It’s Not Too Late to Save Syria’s Cultural Heritage

Franklin Lamb

Al-Manar

 

…if we can muster the will

Inside the restored Omayyad Mosque, Old City of Damascus

Syria's cultural heritageAs Marcus Aurelius instructs us: “Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.”

By definition, our shared global heritage, which has been in the custody of the Syrian people for ten millennia, belongs to all of us and for this reason each of us must work to preserve it for our progeny.

The people of Syria are petitioning the United Nations, regional powers, archeologists and our wider global community to, reject, as they themselves do, the rationale of  ‘ unavoidable war-time collateral damage’ in their conflict which today is severely assaulting archeological treasures in their beloved country.  Over the past century, scientific excavations and study of our global heritage in Syria have barely scratched the surface so rich as concentrated are archeological artifacts from a score of empires that have inhabited this land.

Syrians, like the international public are horrified and sickened by the continuing and in some areas, accelerating desecration, illegal excavations, looting and hateful destruction of irreplaceable antiquities.

This observer does not wish to gloss over the alarming media reports on this subject.  Nor my own on-site field investigations over the past nearly three years chronicling and photographing damaged archeological sites across much of Syria. The research project has been part of a volume to be published next month in Arabic and English entitled, Syria’s Endangered Heritage, an International Responsibility to Preserve and Protect, parts of which reveal bleak picture.

But all is not lost.

Indeed much is being done inside Syria, among citizens including students, officials, among them the Ministries of Culture and Tourism, the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) and even to some degree ‘repentant’ former rebels having physical access to archeological sites and valuing their heritage. Many projects are underway today at archeological sites not under the control of fighters on either side of this horrific internecine conflict out of a felt urgent duty to preserve, protect, and even in some instances to reconstruct our endangered global heritage.

Three examples of Syrian archeological sites that were badly damaged since the start of the continuing crisis which began in March of 2011, with details of the damage at these sites reported in the main stream media as well as in some scholarly publications, are the Omayyad Mosque in the Old City of Damascus, the medieval fortress of Crac des Chevaliers near Homs, and the Church of the Holy Belt in the Old City of Homs.  This observer first visited and chronicled damages at these three sites months ago as soon as local fighting ceased and security conditions allowed and having revisited them just recently bears witness to the fact that each is now in the final stages of being repaired/rebuilt and are safe and ready to receive visitors.

The remarkable achievements of wartime Syrian antiquities reconstruction are continuing  because of leadership from committed officials such as Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim of DGAM, noted above, and Syria’s indefatigable Bachir Yazigi, Minister of Tourism and member of Parliament, among many others supported by their dedicated staffs. Partners also in restoration of culture sites are students from Damascus and other Universities and institutes such as Directorate of Archaeological Scientific and Reconstructive Laboratories and citizen volunteers as well as some patriotic business people across the social and political spectrum here.  This observer visited the Damascus Citadel and witnessed the student’s painstaking restoration of a large irreplaceable Mosaic, tesserae (half inch chip) by tesserae. In the course of visiting damaged archeological sites in Syria, this observer has spent time with skilled teams of artifact restoration students repairing antiquities from artwork in Homs to stone arches at Palmyra. Syrian volunteers share a common deep love of their ancient country and they appear to accept a personal obligation to preserve, protect and restore their and our common global cultural heritage. Repair and reconstruction is expanding today at several other archeological sites.


Local Community seeking protection of Syria’s cultural heritage


In Syria today, within government controlled areas scores of community groups are working to preserve our global heritage. One example is a citizen’s national campaign to inform the general public about the value of protecting archeological sites by placing large posters showing endangered treasures.

Below are some example of current posters being posted in public gathering areas:

Workshops on subject such as combating the illicit trafficking in cultural property have been organized, particularly in Damascus and are being attended by interested non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and the local community including researchers, artists and writers as well as by representatives of ministries and department concerned with the protection of Syrian cultural property.  In addition, students and civic volunteers  update daily the Arabic and English website of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) (www.dgam.gov.sy)  with  the latest available information about the archaeological heritage of Syria during the crisis.

“Artisan programs” and art classes, including Mosaic restoration and preserving damaged antiquities have been organized and they seek to connect the public, particularly children and adolescents with nearby archeological heritage sites and local antiquities and artifacts. Classes highlight a range of traditional crafts including mosaics, calligraphy, storytelling, pottery fezzes and sabots (leather sandal and shoe) making.  Rather than simply report the bad news about of this country’s archeological treasures events are frequently organized, as on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of great historic discovery of Ebla, called   “Ebla- History and Archaeology” at the Damascus National Museum, open to the public with youth attendance encouraged.  The event also featured a photo exhibition about the damage to archaeological sites, especially Ebla, one of the themes communicated being the obligation of each citizens to preserve and protect past whether pagan, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or secular.

Social Media


Like everywhere these days Syrian youngsters are increasingly active with social-media and one site frequently contributed to is  https://www.facebook.com/eyesonheritag by the Eyes on Heritage group. This is just one example of people interested in global cultural heritage interacting to protect our shared cultural heritage.

Another Facebook page, growing in popularity in Syria which is now also a YouTube was created by Protect Syrian Archaeology: The Association for the protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA). It is intended news about the threats and damages currently suffered by the Syrian archaeological and historical heritage. It is also designed to alert the scientific community and international authorities, either cultural or political. Additional Facebook pages that promote these themes include https://www.facebook.com/Archaeology.in.Syria/timeline, and Tell me about my Syrian land: https://www.facebook.com/groups/79187561754519 collects stories of Syrian heritage which talk about the traditional themes and customs.

