Farouk Sharaa, the Official Who did not Even Deserve the Honor of Being Removed from Office

July 30, 2014 by Rustom Mahmoud for al-Mustaqbal

A small amount of “dissatisfaction” is what caused the removal of Farouq al-Shara’, the previous Vice President of Syria, from his position. Al-Shara’ expressed dissatisfaction with the means by which the regime hoped to quell the popular revolt against it in the spring of 2011. He did not object to the regime itself or any of its apparatuses, institutions, or “philosophy.” He was also not expelled for his sectarian affiliation, nor even for his regional background, though like Hourani he is descended from a family from Dara’a, which paid the largest share of blood in the first months of the massacres which the Syrian regime has committed against the Syrian population.

But al-Shara’ was slightly dissatisfied with the regime’s strategy. Speaking with the “regime’s interest” in mind, he wanted to give the rebels a number of superficial concessions in order to preserve the regime. For that reason alone did al-Shara’ suffer all that befell him.

Al-Shara’ was utterly marginalized, though he had represented the regime’s “civilian” diplomatic face for many decades. This marginalization made him famous, since the regime ignored his status as the “spoiled child” of its founder. Al-Shara’ had remained loyal to the regime for many years, throughout its thousands of ups and downs. He remained the loyal proponent of the regime’s rhetoric and policies, and was personally loyal to its despotic founder. He also aided the transition to the founder’s son, and was loyal to him as well. Al-Shara’ remained obedient, pliable, silent, and eager to please, but without any anger or protest on his part, was marginalized and isolated, and became famous for it, simply because of a single instance of “displeasure” with the regime’s strategy for survival.

Assad did not make a formal statement removing al-Shara’s from his position as Vice President. Instead, he appointed Najjah al-‘Attar as another Vice President, and left al-Shara’ in place without making any public statement about his status. Al-Shara’ apparently did not deserve a headline in the official bulletin, and his termination was not a political security decision. He was not even given the honor of being allowed to present his resignation, and he did not “commit suicide” with three bullets to the head. Al-Shara’ was left without second thought like a corpse that does not even deserve to rot, and does not even deserve the honor of burial.

The “story of al-Shara’” reveals three essential defects in the makeup of the Syrian regime, and its relationship with its “men and divining rods” of which al-Shara’ represented an exemplary example:

The Syrian regime itself is not actually constituted by the people who speak in its name, and its leaders are not those who hold clearly-delineated positions in the structure of the state. The basis of the regime is not its apparent “constitutional” structure, and a minister is not necessarily more powerful than the director of his office. It is possible for an apparently minor officer to be the decision-maker, and hold more power than the commander-in-chief of the military. The Syrian regime is comprised of a hidden and inward-oriented structure and dynamic, yet it is very clear to those who want to understand it but have no stake in it. The Syrian regime relies on its backbone, and on the power of the center and the particular individuals to which it delegates specific roles. Thus authority does not rest in the state’s constitution, law, or structure, or the formal positions of those within it, but is rather bestowed by the master to “slaves” who carry out his will alone.

The Syrian regime also does not follow the pattern of most despotic governments, since there are not “rival” centers of power locked in political and ideological competition with one another. The head of the regime has the only independent will in the state, and those below him are tools used to executive that will. Those competing centers of power that do exist are merely symbolic and instrumental, and include army, secret police, and paramilitary reserve units. It is true that these groups do not necessarily have common interests, and they constitute centers of power within the structure of the regime. Yet in essence, they hold the same creed and loyalty but are pitted against each other and used as instruments by the head of the regime to control society. Moreover, these groups do not have the capacity to unite against Assad. There is no place in the structure of the regime for those who are outside of this flock, which is held together by its superficial and instrumental differences, and there are no independent institutional perspectives within the regime. Rather, there are only various apparatuses designed to be unable to overthrow Assad or unite at any time against his will. These apparatuses have their own various interests and roles, but taken together they lack any independent will, point of view, interests, or group consciousness.

