Opinion: 115 SYD to the Dollar, But Not Giving Up

I start almost every day at work with a death count. The last three days’ numbers — 119, 115, 124, according to the Local Coordination Committee — are the norm.

A good portion of these victims are women and children who were either in the wrong place at the wrong time, related to the wrong people, or part of the wrong sect. Very few of the victims ever held a gun.

I read these figures from my work computer every morning, and as the days and months pass, I am becoming numb to the numbers.

Let’s be honest: most of us following Syria are getting used to the numbers.

When we read the news, bombs and government shelling — atrocities that once instigated global outcry — now take up a single paragraph halfway through a broader piece about Syria. Such grisly events now seem to be taken for granted in this country at war.

The situation in Syria has been dire for months now, so much so that from here it feels like there has been virtually no change and all is doomed to disaster, one way or another.

But the truth of the matter is that things are not stagnant. For citizens across Syria, things are getting exponentially worse. March was the bloodiest month yet in the conflict, and the United Nations can no longer afford to care for refugees and internally displaced Syrians.

My good friend Ahmad (I’ve changed his name for his protection) said that in just the last three months, things have gotten significantly worse in his hometown of Damascus.

Ahmad said factories and companies close daily, and that the lira has depreciated — once 50 Syrian pounds (SYD) to the U.S. dollar, it’s now up to 115 SYD to the dollar. Kidnappings and theft in the capital are widespread, mortars often hit the center of the city, and fear consumes everyday life.

Despite these terrible turns for the worse, Ahmad said he’s “lucky enough not to have a dramatic change in my life, thank god. I haven’t lost my home or any members of my family. At least not yet.”

I am not giving up on Ahmad, or on the millions of other Syrians still waiting for an end to this mess.

Because the other truth about Syria is that it has not become a failed state — yet. There are still thousands of Syrians fighting for a democratic and free Syria. There are also those fighting for a not-so-free Syria, but they are still a minority of fighters who have yet to completely hijack the revolution.

The point is that now is not the time for us to give up on Syria. No matter how long this war lasts, we, as journalists, analysts and government officials cannot grow numb to the atrocities in Syria. We have to continue to fund aid organizations, share war stories and, most of all, work with twice the vigor to help find resolutions to this crisis before the Syria we knew is truly lost forever.

(Written by Syria Deeply contributor Dina Shahrokhi, research associate at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. This post originally appeared on Syria Deeply.)

Next Story — Syria: The Executive Summary, 10/10
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Syria: The Executive Summary, 10/10

Lara Setrakian (@Lara) and Karen Leigh (@leighstream) 

To give you an overview of the latest news, we’ve organized the latest Syrian developments in a curated summary.

Two Million More Refugees Expected in 2014. From Britain’s ITV news network: “The United Nation’s head of humanitarian aid, Baroness Amos, is having talks at the Institute for Government about the difficulties in getting aid to Syria as more refugees are expected to flee the country next year.”

She said that 3.2 million Syrians are expected to register as refugees by the end of this year.

“A further 2 million people are expected to flee the civil war next year and some 6.5 million could be displaced by the end of 2014,” according to the report. “The Assad regime is only allowing 12 international aid groups through and they are struggling to meet demands.”

Chemical Watchdog Urges Truce in Syria, Says Syrian Have Been Cooperative. The BBC reports that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has called for a cease-fire to enable it to destroy the Syrian government’s chemical-weapons cache.

The organization’s chief, Ahmet Uzumcu, called the deadline for destroying equipment “extremely tight,” but still possible if a truce is put into place. Under a U.S.-Russian deal, backed by the U.N., Syria’s chemical weapons production equipment must be destroyed by November 1 and stockpiles disposed of by mid-2014, the BBC recounts.

“If some temporary ceasefires can be established, I think those targets could be reached,” he said.

