Tuesday 20 February 2018

Special dispatch from inside Syria: Life after Islamic State

The defeat of Islamic State didn't end the ongoing civil war in Syria. But, along with the lifting of the siege in Aleppo, it did mark a significant point in the conflict. Independent.ie's award-­winning ­foreign coverage team of Jason O'Brien and Mark Condren are the first Irish media inside Syria since the IS defeat. They report from Aleppo and Damascus as the notorious President, Bashar al Assad, looks set to consolidate his position

A family try to stay warm in the Saif Al-Dawla, part of East Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren
A family try to stay warm in the Saif Al-Dawla, part of East Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren
A government soldier in the Old City area of Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren
Kids play marbles in the heavily-bombed neighbourhood of Saif al-Dawla in east Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren
Children pose for a picture in Sakhour neighbourhood of eastern Aleppo. Photo by Mark Condren
A scene from Aleppo's main square. Photo: Mark Condren
A scene in Maysaloun in east Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren
A fruit seller in Sukkari, Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren
An I Love Aleppo sign in the main square of the Syrian city. Photo: Mark Condren
Jason O'Brien

Jason O'Brien

"THE body of a man was lying on the ground. His head had been cut off. They took my dad, and told me to wait. The inspector said, 'We will cut off his head and then it will be your turn'. I ran after them and burst into a room, and the prince of Raqqa was there."

Yasmin Shaman is 16 years of age, and a clear, confident speaker on life experiences no one should have to recount.

She has recently returned to her home village of Humaymah Al-Kabirah, a traditional wheat and grape farming community about an hour east of Aleppo by car.

For two of her 16 years, Yasmin, her family, her village, and her district lived under the rule of Islamic State (IS). Now she faces a lifetime of trying to forget.

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Yasmin Shaman (16), who lived under Islamic State for two years in rural east Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren

Yasmin speaks of government soldiers beheaded, tied to the back of cars and driven through the village as a warning. In her mind, she sees young children being killed because their parents tried to escape.

Always - always - there was an oppressive tension as the jihadists sought to terrorise their enemies and villagers alike. "Every night I slept in a full headdress and veil wondering if they would burst into our house," she says.

A friend was sentenced to nine months in a dungeon for smoking a cigarette, she says, her eyes still widening in incomprehension. He was sent to religious 'training' when he got out.

She recalls a mass execution in Deir Hafer town square after a group of foolhardy young students planted the Syrian flag on the water tower. She was forced to watch eight men being shot dead. The bodies were left there for days.

Her uncle, Ahmed Shaman, was later tortured and executed after being linked - by an unidentified informant - to the same "crime". "He was just a civil servant, he had four children," she says, clasping her hands together.

She begins another story, but we stop her - perhaps for her mental well-being, perhaps for our own.

The retreat of IS

Islamic State, thankfully, has also been stopped.

Less than a fortnight ago, the Syrian army and its allies took control of Albu Kamal, the last major IS town in Syria. It completed the almost-total collapse of IS in the country this year under two rival military campaigns.

In October, Islamic State pulled out from cities in the east of the country after it lost the oil-rich provincial capital of Deir ez-Zor to the Syrian army, and its de facto capital Raqqa to Kurdish fighters backed by the US.

The group had infamously advertised its rigid Islamist dystopia in Raqqa since 2014, with mass crucifixions, children openly trained as suicide bombers, women reduced to slavery, and gay men thrown off stadium roofs as all the early indications pointed to IS gaining significant and hugely-worrying momentum.

But it now only holds small pockets of the desert in central and eastern Syria. It's a stunning retreat from its position two years ago when its 'caliphate' - a state governed in accordance with strict Islamic law, or Sharia - stretched across half of Syria's landmass and into a significant area of Iraq.

Islamic State won't simply disappear. Experts say it will likely go underground and turn to guerrilla insurgency using sleeper cells and bombings. But its dark aims for Syria have been comprehensively derailed, and that's something to celebrate.

A village in ruins

Arguably the most-positive thing you can say about Humaymah Al-Kabirah now is that at least Islamic State is gone. Otherwise it is a mess, and a dangerous one.