Finally, the Assad regime lacks a memory. The regime’s present interests and will, and the means of it future survival, are the only factors guiding its thinking and behavior and determining its strategic perspective and calculus. The regime does not have regard those who have served it for decades, nor for those who sacrificed their lifetimes, reputations, and positions for its sake. The Assad regime lacks a memory – it is an entity loyal only to its own survival, and not to anything else. Whatever his role in or “contribution” to the regime, whoever fails to go along with the regime’s current will or interests is dealt with like any other enemy. The regime treats as enemies those who have supported its against its enemies for many decades, just like it treats those whom the loyal have destroyed in its service. At any moment of disobedience, even the loyal fall into danger equivalent to that faced by the regime’s open foes.

Let us imagine Farouq al-Shara’ writing his memoirs. What can he tell his sons and grandsons, his associates and fellow inhabitants of Dara’a, or any Syrian? Al-Shara’ spent his lifetime performing his diplomatic duties, spoke in multiple languages, and took contradictory positions in the service of the regime that received his total loyalty and obedience. He gave everything to legitimize and ensure the survival of the Assad clan, and he understood better than anyone else the detestable essence of the regime that did not allow him, after all of his service, even the honor of being removed from office for a single instance of dissatisfaction.

What will al-Shara’ and his ilk say to future Syrian generations, and what shame will they carry with them?

Syrian Government Increases Barrel Bombing, Rights Group Claims

A civil-defense member looks for survivors at a site hit by what activists said were two barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad in the Syrian city of Aleppo on July 27, 2014. Hamid Khatib—Reuters

July 30, 2014 by Per Lijas

The Syrian government has increased its use of barrel bombs since the U.N. passed a resolution on Feb. 22 ordering all parties to the conflict in Syria to end this and other indiscriminate use of weapons on civilians, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims. The rights group now calls on the U.N. Security Council to take immediate action as it meets on Wednesday for its fifth round of reports on the resolution.

“Month after month, the Security Council has sat idly by as the government defied its demands with new barrel-bomb attacks on Syrian civilians,” HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement. “Russia and China need to allow the Security Council to show the same resolve and unanimity it brought to the issue of humanitarian aid to call a halt to these deadly attacks on civilians.”

Barrel bombs are large oil drums, gas cylinders or other containers filled with explosives and scrap metal, which are released from helicopters. On detonation, they tend to create more substantial destruction of buildings than other types of air strikes and artillery fire. The use of barrel bombs in Syria picked up in December last year, when over 500 people were killed by the devices in Aleppo.

HRW has documented over 650 new damage sites consistent with barrel-bomb impacts in Aleppo neighborhoods held by groups fighting the Syrian government in the 140 days since the U.N. resolution was enacted — 270 more sites than what was documented in the preceding 113 days. Now the group urges the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on all groups implicated in widespread or systematic human-rights abuses, as well as sanctions against individuals implicated in these violations.

They especially call attention to the obstruction of Security Council action by Russia and China, which in May also vetoed a resolution to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

“Barrel bombs, car bombs, and indiscriminate mortar fire are killing thousands of Syrians — many times the number of those who lost their lives in chemical-weapon attacks,” said Whitson. “What will it take to get Russia and China to allow the Security Council to enforce its own words, and take real steps to address these unlawful attacks?”

‘Mummy, why did everyone forget about Syria when Gaza started?’

Free Syrian Army fighters fire at forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo
Free Syrian Army fighters shoot from behind a damaged car during an offensive against forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo. Photograph: Reuters

July 25, 2014 by Ian Black

It’s a truism that news organisations and audiences alike struggle to cope with more than one major international crisis at a time: if the war in Gazawasn’t a big enough story, then the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine was almost unbearable overload. But what aboutSyria, where 1,700 people are reported to have died in the last 10 days alone?

The uprising against Bashar al-Assad has been the biggest and longest story of what used to be known as the “Arab spring”. Recently the tide of the war has turned, due to government military successes, rebel disarray, the rise of Isis jihadis in both Syria and Iraq … and persistent and crippling international divisions.

Reporting on it is difficult: Syrian visas for journalists are sporadic and access is strictly controlled. Reporting from the rebel side via Turkey is extremely dangerous. It is much easier to get into besieged Gaza, where most international news organisations are now represented. Financial and human resources are stretched.

Syria’s latest toll includes 700 killed in just two days in the Homs area, and hundreds more in fighting against Isis around the oil fields of Deir al-Zor. For anyone who wants to play a macabre numbers game, the overall figures are still a smaller proportion than 800 Palestinian deaths out of a Gaza population of 1.8m.

