The Syrian War Keeps Getting Worse for the People of Aleppo
A year ago, almost to the day, I watched a graffiti artist named Khalifa paint a huge smiley face onto a wall. The wall was pretty much all that remained of the house it had been part of, and every other house on the street was in a similarly bad state. The day before, the street had been hit by a Scud missile: That was Aleppo, Syria, in 2013.
Khalifa had sprayed a slogan next to the smiley face. It read, in Arabic, “Tomorrow this will be beautiful.”
He was wrong.
Is Facebook Censoring the Syrian Opposition?
Last December, a woman from the Syrian community in Toronto reached out to me for help after a Syrian opposition Facebook page, for which she was an administrator, was expunged from the internet. She told me that Facebook had deleted the page, called Likes for Syria, in mid December, by which time it had garnered more than 80,000 “likes.” Several Syrian Canadians had organized the page shortly after the revolution in Syria began, back in 2011, and used it as a tool for posting news stories about the crisis, spreading messages of hope, and creating awareness in the Western world—something that many feel is desperately needed.
“We feel like our freedom of speech has been totally taken away,” said Faris Alshawaf, another administrator for Likes for Syria. “We have a right to talk about what is happening.” Facebook had removed the page once before but quickly republished it after administrators made an appeal. Just days later, Facebook deleted the page a second time.
The Syrian Peace Talks Look Like a Tragic Farce
Peace talks aiming to bring Syria’s bloody civil war to a conclusion finally began yesterday in Switzerland, the land of peace and harmony. The conference officially starts Friday and will see delegates getting down to the seemingly impossible task of trying to thrash out a deal, but yesterday was the initial meeting of the “Geneva II” conference, where the participants got to let off some steam in lengthy speeches.
All things considered, the occasion didn’t get off to the best start, with Syria’s foreign minister using his speech to accuse some of the nations involved of having “Syrian blood on their hands” before calling the rebels “traitors.” The US and the Syrian opposition used the opportunity to state that Bashar al-Assad had no legitimacy—which, shockingly, didn’t go down too well with the Assad camp—while Syria’s information minister argued with the UN secretary-general before shouting, “Assad will not leave! Assad will not leave!” at the assembled pack of reporters. So it doesn’t look like the negotiations—the first time the opposition and the Syrian government have formally sat down together since the conflict began in 2011—will be particularly fruitful.
Syria’s Revolutionaries Are Fighting Back Against Foreign Jihadists
As the revolutions of our time tend to, it started with a Facebook post. “Together for a Day of Rage in Syria to end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption,” read the post back in February 2011. One revolution, two bloody years, and 11 dark months later, came more Facebook posts—this time calling for: “A day of Anger against ISIS.”
The posts sparked protests on Friday that, once again, turned into armed conflict and a variety of rebel groups are now fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) across Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Activists are calling it “another revolution.” Things are getting pretty meta in northern Syria.
Widespread anger at the repressive and arbitrary nature of ISIS’s methods in northern Syria has been growing since the group arrived in the country in May 2013. ISIS’s primary goal extends further than simply the formation of an Islamic state in Syria, a view shared by the more fundamentalist Islamic brigades within the country. Rather, ISIS, wish to see the restoration of the caliphate across the Levant, a region consisting of much of the eastern Mediterranean and stretching into Iraq.
I Spent Six Months in Lebanon’s Most Notorious Prison
VICE: Hi Khodr. What were the reasons for your detention?
Khodr: It was related to my activities and connections with members of the Free Syrian Army, particularly from al-Zabadani [a city in south-western Syria, close to the Lebanese border], who were probably under surveillance. They were buying weapons from Palestinian militias in Ain el-Hilweh [the Palestinian refugee camp in the southern city of Saida] and others, including Shia groups who supported Assad but wanted the money.
And they thought you were involved?
