SYRIA DIRECT
Syria Direct is a network of Syrian and American reporters based in Amman, Jordan that provides independent, credible reporting from inside Syria for major news outlets around the world. http://syriadirect.org/
Geopolitics
Michael Pizzi, Abdulrahman al-Masri and Nuha Shabaan

No One Wants U.S. Strikes Against The Syrian Regime More Than They Do

A quarter of the two million Syrians fleeing their country have wound up in Jordan, where there is overcrowding and difficulty obtaining work permits. Refugees are rooting for strikes asap.

AMMAN — The imminent United States-led military strike holds particular promise to those Syrians waiting out the conflict in neighboring countries. Syrian refugees in Jordan, at least, say they hope the strike will overwhelm the regime’s security forces and allow them to finally return home.

“Toppling the authoritarian regime in Damascus will open the way for refugees to return,” says Mahmoud a-Shara’, who fled to Jordan at the onset of the revolution. “It will put an end to the largest humanitarian disaster in the world.”

A-Shara’ “strongly” supports American military intervention, an opinion he says is shared by “the rest of the Syrian refugees who have been exiled because of the regime’s policies.”

To Syrians in Jordan, the idea of an American military intervention is a low-risk proposition. Many have already lost their homes, relatives and former lives to the war.

More than a quarter of Syria’s two million refugees are ending up in Jordan, where they are struggling to find work and make ends meet. Unemployment is rampant, and Syrians say they are ready to go home.

The estimated 130,000 Syrians in Zaatari camp, more than 90% of whom come from the southern province of Daraa, are particularly desperate.

Tariq Hamshu fled his hometown of Daraa city and now lives in the Zaatari camp in Mafraq, in the northern Jordanian desert. He earns 10 Jordanian dinars, or about $16, per day working for the International Rescue Committee — an NGO that operates in the camp — but is otherwise unoccupied. Hamshu wants to leave Zaatari, but is trapped inside until he can come up with a 500 dinar fee to the Jordanian authorities.

Hamshu says he supports American intervention so long as it targets military bases and not civilians. He says that he and his friends discuss whether Western intervention could set Syria on a path to making it the next Iraq, but it is worth the risk for an opportunity to return home.

Pro-strike sentiments are echoing in urban refugee communities, which constitute 70% of Jordan’s Syrian refugees. Though these Syrians are fortunate to enjoy a high degree of security and some semblance of normalcy, unemployment is a source of frustration. Syrians say that even when job vacancies can be found, securing a work permit is costly and cumbersome.

“Syrians do not have real opportunities to work,” says a-Shara’. “Most live in poor, desolate conditions and rely on their savings or aid from charities.”

The inability to obtain official work permits “is the thing that makes Syrians angriest,” says Hussein, a 25-year-old refugee from Damascus who now lives in Amman.

“I hope to return to Damascus, so I hope that this strike will be the decisive blow to the regime,” says Hussein, who worked as a television producer in Damascus. He still has family in the Syrian capital, but supports the strike if it can “tip the balance” in the war.

Crisis not slowing down

With the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announcing Tuesday that two million Syrians are now living in neighboring countries, the refugee crisis shows no sign of slowing down.

“The war is now well into its third year, and Syria is hemorrhaging women, children and men who cross borders, often with little more than the clothes on their backs,” the UNHCR said in a statement.

The regime’s use of chemical weapons and the prospect of imminent Western intervention have struck fear into the hearts of Syrians who had previously endured the tumultuous violence. As a result, more and more are fleeing.

The Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, where the U.S. government reports that 1,429 people were killed in an Aug. 21 neurotoxic gas attack, have emptied out in the past two weeks. The result is a human traffic jam along the Jordanian border.

Nayef a-Sari, the 40-year-old manager of the pro-revolution Daraa Media Office, says that “huge numbers” of people have fled the Damascus suburbs since the chemical attacks and have been unable to cross into Jordan due to overcrowding.

The lucky ones take shelter in schools, a-Sari says. Others “lie between trees, using the ground as their beds and the sky as their blankets.” Food and medical supplies are dwindling, he adds.

With President Barack Obama opting to seek congressional approval for the strike instead of acting unilaterally, Syrian refugees will have to wait at least a few more days for news.

