Writing in recent days about the siege of Madaya in Syria, where 28 people were deliberately allowed to starve to death, made me ponder on the dark shadow of human cruelty that always hangs over our daily lives.
What is it that makes a presumably intelligent, well educated couple like President Assad and London-born wife Asma, who have 2 healthy children of their own, stand back and let other people’s children 30 miles away die from malnutrition and lack of food?
The Assads had the power to change that in an instant.
They could have supplied medical assistance that would have kept the starving alive, but chose not to do that either, because of politics and religion – the victims all belonged to wrong (Sunni) sect.
By contrast Alawite/Shia, supporters of the regime, trapped by an opposition siege in Kefraya and Al Fuah have received fairly regular airdrops of food and other supplies.
Similarly, what makes members of the Islamic State in sickening acts of cruelty, behead people, burn them alive or suicide bomb innocent tourists to death?
The acts of cruelty in war are endless. It’s as though the state of war “gives permission” for common humanity to be completely and illegally suspended – though the boundary between war combatants and non-combatants is becoming increasingly blurred.
And it is not just in war that cruelty manifests, we see it around us almost every day.
Take the cases of acid attack victims. More than 200 in the UK over the last 2 years and an estimated 1,000 a year in India, many of them there never officially reported or treated.
They also occur in the USA and South America and across Europa and Asia. In Bangladesh there have been 3,512 people attacked with acid between 1999 and 2013 alone, though annual numbers are at last reducing.
Acid attacks melt distinctive facial features like noses and ears that most of us take for granted, disfigures bodies, take away sight, cause deafness and ruin lives. The emotional and psychological damage is immeasurable.
Iqbal in Pakistan, a very handsome young man, was just 15 years old when he was attacked with acid.
He was a passionate dancer and danced professionally with his parents in wedding processions.
One night, Iqbal was approached by another man who sexually propositioned him but Iqbal said he wasn’t interested.
While sleeping at home along with his family, Iqbal had acid poured over his head.
He was left blind in both eyes by the attack and his lips and neck burned so badly that eating and drinking are extremely painful.
Iqbal is from a family of poor wood cutters, who dance to earn extra income.
Now aged 20 he is at last receiving treatment for the first time in 5 years. (You can read more and/or donate at Acid Survivors Trust International)
It is not just our fellow humans that human beings are cruel to. It is also animals.
The reports of animals starved and beaten to death are endless on the Internet, including many animals that were supposedly “pets” or destined for our dinner plates.
And then you have the bizarre phenomena of people who lovingly care for their pets but starve or are cruel to their children.
All of which goes contrary to our natural instincts.
From a biological point of view, newly born and young children and animals are “cute”, innocent and appealing precisely to trigger an affectionate and protective bonding response from those around them, particularly their parents.
We have all probably done cruel things to people, animals or insects at some time in our lives, however “good” we try to be.
I have to confess that I once worked in a zoo where we had to feed the owls and other birds of prey with day-old-chicks.
If we had put live chicks into the cages for the birds to kill there would have rightly been a public outcry, so every week a box of freshly hatched little miracles would arrive at the zoo – and one by one we killed them by breaking their necks and storing them in the fridge.
After a short while, a friend and I could no longer do it – every death felt like an emotional knife wound and eventually such cruel actions became impossible.
Human cruelty and lack of care, which in regard to the young or the elderly can also be cruel, is a result of a disconnect with our feelings to one degree or another. The less we truly feel, the more we can separate ourselves from and ignore what goes on around us.
And we stop feeling of course when we are so full of pain and distress ourselves that feeling it threatens our functioning. Depression, is precisely that, pressing down our painful feelings, but those suffering depression are more likely to harm themselves than be cruel to others.
The dangerous ones are those that are so disconnected from their feelings that they act them out without taking responsibility for those actions. Rage, jealousy, rejection, fear, feelings of inadequacy or other strong emotions can trigger acts of cruelty, often on the weaker and most vulnerable.
Facing up to cruelty of many kinds in our world is not an easy thing to do. It is noticeable with my blog that when I write about people “starving to death” for example, the views of the site immediately go down and when I write about “battles and victories”, the number of views goes up! (It will be interesting to see how this article fares)
Extraordinarily, at the other side of the human coin, sometimes out of cruelty, pain and suffering some good things come.
Laxmi Saa, one of the acid victims mentioned above, was attacked when she was 15 years old merely because she rejected an offer of marriage. Her attacker got just 3 years for disfiguring her for life.
