Amnesty report reveals desperate plight of Syrian refugees in Turkey

Syrian Kurdish refugees at a camp in Suruc on the Turkey-Syria border.

Syrian Kurdish refugees at a camp in Suruc on the Turkey-Syria border. Photograph: Vadim Ghirda/AP

November 20, 2014 by Constanze Letsch in Gaziantep, Reyhanli and Istanbul

More than 1 million Syrian refugees who have flocked to Turkey to escape fighting at home are struggling to survive on their own, with government-run refugee camps operating at full capacity, according to a report by Amnesty International.

Turkey has been lauded for its swift response to the massive influx of Syrians, but the international community has failed to find sustainable ways to assist, the report says.

Turkey hosts 1.6 million Syrian refugees, half of the total that have left Syria since the war began in March 2011. So far, the Turkish government has spent about $4bn (£3bn) on the refugees, and theoretically grants free healthcare to all Syrian refugees.

About 220,000 are living in 22 government-run camps, which offer food and essential services, the report said. The remaining 1.38 million – more than 85% – are living outside the camps, mostly in communities along the Turkey-Syrian border.

In many cities and towns bordering Syria, tension is rising due to an ever-increasing Syrian population. Turkey does not grant Syrians official refugee status, labelling them as “guests” who enjoy temporary protection, but in many Turkish cities with a large Syrian population, local people increasingly feel that refugees have outstayed their welcome, often citing lack of housing, rapidly rising rents and unregistered Syrian businesses that make for unwelcome – and sometimes untaxed – competition.

The Amnesty report states that an increasing number of refugees are being denied access to the safety of Turkish territory, and many of those who attempt to cross the border have become victims of abuse.

“There can be no excuse for ‘pushbacks’ into war-torn Syria or for beating or shooting at refugees seeking safety in the country,” Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International, said.

Gardner criticised the international community for letting Syria’s neighbours shoulder a disproportionately large responsibility to receive refugees.

“The response of the international community to the Syrian refugee crisis has been pitiful both in terms of resettling refugees from the region and taking financial responsibility for the reception of Syrian refugees in Turkey,” he said.

According to the report, only 28% of the $497m earmarked for Turkey in the UN’s 2014 regional funding appeal for Syrians has been committed by international donors. “In September 2014, Turkey received some 130,000 refugees from Syria, more than the entire European Union had in the past three years,” the report states.

Amnesty pointed out that the rising tension in Turkey and the unwillingness to accept more Syrian refugees resulting in violence at the border was in part due to the lack of a concerted international effort to find a more sustainable solution to the crisis.

The report documents dozens of cases of Syrians who were severely beaten, shot at and otherwise ill-treated by Turkish border guards. At least 17 refugees were killed. In violation of the non-refoulement principle, which bans countries from returning refugees to conflict zones where their lives are in danger, many Syrians are being pushed back at the Turkish border.

The report points out that the estimated 1.38 million Syrians who live outside the government-run refugee camps struggle to secure a minimum of social and economic rights, such as education, housing and healthcare. Many families live in abject poverty, often in unsanitary, even dangerous, housing conditions. According to the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), only 15% of refugees outside of camps receive humanitarian aid.

In order to circumvent legal restrictions on opening businesses, shops, cafes and restaurants are often owned by Turks on paper, but managed and operated by Syrians.

Reyhanli, a small town close to the Syrian border, is dotted with shops and restaurants sporting Arabic signs. One corner shop owner, 38, said that he felt overwhelmed by the new competition. “I have to pay taxes and they don’t. I have to keep everything in order in case of a labour inspection, but nobody asks anything of the Syrians. The authorities simply turn a blind eye,” he said.

Another disgruntled resident said his landlord recently increased his rent from 300 lira to 700 lira (£85-£200) a month, arguing that many were willing to pay. “I now feel like a stranger in my own city,” the chef said.

“There are no more apartments, no more houses,” agreed Mustafa, 23. “I am going to get married next month, but my wife and I will have nowhere to move to.”

In some cities rents have tripled or quadrupled in the space of three years due to the massive increase in demand. Even those who can afford to pay inflated rents often struggle to find homes.

Discontent and tension are on the rise. According to a poll in January, only 11% of all Turks support the government accepting Syrian refugees unconditionally, whereas 65% thought Turkey should stop welcoming them altogether, with 30% wanting to send back those already in the country.

Refugees rest in a field near their temporary shelter in Suruc. There are 1.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Photograph: Getty Images

While Amnesty called on Turkey to end abuses of refugees on its borders, the report also made clear that a more sustained international effort to alleviate the suffering of Syrians fleeing the war was indispensable.

“For over three years the international community has looked the other way. But it is clear that this crisis will not go away and it is likely that it will get worse,” Gardner said.

“What is needed is a comprehensive solution for the more than 1.3 million refugees who live in Turkey outside the camps, many of them in appalling, inhumane conditions.

“The international community must supply the extra funding to meet their needs, which should include investing in infrastructure, schools and healthcare. This would be to the benefit not only to the refugees, but also of the local population, and hereby provide a comprehensive solution to the crisis,” he said

Syrians in Turkey: ‘people are fed up with us being here’

Abu Nour, 35, from Aleppo, said he was severely beaten by Turkish soldiers when he tried to cross the border near Gaziantep. “There were several of them, and they hit and kicked me. I had to turn back,” he said.

The former primary school teacher, who eventually made it into Turkey, has lived in Gaziantep for less than a year and says he is “very grateful” for everything Turks have done for him.

“But I feel that people are fed up with us being here,” he added. “They react angrily. I am not comfortable here and if I could I would go somewhere else.”

Married only by a religious official in his home country for security reasons, he has been unable to register his Syrian wife and newborn child as his family, banning them from receiving further aid and family benefits. “We feel trapped,” he said.

