Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Staffan de Mistura



I survived a local cease-fire in Syria 

this February 20, 2015

Kassem Al-Haj Eid is also known by the nom de guerre Qusai Zakarya.

U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura has been working furiously to secure a local cease-fire, or “freeze zone,” in the battered Syrian city of Aleppo.

This week, de Mistura reported that the Assad regime was prepared to suspend its attacks on the city.

I believe I can offer some insight into what such a pledge really means. I survived a local cease-fire in Syria.

At the start of 2014, I was a hunted man.

After blocking food and other critical supplies from reaching us for more than a year, Bashar al-Assad’s forces had just strong-armed my home town, Moadamiya, into signing a local cease-fire.

In protest, I resigned from Moadamiya’s local council and denounced the terms of the deal live on Al-Arabiya television. This made me one of Moadamiya’s most wanted men.

Suddenly, I began to find on my doorstep notes threatening me and my extended family with death unless I turned myself in. Friends I had not spoken to in years were arrested, interrogated and tortured for information on me.

The regime raided my childhood home and attempted to arrest my family in Damascus and other places. Eventually, I came to believe that my detention was inevitable. I agreed to a meeting, figuring that I was about to die.

To my surprise, however, I was given the royal treatment.

The regime put me up in a five-star hotel and offered me scrumptious meals of a kind I had not experienced for 18 months.

Gen. Ghassan Bilal, an aide to Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, offered me and my entire family a safe, comfortable place to live in Damascus. I was asked to do only one thing in return: Promote local cease-fires in the media.

I told Bilal that in 2011, Syria’s freedom protesters had asked for a better future for everyone, including for him, but received only bullets in reply. He conceded to me that the crackdown had been wrong and had forced Syrians to take up arms, and he told me that Assad had tried to stop the attacks, only to be overruled by his intelligence services.

But when I asked about the use of sarin gas against civilians in August 2013, I clearly crossed a line. His demeanor changed, and a menacing smile crept onto his face. “We both know the who and why,” he snapped. “Don’t ask questions you know the answer to!”

This conversation convinced me that Bilal felt no contrition for all the innocent blood on his hands. I knew I could not accept his offer.

As a desperate gambit for my life, however, I pretended to agree, arguing that I needed to leave Syria to fulfill my new calling. If I were to praise the cease-fires from Damascus, I pointed out, my media contacts would assume I was doing so under duress.

The ruse worked. Bilal arranged for my passage to Lebanon, and from there, I made my way to the United States.

Today, I remain in regular contact with my friends in Moadamiya. Now enough time has passed to evaluate the success of this supposed cease-fire.

With the cease-fire, basic services were supposed to be restored, checkpoints removed and prisoners freed. None of this has happened.

The regime continues to cut off power, gas and other basic services to Moadamiya. Some humanitarian aid is allowed to enter, but not nearly enough for the town’s residents.

The regime is also pressuring civilians to return to Moadamiya, which is undermining living conditions and forcing the local council into more concessions.

My initial suspicions have all been confirmed.

Most egregiously, bombardments continue and the regime has resumed arrest raids on civilians. Dozens of people have been tortured to death. The politicians and diplomats say a local cease-fire is in effect in Moadamiya, but they have abandoned us to the Assad regime’s brutal hands.

De Mistura said this month that “President Assad is part of the solution,” but the regime has already shown that it is not serious about compromise and has no regrets for destroying the country.

If the United Nations cannot even enforce a local cease-fire in a single town, what makes de Mistura think he can do it in Syria’s largest municipality?

In recent months, my conversations with friends back home have grown more difficult. Many are seriously considering joining the Islamic State, even though they oppose everything it stands for.

They are sick of the world’s hypocrisy and double standards. The world protects Kobane but lets Aleppo burn (it is the local who defended their town for weeks before any rescue showed up).

Starving Yazidis in Sinjar receive urgent food airdrops while starving Syrians in Moadamiya are left to die.

Coalition warplanes crisscross Syria every day. Where are the airdrops of food or medical supplies for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians besieged by the Assad regime in Moadamiya and elsewhere?

Such glaring hypocrisy is bound to turn more Syrians toward the Islamic State. Correcting the hypocrisy should be a morally obvious choice. The world cannot help Syrian civilians by prodding us into negotiations with bloodthirsty murderers.

(The Syrians have two options: find a political resolution to efficiently fight ISIS and Al Nousra Front or join these extremist Islamic movements.)

Note: Fighting from the USA is not a convincing patriotic position or a serious opinion that will make any inroad in our societies.

Story of another civil war: Syrians on their knees?

Almost 200,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the escalating conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule.

Syria’s bloody internal conflict, which started in 2011, has destroyed entire neighbourhoods and forced more than 9 million people from their homes.  The UN declared that 11 million Syrians (out of 20 million) need urgent aids to survive this catastrophe.

This is the story of the civil war so far, in eight short chapters.

1. Uprising turns violent

Syrian protesters

Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. After security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several, more took to the streets.

The unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding President Assad’s resignation. The government’s use of force to crush the dissent merely hardened the protesters’ resolve.

By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.

Opposition supporters eventually began to take up arms, first to defend themselves and later to expel security forces from their local areas.

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2. Descent into civil war

Grieving Syrian man and injured girl

Violence escalated and the country descended into civil war as rebel brigades were formed to battle government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. Fighting reached the capital Damascus and second city of Aleppo in 2012.

