Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Why Syrians SUPPORT Bashar al-Assad

00 Carlos Latuff. Russia and China Veto against US Intervention in Syria. 2012


The sudden reversion of Washington to a “war on terror” pretext for intervention in Syria confused western audiences. For three years, they watched “humanitarian intervention” stories, which poured contempt on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s assertion that he was fighting foreign-backed terrorists. Now, the USA claims to be leading the fight against those same terrorists. However, what do Syrians think, and why do they continue to support a man who the western powers claim is constantly attacking and terrorising “his own people?” To understand this, we must consider the huge gap between the western caricatures of Bashar al-Assad as a “brutal dictator” and the popular and urbane figure within Syria. If we believed most western media reports, we’d think that President Assad launched repeated and indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, including the gassing of children. We might also think that he heads an “Alawi régime”, where a 12 percent minority represses a Sunni Muslim majority, crushing a popular “revolution” which, only recently, was been “hijacked” by extremists.

The central problem with these portrayals is Bashar’s great popularity at home. The fact that there’s popular dissatisfaction with corruption and cronyism, and that an authoritarian state maintains a type of personality cult, doesn’t negate the man’s genuine popularity. His strong win in Syria’s first multi-candidate elections in June dismayed his regional enemies, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey; but it didn’t stop their aggression. Syrians saw things differently.  They saw Bashar as maintaining his father’s pluralist and nationalist traditions, whilst modernising and holding out the promise of political reform. Opinion polls in Syria showed major dissatisfaction with corruption and political cronyism, mixed views on the economy, but strong satisfaction with stability, women’s rights, and the country’s independent foreign policy. The political reform rallies of 2011… countered by pro-government rallies and quickly overshadowed by violent insurrection… weren’t necessarily anti Bashar.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other sectarian Islamist groups did hate him, as they also hated the secular state. Yet, even these enemies, in their better moments, recognised his popularity. In late 2011 a Doha Debates poll (created by the Qatari monarchy, a major backer of the Muslim Brotherhood) showed that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to stay. Armed Islamists went further. In 2012, Reuters, the UK Guardian, and Time magazine reported three “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) leaders in Aleppo saying that Assad had about “70 percent” support; or that the local people, “all of them, are loyal to the criminal Bashar, they inform on us”; or that they’re “all informers … they hate us. They blame us for the destruction”.  Of course, unpopularity is fatal to a revolution; to a religious fanatic, it’s merely inconvenient. All three FSA groups were Islamists on good terms with al-Qaeda. None of these revelations changed the western media reliance on Muslim Brotherhood-aligned sources, “activists” or “moderate rebels”. They relied, in particular, on UK-based Rami Abdul Rahman, who calls himself the “Syrian Observatory of Human Rights”. Such sources kept “Bashar the Monster” alive, outside Syria.

Central to the Bashar myth are two closely related stories… that of the “moderate rebel” and the story that conjures “Assad loyalists” or “régime forces” in place of a large dedicated national army, with broad popular support.  To understand the Bashar myth we have to consider the Syrian Arab Army. At over half a million, the Army is so large that most Syrian communities have strong family links, including with those fallen in the war. There are regular ceremonies for families of these “martyrs”, with thousands proudly displaying photos of their loved ones. Further, most of the several million Syrians displaced by the conflict haven’t left the country, but rather have moved to other parts under Army protection. This would be inexplicable if the Army were indeed engaged in “indiscriminate” attacks on civilians. A repressive army invokes fear and loathing in a population, yet, one can see that people do not cower as they pass through the many army road blocks in Damascus, set up to protect against “rebel” car bombs.

Syrians know there were abuses against demonstrators in early 2011; they also know that Assad dismissed the Governor of Dara for this. They know that the armed insurrection wasn’t a consequence of the protests, but rather a sectarian insurrection that took cover under those rallies. Saudi official Anwar el-Eshki admitted to the BBC that his country provided weapons to Islamists in Dara, and their rooftop sniping closely resembled the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed insurrection in Hama, back in 1982. Hafez al-Assad crushed that revolt in a few weeks. Of the incident, US intelligence said that total casualties were probably “about 2,000” including “300 to 400” members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s élite militia. The Brotherhood and many western sources since inflated those numbers, calling it a “massacre”. Armed Islamists posing as civilian victims have a long history in Syria. Quite a number of Syrians criticised President Assad to me, but not in the way that the western media did. They say that they wanted him to be as firm as his father was. Many in Syria regard him as too soft, leading to the name “Mr Soft Heart”. Soldiers in Damascus told me there’s a general order to make special efforts to capture alive any Syrian combatant. This is controversial, as many regard them as traitors, no less guilty than foreign terrorists.