While many Syrians say they want to go home after the war is over, many have started to plan a more permanent stay in Turkey and it is likely that many will remain in Turkey for a long time after the conflict comes to an end.

Selahaddin Jemili, 50, from Manbij, recently opened four small shops in Gaziantep selling towels of all sizes, a business he used to conduct successfully in Syria. He still runs four stores in his home town across the border, but fears the volatile situation there could leave him destitute: “My shops in Turkey are like insurance for me. In Syria, I could lose everything in one minute, one bomb might finish everything I have built there.”

The Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce has urged the Turkish authorities to regularise Syrian workers, arguing that all sides would benefit. “In fact, Gaziantep needs more workers. We asked the government to issue temporary work permits for Syrians so that they are able to contribute to our economy,” Eyüp Bartik, president of the chamber, said.

In October the Turkish government passed a temporary protection directive that, in theory, will grant Syrian refugees a firmer legal status in their host country, including the guarantee to stay in Turkey and the possibility to apply for work permits. It has not yet been implemented.

The lack of clear regulations, as well as the inability of Syrians who cross the border illegally to apply for a business licence or work permit, often leaves them without funds and vulnerable to exploitation. With his papers in order and the capital necessary to found a business in Turkey, Jemili was able to legally open his shops, but most Syrians are less fortunate.

Abu Muhammad, 58, a master pastry chef from the Syrian city of Hama, works in a Reyhanli bakery owned by a Turk, for 600 lira a month. “A Turkish master baker would make much more than that, it’s not fair,” he said. “But I am very grateful to the Turks who opened this shop, I will not complain.” Since he does not have a work permit, his employer does not pay his social security.

One Turkish worker in a furniture factory in Gaziantep said her employers would regularly hide illegally employed Syrians during visits from labour inspectors. “They get paid even less then we do,” she said. “They are desperate.”

Turkey pushes for no-fly zone in Syria, US still reluctant

Syrian Kurdish refugee children from the Kobane area speak after receiving food rations in front of living quarters separated by plastic sheets at a camp in Suruç, on the Turkey-Syria border, Nov. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Syrian Kurdish refugee children from the Kobane area speak after receiving food rations in front of living quarters separated by plastic sheets at a camp in Suruç, on the Turkey-Syria border, Nov. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

November 21, 2014 by Sevil Erkus

Turkey has pushed the U.S. to declare a no-fly zone and safe haven in northern Syria, as part of a coalition strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but Washington is still reluctant for such a move.

Turkey and the U.S. have a “general mutual understanding,” but the two parties have not reached a deal on a train-and-equip program for the “moderate opposition” in Syria, a Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Turkey and the U.S. have not reached a final agreement on the number of Syrian opposition soldiers to be trained, or which opposition groups would be part of the train-and-equip program, according to the diplomat, who also noted that there is no exact date to launch the program. The political leadership will soon decide on the issue, the diplomat added.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Ankara will not alter its current position on joining the anti-jihadist coalition unless the international community targets the Bashar al-Assad regime and moves to establish a security zone and no-fly zone inside Syria.

“[The international community] has not yet taken the steps we recommended to them. There are only some signals and possibilities. Turkey’s position will surely continue as it is unless [its recommendations] are put in place,” Erdoğan told reporters before his departure to Algeria on Nov. 19.  

Turkey has long been pressing the U.S.-led international coalition against ISIL to equally designate toppling the al-Assad regime as an objective and to take military measures to this end. Establishing security zones inside Syria and creating a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace are among Turkey’s conditions before it will actively participate in the coalition. For its part, Washington has been requesting the opening of a number of Turkish air bases to facilitate an aerial campaign conducted by coalition fighters. 

The only deal currently on the table between Turkey and the U.S. is to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition groups but, as Erdoğan said, no final agreement has been made on this issue either. 

“We would be deceiving ourselves if we only talk about training and equipping [Syrian opposition]. We should evaluate Iraq and Syria differently. In Syria, efforts aimed at toppling the al-Assad regime should be carried out,” Erdoğan said, reiterating Turkey’s demand for established security zones inside Syria. 

A general strategy for both is necessary, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tanju Bilgiç also said, when asked if a no-fly zone is a condition to launch a train-and-equip program. 

“I can’t specifically say this is a condition, but our approach to the region is obvious. We think an extensive strategy should be drawn up. This problem cannot be resolved merely by airstrikes against ISIL. This broad strategy must include a no-fly zone, safe havens and a train-and-equip program,” Bilgiç said, adding that the establishment of a safe haven would prevent any influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey from near Aleppo.

The spokesperson stressed that negotiations with the U.S. are still underway and “it’s not appropriate to say one is a precondition for another while the talks are still continuing.” 

All issues, including a no-fly zone, are sure to be on the agenda of talks with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during his visit to Turkey, Bilgiç also noted.

Meanwhile, Obama’s special envoy for coalition efforts against the jihadist threat in Iraq and Syria, John Allen, had talks with Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu on Nov. 19.

A Syrian’s Struggle To Get By

The population of the Syrian city of Douma — a rebel enclave — has dropped from 750,000 to about 250,000 since the start of the Syrian conflict. Photographer Saeed al-Batal (a pseudonym) has captured life in this city under siege. Here, a scene from Douma photographed on Oct. 23.

The population of the Syrian city of Douma — a rebel enclave — has dropped from 750,000 to about 250,000 since the start of the Syrian conflict. Photographer Saeed al-Batal (a pseudonym) has captured life in this city under siege. Here, a scene from Douma photographed on Oct. 23. Saeed al-Batal

November 18, 2014

Syria is in the news constantly, yet it’s rare that we hear from Syrians inside the country who face daily struggles to get by.

As the war grinds on and with winter approaching, we reached out to photographer and filmmaker Saeed al-Batal, a pseudonym he uses for his safety.