But the levels of slaughter in Syria had become routine months before Gaza erupted. In the words of one Libyan woman: “My 10-year-old daughter asked me: ‘Why did everyone forget about Syria when Gaza started?’ I sadly replied: ‘They forgot about Syria a long time ago.’”

The two Middle Eastern crises are separate but linked in many ways. Syria’s state-controlled media has reported on air strikes and shelling by “the Zionist enemy” – the familiar language of decades of confrontation. It broadcasts images of dead Palestinian children that are grimly reminiscent of the young victims of Assad’s barrel-bombing, who are not shown on state TV. In some cases photographs that originated in Aleppo have been posted on social media as if they were from Gaza, and as if the genuine ones weren’t bad enough.

The latest chapter in the unequal war between Israel and the Palestinians has allowed Assad to dust off the old narrative about an “axis of resistance” that includes Syria, and its loyal allies, Iran and Hezbollah. It is worth remembering, though, that Hamas was forced to abandon its Damascus headquarters because it could not bring itself to oppose the Syrian uprising, which is one of the reasons for its current weakness, and arguably, its desperation in choosing to take on a vastly superior enemy.

Syrian hostility to its southern neighbour is real enough. Israel occupies the Golan Heights and oppresses the Palestinians (who used to live better in Syria than in any other Arab country), though Assad, like his father before him, has exploited the Palestinian cause for his own ends.

"Now that the Arab-Israeli conflict is back in the spotlight, Assad is back in his comfort zone," argues Nadim Shehadi of the Chatham House thinktank. “The regime uses the conflict to legitimise itself, and the opposition ignores it and pushes for demands unrelated to it.”

Bracketing the two wars together stirs instant controversy. Commentators who are deemed to favour Israel are accused of using Syria “to distract from Israel’s war crimes in Gaza” or being keen to bring Assad to account while ignoring Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. Many supporters of Palestinian resistance back the Syrian president against rebels who they characterise as jihadi fanatics who are bankrolled by sectarian and reactionary Gulf states, while ignoring the moderate and democratic elements of the opposition.

Israelis and their supporters complain about “selective outrage” and often hint at anti-semitic motives. It is unclear, however, how closer media attention to Syria, or less focus on Gaza, would help resolve the Palestinian issue, unless a solution can be found by more effective PR. Anti-Assad activists protest against a "selective internationalism" which opposes “the collective punishment and mass murder of Palestinians and Arabs in one land by one government and supporting or justifying their collective punishment and mass murder next door when a different government is the perpetrator”.

To call the Syrian and Palestinian struggles “one revolution, and a freedom that is indivisible” may be a moving slogan, but it ignores the many differences between the wars. Still, they do have one important thing in common: since the collapse of UN-backed Geneva talks in February, there have been no peace negotiations about the future of Syria. The same has been true for Palestine and Israel since John Kerry’s marathon mediation effort ran into the sand in April. The lesson for the international community, fatigued or bored by competing stories of Middle Eastern carnage, is that problems that are left to fester only get worse – and always take a terrible human toll.

HRW says Syria govt air strikes defy UN resolution

Syrian air force jet. (AFP PHOTO)

Syrian air force jet. (AFP PHOTO)

Beirut, July 30, 2014 by AFP

Human Rights Watch sharply criticized the Syrian air force on Wednesday for intensifying strikes on Aleppo, despite a UN Security Council resolution ordering all sides in the conflict to stop indiscriminate attacks.

The New York-based rights group also rapped the Security Council for inaction over the violence in Syria in a statement issued ahead of a meeting of the UN body.

"The Syrian government is raining high explosive barrel bombs on civilians in defiance of a unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution," HRW said, referring to resolution 2139 from February.

The resolution banned the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs - widely used by Syrian government forces on rebel-held towns and cities - and all other weapons in populated areas.

"Month after month, the Security Council has sat idly by as the government defied its demands with new barrel bomb attacks on Syrian civilians," HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson said.

The group also urged two key backers of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and China, to allow the Security Council to implement the resolution.

HRW said it has documented “over 650 major new damage sites consistent with barrel bomb impacts” in opposition-held areas of Aleppo city since the resolution was passed.

