequent decision by the House of Commons to leave the Assad regime unpunished for the mass poisoning of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus left Syrian rebels even more fragile, and emboldened both Assad and ISIS.(8)

It is essential that MPs avoid political expediency in future foreign policy debates and instead face up to the consequences of past decisions on Syria. Those consequences include not just the rise of ISIS, but also tens of thousands more civilians killed by Assad forces, and a more than doubling of the number of Syrian refugees since the 2013 vote.

The Assad dynasty has long nurtured terrorist groups to further its own ends. Assad’s support for terrorist actions in Iraq prior to 2011 is well known. His regime is currently dependent not only on ISIS attacking rebels and distracting the international community from regime crimes, it also relies on more direct support from Hizbollah and Iranian-backed sectarian militias.

Accepting the continuation of the Assad dictatorship is not a path to defeating terrorism; instead it is a surrender to Assad’s strategy of promoting terrorism.

Signed on behalf of the Syria Solidarity Movement UK

Sara Afshar
Clara Connolly
Kareen El Beyrouty
Mario Nicholas Hamad
Kellie Strom

Notes

(1) Syria: Deliberate Killing of Civilians by ISIS, Human Rights Watch, 3 July 2015.

(2) Syrian Network for Human Rights monthly report, 1 July 2015.

(3) NGOs unite in urging UN Security Council to take urgent action to stop civilian attacks in Syria, 25 June 2015.

(4) Britain and International Security, House of Commons debate, 2 July 2015.

(5) UK welcomes new EU Syria sanctions listings, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 7 March 2015.

(6) Syria, ISIS Have Been ‘Ignoring’ Each Other on Battlefield, Data Suggests, NBC News, 11 December 2014.

(7) Syria: Isis advance on Aleppo aided by Assad regime air strikes, US says, The Guardian, 2 June 2015.

(8) In Raqqa, Islamist Rebels Form a New Regime, Syria Deeply, 16 August 2013.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

What has the Syrian Freedom Charter to offer that the 1973 Syrian Constitution did not?


Amnesty hosted a presentation on the Freedom Charter in May. Watch the video here.

By Hanadi Ismail

Dr Hanadi Ismail is a consultant and researcher in sociolinguistics and forensic linguistics.

This post is one of a series on the Freedom Charter. See also:

As a Syrian, who has believed in the spirit of the revolution, its cause, and the victims who paid their lives for justice, I do not feel that SFC represents me.

I read the Syrian Freedom Charter (SFC), looked closely at the survey questions on which the Charter is based, and finally looked at the charts that show the results.

I do not feel that it addresses the issues and aspirations of modern Syrians, or rather more accurately phrased Syrians today. By ‘Syrians today’, I do not only refer to the Syrian youth, but also to all Syrians of different backgrounds whose lives have changed as a result of exposure to the social and political changes in the country over the past four decades.

At first glance, my first concern about the SFC was that it was, or I believed it was, based on the South African Congress Alliance Freedom Charter (1955). A second look at the SFC has revealed to me that it is based, for its most part, on the Syrian Constitution (1973), written soon after Hafez al-Assad took over Syria. So, what does SFC offer that makes it revolutionary compared to the Syrian Constitution? How does it address the life and future of the Syrians who rebelled against the 1973 Constitution? I will briefly refer to the related Articles from the 1973 Syrian Constitution which cover the main demands that the SFC calls for on behalf of the Syrian people:
  • Article 25 and 27: both guarantee the Syrian people’s right to freedom of expression, the rule of the law and equal opportunities.

  • Articles 38 and 39: both specify the Syrian people’s rights to freedom of expression in all media of expression, in addition to their right to assembly and peaceful protests.

  • Article 28: bans detention, criminalises torture, guarantees the Syrian people’s right to litigation and the independence of the judicial system.

  • Article 35: guarantees freedom of belief, and religious practice.

  • Article 37: free education as a right to all Syrians.

  • Article 45: guarantees the rights of women to equal opportunities, contribution to all aspects of life and their right to remove restrictions that hinder their development.

  • Article 11: specifies the Armed forces’ responsibility in defending the country and its borders.

  • Article 14: provides for the people’s ownership of public wealth and public institutions.

