Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Children Fall Victim as the Battle Rages for Syria’s Gateway City

The following was published in the Telegraph on 26-5-11 under my pseudonym Hussein al Haqq

A critical battle is under way in one of Syria’s gateway cities with forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad launching full scale attacks on civilian neighbourhoods, killing and injuring children and protesters by the dozen.

The Daily Telegraph has witnessed devastating scenes from the key city of Al Rastan – a city which bridges the country’s north-south divide – in which tanks and other heavy weapons are being used against schools and homes.

Armed opposition groups have taken to building barricades against the onslaught. And according to residents many parts of Al Rastan have become no-go zones with skirmishes and military raids a daily occurrence.

The much feared ‘shabiha’ – pro-Assad militias- storm houses, hunting defected soldiers and arresting suspected dissidents as they go – ‘looking for reasons to kill’ one resident said. Government snipers sit atop local security headquarters during the day, picking off those who venture too close, whilst at night more random shootings follow.

All public services in Rastan have been cut – including the vitally important schools. With nowhere to go during the day, children have in some cases become helpless targets.

One father wept as he recounted how a bullet meant for him had passed through his shoulder and into the head of his five-year-old son.

‘I was running from a gunfight near my house and was holding my son against my chest,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “I felt the bullet hit me from behind, but I didn’t realise he’d been hit until I got inside the house, and I was covered in his blood.’

Surrounded by family in his small living room, he held up photographs of the child victim as proof of the event – the lifeless body and bloodied face offering an awful glimpse into the reality of Assad’s cruel regime. The boy had been killed the previous day, and still clearly in shock from his loss, he was unable to keep back the tears.

The boy’s uncle spoke up: “The world took notice of Hamza Khatip,” he said speaking of the 13yr old who’s mangled body was returned to his parents a full month after his arrest in April and who has become a symbol of the Syrian revolution. “Well our children are dying too.”

He continued: “How can the government accuse such small children of being terrorists? There are hundreds more Hamzas.”

He told of another death – a seven-year-old killed by a bullet to the heart as he sat in his parent’s car. ‘The problem is that after these children are killed, State TV airs interviews with people it says are the parents, and they blame ‘armed gangs.’ It’s all lies. Its disgusting – this man’s son died in his arms, and the government calls us violent! How many more children are going to die before someone helps us?’

Reports of the dead come almost daily, and those whose injuries have not killed them must brave the hospitals which security forces often raid. The National Hospital in Homs is the nearest major hospital, but locals have learnt not to go there for help with reports of attacks on patients and brutal treatment.

‘These people are animals,’ one dissident exclaimed. ‘I went with my friend to a funeral for 13 people the government had killed, but rather than let us mourn our dead, they killed even more. I came home without my friend that day.’

But the battle in Al Rastan is not totally one sided. Despite facing such force – 60 tanks and armoured vehicles were reported to be on the city’s fringes yesterday – man people refuse to run from the gunfire.

A mid week evening protest last week was free from government interference such is the level of security the opposition has managed to establish in some areas. ‘They know not to come here,’ one member asserted as he observed the crowd. ‘We have hundreds of fighters coming from all over Syria to help us.

The government keeps talking about armed gangs. Well we do have weapons, but we use them to protect ourselves. The army has launched a war against its own people – even more tanks lie in wait outside the city. We know its going to be hard but we can’t give up now – we’ve come too far.’

Rastan has become a focal point in the country’s ongoing protest movement because of its strategic and symbolic importance. The largely Sunni city is 20km north of the provincial capital Homs, and sits on the vital access route to the cities of Latakia and Hama. Without Rastan, the country is essentially divided in two, and the regime would be unable to continue quelling unrest in the north. The city also has a long history of political activism, where the regime once found willing Sunni allies to bolster its minority rule; the recently retired Prime Minister Mustafa Tlas is from Rastan, as are over 1,000 army officers. For such an important city with these strong military ties to have become an opposition heartland is seen as being of consequence to the regime, and as such its response has been fierce.

The city’s mounting opposition and continued resilience in the face of such brutal violence is encouraging for those who oppose the regime in other parts of the country. The dead are held up as martyrs, and as stories filter though to other cities and towns across Syria.