Al-Batal painted a grim picture of his life in Douma, a suburb to the north of Damascus that has been under siege.

Here are the highlights of his interview with NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep:

Audio here

Please describe your situation.

The city used to have 750,000 [residents], now there is about 250,000 in the city, and most people are in a bad situation. All of us eat one meal a day. There is not enough of anything. We are in big need for everything.

How does food get into the suburbs of Damascus?

Under the siege, you can make deals with the army that surrounds us. The deals are under the table deals and they go with high prices. The price of one kilogram [2.2 pounds] of rice in Douma is about $10. Ten dollars in this area is too much because no one can make more than $1 a day — if he is lucky.

One man from Douma described his life as if he was doing shift work. He would hold a weapon on the front line and rotate in and out. Do you do that?

No, I don’t hold weapons. I only hold camera. It’s a kind of weapon. I do go to frontline. I stand beside the fellow rebel who is carrying a weapon and film what he is doing.

In Syria before the revolution, holding a camera or having a camera was a big crime. Before the revolution there were no pictures from Syria. After the revolution, there are a massive number of pictures and movies from inside Syria and that is one of the good sides of the revolution. I can go to the free areas and film whatever I want and capture whatever I think is good and enjoy this little bit of freedom.

A scene in Harasta, just west of Douma, on Oct. 14.

A scene in Harasta, just west of Douma, on Oct. 14. Saeed al-Batal

What are people saying about U.S. policy toward Syria?

It’s either stupid or [people] don’t care. They say that the [Syrian] regime killed more than 200,000 people and no one in the world did anything. When ISIS killed 3,000 people, all the world gathered and said we should fight it. When the Syrian regime strikes with chemical weapons and kills 1,500 in one day and none of the world did anything to stop that.

So people, they have no hope in the universe. They see themselves as so alone and depend on nothing but themselves. Under the very heavy need in every sort of life comes a new creativity we did not know about before.

For example, did you know that you can create gasoline and other fuel from plastic and you can also create energy from fossils of the animals. You have to create things that are not here. In the area, no electricity. No water support. No hospitals. You have to fill all these empty holes in the system.

Now we are extracting fuel out of plastic. We use it to make generators work. Then we charge batteries. That is how I can talk to you.

Do the people who remain include children and do they have anything like a normal life? 

I don’t remember what normal life is. I don’t have a clear vision of that. There is civilian life in here. Of course there are women and children, a high number of them. We have like 20,000 (rebel) soldiers, all the rest civilian. We do create small schools in basements to try to educate as much as you can. But under this harsh situation where you don’t eat enough, education is last of your concerns.

Syrian insurgents attack government-held town near Israel

Amman, November 20, 2014 by Suleiman Al-Khalidi

Fighters from Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and other insurgents attacked and briefly entered Baath City in southern Syria on Thursday, the army’s last major bastion in a province flanking the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The battle is part of a campaign launched by the insurgents this week to take control of the entire Quneitra province. Only Baath City and neighbouring Khan Arnaba town remain under President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

"If they fall the rebels will have secured the second province after Raqqa," said Abu Said Jolani, an activist in the area.

Raqqa, in northern Syria, is held by the militant group Islamic State and has been targeted by U.S.-led air strikes.

The insurgents were locked in street fighting with government troops in the city centre overnight and were pushed back to the outskirts on Thursday, activists said. Thousands of Baath City’s 30,000 residents have already fled.

The city was named after Syria’s ruling Baath Party as an act of defiance after the destruction of nearby Quneitra city in the 1967 war with Israel. Quneitra was abandoned and Baath is now the provincial administrative centre.

About 2,000 fighters were taking part in the southern offensive. Their advances, which expand insurgent control close to the Golan Heights and Jordan, are also important because Assad’s power base in Damascus lies just 40 miles (65 km) to the north. The fighters want to open a path towards the capital and link up with insurgents there.

Before entering Baath City, the insurgents said they had captured several villages on the outskirts and claimed control of most of the countryside.

"The rebels are using all kinds of weapons from tank fire to mortars, as well as raiding groups," said Abdullah Saif Allah, a Nusra Front field commander in Hamidiya town near the frontier with Israel.

Syrian state media and pro-government newspapers have said the army, backed by loyalist militias, had repelled the rebel push in Baath City. They reported heavy fighting after a barrage of rebel mortar and artillery fire hit the city centre and municipality building.

Hundreds of Nusra fighters who fled from the eastern Deir al-Zor province after being driven out by Islamic State earlier this year have regrouped in southern Syria, boosting the rebel presence there, activists say.

"It gave the fighters in the area the upper hand," said Abu Yahya al-Anari, a fighter from Ahrar al-Sham.

The army depends on aerial bombardments in the area. On the ground, it has been exposed since moving thousands of troops from bases to reinforce Aleppo in the north, rebels say.

Insurgent gains since earlier this year have been mainly achieved by Nusra Front together with other Islamist brigades and rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Unlike rebel in-fighting further north, they have coordinated well so far.

Most of heavy weaponry and fighters in Quneitra province are drawn from hardline Islamist brigades such as Ahrar al-Sham and al Muthana alongside Nusra, activists and analysts say.

They have eroded the dominance of the Western-backed rebels that control areas further southeast towards Deraa city and along the Jordanian border.

Majority of IS civilian victims in Syria are reportedly Sunnis

November 17, 2014 by MEE/Agencies

The Islamic State group (IS) has executed nearly 1,500 people in Syria in the past five months, the majority of whom were Sunni civilians, a monitoring group said Monday.

"The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the execution of 1,429 people since the IS announced its ‘caliphate’ in June," the group’s director, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.

The majority of IS’s victims in Syria have been civilians, he said.

