Syria Deeply Asks: What’s the Difference Between ISIS and the Islamic Front?

This week, rumors were rife that members of the Islamic Front were behind the kidnapping of prominent activist Razan Zeitouneh, her husband and two colleagues, who were taken by masked gunmen from an office in the Damascus neighborhood of Douma.

The incident points to escalating concerns that the Islamic Front’s behavior, a newly formed alliance of seven of Syria’s biggest rebel fighting groups, could start to resemble that of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), al-Qaida’s Syrian arm. 

We asked experts to weigh in on the similarities between the two groups, and whether the fears are well-founded.

Noah Bonsey, Senior Syria researcher, International Crisis Group:

Competition for territory and resources among rebel groups is certainly not unique to ISIS; they’re not the only group that’s sought to expand its zone of control. But ISIS has been more aggressive, brutally and systematically. To some extent it’s not surprising that you have the Islamic Front seeking to flex its muscles on the ground – they can in a way force the opposition’s backers into dealing with them by pushing out the Supreme Military Council.

I don’t think of this behavior as the Front “behaving like ISIS,” because they’re doing it in a different way – we haven’t seen a systematic pattern of them using brutal tactics to push out other rebel groups. But it’s certainly something worth watching.

One of the most important factors to watch will be the approach the Islamic Front takes in dealing with the opposition’s backers. You have certain state backers that have a positive relationship with the Islamic Front – Turkey and Qatar have to an extent enabled its communications with the U.S.

But then you have Saudi Arabia, which is rumored to support Jaish al-Islam, but does not have a history of ties with other main groups in the Front and may see them, to an extent, as competition. If you had a unified approach among these states, they might be capable of developing incentives for the Islamic Front to take a more pragmatic tack, with regards to Geneva and how they deal with other groups on the ground. But we haven’t seen that emerge. It will be very interesting to see how this develops, particularly given that the U.S. is clearly open to a level of political engagement.

Faysal Itani, fellow, the Atlantic Council:

It’s an important question. These guys are probably the most important coalition of actors in Syria. They’re going to have a key role in shaping the conflict in the future. The question of whether they become extremists – it’s a coalition of groups that fall in various places on the Islamist spectrum, some of which, depending on what your definition is, are extremist. Particularly Ahrar al-sham, which is on the extreme end, and also Jaish al-Islam, which is headed by a man who, according to his own statements, has a deeply sectarian worldview and has spoken quite toxically against Alawites and Shia and appears to see the conflict very much in those terms.

Is that an effort for him to rally a Sunni support base or compete with ISIS over who [of the two] is the most ideologically committed? Who knows. But it’s very troubling that there is already a tendency for some of these groups to be extremist.

There have been accusations, particularly from Human Rights Watch, that some of the Islamic Front groups, particularly Ahrar al-Sham, were involved in atrocities against Alawite civilians in Latakia. The group denies it, but these are all troubling indications.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have groups like Soohor al-Sham or Liwa al-Tawhid, which are significantly less extremist. They’re slightly more moderate, a bit more inclusive and rhetorically deferential to minorities. The main difference in general between these guys and ISIS is that there is a level of brutality in ISIS that we haven’t seen in the Front, and the Front’s focus tends to be Syria, not the wider world. They do intend to set up an Islamic state there, but don’t think it’s part of a wider transcendental caliphate.

So those are the differences: message and tactics, and ideology and focus.

The Front is still a collection of groups – it’s not at the point of being a cohesive governing entity. They have set up, in various parts of the rebel-held territory, a significant social and governing infrastructure where they provide government and judicial services as well as law enforcement. But it’s still a loose coalition of actors.

It would be interesting if one or two of these members succeed in consolidating their control over the Coalition – and after that, you could see them going in a more unified direction. These guys are each dominant in different geographies of Syria, whereas ISIS has put as much effort into consolidating its stance as it has into the fighting on the ground.

(Source / 20.12.2013)

Israel frees prisoner detained 30 months without charge

HEBRON (Ma’an) — Israeli authorities on Friday released a Palestinian prisoner from Hebron after keeping him in administrative detention for over two and a half years.

Mahmud Issa Abed al-Hamid Masalma, 54, was released on Friday after spending more than 30 months in prison without ever being charged by authorities.

Masalma was detained on Aug. 20, 2011 and was transferred to administrative detention because Israeli authorities said that he “constitutes a danger to the security of Israel.”

They refused, however, to explain what kind of danger he posed, and kept him without charge for the entirety of his detention.

Administrative detention refers to the tactic of keeping a prisoner without charge or trial for extended periods of time, often due to “security” concerns.

