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Saturday 30 May 2015

Barrel bombs killed 71 people today: Call for action

BBC News reports at least 71 people killed by barrel bomb attacks in Aleppo province today.

The Syrian Observer translated a report this week about how barrel bombs are made:

Banias is home to the “barrel factory”, as Nazih calls it. An employee at the Banias refinery for a decade, the 40-year-old engineer claims to have never presumed something secret was going on within its walls.

When Syria’s oil production decreased by 90 percent following the rise of ISIS, which seized a majority of Syria’s oil wells in the process, work at the refinery stopped.

“They are using the maintenance and pipelines welding workshop to make these barrels,” says Nazih. For around a month, Nazih has been aware of the factory’s true purpose, but it is clear from his behavior that he is still in a state of shock.

“One of my tasks required me to visit to the headquarters of a maintenance and welding workshop. I saw the construction of vast empty barrels in the rear yard, there was no need for further explanation—it was clear,” Nazih continued.

Nazih headed to his colleague, an engineer and the chief of the workshop. An Alawite man in his 50s, Nazih finds him witty and enjoys drinking tea with him from time to time. When Nazih inquired about the barrels, the workshop chief simply replied: “We are manufacturing barrels to kill the dogs and burn them.”

“I tried to explain to him that the barrels are a random and blind weapon, he did not listen… he was perhaps annoyed,” Nazih says. The chief of the workshop explained the details of making the barrels with pride. He talked about the bolts, the large nails and the sharp metal triangles added to the barrel full of explosives, Nazih said.

Curious, Nazih asked: “How much does each of them cost?”

“Less than 20,000 Syrian pounds (75 USD),” the chief replied.

The UK has the ability to stop this happening. Write to your MP here.

Download and share our demand for action: Ongoing chemical weapons attacks and bombing of civilians by the Syrian Air Force: A call for action (PDF)

Friday 29 May 2015

Freedom Charter: An Invitation to Reality

Photo: Protest in Homs, 18 April 2011, from a set of images at The Guardian.

By Hala Alshami

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

Do you know what fear of persecution means? I vividly remember when I was teaching English at a university in Syria in 2007 and we had a listening activity from a textbook for advanced students. In that activity, we heard a Spanish student asking her English teacher to explain the meaning of “civil liberty.” The teacher explained to her student “in a country that has civil liberty, if the president does something you do not like, you could write an article in a newspaper criticising the president.” The teacher then asked the student. “Do you have civil liberty in Spain?” “Of course!” the Spanish student replied. At this point, I stopped the recorder. “So do we have civil liberty in Syria?”  I asked my students. Some of them looked surprised by the rhetorical question and others had large cynical smiles on their faces without saying anything. One student said, "But Miss, there is a camera in the classroom!”

The fear I saw on my students’ faces was completely opposite to the determination and strength Syrians showed when we took to the streets to demand our rights and dignity in 2011. It was during those protests when I felt proud of being Syrian the most! It is true that the current crisis in Syria is frightening. Also, given the scale of destruction and grief, most of us find ourselves grappling with the question “Was it all worth it? All those lost lives, injuries and destroyed homes?”

The Syrian Freedom Charter is an invitation for all Syrians to look at the bigger picture and not lose sight of our vision for a better future. Over 50,000 Syrians in various locations inside and outside Syria took part in the survey. The FREE Syria Foundation to Restore Equality and Education, and all the volunteers who conducted the survey, tried to make it as representative as possible. It outlines what Syrians want, most importantly: the rule of law, human rights and equality for all Syrians regardless of their gender, religion or ethnicity.

As Rafif Jouejati, co-founder of FREE Syria explained during the Launch of the Freedom Charter at Amnesty International in London, this project aims at promoting dialogue among Syrians and fostering national unity, which is crucial to challenge extremism and sectarianism. Looking at sectarianism in Lebanon and Iraq, it is obvious that we can’t build the Syria we want on sectarian divisions, as Lina Khatib explains in her article, Sectarianism Is Not Part of the Solution for Syria.

I believe that ending the fighting in Syria requires an international solution and an agreement between the competing regional powers. The country will go through a transitional stage of reconciliation including prosecution of war criminals. We also need to build an active and strong civil society in Syria that ensures the work of any future government is consistent with what the people really want. The Freedom Charter project is a great initiative to engage all Syrians in the process. It is an opportunity to establish a unifying foundation for the Syria that we will rebuild.