"Of the total number of people beheaded or shot dead in mass killings by IS, 879 have been civilians, some 700 of them members of the Shaitat tribe."

The Sunni Muslim Shaitat tribe, from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, rose up against the group in mid-2014.

Another 63 of the dead were members of other rebel groups including the Al-Nusra Front, which has fought IS in the north and east, Abdel Rahman said.

"Another 483 were regime soldiers, while four others were IS members" accused of corruption or other alleged offences, Abdel Rahman said.

Ghassan Ibrahim, a London-based Syrian commentator who is critical of the government of President Bashar al-Assad, told MEE that IS militants are primarily concerned with fighting Syrian rebel groups.

"The regime casualties at the hands of IS militants are not the result of a consistent policy by the group," said Ibrahim.

"IS’s clashes with regime forces are infrequent and are usually over capturing energy resourceful areas," he added, noting that "despite this, the regime often buys oil from IS."

Syria refugees need help as winter looms

Meanwhile, Syrians forced by nearly four years of war to flee their homes are in desperate need of more aid as winter approaches, a humanitarian group warned on Monday.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said the enormous numbers of Syrians displaced by the war faced plummeting temperatures and heavy rains.

"Vulnerable communities and families without adequate shelter, living in damaged or incomplete buildings, are struggling to prepare for the expected low temperatures in Syria and neighbouring countries," it said in a statement.

More than half of Syria’s population has been forced to flee their homes since the conflict began in March 2011.

Some 3.2 million have fled beyond the country’s borders, and more than 7.2 million have become internally displaced, according to the United Nations.

In its statement, the IFRC urged donors to act quickly in order to help the displaced and refugees.

"From the past experience, we know that getting support to communities on time is vital. Delays now could mean the aid doesn’t arrive when the temperatures drop," said Michael Higginson, head of the IFRC’s crisis team for Syria.

In past years, countless Syrian refugees and displaced families have had to face snowstorms with little more than a flimsy tents to protect themselves.

The group said it hoped to distribute 50,000 cold-weather kits inside Syria, each containing mattresses and thermal blankets, but needed five million Swiss francs ($5.2 million) to fund them.

Syria’s war began as a pro-democracy movement, but later evolved into a savage civil war after the government unleashed a brutal crackdown against dissent.

The United Nations has described Syria’s war as “the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century”.

Syria’s Descent into a Public Health Nightmare

November 20, 2014 by Katarina Montgomery 

Syria once had one of the best-developed healthcare systems in the Arab world. But as the war wears on, millions of civilians find themselves in desperate need of medical care, facing limited options as doctors have been forced to flee and few medical supplies reach local populations, particularly in opposition-held territory.

Human-rights groups say that systematic and deliberate attacks on medical personnel and facilities have become the norm. Doctors are sometimes forced to work in secret, moving hospitals to underground locations in factories, farms, houses and even caves to avoid ongoing barrel bombing and shelling of their facilities. There they are forced to work with little or no access to electricity or medical supplies; patients suffering from critical wounds are being treated without anesthesia, while doctors perform emergency surgeries in makeshift conditions.

Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group, published a report earlier this year documenting the deaths of 526 medical personnel, “43 percent of whom were specifically targeted” by their killers. The report said that 99 percent of the killings were committed by government forces.

Dr. Annie Sparrow, a pediatrician at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital with extensive field experience in and around Syria, tells Syria Deeply that few specialists remain in Syria, with only two surgeons and one obstetrician left in Deir Ezzor province. A recent New York Times report claims that there are only 13 surgeons left in the city of Aleppo.

“An appalling situation is just going to get worse,” Sparrow says.

She spoke to Syria Deeply about the ongoing attrition and targeting of Syria’s doctors, and the rapidly deteriorating public healthcare system inside Syria.

Syria Deeply: From a medical perspective, what is happening inside Syria today? To what extent are we seeing the collapse of the healthcare infrastructure?

Sparrow: As I’ve worked on this catastrophic war over the last 18 months, I’ve seen more and more doctors leave who thought they would stay until the bitter end. Most of these doctors are so unbelievably dedicated that I never expected them to leave.

There is an ongoing attrition of doctors in Syria and their plight is a testament to how bad the situation has gotten.

They’ve been forced out by the combination of the ongoing war, ongoing attacks on hospitals, and the danger and difficulty of being a doctor inside Syria.

Inside Syria, doctor’s hands are tied because they can’t move safely between health points. Under Assad, it’s hard to move anywhere. In besieged areas, they can’t get in or out. Under ISIS, there are about 17,000 between Deir Ezzor and Aleppo and doctors have to get through every one of these checkpoints.

Since the start of U.S.-led coalition strikes on ISIS, Assad has continued the barrel bombing of many cities in Syria, including IDP camps and schools. There is a psychological massacre going on. People who were already living in squalid tents facing cold and miserable conditions now live with the fear that even a refugee camp can be bombed.

There is a lot more trauma and a lot less drugs available in Syria now. I’ve watched operations where kids have absolutely no anesthesia, anesthetics, and no sedation while they undergo removal of shrapnel and the resetting of broken limbs. Civilians in besieged areas are now facing the second winter or third winter without fuel or electricity. It’s horrific.

Syria Deeply: Many Syrians are dying because of lack of access to medical care. How are chronic diseases becoming silent killers inside Syria?

Sparrow: It’s very hard to count the number of people dying from infectious diseases, non-communicable and chronic diseases because we just don’t hear about it.

The doctors that I teach are often medical or dental students who are forced to become doctors because they are the only ones left in country. So many doctors who could leave have, and there are very few specialist doctors left. Chronic diseases – cancer, diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease – require specialist attention, yet there are not doctors or drugs. In Deir Ezzor, for example, there are only two surgeons and one obstetrician.