“I am with the American intervention,” says a refugee also named Mahmoud, a 26-year-old from Damascus who briefly worked in a bookstore but has otherwise been unemployed. Unable to obtain a work permit, Mahmoud is idle most of the day.

“I wake up and drink my coffee, sit and read the news online, and then I go see my brothers and we complain about our problems,” he says.

Geopolitics
Syria Direct news staff

Hope But "More Question Marks" - Syrian Rebels React To Potential U.S. Military Strike

After months of talk, the United States and its allies may now be on the verge of military intervention in Syria. As American military leaders met with European and regional leadership in Amman to discuss the Syrian crisis, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC Tuesday that the U.S. has “moved assets into place” and is ready to strike.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the chemical weapons attack that killed approximately 1,500 people in the Damascus suburbs last week, calling it an “indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used.”

“Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Kerry added.

Syria Direct spoke with rebel fighters and activists on Tuesday to hear their thoughts on potential military intervention in Syria.

Fahed al-Masri, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Joint-Command in Paris
We have asked in a formal statement to form an international military coalition separate from the UN Security Council with the purpose of organizing military intervention in Syria. The crisis will not end without a swift surgical air operation. This regime can’t participate in dialogue but should instead be pulled up from its roots.

Without military intervention, this crisis will last for years because of Iranian and Russian support for the regime, and because of the UN Security Council’s paralysis on this issue.

On European participation in the potential intervention: If Europe cares about its safety, it has to interfere immediately in Syria. What the Syrian streets are witnessing today might move to European streets. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime pose a threat to regional, national and international security. The world must get rid of it and al-Qaeda at the same time.

Abdulbasset Saed a-Dein, president of the FSA Command in Aleppo, part of the FSA Joint Command
“The military intervention is in the interests of the Syrian people, to solve the Syrian crisis by striking regime targets and military bases, in particular ballistic missile launch sites.”

Firas, media activist with the United Media Office of Homs
If the intervention is to hit military targets and enforce a no-fly zone, then I support it. But I am against intervention on the ground in Syria, to avoid what happened in Iraq.

Striking military targets will stop missile attacks and air raids that kill thousands of civilians, and we’ve been hearing about this no-fly zone for two years but nothing has happened yet.

Abu Moawia, field authority for the FSA’s Moawia Brigade in Damascus
We don’t want military intervention on the ground because intervention is reoccupation, planting the West here in our country.

America will not interfere unless it is sure that Assad has chemical weapons, and that he is definitely on his way out.

Sama Masoud, spokesman for Syria Live, an opposition-leaning news network in Damascus
American intervention comes at a time when they know that the Syrian regime is falling. There is no doubt about it. Now that America sees us winning, it wants to show us that it can help.

Abu Jaffar, activist in Homs
Absolutely I support military intervention because the Syrian regime does not respect international law nor the international community. It is using all kinds of chemical weapons and cluster bombs to massacre in Syria. There is no one who can stop it from continuing in this way, only military intervention.

The majority of opposition Syrians want it to happen, but there are fears that an intervention might target rebel strongholds because there are extremists there.

Abu Mohammad, spokesman for the Shield of Truth Brigade in Homs
We in the FSA are not against U.S. intervention, but we want it to be carried out by Syrian hands, rather than American ones. In other words, we want them to help us with weapons and a no-fly zone. Don’t they know that the FSA controls the ground and the regime controls the air?

We are of course afraid that the U.S. Army could hit the FSA before Assad’s army. Also, a military intervention will hit everything that is economically important to Syrians. If a ground military intervention happens, Syria’s borders will be redrawn. Every Syrian rejects the idea of dividing Syria.

Mohamed, manager of the pro-revolution Dara’a Media Office
I am with the intervention if it takes down the regime. The Syrian people’s opinion is that they are with this intervention if it takes down the regime, in any way, and end the crisis.

The military intervention could not be more destructive than what Assad’s regime is doing to Syria. It could not be any harder on the people.

Kerry’s speech did not give the green light to terminate the regime, so it did not meet the Syrian people’s hopes. It only adds more question marks.