Israel routinely uses this tactic on detained Palestinians, even though international law stipulates it only be used in exceptional circumstances.

According to Israeli human rights groups B’tselem, in October 2013 140 Palestinians were being kept in administrative detention in Israeli prisons, down from a high of nearly 1,000 in 2002.

5,200 Palestinians were being held in Israeli jails as of October 2013, according to the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Prisoners’ Affairs.

Since 1967, more than 650,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel, representing 20 percent of the total population and 40 percent of all males in the occupied territories.

Under international law, it is illegal to transfer prisoners outside of the occupied territory in which they are detained, and the families of Palestinian prisoners’ face many obstacles in obtaining permits to see their imprisoned relatives.

(Source / 20.12.2013)

Yemen drone strike ‘targeted al-Qaeda leader’



Anonymous US officials contradict earlier reports that drone killed 13 civilians in Yemeni wedding party on December 12.

Human Rights Watch says US missile strikes have killed dozens of civilians in Yemen this year
American and Yemeni officials have said the target of a deadly drone strike that hit a wedding convoy and killed 15 people in Yemen earlier this month was a mid-level al-Qaeda leader.

Two US and one Yemeni official, speaking to Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity on Friday, said that Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani was wounded and escaped the December 12 air strike.

The officials described al-Badani as the leader behind a bomb plot that briefly closed 19 US diplomatic posts across Africa and the Middle East earlier this year.

The US officials said between nine and 12 other fighters were killed in the December drone strike, and that there were no civilian casualties.

Initial reports from Yemen, however, had said that 13 civilians were killed in the drone strike, as their wedding party in the south of Yemen was mistaken for an al-Qaeda convoy.

“Even if it turns out that this was a case of killings based on mistaken identity or dodgy intelligence, whoever was responsible needs to own up to the error and come clean about what happened in this incident,” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Bomb plot link

Yemen is among a handful of countries where the US acknowledges using drones, although it does not directly comment on the practice.

Human Rights Watch said in a report earlier this year that US missile strikes have killed dozens of civilians in Yemen.

On Friday, a Yemeni official told the AP al-Badani was linked to a plot to bomb the US embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2012, and to a threat that shut down 19 US embassies across the region last August.

The US said it intercepted a message between al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Yemen’s al-Qaida offshoot about plans for the attack on August 2.

The US missions, as well as some European diplomatic posts, were shut for at least a week.

(Source / 20.12.2013)

UNRWA warns ‘thousands’ at risk as Yarmouk siege enters 5th month

People inspect damaged areas in Yarmouk camp near Damascus, July 24, 2013.
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — The United Nations’ Palestine refugee agency UNRWA warned that the lives of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp in Damascus were at risk due to the ongoing siege of the camp by Syrian regime forces.

Commissioner General of UNRWA Filippo Grandi said that “humanitarian conditions in the besieged refugee camp of Yarmouk are worsening dramatically and that we are currently unable to help those trapped inside.”

He stressed that if the situation was not addressed soon, “it may be too late to save the lives of thousands of people including children.”

“UNRWA remains constantly committed to assist, but the continued presence of armed groups that entered the area at the end of 2012 and its closure by government forces have thwarted all our humanitarian efforts,” he added, referring to the fighting that has gripped the camp since it became embroiled in the armed conflict in Syria in December 2012.

“20,000 remaining Palestinians have been trapped inside Yarmouk, and although very alarming reports of hardship and hunger have continued to multiply, since September 2013 we have been unable to enter the area to deliver desperately needed relief supplies.”

His comments come days after the PLO announced the failure of an agreement to lift the regime siege on the camp by asking all militant groups to withdraw and allow the area to remain a neutral safe zone. PLO authorities blamed the PFLP-GC, a Palestinian militant group closely aligned with the Syrian government, of foiling that agreement by deploying their troops in the camp.

After rebels seized control of Yarmouk in December 2012, the camp became embroiled in the armed fighting taking place across Syria and came under heavy regime assault. Regime forces eventually encircled the camp and in July imposed a siege on the camp, leading to a rapid deterioration of living conditions.

Fatah leader Abbas Zaki told Ma’an in mid-October that Yarmouk’s population of 250,000 had dwindled to 18,000 after two and a half years of conflict in Syria.

Grandi called on all parties to “immediately heed their legal obligations and facilitate the urgent provision of humanitarian assistance to Yarmouk and other Palestinian refugee camps where fighting impedes the delivery of such assistance,” stressing that the “intolerable situation” must end.

Yarmouk refugee camp was subjected to intense shelling on Friday, and the sounds of armed clashes were heard at the entrances to the camp.