Again not wishing to understate the scope or seriousness of this cultural heritage crisis, there is another reason we should not despair completely or give up hope when witnessing the horrible damage being reported at world heritage sites and to antiquities across Syria because there are some hopeful signs. One concerns Syria’s 28 museums since the outbreak of hostilities, nearly four years ago. During the early summer of 2011, private citizens, museum staffs, government ministries, some members of Parliament and some international and local NGO’s sounded an alarm. They warned that the tragic case of what was reported back in 2003 in Iraq, including ransacking the National Museum of Iraq in Bagdad on April 10, 2003 could be repeated in Syria and they were determined to prevent it. They have substantially succeeded.

The worst damage to Syrian museums has been reported by DGAM staff to be in Deir Atieh and Raqqa in eastern Syria, still under IS (Da’ish) control and therefore a precise assessment is not yet available.   A few artifacts have been stolen from Maarat al-Numan Museum and the Folk Museum at Aleppo, and the museums in Hama. Moreover, despite widespread illegal excavations in Apamia, the Museum has lost only one object due to theft.

Beyond these and other unknown losses, the contents of all of Syria’s other 26 museums are safe for now because their contents were moved before thefts or damage could occur and today their contents are buried deep in temperature and humidity controlled secret vaults in government controlled areas. In addition, citizens in many communities are discretely safeguarding archaeological sites and reporting to local or national authorities attempted thefts or trafficking in stolen artifacts.

Syrians sometimes ask this observer to advise others that they deeply share their horror over much now happening in Syria and the continuing endangerment to our shared cultural heritage. They are very aware that international friends want to help preserve and rebuild damaged sites, retrieve stolen articles now being sold in North America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

Syrians and doing their part and need international help with stopping the international trade in looted Syrian antiquities now being move into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The millions of annual visitors to cultural heritage sites in Syria can resume just soon as a cease-fire can be achieved.

Source: Al-Manar Website

11-10-2014 – 12:03 Last updated 11-10-2014 – 12:03
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The “Twice” Betrayed Christians of Ma’ loula

“They insisted that Ma’loula had been betrayed twice—once by their neighbors and a second time by the government, which shortly after town was liberated granted the criminals amnesty. Much bitterness remains over both of these perceived betrayals.”

The author should have checked this claim

Fact check:

The nuns denied the kidnapping claims: Syrian nuns deny kidnapping claims
A group of nuns from the historic Christian town of Maalula in Syria denied they were kidnapped by rebels, in a video broadcast by Al-Jazeera news channel on Friday.

The brief video shows the women, apparently in good health and comfortable, dressed in black religious garb in a room. It was unclear who was filming the women, and where they were speaking from.

“A group brought us here and protected us, and we’re very, very happy with them,” one of the nuns said.

Another insisted the group was staying in a “very, very nice villa” and denied claims that the group of women had been kidnapped.

When released the chief nun thanked her kidnapper (Nusra front) and Qatar the sponsor Nusra.
How they dare to talk about a Syrian betrayal knowing that the amnesty granted for the criminals was a part of the deal. listen carefully to the following Videos aired by Aljazerah
 

The Twice Betrayed Christians of Ma’ loula

by FRANKLIN LAMB

The Monastery of St. Thekla, Ma’loula, Syria

It is a truly unique cultural heritage site, the hamlet of Ma’aloula, with Christian sanctuaries and monuments stretching back for more than 16 centuries into the past, yet it has been scarred, traumatized, desecrated and deeply wounded by the war in Syria.

Situated some 40 miles northeast of Damascus, Ma’loula is one of the few places in the world where Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ, is still spoken, but its Christian inhabitants feel they have been betrayed, not once but twice in the past year.

Judge by your self who betrayed Maalola

The first betrayal came from some of their Muslim neighbors who have shared the hamlet as good neighbors for 14 centuries. Until now, only ten percent of the pre-conflict population of approximately 4,000 (approximately 3,200 Christians and 600 Sunni Muslims) have dared to return, and there is little potable water and not much electricity.

 

Many of the Christians, mainly Antiochian Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholics, fled to the Christian quarter of the Bab Touma neighborhood in the Old City of Damascus, and most remain there. Syrian forces retook the area on 4/13/14, four months after al-Nusra and other Islamist rebels overran it. This was after the jihadists had kidnapped 13 Ma’loula nuns and three maids on December 3, transporting them to the nearby town of Yabrud, until their release was negotiated and they were freed last March.

In May of this year, a couple of days after the liberation of Homs, this observer visited the Um al-Zennar Church, also known as the “Church of the Holy Belt,” located in the Old City.

What he witnessed and photographed at the time was the immediate aftermath of a rampage of desecration that had been inflicted on the church. This included the smashing of the altar and pews, the gouging out of the eyes of religious icons, the smashing of religious statues and destruction of paintings of saints, including Mary the mother of Jesus. Other damage included the burning of the nave and sanctuary as well as a still smoldering pile of bibles and religious documents in the courtyard. It was the worst desecration of a place of reverence and worship I had ever seen—until I came to Ma’loula.

The churches and monasteries here had attracted both Christian and Muslim pilgrims before the conflict. The monastery of Mar Thecla in fact has a reputation among believers for miraculous cures. This observer and his companion were given drops of holy water to splash in our eyes for good health and happiness. One can also drink water from the crack in the massive rock cliff that St. Thecla was said to have parted while fleeing the wrath of her family for turning from paganism to Christianity. Some religious scholars claim, and indeed a legend in the early church has it, that Thecla was a chaste and devoted follower of St. Paul. In any event, townspeople claim the water, which flows from the huge split rock, offers a cure for a variety of ailments.

Syrian Tourism Minister Bachir Yazigi has reported that damage and theft to antiquities in Syria, including during the fighting in Ma’loula has amounted to “billions of Syrian pounds” in losses. Included in his calculations are the following examples:

*Many of the old town houses and alleys have been destroyed. Roofs and walls of houses built of stone, in some cases three stories high have collapsed.