They suspected me of being part of Free Syrian Army logistics, not a fighter. I denied any connection to the people they mentioned in my interrogation, but they found their numbers and names in my phone, as well as on my Facebook and Skype. In the military court they accused me of obtaining a counterfeit visa and activities assaulting the security of the Lebanese state. At that moment, I realized the seriousness of the situation.
What were the first couple of weeks like inside Roumieh?
It was really hard to adapt. I suddenly found myself in this incredibly shady place, surrounded by hardened criminals and drug abuse. I’d never been in a place like that. I was very depressed and scared.
How rampant was the drug abuse?
I’d say 90 percent, or higher, of the inmates were using. It stretched from prescription drugs, like benzocaine and Tramol, to hashish, cocaine, and heroin. Everything is available: benzocaine being the cheapest, with heroin and cocaine the most expensive. There is no chance of rehabilitation. I remember one inmate saying to me, “The only thing they have imprisoned here is my dick.”
Read the whole interview
Black Gold Blues: The Hazards and Horrors of the Makeshift Oil Industry in Rebel-Controlled Syria
Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s sixth-largest city, is also the country’s oil capital. For four decades, the al-Assad regime (first run by Hafez, and now by his son Bashar) struck deals with Western oil companies like Shell and Total that resulted in the extraction of as much as 27,000 barrels of black gold from the sand every day. A pittance compared with other Middle Eastern countries’ production, but it made Syria a bona fide oil-exporting nation. At least this was the case until international sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to the regime’s crackdown on the antigovernment protests, which quickly morphed into a civil war.
Located in the middle of the desert and less than 100 miles from the Iraq border, Deir ez-Zor dominates the eastern portion of the country and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the petroleum industry: before the war, its 220,000 inhabitants often worked for oil companies as engineers, technicians, and laborers.
Downtown Deir ez-Zor is still home to many modern glass-walled buildings erected by Western firms, but in the past two years, they’ve been largely abandoned as the battles between the rebels and al-Assad’s forces, each of whom hold portions of the city, have left them pockmarked, windowless, and scarred.
When I visited Deir ez-Zor in September, there were snipers lurking on roofs as combatants exchanged fire from Kalashnikovs, mortars, and heavy machine guns below. Beyond the city limits the suburbs give way to the mostly empty desert where the oil wells are located and where the rebels—most of them hard-line jihadists, and many of them with ties to al Qaeda—are in complete control. It’s a very different place than it was prerevolution, but it is still an oil town, albeit one of an entirely new sort. Instead of multinational corporations, it’s now the Islamist rebels who are providing jobs to the locals.
Al Qaeda’s Teenage Fan Club
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized Syria had turned into Mad Max. We were driving through Manbij, a small tumbleweed kind of town in the dusty northern outskirts of Aleppo province on a Friday afternoon during Ramadan, about a month before the August 21 chemical-weapons attacks that finally forced the international spotlight onto Syria’s two-year civil war.
Manbij’s deserted streets radiated in the midday heat of the holy month. Shopkeepers had pulled the crinkled metal shutters down over their doorways. When you’re fasting in Syria in the summertime, the daytime is for sleeping.
Our driver stopped the car on a side road near the yellow-gray town square. “Look,” he said.
We peered through a scrim of dust at a set of vague shapes in front of us. The figures quickly sharpened into an oncoming pack of men on motorbikes, roaring up the road with horns beeping. As they approached, the drivers’ passengers stood up on their seats with their arms outstretched, brandishing the black flags of al Qaeda as they yelped into the sky.
I fumbled for my camera.
“Be careful,” said the driver. “They won’t be offended because you’re a journalist taking pictures. They’ll be offended because you’re a woman taking pictures.”
The gang circled the square on the shiny little two-strokes that the Syrians call “smurfs.”
From the passenger seat, my friend—a Syrian with a sharp sense of irony—looked back at me. “Well,” he said, “that’s freedom. You never could have had a motorbike gang under Bashar.”