Looking at the South Africa Freedom Charter offers hope and inspiration. South Africa has always been an ideal model of a nation’s struggle for freedom and equality. The South African Freedom Charter was written in 1955 before Mandela was imprisoned. About forty years later when Mandela was freed and became president in 1994, the freedom Charter formed the basis for the South African constitution.

The reality is fighting in Syria will not last, and we can’t give up on our country. We have paid a very high price for our revolution and we must continue to work together toward achieving our dream. I personally want a Syria where education is guaranteed for all, and where universities serve as fear-free centres of enlightenment!

Thursday 28 May 2015

From Nicaragua to Syria: Bridge of Peace

Bridge of Peace Syria is an aid organisation that brings a very particular experience to bear on its work. We asked directors Hamsa and Moshe Newmark to tell us more.

Q:  You had a history prior to the Syrian crisis of focusing on Central America; why did Syria in particular cause you to change your focus?

A:  Bridge of Peace is a registered, non-profit humanitarian aid organisation, located in Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA. We are dedicated to providing material support of food, clothing and educational supplies for Syrian refugee children, women and families who have been displaced because of the war and have little or no access to these life essentials.

Founded in 1987 as Puente de Paz, Bridge of Peace responded to the humanitarian crisis in Central America created by the Contra War in Nicaragua. Because of an influx of refugees into small and medium sized villages that taxed their sources of clean drinking water that skyrocketed infant mortality, Puente de Paz financed and helped supervise the building of potable water systems using appropriate, gravity feed technology, comprehensive water testing programs with bacteria-free hand pump installations, a widespread vaccine immunisation program and the building of a school.

Our work in Nicaragua pretty much concluded in 1991. Since then, Bridge of Peace has focused on a host of environmental, social justice and educational projects affecting other countries in Central America and here in Northwest Arkansas.

In response to the war in Syria that began in 2011, which has created one of the largest genocidal, humanitarian crises since World War II, we shifted our focus of support to Syria and Turkey. Seeing the immense suffering on an even larger scale than we saw in Nicaragua, we wanted to reach out and help provide relief.

How would you compare what you see in Syria with what you’ve experienced in Central America?

What we saw in Nicaragua after a successful revolution was a “low intensity war” sponsored by the U.S. There was no intensity of airstrikes but rather a systematic “guerrilla strategy”. Raids with killings, raping, and abductions were perpetrated, village by village, along with an economic embargo with an aim of slowly bleeding the countries morale, economy and resources. After nearly two decades of war, the people finally gave in and voted the U.S. backed presidential candidate in 1990.

By comparison, the situation in Syria is a thousand times worse. The war is “all-out” with use of airstrikes, barrel bombs and gas attacks. In addition, the multitude of raiding factions in the mix who either support the regime or who are fighting it makes the situation much more complex. Also, people are picked up, detained and tortured to death; in Nicaragua we did not experience this to anywhere near the degree as we see happening routinely in Syria.

What in your previous experience was useful in responding to Syria? And what was new to you?

There were a number of elements from our previous solidarity work with Nicaragua that were very useful toward our current work in Syria. First was the fact that we cut our grass roots fundraising “teeth” in the milieu of a very unpopular cause as we do today with Syria. Also, we saw the importance of having trusted people on the ground that were able to suggest where the most urgent help was needed and then help orchestrate the projects and shepherd them along to completion; we have a Syrian Middle East Coordinator, Tamer Altaiar. It was also useful for us to understand the timetable for projects from beginning to end taking place in a war zone. It has taught us patience.  What is new to us is the extreme danger and complication of implementing projects due to air attacks and extremist rebel check points.

Have your thoughts on how to respond to Syria changed over the past four years?

What has changed over the past four years since the revolution became violent is not our response to the need but our perspective on commitment. Earlier on, the situation was less complex and more hopeful that the international community would take action and the war would end a lot sooner. As the war has dragged on with no help for the opposition forthcoming we see this struggle and its aftermath to be a very long and lengthy process; coupled with humanitarian need that will last decades before the country is rebuilt.

You can find Bridge of Peace Syria at bridgeofpeacesyria.wordpress.com and on Facebook.

Monday 25 May 2015

Another voice of Freedom

By Brian Slocock

“When you look at the history of the Arab world, it is made of authoritarian powers, but also of resistance.”

