Turkish attack highlights Syrian Kurds’ isolation

A picture shows the Kurdish-majority town of Afrin in northern Syria, on January 23, 2018, as Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies pressed an assault on the border enclave. (AFP)
Updated 24 January 2018
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Turkish attack highlights Syrian Kurds’ isolation

WASHINGTON: After Turkey assaulted a relatively peaceful Kurdish enclave of northern Syria, regional leaders fear the world will abandon them even though they provided the ground troops who beat Daesh.
For the past four days, Turkish troops and allied Arab Islamist fighters have been battling their way into Syria’s Afrin canton, which is defended by the American-backed Kurdish YPG militia.
US leaders from President Donald Trump on down have appealed for restraint, but appear to have little influence over their NATO ally when it comes to its battle against the Kurds.
Now the Kurds, whose unofficial national motto admits they have “no friends but the mountains,” fear they will be the forgotten victims as Turkey, Russia and the United States maneuver for influence.
And this despite providing the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who gifted Trump his first military victory — the fall of the Daesh capital, Raqqa.
Sinam Mohamed, chief envoy of the “Rojava self-ruled Democratic Administration” which runs several cantons in the Kurdish-majority north of Syria, said she fears for her family in Afrin.
“For us, the United States has a moral obligation to protect the democracy in this area,” Mohamed told reporters in Washington.
For local leaders, the self-ruled Rojava area is an experiment in democratic federalism that could serve as an example for the rest of Syria to follow as it emerges from civil war.
But Turkey sees the Kurdish-led regions of northern Syria as a supply corridor for “terrorists” and a rear base for the banned PKK movement, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in the Turkish southeast and is blacklisted as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
Mohamed insisted “not a single bullet” had been fired from Afrin toward Turkey and that if Turkey has a problem with the PKK it is a domestic issue and not a cross-border one.
More than 2,000 US special forces backed by air power work with the Kurdish YPG, under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) east of the Euphrates to fight the Islamic State jihadist group.
But the YPG in Afrin, an isolated pocket west of the river, have no overt US military backing and — after Syria’s ally Russia apparently gave Turkey the green light to attack — they are under siege.
In the YPG-controlled area on the other bank of the Euphrates but still exposed to the long Turkish frontier, fighters are increasingly bitter about the US role.
“The Kurds fought Daesh, to defend the whole world, they coordinated with the US-led coalition,” said Omar Mahmoud, a 35-year-old YPG fighter.
“Now the US is silent, and it’s disappointing.”
Another fighter, 34-year-old Massoud Baravi, and many of his comrades fear Turkey will be emboldened to attack Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates, where the YPG has routed Daesh.
“We fought Daesh from the beginning, it was us who liberated the land from Daesh and now we’re the target of Turkish injustice,” he said.
“Now Turkish planes are bombarding Afrin, killing women and children on the pretext that we’re separatists, but we’re part of Syria! We can see the international silence. No one speaks for the Kurds.”
In Washington, there is some sympathy for the Kurdish plight.
Trump was scheduled to call Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday to express concern, officials said, and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert spoke out for Afrin.
Nauert said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a series of “serious and frank” conversations with his Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
“This area that we’re talking about was relatively stable given that was Syria,” she said of Afrin, dismissing Turkish claims that Daesh fighters were there and urging “de-escalation.”
But whatever diplomatic noises Washington makes now that an apparently long-planned Turkish offensive is underway, Erdogan’s decision to go ahead underlines the limits of US influence.
Turkey may not have heeded the counsel of its NATO ally, but it could not have acted without the go-ahead from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, chief backer of Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Russia, which has its own forces in Syria alongside Assad’s remaining loyalists and Iranian-led Shiite militia, has lured Turkey into a Moscow-led effort to end Syria’s civil war, now entering its eighth year.
This is running in parallel to — and arguably fatally undermining — US-backed United Nations peace talks in Geneva aimed at agreeing on a political transition that could see Assad fall.
But Turkey and Erdogan have a role in the Russian effort, and are resentful of US ties to the Kurds, and Erdogan appears to have entered into a deal with Putin to take Afrin.
Kurdish leaders told AFP that Moscow had offered to protect them from Turkey if they returned their area to the control of the Assad regime and when they refused, Russian forces withdrew air cover.
“Turkey has essentially the whole Geneva process working with the US and even the Western bloc on Syria,” analyst Merve Tahiroglu of the Foundation of Defense of Democracies told AFP.
Despite working with Russia’s “Astana process” to retain influence in Syria, Turkey has clashed with Russia over the role of the Kurds — which Moscow hoped to win over to Assad’s fold.
Turkey’s price, therefore, for supporting the process was dropping the Kurds, Tahiroglu believes, and Russia gave the green light for the Afrin operation after striking a deal.
This deal will likely involve some kind of a de-escalation agreement between the Syrian regime and Turkish-backed rebels in the Idlib area, which in turn will free up Arab fighters to battle the Kurds.