*A large number of caves and archaeological cemeteries have been vandalized, sabotaged, and drilled, their doors-smashed and turned into fortified barricades. One of the most damaged caves was on the site of Mar Sarkis, or the Monastery of St. Sergius and Bacchus;

The The Monastery of St. Thecla, including her tomb, has been completely burned, and its holy relics and icons looted, some already surfacing for illicit sale;

One lady from Ma’loula, now living in Damascus, explained to this observer how al-Nusra militants handed citizens “certificates of death” and threatened to harm women and children should the men fail to comply with whatever orders were given to them. She recalled how Christians were told to pay tributes to al-Nusra in order to stay alive.

Al-Nusra militants by the way are being identified as some of the most active dealers of black market antiques of the Middle East. Lebanese media have reported that a great number of ancient icons, crosses, reliquaries, and statues have been smuggled from Syria into Lebanon and then sent abroad. Local smugglers are said by INTERPOL to be moving hundreds of Ma’loula’s antiquities, transporting Christian antiquities to European countries, with the main destinations being Italy and Turkey.

The main entrance to St. Thecla’s Monastery and its main corridor have also been badly damaged and burnt. A fire was set in the Church of St. John the Baptist, located inside the monastery, and its contents—those which were not stolen—have been smashed, including the altar, the crosses, icons and frescos. Extremist phrases were written on the walls of the church, and many of the wall icons were painted over (in the ideology of some extremist groups the icons are forbidden to be seen).

At the nearby Monastery of St. Sergius and Bacchus—constructed in the early fourth century and one of the oldest monasteries in Syria—parts of the western and eastern walls have been substantially damaged by mortar shells. Additionally, the massive dome of the building has been destroyed, apparently hit by shells from different directions, and the bell removed. On the inside, the main marble altar lies destroyed, its wooden cross smashed. Drilling operations were carried out underneath the altar, apparently in search of treasure. All of the movable antiquities and holy items inside the monastery have been stolen, including the most important Maaloula icons.

And at the nearby Church of St. Leontius—the southern wall, the roof and the dome of the building have been damaged from shelling. Inside, the marble tabernacle is destroyed and holy items have been stolen, including the ancient church bell, which is claimed by locals to have been one of the most beautiful-sounding church bells in the world, second only perhaps to the bell at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The crosses have been removed from above the domes of the church, and some of the valuable icons have been stolen, while others were burned. Wooden pews were piled high in the nave and set ablaze, an act of destruction which caused not only the incineration of the pews but which also set alight the wooden ceiling of the church.

No less tragic were the fates of two other world-famous monuments of Ma’loula. Extremists blew up the statue of Christ the Savior, which had adorned the entrance of St. Thecla Convent, as well as the statue of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, which stood on a cliff near the Safir Hotel, a domicile that was commandeered and ended up serving as al-Nusra’s main shelter for many months.

The Church of St. Cosmas and Damian was also destroyed, its altar and wooden iconostasis smashed and its valuable icons stolen. Elsewhere in the hamlet, the Church of St. Barbara was extensively damaged, with whatever valuables not carted off being burned. Even the more modern churches and shrines in the town have been completely looted and destroyed, including the shrines of Mar Saba and St. Thomas and the Church of St. Sherbin.
Throughout the community, what was inflicted by the invaders was wanton, mindless desecration.

Ma’loula is—and was—a beautiful ancient town, renowned for its religious tolerance. Its majority Christian population tried hard to resist the centrifugal pressures of a vicious, sectarian conflict. It failed through no want of trying. The day this observer visited the town, 9/23/14, was by coincidence a religious holiday, and the sisters returned with the orphans for a few hours. There was much joy, even among the ruins, and a bishop explained to me that solace and hope are still extended to the small number of townspeople remaining. As the voices of the few parishioners of St. Thecla flowed for a short while, filling the winding paths and alleys with praises to God and humanity, it seemed almost that even the hundreds of opened and vandalized burial caves on the mountainsides were touched, momentarily, by a sense of majesty and solemnity. And then the Sisters and orphans were parishioners were gone, returning to their hopefully safe quarters in Homs. It is hoped that those quarters will be only temporary, for Ma’loula sorely needs these residents to return to erase the ghost-town feeling of emptiness.

Ma’loula and its citizens urgently need governmental and international solidarity and assistance so as to begin the daunting task of resurrecting this formerly peaceful place of spirituality. A town motto that used to be cherished by the residents was (but is no more): “Everyone is a Christian and everyone is Muslim.”

A couple of local residents who still remain and who seemed to be looking after the town, helpfully supplied much information to this observer during his visit, and after I had spent a wonderful but solemn day in their presence, both gentlemen swore to me that they would never forget, or forgive, the extreme Islamists who had desecrated and substantially gutted their village, along with its sacred sites, or the local Muslims who had been their neighbors but who had joined the rebels and helped destroy the town.

They insisted that Ma’loula had been betrayed twice—once by their neighbors and a second time by the government, which shortly after town was liberated granted the criminals amnesty. Much bitterness remains over both of these perceived betrayals.

The two gentlemen also made a request of me: that as an American I take their story home and tell President Obama and American politicians about what happened here—and to ask for help rebuilding this Christian village.

ED: THE TWO GENTLEMEN STILL BETTING ON OBAMA AND AMERICAN POITIANS!!!!!!!

This report is in response to their request, and to honor my pledge to them that I would. May God protect them.

It was getting late and time to return to Damascus. A warning came from nearby soldiers stationed not far from a Hezbollah camp to be careful using the roads after dark. At this same moment, the five-year-old daughter of one of the townsmen who had toured some of the ruins and church buildings with us, looked up at her father with love and pride—this as the embittered gentleman, who had fought the al-Nusra invaders, shook hands and gazed into my eyes. And for a moment, both of our eyes filled with tears.