"Witness statements, satellite imagery analysis, and video and photographic evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch indicate that government forces have maintained and even increased their bombardment rate of Aleppo," the group said.

HRW described barrel bombs as “cheaply made, locally produced, and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and then dropped from helicopters.”

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, hundreds of civilians, including children, have been killed in a major aerial offensive launched by government forces on Aleppo in December.

"The deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime, and if carried out in a widespread or systematic way as part of a policy of the government or an organized group, can amount to crimes against humanity," said HRW.

The group criticized rebel forces for carrying out “indiscriminate attacks as well, including car bombings and mortar attacks in pro-government areas.”

The war in Syria has killed more than 170,000 people, and forced nearly half the population to flee.

United States Announces Additional Humanitarian Assistance for Syria Crisis

July 30, 2014

Fact sheet

Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced today that the United States is providing nearly $378 million in additional U.S. aid to help those affected by the war in Syria. With this funding, total U.S. humanitarian assistance since the start of the crisis will reach more than $2.4 billion; with $1.2 billion helping over 4.7 million people inside Syria, and $1.2 billion helping nearly 3 million refugees and host communities in the neighboring countries affected by the crisis.

The United States remains the single-largest donor of humanitarian aid for those affected by this crisis. For the refugees from Syria in the region, and the host communities straining to support them, this additional assistance provides food, shelter, medical supplies, and other life-saving assistance. Throughout the region, U.S. funding has helped contain the spread of polio with a vaccination campaign that has reached 25 million children; provided tens of thousands of children schooling and educational materials; and supported specialized care for nearly 20,000 women who are recovering from the effects of sexual and gender-based violence. The United States remains grateful to Syria’s neighbors for their hospitality and support of those fleeing the violence in Syria.

The United States has been a leading supporter of efforts to deliver aid across borders in order to reach some of the hardest hit areas. We are committed to ensuring that our aid reaches those in some of the hardest hit areas. Nearly $36 million of the aid announced today will be provided through non-governmental organizations that are quietly and heroically working to deliver aid to those with the greatest needs inside Syria. Since 2012, the United States has provided more than $401 million in cross-border assistance to help the children, women, and men residing in areas outside of the regime’s control. This life-saving cross-border operation is just one part of the United States’ overall contribution to help people inside Syria.

In addition to our existing cross-border aid programs, today’s announcement helps support the UN as it works toward full implementation of UN Resolution 2165. This resolution authorizes UN and other humanitarian organizations to bring life-saving assistance through four border crossings into Syria without the Asad regime’s consent.

Syria’s crisis grows increasingly dire every day. More than 10.8 million people in Syria now need aid, including 6.4 million internally displaced persons. Of those, almost 5 million live in hard to reach areas, and more than 241,000 of them are trapped in besieged areas. Violence has killed an estimated 170,000 people and produced a refugee crisis throughout the entire region.

U.S. Humanitarian Assistance for the Syria Crisis, By Country


New Funding

Total – Since FY 2012

Inside Syria

$160 million

$1,207 million


$93 million

$485 million


$84 million

$388 million


$20 million

$162 million


$8 million

$113 million


$13 million

$45 million

*Figures are rounded

For more detailed information on the U.S. government’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, please visit:  www.usaid.gov/crisis/syria.

For Two Years, He Smuggled Photos Of Torture Victims Out Of Syria

July 29, 2014 by Tom Bowman

The savage and protracted conflict in Syria has left more than 170,000 dead. Now, there are allegations of torture and killing of political prisoners opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Those allegations appear to be supported by evidence: tens of thousands of photographs.

The man who says he took the pictures worked as a military police photographer for the Assad regime and defected last year.

 I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. There are pictures of children, there are pictures of the elderly, and there’s a picture of a woman. And at times I would actually see pictures of my own neighbors and some people from my own village.

- Caesar, a former Syrian military police photographer who defected last year

The photos show victims bearing the marks of beatings and torture: eyes gouged out, burn marks or deep wounds. Each corpse is accompanied by a white card with numbers written on it — in death, no names, only numbers. In some pictures there are more than a dozen bodies, naked in the dirt. Some of the dead are children, under the age of 18, starved to death.