Mazen al-Asali, 18, was reported to have committed suicide after he was unable to secure food to feed his mother and sisters due to a blockade imposed on the camp since July.

5 Palestinians reported killed across Syria on Friday 

Five Palestinians were also killed across Syria on Friday in separate incidents linked to the armed conflict, including two who died under torture in Syrian regime prisons.

Mohammad Ahmad Mashour from al-Nayrab refugee camp died on Friday early morning amid shelling on Hanano neighborhood of Aleppo.

Nawaf Hantash and his wife, who name was not given, were killed during shelling on Homs, while his daughter wounded.

Ahmad Abu Raya from al-Aideen refugee camp in the central Syrian city of Homs died under torture in a Syrian military prison. He was detained five months ago.

Samer Walwel from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus also died of torture in a Syrian army prison.

At least 1,500 Palestinians have been killed in the ongoing Syria conflict, and around 250,000 Palestinian refugees have been forced to leave their refugee camps in Syria due to violence in the country.

Prior to the conflict, 600,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Syria.

Between 7-800,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes inside Israel during the 1948 conflict that led to the creation of the State of Israel, and today their descendants number around five million, spread across the world.

(Source / 20.12.2013)

Egypt tunnel blockade takes toll on Gaza business

GAZA CITY — Mohammed Al-Telbani, owner of one of Gaza’s biggest food factories, is the sort of businessman plucky enough to thrive despite an Israeli blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave, but even he says he is finally running out of answers.

With a new military-backed government in Egypt shutting smuggling tunnels that had kept the Gaza Strip alive, he now worries for the first time that the siege will choke off his business and consign his 400 employees to poverty.

Last month, he was forced to pay 60,000 shekels ($17,000) for Israeli fuel to power his four generators. He shut down for 11 days but says he still hopes to keep the business going.

“We are suffering great financial losses, but I cannot close my business. I need to maintain my customers even if that means sacrificing profits or taking some losses,” he said. “We have to share the good times and bad times and stick together.”

Under years of Israeli sanctions, Gazan businessmen cobbled together a smuggling-fueled economy that sustained the enclave under rule by Hamas Islamists. But with the overthrow of a sympathetic Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt tightening the blockade, many Gazans say they have never had it so tough.

Short on fuel, the lone Gaza power plant has ceased to serve nearly half the 1.8 million residents. Patchy alternative supplies of electricity from Israel’s grid have meant 12-hour blackouts every day.

Night casts a pall over the city of Gaza, just 44 miles down the Mediterranean coast from sparkling Tel Aviv. Shops close early to ration spare private generators.

Residents who live on upper floors feel trapped in their buildings. While the homes of those with means hum from private generators, poorer folk huddle in dark silence.

“No electricity. No power to heat the house when it pours with rain,” said Ahmed Hamid, a taxi driver. “We blame everyone. Leaders in Gaza, in the West Bank, even [President] Obama. Whoever sees us and does nothing is responsible for our tragedy.”

Gazans say the economic trials loom even larger than the perennial fear of war with Israel. The last major fighting was more than a year ago, and both sides appear to be keeping to a truce, which was brokered by Egypt’s government, then led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has an historic kinship to Hamas.

The Egyptian military, which overthrew the Brotherhood in July, sees Hamas as a security threat and has since closed most of the 1,200 tunnels that used to run under the sandy frontier between Sinai and Gaza.

That has choked off supplies of weapons as intended, but also of commercial goods including construction materials, and, most damagingly, of cheap Egyptian petrol.

Building on black market

Businesses such as bakeries, restaurants, hotels and even farms say they may have to scale back work or lay off staff to stay solvent. For a populace already suffering 32 percent unemployment, that spells deeper misery.

The Hamas government has lost revenue it earned from taxing the smuggling tunnels. Salaries for many of Gaza’s 50,000 public servants have arrived late in the past three months.

The construction industry, already slowed by Egypt’s closure of the tunnels, ground to a halt when Israel also stopped letting in building materials in retaliation for the discovery of a Hamas tunnel under its border in October.

The United Nations announced on Dec. 9 that Israel had decided to allow the transfer of building materials for U.N. projects in the Gaza Strip. The U.N. is implementing a package, worth $500 million, of construction projects such as schools, social housing and water and sanitation facilities.

On the black market, the price of a tonne of cement rose more than sevenfold since June to hit 2,900 shekels ($824), from 400 shekels.

In public, Gazans still tend to rally to Hamas, whose die-hard ethos of conflict with Israel is reinforced by the sense of siege. Hamas says it is seeking other sources of support.