“No,” he said, “—no, we ask others to forgive our trespassers, and we must forgive those who trespassed against us. Christ Jesus taught us this. And we must turn the other cheek.”

His is a minority view in the town, I was told, but with those words from the Lord’s Prayer, I watched as this noble man wiped his eyes, and then he squeezed his young daughter’s hand. The five year old looked up at her baba and appeared to understand him, this as he gazed high up into the surrounding mountains, and directly at the mountain top remains of the As Safir Hotel where al Nusra had had its headquarters and from which it had rained mortars and rockets down on the defenseless village.

In the library of the Mar Sarkis monastery, just before leaving, I found a visitor’s book where visitors can write comments. One comment, signed by a lady from Boise, Idaho and still legible, reads:

“This is a very beautiful place to visit and also very inspirational to know that Christians have existed in this area continuously for so many years. May the work here in God’s name continue and help to bring peace and understanding to all people in the Middle East and the world, regardless of who or by what means they choose to worship God.”

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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Shell-Shocked Syrian Town Freed After Savage Massacre, 291 Days of ‘Islamic Justice’

Al manar

Syrian Defense Minister tours Adra

With the Syrian Army at Adra al-Omalia, northeast of Damascus

In the early hours of Thursday, 9/25/2014, after five days of fierce firefights with advancing Syrian troops, approximately 1,000 Jabhat al-Nusra and Liwa al-Islam (Army of Islam) jihadists quickly assembled their hostages from the basements of more than forty buildings in the industrial town of Adra al-Omalia.

car bombThe town—you could almost think of it more as a neighborhood—is located about 12 miles northeast of Damascus.

Those who had been taken hostage, initially approximately 500 people in all, were in the main government employees, along with Shia, Christian, Kurdish, Ismaili, and Druze residents.

As the Syrian Arab Army closed in last week, the overwhelmed jihadists marched their captives into trenches and underground tunnels, disappearing with them. No one—besides their abductors—knows exactly how many of the original 500 people are still alive, but military sources believe at least some of the kidnapped families were moved in the direction of the town of Douma, which has been the opposition’s strategic base since the start of the Syrian crisis in March, 2011. Douma is also where some of the most important rebel fortifications are situated and fighting continues there.

At any rate, last week’s battle for Adra al-Omalia was a significant turning point. The town is now liberated but the story of what took place here over the past 291 days is presently emerging, and it is a horrifying one.

With a pre-massacre population of over 100,000, Adra housed 600 manufacturing plants and grain silos. It was a key area. In May of 2013, Ziad Badour, Director of Adra Industrial City, told the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), that creative responses to U.S. unilateral economic attacks against Syria had given rise to more than 48,000 job opportunities in the region. He said Adra had received workers from different parts of the country, and had also managed to absorb internal refugees—from Douma, Yabroud and Nabek, as well as from the farms of Ghouta. With inexpensive yet high-quality housing, the quiet town, with its well-maintained streets and sidewalks, became a very attractive destination for workers and middle class residents from Damascus.

Starting on September 21, 2014 government forces advanced upon the town in a three-directional pincer operation from the north, west, and south, and theoretically should have been able to cut off al-Nusra’s western escape route to Douma. But the Army admits now that the extent of Adra’s underground tunnels was previously unknown to them. Some of these trenches and tunnels appeared to be at least one-half mile in length and approximately 14 feet deep by 10 feet wide. One trench the army showed to visitors is connected at the end with a tunnel approximately ¾ mile long. It was probably predictable that rebels would attempt an escape to Douma, still under Islamist control, but no one expected it to happen as quickly as it did. As we toured the area, some soldiers involved in the fight, as well as the Army’s public information officer, “Talal,” a friendly and conscientious Syrian patriot, expressed surprise to this observer over the unpredicted and fast exist by al-Nusra.

The tunnels constructed by the group and its disparate gathering of Islamists from outside Syria are not quite up to the standards of Hezbollah’s south Lebanon and Bekaa tunnels, a half-dozen of which this observer has visited. Nor, apparently, are they up to the standards of the Hamas tunnels which so vexed and aggrieved the Zionist aggressors this past summer. Nonetheless, they are equipped with phone wires, water, bathrooms and electricity as well as areas for cooking, dormitories and IED and bomb-making shops. And in the trenches, which are quite large, one finds transport vehicles such as trucks and minibuses, as well as artillery launchers and 50mm guns mounted on pick-ups. From inside one of the tunnels, the Army confiscated a large cache of weapons, ammunition, mobile devices, and chemicals to make chlorine gas. A Syrian lady friend observed a woman’s bag in the back of one the trucks, perhaps belonging to one of the hostages who were forced to leave in hurry or perhaps it belonged to a woman linked to one of the foreign fighters who tend to acquire a jihadi or slave wife (s) and family. In any case, scattered diapers suggest some babies were born to the Islamists during their occupation of Adra as well.

Not all the tunnels were complete; in fact some were still under construction, and inside one of them more than 50 five-gallon buckets were found. The buckets were all filled with chipped rock—as if the jihadists’ tunnel-digging work had been abruptly interrupted. One Islamist sympathizer explained to this observer that al-Nusra and Da’ish (IS) are the best at building “Iranian model” tunnels because, unlike Hezbollah and Hamas Islamists, who Tehran trains, Syrian Islamists have to adapt their construction techniques. This means building tunnels and trenches very quickly and through solid rock—a much more difficult process than simply hollowing out packed sand, the predominant medium at certain tunnel locations in Gaza and some part of Lebanon.