Geopolitics
Nuha Shabaan

Syrian Boy's Whole Family Dies, And Other Testimony After Reported Chemical Attacks

DAMASCUS - A boy, who appears to be sitting in some sort of makeshift hospital, describes how his entire family was killed early Wednesday morning on an attack in their home in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

Below the video expand=1] (courtesy of c.m.o algota) is a transcript of the child’s account:

“First thing, my grandfather lives upstairs, and we were asleep. The aircraft hit us and the voices were very loud. We woke up all of us, my brother went upstairs to tell my grandpa to come downstairs to escape from the gunpowder and the shrapnel.

They came down and as my brother was coming down he smelled the gunpowder and started to feel pain in his stomach, he started to throw up and was about to die, he started to have difficulty in breathing and died. They smelled the gunpowder smell and laid down on the ground. My grandpa was sitting in front of us and suddenly he laid down and his head hit the ground and he died, his wife was near him and she rolled on the ground also and died, my siblings also died, I was sitting on the sofa away from them, I stayed there.

Q: What did you do? I do not know, I do not know what brought me here.

Q: You could not do anything? I do not know

Q: Didn’t you scream? I started crying, crying and crying, what brought me here

Q: And you fainted and fell on the ground? NO, I DID NOT, I did not,

Q: And now, where is your mom and dad? They are dead.”

---

Meanwhile, there is also direct testimony from Um Qamar, 53, a housewife from the conservative eastern suburb of Hammouriya, one of the towns reportedly attacked by chemical weapons in an overnight regime assault on Wednesday.

“Before the revolution, we lived together – me, my husband and our two daughters,” says Um Qamar. “We had a good, simple life.”

Today, she lives in a blockaded village with her daughters staying at a relative’s house in Damascus. They communicate by phone but cannot see each other. Um Qamar describes the chaotic scene in her town to Nuha Shabaan in the hours following the attack.

Q: Describe what happened to you early Wednesday morning.

Around 3am there was violent bombardment around the neighborhood. We did not know where it was exactly. I said to myself that it might be the rebels fighting the security forces. I tried to sleep again, then after awhile woke up to people screaming. We started to breathe in something strange in the air coming from the orchards.

People started to put pieces of fabric on their noses and mouths, because they got news that it was a chemical gas attack. In the beginning, the smell was a bit lighter and the young men started to call women and children to go down to the basements and shelters and they closed all the open windows and escape holes.

I ran with my husband and other people from the town. They put us in a shelter and closed the doors, windows, and all holes not to make the gas reach us. The smell started to become stronger.

Most people with respiratory diseases died. The scene of crying and choking were horrifying. We stayed in the shelter around 24 hours with no water and food. After that the men brought us some food and water. Some of those who did not die from the smell died because of the low oxygen in the shelter.

After we get out of the shelter, we saw things that you can't imagine. We heard about more than 3,000 casualties only in Hammouriya, most of whom were women and children. The death toll increased gradually. I went with my husband to the medical center. My husband felt so tired because of the huge amount of people. He started to breathe heavily and there was shortage in all types of medicine. Today we have a curfew.

Geopolitics
Michael Pizzi and Ahmed Kwider

Hezbollah Helps Tip The Balance On Syria's Crucial Southern Front

AMMAN - The southern Syrian province of Daraa borders both Israel and Jordan -- it is also considered the gateway to Damascus.

With the strategic stakes so high, the area has seen fierce battles between regime and rebel forces since the early months of the conflict. As recently as April, the rebel offensive in Daraa was on the upswing, with the international media predicting that it was about to fall in the rebels’ column.

But a sharp upsurge in regime shelling, compounded with questionable Free Syrian Army (FSA) tactics on the ground, has the opposition worried that the crucial southern region will slip out from under them.

Another factor poses a challenge to the rebel commanders: the presence of Hezbollah fighters. Eyewitnesses in the province say the presence of professionally-trained and motivated Hezbollah militias among the regime’s ranks is a further source of intimidation.

“They’re different in the way they fight,” Daraa-based lawyer Qaisar Habib says. “They’re bold, with high morale, and they’re more experienced.”

Another activist, the head of the pro-revolution Daraa Media Office -- who asked to remain anonymous for his security -- says that the presence of the Shiite Lebanese militants has been reported in the villages of Izra and Sheikh Miskeen, as well as the town of Bosra.