In the regime areas, the conditions are also dreadful. They don’t have the ability to repair or upgrade medical equipment in regime hospitals, where they are also suffering from electricity and water cuts.

The lack of clean water is one of the biggest problems in Syria. There is very little access to safe water and electricity to fuel generators or run water treatment facilities, let alone to cook a meal. A kilogram of sugar now costs $10 in eastern Ghouta, and it costs under $1 in Damascus.

Syrians need safe water like nothing else; water is now filled with all different types of diseases. We are seeing the emergence of unheard diseases, like rare tropical diseases (malaria and other parasites) that we’ve never seen in Syria before. There is a horrible disease called Myiasis in eastern Ghouta, which is a reflection of how bad the water situation is and the appalling living conditions. All of these diseases are amplified by a lack of clean water and electricity, with kids and the elderly particularly vulnerable to them. Compound all of these problems together and the end result is a very fragile and precarious population.

Syria Deeply: How large is the threat of communicable and infectious diseases inside Syria? To what extent have epidemics spread from Syria to surrounding countries? How are they being spread?

Sparrow: Syria is the epicenter of the measles and polio epidemic. We saw the rise of measles and the first case of polio in the beginning of 2013. Polio seems to be under control now, although it is difficult to know for sure under such conditions. But we’ve seen over 10,000 cases of measles this year. We’ve seen the arrival of leishmaniasis, hundreds of thousands of cases of tuberculosis, and reported outbreaks of typhoid in the summer.

These diseases are not easy to diagnose in Syria; there is a complete breakdown of the healthcare system, so there are no laboratories that can diagnose them.

But we are also seeing the ongoing rise of infectious diseases across Syria’s borders, which are amplified by terrible living conditions and the stigma the diseases carry.

We’ve seen measles spread to Lebanon where there were a couple thousand cases last year and several hundred cases this year. We’ve seen outbreaks of typhoid in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and polio in Iraq.

Measles is the biggest indicator of infectious diseases because, besides smallpox, it is the most contagious disease on the planet. When we see measles outbreaks we know there are huge holes in the immunization coverage of kids.

Very few refugees living in neighboring countries will come forward if they have infectious diseases because of the fear and stigma attached to them. Refugees get blamed for carrying infectious diseases to neighboring countries. The appalling conditions they live in foster the spread of diseases like measles – with every case of measles you can infect 8-12 people.

Syria Deeply: What steps and obstacles do you face when trying to deliver medical aid to Syrian civilians? How does the plethora of armed opposition government, and jihadists groups controlling different areas and checkpoints, obstruct delivery of aid?

Sparrow: In the besieged areas, they do not allow the passage of basic medical items, food, vaccines and healthcare equipment. Every now and then a dribble of aid is let in, but it’s entirely inadequate in terms of what’s needed.

In the north, under areas in ISIS control, they have been known to let vaccination and medical aid through, but are suspicious of any form of documentation about it, which is a requirement from international NGOs who want complete transparency, accountability and documentation.

Vaccinators that are already operating in difficult conditions and are risking their lives daily to bring aid to people across the country have to overcome added barriers of suspicion [from groups like ISIS], and deal with requirements from international NGOs that don’t reflect the reality on the ground.

The tragedy of the death of 15 children as a result of a measles campaign in September has been a major setback because the measles campaign stopped everywhere in the country except Deir Ezzor, and the polio campaign hasn’t recommenced.

We have babies born who aren’t vaccinated, and kids who haven’t been vaccinated at all since the beginning of the revolution. They don’t even have the flu vaccine now.

This is taking place in a context where there were already significant barriers to delivering aid and medical care. There is no humanitarian space in Syria. Doctors have been criminalized, terrorized, and they are exhausted. They don’t have the capacity to deal with basic operations, let alone ongoing chlorine attacks or the emergence of new tropical diseases they have never seen before.

Syria Deeply: Doctors themselves are now targets of physical violence, arrests and harassment. Who is targeting doctors? How and why are they being attacked?

Sparrow: The regime continues to target doctors. In the north, there have been many attacks in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa on hospitals and clinics. These attacks take the form of barrel bombs, shelling and targeted missiles. You can no longer run trauma hospitals. Doctors are dispersed over a wider area, so they are trying to bring services to people but they no longer have sophisticated hospitals to go to. They are moving hospitals underground because of the sustained and systematic targeting of hospitals. The [regime] detects where people and hospitals are going by using heat imagery, so the only way to withstand that is to build hospitals in basements, one or two floors down. It becomes very difficult for patients to stay overnight.

It’s a very successful strategy, because as the war goes on the needs are greater, whether it’s chronic diseases, trauma, infectious disease, malnutrition, preventable and infectious diseases etc. There were 50,000 cases of leishmaniasis in Aleppo in the last six months alone, which gives you an idea of the scale of the problem.

Syria Deeply: Looking to the immediate future, what are you most concerned about? What are the long-term ramifications of a breakdown of the healthcare system in Syria?

Sparrow: My fear is that the Syrians that are left face increasingly difficult and punitive conditions, where there simply isn’t access to healthcare. When there is access to healthcare, its completely inadequate because they don’t have the basic antibiotics and medicine to treat basic infections and chronic diseases, let alone standard vaccinations and the specialized healthcare that is needed to deal with the appalling war trauma.

Historically, the opposition areas have always been the most vulnerable, especially the besieged areas that are now facing the second or even third winter without adequate water, fuel and electricity, but regime areas are also facing increasingly difficult conditions. More people are trying to leave but are facing barriers because Lebanon and Jordan are closing their borders.

There is a new level of vulnerability and crisis in terms of the public health situation and it can only get worse. There is endless deterioration and a dissent into a public health nightmare, compounded by the ongoing barrel bombs and chlorine attacks.