The occupation of Adra al-Omalia lasted nearly ten months, commencing in December 11, 2013, when fighters from al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, another jihadi group, captured the main employee residential complex, using an old sewer to outflank government forces. Many apartments in the area were quickly burned or gutted with grenades or other explosive devices, the reasoning being that jihadists believed the residents loyal to the government.

What quickly took place was a massacre, and many eyewitness accounts of the events are now surfacing. Mazhar Ibraheem is a doctor originally from the Tartus countryside who has lived in Adra for the past several years and who recalls what happened as the militants infiltrated into the city last December:

“Since the earlier hours of that day, I had heard the crackle of gunfire in front of my house that is in front of a bakery. Then I realized that it was fire being exchanged between the militants and the bakery guards. I escaped with my wife and my daughter, Kristin, to a nearby shelter, where dozens of residents were hiding. Then the armed men found the shelter; they started torturing, killing and investigating, and demanding to know who supports the regime and who works with the government. The militants cut off the hands of the government workers in order to prevent the resumption of their work and to behead some of them and to torture their bodies in front of the children’s eyes.”

The doctor also described the horrific scenes that he, with his family, saw of decomposed, tortured and beheaded bodies, which were thrown all over the streets. His wife said that,

“The armed men were non-Syrians. We lived terrible days, before we could escape with only the clothes that we wore.”

She added:

“We woke up at dawn with the sound of bullets… we saw men carrying black flags of Jaish al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra. Some of them were singing ‘Alawites we have come to cut off your heads’ song, and this was the song they first sang at the start of the war in Idlib.”

Another eyewitness described the grisly events of later that day:

“The rebels began to attack the government centers, and attacked the police station—where all the policemen were killed after only a brief clash because of the large numbers of the attackers. They (the attackers) then headed to the checkpoint located on the edge of the city before moving to the clinic, where they slaughtered one from the medical staff and put his head in the popular market. They then dragged his body in front of townspeople who gathered to see what was happening. Bakery workers who resisted their machinery being taken away were roasted in their own oven. Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic Front fighters went from house to house with a list of names and none of those taken away then has been seen since.”

When the Syrian army would try to enter Adra the Jihadists would throw women and children from the 20,000 people it captured off the top floors in front of the army.

This observer’s friend, the award winning journalist Patrick Cockburn, published an account of the sheer terror experienced by one Adra family—the Mhala family. The story appeared in the UK Independent on February 9, 2014 and also in Counterpunch.  Mr. Nusair Mahla, a government employee, described to Cockburn the last minutes of the life of his sister, Maysoun Mhala, who was an engineer who used to help families who were displaced by the fighting. It was on December 11, 2013 that the family decided to blow themselves up in their home, including their children Karim and Bishr, as al-Nusra Islamists broke through the door of their dwelling. Earlier that day, Nusair was able to telephone his sister Maysoun, who already at that time could see the militants in the street. “They look so terrifying, and I am afraid,” she told him.

“I was looking out the window and I saw the terrorists kill one of the NDF [pro-government National Defense Force militia] with a big knife.”

Maysoun went on to explain to Nusair that she and her husband, Nizar, planned to try and wedge the door of their apartment shut, but that if this failed and the jihadis broke in, then the whole family had taken a momentous resolution: rather than face torture and inevitable death at the hands of al-Nusra, they would die as a family by detonating grenades. As the Islamists kicked in the door, the family detonated the explosives, killing the father and two sons and blowing the leg off Maysoun. The rebels then dragged Maysoun’s body behind a car around the neighborhood.

On 9/25/14, the day this observer spent in Adra, Nusair, the brother of Maysouon Mhala explained that the four bodies of his family members were found in the apartment the day before and had been “buried decently”.  Stories from Adra residents who survived suggest that the same people who helped the Hasan family, also helped al Nusra to get inside their building. In times of danger some citizens seek to survive via dual and desperately shifting loyalties.

Cockburn isn’t the only one who has reported on the Mhala family’s tragic destruction. Their story was also alluded to by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, in a speech at the opening of the Geneva II Conference on January 22, 2014 in Montreux, Switzerland:

Under the name of a ‘revolution,’ we see a father that is killing himself and his family so he would save them from strangers entering his house. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, and most of you here are fathers of children. Imagine the feeling of a father when he has to kill his own family with his own hand to protect them from monsters that take the form of people and pretend that they are fighting for freedom. This is what happened in Adra. Adra—I think nobody of you have heard of it. Strangers came in. They killed and burnt people. You have not heard anything about it, but probably you have heard about other places where the same thing happened as happened in Adra, and they have accused the state and the Syrian Army. However, when no one could believe this lie any more, they stopped saying anything about it. This is what is being done by states who are the first attackers on Syria after they put aside others who were trying to take the leadership of the country through influence and money, this by using the horrible Wahhabi thought that is being spread in Syria. From this rostrum I tell you, you know, as I know, that it will not stop in Syria.

A video of Muallem’s full speech is available here.

The section on what took place in Adra begins at about 7:24. At about 22:19, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attempts to cut the Syrian foreign minister off, saying he has exceeded his time limit. Muallem’s speech was later denounced by the State Department’s Jen Psaki as “inflammatory.”

Let Ban Ki-moon and Psaki come to Adra.

Visitors arriving in Adra now see widespread damage to buildings from the warring parties. Army units will take the next few weeks to comb the city and remove explosive devices and car bombs, often found planted in parks and squares and at entrances to buildings.