00 Syrian Church 2012


Well, what about the “moderate rebels?” Before the rise of ISIS, back in late 2011, the largest FSA brigade, the Farouk unit, the original “poster boys” of the “Syrian Revolution”, took over parts of Homs city. One US report called them “legitimate nationalists … pious and not Islamists, not motivated by sectarianism”. The International Crisis Group suggested that the Farouk troops might be “pious” rather than Islamist. The Wall Street Journal also called them “pious Sunnis” rather than Islamists. The BBC called them “moderately Islamist”. All this was false. Syrians in Homs said that Farouk went into the city with the genocidal slogan, “Alawis to the grave, Christians to Beirut”. Shouting, “God is Great”, they blew up Homs hospital, because it treated soldiers. The churches blamed Farouk for the ethnic cleansing of more than 50,000 Christians from the city, and for the imposition of an Islamist tax. Journalist Radwan Mortada says most Farouk members were sectarian Salafis, armed and funded by Saudi Arabia. They later happily worked with the various al-Qaeda groups, and were the first to blame their own atrocities on the Army.

Let’s consider some key accusations against the Syrian Arab Army. In May 2012, days before a UN Security Council meeting set to debate possible intervention in Syria, there was a terrible massacre of over 100 villagers at Houla. Western governments immediately blamed the Syrian Government, which in turn accused foreign-backed terrorists. Western officials at first blamed Army shelling, changing their story when it was clear that most died from close quarter injuries. One UN report (UNSMIS) was shelved, while another (CoI), co-chaired by US diplomat Karen Koning AbuZayd, blamed un-named pro-government “thugs”, giving no motives. Although the Houla massacre didn’t result in a Libya-style intervention because of opposition at the UN from Russia and China, controversy raged over the authors of this atrocity. German and Russian journalists, along with the Mother Superior of a Monastery, managed to interview survivors who said that a large Farouk battalion, led by Abdul Razzaq Tlass, overwhelmed five small army posts and slaughtered the villagers. The gang sought out pro-government and Alawi families, along with some Sunni families who’d took part in recent elections. One year later, a detailed, independent report (by Correggia, Embid, Hauben, and Larson) documented how the second UN Houla investigation (the CoI) was tainted. Rather than visiting Syria, they’d relied on Farouk leaders and associates to link them to witnesses. They ignored another dozen direct witnesses who contradicted the “rebel” story. In short, they tried to bury a real crime with identified perpetrators and a clear motive. As Adam Larson later wrote, the “official” Houla massacre story turned out to be “extremely ambiguous at best and at worst a fairly obvious crime of the US-supported Contras”.

Houla set the tone for a series of similar ‘false flag’ massacre claims. When 245 people were murdered in Daraya (August 2012), media reports citing “opposition” activists said, “Assad’s army committed a massacre”. British journalist Robert Fisk contradicted this, writing that the FSA slaughtered kidnapped civilian and off-duty soldier hostages, after a failed attempt to swap them for prisoners held by the army. Similarly, when rebels slaughtered 120 villagers at Aqrab (December 2013) the New York Times headline read “Members of Assad’s Sect Blamed in Syria Killings”. In fact, as British journalist Alex Thompson discovered, the victims, not the perpetrators, were Assad’s fellow Alawis. FSA groups had held 500 Alawis for nine days before the fleeing gangs murdered a quarter of them. Yet, without close examination, each accusation seemed to add to the crimes of the Syrian Army, at least to those outside Syria. Another line of attack was that there was “indiscriminate” bombing of rebel-held areas, resulting in civilian casualties. The relevant question was, “How did they dislodge armed groups from urban centres?” Those interested can see some detail of this in the liberation of Qusayr, a town near the Lebanese border, which Farouk and other Salafi groups, including foreigners, had occupied. The Army carried out “surgical attacks”, but in May 2013, after the failure of negotiations, decided on an all-out assault. They dropped leaflets from planes, calling on civilians to evacuate. Anti-government groups stopped many from leaving, whilst an “activist” spokesman claimed that there was “no safe exit for civilians”. In opportunistic criticism, the US State Department expressed “deep concern” over the leaflet drop, claiming that “ordering the displacement of the civilian population” showed “the régime’s continuing brutality”. As it happened, on 5 June, the Army, backed by Hezbollah, liberated Qusayr… they drove the remnants of Farouk, the FSA, and their al-Qaeda partners into Lebanon. This operation, in principle at least, was what one would expect of any army facing terrorist groups embedded in civilian areas. At this point, the war began turning decisively in Syria’s favour.

