Syria. The suffering continues.

Yesterday evening I was able to make contact with someone I know in Aleppo. As most of you are aware, I was there last year. At that time, many people had returned to the city after the FSA had pushed Syrian regime soldiers out of about 80% of the city. Now, nearly a year later, Aleppo is once again almost a ghost town, very few people remain. The people have fled to Turkey, the countryside or to regime held areas.

What has brought about this situation? There are a number of elements. The first is the fragmented way the FSA has been operating, different brigades operating independently of each other with no effective central command. There was Gen. Salim Idriss, who until very recently was head of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the FSA but he has proven to be less than effective and therefore replaced by Col. Abdul Lilal Al Bashir who has more active experience. Whether that will make any difference remains to be seen. By far the biggest problem now facing the people in the north of Syria are DAASH, the commonly used term by the Syrians for ISIS or ISIL, both different acronyms for the same group.

It is often widely reported that DAASH is a part of Al Qaeda but the evidence is mounting that they are also working in collaboration with the Syrian regime. As an example, a few weeks ago the FSA made a big push to retake territory that was controlled by them. In the short term it worked, what was very interesting was how many of the DAASH fighters ran for protection in regime controlled areas. Also the DAASH commander of Menbij, a city close to Aleppo, is a Jordanian who was working at the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan. Work is being made to collect evidence of the links between DAASH and the Syrian regime. The leadership of Al Qaeda has even ordered DAASH to go back to Iraq, but they refuse and so there is falling out between them. To be honest the situation is confusing, nobody is 100% sure of what exactly is going on, the game is well hidden at the moment.

So now there is a situation where DAASH control the border between Syria and Turkey as well as all the important towns and cities in the north. The FSA for now, has gone to ground, there is talk of them being supplied with new weapon systems, but as will always be the case it will not be enough to recover lost territory in the long term. Also in my conversation with my contact yesterday in Aleppo he told me that the regime is dropping 15-20 barrel bombs on the city per day. They are rolled out of helicopters and are not designed for accuracy, simply to kill as many people as possible. What is interesting is that the places used as headquarters by DAASH in Aleppo and other towns and cities they control are never targeted by these barrel bombs! It isn’t as if they try to hide their locations, they hang their flag and paint the building with their colours. They know they won’t be bombed by the regime unless there is prior notice so they can move out first.

In the south of the country, in the Daraa region, there is a different situation. Recently different brigades of the FSA have joined forces to create a new army division, the Al Yarmouk Division. Here in the south DAASH has not been able to get a foothold but that does not mean the situation is clear. They are still being controlled to a certain extent by Jordan. Saudi Arabia supplies them weapons but they have to pass through Jordan, however the Jordanians strictly limit how much is passed on to the FSA in the south. Also they stipulate where the FSA can and cannot attack. They will even target the FSA with artillery if they try to attack certain targets. The result is that the Al Yarmouk Division is being permitted to create a clearly defined autonomous area that is free of the Syrian regime but only according to the dictates of Jordan. Why could this be?

I have written several times in the past that the objective of the international political community is to divide Syria, which is happening now. Iran is supporting Bashar al Assad with everything it has, it needs direct access to the Mediterranean. The regime is consolidating its position from Damascus all the way up to Latakia. In the middle is the city of Homs, which is subject to the most brutal destruction. Its population is being starved into submission. Homs is a key city for the regime because it sits on the road that connects Damascus to the sea. In the meantime, many in the city have been killed by hunger and illness, women and children. No thought is given to them at all.

Then as I said before, in the south a new area is slowly being formed. The south of Syria has very good ground water supplies. Jordan has always been envious of this, it always struggles to have sufficient water of good quality. The eventual plan will, it seems, to affiliate the southern region of Syria with Jordan. This will give them access to the water and in return the people in the south of Syria will get protection from the regime. It hasn’t happened yet but things are definitely moving in this direction.