Despite her injuries, Laxmi is well known in India for her campaign to get the sale of acid regulated, because it is far too easy to buy and misuse it.
Now a designer clothes company in India, Viva N Diva, is employing and empowering her as a model for its latest range. Kudos and respect to the company and to Laxmi for her bravery and determination. (You can read more at the BBC)
Finally, what can we do in our own lives to lift the dark shadow of human cruelty hanging over the world?
We can certainly challenge, report and remove cruelty from our own life in whichever form it appears.
As I always say, if you can’t be right, be kind. No-one, animal or human, deserves cruelty.
TIMELINE – 11th FEBRUARY 2015 14.03 GMT:
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In an interview with BBC TV News, President Bashar Assad, completely contradicting all available evidence, has said that his army “does not use barrel-bombs”.
Sickeningly, despite some tough questioning from the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, he also tried to turn the accusation into a joke.
“We don’t have barrels. Again, it’s like talking about cooking pots. So, we don’t have cooking pots.
We only have, like any regular army, we have bombs, we have missiles, we have bullets, and etc”.
He also dismissed a reports by Human Rights Watch about the regime’s repeated use of barrel-bombs as “a childish story”.
This Syrian helicopter aircrew is using one of the first crude #NotBarrelBombs, back in 2012 and thousands have been dropped since, here:
On a similar line of questioning on the use of chlorine gas, when asked to confirm his army was not using it, he said, “No, definitely not”.
Assad also claims that, while there is no direct co-ordination, his military get information about attacks on the Islamic State through “a third party”, presumed to be Iraq.
Bowen: “And is that a continuing dialogue that you have through third parties?”
President Assad: “There’s no dialogue. There’s, let’s say, information. But not dialogue”.
Bowen: “They tell you things?” President Assad: “Something like this”. Bowen: “Do you tell them things?” President Assad: “No”.
Despite thorough and persistent questioning in the interview, Assad is tricky, manipulative and evasive. As one Twitter user asked, “Is there a more coldly mendacious ruler in the world than Bashar?”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has documented 1009 air raids carried out by Assad’s helicopters and jets since the beginning of February in 12 out of Syria’s 14 provinces.
Not only has Assad upped the number of attacks in recent months, but cynically taken advantage of the world’s attention on the historic battle by the Kurds to defend Kobane.
According to SOHR the helicopters have dropped 537 barrel-bombs in February, killing 270 civilians including 48 women and 49 children. Another 1200 have been injured, some of them critically.
Or, if you can stomach it (“We are defending civilians and making dialogue”), the full transcript is on the Syrian state media site, SANA, HERE:
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Two days before the opening of the Geneva 2 “peace conference”, which in theory is supposed to agree a transitional government for Syria without President Assad, a devastating report has been published giving evidence of Assad’s war crimes with the systematic killing of 11,000 detainees by the his regime.
The report, based on evidence provided by a former Syrian policeman, has been prepared by three well-known international lawyers, all of whom have acted as prosecutors at previous international criminal tribunals, and contains 55,000 images of dead victims, many of whom have clearly been subjected to torture.
The defector was originally a “scene of crime” investigator who has worked for the Syrian Military Police for 13 years but in 2011 when the conflict started he was redirected to photograph and document the bodies of those brought from prisons and detention centres to a military hospital.
The images the policeman, codenamed “Caesar”, and his colleagues took showed evidence of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing.
Four or five pictures were taken of each body, 55,000 images therefore pertaining to around 11,000 dead detainees.
The were 2 reasons for the photographing. Firstly, to allow the production of a death certificate without family members seeing the body and protecting the authorities from having to explain the death, and secondly to provide “evidence” that an execution order had been carried out.
The three lawyers in the enquiry team were Sir Desmond de Silva QC and Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice QC from the UK and Professor David M. Crane from the USA.
Both De Silva and Crane had previously been Chief Prosecutor in the Special Court on Sierra Leone convened to prosecute the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, on charges of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” (he was sentenced in May 2012 to 50 years imprisonment).
Professor Nice was the lead prosecutor in the trial of the former Yugoslavian and Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, who was also indicted on “crimes against humanity” at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, but who died from heart problems before the end of his 5 year trial.
These 3 reputable and credible investigators spent several days in January 2014 questioning “Caesar” at a location in the Middle East (probably Qatar, whose Government paid for a UK firm of solicitors to co-ordinate the investigation) and found him truthful and not prone to exaggeration.