The New York Times has a good backgrounder on the U.N.’s mission to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons; it quotes Uzumcu in saying the Syrian president and his government have thus far been “quite constructive” and “cooperative” with weapons inspectors on the ground. U.S. officials said last month that at least 45 sites were linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program, according to the report.

Turkey’s Spymaster Plots Own Course on Syria. The Wall Street Journal has a front-page profile of Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, “a driving force behind its efforts to supply the rebels and topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, Mr. Fidan, little known outside of the Middle East, has emerged as a key architect of a Turkish regional-security strategy that has tilted the interests of the longtime U.S. ally in ways sometimes counter to those of the U.S.”

Recently, “Turkey’s Syria approach, carried out by Mr. Fidan, has put it at odds with the U.S. Both countries want Mr. Assad gone. But Turkish officials have told the Americans they see an aggressive international arming effort as the best way.

“In recent months, as radical Islamists expanded into northern Syria along the Turkish border, Turkish officials have begun to recalibrate their policy—concerned not about U.S. complaints but about the threat to Turkey’s security, say U.S. and Turkish officials.”

Israeli Soldier Hurt by Mortar from Syria. Isabel Kershner of The New York Times from Israel on an injury to an Israeli soldier in the Golan Heights, along the Israel-Syria border. It’s not the first time we’ve seen violence spill over into the Golan, but injuries to Israeli soldiers have been rare and could indicate an escalation in fighting.

She says: “An Israeli soldier was lightly wounded by shrapnel on Wednesday when two mortar shells fired from Syria hit a military post in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. A spokeswoman for the Israeli military said the strike was probably the result of errant fire, given the heightened fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels across the frontier in recent days.”

Fire Bombs Fall on Syria. CNN reports on “incendiary-like devices” raining fire on the outskirts of Aleppo.

“The patients were victims of an August 26 attack in Awram al-Koubra, outside Aleppo, where eyewitnesses described incendiary like devices being dropped from a government fighter jet onto a private residence, and then a school.

“Incendiary bombs are not chemical weapons, but their effects can be just as devastating. They are identified as ‘any weapon or munition which is primarily designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target,’ according to the United Nations. British emergency doctor Saleyha Ahsan describes them in less clinical terms, in the terms of her patients.

‘The descriptions were fire falling like rain, just falling like rain, plumes of flames and then balls of flames falling out of the sky.’”

The Diplomatic Track in Syria. The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times has an op/ed on diplomatic progress in Syria. It writes:

“Critics are complaining that the administration is cementing Assad’s hold on power by agreeing to a Russian-proposed plan for the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical arsenal. By definition, they argue, a plan that requires the cooperation of the Assad government extends its lease on life and spares it from accountability for war crimes. And that, in turn, demoralizes the moderate Syrian opposition.

“If only it were that simple. The humanitarian toll of the war has been horrific, but there is no guarantee that more forceful U.S. military intervention would have ousted Assad or led to his replacement by a stable and democratic government. Nor is it clear that providing heavy weaponry to ‘vetted’ insurgents would have prevented the influx of Islamist fighters who want to replace Assad’s secular dictatorship with a religious state and who seem to be gaining influence.”

Suggested Reads from Our Editorial Team:

PC World: Aleppo Comes Back Online, After Internet Cuts

NPR: Syrian Refugees Unable to Help Their Kids Cope

Reuters: Hezbollah, Iraqi Militias Capture Damascus Neighborhood, Says Opposition

Foreign Policy: No Country for Anyone

VICE: Rebel on Rebel Violence Threatens the Fight Against Assad

Next Story — Arts + Culture: Painting Ghouta’s Massacre, In 140 Characters
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Arts + Culture: Painting Ghouta’s Massacre, In 140 Characters

By Karen Leigh (@leighstream) 

Aleppo native Kinda Hibrawi is a painter and a cofounder of the Zeitouna Foundation, which provides arts education to Syrian children at the Atmeh refugee camp in Atmeh, Syria. In the wake of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, she incorporated printed Tweets from that night with a portrait of a Syrian child. The resulting piece, titled “Ghouta,” quickly went viral, a sign that in her country’s revolution, social media and visual expression are entwined.