Accusations of “indiscriminate bombing” recur. In opportunist questioning, more than a year later, British journalist John Snow demanded of Syrian Presidential adviser Dr Bouthaina Shaaban why the Syrian Army hadn’t driven ISIS from Aleppo. A few questions later, he attacked the Army for its “indiscriminate” bombing of that same city. The fact is, most fighting in Syrian urban areas is by troops on the ground. The most highly politicised atrocity was the chemical attack of August 2013, in the Eastern Ghouta region, just outside Damascus. For months, the Syrian Government complained about terrorist gas attacks and invited UN inspectors to Damascus. As these inspectors arrived, “rebel” groups posted videos on dead children online, blaming the Syrian Government for a new massacre. The US government and the Washington-based Human Rights Watch were quick to agree. The UN investigation of Islamist chemical attacks stalled, as attention moved to the gassed children. The western media demanded military intervention. Only a Russian intervention and a proposal that Syria hand over its chemical weapons stockpile (a stockpile it maintained it never used) defused a major escalation of the war.


Barbara-Marie Drezhlo. Russia and China Say... NO WAR IN SYRIA! 2012


Saturation reporting of the East Ghouta incident led many western journalists to believe that the charges against the Syrian Government were true. To the contrary, a series of independent reports systematically demolished those claims. Very soon after, a Jordan-based journalist reported that residents in the East Ghouta area blamed “Saudi Prince Bandar … of providing chemical weapons to an al-Qaeda linked rebel group”. Next, a Syrian group led by Mother Agnes Mariam provided a detailed examination of the video evidence, saying the massacre videos preceded the attack and used “staged” and “fake” images. Detailed reports also came from outside Syria. Veteran American journalist Seymour Hersh wrote that US intelligence evidence was fabricated and “cherry-picked … to justify a strike against Assad”. A Turkish lawyers’ and writers’ group said, “Most of the crimes against Syrian civilians, including the East Ghouta attack, were committed by armed rebel forces in Syria”. Most likely, the Saudi-backed FSA group Liwa al-Islam was responsible for the chemical attack on Ghouta. A subsequent UN report didn’t allocate blame, but confirmed that chemical weapons were used on at least five occasions in Syria. On three occasions, they were used “against soldiers and civilians”. The clear implication was that these were anti-government attacks by rebels. MIT investigators Lloyd and Postol concluded that the Sarin gas “couldn’t possibly have been fired … from Syrian Government-controlled areas”. Despite the definitive nature of these reports, combined, neither the US Government nor Human Rights Watch retracted or apologised for their false accusations. Indeed, western government and media reports repeat the claims as though they were fact, even falsely enlisting UN reports, at times, as corroboration.


When I met President Assad, with a group of Australians, his manner was entirely consistent with the pre-2011 image of the mild-mannered eye doctor. He expressed deep concern with the impact on children of witnessing terrorist atrocities as fanatics shouted, “God is Great”. The man is certainly no brute, in the manner of Saddam Hussein or George W Bush. The key factor in Syria’s survival is the cohesion, dedication, and popular support for the Army. Syrians know that their Army represents pluralist Syria and that it fights sectarian foreign backed terrorism. This Army didn’t fracture on sectarian lines, as the Takfiris had hoped, and defections have been small, certainly less than 2 percent. Has the Army committed abuses? Probably it has, but mainly against members of armed groups. There’s some evidence of execution of foreign terrorists. That’s certainly a crime, but probably has a fair degree of popular support in Syria, now. The main constraint on such abuses seems to be a binding general order from “Mr Soft Heart”, to save the lives of Syrian rebels.