It’s very difficult to describe the true nature of this public health crisis because we can’t see it; we don’t know what it feels like to not have access to clean water or to be too terrified to drink it. We are going to see an increase in the death toll due to previously treatable diseases, and an appalling situation is just going to get worse.

Obama is making his allies look like chumps

November 20, 2014 by Tony Badran

Last week, CNN reported that President Barack Obama had asked his national security team for a review of the Syria policy. According to the report, the review is premised on the recognition that removing Bashar Assad from power is a necessary element in the strategy to defeat the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Syria.

The leak about the review came amidst allied complaints over the direction of the anti-ISIS campaign. It also came ahead of sensitive meetings with the Turks and Saudis. However, none of the officials quoted in the report actually corroborated its principal claim; namely, that committing the United States to the removal of Assad was a precondition to success against ISIS. In fact, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel dismissed the report during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, stressing that there was no change in strategy or direction. A few days later, President Obama himself fielded a question from the press about whether the administration was “actively discussing ways to remove [Assad] as a part of [a] political transition.” Obama answered with a flat “No.”

At this point, Obama’s response shouldn’t surprise anyone. The president established the guiding principles of his present approach to Syria in late 2013, and he has never wavered from them. In recent months, he has been ever more open and emphatic about his opposition to a regime change policy in Syria and about the need to find a role for Iran in any solution to the Syrian war. Needless to say, these principles set the US at odds with its allies over Syria. But the White House gives no indications that conflict with allies is a major source of concern, and, therefore, a shift toward regime change is highly unlikely.

At the core of Obama’s approach to Syria is a rejection of proxy warfare against Iran and its assets. The president has clarified this position in several interviews. Most recently, he reiterated it in his address to the UN General Assembly in September. Instead, the solution should be for Washington’s regional allies to sit down and reach an understanding with Iran over Syria. After stating at the UNGA that there can only be a political solution in Syria, Obama added: “It’s time for a broader negotiation in the region in which major powers address their differences directly…rather than through gun-wielding proxies.”         

Obama began to openly talk of including Iran as a central stakeholder to be negotiated with over Syria about a year ago. At the time, however, the president, also at the UNGA meeting, spoke indirectly about including Iran, as he welcomed “all nations” with influence in Syria to work toward a political solution. A year later, this has become his explicit position. As he told reporters in Brisbane, for an eventual solution in Syria, “the various players involved, as well as the regional players — Turkey, Iran, Assad’s patrons like Russia — are going to have to engage in a political conversation.” Indeed, according to a recent report in al-Rai, Syrian opposition members relayed being told by a senior White House official that “any solution you want to present us on Syria must include the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Russia.’”

Although having the Syrian opposition negotiate with Assad has been the default US policy, Obama may have introduced a big, yet little-noticed, amendment to the American position. In the context of the Geneva process, the US supported a plan that called for the Syria opposition and the regime to form a mutually acceptable transitional government. US diplomats sold this to Washington’s allies as an implicit acknowledgement that Assad could not be part of that transitional process.

However, after the failure of Geneva the Obama administration has imagined an ever greater role for Assad in the transition that it envisions. Obama now speaks in terms of Assad not “presiding” over “the entire process.” Obama once depicted the transition as a bridge to a post-Assad Syria. Now it is a bridge to nowhere.

Of course, Obama readily acknowledges that there is no prospect for resuming political talks in the near future. This means that all this talk of transitions in the future is nothing more than a means of signaling the American attitude toward Assad in the present. 

This de facto acceptance of the Syrian dictator creates room for initiatives like UN envoy Staffan De Mistura’s plan, calling for “freezing” the conflict and fostering local ceasefires (which the previous UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, notably described as “part of Assad’s war plan”). Obama’s preference for eschewing proxy warfare in favor of “de-escalation” — which is what the White House put out last month through one of its surrogates — dovetails with De Mistura’s initiative, which apparently has US support. 

But much like with the inclusion of Iran as the principal interlocutor, the parameters of the discussion today, whether it’s “de-escalating,” or “freezing” the conflict between the rebels and Assad, and focusing instead on ISIS, all have roots in White House talking points from late 2013 to early 2014. Especially after the Geneva 2 conference ended predictably in failure, the White House began floating the ideas that dominate the discussion today. Namely, shifting away from removing Assad, or even a political transition, and more toward humanitarian relief and humanitarian ceasefire zones, as well as toward prioritizing the fight against radicals. In addition, this was when the US began moving aggressively toward formally including Iran in any discussion on Syria.

Yet regional allies continue to press Obama on his Syria policy. Indeed, the allies who have agreed to join the US-led coalition, like Riyadh and Doha, did so in part in order to try and influence the policy to address the Assad problem. Others, like Turkey, are still conditioning their participation on the creation of a no-fly zone and safe zones, as well as concrete action against Assad. The Turks are said to be suspicious of the De Mistura plan, and they want a no-fly zone and protected areas instead. 

However, ahead of Vice President Biden’s visit to Turkey, the administration has made it clear that its position on a no-fly zone remains unchanged. There doesn’t seem to be much progress on anything else the Turks are asking for, either. Likewise, Obama’s public announcement that there was no active discussion about removing Assad came before his meeting with Saudi Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah. The White House statement on the meeting emphasized Riyadh’s help in the fight against ISIS and in engaging the new government in Baghdad, making no mention of Syria.

Whether they have joined the coalition against ISIS or not, US allies increasingly look like chumps; their interests and concerns totally ignored by the White House. What’s more, it doesn’t seem as though the US president is too concerned about even the appearance of alliance management, as he’s telegraphed publicly and in no uncertain terms that there’s no forthcoming shift in his strategy—the basic parameters of which have long been set.