The internationally-renowned Algerian singer Souad Massi has recently released an album, El Mutakallimun (Masters of the Word) which celebrates the historic tradition of enlightenment and tolerance in Arabic culture. It includes a song dedicated to the spirit of Freedom—el-Houriya—which you can see her performing live here.

The lyrics of this song are taken from a poem by the famous Iraqi satirist Ahmed Matar.

“As long as life was given me I would roam the world over to find out what freedom is.”

Our teacher spoke to us

About something

They call freedom

I asked him gently

To talk to us in Arabic

Has it got to do with some Greek idea
From some time long ago?

Or with that stuff they import?

Or maybe it was manufactured here?

And the teacher answered us
Sadly with tears in his eyes

They’ve even made you forget
Your history and your values

It’s heartbreaking to see the youth

Who understand nothing about freedom

Who have neither sword nor pen

Or any idea of identity

Chorus: The tyrant would never raise his head as long as the people were fighting back

Then our teacher gave up his soul

In the loneliness of his jail

So I made up my mind that
As long as life was given me

I would roam the world over

To find out what freedom is

I Stood up and faced history
What then is freedom?

Freedom cannot be acquired

In stock exchanges or financial markets

Nor can any humanitarian body

Offer you freedom

Freedom is a plant

That waters a blood pure and free

That raises boys and girls on high

And whoever else is in love with freedom

Voice of demonstrators: The people want freedom!

Souad is a passionate supporter of the Arab Spring as she expresses in this interview on her work.

Ahmed Matar’s poem has also been used by the great Syrian singer and musician Safwat Sabri—see the clip below. And here Safwat Sabri celebrates the Jaish al-Houriya—the Free Syrian Army.

Thanks to Andy Morgan for his translation of Ahmed Matar’s poem. Visit www.andymorganwrites.com to read his journalism, focused on the music, politics, and society of West Africa and the Sahara.

Souad Massi will be playing at the Barbican, London, on Sunday, and again at the Womad festival in July.

Friday 22 May 2015

Video: Peter Tatchell on Syria

Peter Tatchell on why the international community needs to act on Syria.

More from Peter Tatchell at www.petertatchell.net.

An invitation to dream

By Brian Slocock

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

Last Tuesday several of us from the Syria Solidarity Movement attended the London launch of the Syria Freedom Charter, hosted by Amnesty International. Rafif Jouejati of FREE Syria, the principal architect of this project, introduced the Charter and explained how it came about.

Inspired by the South African Freedom Charter, the guiding document of the South African struggle against apartheid, Rafif and her colleagues drafted a set of propositions that expressed core democratic values—such as freedom of speech and religion; equality of all citizens regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion;  the accountability of government and armed forces; and the right to education and health care. A team of 100 activists then went out to canvas responses both inside and outside the country. Those propositions that received majority endorsement were then compiled into the “Freedom Charter”.

Altogether more than 50,000 people took part, drawn from all the regions of Syria, including both regime and opposition controlled areas, and from refugees and expatriates.

As can be imagined, this was a very difficult exercise which had to be conducted under the nose of hostile regime—and sometimes opposition—forces. That means, as Rafif pointed out, that it cannot be treated as a statistically representative opinion poll. But it is a very important declaration of democratic aims and values by a large body of Syrian citizens. Given the uncertainties surrounding both Syria’s present and Syria’s future, that is a very valuable instrument to be in possession of.

As one Syria Solidarity member suggested in the discussion, it is a document that can be used to open up dialogue with an even wider cross-section of Syrian society, including in particular those involved in the armed opposition groups who are equally Syrian citizens. It can also be used as a basis for discussion with those like the Syrian Kurdish parties, who also affirm a commitment to democratic values.

Rafif is inviting Syrians inside and outside the country to sign up to the Charter, with the ambitious target of gaining one million signatures. This is a project which deserves the support of all those who care about the cause of democracy, freedom, and dignity.

The South African Freedom Charter was debated and agreed by a “Congress of the People” in which 3,000 delegates representing all the country’s democratic organisations gathered together. It speaks volumes that something that could be done in racist South Africa 60 years ago is inconceivable under the regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria today.

We can hope that in the not too distant future Syria will be able to hold its own Congress of the People, either in the wake of the downfall of the regime, or in a secure liberated zone. But until that day comes working to build support for this Freedom Charter is the best way to lay the ground for it.

For the full text and further information on the Charter see the FREE Syria website.