“Caesar” admitted he had not witnessed a single torture or execution and was only involved afterwards, but sickened by what he saw he copied the images onto a flash memory drive and transmitted the pictures and documents to a family member abroad.
The enquiry team were also backed up by forensic experts Professor Sue Black and Dr. Stuart Hamilton, plus a forensic imaging expert, Stephen Cole.
They examined the images without prior knowledge of their source and deemed the photographs as authentic, unretouched and evidence of beating, binding, restraint or other physical assault but “excluding injuries that could reasonably have occurred as the result of legal combat engagement”.
26,948 images were directly provided by “Caesar” and more than 20,000 via the Opposition Syrian National Movement from “Caesar” and other sources.
“Caesar” also described how he and a doctor were sent to a military hospital to record the deaths of prisoners killed in detention, sometimes recording as many as 50 bodies a day, requiring 15 – 30 minutes of work on each corpse.
After the issue of a death certificate the families were informed that their family member had died “in hospital” from either a “heart attack” or “breathing problems”.
Each body was given two numbers, one referring to the branch of the intelligence service responsible for the detention and death of the detainee, and a second number falsifying that the detainee had died in hospital. The corpses were then taken away for burial in a rural location.
Although in the short time available the enquiry team was not able to examine every single image, they concluded that there is more than sufficient evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Assad regime.
De Silva told the London Guardian, where the report was first published (along with CNN), that the evidence “documented industrial-scale killing”. He added: “This is a smoking gun of a kind we didn’t have before. It makes a very strong case indeed.”
Commenting on the report, a spokesman for the US Government said, “As we have for over two years, and again today, we call on the Syrian government to grant immediate and unfettered access to all their detention facilities by international documentation bodies, including the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria”.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) spokeswomen said, “These photos – if authentic [Having not checked them ourselves] – suggest that we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria’s notorious dungeons. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this and that is for the negotiating parties at Geneva II to grant unhindered access to Syria’s detention facilities to independent monitors.”
At the time of writing, the day after the release of the report, SANA, the Syrian official state media, makes no mention of the accusations at all.
President Bashar Assad, portrays himself as a loving family man, an urbane, gentle, sophisticated leader “loved” by his people.
He is clearly nothing of the kind. The Assad war crimes evidence detailed above can only happen systematically and repeatedly over a long period if authorised from above.
Not withstanding that this report has been commissioned by Qatar (a sworn enemy of Assad and sponsors of the armed Opposition against him) and that it publication has been timed to cause maximum impact at the Geneva conference – the responsibility for everything described above is Assad’s.
He had allowed this to happen and directly or indirectly authorised it.
Assad is in fact a monster, a blood-thirsty killer, just like his father Hafez, who will do anything to preserve his family “dynasty” and the elitist position of the minority Alawite community to which he belongs.
Bashar Assad should be arrested and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Court in the Hague, in the Netherlands, at the earliest possible opportunity.
You can read the full Guardian report, HERE:
And the enquiry’s report, HERE:
The BBC has a video report, HERE:
CNN has 3 video reports, with 3 of the investigators, (CAUTION – EXTREMELY HARROWING IMAGES) HERE:
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TIMELINE – 28th JANUARY 2013 15.00 GMT:
After 3 days the battle for control of Idlib’s main prison continues. In dramatic scenes on Friday, Opposition forces in co-ordinated attacks on regime positions across the city of Idlib, managed to break into the central prison and free more than 300 grateful prisoners, reputedly capturing a number of Assad’s soldiers in the process.
10 Opposition fighters were killed in the attack but those remaining are still fighting for complete control of the penitentiary in a city which is still largely under Government control.
Government forces are desperate to retake the prison, even using MIGs to drop bombs inside the penitentiary compound, because it is also a major checkpoint controlling the entrances to the city from the west.
The prison contained both criminals and political prisoners and the Opposition fighters will bring those they released before a judge to decide whether they should be released completely or complete their sentences elsewhere.
Opposition forces are almost certainly control of vast areas across Idlib province itself, enabling them to to now concentrate their fire on the provincial capital. A video of prisoners being released from Idlib prison under heavy gunfire is HERE: and Al Jazeera has a another report, HERE:
In the north-eastern part of Idlib province Opposition fighters yesterday captured the villages of Yaqoubiya and Janoudiya plus 4 tanks and 3 armoured vehicles.