However, despite the repeated claims by sectarian Islamists and their western backers, there isn’t any convincing evidence that the Syrian Army deliberately bombed and gassed civilians. Nor would there be a motive for it.  Nor does the behaviour of people on the streets support it. Most Syrians don’t blame their army for the horrendous violence of this war, but rather the foreign-backed terrorists. These are the same terrorists backed by the governments of the USA, UK, and France, hiding behind the fig-leaf of the mythical “moderate rebel” whilst reciting their catalogue of fabricated accusations. The high participation rate (73 percent) in June’s presidential elections, despite the war, was at least as significant as the strong vote (88 percent) Bashar received. Even the BBC couldn’t hide the large crowds that came out to vote, especially those that mobbed the Syrian Embassy in Beirut. Participation rates are nowhere as near in the USA… indeed, no western leader can claim such a strong democratic mandate as this “dictator” has. The size of Bashar’s win underlines a stark reality… there never was a popular uprising against this man; frankly, his popularity has grown.

30 September 2014

Tim Anderson

Senior Lecturer in Political Economy

University of Sydney (Sydney NSW AUSTRALIA)




Sunday, 4 May 2014

4 May 2014. Russia Mourns the Odessa Dead… So Should We

00 odessa victims. 04.05.14


I feel sorrow on four levels for the tragic deaths in Odessa at the Dom Profsoyuzov fire. Firstly, there’s the universal human level… all of us… believers and secularists… no matter what or who we are… all decent people… feel the absolute tragedy of lives cut short by terrorist hate. As an Orthodox Christian, the hate that the Uniate terrorists have for my faith is withering. I have sorrow that such hate exists in the world. As a Russian, I feel sorrow that some hate us so badly that they exult when we die. As an American citizen, I sorrow over the fact that the American Establishment exults in the Uniate terrorists, and will continue to support them and their murder, just as they supported al-Qaeda and the Bosnian/Croat killers.

If you’re a Christian, light a candle for the dead, pray for the repose of their souls, and ask your priest to say Pannikhida for them… it’s what we do. If you’re a secularist, pause a moment, and reflect… take some time to ponder human hate… and what decent people can do to oppose it. It’s time for ALL decent folk, of whatever or no faith, to link hands and oppose the hate. Otherwise, the haters win…

You can choose a free life in a fair society or you can choose American global hegemony with social inequality and violence… those are the only things on offer. Choose well…


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Monday, 21 April 2014

21 April 2014. A Photo Essay… President Assad in Liberated Ma’loula

00 Ma'loula 01. 21.04.14


00 Ma'loula 02. 21.04.14


00 Ma'loula 03. 21.04.14


00 Ma'loula 04. 21.04.14


00 Ma'loula 05. 21.04.14.


The above pics are of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in liberated Ma’loula. The nuns are back in their convent, and the Aramaic-speakers are back in town to stay. The sane Muslims, Alawis, and Christians stand together. Indeed, the Sunni Muslim hierarchy is friendly with their Christian colleagues, and vice versa. That’s the way it’s always been in Syria… it’s the way it’s gonna stay, if sane elements have their way (Syrian Muslims aren’t Wahhabis… hell, most Muslims in general aren’t Wahhabis, for that matter). Langley supported an al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria… that’s not surprising, considering that Zbig was the godfather of al-Qaeda back in the ’70s. The real reason for the USA getting involved was that Bashar al-Assad was pro-Russian, and the USA wanted to kick VVP in the ass. Well, that backfired, didn’t it? Raise a glass… Ma’loula is free!


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Monday, 16 December 2013

16 December 2013. The Beat Goes On… No REAL News from Syria

00 Ted Rall. A Look Back at Syria. 2012


Editor’s Note:

The fourth piece below is “caveat lector” to the max. However, it’s the shit being peddled by the rebels, and you have a “need to know”. To keep it short, there’s nothing new… nothing at all. Nobody knows anything. Full stop. The beat goes on…



For the past two days, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon‘s General Directorate of General Security, was in Doha (Qatar) to secure the release of the Orthodox nuns held hostage by Islamist insurgents who took them from their monastery in Ma’loula to Yabroud, further north. In addition, General Ibrahim is trying to gather information about Metropolitans Boulos al-Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim, the Greek-Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox bishops abducted near Aleppo in April. At present, we know nothing about their fate. Lebanon hopes that Qatari mediation can be as effective as it was two months ago, when rebels released Lebanese Shia pilgrims detained at Aazaz (Syria) thanks to Qatari and Turkish intervention. General Ibrahim went to Doha with an official letter from Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, in which the Lebanese head of state asked for the emirate’s good offices on these two very sensitive issues. Lebanon’s security chief also made ​​contact with Qatar-based al-Jazeera to find the source of a video released last week in which the nuns announced their upcoming release. The video stated that the 13 sisters were “detained” (not “abducted”, the video notes) and brought to Yabroud “to save them from the bombing”. Three other people accompany the nuns. For now, there’s no more information. Telephone communications between Beirut and Syria are down.