Below is an informative extended interview with Rafif By Danny Postel.

Sunday 17 May 2015

A thank you to Turkey

A Syrian refugee walks in the tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border.
June 2011. AP photo.

Since 2011, over four million people have fled Syria, 3.9 million of them to countries in the region. Last year the British government resettled just 143 vulnerable Syrian refugees from the region to the UK.

There are over 1.7 million refugees in Turkey. By comparison, in the first four years of Syria’s revolution, just over 5,000 Syrians were able to reach the UK to apply for asylum here: 355 in 2011, 992 in 2012, 1,648 in 2013, 2,081 in 2014.

In London, on Sunday 7 June, Syrians and their friends will be saying thank you to the people of Turkey for the solidarity and support they have shown to Syrians fleeing the violence and oppression of the Assad regime and ISIS.

Many more Syrian civilians are still in danger inside Syria. The greatest threat to civilians comes from the Assad regime, and its targeting of civilian areas with barrel bombs. According to VDC Syria figures, over half the number of women and children confirmed killed so far this year were killed by regime air attacks.

We call on Turkey to do everything in its power to support the enforcement of a No-Fly Zone – across all of Syria – to protect civilians from the Assad regime’s air attacks.

Thank You Turkey
Sunday 7 June 3:00pm, Embassy of Turkey, 43 Belgrave Square, SW1 London.
Facebook event page.

Friday 15 May 2015

Trapping refugees in North Africa cannot be our response to deaths in the Mediterranean

A guest post by Zoe Gardner of Asylum Aid

The Mediterranean Sea, home of turquoise-shaded summer holidays for many Europeans, is becoming a vast graveyard for our neighbours from across the water. Already this year, over 1,700 people are known to have drowned making desperate journeys across the sea, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is warning that 2015 could see as many as 30,000 deaths without urgent action.

While such a loss of human life, regardless of the circumstances, is tragic, there has been a truly shameful attempt to justify the failure to rescue people from this fate by depicting their journeys as illegitimate. Time and again commentators describe the flows as being made up of “economic migrants” searching for improved employment opportunities in Europe, in absolute disregard for the evidence showing that these are in fact overwhelmingly refugees seeking to exercise their right to seek asylum.

A third of the people who have crossed the Mediterranean in this manner since the beginning of the year are Syrian. A further 10% from Afghanistan, and another 10% from Eritrea.

The importance of this point cannot be overstated and the reason for that is not that it would be somehow more acceptable to allow people who don’t qualify for protection status to drown, but that it completely dismantles the “pull-factor” argument. This argument, espoused again by the Home Secretary in her op-ed in The Times on 13 May, puts forward the belief that it is the offer of a new life in the UK or another part of Europe that draws people in, rather than the war or the persecution that forces them out. This is plainly wrong: human beings move themselves and their families out of harm’s way in the hope of something, anything, better. They are not pulled here, but pushed.

The focus in the British response, based on this “pull-factor” assumption, has been to tackle smuggling routes from Libya to Europe. EU states have in fact applied for clearance for military intervention (including the possibility of boots on the ground) in Libya with the purpose of destroying smuggling boats. This knee-jerk reaction will save no lives and solve nothing in the long-term.

Analysts have noted over the past decades how smuggling routes develop in a reciprocal pattern with border controls: where you build a wall on the Greek-Turkish border, flows increase in the Mediterranean and so on. The truth is that desperate people WILL keep moving from danger to safety, and by blocking off one pathway, we simply force them to try another, possibly more dangerous one.

Given these considerations, it is of particular disappointment to Asylum Aid and to our colleagues across the refugee sector that the government continues to refuse to embark on a credible long-term plan to provide safe and legal routes for refugees to reach this country and apply for asylum. The only way to prevent people at risk for their lives from having to make these journeys in smugglers’ boats is to participate in resettlement schemes to take those people directly out of the region and bring them to safety. This option allows us to specify the number of arrivals, the safety of their journey, and the resources that need to be made available to accommodate them on arrival.

By participating fully in the UN’s call for developed nations to resettle between them a mere 10% of Syria’s refugees, the UK would be saving lives twice over: first by offering a new safe life to the families concerned, and second by protecting them from having to take these dangerous sea journeys out of desperation. So far, out of the well over 3 million refugees produced by the Syrian conflict, the UK has taken in a mere 143; the few thousand more people which participation in such as scheme implies would be entirely manageable for a country as rich as we are.