Deir el-Zour is under similar Opposition assault and unconfirmed reports say that the fighters have captured a large military checkpoint near the Deir Az-Zour Suspension Bridge and are targeting Assad’s political intelligence branch which overlooks the Euphrates river that divides the city in two.
Around Damascus, the fight for the Sunni suburbs continues with the Assad regime bombing and shelling civilians incessantly and unmercifully.
Fierce clashes are being reported at checkpoints near the entrance to the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee camp and activists say that 13 people were summarily executed at a checkpoint by Shabiha in Daraya, where Opposition fighters are bravely holding on, even managing to destroy 5 tanks and 6 armoured vehicles trying to enter the suburb.
There is also an unconfirmed reported that the Syrian Air Force managed to kill some of its own troops battling for Daraya yesterday afternoon, Sunday, with “friendly fire”.
The strength of the fighters in Daraya seems to lie in the fact that they are mainly defected conscripts from the nearby Assad military bases and know the area extremely well.
A spectacular attack on one of Assad’s tanks in Daraya, with a soldier fleeing afterwards, can be seen in HD, HERE:
Latest reports from Damascus today, Monday, confirm that following heavy fighting Opposition fighters captured the Qadam train station and terminal, reportedly one of the largest regime outposts in the south of the capital.
The clashes have led to the closure of the main highway nearby which links Damascus with Deraa in the south of the country. There is video footage of the battle for the rail terminus, HERE:
Opposition fighters around Damascus also seized the base of the Army’s 22nd brigade in the East Ghouta district, just 10 kilometres east of Damascus International Airport, and captured another 2 tanks and large quantities of weapons.
Additionally they attacked the 781st Air Defense base in the suburb of Khan al-Sheeh and the Military Security Branch in the town of Sa’saa where they were able to set dozens more detainees free.
Al Jazeera has a video report on the Damascus suburb of Harasta, once home to more than 500,000 mainly Sunni Syrians.
Over 22 months the city has been completely destroyed, almost all the residents have fled and it is now occupied by roaming packs of dogs or cats.
Assad’s Army destroyed whole blocks of apartments, just to get a line of sight for its snipers. This is what is left, HERE:
In Aleppo province indiscriminate Government air strikes have killed 20 in Menbij, half of them children, and another 10 at Al-Bab. There is video footage of the aftermath of the airstrike, with no military targets or Opposition fighters in sight, HERE:
Opposition fighters have also captured the Military Housing Foundation and the cement factory in the Sheikh Saad district of Aleppo city while continuing their attacks on the airbases surrounding the city. And in Homs province there is a renewed Government assault on all towns and villages that have resisted Assad control.
Indicating the increasing scale of the fighting, activists observing activity at Latakia airport say that the Bustan Foundation, a charity run by Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, handed over the bodies of 84 killed soldiers and Shabiha to their families in the province.
Reports this morning, say that the regime is pounding villages 25 north-west of the central city of Hama in an attempt to regain the countryside surrounding the provincial capital causing 100’s of people to flee in cars and on tractors and motorbikes. The indiscriminate shelling of the town of Kirnaz this morning, Monday, can be seen, HERE:
In the most explicit criticism of President Assad yet by Russia, the country’s Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, said, in an interview with CNN at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland at the weekend, that the Syrian President had made a “grave, perhaps fatal error” by delaying political reforms.
“He should have acted much more quickly and reached out to the peaceful opposition which was ready to sit at the negotiating table with him”, said the Russian Premier.
It seems to me that his chances of staying (in power) are shrinking day by day.”
As if in a belated awareness of the regime’s errors has penetrated its consciousness, the Assad Government has released a string of bizarre announcements in the last few days, most of which will get little or no reaction.
Last Thursday, the regime called on all its citizens who have fled the country to return, saying they will get “aid” regardless of whether they left the country legally or illegally or are opponents of President Assad or not. The Government also called on Opposition figures to take part in reconciliation talks, but that is not even on the agenda for the Opposition until Assad falls.
Yesterday, the Syrian High Judicial Council announced a suspension of prosecutions of opposition members so they can join such a national dialogue but activists say, the Government, following its usual path, arrested a senior member of Damascus-based opposition National Development Party, Khalil Mustafa Sayed, on Friday.
Even Syria’s semi-approved internal Opposition has accused the Assad regime of being responsible for the killing of 87 students at Aleppo University.
As for Assad himself, unconfirmed reports say that he is in a 100 room bunker complex underneath the presidential palace supported by 50 highly-vetted staff.
The reports say that there is a gym, a cinema, operations and communications rooms and enough supplies to last them 6 months.