The question which comes to mind here is this: as representative of the aspirations of the revolution; the 2011 revolution to differentiate it from the Ba’ath-led revolution of the Syrian Constitution, does the SFC provide the Syrian people additional rights that the Constitution did not? I exclude from this question the item that the SFC provides for women: their right to pass citizenship to their children, which is currently a right limited to male Syrian citizens. My answer to the above question is a simple ‘no’. I will list my concerns about the SFC in the following points:
  1. Significantly and most urgently, the SFC overlooks important components of the Syrian society such as the youth and the less privileged, who had led the revolution and whose areas of residence continue to be the areas where rebel groups operate from. They are the displaced refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, in addition to those of them who are displaced within Syria. The aspirations of these groups cannot be bluntly summarised in a ‘copy and paste’ style of demands as these appear in the current SFC. A valid and legitimate Syrian Freedom Charter will address the specific issues of these groups, including tailored development programmes that enable them to be part of the process of building the future of Syria.

  2. Today, and in fact for the past year, Syrians are faced with a serious and pressing issue that is not only hindering any change but is also overburdening their future aspirations: the rise and threat of IS and other fundamentalist groups. My question here is why does the survey completely and utterly overlook exploring the Syrian people’s opinion on this? Why are Syrian people not asked in the yes/no style of SFC survey about their worries, hopes or thoughts on the future of Syria and their own lives given the rise of these groups? If the survey’s aim is to avoid any tensions, so to speak, then this is not representative or objective. Today, we have an additional enemy in Syria, which we simply cannot continue to overlook under the pretext of not wanting to derail the main cause of the revolution: getting rid of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

  3. As a Syrian who is familiar with the Syrian Constitution, lived in Syria and understand the ‘nitty gritty’ of rules on paper and rules in practice, my question for you is, how can you convince me that your SFC, similar at it is to the 1973 Syrian Constitution, will provide me with anything different?

  4. With appreciation to the fact that the FSC provides for freedom of belief and religious practice, and equality in opportunity for different groups and religions, why does the SFC refrain from directly stating that its framework is civil and secular, or at least from exploring people’s opinions on this?

  5. As a woman I would expect from a revolutionary charter of freedom to offer me equality before the Law in all aspect of life and civil matters. More specifically, matters related to divorce rights for women, including financial matters and custody, in addition to equality before the Law in other civil matters related to inheritance among many others things. This is my personal view, and I respect that others may have different views on this matter, but as a potential participant in the SFC, and as a Syrian who believed in the spirit of the revolution and its cause, I believe I should be asked about this in a democratic style of charter that is presumably representative of people’s aspirations.

  6. My last point is rather ‘technical’. It concerns the design of the survey. As a researcher and higher degree holder who is trained in designing questionnaires, and collecting and analysing data, I find the survey rather poorly designed and analysed. First of all, the survey questions are the actual components of the SFC. In other words, the results or the demands of SFC are not deduced from the survey, they are the actual survey. Furthermore, the design of the questions/demands is presented in a way which directly shapes results in one direction or the opposite. As an example I quote the following: “All Syrians are equal before the Law: agree/disagree”. Results show 97% in agreement. This is like asking the obvious. It is misleading and patronising – this is the Syrian Constitution. Results are further broken down in terms of age groups, gender and locations of participants. The remaining charts covering the rest of the questions, which are broken down in the same style, all show more or less symmetric results, namely in the range of 86%-97% agreement. This is a sharp division, well expected from a poorly designed questionnaire which is pretty much denotative – the results no doubt reflect this sharp indication.

I appreciate all the effort put in preparing and finalising the SFC, however I do not believe that it is constructed as it stands in a way which looks to explore the aspiration of the Syrian people. It does not address any issue which is specific to the Syrian society and the Syrian revolution.

Participants should not be limited to loaded ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions that the survey presents, but given the chance to express their own visions, ideas and opinions for the future of Syria.

