Members of the Free Syrian Army in front of a T-72 tank parked in a secret location in northern Syria.
Members of the Free Syrian Army in front of a T-72 tank parked in a secret location in northern Syria.
Dr. Aref Rifai*

IDLIB – On my trip to northern Syria a week ago, I asked my hosts lots of questions.

Will the Syrian regime be able to recapture the liberated areas inside Syria? Are you better off with the regime returning to your area, or with the rule of the others, including those run by civilians, the Free Syrian Army or the al-Qaida-backed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

After all, many changes had taken place since my last visit in early July. The elected president of Egypt, a patron of Syrian refugees in that country, was removed from power by military takeover. The Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians and was threatened with the possibility of U.S.-led air strikes.

The Islamist ISIS expanded its presence in rural Idlib, liberating parts of the city of Aleppo and few eastern provinces from the regime. In many areas, ISIS is now the de facto government and is in charge of civilian affairs.

Abou Ahmad is an energetic 30-year-old medical activist who organizes first aid courses and teaches basic nursing skills to volunteer staff in field hospitals. He travels throughout liberated northern Syria, working with the groups who control each area.

Unable to fight

As for the government’s ability to recapture this territory, he said: “The regime may only return to liberated areas if the foreign fighters leave or are driven out.” He felt that the local civilians are exhausted spiritually and physically, and would not be able to fight.

Abou Ahmad witnessed the ferocity of foreign fighters during battles and said he noticed that most inexperienced volunteer fighters chose to stay behind them, on the “back lines.” He didn’t feel that those soldiers would be strong enough to fend off Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

As regards to my second question, about governance, he said: “Syrians are definitely better off with any government entity other than the regime. The powers that control regions in liberated areas are establishing foundations for a nascent state: judiciary, education, a health system and reconstruction.”

Abou Ahmad was reserved but optimistic about the future. He admitted there were difficulties facing Syrian civilians, like re-entry after life in a refugee camp, the destruction of so much of the country’s infrastructure, threat of starvation and an entire generation of young Syrians facing illiteracy.

A foreign fighter

Later, I encountered a patient from ISIS who had shrapnel in his eye. The patient, a foreign fighter, needed retina surgery and had heard I was in the area. Dressed in black, he had a long dark beard and a shaven head. He came from Azerbaijan.

He spoke some Arabic, and proceeded to ask about my training and qualifications. Once assured of my surgical skills, we had an exchange. I asked him about his mission in Syria. “I came to defend Muslims who were being raped, burned, tortured and slaughtered,” he said. “I am here to assist in establishing an Islamic State in the land of Sham Syria.”

He looked me in the eye. “If you seek democracy, then go to Turkey, Europe and America. But this land will have an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. Everyone is welcome in this land, and things will be tolerated, except Kufr,” which means disbelief in the one God, Allah.

Setting up shop

ISIS commands the respect of locals in rural Idlib with its discipline, appearances of sincerity and a reputation for being incorruptible, or at least less corrupt than most.

It has a solid presence here, though other rebel factions in the area control certain checkpoints.

I was told that ISIS was setting up shops in the liberated villages of rural Idlib. They were recruiting professionals into their ranks to work as civil administrators. Being extremely religious was not a prerequisite to be part of ISIS’s new civil administration; teachers, doctors, engineers and nurses are welcome, though the group does have reservations about a mixed-gender workplace.

A nurse from al-Daana, a village of 40,000 in rural Idlib with a strong ISIS presence, said that since the group’s arrival, her town was “leaner, law-abiding and peaceful, with no crime. Schools are open, religious courts are ruling in disputes, and we feel safe.”

On the last day of my trip, I had discussions with local staff at our field hospital. The topics ranged from the future of Syria and the role of the foreign fighters, to ethnic strife, the potential for a protracted conflict and the question of who would govern Syria after the war.

Five to eight years

They were all young, with differing ideologies. But they agreed that the conflict would last another five to eight years and foreign fighters would be influential in battle, but Syrian fighters would ultimately take over the leadership. They said there would be no coexistence between Sunnis and Alawites after the atrocities and massacres they said had been inflicted on Sunni civilians.

They all agreed that the majority in Syria should rule, meaning a Sunni president and governing leadership, with participation by minority groups. And, they said, Syrians would not accept a minority president, even if he were to win an election. Old fears still hold here, and they’d automatically assume it had been rigged.

*Dr. Aref Rifai is a Syrian-American doctor who regularly travels into Syria providing medical aid.

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never."

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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