A "case study"

As the United States and regional powers openly begin training FSA forces in Jordan, activists on the ground say they are waiting to see the impact.

“The Daraa region has become a case study for how external aid to both sides impacts the situation on the ground,” says Saber Safer, who leads the Hamza Assadallah brigade of the Free Army, presently in Tel Shihab.

With international assistance on both sides, according to opposition sources, the fighting in Daraa has assumed a more sectarian character. Hezbollah’s presence there reflects the prominent Shiite elements among the population of certain nearby cities and villages. Bosra, which has a population of over 30,000, has served as a stronghold for the regime due to its Shiite population of about 5,000, who -- while a minority -- provide a critical mass of support for the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters.

“Hezbollah fighters don’t follow the orders of the checkpoint command,” says Muhammad Abu Abdo, a field commander and public relations coordinator for the FSA who is based in the Daraa city suburb of Sheikh Miskeen. “They have a separate command from the army, and it seems they’re given authority over the Syrian soldiers.”

Abu Abdo says that Hezbollah fighters are being bussed in from Outer Damascus to Bosra as well as the Nasib border crossing with Jordan. Nasib has been made a priority for Hezbollah reinforcements, who sources say pass along the regime-controlled Damascus-Sawayda road into Daraa “with ease.”

SANA, the official Syrian news agency, counters with daily reports that the Syrian army is successfully inflicting “terrorist” casualties, many of whom it claims to be foreigners, in Daraa and its suburbs.

Last week, SANA said that the regime army had “killed and injured a number of terrorists in Daraa and its suburbs.” Citing an unnamed military source, SANA reported that the Syrian army had successfully targeted Jabhat A-Nusra hideouts in the towns of Ankhal and Mzairib in Daraa province, “killing and injuring a number of terrorists, among them Yemenis.”

Foreign militants are not the only ones in Daraa who are secretly crossing borders. The flow of Syrian refugees into and out of Jordan hinges on the security situation in Daraa as well. Recent clashes in Syria’s southern arena have centered on military checkpoints and border crossings -- the most important of which is the official Nasib crossing into Jordan.

Ammar Hmoud, a UNHCR (UN's refugee agency) official in Jordan, announced late last month that nearly 59,000 of the Syrian refugees who had entered Jordan over the past two years have since opted to return to Syria, with hundreds more following suit this week. Still, many refugees are continuing to flee the violence, deteriorating humanitarian situation, and rising prices of food, says Moaz Al-Ta’ani, of the Local Coordination Committee (LCC) in Houran.

Lifeline across the border

Official statistics have the number of Syrians remaining in Jordan at close to 500,000, and the upsurge in violence across the border in Syria has led to a “dramatic decrease” in those returning, according to a UNHCR report.

Daraa-born Saber Safr, the leader of the Hamza Assadallah brigade, notes that maintaining control over unofficial border crossings is a priority for the rebels to “provide more secure roads for the people going back and forth from Jordan.”

Jordan has been a lifeline for the FSA and the besieged residents of Daraa, in terms of both military and relief aid, with pro-revolution observers saying that losing Daraa would be a crushing blow for the revolution.

“The bakeries of Daraa are all dependent on the flour that comes from Jordan under the banner of relief aid,” says Mohammad al-Rifae, a journalist from the Um Walad village in Daraa. He says that while those areas still under regime control enjoy full access to food and gas supplies, the areas under FSA control are being suffocated by regime blockades, a strategy employed by the regime and its shabiha allies around Syria.

Muhammad Abu Abdo, the FSA field commander in Sheikh Miskeen, says that he is barely able to feed his soldiers, and that as of last week, flour and gas supplies had been exhausted.

With additional reporting from Abdulrahman al-Masri

Geopolitics
Michael Pizzi and Nuha Shabaan

Along The Sunni Divide In War-Torn Syria

AMMAN - The majority of Syria’s 25 million-strong population is Sunni, and while activists increasingly blame the Alawite-led shabiha Ba'ath operatives and mercenary Hezbollah forces for keeping the Assad regime in place, it is in fact the Sunni population that is quietly propping it up.