Family, believed massacred in Lebanon war, turns out to be alive 43 years later

Reunion joy ... the case of the family of Mohsen Abed Al-Hossein Rida raises the hope of relatives of people who went missing during the Lebanese war. (AN photo)
Updated 20 August 2018
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Family, believed massacred in Lebanon war, turns out to be alive 43 years later

BEIRUT: The Lebanese war ended 28 years ago, yet its heinous stories seem to be unfinished, especially those of kidnapped and missing people. There are thought to be around 17,000 kidnapped and missing people, and many families have insisted for decades on keeping these cases alive. But they have rarely had a happy ending like the case of the family of Mohsen Abed Al-Hossein Rida (Farida).
Samira was married in 1975, the year the war broke out in Lebanon, to a Syrian man (granted Lebanese citizenship) called Izzat Al-Helou and had five sons and a daughter.
For 43 years her parents believed she had been slaughtered along with family members by militias in Sed Al-Bauchriyeh, controlled then by Kataeb (Phalanges party).
But the family turned out to be alive and were found via Facebook.
“An unbelievable story,” said former Judge Jamal Al-Helou to Arab News.
This is the story of his sister-in-law. He said: “If it had not happened to me, I would not have believed it.”
Al-Helou recalled the year 1983 when he got married to Zainab Mohsen Abed Al-Hossein Rida. His wife’s civil status record bore her sisters’ names, including Samira and Sarah.
However, her two sisters did not attend their wedding, and when he asked his mother-in-law about the reason, Zainab told him that Sarah had died of illness when she was a baby, and Samira was killed with her family at the beginning of the civil war.
In 1977, when the war paused for a year in Lebanon, Samira’s family went from what was known as West Beirut to East Beirut through the barricades on the demarcation lines, and headed to Sed Al-Bauchriyeh to check whether Samira or any of her children were alive or if they had really died on the notorious day of massacre in Lebanon, known as “Black Saturday.”
When the family asked people in the area about their daughter, they were told that everyone who was in the neighborhood had been slaughtered. The family returned to their home in Beirut, in Khandak Al-Ghamik which turned during the war into demarcation lines, displacing all its residents to surrounding neighborhoods.
Years passed, and peace was restored. Zainab and Samira’s mother died in 2014, and Zainab had nine brothers and two sisters left.