“We are sparing no effort to help our people exit the current crisis. We are speaking to every country and every party in order to find a solution,” said Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister for the Gaza government. Talks were underway with Cairo over the fuel and power crisis, and Gaza had appealed to states further afield like Qatar for aid, he said.

Hamas also tried to mend ties with Iran, a former patron that scaled back funding for the Palestinian Islamists after Hamas quit its headquarters in Damascus out of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s ally.

At home, Hamas has shown little tolerance for large-scale dissent. Human rights groups accuse its police of breaking up demonstrations under the pretext that organisers did not obtain proper licenses.

A Gaza group modeling itself on Tamarud, an Egyptian movement whose name means “rebellion” and that agitated against the Muslim Brotherhood, abandoned plans for a mass rally on Nov. 11, citing fears for participants’ safety. Hamas sought to belittle the threats of a rebellion and accused Israel and its Palestinian rivals of trying to “destabilize public order.”

A collapsing economy

“It’s natural to ask Hamas to find solutions, but no one can be spared blame,” Said Samir Mohammed, a 31-year-old public servant, naming the rival Palestinian Authority, which governs in the occupied West Bank, and Israel as culprits too.

Before Egypt’s tunnel crackdown, the Gaza economy had been recovering from the destruction of last year’s brief war, according to local and international statistics. It grew at a rate of 12 percent in the first quarter of 2013, the World Bank said, in contrast to the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, which contracted by 0.6 percent.

Maher Al-Tabbaa’, a Gaza economy expert, estimated that since Egypt closed the tunnels this summer, the enclave’s economy had lost $450 million in potential growth.

“In simple terms, Gaza businesses are collapsing under the blockade and the shortages of power and fuel,” Tabbaa’ told Reuters. He predicted that unemployment would reach 38 percent by the end of the year unless the crisis eased.

Meanwhile, people soldier on.

“Gaza is not going to die, whatever happens,” said an elderly man, Abu Hassan. “First they fight us with planes and tanks, and now with darkness and blockades.”

(Source / 20.12.2013)

Palestinian killed near Gaza-Israel border

Gaza official says Odeh Hamad shot in the head after three bird hunters wounded by Israeli gunfire in separate incident

A Palestinian health official says a man has been killed and three others wounded by Israeli gunfire in the Gaza Strip.

Health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said 22-year-old Odeh Hamad was shot in the head on Friday near the border between Gaza andIsrael. Kidra said three civilians were wounded by Israeli fire in a separate incident near the border as they hunted for birds.

It was not immediately clear what sparked the shooting that killed Hamad, or why Israeli forces opened fire on the bird hunters. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

Israel often fires warning shots to disperse Palestinians who approach its border.

Such shootings have been rare since Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers fought an eight-day battle last year.

(Source / 20.12.2013)

Syria’s Civil War Forces Doctors to Choose the Rebels or the Regime

Physicians, Medical Residents Open Secret Clinics to Fill Void Left by Conflict

Dr. Adnan Ismail was on duty for the worst chemical weapons attack in the last 25 years. When bodies began arriving at his hospital near Damascus, he filmed the carnage, then fled the country so he could show the world. WSJ’s Nour Malas reports.

Adnan Ismail worked as a doctor in a Syrian government hospital. But civil war led him to a farm field where he and friends labored nights in secret to build a makeshift rebel-run clinic.

For a year, Dr. Ismail helped dig walls and stairs to fashion an underground bunker that was eventually equipped for surgery, he said.

Dr. Adnan Ismail led a secret life tending to Syrian rebels and civilians hurt by government forces. Ayman Oghanna for The Wall Street Journal

In wheat fields and olive groves, at private homes and in the backs of trucks, Syrian doctors like him have cobbled a health-care network of medical students, nurses and civilians to supplement hospitals lost in the conflict. Most of these workers aren’t trained for the trauma injuries they see. They are short-handed, lack supplies and are targets of government forces. But without them, according to medical organizations monitoring the crisis, many more Syrians would have died in a conflict that has claimed an estimated 125,000 lives.

“I always requested from God an adventurous and fulfilling life,” said Dr. Ismail, a 29-year-old man of slight build who wears the neatly cropped beard common among Syria’s rebels. “I think he may have taken me too seriously.”

Samer Attar, a Syrian-American orthopedic surgeon, saw some of this work firsthand during a leave from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago to volunteer this fall at a hospital in the rebel-held section of Aleppo.

Syrian medical residents were essentially teaching themselves trauma surgery, Dr. Attar said. “They function as full-time surgeons,” he said, recalling the stream of wounded: “People missing limbs…faces pebbled with shrapnel. A few times, people holding their bowels in their hands.”