To find out more about Asylum Aid’s work and to get involved, please visit www.asylumaid.org.uk or sign up to receive our newsletters and campaign news.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

The Syrian Freedom Charter

On Tuesday 19th May, Rafif Jouejati of FREE-Syria will be in London talking about the Freedom Charter.

Here’s an introduction to the Freedom Charter from FREE-Syria:
Our project, the Freedom Charter, is envisioned as a national unity document that is based on the input of tens of thousands of Syrians inside Syria. For more than 3 years, Syrians have taken to the streets in both nonviolent and armed resistance to state what they do NOT want. However, the Syrian opposition has largely failed to articulate its goals. When asking Syrians what they mean by the revolution’s slogan of “freedom, dignity, and democracy,” one often receives multiple answers.

In addition, silent Syrians known as “fence-sitters” have yet to weigh in on their vision of Syria. Given the pace and evolving nature of the Syrian revolution, we assume that the collapse of the Assad regime is inevitable; however, the “fence-sitters” must be allowed to voice their concerns and state their desires for a future Syria. The Freedom Charter project offered Syrians of all social, economic, political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds an opportunity to state their opinions on what they want.

Read more.

Update: Brian Slocock’s account of the London event is here.

Sunday 10 May 2015

The No-Fly Zone Debate


Syria Solidarity Movement UK decided at the start of this year to call for a no-fly zone. It’s a controversial position, and even within Syria Solidarity UK opinion is not uniform: some supporters have strong objections, and some have caveats.

We make our call for a no-fly zone in solidarity with Syrians: with Syria Civil Defence rescue volunteers, with non-violent activists of the Planet Syria campaign, with Syrian doctors, with the Syrian Coalition, with Syrians who first called for a no-fly zone in street demonstrations as long ago as October 2011.

To encourage debate we would like to publish a set of arguments both for and against, as well as explorations of issues involved in choosing one form of no-fly zone versus another. Submissions are welcome from all. We hope to be able to present a broad selection of opinion, not just from within Syria Solidarity UK.

Please email submissions to: info@syriauk.org


On the last working day of the previous parliament, the government announced that the UK will join in the US-led effort to train Syrians to fight ISIS. Earlier the Wall Street Journal reported that if re-elected, the Conservatives intended to propose to Parliament that the UK extend its participation in the US-led air campaign against ISIS to also carry out strikes in Syria.

We support the right of Syrians to defend themselves from the regime of Assad and from ISIS, and measures to empower Syrians in their fight are welcome, but these policies continue to turn a blind eye to Assad’s violence.

Assad remains the greatest mortal threat to Syrian civilians. Assad regime forces are responsible for over 95% of violent deaths confirmed by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria since the start of the conflict.

A very large portion of those killed by the regime are killed by air attacks. Since the start of last year, over 40% of all civilians confirmed killed have been killed by regime air attacks. Over half of all the women killed in that time were killed by Assad’s air force; over half of all the children killed were killed by regime air attacks.

The US-led air campaign against ISIS in Syria is legally justified as collective self-defence of Iraq, not as a defence of Syrian civilians. If the UK is to act in Syria, then the fate of Syria’s civilians should be central to the decision. Syrian civilians need protection against both ISIS and Assad.

A no-fly zone action to stop Assad’s air attacks can be legally justified as a humanitarian intervention according to the standard set out by the UK Government in 1998 and reiterated in 2013 and 2014. This is the call to action that the UK Parliament must answer: a call to act on a clear humanitarian basis, in the interest of Syria’s civilians, to stop Assad’s air attacks.

We recently made this argument in more detail in a letter sent to the Minister of Defence and to the defence spokespeople of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Read it here.


Recently the Syrian American Medical Society and The Syria Campaign launched Medics Under Fire, an international appeal to doctors, nurses, and medical workers, to support the call by Syrian doctors for action to stop the Assad regime’s air attacks.

Read more about the challenges faced by Syrian health workers in our earlier post, Let’s talk about healthcare.

Above, Dr Fadel Moghrabi on why he supports a No-Fly Zone.


On the 26th of April, Syrians and their friends marched in London to support the Call from Syria for a no-fly zone. At the US Embassy our letter to Ambassador Matthew Barzun was read out. You can read it here.

See this earlier post for the second part of the demonstration outside the BBC.