Meanwhile, more and more people in Syria and Lebanon appeal for the release of the nuns. In Damascus, Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East served liturgy on Sunday, focusing on the nun’s plight. In his homily, he called on “anyone with any connection, direct or indirect”, to intercede to obtain the group’s release. He added, “We hope that this will happen today, not tomorrow. We urgently call on everyone to accept the logic of dialogue and peace, not violence and weapons”. In Lebanon, the Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi and other Christian associations slammed the abduction and demanded the nuns’ release. Lebanese Minister for Energy and Water Gebran Bassil appealed to all factions to adopt peaceful protest. He also called the international reaction to the kidnapping “insufficient”.

10 December 2013

Fady Noun




On Tuesday, former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora denounced the abduction of a group of nuns earlier this month in Syria and called for their immediate release. Separately, a source from General Security told The Daily Star that the agency’s head, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, met with Qatari officials over the weekend as part of continuing efforts to secure the release of the 13 nuns who went missing last Monday. Siniora, who headed a delegation of Future Movement MPs, told reporters after meeting with Orthodox Metropolitan Elias Aoudeh of Beirut, “We denounce assaults against religious sites. The attacks weren’t only limited to religious sites, but they also targeted people who exist only to serve humanity, such as the kidnapping of the two dear bishops [Boulos al-Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim] and the nuns. We hope that anyone able to help will exert efforts to release the nuns and bishops because keeping them in captivity doesn’t serve the Syrian cause and doesn’t help overthrow the oppressive regime in Syria, but leads to more violence”. A source confirmed that General Ibrahim visited Qatar seeking the Arab state’s assistance in the case of the nuns. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Ibrahim might visit Qatar again if it’s necessary.

Last week, Syrian rebels took 13 nuns from their convent in the historic Christian town of Ma’loula. Last week, they appeared in video footage and said that fierce shelling and bombardment forced them to leave the convent with rebels. There are conflicting reports over whether the rebels moved them under duress or not. In April, armed men kidnapped Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos al-Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim as the two were traveling to Aleppo from the Turkish border. Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East appealed to the international community to exert efforts to secure the release of the nuns. Youhanna said in a televised news conference at the University of Balamand, “I appeal to the international community to exert all efforts to help secure the release of the abducted nuns from Mar Tekla Monastery in Ma’loula”. He added that he had information that the rebels took the nuns to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud. Youhanna said that there was an urgent need for “concrete actions, not words”.

11 December

The Daily Star (Lebanon)



Thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns kidnapped on December in Ma’loula along with some young orphans are still in the hands of the Islamist group al-Ahrar Qalamoun. After the video released on 6 December by al- Jazeera, there’s been no more news of the nuns, despite speculation about their possible release as early as 9 December. Contacted by AsiaNews, the Greek orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East said, “We don’t have any news on the condition of the nuns and three young orphans from Ma’loula“. The last direct contact was a brief phone call to Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch a few days after the kidnapping. A source at the Patriarchate said, “Since then, no one was in touch with us and most of the news we get we read on the internet like the rest of the world. We’ve seen the video released by al- Jazeera, but we’ve no confirmation on the real condition of the sisters, nor the reasons for their seizure, and we think that the video is unreliable and we need further investigation”. In the video the Ma’loula nuns appeared in good health and denied that the rebels abducted them, but only brought them to safety. In the video, the women wore their religious garb, but without the traditional crucifix.