Makeshift clinics have proliferated in the rebel-held north, but shifting battle lines have made it harder to keep them hidden from government forces or separated from rebel operations, said Syrian doctors and international medical groups.

Five of the six field clinics in the north were hit by government airstrikes this fall, doctors at three of the hospitals said.

The al-Bab Hospital, which sits in a town in Aleppo province now controlled by al Qaeda-linked rebels, has been bombed five times, medics at the hospital said. Its medical staff has relocated from one building to another so many times they now keep much of their equipment in ready-to-move boxes.

Aftermath of August gas attack Shaam

Some 50 international doctors, including the heads of global medical bodies, warned that Syria’s health services were at “a breaking point,” in a letter published in the medical journal The Lancet in September. The war, doctors said, is restricting medical care for millions of Syrians on all sides.

“Systematic assaults on medical professionals, facilities, and patients are breaking Syria’s health care system and making it nearly impossible for civilians to receive essential medical services,” the letter said.

Attacks on hospitals in rebel-controlled regions were described in the letter as “an unconscionable betrayal of the principle of medical neutrality.”

Attacking hospitals violates the Geneva Conventions and constitutes a war crime, said international experts on human-rights law. United Nations investigators said both sides have targeted hospitals, with no regard for civilian casualties.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry, which documents abuses in Syria, said in a September report: “Evidence collected by the Commission leads to an overwhelming conclusion: Government forces deny medical care to those from opposition-controlled and affiliated areas as a matter of policy.”

A Syrian government official said hospitals in rebel-held areas, usually located in battle zones, aren’t appropriately marked as medical facilities and are often used by rebels to store ammunition or launch attacks.

“It’s the rebels taking advantage of it being a hospital and saying to the media: ‘Look, they are shooting at a hospital,’ ” said Reem Haddad, an official at the information ministry in Damascus. “There is no way the Syrian army will know whether this is a hospital or not.”

Ms. Haddad said opposition forces have targeted clearly marked hospitals in government areas, including Tishreen Hospital in Damascus and al-Kindi Hospital in Aleppo, which she said were hit by mortar shells on Wednesday.

Dr. Ismail is among thousands of doctors who faced an agonizing choice: Treat only patients approved by the government of Bashar al-Assad, or throw their lot in with the opposition.

For a time, Dr. Ismail did both, he said. By day, he worked as a gynecologist at a government hospital. At night, he treated wounded rebels and civilians under the nom de guerre, Dr. Abulqa’qa’.

He is now in Turkey, his cover blown, anxious to return home, where, he said, his skills are needed. He said his mother and two brothers were recently hurt in government attacks.

“My whole life, everyone would call me doctor,” said Dr. Ismail, the oldest of eight children. He recalled being first in his class growing up in Qasamiyeh, a village about nine miles outside Damascus in the Ghouta region, the agricultural suburbs now under government siege.

The high expectations of his family and neighbors, he said, motivated him to become the only medical student in his village of 7,000 people.

Dr. Ismail studied medicine in southeast Ukraine, where he lived for seven years. He learned Russian and some English. In his spare time, he taught Arabic and played soccer. Living abroad, he said, helped shape a more critical view of his country.

During visits home, he was greeted by honking horns from a convoy of cars filled with family and friends. The doctor-to-be often stole the limelight at village events. He got a standing ovation when he arrived as a guest at one wedding and some people mistook him for the groom, he recalled with embarrassment.

Dr. Ismail returned home after completing medical school in 2010, and he specialized in gynecology at the Greater Damascus Mujtahid Hospital.

His life changed the following year, when demonstrations erupted against the Assad government. On April 22, 2011, protesters gathered near a mosque in Qasamiyeh and surrounded a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the former president and Mr. Assad’s father. Dr. Ismail joined the protest despite pleas from his parents, and the crowd brought the statue down. Security forces fired; eight people died and more than 50 were injured.

That day, Dr. Ismail said, his parents’ living room “practically turned into a field hospital,” with the administering of stitches and sutures to the injured.

As protests spread in the Ghouta suburbs, the number of deaths and injuries grew. Dr. Ismail and a friend—a first-year medical student—turned a vacant farmhouse into their first field clinic. The doctor and antigovernment activists collected antibiotics, gauze, splints, suture kits and other supplies. Villagers would ask Dr. Ismail to make house calls because they feared arrest if they ferried injured loved ones to the clinic.

Five days after the first patients were treated, Dr. Ismail said, the clinic was bombed.

For much of 2011, Dr. Ismail worked at a hospital in a government-held region of Homs, sneaking out to protests between shifts. He met local rebels and volunteered with the Free Syrian Army, treating injuries and delivering milk and medicine to besieged neighborhoods.