Coalition bombs border town for 4th time

Amman, November 19, 2014 by Brent Eng and Mohammed al-Haj Ali

Warplanes from the US-led coalition bombed the Jabhat a-Nusra-controlled town of Harem in northern Idlib Tuesday night for the third time in two weeks, reported the monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Tuesday’s attack, the fourth on Harem since the coalition began bombing Syria in late September, completely destroyed a two-floor building in the town, reported the pro-opposition Greater Harem Local Coordination Committee.

The number of casualties from Tuesdays strike was unknown at the time of publishing, but at least two people were killed in the last Harem attack on November 13.

While the US government has said it is targeting what it calls the Khorasan Group, the bombs in Harem are falling in a town inhabited by civilians, at least some of whom support Jabhat a-Nusra. 

“Jabhat a-Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham, these are factions that protect the Syrian people and are not terrorists as [people] claim,” Abdullah Jidaan, an Idlib-based reporter for the pro-opposition news agency Syria Mubasher, told Syria Direct. 

NusraIdlib 

Nusra fighters distribute campaign fliers in Idlib. Photo courtesy of @taim1993.

On the ground in Harem, which sits on the Turkish border, Nusra continues to consolidate its rule with Islam-friendly campaigns such as the “Removing Something Harmful from the Road is a Charity” – referring to a well-known Islamic saying. 

In pictures circulated by Jabhat a-Nusra’s official Twitter account for Idlib province earlier this week, the group’s fighters distribute fliers encouraging residents to clean up after themselves. 

In Idlib, Jabhat a-Nusra “treats people well and enjoys popular support,” a northern Idlib-based activist who goes by the name Hassan Idlibi told Syria Direct last week.  

“Jabhat a-Nusra even allowed us to establish a provincial council.”

The Pentagon says it is hitting targets in northern Syria linked to the Khorasan Group. 

“The Khorasan Group is a term used to refer to a network of Nusrah Front and al-Qa’ida core extremists who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money, and planning attacks against US and Western targets,” the Pentagon said in a press release after airstrikes against Harem on November 6.

The Pentagon also cited targeting the Khorasan Group as the purpose for its airstrike against Harem a week later on November 13.

 

Friend of murdered hostage Alan Henning defends Isil online

A family handout picture of Alan Henning with an unidentified child.  The undated image was taken at a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border.

A speaker at the memorial service for Alan Henning, the British hostage murdered by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has posted on social media apparently justifying Isil, promoting al-Qaeda and expressing sympathy for Syrian jihadist “martyrs”. 

Majid Freeman, a charity worker from Leicester, was with Mr Henning when he was abducted in Syria last year. He has been quoted in the media as a friend of the aid volunteer and has criticised the Government for “abandoning” him. 

On Oct 13, Mr Freeman addressed mourners including Mr Henning’s widow and children at the memorial service in Manchester, describing him as a “beautiful, genuine human being” who “went to Syria to help” at a time when the whole international community “were paying mere lip service”. 

However, two weeks later, on his Facebook page, Mr Freeman asked for “dua”, or prayers, for the brothers of a British Isil terrorist, Ifthekar Jaman, who have been charged in connection with an alleged Syrian terrorist plot. 

On Oct 19, he posted a link on his Facebook page to a YouTube video by Ghassan Ibn Kamal, which presents Isil as a reasonable response to Western foreign policy. Mr Freeman wrote: “This brother hit the nail on the head.” 

Mr Freeman has also posted links to an Isil propaganda video made under duress by another of the group’s hostages, John Cantlie. 

He has also tweeted: “Britain join war of terror. Drop bombs in populated areas. Innocent civilians lose loved ones = join Isis to get revenge.”

On Oct 22, the day a terrorist gunman killed a soldier in Canada and invaded the country’s parliament, Mr Freeman stated on Twitter: “You can’t go around randomly punching people in the face without expecting a reaction. Same applies to bombing other countries.”

Mr Freeman posted on Facebook and Instagram describing Jaffer Deghayes, an al-Qaeda jihadist from Brighton who died in Syria, as a “shaheed” or martyr who had died “defending the oppressed”. Deghayes, 17, the nephew of a former Guantánamo detainee, was fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. 

On Sept 26, Mr Freeman retweeted a statement that “Jabhat al-Nusra, we are with you even if the world fights you” and has tweeted propaganda pictures of members of the group distributing water to residents in Aleppo. 

On Facebook last week, he said that the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, which was briefly closed by the Israelis at the time, “will be conquered by jihad, not by peace… none will enter it except those who believe in removing the door, not those who search for its key”. 

In November last year, Mr Freeman posted a tribute video to Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda cleric blamed for inciting a number of terrorist attacks. 

He is also promoting an event with the Islamic Education and Research Academy, which sends non-violent extremist preachers to speak at mosques and to Muslim audiences across Britain. 

Mr Freeman has been questioned by the police, but not charged with any crime. 

The disclosure of Mr Freeman’s apparent views will add to the growing questions about Aid4Syria, the group 

he and Mr Henning were travelling with in an aid convoy. The 47-year-old taxi driver from Eccles, Greater Manchester, was seized on Boxing Day last year only half an hour after crossing into Syria. Others in the convoy, including Mr Freeman and a number of other British Muslims, were released. Aid4Syria named a water project and fire engine after Aafia Siddiqi, a convicted al-Qaeda terrorist who is serving an 86-year jail sentence in the US for attempted murder. Isil demanded Siddiqi’s release in exchange for the life of Mr Henning’s fellow hostage James Foley, who was murdered in August. 

Aid4Syria has also campaigned for Siddiqi’s release, saying she is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. It has organised a number of events in the UK with extremist speakers. According to the anti-extremist body Stand for Peace, Aid4Syria has also circulated an inflammatory video by Mohammed al-Arifi, an extremist cleric, encouraging Muslims to wage war in Syria. Al-Arifi has been banned from Britain after allegedly grooming the first two British Muslims to appear in an Isil propaganda video. 