The man who took many of these pictures wears a baseball cap and large tinted glasses during a press event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. He goes by the name Caesar to protect his identity. He also didn’t want his voice to be recorded. Caesar recalls a time when his job was normal.

"I used to take pictures of regular accidents: somebody drowned, there’s a burning building, something like that," Caesar says through his interpreter, an advocate for the Syrian opposition. "That was my regular routine."

He says there were occasional photos of dead prisoners. That number quickly grew to dozens, and then hundreds, as opposition to Assad intensified.

"I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. There are pictures of children, there are pictures of the elderly, and there’s a picture of a woman," Caesar says. "And at times I would actually see pictures of my own neighbors and some people from my own village."

He says he wanted to keep records so families would know what happened. But he never contacted anyone.

"I was terrified. I couldn’t reach out to any of them," he says.

Eventually, Caesar says his conscience couldn’t bear the work. He contacted a member of the opposition, saying he wanted to defect. He was urged to stay, and collect evidence.

Caesar says he began smuggling out thumb drives of the pictures he took with a team of photographers between the fall of 2011 and the summer of 2013: some 55,000 photographs of nearly 11,000 people, all photographed at a military facility in Damascus.

The Syrian regime says the pictures are fake. But an international team of investigators authenticated them. And now the FBI is examining the pictures, too.

Stephen Rapp is the State Department’s lead official on war crimes. He told NPR in May that he has seen hundreds of these pictures.

"This represents killing on an industrial scale, but not just killing — the most gruesome sorts of acts. It’s like the Nazis keeping track of the people that they’ve killed in the Holocaust," Rapp said. "We’re talking here about a volume of material that’s almost impossible to imagine that it could be created out of whole cloth."

Rapp said these pictures — should they be authenticated by the U.S. — could be used as a basis for war crimes charges against members of the Syrian regime.

"It may not happen immediately, but that expectation is there," he said.

The man who interpreted for Caesar is Mouaz Moustafa. He is a member of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit group seeking support for the moderate Syrian opposition. He hopes the pictures and Caesar’s visit to Washington will focus attention on what’s going on inside Syria.

"There needs to be pressure from all the free world and the international community. In modern history we see quite a few ‘never again’ moments," Moustafa says. "And here not only do we see a never again moment, but we see a never again moment that continues to this day while we all sit here."

So far the Obama administration has slowly been increasing military support for the Syrian opposition. But they’re still seeking congressional action to do more.

Meanwhile, Caesar is scheduled to hold private meetings this week with lawmakers and State Department officials, as well as the FBI, who want to learn more about the photos.

EU increases Syria humanitarian aid by 50 mn euros

Brussels, July 29, 2014 by AFP

The European Commission said Tuesday it would release a further 50 million euros ($67 million) in humanitarian aid for Syria as the crisis there deepens.

This brings the total amount of aid this year to 150 million euros, which the EU says is aimed at helping the most vulnerable people in a conflict that has so far cost more than 170,000 lives and displaced half the population of 23 million.

The Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, said it also approved proposals to increase assistance for neighbouring countries dealing with an “unprecedented flow of refugees.”

This extra 125 million euros for refugees is in addition to 75 million euros already made available under the EU’s European Neighbourhood Instrument.

The Syrian conflict amounts to the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” the Commission said in a statement, with some 9.3 million people inside the country and a further 2.8 million refugees “in need of vital assistance.”

Since the conflict began in March 2011, more than a million Syrians have taken refuge in tiny neighbouring Lebanon.

Others are in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, which have all struggled with the influx of arrivals.

Meanwhile, more than 120,000 Syrians have sought asylum in Europe, crossing land borders or making risky trips across the Mediterranean.

Syrian Portraits of Eid

July 29, 2014 by Lina Sergie Attar

Three years ago, three Ramadans ago, the tide of optimism rooted in the masses’ steadfast and peaceful chants for freedom and dignity, began to turn on the Syrian Revolution. In the summer of 2011, #RamadanMassacre was the first ominous hashtag of the dark times to come. Violence escalated, first slowly than sharply, until it became the everyday norm in the struggle between people and regime. Still, with hopeful, Arab-Spring-oriented eyes fixated on Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Syrians predicted that the Assad regime would fall by Eid, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of fasting, Ramadan. And if not by this Eid, then the next one for sure. For how long could a dictator slaughter the people? And how many could his thugs get away with killing and torturing? And how many bombs could the air force possibly drop on civilians? The end must be near.