Reports indicate fierce fighting in Qalamoun region between the army and Islamist insurgents. The area, which incorporates the small village of Yabroud, is located about 50 kilometres (31 miles) northwest of Damascus, and is one of the most important strongholds of the rebels. In the mountainous area on the border with Lebanon, there are several predominantly-Christian villages such as Sadad and Hofar, which fell in recent months into the hands of Islamist extremists. Yesterday, the army regained control of Nabak, Deir Attiya, and Qara. AsiaNews sources point up that the anti-Assad rebels belong to different factions, each taking advantage of abductions for various purposes. Some groups, such as those who seized the Ma’loula nuns, try to distance themselves from extremist and violent kidnappings; they say that the abductions are “humanitarian actions aimed at the protection of civilians”. The most intransigent and violent groups use hostages as human shields and as bargaining chips in negotiations with Assad’s army. The last case concerns two Spanish journalists, Javier Espinosa (El Mundo) and Ricardo García (freelance photographer), who disappeared 16 September in the ar-Raqqah Governorate near the Turkish border, reportedly in the hands of the Militia of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The two were in Syria just to document the positive aspects of the rebellion against Assad.

According to El Mundo, which in recent months censored its reporting to deal with the kidnappers, gunmen kidnapped the two journalists along with four fighters of the Free Syrian Army. The FSA fighters went free after 12 days, but not the two Spaniards. Today, Monica Prieto, wife of Javier Espinosa, appealed to the kidnappers, “Javier and Ricardo aren’t your enemies. Please, honour the revolution that they’ve protected and free them”. There are also several Syrian anti- Assad activists in the hands of groups of kidnappers, not yet been identified. Today, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced the disappearance of Razan Zaitouneh, winner of the 2011 Anna Politkovskaya Award. Armed men kidnapped her in the suburb of Douma east of Damascus along with other activists. They raided the headquarters of the centre for the documentation of human rights violations linked to the rebellion. Zaitouneh admitted receiving death threats from Islamist extremist groups.

11 December 2013




The village of Ma’loula with its ancient sanctuaries perched high on a mountain area near Damascus was a pilgrimage destination. However, today, the village attracts a new type of visitor, some of them, with guns. For centuries famous for its Christian sites, some of the oldest in the history of Christianity, the village was a symbol of coexistence between Muslims and Christians. However, this is no longer the case, since the village is now a battlefield between the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the armed opposition to his rule. Its inhabitants, bombed and bullied, don’t know who to blame or who to turn to for help.

A recent bout of fighting began when opposition groups waged an attack on a military barracks at the village entrance, with government forces then reacting by shelling the village with heavy artillery, causing extensive damage. Then, 13 Christian nuns from the village’s ancient convents went missing, and the government immediately publicised their plight, claiming that terrorists bent on persecuting Christians held them hostage. The Syrian Foreign Ministry sent messages to the UN, triggering widespread alarm. However, two days later, the opposition released a video showing the nuns living in a nearby town, presumably waiting for a chance to leave an area blasted by intense fighting in recent weeks. In the video, one of the nuns said, “Those who took us treated us with love and care, and we thank them for giving us everything we’ve asked for”.

Fahd al-Masri, spokesman for the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), blamed Christian militia affiliated with Lebanese General Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah for the recent bout of fighting in Ma’loula. Speaking to al-Ahram Weekly, al-Masri accused the Syrian government and its allies of seeking to destroy churches in order “to scare the Vatican and the world about the fate of Christians and minorities in Syria. Several Islamist groups conducted the attack on the roadblock and barracks. We’ve learned that they were under strict orders to avoid disturbing Christian places of worship, individuals, and heritage sites”.

Although the nuns seem to be safe for now, pro-government Christian clergymen used the incident to demonise the opposition. Bishop Luqa al-Khoury, a patriarchal vicar at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, called on all Christian men to take up arms in defence of Syria and its Christian heritage, saying, “Our young men are ready and willing to fight for Syria”. His was the first public call for Christians to defend their community in the course of the current war in Syria. Greek Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna al-Yazigi of Antioch and all the East didn’t go as far, stating, “The systematic assault on churches is meant to divert attention from what’s happening in Syria. It’s meant to depict the events in Syria as a war on Christians. We’re Christians and we’re also Arab Syrians who’re loyal to this country. We aren’t children, and we aren’t going to side unthinkingly with one side or another”.

A hitherto-unknown organisation called the Free People of Qalamoun claimed responsibility for abducting the nuns, offering to release them in exchange for 1,000 women detainees held in the government prisons. The FSA said that no such group existed, claiming that the developments were part of the government’s propaganda war. Sanharib Mirza, a representative of the Syriac Assyrian Block in the National Syrian Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an opposition group, voiced frustration with events in Ma’loula. Speaking to the Weekly, Mirza said, “These reports don’t bode well for the future of Christians in Syria. Some of the extremist Islamist groups are starting to fall into the trap set by the government by terrorising the country’s minorities”. Mirza said that Ma’loula and other mountain villages had no strategic importance for the warring parties, noting, “If it’s true that the nuns were abducted, we refuse under any circumstances to bargain with the government for their freedom. Christians aren’t going to become hostages in the Syrian crisis. We won’t allow the government or the opposition to exploit them”. Mirza called on Muslim clerics to instruct the armed opposition to avoid actions that could harm Syria and its minorities.