Then we come back to Northern Syria, here is where the different extremist groups, Sunni and Shia, are fighting each other. They have been permitted to bring in weapons via Turkey and Iraq and Lebanon. The strategy being to allow them to become strong enough so they have enough power to fight to the death. The problem with this of course is that it is the ordinary Syrian people who are suffering the most. The vast majority of the extremists are foreigners who are simply using the revolution in Syria for their own purposes. This is something that most newspapers don’t mention, the impression is given that because there are extremists fighting in Syria they must be Syrian. Yes a very small number are but the overwhelming majority are foreigners and they are permitted by surrounding countries to enter Syria with heavy weapons.

When I was talking to my contact in Aleppo yesterday he told me that there is only the most basic food. Water is in short supply, they collect and store what they can. He told me that trying to get food aid across the border from Turkey to the people is too risky. DAASH will steal it for themselves and what is left will be sold for highly inflated prices. Syria is a humanitarian disaster on a huge scale. We in the West have become numb to the news reports, why should we care, they are from a different culture, religion and language. They are human beings with the same hopes and desires as us. People are people, they want the chance to have a home, a family, a job, security and dignity. They want the ability to live without fear of brutality simply because they disagree with what the government is doing. That is a human right and the West is deliberately denying them their rights because the politicians are more interested in playing a game of power with the rule; if they can’t control then they will destroy.

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Living with War – A Book Review

Photographer and photojournalist Otto von Münchow has just published a review of my book. Syria: Refugees and Rebels. Since this review I have revised the book, changing the font and arrangement of some of the pictures. Main sales are now through Amazon

In Flow with Otto

© Russell Chapman © Russell Chapman

The UK-born, now Switzerland-based photographer Russell Chapman has released a new photo book. It’s called Syria: Refugees and Rebels. As the title clearly indicates it’s a time capsule of the ever more devastating situation in Syria. It’s a very personal testament, though, without the usual war glory – or should I say war gory – we find in the regular news and media. Instead of going to the battle zone, Chapman mostly focuses on the ordinary people and how it is to be living under the spell of civil war. And for me that is the strength of the book and what makes the photos stand out.

As Russell Chapman states in the introduction: «I try and convey the huge emotional impact of being in a war zone and the effect it has on the people of Syria; those who stay in the country and those…

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My book, a photographic documentary. Syria: Refugees & Rebels

Finally the book is ready. A photographic journey into Syria that looks at the lives of the people; refugees and rebels. They allowed me deep into their lives, the book is a photo documentary of all that I saw and experienced. You will understand the warmth and kindness of the people as they struggle to survive a brutal situation. As far as I am aware this is the first ever photo documentary book to be published about the situation in Syria. Buy the book and get your friends to buy it, in this way I will be able to go back to the refugee camps and continue my work. It is a high quality hardback, 91 page book with more than 100 colour and black & white photographs along with comments. The book will take you on a journey you have never experienced before. You can find my book here

Syria: Refugees & Rebels

Syria: Is the situation about to change?

A lot has happened today. Keep in mind that very soon, talks are supposed to start in Geneva between the government of Bashar al Assad, the rebel opposition and Iran. So what has been happening today. There has been fierce fighting in the north of Syria, I have been hearing in particular about the city of Menbij, a city east of Aleppo and not far from the the Turkish border. I was there in the spring of last year and met with the the city council leader, he invited me to stay at his home. Also today Turkey has closed its entire border with Syria, sending many soldiers to guard the entire border, ostensibly due to the threat of suicide bombers. Then there was the report released in the last few hours by a London law firm and reported by the Guardian newspaper and CNN regarding the systemic torture and execution of Syrian civilians over the last decade. I posted a copy here.

So what is going on? Considering the fact that the Geneva talks are due to start soon. it can only be down to the fact that strategy is changing. It seems to me that the USA has realized it seriously miscalculated its approach to the situation in Syria. Bashar al Assad actively yet surreptitiously  encouraged extremists to come into Syria with the idea that the global political system would support him against them. The problem was the USA has also encouraged extremists to go to Syria as a way to counter balance the hegemonic plans of Iran. However the entire situation has now become out of control. All these extremist groups are using Syria as a training ground and will send trained religious extremists to commit terrorist acts all across the world. Both Assad and the USA thought they could use religious extremists for their own purpose. It is the same as trying to hold a mad dog by its ears, they can’t win.