As this observer was meandering along some streets within the just-liberated area, he stumbled, almost literally, upon the remains of a dozen fighters along the side of a destroyed truck. He reported the shocking discovery to some soldiers, standing on their tanks nearby, who then called an officer over. The bodies appeared to have been in the same spot for many months, maybe soldiers lined up and machine gunned. Their skin was baked dry, leathery, like what one sees in photos of mummies. Someone had covered them a long time ago with blankets or sheets that were now caked with thick dust and oil soaked.  All wore military uniforms and a few had rings on their fingers and their hair appeared baked and brittle–maybe by months in the hot sun, one soldier speculated.

The site was more than a little numbing, but due to the priority of Army engineers in searching for booby traps—and due to the fact that the bodies themselves could be booby-trapped—the corpses could not be removed immediately. Later on that same day, however, as it began getting dark and I and my friend were preparing to return to Damascus, I made a point to check the area again, this time relieved to see two ambulances parked nearby—and that the bodies had finally been removed.

In taking Adra al-Omalia and expelling the armed militants from it, the Syrian Army has made a significant gain. The government now controls International Highway 5, which connects to Jordan in the south, runs north up through Damascus to Aleppo and Turkey.

It remains to be seen how soon the terrorized residents can return to their homes and begin rebuilding their lives.

Source: Al-Manar Website

01-10-2014 – 09:52 Last updated 01-10-2014 – 9:52

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Syria: Engaging the Opposition with More than Weapons

Franklin Lamb

Al-Manar

Tadmon and Kafr Sousa neighborhoods, Damascus

Damascus CountrysideTo my knowledge this observer has never been-nor likely ever will be-accused of being particularly astute and certainly not the least bit prescient.  Yet, the more Syrians I meet in Damascus neighborhoods –seemingly from a fairly broad spectrum of political views, I am changing some earlier assumptions and tentative judgments about ’”this interminable Syrian war.”  While any sort of a timetable to end this horror is not yet discernible, the beginnings of putting much of it behind this ten millennia birthplace of civilization may be fairly imminent.

Eighteen months ago, more than a dozen neighborhoods in the Damascus suburbs were engaged in moderate to intense fighting between rebels and the Syrian army. Today, only four neighborhoods are under fairly heavy fire, Jobar, Daraya, al-Qabun and Yarmouk.  In most of the others, the government and rebels appear to be seeking an accommodation of sorts.

Residents from Tadmon as well as some Damascus University students offered this observer some examples of how both sides of the civil war are trying to work positively with their sworn enemies despite the conflict approaching its fourth year.

One major quality of life necessity is electricity in our homes. Supplying power to its areas is a major concern of both sides in this conflict. Frankly even the current Syrian system appears far better than in Lebanon which regularly sees road blockades and burning of tires to protest the nearly half century of incompetence and indifference of politicians in delivering as few as six hours of daily electricity and that depending on which area and which confession controls relevant cabinet ministries.  In these days of civil war in Syria the government delivers power two hours on and two hours off and full power during the night from 10 pm to 10 a.m.  Not too bad by Levant standards.  Even rebel groups in an increasingly number of neighborhoods, and to a lesser extent in the countryside, get government power. In some rebel neighborhoods electricity is being delivered to residents 24/7.  This is achieved by militia stealing power via cables they run to other neighborhoods.

They quite often seem to get away with it but occasionally they fight among themselves as happened earlier this month in Al Qudsayya when a dozen or so Nusra fighters routed around 50 FSA types caught hooking up wires under neighborhood buildings. Nusra and the FSA fight over a myriad of issues and especially over high-rise buildings.  Tall buildings are at a premium for obvious reasons including being desirable for sniper nests and mortar launchings.  Many neighborhood clashes occur in full view of army checkpoints that control neighborhood egress.  Whether or not the army has orders not to interfere or engage with militias, they reportedly often do.  Militia and army commanders, if not on exactly friendly terms, sometimes meet and parley as deemed necessary in an effort to create and maintain neighborhood peace. This practice appears to work for the benefit of both sides and is reportedly spreading, particularly around Damascus.

When rebel factions fight one another, as they often do and endanger a neighborhood, the army appears increasingly ready to will “mediate.”  If their orders to end the residents endangering fight are not immediately followed the army can and often does cut power to all sides until they receive pledges to honor the governments ‘recommendations.”

Rebel and government “contracts” as the locals call them, cover many subjects, some seemingly odd if not very bizarre.  One example. As news reports suggest the government’s policy is to pacify the neighborhoods so refugees can return and it has made remarkably progress around Damascus despite an increase in rebel mortar firings into Damascus from approximately 6 per day a year ago to as many as 23 per day currently.

It is reported on good authority from eyewitnesses, that certain army checkpoints  will actually allow armed militiamen to  pass through army checkpoints freely if they will head to Jobar or Duraya or other ‘fighting fields”  to challenge the army there and keep local peace in their local community.  Some do.  Last week, according to a student who lives in al-Qabun, there was a potentially serious problem but it was solved at one of the periodic meetings between rebel leaders and army officers. The unusual problem was that when a dozen or so rebels headed to the army checkpoint to go fight the same army near Jobar they were observed carrying two AK-47’s each.  The local army commander was livid because by the expressed terms of an earlier agreement each rebel fighter could only safely pass and return through the neighborhood army checkpoint if he was carrying only one AK.  The rebels protested complaining that they need two, always fight with two and it was no big deal for the army to let them pass. The army insisted on only one AK-47 per rebel fighter and threatened to not only stop rebels from exiting and entering their neighborhood but that if they did not keep the earlier agreement the army would attack the rebel positions, presumably with artillery or airstrikes.  This caused panic among the local civilians, many of whom have relatives in the FSA, Nusra, and even Da’ish. Long story made short, the rebels listened to their parents and relatives as well as to the reasoning of the army and finally agreed that they would carry only one AK-47 each thru the army checkpoints on route to fight the army a few kilometers away. According to two eyewitnesses to these events, all sides shook hands at the checkpoint as the rebels handed their second AK-47’s to the army for “safe keeping.”  An unwritten rule between the army and their sworn enemies en route to try to kill them is that if the rebel gets killed the army checkpoint guys gets to keep his weapon. This is not to say the army and the rebels are in league, but the Syrian government is working to secure the neighborhoods and does not want to resort to bombing if they can obtain their objectives by other means. One hears of many ‘contracts’ being made among sworn enemies around Syria in order to try to end this slaughter.