Observers said that what happened in Ma’loula would have no impact on the immediate course of the war, but can’t deny its psychological significance for Christians in Syria. A former Christian member of the Syrian parliament speaking on condition of anonymity said that the Christians became the target of aggression as well as pawns in the wider war. He said that the government was trying to exploit the Christians “in order to win international recognition of its claimed role as protector of minorities”. The former parliamentarian claimed that over the course of the past few months, the government abducted several Christian men and clergymen, including two bishops in Aleppo, saying, “The danger today is greater than at any time before”.

Since the first day of the Syrian Civil War, the government tried to depict the opposition as bloodthirsty extremists, intent on killing and subjugating all who differ from them in faith. Opposition figures said that the recent tragedy in Ma’loula is only part of this strategy. A recent report by Syrian rights groups makes the same claim. The Assyrian Organisation for Human Rights, the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, and the Syrian Human Rights Network released the report, which accuses the Syrian government of exploiting the situation of the Christians. Whilst condemning the government’s attacks on Christians, the report said that the opposition conducted some of the abuses. It noted that since the Civil War started, the government destroyed 36 churches, whilst the opposition only attacked four. The report claimed that the government murdered scores of Christians for failing to do its bidding. It claimed that the government killed more than 100 Christians “for refusing to comply with its sectarian designs and for opting instead to stand by the country’s higher interests”. Meanwhile, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamist groups in the opposition denounced attacks on the Christians, saying that the protection of all Syrians is now a top national priority.

12 December 2013

Bassel Oudat

al-Ahram Weekly



On Saturday, two activists said that the Syrian government is negotiating with rebels to release 12 nuns seized earlier this month from a convent north of Damascus. The rebels are demanding that the government free hundreds of imprisoned women activists in exchange for the nuns. Reports of local cease-fires and other short-term deals have become more common as Syria’s three-year-old civil war drags on, but talks leading to prisoner exchanges still appear to be rare. There was no immediate government comment. Calls to the Lebanese offices of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, the canonical superior of the convent, went unanswered.

A spokesman for the rebel brigade al-Habib al-Moustafa said that, so far, government officials refused the demand to release prisoners. The spokesman, who used the alias of Abu Nidal for security reasons, said that a mediator was speaking to both parties. He said that his group wasn’t involved in negotiations, but was relaying information from other fighters. A Syrian opposition activist, who requested anonymity, as he was discussing talks conducted by other parties, also confirmed the negotiations. He said that the rebels were also demanding the release of imprisoned Saudi Arabian nationals captured while fighting for the opposition. The activist said that negotiations began immediately after the nuns were seized from the Convent of Mar Tekla in the village of Ma’loula, north of Damascus on 6 December, when rebels overran the area. Activists said that at rebels seized at least another three women from the convent’s orphanage, and they took all of them to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud.

The seized women appeared on a video days after their capture saying that they were alive and well. The rebel faction that released the video didn’t identify itself. No faction announced that it has control of the women. Syrian opposition activists and Church officials said that the al-Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra holds them. The kidnapping of the women strengthened fears among Syria’s minority Christians that al-Qaeda-linked militants and other extremists, who are increasingly prominent in rebel ranks, are targeting them. A priest and two bishops previously kidnapped by rebels remain missing, and many accuse extremists of vandalising churches in areas they’ve captured. Christians and other minorities, like the Druze and Shi’ites, tend to support the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who comes from the country’s minority Alawite sect. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority forms the backbone of the uprising against Assad.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, fighting continued in an industrial area near Damascus where al-Qaeda-linked rebels earlier faced charges of killing Druse and Alawite men, women, and children. State-run Syrian television and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the killings began on Wednesday, when rebels, mostly from Jabhat al-Nusra, overran the ‘Adra industrial district and its neighbouring residential area northeast of Damascus. However, rebel spokesman Abu Nidal and another rebel spokesman, Abu Yazan, both based in the nearby area of Ghouta, said that the rebels only killed pro-government fighters in Adra and soldiers from the nearby 122 Brigade military base. They acknowledged the fighters were Alawites and Druse, but said that the rebels killed them because they were fighting for the government, not because of their sect. Increasingly, Syria’s government relies on militias, often drawn from minorities, to hold territory. They said that rebels were fighting in Adra to open up a road to Ghouta, which was under siege for the past ten months by Syrian forces, and to cut a government road.