So now there is a new dynamic, this report into torture and execution by the Assad regime can only lead to inevitable consequences. Maybe not the ones the USA wanted. It would prefer to keep Assad in power but the Guardian and CNN reporting this is going to certainly stir the fire and it will be hard to ignore.

All I can say for the moment is that this is like watching a game of chess, those who think they are in control are those about to lose their king. In the short term, get ready for some serious pushing and shoving between the USA and Russia. Russia will not want to see its darling Assad toppled so it will be playing all sorts of political games in conjunction with Iran and Assad in the near future. If Assad goes then Russia will lose its last major influence in the middle east. Watch this space.

Legal report into torture and execution of Syrians by the government

Just published a few moments ago is the report below in PDF form by law firm

Carter-Ruck & Co.Solicitors of London, 6 St Andrew Street, London,EC4A 3AE.

syria-report-execution-tort

Take time to read it. It documents systemic torture by the Assad regime. What I find interesting is that both the Guardian and CNN have published this in the last few minutes, just a short time before the start  of the talks in Geneva. What political games are being played? At the same time, it is only correct that those responsible for these crimes are brought to justice. Read the document and let me know what you think.

Two of the example images from the report below.

syria-report-execution-tort_page31_image4syria-report-execution-tort_page31_image5

Syria: Why Geneva talks will not work.

On the surface it looks good that finally there is the opportunity to get the Syrian government and the opposition to sit down and talk. Iran have also been invited since they are basically in control of the Syrian government and are running the war. So what is the sticking point?

The main sticking point is Iran which is now in control of the Syrian government. Iran’s plans do not include giving up their glove puppet, Bashar al Assad or those closest to him. From everything that I understand, the rebels are prepared to talk to certain elements of the regime but there is a core of about 50 people who they feel are responsible for the massacre of innocent civilians, with these the rebels have no desire to negotiate, they need this core to step down as a final result of any international negotiations.

The talks in their current form are seen as only buying time for Bashar al Assad rather than being a serious forum to negotiate an end to a conflict that is making so many people suffer.

So the date set for the talks. Will they go ahead, I don’t know. But I am sure that political events are soon to get quite interesting.

Watch this space.

A brief history of the Syrian revolution until now.

Back in mid March 2011 the Syrian people began demonstrating peacefully, asking for their basic human rights. There weren’t asking for Bashar al Assad to leave power, only that he treat the people with respect. What really started the revolution was the murder of Hamza al Khatib, a young boy who had written graffiti on a wall that it was time for Bashar al Assad to step down. His mutilated body was handed back to his parents, the regime thought this would send a strong enough message to the people, enough to keep them quiet. The total opposite happened.

Several times I met Sheikh Haroun al Zoubi, who was Hamza’s teacher, Haroun was also the leader of the Omari mosque in Daraa, the city where the Syrian revolution started, he told me first hand about those first days of protest. After the death of Hamza, he told the people of Daraa that they had a choice to make, to be with the government that kills children or to be with the revolution. In the beginning, in fact for the first six months, the people protested peacefully, without force. Despite this, the government used Hezbollah and Iranian militia to attack the protestors and would then leave boxes of ammunition at the scene as ‘evidence’ to say that the protestors had fired on government troops. I know this for a fact, I interviewed Zaid Tlass who was a general in the Syrian army until his defection and he knew Bashar al Assad personally, in fact his family was very close to the regime, Mustafa Tlass was defense minister to Hafez, the father of Bashar. I also interviewed Firas Tlass, his son.