As Dr. Ismail went on riskier assignments, he adopted a rebel name, Dr. Abulqa’qa’, after a legendary Islamic fighter known for bravery and physical prowess. He said he would overhear medics talking about a mysterious rebel doctor who secretly crossed the front lines to treat the injured. During those conversations, Dr. Ismail said, he would nod or pretend to be preoccupied.

In January 2012, rebels launched attacks on the capital from the suburbs and government forces responded. As casualties grew, Dr. Ismail began his most ambitious project with two men, a friend and the owner of a plot of farmland. They pooled funds to start building the underground clinic and drew the first outlines in the dirt one night with tree branches. “We worked painfully slow,” Dr. Ismail said, to avoid detection.

Their first patient was a man who needed eye surgery to remove shrapnel. Dr. Ismail recruited two eye surgeons, two anesthesiologists and a nurse. The volunteers arrived blindfolded, he said, to keep the clinic’s location secret.

In a different part of the Damascus suburbs, Dr. Ismail worked at a clinic in a building that also housed the local rebel military council. The clinic was later struck in a rocket attack.

By midyear, Dr. Ismail had quit his job at the government-run hospital in Homs, and was working with a first-year surgery resident to serve 10 villages in rebel-held areas. He said they took on more difficult surgeries, including chest operations and amputations.

Around that time, Dr. Ismail negotiated with a driver working for a private hospital in Damascus to secure an ambulance. The doctor arranged for the man’s family to move to a neighborhood guarded by rebels. The ambulance was guided slowly through a minefield. Then rebels beat the man, Dr. Ismail said, so authorities would believe the vehicle was taken by force.

By the start of 2013, Dr. Ismail had only the ambulance and the underground clinic, still under construction. Between February and May, the front lines moved closer.

They performed three eye surgeries before government forces retook the region in June. “We just needed two more months and a little more money, and we would have been able to finish it,” Dr. Ismail said. He moved to a small clinic nearby, one of the last working medical facilities in the Ghouta region.

On Aug. 21, he was winding down his shift when bodies began arriving from a chemical gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians, according to U.S. estimates. The first patient that night was a 5-year old girl in cotton pajamas whose limp body was dumped into his arms. “She was dead,” he said. “I just couldn’t absorb that.”

Working with a medical student and 15 nurses, Dr. Ismail turned on garden hoses to flood the clinic floors. They dragged the bodies through the water. Soon, the dead filled the clinic’s two rooms. About 4 a.m., Dr. Ismail passed out from the chemicals. He said he was revived with an atropine injection.

By 10 a.m., the doctor said, he had tallied 200 dead. “The worst part was the wailing” of grieving families, he said.

Dr. Ismail recorded videos on his Sony Ericsson cellphone. In one viewed by The Wall Street Journal, a veiled woman in a brown trench coat is seen stepping over bodies. “Where is God?” she is heard saying. “Where are you my children?”

The doctor said he spent the next two weeks in a daze. Activists reached him on Skype, saying Western governments, particularly the French, wanted witnesses to give testimony about the gas attack. Several countries, including the U.S., were debating a military strike against the Assad regime.

On Sept. 10, Dr. Ismail left with hair and blood samples, traveling through the deserts of Deir el-Zour in the east and then north to the border with Turkey. He and two travel companions were hosted by tribal families for most of the 10-day trip.

Dr. Ismail crossed the border in a truck smuggling fuel and generators. He said he was held by Turkish authorities for two days over a misunderstanding over who should get the samples, and whether his companions—who didn’t carry passports—could cross into Turkey.

Turkish intelligence eventually took the samples, he said, which were destined for the French Embassy in Ankara. One French official said national intelligence agencies coordinated efforts to get survivors and witnesses of the sarin-gas attack out of Syria, and the details were largely kept secret. A spokesman for Turkey’s foreign ministry didn’t return a request for comment.

As Dr. Ismail waits to return, he moves among various homes of activists and rebels. He has crossed into Syria three times but has been forced back by the constantly shifting battle lines.

He assumes if he is caught by government forces, he will be killed. Yet he said he was eager to again tend to the wounded—disappointed that his mission took him out of Syria and failed to draw Western intervention.

“I’m not a taxi driver. I didn’t come out here to deliver samples,” Dr. Ismail said. “I came out because I thought I was serving a greater cause than the one I was serving inside.”

(Source / 20.12.2013)

Israeli forces open fire on protests across the West Bank

Protest in al-Masara
RAMALLAH (Ma’an) — Israeli forces dispersed Palestinian protests across the West Bank on Friday, injuring dozens of demonstrators with rubber bullets and through the excessive use of tear gas.