Opposition fighters are busy however firing home-made rockets at the palace, HERE:
For a good feel of how it is to visit Syria right now, have a read of this excellent article in The National, HERE:
Internationally, President Obama gave an interview to the New Republic magazine in which he described how he had to wrestle “with where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity”.
“And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations”. You can read more, HERE:
Lastly, in a moving tribute of solidarity with the students killed at Aleppo University, students across the United States met to remember them, seen in this video, HERE:
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TIMELINE – 24th JANUARY 2013 14.53 GMT:
As Opposition forces make sudden advances in the southern province of Deraa and fighting with Government forces escalates, refugees flood into Jordan.
According to the Jordan Times late on Tuesday night, authorities had recorded 6,000 people crossing in a 12 hour period, just part of the 20,000 taken in in just over a week.
The Jordanian Government has appealed for international help in coping with the estimated 300,000 Syrian refugees sheltering in its country, 60-70,000 alone in the Za’atari refugee camp north of the capital Amman.
The BBC has a video report, HERE:
Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have overrun several Army checkpoints within Deraa city itself and captured the nearby towns of Bosra and Ghabagheb.
Bosra in an ancient city with a citadel and a UNESCO World Heritage site Roman amphitheatre, one of the finest of its kind in the world.
The FSA have also attacked the 25th border police station in the town of Tal Shihab near the Jordanian border and continue to thwart regime attempts to take the Basr Harir suburb of Deraa.
Jet and missile attacks on FSA positions in Deraa have been reported this morning, further adding to the desperation of civilians to leave.
Similarly, the Syrian Air Force is continuing to strike the Damascus suburbs of Daraya, Douma, Moadamiyat al-Sham and Aqraba, where 3 Government tanks, in addition to a number of armoured vehicles, were destroyed by Opposition fighters yesterday. 8 jet strikes on Daraya have been recorded this morning, Thursday, alone.
There was also violent shelling yesterday on the Palestinian refugee camp of Husainiya, with many deaths.
Scud missiles, believed to have been fired from the Government’s Talkalakh base near Homs, came down on the Al-Bab suburb of Abu Taltal and in Kaljebrin, both in Aleppo province in the north, killing at least 23 people including a couple and their 3 children, the Hazrouni family from Abu Taltal.
Overall, at least 146 deaths were reported across Syria yesterday, Wednesday.
In Aleppo city itself, video analysis of the second bomb explosion on January 15th at Aleppo University, which killed at least 87, has revealed that it was almost certainly a rocket/missile strike, undermining the Government claims that the deaths were caused by car bombs.
The Government’s alternative claim was that they were “terrorist” missiles aimed at aircraft that had missed their targets, but the size of the explosions, the likely trajectory and distance travelled are not consistent with this theory either.
Slowed down the video reveals a missile coming in from the top right (near top of lamppost), HERE:
There are also unconfirmed reports today, Thursday, that Opposition fighters have breached the perimeter and entered Menegh military airport, a key Government installation near Aleppo. More information as it arrives.
Other reports confirm that Opposition fighters have taken the Al-Ghouna oil field in Hasaka province, HERE: and that another group of fighters have blown up the oil pipeline to the refinery on the Mediterranean coast near Banias.
In Raqqa city in the north-east, Opposition fighters staged an attack on the central prison, killing many Government troops, HERE: , while the Syrian National Coalition is reported to have intervened to try and stop fighting at Ras Al-Ayn between Jihadists and Kurdish militia, both of whom are against the Assad regime but fighting each other for control of the area.
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov did his best to play down the evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria via Lebanon on Tuesday, denying that is part of a wider plan.
However, he did admit that the families of Russian diplomats had been evacuated earlier and at least 1,000 people of Russian extraction or married to Russian citizens had expressed a desire to their Damascus embassy to leave Syria.
One returning Russian woman, Natasha Yunis, who is married to a Syrian and ran a beauty salon in Damascus, said, “The Free Syrian Army is getting closer. We’ve been left without money, without light, without water. A bomb exploded near our house … The children hid”.
In the event, the 2 flights that Russia organised from Beirut contained only 77 people, but there are as many as 30,000 of Russian origin living in Syria at the last count. The BBC has a short video report, HERE:
Sergie Lavrov also lashed out at the Syrian Opposition and their “obsession” with the ousting of President Assad before any talks could take place, saying, “As long as this irreconcilable position remains in place, nothing good can happen. Armed actions will continue and people will die.”