Almost every building here - a couple of hundred of houses - lies in ruins after a heavy Russian-led bombing campaign eventually helped oust the jihadists last spring, with ordnance and mines likely still littering the area.

"My father managed to smuggle the family out before the bombing got really bad after he heard that one of Daesh (IS) was ­going to kidnap him and demand me as a ransom to be his wife," Yasmin says, again laying bare the brutal reality of her former world.

Now her family has returned, as have almost all of their neighbours, despite the destruction, lack of clean water, electricity, or food. The Shaman family are farmers and they want to farm their own land.

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Locals queue for food at Humaymah Al-Kabirah in rural east Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren

Traditionally - and resolutely - Syrian families want to go back from where they are from, to return home. A staggering 12 million Syrians - half the country's population in 2011 - have been displaced during the six-and-a-half years of conflict.

But, as we speak to Yasmin, a Russian fighter jet comes in to land at a nearby military base - a reminder that while the war against IS may be heading for victory, it is not the only source of that conflict.

The jet is a signifier too that the atrocities in Syria don't begin and won't end with Islamic State.

East Ghouta is a rural area on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. Once a fertile agricultural belt, people are currently starving here, just 12kms from the fabled city. An estimated 400,000 people are trapped as a result of a siege, since 2013, by forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad. About half of those trapped are children.

The siege has become far worse in recent months since routes used to smuggle in food were shut.

Residents are so short of food they are eating rubbish, fainting from hunger and forcing their children to eat on alternate days, the UN World Food Programme said in a report last week.

But that isn't enough.

East Ghouta is also now being bombed back to the Stone Age, with hospitals and civilian areas among those targeted.

There's a pattern here.

Similar siege and bombardment tactics have been used by Assad's forces in Homs and east Aleppo - to name but two high-profile examples - in a devastating conflict which escalated from civil disobedience to civil war in spring of 2011 after a group of young men were arrested and tortured for writing graffiti in support of the Arab Spring.

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A poster of Syrian President Bashar al Assad on a road out of Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren

The Assad government was largely supported by minority religious groups while opposition fighters were overwhelmingly made up of young Sunni Muslims.

In less than seven years, at least 500,000 Syrians have been killed and millions injured as the rebels - initially backed by Western forces including the US - attempted to oust the autocrat, and Islamic State took the opportunity during Assad's difficulty to establish its caliphate.

But since the fall of rebel-held east Aleppo one year ago there has been a growing consensus that Assad, the 52-year-old ophthalmologist who inherited the leadership from his dictator father in 2000, will prevail.

Civilians under threat

The war is far from over, with fighting continuing in many parts of the country areas including Idlib province in the north east. But the entrance of Russia - and its vast aerial resources - into the conflict two years ago ensured Assad has firmed up control in key areas.

Professor Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria, says simply that "militarily" Assad has now won the Syrian conflict.

"He has defeated the original uprising or revolution," he told the BBC. "The rebel groups that remain have been pushed to the margins of Syria.

"The international community has all but abandoned them as a lost cause. The rebel militias still have some teeth in defence, but cannot mount a credible offensive against Assad's military."

The rebel militias are not all the international community has seemingly abandoned.

Earlier this year, east Ghouta was designated one of four 'de-escalation' zones in Syria.

The de-escalation zones included most of the remaining areas held by insurgents and, under the terms, attacks were supposed to decrease and aid to increase in an attempt to pave the way for a peace settlement.

Instead, the Astana accord - reached between Russia and Iran, which are allied to the regime, and Turkey, which backs some rebel groups - seems to have been used by Assad to buy some breathing space while his forces concentrated on battles elsewhere.

And after emerging victorious against IS in recent weeks, his attention - and the vast military, Syrian and Russian, seemingly at his disposal - his focus has returned to these problematic zones. Last Sunday and Monday, Russian warplanes killed at least 41 people in air strikes on east Ghouta, a densely-populated civilian area and the last major territory near Damascus still held by rebel groups.

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Khoder, a two-month-old injured baby is seen in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, November 29. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

That's almost 150 people killed in east Ghouta in the past fortnight. Or 150 that we know about - while IS likes to showcase its atrocities, Assad prefers misinformation and denials.