By June 2013, the UN said 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict. However, by August 2014 that figure had more than doubled to 191,000.

The conflict is now more than just a battle between those for or against President Assad. It has acquired sectarian overtones, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect, and drawn in neighbouring countries and world powers. The rise of the jihadist groups, including Islamic State, has added a further dimension.

Syria death toll chart
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3. War crimes

Barrel bomb victim

A UN commission of inquiry, investigating alleged human rights violations since March 2011, has evidence that those on both sides of the conflict have committed war crimes – including murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances. Government and rebel forces have also been accused by investigators of using civilian suffering, such as blocking access to food, water and health services, as a method war.

In the city of Aleppo, an estimated 3,000 people have been killed by barrel bombs dropped by the regime on rebel-held areas since December last year. The UN says that in some instances, civilian gatherings have been deliberately targeted, constituting massacres.

The jihadist group, Islamic State, has also been accused by the UN of waging a campaign of fear in northern and eastern Syria. Its fighters have beheaded hostages and carried out mass killings of members of the security forces and religious minorities.

We’re just living on the edge of life. We’re always nervous, we’re always afraid

Mother-of-nine, Mariam Akash, whose husband was killed by a sniper
Getty Images
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4. Chemical weapons

Syrians in masks

Hundreds of people were killed in August 2013 after rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin were fired at several agricultural districts around Damascus. Western powers, outraged by the attack, said it could only have been carried out by Syria’s government. The regime and its ally Russia blamed rebels.

Facing the prospect of US military intervention, President Assad agreed to the complete removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal as part of a joint mission led by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The destruction of chemical agents and munitions was completed a year later.

Despite the operation, the OPCW has since documented the use of toxic chemicals, such as chlorine and ammonia, by the government in attacks on rebel-held northern villages between April and July 2014.

Map showing alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria in 2013
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5. Humanitarian crisis

Syrian refugees

More than 3 million people have fled Syria since the start of the conflict, most of them women and children. It is one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history. Neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey struggling to accommodate the flood of new arrivals. The exodus accelerated dramatically in 2013, as conditions in Syria deteriorated.

A further 6.5 million people, 50% of them children, are believed to be internally displaced within Syria, bringing the total number forced to flee their homes to more than 9.5 million – half the country’s population.

An estimated 10.8 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, with 4.6 million living in areas under siege or hard to access.

The UN launched its largest ever appeal for a single crisis in December 2013, seeking $6.5bn (£4bn) to provide medical care, food, water, shelter, education and health services.

Map showing Syrian refugee numbers across the region
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6. Rebels and the rise of the Islamists

Nusra Front fighter

The armed rebellion has evolved significantly since its inception, with as many as 1,000 groups commanding an estimated 100,000 fighters. Secular moderates are now outnumbered by Islamists and jihadists, whose brutal tactics have caused widespread concern and triggered rebel infighting.

Capitalising on the chaos in the region, Islamic State (IS) – the extremist group that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq – has taken control of huge swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria. Its many foreign fighters in Syria are now involved in a “war within a war”, battling rebels who object to their tactics as well as Kurdish forces.

In September 2014, a US-led coalition launched air strikes inside Iraq and Syria in an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS.

In the political arena, rebel groups are also deeply divided – with rival alliances battling for supremacy. The most prominent is the moderate National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, backed by several Western and Gulf Arab states. However, the coalition’s primacy is rejected by other groups – including the powerful Islamist alliance, the Islamic Front – leaving the country without a convincing nationally supported alternative to the current Syrian regime.

Map showing Islamic State territory across Iraq and Syria
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7. Peace efforts

Peace talks on Syria

With neither side able to inflict a decisive defeat on the other, the international community long ago concluded that only a political solution could end to the conflict in Syria. However, a number of attempts by the Arab League and the UN to broker ceasefires and start dialogue have failed.

In January 2014, the US, Russia and UN convened a conference in Switzerland to implement the 2012 Geneva Communique, an internationally-backed agreement that called for the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria formed on the basis of mutual consent.

The talks, which became known as Geneva II, broke down in February after only two rounds.

The then UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi blamed the Syrian government’s refusal to discuss opposition demands and its insistence on a focus on fighting “terrorists” – a term Damascus uses to describe rebel groups.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the organisation’s long-term strategic objective remains a political solution based on the Geneva Communique.

The new UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura has also proposed establishing a series of “freeze zones”, where local ceasefires would be negotiated to allow aid deliveries in besieged areas.

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8. Proxy war

Rebel fighter

What began as another Arab Spring uprising against an autocratic ruler has mushroomed into a brutal proxy war that has drawn in regional and world powers.

Iran and Russia have propped up the Alawite-led government of President Assad and gradually increased their support, providing it with an edge that has helped it make significant gains against the rebels. The regime has also enjoyed the support of Lebanon’s Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement.

The Sunni-dominated opposition has, meanwhile, attracted varying degrees of support from its main backers – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab states along with the US, UK and France. However, the rise of radical Islamist militia in rebel ranks and the arrival of Sunni jihadists from across the world has led to a marked cooling of international and regional backing.

The disappointment caused by the West’s inaction created a fertile recruiting ground for extremists, who told those who had lost their loved ones that they were their only hope

Majed, a 26-year-old civil society activist




March 2023

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