Aid4Syria’s parent charity, Al Fatiha Global, is under investigation by the Charity Commission for alleged “links [with] individuals purportedly involved in supporting armed or other inappropriate activities in Syria”. The investigation was launched in March after one of its workers, Adeel Ali, was apparently pictured with his arms around two masked men holding rifles. He denies the picture is of him. 

Two other charities involved in the aid convoy joined by Mr Henning and Mr Freeman, IHH and Children in Deen, have also been accused of aiding jihadist terrorism in Syria. IHH, a Turkish group, was raided by that country’s police earlier this year. Children in Deen is under investigation by the Charity Commission. The first British suicide bomber in Syria, Abdul Waheed Majeed, travelled to the country in a convoy organised by Children in Deen. 

A third charity involved in the aid convoy, One Nation, is the subject of “concerns” by the Charity Commission over its work in Syria. One of its trustees, Arshad Patel, was arrested by police investigating the 7/7 London suicide bombings, but not charged. His sister, Hasina, is the widow of Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the suicide bombers. Mr Freeman is also closely linked to One Nation. 

There is no suggestion that Mr Freeman, who described the sight of Mr Henning in an Isil propaganda video as his “worst nightmare”, was personally involved in, or in any way condoned, the hostage’s abduction. 

Kasim Jameel, the leader of the Aid4Syria convoy from which he was kidnapped, also denied any connection between the group and Mr Henning’s captors. He said: “No one sold him out – that is just ridiculous. Yes, we have many different people with different views, but that doesn’t make them terrorists.”

Over several days last week, Mr Freeman and his solicitor declined to respond to any questions about his views.

In Syria, doctors become the victims

November 19, 2014 by Leonard S. Rubinstein and M. Zaher Sahloul

“Working in a field hospital is like death,” a surgeon told us two weeks ago in Turkey, where more than two dozen Syrian doctors and other health workers had come for training. As if treating victims of the Syrian Army’s weapon of choice, the barrel bomb, wasn’t enough, they themselves were often victims of those same terrible devices.

International law is supposed to protect health workers treating anyone who is sick or wounded. Not in Syria: There, along with bakeries and schools, one of the most dangerous places to be is in a hospital or an ambulance. According to Physicians for Human Rights, more than 560 medical personnel have been killed and 155 medical facilities have been attacked since the conflict began, though based on our interviews these numbers are understated.

From the start of the war, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has attacked civilians and obstructed humanitarian relief, including vaccinations for children. It has cut off electricity and clean water to areas controlled by the opposition, punished health workers treating protesters and opposition fighters, and deployed chemical weapons against defenseless fellow Syrians.

But things have gotten worse over the past year. The Assad regime has descended to an unprecedented level of barbarism, escalating its use of air power against enormous numbers of civilians. The number of injured, according to the World Health Organization, has risen to 25,000 people per month.

The centerpiece of the new strategy has been the barrel bomb, an oil drum filled with explosives, bolts, hardware and scrap metal, usually dropped from a helicopter. The bombs explode with terrific force and breadth, amputating limbs and driving shrapnel throughout the body. One doctor we interviewed was still horrified by the indelible image of a mother and daughter whose bodies were blown apart while their hands remained clasped together.

In response to such barbarism, and in defiance of the new strategy, local doctors, supported by a few daring nongovernmental organizations, have set up field hospitals in factories, farms, houses, cultural centers, caves and even chicken coops to provide surgery and other care to the injured. Humanitarian organizations are providing supplies and supporting salaries.

The regime has in turn embarked on a brutal campaign to destroy the hospitals and kill their medical staffs. It is using those same barrel bombs and missiles against field hospitals and dozens of other medical outposts, as well as ambulances, in order to deter people from seeking care. On some occasions, when rescue crews arrive at the scene of an attack on a crowded location like a bakery or school, more barrel bombs are dropped to maximize the carnage.

When the conflict began, the regime decreed that medical care to any area controlled by the opposition, which included demonstrators as well as armed opponents, was a criminal offense — a position that violated the Geneva Conventions’ declaration that medical personnel and facilities are off-limits. Of the 25 medical staff members we interviewed, six had been arrested and jailed for allegedly providing such care. Now the regime is targeting anyone giving medical care in opposition-run areas. Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story

The attacks have driven most physicians out of Syria. In Aleppo, the largest city in the country, only 13 surgeons remain. And despite efforts of humanitarian groups to supply them with essential supplies and equipment, medical personnel must cope with severe shortages.

Doctors and nurses also suffer profoundly, strained by long working days, the horror of the injuries, the impossibly difficult triage decisions forced by lack of resources, and constant danger. One doctor told us that if everyone survived a barrel bombing they did the Dabke, an Arabic dance, in celebration.

When we asked the doctors what kind of support they needed, though, they didn’t cite the need for more staff, equipment, rest or psychological support. They asked for one thing: Stop the bombs from raining down so they can treat their patients without fear of death.

The United States has the capacity to do that. It can impose a humanitarian buffer zone in northern and southern Syria to allow health care workers to save lives, children to get vaccinated and go to school, refugees to resettle, and relief organizations to do their work. A buffer zone would be enforced by a no-fly zone that would protect the hospitals and civilian areas from aerial attacks.

The Obama administration made a great moral and political case for saving the Yazidi people in Iraq and other minorities threatened by the Islamic State, and mobilized an international coalition to do so. How can it now ignore the carnage being inflicted on a far larger group of people in the same region, including caregivers who seek to attend to the complex injuries they have suffered?

The brutality of the Assad regime’s tactics at least equals that of the Islamic State. Aleppo itself may soon be under complete siege by regime forces. The Obama administration must affirm America’s leadership role and act to save people under such relentless attack. When work in a field hospital becomes like death, it is difficult to imagine how life has any chance at all.