Yet any international condemnation of Assad's latest violations has been muted.

But then there's a pattern there too, one of increasing acceptance by even Assad's biggest opponents internationally - such as the US - that he will remain in power and, despite everything, a resigned belief that he is the figure most likely to ensure some sort of lasting peace.

The unpalatable is seemingly now acceptable.

And that's something that former US President Barack Obama may bear some responsibility for after his failure to intervene in 2013 when Assad used chemical weapons to kill his own people, despite previously calling it a 'red-line' issue.

Read more: Independent.ie inside Aleppo: A tale of two cities

Read more: Special dispatch: Abused, lost, bereaved – How the young women of east Aleppo reclaimed their futures

Resigned acceptance

There is a level of resigned acceptance on the streets of east Aleppo, too.

It may not have been the IS dystopia of Raqqa, but life in east Aleppo under rebel control was equally desperate as militias fought for control of an area increasingly reduced to wasteland and Assad fought to win it back while simultaneously destroying it.

Here, the public parks had to be used as cemeteries such was the number killed during an indiscriminate bombing campaign overseen by Assad and facilitated by Russia. Here, the population plummeted from one million to just 40,000 in less than five years. Here, vast swathes of former residential streets and businesses have been reduced to dirty, dangerous, awe-inspiring ruins, and the bodies of thousands of people likely remain under concrete.

Yet even here, there is a muted acceptance of Assad - many believe his government is as close to normal as they are going to get.

"The feeling is that we are safer under government control," one young woman (25) originally from Saif al-Dawla explains. Saif al-Dawla now looks like something apocalyptic, the final rebel stronghold in east Aleppo having been pummelled from the air for years.

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A family make their way through bombed residental buildings at Saif Al-Dawla in East Aleppo. Photo: Mark Condren

Like most here, the young woman doesn't want to be named when discussing anything to do with Assad. He's nothing if not vindictive.

"There was no food, no basic healthcare, the courts weren't on, even marriage and birth certs - you couldn't get them. It didn't function, you couldn't move.

"After a while you didn't fear for your own life, but you feared constantly for your loved ones. There was danger everywhere. It was no way to live. We just wanted it to end."

And Assad ended it, with brutal force and the same siege and bombardment tactics he had already used to terrorise civilian areas in places in Homs, and continues to use in places like east Ghouta.

He hasn't won the war yet. But it's safe to say he won't lose it. Russia and Iran, you'd imagine, will be well positioned to dominate a reconstruction that the World Bank estimates will cost more than €200bn.

Dealing with the past

Meanwhile, the average Syrian is struggling to put the pieces of his or her life back together.

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Abdullah Jasem el Abdulaah, deputy principal at Humaymah Al-Kabirah

Abdullah Jasem el Abdulah (57) knows all too well about difficult jobs.

Two days ago, the deputy school principal helped to exhume the body of a nephew from a mass grave.

"They were not happy with IS control but they were very young," he says of the group shot dead by Islamic State in June 2014.

"He was only 16 or 17. They didn't think about what they were doing."

Abdul Aziz el Mohammad was one of the eight who planted the Syrian flag on the water tower in Deir Hafer. He was one of the eight that Yasmin later saw executed in the square.

"Yesterday, with extended family, we went to get them," his uncle explains. "It was very emotional. A lot of people of course were crying again. We have to look forward but also deal with our past. But it was a relief to bring him back."

Yasmin's family were delighted to get her back home too, after her unexpected meeting with the "prince of Raqqa" - the leader of Islamic State in the city - in August of last year.

It's a rare happy story - she lived.

"Everyone thought I had been killed," she says. "The rumour got back to our village before we did. My mother was mourning us."

Caught with a banned mobile and forced to undergo a three-hour interrogation before a group of men, Yasmin was quizzed on Sharia law and her 'contacts' within the regime in Damascus. Her father Hussein looked on, helpless. She was resigned to her fate.

"In Raqqa they didn't behead women. They would put them in the ground and throw stones at their head. I was being brought to that place," she says.

But the prince changed his mind at the last minute, and spared her.

"I have no idea why, it doesn't make any sense," the teenager says.

Not much in this dreadful conflict does, except, for Assad, winning.

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