Whether out of fear, genuine ideological support or financial interest, Sunni Syrians who support the regime see some benefit in doing so.

Some benefit from the regime on a smaller scale, acting as low-level informants for modest payouts. “They’re very few, but dangerous, like snitches and double agents,” says Abu Yousef, a Hama-based activist.

In Deir e-Zour, the media office director Abu Qays tells how an unknown Sunni “of poor morals” reported him for running the media operation from his house. When his name was reported to authorities, his father stopped receiving retirement payments, and his family found itself in dire financial straits. “Bashar and the regime are taking advantage of these Sunnis and turning them against us,” he says.

Abu Qays has no way of knowing who reported him, nor can he prove it was a Sunni, but he vows retribution.

“If I knew who it was, I’d kill him myself,” he said.

Sunnis in the military

The internecine Sunni-Sunni divide grows everyday on the battlefield, activists say. But even with the ongoing stream of defections from the Syrian armed forces, Sunnis continue to fight in the regime’s military.

Defection is not so simple, however. Every defecting or captured soldier must stand for an ad hoc trial in a Free Army military court. These courts are neither highly organized nor consistent in how they rule or operate, but most apply some version of Islamic jurisprudence.

“We question defectors about what they did, and why they defected,” explains Abu Qays, speaking about the FSA court in Deir e-Zour.

The very real possibility of execution, however, looms for those who have committed “crimes” on behalf of the regime. Abu Qays explains that certain prisoners in FSA custody will pay the price for their involvement in the regime’s brutality, an almost certain deterrent to defection for those Sunnis who feel they may be implicated.

Sunnis remain active in all branches of the Syrian military and political leadership. Ali Mamlouk heads the Syrian National Security Bureau, while Farouq al-Sharaa has been a fixture in Assad circles for decades, despite persistent rumors that he has defected. Walid Mouallem remains as Foreign Minister.

In particular, Sunnis have a long history of service in Syria’s Air Force, dating back to the early Hafez al-Assad regime.

“The Air Force Intelligence is the most important branch of Syrian intelligence,” says Assad al-Zu’bi, a Sunni pilot from Damascus who graduated from the Aviation Academy in Aleppo in 1974 and served in the Air Force until he defected last August. Al-Zu’bi currently lives in Jordan, but he continues to consult with the FSA on military strategy. He says that Sunnis long constituted a majority of Air Force pilots, but in the 90s, the regime began to reverse its policy in order to ensure Alawite dominance. Today, Al-Zu’bi estimates that Sunnis comprise 30% of the Air Force.

“There is communication between the defected and non-defected officers,” Al Zu’bi says. “The non-defected officers are afraid to lose their financial status, their ability to support their families, if they join the revolution.”

As with many Sunni merchants who are loyal to the regime, Al-Zu’bi says that there are also officers in the Syrian armed forces who believe that Bashar al-Assad will survive this uprising, and that defection is therefore ill-advised.

“Some of them consider themselves traitors to the revolution and to their people, but they still work for the regime because Russia supports it, and they think the regime will stay.”

Traitors?

Accusations of betrayal haunt Sunnis who remain aligned with the Syrian regime. Naser Abu Anis, the Sunni merchant from Damascus, is aware that there is a price to be paid for defection.

“Not all Sunnis with the regime are traitors,” he says, “because some of them fear the regime’s cruelty and retribution if they appear to be with the revolution.”

Others, he says, “stand with the regime and kill alongside it because they are traitors.”

“Now, there’s no room for half solutions,” says Um Raghad, who explains that the revolutionaries are fed up with trying to win over unconvinced Sunnis. “You’re either with the regime or against it.”

The tide may be turning for pro-regime Sunnis. Turkish media reported on Friday that 73 Syrian Army officers had defected and requested refuge across the border in Turkey. With last week’s announcement that the United States is finally going to arm the Syrian rebels, activists say, pro-regime Sunnis will feel added pressure to reconsider their support of Bashar al-Assad.

They may be too late, however.

“We will hold everyone accountable who assisted the regime,” promises Wael Al-Khatib, the defected Army captain from Homs.

“They will be severely punished, and Sunnis will be sentenced before the others."