The government used Hezbollah and Iranian militia as well as the infamous ‘Shabiha’ to try to put down the protestors because it knew it could not count on the ordinary Syrian soldiers to do the job,. The normal military saw no reason to fire upon its own people. In fact the first officer to defect from the Syrian army was Abdul Razzak Tlass, he was morally outraged at the fact he was asked to kill his own people who were protesting peacefully. The shock of this to the government was considerable, it was inconceivable that anyone of the Tlass family would be disloyal to Bashar al Assad. I was privileged to have the opportunity to get to know Abdul’s fiancee Asmaa, who herself had been tortured by the government, she  spoke very clearly about the actions of the Syrian government.

At the beginning of the revolution there was no religious ideology, or the idea to fight a religious war. Before the Assad regime came to power in the 70′s, all the religious groups, Sunni, Shia, Druze, Jew and Christian had been getting along. I saw an example of this when I was in Aleppo, I was in a small square, on three sides there was a mosque, a synagogue and a church. The Syrian people know how to get along with one another. However the regime developed the idea of religious division to strengthen its position. First it forced the Jews out and then it made the remaining groups fear each other, that if it ever lost power then there would be bloodshed along religious lines.

As time went on in the revolution, the Syrian government permitted religious extremist groups to develop strength in Syria, directly aiding them, in order to give substance to the idea that only the regime gives stability. But when you look at who the extremists are, they are 90% foreigner. For example the ex ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) leader in Membij, Syria was a Jordanian who worked at the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan. It has become clear that there are the genuine Al Qaeda groups in Syria and those who are using Qaeda as a front for other means. When the rebels got organized and decided to fight back, many ISIS fighters ran for cover in government controlled areas

Then we have to look at external influences in the Syrian conflict. When Bashar al Assad came to power he permitted Iran to have influence in Syria in ways his father Hafez never permitted. Politically, economically and militarily. When the revolution began, many of the conscripted Syrian soldiers deserted as soon as they could, in fact it is militia of Iran and Hezbollah who are doing most of the fighting on the ground. Assad has become little more than a puppet on a string who is controlled by Iran. Iran is paying many poor Iraqis to fight in Syria, it can’t afford to lose its huge investment of time and money, it has a large expansionist ambition that has Syria at its center.

On the other hand there is the USA. They prefer that Assad stays in power because it is better to deal with what you know rather than what you don’t. However they are also using the development of religious extremists in Syria. There is an old strategy of getting your two enemies to fight each other. The USA wants to restrict Iran’s expansionist plans, so it has permitted Qaeda and associated groups to develop, turning a blind eye to the import of heavy weapons through Turkey, a fellow NATO member.

They are hoping to allow the Sunni religious extremist groups to get strong enough to be able to fight against Iran which is Shia. The recent nuclear deal with Iran was simply a way to allow Iran to be able to sell more oil so that it would have the money to put into supporting Assad in Syria. Allow your enemies to get strong enough so they can have a real fight. This also suits the Sunni and Shia extremists who believe there needs to be a war between them to decide who has the one true faith.

In the meantime the ordinary Syrian people, the vast majority of whom have no interest in religious conflict, who are suffering tremendous hardship, either in their own country or as refugees in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. It appears that the international community has very little interest in helping them.

Syrian women: Their suffering and endurance

AsmaaI want to start by talking about Asmaa (pictured above). I met her in Jordan, five days after she had been released from a regime prison. She is the fiancée of Abdul Razak Tlass, who was the first officer to defect from the Syrian army when the revolution began. She was captured transporting a Kalashnikov in her bag after a tip-off. She told me about how she was interrogated, made to stand up without break for hours on end and deprived of sleep, but nothing they did could get her to give the names of who she had been working with. When you see her eyes you understand immediately how much she suffered. I know she wasn’t telling me the full story of what happened to her. Considering the fact that the use of sexual violence by the regime is not unknown, I have the suspicion that something like this happened to her. When you look in her eyes as she talks about her experience it is clear that terrible things were done to her. A part of her soul died in that prison.

But something very interesting came out of my talking to her, she was in a cell with nine other Syrian women, all different religions, Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Druze and Christian. They all came to love each other during their time in captivity and it is one of the reasons why she believes that the people of Syria can be united in the future and is something she feels very strongly about. So many in the West, when they look at Syria, think that the people are hopelessly divided and all want to kill each other along religious lines. Women like Asmaa, who despite all they have suffered, demonstrate that this is not the case.

