A Syrian Father's Mission To Clear ISIS Mines Is Cut Short

Abu al Fadl devoted the final months of his life to clearing al-Bab of improvised explosives left behind by ISIS in everything from washing machines to cooking pots. The 60-year-old disabled several thousand mines before one took his life.

Abu al Fadl and one of the circa 3,500 mines he cleared
Abu al Fadl and one of the circa 3,500 mines he cleared
Wisam Franjiyeh

Ahmad Muhammad al-Na'sani was haunted by thoughts of his death long before he died.

As a volunteer land mine removal expert in Aleppo's countryside, he felt his life would end every time he discovered an explosive device. After destroying nearly 3,500 explosives, al-Na'sani, known as Abu al-Fadl, was killed on May 8 while taking apart a land mine left by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

In April, just days before he was killed, Abu al-Fadl spoke to Syria Deeply about his work dismantling explosives in al-Bab, a former militant stronghold in the eastern Aleppo countryside, where an estimated 15,000 land mines are believed to have been left by ISIS fighters.

The 60-year-old father of five, who lost two of his children during the war, used to teach at the military academy in Aleppo and specialized in explosives.

When he set out on his own to defuse land mines, he noted that much of his work focused on understanding the creative methods used by ISIS to make and hide their bombs, which are often disguised as rocks or propane tanks.

The majority of victims of these devices are children.

"I have found explosive devices hidden inside washing machines, in vacuum cleaners, under couches and in bathrooms," he told Syria Deeply. By placing explosives in residential areas, he said, ISIS is intentionally targeting civilians.

"The majority of victims of these devices are children," he said.

Earlier this year, Abu al-Fadl was injured by an ISIS land mine in Akhtarin in northeastern, rural Aleppo. Nearly 20 pieces of shrapnel penetrated his body and he suffered severe burns to parts of his face. The explosive also hit Ahmad, a 12-year-old boy who suffered serious injuries to his abdomen, arm and leg. Abu al-Fadl said it was a was a miracle that he survived the explosion.

Hundreds of people are killed by land mines in Syria each year, in a crisis that is only getting worse. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reported that 864 people were killed in Syria by land mines and other explosives in 2015 alone. Since then, the number has increased significantly, because ISIS made a point of littering the territories it lost with land mines and other explosive devices before withdrawing. Explosives were a "major protection concern" in 88% of subdistricts surveyed in Syria, according to the 2017 Protection Needs Overview published by the UN.

Demining former ISIS strongholds, however, is not an easy task, Abu al-Fadl said. ISIS has used mines as a way to continue terrorizing a population even after it has been pushed out of the area.

Engineering teams embedded within Turkey's Euphrates Shield Operation have defused more than 5,000 land mines in territories formerly held by ISIS, according to a statement released in April by the chief of general staff in Turkey, which added that the majority of explosive devices found in al-Bab were anti-tank and anti-personnel mines "placed in the streets or hidden inside residential buildings."

The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab combatants fighting ISIS, also contribute by deploying specialized demining teams to areas they liberate from militants.

Every minute of delay results in a higher number of victims.

In al-Bab, where Turkey-backed rebels pushed ISIS out in February, the militant group used tactics such as putting two mines on top of each other, to double the impact and ensure that even if one was found and deactivated, the other would still explode. Other devices, including ones with plastic explosives, are very hard for machines to discover.

Syrians are dependent on volunteers like Abu al-Fadl because organizations working on the ground in northern Syria do not have the resources or the capacity to solve this problem. "Individual efforts and initiatives are much needed. Every minute of delay results in a higher number of victims," Abu al-Fadl said.

The volunteer-based Syrian Mine Action Center (SMAC), for example, has received at least 11,000 reports of areas contaminated with explosive devices in rural Aleppo, northern Hama and in Idlib as well as its countryside, but the organization does not have the resources to deal with such a large number of notices, according to the center's managing director, Ahmad Nasif.

The SMAC is not alone. Most organizations in Syria do not have enough funding to tackle the problem. Studies indicate that Syria needs $52 million for mine action this year. After an appeal made in 2016 to raise $347 million, the UN launched a $511 million international appeal in February for humanitarian mine action in conflict and post-conflict settings. The UN anti-mine agency's Syria response received $3.8 million on an appeal for $10.5 million for "coordination, risk education, impact survey, and victim assistance activities."

The SMAC has received some assistance in the past from international partners who have provided protective clothing, advanced mine detection equipment as well as training for the center's staff, says Nasif, adding that these contributions have helped the SMAC improve the quality of its operations.

The SMAC is also trying to compensate for its limited resources by raising awareness, distributing brochures, holding symposiums for local councils and schools and placing warning signs in areas expected to have explosive devices. It addition, the organization has a rapid response team that works around the clock responding in areas that have been hit with cluster bombs or unexploded shells.

"Our programs work on five levels: support, raising awareness, helping victims, defusing explosive devices and destroying inventory," Nasif said.

Meanwhile, volunteers like Abu al-Fadl continue to risk their lives to help clear contaminated territories.

"As long as I can still breathe, I will continue to work on saving other people's lives," he said. That was just a few weeks before his death.

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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