Protests against the Israeli occupation and separation wall took place in the villages of Bilin, al-Masara, and Nabi Saleh.


Eight protesters people were injured with rubber bullets and dozens suffered from excessive tear gas inhalation after Israeli forces dispersed a weekly protest in Bilin, near Ramallah.

Protesters raised Palestinian flags and chanted songs for unity and resistance against the Israeli occupation.

Israeli forces fired rubber-coated steel bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas at protesters as they neared their lands close to Israel’s wall.

Ashraf al-Khatib, Majd Burnat, Hamouda Yassin, Mohammad Abu Rahma, Mohammad Yassin, Mohammad Hamad, Ali Abu Rahma, and Bassim Yassin were struck with rubber coated steel bullets in different body parts, including one in the head.

The demonstration was held in protest of the Israeli forces killing of two Palestinians by Israeli forces in Jenin refugee camps and Qalqiliya during last week.

Since 2005, Bilin villagers have protested on a weekly basis against the Israeli separation wall that runs through their village on land confiscated from local farmers.

Previous protests by Bilin activists have forced the Israeli authorities to re-route the wall, but large chunks of the village lands remain inaccessible to residents because of the route.


Israeli forces dispersed a demonstration marking the establishment of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist Palestinian political group, and Christmas in al-Masara near Bethlehem.

Participants raised Palestinian flags, pictures of late President Yasser Arafat and former PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa, but were stopped by Israeli forces who used plastic shields to obstruct them when they reached the entrance of the village.

Since 2006, the residents of al-Masara have protested on a weekly basis, demanding Israeli authorities return village lands confiscated in order to build the separation wall as it crosses through their town.

Nabi Saleh 

Israeli forces also dispersed a popular demonstration in Nabi Saleh village near Ramallah.

Israeli forces fired tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets at demonstrators, causing dozens to suffer from excessive tear gas inhalation.

Israeli forces claimed that the demonstration was illegal because it was held in a closed military zone. Israeli forces declare the village a closed military zone on a weekly basis in anticipation of the demonstration.

Clashes then broke out and Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli forces, who responded with more tear gas.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice called on Israel to stop construction of the separation wall within the occupied West Bank.

When completed, 85 percent of the wall will run inside the West Bank.

The internationally recognized Palestinian territories of which the West Bank and East Jerusalem form a part have been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967.

(Source / 20.12.2013)

Nasrallah warns Israel Hezbollah will avenge commander’s killing


  • Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via a screen during a ceremony to mark the death of Hezbollah commander Hasan al-Laqqis, in Beirut's southern suburbs December 20, 2013. REUTERS/ Sharif KarimLebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via …

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed to avenge Israel for the killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut earlier this month.

Hassan al-Laqqis, who fought in Syria’s civil war for the Lebanese Shi’ite militia, was shot dead outside his home on December 4.

A previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility at the time of the attack, but Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel, with which it fought a 34-day war in 2006.

“All the indicators and clues points to the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said, in his first public comments since the attack.

“Our killer is known, our enemy is known, our adversary is known … When the facts point to Israel, we accuse it,” he said in televised remarks to supporters in southern Beirut.

Israel has denied any role in the shooting and hinted that the motive may have been Hezbollah’s military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his war with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.

The 2-1/2 year-old civil war in Syria has polarised the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers, such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states who support the rebels, and Shi’ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who back Assad.

The president’s Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Hezbollah has sent several thousand fighters to Syria, helping to turn the tide in Assad’s favour this year. But Nasrallah said on Friday that would not prevent it from avenging the killing of Laqqis.

“If the Israelis think … that Hezbollah is busy and that Israel will not pay the price, I say to them today, ‘You are wrong’,” he said.

“The killers will be punished sooner or later and the blood of our martyrs – whether large or small – will not be wasted. Those who killed will not be safe anywhere in the world. Vengeance is coming.”

The open role of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian civil war and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad rebels have fuelled sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Car bombs killed dozens of people in Beirut in August and a twin suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital killed at least 25 people last month.

But Nasrallah mocked critics who he said blamed Lebanon’s woes – from sectarian tension to the flooding of a road during winter storms – on Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.

“Why isn’t there a government? Because Hezbollah entered Syria. Why haven’t we held elections? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why is the economic situation like this? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why did the tunnel on the airport road become a lake? Because Hezbollah is in Syria. This of course isn’t logical.”

(Source / 20.12.2013)


By Peter Clifford                     ©           (

As the Assad regime’s indiscriminate attacks continued on civilian Opposition-held areas of Aleppo province for the 6th day running, Russia  once agained blocked a US sponsored motion in the Security Council condemning the killing.