14 October 2013

Diaa Hadid

Associated Press



Islamist extremists among anti-government rebels have been targeting Syrian Christians as “infidels”. After a mortar attack left four children dead, Armenian Apostolic Bishop Armash Nalbandian lamented, “We’re suffering a new genocide”. Relatives stood silently in front of an altar honouring four children killed by a mortar attack near the Old City of Damascus. The Armenian Orthodox children were waiting for their school bus when a rebel attack killed them and the bus driver. One relative, Amira Hana, cried as she described the explosion, “We went running to the school to find out what took place. All the buses were destroyed, completely destroyed. Blood was all over the ground”.

Anti-government rebels regularly fire mortars and rockets into Damascus. Sometimes they hit military targets. At other times, they seem to target Christian neighbourhoods, which they perceive as pro-government. Bishop Armash Nalbandian, a leader of the Armenian Apostolic church, criticised rebels who intentionally target civilian areas, “I can’t understand what kind of vision, what kind of ideology they have. I do know that they don’t pursue freedom or democracy as they say. They’re actually criminals”. He said that indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a war crime, “What they’re doing isn’t against the government. It’s against humanity. I’m speechless”.

Neighbourhoods targeted

Human rights groups say that the government also indiscriminately shells rebel-held neighbourhoods. All of Damascus reverberates with the sounds of Syrian army artillery fire and high-power rifle shots. According to critics, the army wantonly attacks rebel-held areas full of civilians. In recent weeks, the government claimed important military victories near Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and other major cities. Syrian Minister of Justice Najm al-Ahmad said that the government is winning the war, with major cities nearly all back in the government camp after more than a year of being under rebel control. He said that the government took back several Damascus suburbs, but admits rocket and mortar fire continue to hit the capital, saying, “In some pockets in rural Damascus, there are some bombardments. They focus on the areas of the Christian minority. The Syrian army is achieving good progress in all areas of the country”.

Exodus of refugees

An estimated 3 million Syrians left the country, including tens of thousands of Christians. For Bishop Armash, who is of Armenian ancestry, the refugee upsurge reflects a personal tragedy. Armenians fled Turkey to Syria in 1915 after a genocidal attack by the Ottoman Army. He said that Armenians came as refugees to Syria, where they created schools, churches, and a new life, noting, “After 95 years, we’re suffering a new genocide. It’s more difficult for us to carry this cross”. When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, many Christians felt caught between a repressive government and fear of Islamist extremist rebels who see Christians as infidels. The UN rights chief recently announced evidence linking the Syrian government to war crimes. Bishop Armash said that in the first few months, Christians hoped that the government would make significant reforms, “Unfortunately, the government lost this moment, or couldn’t or didn’t use this moment. The government did some reforms according to the constitution, but actually it’s not enough”. For example, the government lifted the formal state of emergency, but it continued its repressive policies. Christians were also offended that the country’s constitution mandated that the president be a Muslim.

Persecution prevails

During the past year, extremist Muslim groups gained ground among the rebels. They targeted Christian villages and other religious groups they perceived as Assad supporters. Extremists and criminal elements kidnapped Christians for ransom. As the extremist groups took over more areas and chaos ensued, Christians threw their support behind the government. Bishop Armash said that many Christians now see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a protector, “The guarantee of security of minorities, my church, is to have good functional government, a strong government. This security we experienced and saw with the government of President Bashar al-Assad”. The killing of innocent children and the refugee exodus took a psychological toll on Syrian Christians… and on the personal faith of Bishop Armash. He experienced a deep psychological shock from the death of the four children from his church, observing, “I don’t know if I’m sad, if I’m tired, if I’m exhausted, I don’t know. I gain my power, energy from prayer. How, I don’t know. Why, I don’t know, but I have this strength”. Bishop Armash said that he and other Christians would survive, as they have many crises before.

13 December 2013

Reese Erlich

Deutsche Welle


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