Conversely, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said it was “inconceivable” to negotiate with anyone who “carpet-bombed” his “own country, his own history and his own people”.
Meanwhile, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said, “There should be a clear signal to the Syrian regime that what they have been doing, bombarding cities by airplanes, is a war crime,” adding that he expected the U.N. Security Council to step in “to stop this bloodshed.”
The UN’s humanitarian chief Valerie Ann Amos, sitting alongside him, said, “The humanitarian situation in Syria is already catastrophic and it’s clearly getting worse. What we are seeing now are the consequences of the failure of the international community to unite to resolve the crisis.”
Back in Syria more detail emerged about Assad’s new Syrian Defence Force, designed to defend neighbourhoods from Opposition attack. The first of the units passed out and paraded after training at a football stadium in Homs.
The first Women’s unit has 450 recruits aged between 18 and 50 and they are on duty manning checkpoints 4 hours a day and the rest of their time carrying on with their normal jobs.
The women’s training includes “shooting Kalashnikovs, machineguns, handling grenades, attacking opposition checkpoints, controlling our checkpoints, conducting raids and courses on military tactics,” said a commander. You can read more, HERE: and see a video of the women’s passing out parade, HERE:
Lastly, in a feat of over-optimistic illusion, the Syrian Government’s Religious Endowments Minster, Mohammed Abdel Settar, called for a “million-man prayers” in mosques this Friday to “appeal for the re-establishment of security in the country” (EDITOR: On the Government’s terms of course).
“Syria”, he burbled on, “Will prevail against the conspiracy launched by hostile states, carried out by their proxies and slaves, and led by Wahhabi infidels from abroad” (referring to the strict Wahhabi fundamentalism based in Saudi Arabia).
An interesting article also emerged in Al-Arabiya, claiming that Assad had told the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on his last visit that he was in fact to prepared to sacrifice and destroy Damascus if necessary in order to win the war. You can read more, HERE:
While Assad sits in his comfortable presidential palace and rants and schemes, 100’s of thousands of his countrymen now suffer. Al Jazeera has a video report of the appalling conditions in the Atmeh refugee camp, the only one in Syria, as the refugees live in fear and struggle to survive, HERE:
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TIMELINE – 22nd JANUARY 2012 14.55 GMT:
The war came yet closer to the regime’s supporters in Damascus over the weekend when for the first time the electricity went out for a prolonged period in the upmarket areas in the centre of the capital, including affecting properties owned by the Assad family and the President’s businessman cousin Rami Maklouf.
The power failed on Sunday night and was out for at least 22 hours. The Electricity Minister, Imad Khamis, blamed the outage on “terrorists”, saying that they had brought down high-voltage power lines and it had affected sub-stations and generators.
He expected power to be fully restored to the capital by this morning, Tuesday.
For President Assad’s supporters it was, despite all the Government’s desperate reassurances, another sign that war closes in on Damascus and the end is approaching. Opposition fighters are reported fighting within 800 metres of Damascus Old City, once a tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
One local resident said, “Inside Damascus’ Old City, you can’t escape the muffled sounds of shelling and fighter jets and even machine guns fired off nearby”.
To add to the misery and desperation, the Syrian Government yesterday raised the prices of petrol, wheat and flour. 95-octane gasoline (petrol) went up to 60 Syrian pounds ($0.75) per litre, flour from the equivalent price of $419 per ton to $434 and soft wheat, needed to make bread which is already in short supply,to the equivalent of $337, up from $321.
Last week the Government increased the price of diesel and heating oil by 40% to 35 Syrian pounds ($0.43) per litre, but on the black market it is already being valued at 115 Syrian pounds ($1.15) per litre.
The extent of the queues for fuel in the capital can be seen in Khalid Bin Waleed Street, filmed, HERE:
The increased price announcements were followed by another explosion on Monday in the wealthy area of Dumar in Damascus causing an unknown number of deaths.
Not surprising then that Jordan has reported another huge influx of 12,000 Syrian refugees in just the last 6 days, over 25,000 having crossed the border since January 1st.
Jordan says it is hosting 300,000 refugees, 176,000 of whom are registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee organisation. The UN is predicting 1.1 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries by June if the war does not end soon.
Two shells from an unknown source landed near the Russian embassy in Damascus on Saturday, perhaps prompting the airlift of “100” Russian citizens announced yesterday. As heavy fighting continues along the road to the International Airport and it remains closed to civilian aircraft, the Russians said they would bus their citizens to Beirut in Lebanon, where “2 planes” would be waiting to take them to Moscow.