Aftermath of Barrel-Bombs Dropped on Aleppo

In part the motion said, “The Members of the Security Council …. expressed outrage in particular at the use of heavy indiscriminate weapons, including SCUD missiles and “barrel bombs”, which were dropped on Aleppo between December 15 and 18, leaving more than 100 dead, many of whom were children”.

The death toll is now thought to exceed 200, with 900 reported wounded, and as of this morning, Friday, barrel-bombs and other munitions are still falling on civilian areas of Aleppo city and the surrounding towns and villages.

There is footage of a barrel-bomb attack in Hretan, yesterday, HERE: and more from another barrel-bomb attack on the Aleppo district Sukkari, HERE:

In this video at another location in Aleppo province, local people dig dead victims out from under the rubble,HERE:  (EDITOR: While we in the West “celebrate” Christmas – Awful!)

The heavy attacks on civilian areas appear to be an attempt to get local people to turn on Opposition fighters and drive them out – though this is very unlikely to succeed.

Meanwhile the Opposition have continued their operations, bringing forward aT-72 tank in Rashedin district at the western entrance of Aleppo to blast regime positions, HERE:

They have also succeeded in retaking parts of Base 80, which is not far from Aleppo International Airport, capturing medium and light weapons and ammunition in the process, HERE:

Opposition activists have also reported the death of a Syrian Army Brigadier, General Mohsen, who was killed in ambush on convoy in Aleppo province, and in Damascus the death of Abu Fadl Shirwalian, who is believed to be the son of a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander.


East of Damascus, Opposition fighters are continuing their offensive, downing a drone in Eastern Ghouta, HERE:  and displaying a 550 kilo bomb dropped on the northern suburb of Dumeir, which failed to explode, HERE:

50 Sunni residents of the southern Damascus suburb of Beit Sahm, which is close to a International Airport road, were reported killed by Assad’s troops as they tried to flee fighting in the area, while Opposition fighters recaptured the mosque at Al- Qasimiyah, east of the capital, HERE:

Opposition Fighters in a Cave in Idlib Province

In Deir El Zour province, out in the desert, Opposition fighters have captured another Government fuel depot near Brigade 137, HERE:  and in Homs province, in the Al-Ghantoo area, fighters shot down one of Assad’s reconnaissance aircraft, HERE:

In Deraa province, Opposition fighters are currently in an operation to storm barriers around the Jassem hospital, which is being used as a Government base, north of Deraa city and Nawa.

In this excellent interview, Paul Conroy, who was with the US journalist Marie Colvin when she was killed and he was injured in an Assad bombing raid in Aleppo, describes his work as a war photographer, recommended, HERE:


In Geneva, UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi yesterday demanded the release of leading Syrian human rights campaigner Razan Zeitouneh and three fellow activists, abducted last week by unknown kidnappers, but thought to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, whom she had earlier criticised.

Brahimi  also spotlighted the case of Raja Al-Nasser, a high-profile member of a regime-tolerated opposition party arrested last month by the Syrian Government in Damascus.

Al-Nasser, was expected to be a delegate at next month’s Syrian “peace talks” in Montreux.

Brahimi added, “We were told first that he was arrested by mistake. Second we were told that he would be released soon. Third we were told that he has been released. But we see that he has not been released. And now we are told, ‘We don’t know where he is ….”

Brahimi’s comments came as a UN mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry  released a report condemning Assad regime forces for waging a systematic campaign of enforced disappearances “to terrorize the population and amounting to a crime against humanity”.

The commission said that in 2011 through to early 2012, the majority of those who disappeared were men aged between 16 and 40 who were seized at demonstrations, leaving anguished families not knowing if their loved ones are detained or dead.  You can read more, HERE:

Lastly, Amnesty International has also issued a report about the activities of the Jihadist group ISIL (or ISIS), which it accuses of torture, flogging and summary killings in secret prisons.

Former detainees, one as young as 8, describe an appalling list of abuses including electric shock and the forced holding of painful positions for long periods. You can read more of this dreadful behaviour, HERE:

Ikea Flatpack House for Refugees in Lebanon

Lebanon, after 6 months of lobbying has finally agreed to allow the UN to put up flatpack houses designed by the giant DIY company Ikea ( see previous story below, 16th December – scroll down), but still thinks refugees may get too “comfortable” and may want to stay permanently. This winter may well be over before any sizeable number have been erected.

Lastly, a collection of photographs from Atlantic magazine, which show things getting worse in Syria, even as the “peace conference” approaches: HERE:

And the final word from the good citizens of Kafranbel in Idlib province:

Last Friday Word from Kafranbel