Hibrawi’s painting mixes art and social media. / Courtesy Kinda Hibrawi

Here, Hibrawi talks about the process of creating the painting, how Syrian art and politics are connected and how Damascus’ art scene thrived before the conflict.

Syria Deeply: How did the Ghouta piece come about?

Kinda Hibrawi: The Ghouta piece is the most personal painting to date. I’ve been stuck as an artist with regards to art and the Syrian revolution for almost a year, because it’s such an intense, tragic and personal situation going on for everyone. It was really difficult for me to wrap my brain around it and approach this subject matter in a respectful yet powerful way. I had artists’ block. With this conflict, as an artist, you feel that some things are so much bigger than you. So how do you climb that mountain?

I’m very active on Twitter. On the night of Aug. 21, I was in New York City helping my younger sister move, and I was on Twitter, keeping an eye on things. All of a sudden the stories of an attack in Ghouta started to come out from people I knew and respected, such as activists and writers, and you’re literally watching the body count going up, live on Twitter.

On top of that, the media wasn’t talking about it. No one was addressing it other than these Twitter activists and people on the ground. You felt this real sense of a Twitter community, like it was a moment in history. At the time, I felt those Tweets were really significant, really historical, and I wanted to somehow incorporate that into a painting. Those users are “vocal soldiers.” And with Ghouta, they were the ones who got the media on board. Twitter was on fire that night. I felt like I wanted to capture the moment through my art, but I thought, how do I do that while being respectful and powerful? The subject matter is much heavier than anything I’ve ever done before.

I printed out the Tweets on paper and then glued them on. Its 36 x 36 inches. I always like the idea that what you see from afar looks different up close. I love seeing people come up close and read it, and then walk away with a different facial expression than what they approached it with. It looks like this beautiful sad image of this child, then you come in close and read all these Tweets, and it gives the portrait more depth without being obvious. And I hope it leaves a lasting impact.

Artist Kinda Hibrawi / Courtesy Kinda Hibrawi

After I had all the Tweets up, I started to paint the portrait. To see them all in one space was very powerful and impactful. It was a black moment in Syrian history, among many other tragedies, and these people were reporting about it live. I posted just a small close up of it on Twitter and it took off. The Twitter community just embraced this idea.

I’m going to do a whole Twitter series. Right now i’m working on a piece about the Houla massacre.

SD: You returned to Syria and the Turkish border over the summer. How did that affect you?

KH: My trip to Syria in June affected me on so many levels. We went to Reyhanli and then to Atmeh, to the largest IDP camp in Syria. We worked with the refugee kids there. It was an overwhelming time. I was depressed for a month when we came back. When you read about it and you go and actually see it, it’s two very different things. Being on the ground, in that land, at this time: it’s very traumatic.

For the aid workers, journalists and activists who are there on the ground day in and day out are unconsciously being traumatized over and over again, with no time to emotionally heal from what they have seen. But when you do step away and head back to your contrasting world in the U.S. and you have time to be introspective, the shock and tragedy and the immensity of the situation hits you harder. I live in Orange County, California, now. Nothing could be a bigger contrast.

SD: How does Syria’s art landscape look right now? It seems like it’s become extremely politicized.

The painting in progress. Hibrawi used her favorite Tweets from the night of Aug. 21. / Courtesy Kinda Hibrawi

KH: Back in 2010, I almost considered moving back to Syria. The art scene was booming and in the Middle East there was a huge demand for the work of Syrian artists. There was a certain censorship of artists in Syria if you were going to go the political route. Now people are coming out of the woodwork, even people for whom art was a side hobby. Sometimes, when impactful traumatic events happen to people, art is a very powerful outlet.

If your work hasn’t changed [over the last two years], and you’re a Syrian artist, you’re in the wrong profession. My earliest work is literally night and day to my stuff now. I painted beautiful flowers for the longest time. Then I did more introspective calligraphy. If you just look at my work from 2005 until now, it’s a huge change. You can look back and see your visual development as a human being.