Three years later, three Eids later, over 170,000 stolen Syrian lives later, and a country of leveled cities and scorched villages later, no one makes such naive and random predictions any longer. Instead, collective melancholy has cast a heavy shadow on this holiday. Not only has the violence escalated to unprecedented levels with over 1700 lives lost during the conflict’s deadliest week yet, but the world has turned its bored gaze away from Syria, seemingly forever this time.

Social media platforms that we once used to share news and videos about Syrian atrocities with the outside world have become our echo chambers to grieve and recollect with fellow Syrians. Over the last couple of days, I’ve been moved by Facebook statuses in Arabic — posted by Syrian friends from Syria to Turkey to America — that embody the bittersweet mood.

Each voice is heavy with nostalgia, regret, resilience, defiance, loss, and still, lined with a glimmer of hope. Each status is a miniature portrait of what Syria has become to Syrians: memories of a more innocent past infused with the hope that one Eid, not next Eid, but some Eid in our unknown future must finally bring with it sweetness without grief; happiness without ache; and life for all Syrians without bloodshed.

Good morning. A blessed Eid to all. Our fourth Eid has arrived with the tyrant still clenching his blood-soaked throne. The revolution continues and will not rest until he drinks from the same cruel cup of destiny that he served us. — Raed Faris
A box of Damascene sweets crossed the city’s checkpoints and traveled to Beirut then flew to Cairo where my mother divided the goods and shipped half to New York. The Aleppian pistachios, sesame seeds, and Damask Rose petals remind me that my country is much more than the scent of gunpowder and the sound of bombs. Its people are better than the useless politicians who debate on screens until we’ve lost the ability to understand them. My Eid exists in a box of sweets that I cannot bring myself to open — for I fear severing the umbilical cord that connects me to Damascus. I miss you. — Tamara Al-Rifai
Celebrate Eid as you please and don’t listen to those pessimists who lament, “In what sad form did our Eid return to us?” If you can bring a smile to a child’s face, then do so. The revolution was for humanity. It was for us. Yes, our hearts ache to the point of breaking, but life continues, and the revolution continues. Happy Eid to you all. May it return to you in better times, my Facebook friends. — Ghassan Yassin
Greetings to every Eid that passed by in my homeland while I’m far away from her. Greetings to the road between Aleppo and Latakia that I traveled on with my children on the day before Eid to visit our relatives with hearts filled with joy. Greetings to the road between Latakia and Homs that we drove on to visit more family on the second day of Eid. Greetings to my family and my country and every inch I walked upon on those days I didn’t realize would eventually disappear and never return. A blessed Eid to all. — Mouna Gharib
Since nothing has changed since last Eid, I’ll repeat what I said last year, perhaps God will respond to my prayers this time. “Another Eid arrives and my homeland bleeds. My country is held ransom by monsters from all sides, both local and imported. I don’t wish to lie to myself or my friends and celebrate another Eid while we drown in tragedy. Yet, I bestow a wish upon everyone — the broken souls before the ones still intact, the refugees before the ones still in their homes, the ones living without before the ones living in comfort, and the true Syrians before the ones without honor— that God willing, by next Eid our beloved country will return to us so we can rebuild it better than it was before. For no one knows an object’s worth until it is lost. A blessed Eid to you all.” — Husam Marsheh
Eid Mubarak to all my friends and to all friends of humanity around the world. On my trip inside Syria last week, I witnessed how even under the most brutal bombardment imaginable, the Syrian people continue to yearn for a normal life and a normal Eid. I watched women making sweets for the holiday. Some were widows, some had lost their sons and daughters, some had lost their homes. Yet they made sweets for the kids to enjoy on this blessed holiday. May you and your families always live with peace, dignity, and freedom. — Kenan Rahmani
Kenan Rahmani making Eid sweets with Syrian children in Aleppo. July 2014

Syria rebels advance towards key airport in Hama province

Beirut, July 29, 2014 by AFP

Syrian rebels pressed on with a fresh advance in the central province of Hama, as they bid to take out its military airport, a rebel commander and a monitor said Tuesday.