Another brief example.  Last week saw the doors of 17,486 of Syria’s  22,192  public schools open their doors. This according to Dr. Farah al-Mutlak, Deputy Minister of Education of the SAR, who generously gave this observer his time to discuss the current challenges for children in Syria. The gap of approximately 4,500 schools between the above figures is caused by the fact that 2,613 of Syrian schools, as of opening day were controlled by rebels including Da’ish.  688 former schools are now being used to house homeless refugees, 1,385 are war damaged and currently can’t be used. The figure was higher but over the past year the government has been able to repair 435.  In addition, approximately 128,000 children are attending “school clubs” in particularly volatile areas of Syria. This year alone, 72,000 children in Syria and 587,000 child refugees have received psychosocial support.

Excited and sometimes apprehensive children by the thousands are arriving for the new school year and according to Janet Hasan, Principal of the Salahedine Primary and Middle School in the Mezzeh neighborhood of central Damascus which was among those this observer visited, her school which normally teaches 600 girls now has 1,436. Class size has traditionally been 30 students of average.  Today class size at Salahedine School is 60 students per class.

94% of last years graduating class at Sahahedine public school passed their Baccalaureate exams opening the doors to university and higher education.

Yet despite severe overcrowding the classes appear very well organized and when the results of last June’s Baccalaureate were announced 94% of Principal Hassan’s students passed.    According to dedicated educator Hasan and some of her faculty this observer meet with,  due to the crisis attending school is enormously important for the children to experience at least some love and normalcy with peers and authority figures while learning about more than  only the obvious effects of war on their lives.

Principal Janet Hasan, with her dedicated faculty is working to normalize her school while inspiring her 1,400 students during the current conflict…

If militias are in control  of an area with a public school,  efforts are being made by both parties to keep it peaceful and toward this goal the government and the militia, “cooperate” with the exception of Da’ish (IS) who have set up essentially Madrassas that do not teach anything  much at all-but memorizing the Koran.  Da’ish forbids teaching music, dancing, studying philosophy, western literature or other ‘secular subjects.’   Al Nusra does not, unlike Da’ish, insist on a Madrassa type education in public schools which so far are a big success this new year and working to the benefit of the children and their exhausted and often destitute families.

Virtually every educator, government official and critic of the Assad regime with whom this observer has discussed what the Syrian government is doing to provide quality education for youngsters these days  have agreed that all sides, except Da’ish, are trying at different levels to cooperate to help Syria’s cherished youth. All also express abhorrence at what is happening to Syrian school children forced to take refuge in Lebanon. In Lebanon, there’s simply no space in many schools nor much political will left to help Syrian or Palestinian refugees plus the education system is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of child refugees. Around 80 percent of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon don’t attend school, according to Save the Children and UNHCR.

One positive sign is that partly due to the Syrian Ministry of Education seeking international help, more than $316m was pledged this week, according to Dr. al-Mutlak, to support Syrian children affected by the conflict.  This assistance is part of a UN-led initiative to alleviate the impact of the crisis on young people. Despite this wonderful and much needed help a funding gap of more than $ 200 million remains.

Another issue that both sides are trying to resolve at citizens request is to open the neighborhoods on the weekends so residents can move around.  Currently in as many as a dozen Damascene neighborhoods  the rebels prevent residents from leaving their area on Friday because they believe they should pray and stay at home.  Some militias close the neighborhoods they control during both Friday and Saturday. Both sides have indicated that a mutually agreed resolution may be near so residents can head to the beautiful parks and old city for sightseeing or visit friends and family.

There is growing evidence here that the government and the rebels are trying to collaborate in various ways in order to save and entire generation of their children from being denied education due to the ravages of ongoing civil war. This massive catastrophe for Syria and the region can be ended if the above noted trend continues.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-leb.com).

Source: Al-Manar Website

27-09-2014 – 17:16 Last updated 27-09-2014 – 7:16

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So called “Free Syrian Army” are neither free, Syrian or an army

As for the Free Syrian Army, now dubbed by some in the Obama Administration as the “National Coalition—kind of like the National Guard”—it is viewed by many here as corrupt, manned to a large extent by lowlifes and thieves. The “Free Syrian Army,” as one pithy adage has it, is neither free, nor Syrian, nor an army. And at least in Barzeh (Damascus suburb), at any rate, it is also viewed as being for sale to the highest bidder.

Franklin Lamb 

Changes are underway in Damascus’s suburban neighborhoods. In some of these neighborhoods there are few families’ left—only fighters. But in others, residents are trickling back in (or in some cases never even left) despite the danger. Here in these areas, those who have chosen the armed opposition route fall are grouped roughly in the following percentiles: 70% FSA, 25% Al Nursa, and, as of now, relatively few, Da’ish (IS).

During meetings with young men from the Barzeh neighborhood, an area maybe five blocks by eight blocks, this observer learned of approximately 700 FSA fighters in the neighborhood, 110 from al Nursa, compared with only 7 or 8 Da’ish fighters. The latter do not appear very active in community matters, but reportedly keep their eyes peeled watching what the other militia are up to. Even so, Dai’sh still recruits and sends applicants to other locations for military training, this while promising that within two months the Islamic State will attack central Damascus.