(EDITOR: Quite why “2 planes” is unclear. Either the Russians have very small aircraft or they are moving all the fat people first!)
In the event, reports from Russian diplomats say that as many as 150 people were being bussed from Damascus this morning, Tuesday, and more will be moved “as and when required”.
Russian naval ships are currently carrying out exercises in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, which include the use of landing craft and removing people from the shore.
Yet again there are also renewed reports from Dubai (reported on this blog some time ago) that Assad’s Mother, Anisa Makhlouf, has taken up residence there with other members of the Assad family.
Bushra Al -Assad, who has broken with the President, Bashar Al-Assad, several times, moved to Dubai in September and enrolled her 5 children in a private school after her husband was killed in a FSA bomb explosion in Damascus.
And in yet another desperate move the Assad Government has also formed a paramilitary force called the “National Defense Army” which will made up of men and women who were formally members of the “popular local committees”, most of whom are loyal members of the ruling Ba’ath Party and from all sects in Syrian society.
According to reports the members of the new armed militia are being trained in guerrilla warfare techniques to defend their own neighbourhoods by “advisers” from Iran and members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed militants.
The new force is already reported to be active in Homs province, supposedly leaving the Syrian Army free to fight elsewhere.
Similarly, the FSA is busy also training its recruits in urban warfare. This Al Jazeera video report, filmed at a captured army base on the outskirts of Damascus, shows the realistic training exercises, HERE:
Heavy fighting continues around Damascus, the regime sending yet more reinforcements to attack the Opposition held suburb of Daraya and even pounding it with ground to ground Grad missiles, not caring who they kill. Continuous airstrikes are also being reported on Douma and the East Ghouta region, another centre of Opposition strength, with successive rocket attacks on an area between Hamouriyeh and Jisreen.
Further north in Idlib province, the FSA has announced a campaign to free Idlib city from Assad regime control and on Monday launched attacks against 7 heavily armed Government checkpoints on the outskirts of the provincial capital.
A ground attack on Ma’arrat al-Numan has been repelled, HERE: and 3 tanks and an armoured vehicle sent there to reinforce the assault were destroyed.
In addition a checkpoint between Ma’arrat al-Numan and Khan Shaykhoun has been freed from government forces, opening another route towards Latakia, which many consider will be the Assad regime’s last stronghold.
However, the FSA is already well entrenched in Latakia province, local fighters using their extensive knowledge of the mountains to their advantage and holding large areas of territory. An excellent article on the looming fight for Latakia, HERE:
In Aleppo province heavy fighting continues in all areas, but particularly around Quwayres airbase, HERE: Within Aleppo city itself, the water supply suddenly came on again, causing citizens to rush around filling containers of drinking water before it was shut off again.
In Hama province on Monday at the Alawite town of Salamiya, east of the provincial capital, a suicide bomber blew up a car outside the local headquarters of the popular committee and the Shabiha. At least 30 people were reported killed, including a number of leading members of the local and regional Ba’ath Party.
Regime forces plus Shabiha accompanied by Hezbollah fighters have continued a major onslaught on the neighbourhoods of Jobar and Sultaniya and the village of Kafara’aya near Homs and heavy attacks are reported on Opposition positions near Deraa in the south and at Deir el-Zoiur and Raqqa.
In the extreme north-east clashes are also continuing between Jihadists and the Kurdish Popular Protection Units in Ras al-Ayn near the Turkish border, killing at least 56 fighters on both sides over the last 6 days.
In Istanbul, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) meeting over the weekend failed to reach consensus on the make-up of a “transitional government” and an attempt to elect former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab as leader of the new administration-in-exile did not come to fruition.
Instead, the President of the SNC, Moaz Alkhatib, left the meeting early to fly to Qatar to try and garner financial guarantees for a new government, if and when it comes into power. The Opposition politicians are due to meet in Paris on 28th January to discuss their plans with 20 supporter countries.
Yesterday also saw the arrival by sea and the unloading of the first NATO Patriot Missile systems from Germany in the Turkish port of İskenderun. They will now be transported by road to their positions near the Turkish – Syrian border and be fully operational early in February. The BBC has a video report, HERE:
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TIMELINE – 20th JANUARY 2012 14.25 GMT:
Perhaps signalling a sign of its desperation, the Assad regime’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, said yesterday that the “nationalistic Opposition” could join a Cabinet, if they agreed to “lay down their arms” and rejected foreign intervention.