"The rebels are now nine kilometers [six miles] away from Hama military airport, which they want to put out of action," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

A rebel leader in the area, who gave his name as Hassan, said Hama military airport was important because “that is where the regime makes its barrel bombs, and warplanes take off from there to carry out air strikes on [opposition-held] areas across Syria.”

Barrel bombs have killed hundreds of civilians, especially in rebel areas of the divided northern city of Aleppo, in recent months.

According to the Observatory, rebels and their Al-Qaeda ally, the Al-Nusra Front, took over a major checkpoint north of Hama city, which is firmly under regime control, on Monday night.

The takeover of the checkpoint at Tarabih comes on the back of Sunday’s capture of a weapons depot in the area.

"The regime has suffered several defeats in Hama province in recent days," said Abdel Rahman.

As they have advanced, rebels have cut off the road linking Hama city, the provincial capital, to a string of regime-controlled Christian and Alawite villages in the west of the province, he added.

According to Hassan, the regime is sending reinforcements.

"They are stepping up their troop presence here, which will limit the regime’s capabilities in other areas, such as Aleppo," said the rebel commander, who spoke to AFP via the Internet.

As for the military airport: “We are already striking it with Grad missiles,” said Hassan.

The air force has used deadly barrel bombs, which are being manufactured in Hama military airport, to strike opposition-controlled areas across Syria for many months.

In Aleppo alone, air strikes including barrel bomb attacks have since December killed hundreds of civilians including children, and forced thousands of families to flee, as the regime has unleashed a massive aerial offensive there.

Rights groups have hit out at the regime for its use of barrel bombs, which they describe as failing to discriminate between civilian and military targets.

Syria’s war has killed more than 170,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.

In D.C., Syrian defector displays photos of mutilated bodies

July 28, 2014 by Greg Miller

A Syrian defector who smuggled out thousands of photos of mutilated corpses, showed some of those images in Washington on Monday and said they depicted prisoners who were tortured and killed by the security services of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The presentation to a small group of reporters and researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum marked the first time that the defector, identified only as Caesar, has appeared publicly to answer questions about a trove of materials seen by human rights organizations as evidence of war crimes committed by Assad.

The photographs show as many as 11,000 victims’ bodies — many of them tagged as they lie in makeshift morgues — and were turned over to United Nations and FBI investigators after the defector fled Syria last year. The photos have been described as authentic by U.S. officials.

The defector said that he and other government employees took the images while working in jobs that required them to photograph the dead for the Assad government’s records.

The photographs presented Monday showed dozens of badly mutilated and emaciated corpses, many of them disfigured by beatings, missing chunks of skin from lashings, or bearing rashes that experts said may reflect exposure to toxic substances.

Despite their potential value as evidence, the defector said that Assad officials required that the photos be taken as proof of the deaths and as proof that the orders of leaders of the government’s security agencies were being carried out.

The defector spoke through a translator.

The existence of the photos has been previously reported. They were viewed by U.N. Security Council officials in April as part of an unsuccessful effort by France to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

The defector has held a series of meetings with U.S. government and congressional officials in Washington this week, according to Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, who presided over a question-and-answer session at the museum on Monday.

Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and a member of the museum’s governing council, attended and introduced the defector.

Wearing sunglasses and a San Francisco Giants’ baseball cap pulled low over his face, the defector spoke on the condition that he not be photographed or recorded. He said that his job as a photographer for the nation’s military morphed during the Syrian civil war into an assignment recording images of the bodies being brought to Hospital 601 in Damascus.

“My conscience would not allow me to continue taking pictures and not be able to leak them out or share them,” Caesar said. “It was horrendous.” He said he began leaking the images to Syrian opposition groups in 2011.

At first, he said there were only five or 10 a day, but the numbers swelled to 50 or 60 as the conflict grew. He said the photos were taken between 2011 and 2013. Those shown Monday as part of a video presentation showed the corpses of men whose eyes had been gouged out, and dozens of bodies starved to skin and bones.

All were held at Syrian prisons, the defector said, and many were marked with number sequences on their torsos, or on tags attached to their heads or bodies. In some cases, families were given death certificates saying they had died of heart attacks or other natural causes. The Syrian government has rejected the claims.

The photos have not been released publicly. But Moustafa on Monday said he would seek to work with the Holocaust Museum to post some online.

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