Next Story — Syrians React to Rebels’ Slaughter of Latakia Alawites
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Syrians React to Rebels’ Slaughter of Latakia Alawites

Karen Leigh (@leighstream) and Alison Tahmizian Meuse (@alitahmizian) 

Today, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on atrocities committed against civilians by rebel forces in coastal Latakia province. The U.S.-based watchdog group said that as many as 190 civilians were killed by extremist forces and another 200 taken hostage in August, most of them from President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority.

A rebel soldier on patrol in Latakia province in December. / Karen Leigh for Syria Deeply

The group, which has reported extensively on crimes against humanity committed by government forces, said its findings “strongly suggested” that similar crimes have now been carried out by the opposition.

“Eight survivors and witnesses described how [on Aug. 4] opposition forces executed residents and opened fire on civilians, sometimes killing or attempting to kill entire families who were either in their homes unarmed or fleeing from the attack, and at other times killing adult male family members, and holding the female relatives and children hostage,” it said.

HRW said about 20 opposition groups took part in the offensive. Of those, five — Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar, Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Izzt — were involved in the attacks on civilians. It was unclear whether to what extent, if any, the moderate Free Syrian Army played a role, though Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army’s Western-backed Supreme Military Council said in August that fighters under his command participated in the assault.

“We have documented some abuses by opposition groups that appear to have a sectarian dynamic, but never something on this scale. These villages were largely unguarded, people were by and large not anticipating this,” said Lama Fakih, HRW’s Syria/Lebanon researcher. “But some did indicate they thought it could happen, given the proximity of the opposition forces, and now they’re worried it will happen again, which is why some of them have not returned to the area.

“I’ve been concerned for quite some time that these front lines where we used to have Sunni and Alawite villages next to one another without issue, could become fault lines where civilians are targeted. The attacks in Latakia are reminiscent of attacks in Baniyas in May, and those attacks also had some sectarian motivation.”

The report stands to further compound civilian and activist frustration with an opposition that has, so far, been the victim of fragmentation, infighting and, recently, the sharp escalation of a battle for power between extremists and the original, moderate opposition led by the Syrian National Coalition.

“It is an unfortunate event,” said Manhal Barish, 33, a civil activist from Saraqeb. “I believe [the testimonies] are true. Human Rights Watch has high credibility.”

Barish said he did not think the FSA was involved in the killing of Alawite civilians. “Some battalions have their own agendas, which have nothing to do with the revolution and its goals.”

Sami, 23, a student in Hama, said that HRW had underestimated the number of civilians killed by extremists, and that it was becoming a trend.

“I think the number [of killed] is way higher,” he said. “The numbers are higher in Latakia, but this has been happening in the Homs countryside and the Deir Ezzor countryside. In one Shia village in Deir Ezzor, 60 civilians got killed. The crazy part is that the Syrian government media didn’t cover it well [which would have hurt the opposition’s image]. I still don’t understand why. From what I hear there are 200 people being held and under threat of murder.”

Others remained skeptical that the killings had taken place, citing hearsay.

“The report says this number is estimated,” said Abu Kinan, 28, from Daraya, Damascus province. “Nothing precise remains. I know that the shabiha [pro-regime militia] were detained in these villages in Latakia. But what we don’t know are the circumstances of the HRW testimonies. We don’t know how villagers responded [peacefully or with resistance] when the [extremist] battalions arrived, and what really transpired between the two groups. We don’t have the details.”

The HRW report is the first time the killings have been widely reported by international media.

Though “the results of the report are not widely known, people from the villages themselves are intimately familiar with what happened there,” Fakih said. “What I saw when I visited, and what residents told me, is that the civilian residents of these villages were not armed at the time. This was clearly a preplanned attempt to try to take more territory in the Latakia countryside, which would have both military and strategic significance.”