Facebook comment
In 2016, Zainab’s husband, Judge Al-Helou, opened a Facebook account to “contact friends and relatives from the Al-Helou family.” He said two young men from the Al-Helou family, Hussam and Sami, contacted him separately. He said they were polite and that every time he saw their pictures on Facebook, he thought how much his son Mohammed looked like Hussam.
His wife Zainab did not share his interest in Facebook but could not help but notice the similarity between Hussam and her son. However, she was “never intrigued to link this similarity to her sister’s disappearance, given that the case was closed, as Samira’s family accepted her death, even though they had no proof of the family’s death nor their bodies. Thus, their death was not registered in the state records.”
Al-Helou said: “At the time, the war was claiming people daily and there were no phones, transportation means or electricity, and no one cared about papers and documents. The sounds of weapons were louder than anything else.
“A month ago, my son Mohammed got married and I uploaded his pictures on my Facebook account. Hussam posted a comment congratulating my son, and we had a little chat. He told me his mother was Lebanese and his father was Syrian and added that he holds Lebanese nationality from the earlier naturalization processes.
“I asked him about his mother’s birthplace and he told me she was from the south of Lebanon. He did not mention the name of the town. I asked him about her family name and he said ‘Abed Al-Hossein Rida,’ which is my wife’s family name. I asked him about her father’s name and he said ‘Mohsen.’
“This was when I started getting the chills. My wife Zainab was sitting next to me and asked me what was wrong. I did not answer. For a second, I thought someone was either tricking me or I was hallucinating. I kept asking questions and he asked me why I was investigating him and what he was guilty of. I asked him to take a picture of his mother’s civil status record and send it to me. He did and there was the big surprise: Samira Abed Al-Hossein Rida, born on 03-06-1941.”
“I waited for a while then I got my wife’s civil status record. The information matched. I asked him if he had an old identity card of his mother and he did. He sent me a picture of it and I was blown away by the similarity between Zainab and Samira. I sent him a picture of my wife’s civil status record. He read his mother’s name, Samira, married to Izzat Al-Helou and his voice started quivering. He asked me if he could call me because he was not able to write anymore.”
Al-Helou added that when he looked at his wife, it seemed she was about to faint. Zainab told Arab News: “I could not keep it together. Is it possible to find my sister’s children 43 years later? What about Samira? My mother passed away heartbroken. Should I tell my siblings? It was an indescribable moment. Blood was pumping through my veins and I was about to faint.”
Al-Helou said: “When Hussam called me, he was confused, and he had no idea what was happening, even though he read his mother’s name on the civil status record I showed him. He asked me what it meant, and I answered: I am your aunt’s husband, she is next to me, I will pass her the phone.
“They were ‘moments of crying, screaming, happiness and sorrow’ and it was also a moment to try to know what had happened, so I invited him and his brothers to my house for a family gathering,” said Al-Helou.
As they met, it turned out that Samira had died in the same week as her mother in 2014 and had spent her life looking for her parents.
Hussam said that when his parents lived in Sed Al-Bauchriyeh, their neighbor who was from the Al-Zaiter family, from Hermel, was on good terms with the Kataeb party. One of the armed militants urged him to leave the area before night, warning him about the massacre and the killing of all Muslims in the neighborhood.
He gathered his family in his truck and urged his neighbor Izzat Al-Helou to leave with him. “We gathered our stuff and took the coastal road to the north. My family stayed in Tripoli while the Zaiter family headed to Baalbek in the east. We continued to the Lebanese-Syrian border crossing of Al-Arida and went to Tartous, then to Homs, and lived there with my grandparents for years.”
At the time, Samira’s family was displaced from Khandak Al-Ghamik to Sana’ih in Ras Beirut, away from the demarcation lines, and it was hard for Samira and her children to track down her parents, especially as some people in Khandak Al-Ghamik had told her that some of her family had probably died in the bombing and some others had emigrated.

Reconstruction project
Residents of Khandak Al-Ghamik fled the place and were replaced by others; the houses and buildings were destroyed and the whole region was bulldozed and included in the reconstruction project of Beirut’s downtown. Every trace was lost.
Samira’s parents had changed their family name on the civil status record and added “Farida,” the family’s surname in the southern town of Biflieh, said Al-Helou.
He added: “Thus, when Samira’s children asked about their mother’s family in her hometown in the south after her death, as her family members turned out to be alive on the civil status record, they did not ask for the Farida family as they had no idea the name was changed. The truth was lost.”
Ironically, according to Zainab and her husband Jamal Al-Helou, Zainab has a brother living in Germany, and it turned out that her sister Samira also had a son in Germany, in the same town, living one street away from his uncle, and neither of them knew it.
Zainab said she was in a state of shock for three days, and so were her siblings.
“The day I gathered them all in my house, we noticed the similarity between her children and ours, and it turned out my sister had named one of her daughters after our sister Sarah, who died when she was a baby. The heartbreaking part is that my mother passed away without knowing that her daughter was alive, and my sister Samira passed away heartbroken about her family.”
“It is a war story with a happy ending. When I told the news to Wadad Halawani, head of the Committee of the Kidnapped and Missing in Lebanon, she got the chills and said it “gives hope to the hearts of families.” She told us: “A mother has found her son, who went missing in the 1980s, in the war, through the neighbors, but he was mentally incompetent and we have not since documented similar cases.”
She noted that “a number of war victims’ stories ended with the end of the war. They were not documented or scrutinized. The people did not record their experiences due to a lack of awareness about the importance of documentation and had we not documented our kidnapped and missing people, their cause would have faded away.”
She added: “The war ended over 28 years ago and the fate of the missing people and enforced disappearances is still unknown. Since the kidnapping, life has changed, and we no longer live like you or everyone else. We only wait. The suspicion, despair and wait that we live day and night are only treated by certainty. It is our right to know the fate of our families, and it is a fundamental and non-negotiable right.”