She was only released from prison after thirteen months because the FSA swapped prisoners in order to get her out.  Now she is in the relative safety of Jordan and working to help her fellow Syrians as best she can.

One of the things I noticed about Syrian women in general is how strong and resilient they are. In the refugee camps, despite losing so much, they continue their lives in the best way they can, they cook and look after their families. Yes their standard of living is very much reduced, but they continue. Compare this with many of the men I saw who were in the refugee camps, who have lost their work, there is nothing for them to do, so they just sit around in groups with other men, drinking tea and smoking. Psychologically I would say that the women handle the situation better. They have something to do, the men on the other hand do not, and as a  result end up looking very lost and feeling quite useless.

On the surface Syria is very much a male dominated society but under the surface the women have a lot of influence. All Syrian men will tell you how strong the women are, never mess with a Syrian women, they half jokingly tell me. To be honest I don’t know how they keep going, the women, men and children but then again it isn’t as if they have much choice. They have become the victims of callous geo-political games with only power and influence as their objective. The governments of the world have proven that they are not fit for purpose. Why? Because they see the human suffering they cause as no more than collateral damage.

Al Qaeda, the USA and Syria.

Abdul Kader Salih the major leader of moderate rebel forces in Aleppo was injured and as a result died. When I was in Aleppo I spent a couple of days with the Al Tawheed brigade of which he was commander. He was very much the driving force and big ideas man who everybody looked to and united under. Because of his death it is going to be much easier for Al Qaeda forces in their objective of taking control of the entire city and surrounding areas. Jabhat al Nusra doesn’t exist anymore in its original form. The Islamist but non extremist element of them is now badly splintered, the rest of them have been absorbed by Al Qaeda.

It is a fact that Qaeda are bringing heavy weapons from such countries as Libya through Turkey. It isn’t the sort of thing that can easily be smuggled through international ports so Turkey must be turning a blind eye. The USA and Turkey are on good terms so it must be happening with tacit US approval. Why is this being allowed to happen?

The implication of this is that the moderate rebels are being deliberately sidelined with the objective of making this a religious war, which is what it has now become. Sunni vs Shia, and Iran will throw everything it has into maintaining Assad in power as their puppet. The aim of the USA is to allow Qaeda to grow in strength because it will force Iran, which is backing Assad to the hilt, to commit huge resources. The objective of the US is to make this war continue for as long as possible with the hope that Qaeda and Iran will exhaust themselves, with the result being that Iran’s sphere of influence and regional ambitions will be stymied and the majority of Qaeda’s resources will be concentrated in one area. It is a sort of evil genius that creates a strategy to make 2 of your biggest enemies fight each other to the finish.

Turkey is also storing up trouble for itself. In Turkey there are about 2 million Alawites, natural supporters of Assad who are becoming ever more unhappy at the actions of the Turkish government and their allowance of weapons to be moved to Qaeda in Syria. There is a real possibility of this becoming a regional war if the Turkish Alawites decide to take action. All my instincts are telling me that what is happening in Syria is going to spill over into other countries. There was the bomb attack at the Iranian embassy in a Hezzbollah controlled district of Beirut, this was carried out by those who want Iranian backed Hezzbollah to leave Syria. Events such as this will become more common. I can see how both Turkey and Lebanon can be drawn into the conflict.

It is a indictment of how rotten global politics is when Geo-political strategy is given priority but not a single thought is ever given to the ordinary people who suffer the consequences.

The morning after the night before.

Yesterday evening I had the vernissage for my exhibition; Syria: Facing the revolution, which is curated by Professor Johanna Fassl.

Syria: Facing the revolution.It was an interesting evening that generated a lot of conversation. Mustafa, who I travelled with to Syria, flew in specifically for the show. As a result of my work, I have been invited to take my exhibition to Oxford University in March, a representative of the university was at the show and said they would very much like to have me and my work at a big international conference on the worldwide refugee situation. Watch this space.