Added Sami: “This news is old, but only the pro-Assad media covered it when it happened. The anti-regime media were all showing a video of an Alawite woman being interviewed after giving birth and the doctor reciting the Quran over the newborn girl, and the opposition saying, ‘We don’t kill women and children like Assad does.’”

Next Story — Conversations: A Weekend Game of Tennis in Damascus
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Conversations: A Weekend Game of Tennis in Damascus

Karen Leigh (@leighstream) 

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and a Syrian woman in her 30s who works in the Damascus office of an international organization. She spoke about the lives of upper-middle-class citizens living and working in the wealthier, government-controlled areas of the capital. She asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Life appears to be normal on the surface, if not for the far sounds of shelling or smoke you see in the distance. You drift away with your thoughts and you wonder, who’s going to be hit this time? I sometimes feel bad for living in a safer area where we don’t have to wake up to actual strikes. We merely wake to the sound of them.

There was a while where there were a lot of car bombs and mortars in this part of Damascus, and I was so worried and scared. I would go shopping for groceries and wonder if every sketchy-looking vehicle that passed by was going to blow up. We had some days where many mortars fell on the government-controlled areas of Damascus, and that was a reminder that we live in an armed conflict zone, as this is something a lot of us living in the government-controlled areas manage to block out.

We do have different restaurants open, some of which serve local food, or there’s Italian food, there’s fast food. Occasionally some of them run out of materials so you might find your favorite items out of stock. Other times they get the supplies in from Lebanon and manage to keep everything in stock. If you go to the well-stocked supermarket in the Malki district, you’ll usually find everything you need, but sometimes things will even be out of stock there. I know that I am lucky because I live in an area that’s fairly safe and where we still have access to these kinds of luxuries. This is not not the case for the majority of Syrians today.

The last time I had a day off, I went to the pool at the Four Seasons, and the gym. There is a Sheraton as well that has a pool, and pools at a number of other clubs. There’s a number of pools still operating at the five-star hotels and at major clubs. The Syrian elite go there. And then I played tennis. We went for a dinner with friends in the evening. We had wine and good food, and we managed, for a couple of hours, to block out the conflict and the work we do every day.

The bartender at the bar where we occasionally go has been killed, together with another bartender. So that was a wake-up call, that it happened so close to us, near where we live. It was a reminder.

I’m scared of kidnapping. I think about it all the time now, trying to avoid taking taxis, asking a friend to chaperone me home if it’s late, out of fear of that happening. There are periods where things are very tense and the fear catches up with me, and I start calculating everything that could go wrong, from kidnapping to a mortar to a robbery. A lot of people in the government-controlled areas come and beg on the streets and it’s heartbreaking to see how people exist in two parallel worlds. People in fancy cars drive around, and then displaced people come and ask for help to see if there’s any chance to make some money.

People are more careful these days. You carry less money in your bag. Colleagues might not wear their favorite pieces of jewelry. We have had a few incidents where colleagues couldn’t find their wallets or phones. Crime is on the rise in our areas.

I do feel bad when I wake up and hear the shelling in the distance, and I know I’m probably safe because I’m in a government-controlled area. I feel bad when I’m relieved that the shelling I hear is outgoing and not incoming.

People here were extremely worried in the aftermath of the chemical attacks in Ghouta. People were worried about the consequences and U.S. strikes and what affect those would have on the safety situation in these areas of Damascus.

People in these areas still try to hold onto whatever normalcy they can find in the everyday. Clothes shops like [global brand] Mango are still open, and people go and shop. There are areas lined with cafes, and in the evenings these cafes are full, people are in a good mood, socializing with family and friends and having a glass of wine and smoking water pipes.

In my neighborhood, there are a couple of checkpoints, and when you pass through them, depending on how you look and how the person running the checkpoint perceives you, you might have to show him your ID, your passport, your bags. It’s the same if you go into the mall. This kind of security check was not happening in Syria a couple of years ago.

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