The Charter needs to address the specific issues that pushed people to sacrifice their lives and rebel against the regime – social and political injustices, not as abruptly and vaguely stated in the 1973 Syrian Constitution. There need to be components which reflect the revolution- revolutionary Charter that reflects the ability of the revolution, if any, to face the new challenges today – the threat of fundamentalism and future of the new generations of Syria.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Bank closures, refugees, and showers: An update from Lesbos


Photo by Michael Honegger – www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com

Guest post by Timothy Jay Smith

This is the third in a series of reports on conditions for refugees arriving on the island of Lesvos, Greece, by Timothy Jay Smith. Earlier posts:

The banks in Greece may be closed, but that hasn’t stopped the steady flow of refugees arriving on Lesbos. Today eight boats landed on the north coast, and seven yesterday. That could easily be 750 people, and that is only on the north coast. Last Friday, along the airport road in Mytilini, dozens of refugees were streaming into town from where they had landed in the south.

Closed banks, limited ATM withdrawals, and a local government preoccupied with the upcoming national referendum, have hampered some initiatives, but not stopped everything entirely. Of course, the food program in Molyvos continues, which is entirely managed by volunteers and funded by donations. More than that, the volunteers provide dry clothes, shoes, diapers, and other essentials. Lots of tourists have been generous and put money on account at local grocery stores for the volunteers to spend down as needed. (I opened four credit lines using some of the donations I received.)

In Mytilini, the island’s capital where all the refugees end up spending a week or so, the conditions are grim and overwhelming. The largest camp, Kara Tepe, opened about a month ago for 600 refugees, now has closer to 2,000. Of the six original toilets, only one was functional last week; and there is not one shower.

I returned home last week, but on my way to the airport, I met with a couple of representatives of Village All Together, an ad hoc association of NGOs across the island working on refugee issues. We had met a couple of times previously to discuss how I might help. They finally got permission from the mayor for showers at Kara Tepe (he even offered municipal plumbers to install them for free), and I have agreed to pay for twenty showers. I want to buy an equal number of toilets, but the question is how—or even if—to hook them up to the city’s sewage system. (Ironically, Kara Tepe is located next to the town’s treatment plant.)

We met at PIKPA, a small camp now used for the most vulnerable refugees (families with infants, disabled, women accidentally separated from their families, etc.). Compared to other camps, it is a shady paradise, but not without its problems. The holding tank had filled and backed up, knocking out the plumbing system, so with donated funds I sorted out all of those problems.

A week earlier, I had discussed with Village All Together the idea of a mobile medical unit at Kara Tepe. Apparently a couple of international NGOs have promised some support for this idea—including the well-known Medecins San Frontieres—so on that topic, they are sorting out what’s been offered, what they lack, and how I might use donations to fill in some gaps. I have offered to try to get money from foundations, if needed, and an experienced proposal writer in Molyvos has offered her help.

Village All Together has also come up with a list of twenty-five items that they need, from baby bottles to sunblock to an assortment of over-the-counter medicines. I have asked them to put together an emergency list—what they need right now—so I can buy them.

One of the big problems faced by refugees is the lack of information on the ‘process’ ahead of them once they land on the island. Very few speak even rudimentary English, and almost none Greek. Village All Together has identified two interpreters (Arabic and Farsi) to work with refugees in Mytilini, Kalloni and Molyvos. I have agreed to pay them a small stipend which will be matched by an NGO in Kalloni.

As long as I still have donated funds to spend, I will keep responding to needs as they come up. I have had enough overseas development experience to know how useful it is to have a small source of quick-response money that doesn’t have to be approved through bureaucratic wrangling. I also know it is important to be accountable to donors, so everything I spend must be backed up by receipts or purchase orders. One hundred percent of the money I receive is used to help the refugees.

Finally, in Molyvos, where I spent most of the last five weeks, the local volunteers need a Volunteer—seriously. They are looking for someone who can come for two or three months, coordinate their efforts, and pitch in. Common sense and a willingness to work are the main qualifications. Some past refugee or international experience wouldn’t hurt. You need to get yourself to the island (airport code: MJT). You will be provided with a modest room and food allowance. It’s a great opportunity for someone wanting to do something very satisfying with their life: helping people who really need it. Thanks to everyone who has donated to help the refugees arriving on Lesbos. The response has been heartwarming. I am home in France now, but in regular contact with the volunteers on the island. I return to Lesbos at the end of August for another month.

Anyone wishing to make a donation for these types of activities, please contact me through smithtimothyjay@gmail.com or Facebook. Please share.