At the same time, desertions among the rebels are reportedly on the upswing in these areas, and some of the FSA and al-Nusra fighters are splitting off to join Da’ish. It seems that some of these young militia members—pretty much like youngsters everywhere—simply want to play for a ‘winning team’ or in the ‘big leagues,’ and Da’ish is still a strong magnet for ‘tryouts.’ Al-Nusra and Da’ish fighters both claim they are eager to fight Hezbollah—and Western forces—who they believe will show up sooner or later. And many of them exhibit an attitude similar to that of a European jihadist who recently remarked to this observer, “Let’s get it on. And the world will itself judge who are the best fighters, we who believe in Allah or the kuffers (disbelievers).”

Another disturbing attitude, all too frequently expressed in Damascene neighborhoods, is the desire of many of these young men, many of them from “good” families, to sacrifice themselves and become martyrs to their various causes. Residents report that some of the most promising students—majoring in subjects like medicine, law, engineering, computer science, business and other professions—are disaffected and see no future for themselves. And while many are deeply religious, a surprising number appear not to be.

Overwhelmingly the rebels come from areas where outsiders are few. This observer’s friend of more than three years, whose name I withhold for his security, has lived most of his life in Barzeh and knows many of the militia guys. He reports that currently there are only two foreign fighters in Barzeh, one from Algeria and the other from Saudi Arabia. And he expressed shock to me that a friend of his from childhood—who joined al-Nusra 18 months ago and had since become one of its local leaders—had suddenly disappeared. A few days later, my friend got a ‘what’s up’ message from Turkey and learned that his friend had shaved his beard, changed his style of clothing, and left Barzeh without telling anyone. Now he reports that he wears shorts and swims during the day on the Turkish coast and no longer has any desire to fight anyone.

Many among al Nusra and other rebel groups, it seems, are trying to leave Syria and go somewhere, anywhere, that might offer them a positive future of some sort—because they see the war in Syria as being a long one. And in this respect they are no different from the war-weary, exhausted, traumatized Syrian population in general. With very few jobs and nearly ten million displaced from their homes—and with some 3 million living as refugees in neighboring countries—what one finds here on the one hand is a growing desire to get out, to establish, sadly, a new life elsewhere, in a land other than the one they most love. Yet on the other, significant numbers of fairly hard-core al-Nusra fighters, as noted above, are quitting that militia in order to join the winning team—Da’ish. It is a combination of social factors pointing to what the Iranians have already made note of: that Obama’s strategy of trying to fight Da’ish and the Syrian government at the same time is probably doomed to failure.

Some Syrian analysts, whose views this observer credits, identify two trends that appear to be developing in Syrian neighborhoods controlled by violent militia. One is the growing resistance by the local population to being intimidated and abused by the occupying gunmen—while another is the role the Syrian government is playing in engaging in dialog, usually privately, with the rebels, and offering what some locals here refer to as “contracts.” These are proposals of ceasefires of varying scope in order to help give some hope and help to the increasingly besieged population.

Also, neighborhood attitudes toward militia in areas around Damascus are dramatically changing. This observer is advised by fighters from Barzeh that as recently as 12-18 months ago, maybe 80% of the citizens supported the FSA, while some backed al Nusra or other groups. Today militia support is estimated at less than 40%—and dwindling. Even those who still back the armed gangs are weaker in their support and no longer respect the militia or defer to them as before. Increasingly neighborhood residents are confronting the rebels on neighborhood streets via ‘citizen committees.’ They are showing up at rebel checkpoints or headquarters to complain or demand respect and an end to arbitrary street “justice.” Reasons for this include abhorrence of brutality, exhaustion, disillusionment, as well as demonstrable efforts by the Syrian government to increase and maintain services while trying to make important and long overdue changes. Even many rebels are said to credit the government for its willingness to be flexible and to make “contracts” with them to improve the lives of the besieged population.

For example, when families return to their homes after having fled, nearly all find that their flats have been broken into and personal property stolen, and they sometimes discover some of their stolen items being sold in neighborhood ‘jihadist souks.’ According to one resident of Barzeh, computers and plasma TV’s are among the most commonly stolen property. By contrast, “neighborhood watch” citizen groups seek the return of stolen goods and demand that the militias stop the thievery.

Also people are increasingly calling for a return to Syrian secularism, and they may actually be making some progress on this point. Unlike Da’ish, al Nursa does not insist that people attend a mosque for prayers—while the FSA is relatively secular. Nursa does require that women wear hijabs in neighborhoods under its control, and the first two times a woman is caught without one she is issued a warning. The third time she risks a public whipping. This observer is advised that many younger women, despite the risks, will remove their head scarves the moment they cross out of rebel-held areas, sometimes in plain view of those manning the checkpoints, leaving the neighborhood at this point, traveling to downtown Damascus for work or other purposes. It’s not dissimilar actually to what one finds among many Iranian women, particularly students at Tehran University, who openly admit, often with grins, to giving the local “morality police” a hard time when demands—for instance to adjust their headscarves so as to reduce the amount of hair visible—are made by roving “purists.”

As for the Free Syrian Army, now dubbed by some in the Obama Administration as the “National Coalition—kind of like the National Guard”—it is viewed by many here as corrupt, manned to a large extent by lowlifes and thieves. The “Free Syrian Army,” as one pithy adage has it, is neither free, nor Syrian, nor an army. And at least in Barzeh, at any rate, it is also viewed as being for sale to the highest bidder. Moreover, the residents here, though increasingly vocal about jihadist militias, seem to hold actually more respect for al-Nusra, despite its Islamist extremism, than for the Western-backed FSA.

Late word just received by this observer from his friend, the aforementioned son of Barzeh: yesterday he, too, snuck across the Syrian-Turkey border in search of a new life-somewhere until peace returns to his beloved Syria.

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