Appearing completely delusional, he also said that any discussion of President Bashar al-Assad’s future was “unacceptable”, knowing full well that the Opposition will hold no talks with Government until Assad has stood down. The main Opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, also welcome foreign intervention and there is therefore no chance of Muallem’s offer becoming a reality.
Seemingly acknowledging though that Assad is presiding over a “sinking ship”, Muallem said, “The US continues to have the president’s departure as a condition of regime change, ignoring the fact that the captain of a capsized ship does not jump into the first boat”.
That he should make such suggestions at this time is interesting, as clearly the Syrian Army are unable to push back the Opposition fighters and the Free Syrian Army and their independent allies continue to chip away at territory around Aleppo, in the rural areas and in the suburbs of Damascus.
The Army has been trying to retake the capital suburb of Daraya for 2 months but has not succeeded, despite bombarding it continuously.
Daraya was the subject of rocket and jet attacks again yesterday and today, Sunday, and dozens are reported killed or injured. 80 explosions were heard in Daraya on Saturday morning alone and Government tanks continue to shell the area indiscriminately as can be seen in this video footage, HERE:
The strain is also being felt in central Damascus where many people from the suburbs have now moved and been taken in by relatives or friends. Some houses are reported to be accommodating as many as 30 to 50 people and bread queues are starting to stretch into waits that last hours.
Inside the “Damascus Bubble”, citizens still drink hot chocolate inside cafes and civil servants still get on public transport to go to work, but the petrol queues now snake around the block and talk is of “high energy biscuits”, food normally reserved for countries in famine.
The BBC’s Lyse Doucet reports from Damascus, HERE:
In more rural areas, local residents have now taken to illegally cutting down trees in order to provide fuel for cooking and to keep warm. Al Jazeera has a video report, HERE:
Lyse Doucet has also now filed a video report and an updated article on the massacre at Hasawiya. What has emerged is that this was the work of the Alawite militia, the Shabiha, and latest reports suggest that as many as 150 died in the village.
Off camera women talk of how they were stripped naked and 44 were raped. Up to 100 men may have been kidnapped and the BBC saw of evidence of executed bodies that had been burnt in an attempt to destroy the evidence. The BBC has an article and video report (moderately gruesome), HERE:
This latest outrage prompted Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to plead with the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation, but Russia and China remain intransigent, continuing to block any move that criticises President Assad. Syria has never signed up to be an ICC member and the Security Council is the only body that can order such an investigation.
Pillay’s plea followed hard on a letter sponsored by Switzerland and now signed by 58 countries to the Security Council making a similar request.
Muallem, Syria’s Foreign Minister, accused some of the signatories of using “deceit and double standards”, requesting a human rights investigation on one hand and supplying weapons and ammunition to the Opposition on the other.
In Aleppo this morning, Sunday, it is reported from the FSA that Opposition forces have taken Base 599, one of the military emplacements defending Aleppo International Airport and there are heavy clashes around the Muhallab military barracks in the Sabeel district.
At the Menegh helicopter base, Opposition forces are able to freely survey the airfield and are within shooting distance of the aircraft remaining, HERE:
Russia, in another sign of the increasing isolation of Syria’s largest city, has suspended the operation of its consulate in Aleppo.
In the extreme north-east in Ras Al Ayn, the Kurdish National Council has called on the Syrian Opposition to stop Jihadists shelling Kurdish militia positions with tanks and heavy machine guns. Several hundred Jihadists crossed from Turkey earlier in the week and there is some suspicion that the Turkish authorities, in support of their own campaign against Kurdish militants both inside and outside Turkey, are encouraging the conflict between the two sides.
In Hasaka province, clashes between the Syrian Army and Kurdish Defence Units are being reported around the village of Karzero, just east of Al-Rmeilan city, Syria’s oil capital. The Syrian Army reportedly retreated under fire and 24 soldiers are said to have defected.
Lastly, on the “unconfirmed report” front there is one that the head of the police in Latakia has defected and another that a defected MIG pilot has attacked Assad military sites in the mainly Alawite neighbourhood of the mixed sect town of Moadamiyat al-Sham near Damascus.
At first Opposition activists thought the plane was attacking Opposition targets, but after several rocket strikes and the activation of Syrian Government air-defence systems, they concluded that the pilot had turned against the Assad regime. What happened to him or the plane is not know.
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