Many believe the image of city in revolt is one the government will find increasingly difficult to combat with stories about terrorists and ‘western agents’.

In Damascus one opposition member expressed his delight: ‘This is a whole city of 100,000 who oppose the government. It’s unbelievable! They may have tanks and heavy weapons, but the people fight on.’


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Syria: Peace Hopes Fade as Residents Turn to Violence to Defend Their Homes

The following was published in the Telegraph on 5-10-11 under my pseudonym Hussein al Haqq

Six months ago, Abu Sultan was a mechanic, earning his simple living and raising his two young children in the small Syrian town of Zabadani

But now he lives in the hills as part of a group of armed rebels, ordinary citizens who have decided that violence is the best way to resist the security services of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

“I am not a criminal,” he told The Daily Telegraph, surrounded by fellow fighters hiding in a remote farmhouse. “The West isn’t helping us so we have no choice. What would you do?

“I need to protect my family, my home and my land. I’m not just going to sit in my house and wait to be killed.”

The majority of protesters against the president and his government remain committed to peaceful means, but over the past few weeks there has been a discernible shift to armed resistance.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers, mostly poorly paid conscripts, have deserted the Syrian army rather than fire on their compatriots and formed armed rebel platoons.

The city of Rastan last week endured five days of sustained fighting between the security services and bands of defectors. Forces loyal to Mr Assad only asserted their control over the weekend after using helicopter gunships.

Syrian troops were yesterday reportedly continuing house-to-house arrests that have detained more than 3,000 people in three days.

Meanwhile, sporadic gunfire reportedly continued yesterday in Homs, which is now the centre of resistance, where some neighbourhoods remain under opposition control.

In a sign that a bloody civil war could develop throughout the country, the northern city has seen a series of assassinations in the past 10 days of those judged to be regime informers. A Free Syria Army has been formed across the border in Turkey, uniting three groups of army defectors, while civilian opposition groups of all stripes have joined hands to launch the Syrian National Council.

Speaking at the council’s launch in Istanbul, Bourhan Ghalioun, a prominent Paris-based opposition figure, said: “This regime has completely lost the world’s trust.

“The world is waiting for a united Syrian opposition that can provide the alternative to this regime, so that they can recognise it.”

In its mission statement, the SNC declared its commitment to non-violence, but there has been a small armed element in the resistance from the beginning, which now appears to be growing.

In Zabadani, just 30 miles from the capital Damascus, patience for peaceful protest has expired after an estimated 2,700 civilians have died since Syrians first joined the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

Mohammad Ali, who like Abu Sultan chose not to give his real name, was until this year an architecture student at the University of Damascus.

“We don’t want a war – Assad is the one who has started this,” he said.

“They are coming into people’s houses and raping our sisters and daughters. If anyone comes near my family, I would not hesitate to pull the pin on this grenade.

“Thousands of people have died here and still we wait for help. It seems that Syrian blood is cheap,” he added, expressing the group’s dismay at the international community’s failure to intervene.

Yesterday at the United Nations, Russia declared that it would not support a European-drafted resolution on Syria that carried the threat of sanctions at a later date. But even if the motion is passed, rebels and exiled activists still accuse the West of double standards by helping Libya’s resistance but not Syria’s.

Asked how they expected to defend themselves against the Syrian military, Mr Ali answered: “Whatever happens, we fight. Our problem is not so much with the army, it’s with the security services.

“The soldiers are men like us and are forced to fight. They always enter a town first with military or political security behind them, and if they refuse to shoot, they are shot themselves.”

This band of rebels was holding basic and dated weaponry – 20-year-old Russian-made machineguns and other light arms stolen from the military or provided by defecting soldiers. Some in the group hinted that more sophisticated weaponry was on its way from neighbouring Lebanon, including M16s and rocket launchers.

It may or may not have been fighting talk, but there could be no doubting their determination. Faris, a farmer before the uprising, was the oldest in the group and had more experience of government brutality. “You can’t start something like this and decide to stop,” he declared.

“I have not seen my family in months because I can’t go home in case our neighbours report me to the authorities. We are all wanted men here – ending this president’s rule is all we have.”

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Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo