Photos used for campaign video

I was asked by the “Help Syria Through the Winter” people if they could use some of the photos I took in Syria for a campaign video. Well, why not?

This is the story:

PALESTINIAN-SYRIAN REFUGEES AT RISK IN JORDAN

Prior to the conflict in Syria, an estimated 500,000 Palestinian refugees lived there waiting to go back home to Palestine. Like the rest of the Syrian population, Palestinians have suffered from the violence in Syria and had to flee due to aerial bombardment and shelling of their refugee camps.

Like the rest of the Syrian population, Palestinian refugees started an exodus yet again to neighboring countries. With rare exceptions, Jordanian authorities at the Syrian border are routinely and unlawfully rejecting Palestinian refugees seeking asylum at its border with Syria. Additionally, the Jordanian government has deported Palestinian-Syrian refugees that have managed to enter Jordan. Such a policy violates the international law principle of nonrefoulement, which protects refugees from being returned to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened. However, the Jordanian authorities are much more flexible toward Syrian refugees and grant them humanitarian services, whereas Palestinian-Syrian refugees are rarely eligible for such services.

The number of Palestine refugees from Syria in Jordan has now reached 11,000 — about half of them being children. They have no source of income. They are not allowed into established camps like Za’atari and lack therefore access to services and aid. In its Syria Regional 2014 Crisis Response , UNWRA expects the number to rise up to 20,000 Palestinian-Syrian refugees. These refugees are hiding their identity in Jordan in fear of being deported back to Syria.

“Help Syria Through the Winter”, with the support of the EuroMid Observer of Human Rights , is launching an international campaign to shed the light on the severe violations this vulnerable group of refugees is subjected to. Additionally this campaign aims at providing humanitarian aid and assistance in the form of food coupons to Palestinian-Syrians in Jordan.

Using international standards and guidance, World Food Program’s nutrition experts advise on appropriate food baskets for people facing hunger and the risk of malnutrition. A person needs a minimum of 1800 calories a day to survive properly. In Jordan, this means a food coupon of $40 per month in the winter.

Palestinian-Syrian refugees in Jordan are second and third time refugees. They have been ABUSED long enough. Stand by them.

Support this campaign and DONATE!

Please make your donation to:

Stichting Help Syrië De Winter Door
IBAN: NL93SNSB0866526838
BIC/SWIFT:SNSBNL2A
Ref : Jordan

Here’s the video:

Vlucht naar Syrië full documentary

Here’s the radio documentary I did about the Dutch humanitarian effort called “Help Syria Through the Winter” for NTR radio. For the non-Dutch speaker: In December 2013 I boarded a cargo plane full of supplies and flew from Rotterdam to Damascus, the capital of war-torn Syria. There, I covered the distribution of the supplies to internally displaced persons.

Syrian Kurds Form Enclave to Protect Against Assad, al-Qaida

While the three-year-old civil war rages in Syria, creating one of the biggest humanitarian crises since World War II, the Kurdish people are forging their own solution to the conflict.

In November, Kurds installed a semi-autonomous interim administration in northern Syria to shield themselves from attacks by terrorist groups amid a faltering peace process.

Kurds total almost 3 million in Syria; 10 percent of the population. They live near the borders with Turkey and Iraq in an area they call Rojava.

Like the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, they have suffered severe repression and official denial of their identity in Syria for decades.

In total, the Kurds number about 30 million people, the majority of them living in Turkey. It is the world’s biggest ethnic group without its own country.

The Kurds in Syria opposed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad long before the Arab Spring reached Damascus in March 2011. In 2004, the so-called Al-Qamishli uprising left at least 30 people dead and caused thousands of Syrian Kurds to flee to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan as a result of a crackdown by Syrian government troops.

When the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Syria were met with a violent response by Assad’s military, civil war ensued.

The Kurds, although vehemently opposed to the Assad regime, did not want to engage the Syrian military. This resulted in an unofficial non-aggression agreement, and Syrian government troops largely withdrew from the Kurdish area in the North.

The Kurds were then faced with another threat when extremist jihadist groups linked to the al-Qaida terrorist organization stepped into the conflict and began attacking Kurdish towns and villages, placing them under fundamentalist Sharia law as part of their goal to establish a caliphate ruled by their extremist brand of Islam. These attacks were characterized by atrocities such as gang rapes, beheading of civilians, and burning of their homes, according to Kurdish sources.

The Kurds have fought back. The People’s Protection Units, commonly known as the YPG, is an armed militia that was incorporated after the Al-Qamishli riots but had been dormant until recently.

The YPG is closely linked to the biggest political party in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). When the Syrian army withdrew and jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS attacked, the YPG sprang into action and launched counterattacks, sometimes aided by militias from Kurdish Iraq. The YPG, which includes various militias comprised of women fighters, has since re-taken various towns, border crossings, and other strategic positions from the jihadists.

Simultaneously, the Kurds set out to protect themselves politically from the Syrian civil war. Over a period of six months, meetings have been held with representatives of the various political parties, civic and ethnic groups, which resulted in the establishment of a Joint Interim Administration in November.

Headed by the PYD, the Kurds have effectively established semi-autonomy, taking other groups like the Christian Assyrians under their wings. This Interim Administration is secular and ruled by democratic principles, the participants say.

Salih Muslim, the president of the PYD, said at a conference in Brussels, Belgium, “We don’t want to be part of an armed revolution. We just defend ourselves and our democracy while we wait for a broader solution for the Syrian war.”

Sheruan Hassan, a PYD representative in Europe, told Newsmax that the Kurds have been on their own in the Syrian conflict. The Free Syrian Army, the weakened opposition fighters against the Assad regime, has nothing to offer the Kurds, Hassan said.

Left to their own devices and facing increased hostilities from fanatical Islamist groups, the Kurds had little choice other than to defend themselves.

“For more than a year we have been fighting these groups and killed about 3,000 of them,” Salih Muslim told Newsmax. “This administration is going to be part of the solution in Syria.”

He emphasized that they are not seeking independence. “This transitional administration is not against anyone,” he said. Other Kurdish leaders told Newsmax that the Western model of a nation state doesn’t work in the Mideast and is not something they want to pursue.

“If we can live our own lives in peace and prosperity, maintain our own identity, what difference does it make to have a nation state?” Sheruan Hassan said.

THE ROLE OF TURKEY

The Kurds blame Turkey, a NATO partner, for covertly supporting terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

“In the last six months al-Nusra fighters have burned Kurdish homes, killed civilians indiscriminately, and the group continues to kidnap many Kurds on a daily basis throughout Syria’s Kurdish region, all with Turkish military aid and medical support on the ground,” Khaled Issa, a PYD representative, said in August.

Dogan Özgüden, a Turkish journalist and publisher in exile, confirmed at a conference in Brussels that jihadists have no problem crossing the border between Turkey and Syria.

While Turkey keeps the border crossings with the areas that are controlled by the Kurds hermetically closed and even built a border wall in Nusaybin, the border with areas controlled by jihadist groups is wide open, allowing for a free flow of new recruits and supplies. The BBC recently confirmed the existence of safe houses in Turkey for jihadist fighters who stay there while being prepared for battle in Syria.

“The Turks are more afraid of the Kurds than of jihadist terrorist groups,” PYD leader Salih Muslim said.

Experts say that Turkey may come to regret this attitude. Ludo De Brabander, a prominent Belgium expert on the Mideast, told Newsmax, “There is a risk that groups affiliated with al-Qaida will turn against them just like has happened in Pakistan.”

Pakistan has covertly supported the Afghan Taliban and similar groups, only to find them now operating in Pakistan and attacking Pakistani targets.

Khaled Issa said about the Turkish support of jihadist groups, “They are playing with fire and they will get burned.”

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE

Syrian-Kurdish leaders see the semi-autonomous and secular safe haven they have established as part of a solution to the Syrian war, arguing that the original goals of the Syrian uprising — equality, justice, freedom, and coexistence — are nowhere better guaranteed than in the Kurdish region.

But international response has been skeptical or even negative.

“There is a shortage of everything. There are half a million refugees from elsewhere in Syria hiding in the Kurdish area, but humanitarian aid from the U.N, for example, does not come to us,” Salih Muslim said, calling upon European Union nations to support the Kurdish democratic initiative.

Similarly, the Obama administration is not supporting the Kurdish initiative in Syria. Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, told the London-based publication Asharq Al-Awsat that he understands the Kurdish move in light of their history of being repressed and the fact that they’re dealing with jihadist terrorist groups.

However, Ford added that “from our point of view, the Kurdish questions in Syria are constitutional questions. They have to be negotiated and agreed by all Syrians; they cannot be fixed by unilateral measures. So I think that it is more important right now for the Kurds to focus on the success of the revolution, and the success of moderates in the revolution, and then to address the constitutional issues during the transitional governing body period laid out in the Geneva communiqué.”

However, chances that there will ever be a Syrian transition government as a result of the Geneva peace conference, which has been postponed to February, seem pretty slim. In The Hague, where they received training in negotiating skills, members of the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group backed by the West, expressed little confidence in a positive outcome of the Geneva conference.

Hopes for a Syrian future without the Assad regime were further dashed when press agency Reuters reported that Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that Assad might have to stay in power.

“Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” a member of the Syrian National Coalition was quoted by Reuters.

The Kurds, meanwhile, feel abandoned by the West. “U.S. ambassador Robert Ford doesn’t even want to talk to us,” Salih Muslim complained to Newsmax.

Khaled Issa added, “We don’t get any help or support, and then they want to prevent us from governing ourselves.”

Originally published on Newsmax.com 

Photo: Salih Muslim (left), president of the PYD. ©Okke Ornstein

Christmas in Damascus

DAMASCUS – The Bab Shari area in Damascus has been transformed into a heavily fortified compound. On every road there are two military checkpoints and no cars, not even the ones with an official permit, are allowed to pass through. Thus, I walked the last half mile to the Syrian Greek Orthodox al-Salib church, where mass was already on its way since early in the morning on Christmas Day. The closer I came, the more the sound of cannon fire in the distance was drowned out by the singing that came out of the beautiful building.

There was another round of security at the gate where volunteers used scanners to make sure nobody carried any guns or explosives inside. A surprisingly high number of visitors were attending the service and lighting candles.

“Actually, visits have gone up since the start of the war,” explained one of the volunteers, who asked not to be named for safety reasons. The Greek Orthodox church is the oldest and largest Christian community in Syria. The neighborhood is one of the wealthier in Damascus, reflected by the number of fur coats and other expensive fashion items people were wearing today.

Unsurprisingly, the volunteer said that, “you’ll find that most people here are very much pro-Assad.” In February of this year, Syrian Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the Levant and Antioch, John al-Yaziji, met with president Assad and was quoted by state media expressing his confidence that Syria would come out victorious from its crisis.

The Greek Orthodox community is far from the only Christian group in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Syria. Throughout the country, but mostly in the north, there are other orthodox as well as Catholic groups, and everything in between.

Christians in Syria make up about 10% of the total population, with the largest concentration living in and around the city of Aleppo, now the scene of an all-out assault by the Syrian Army on the various rebel groups that control most of the town.

Many, if not most, Christians have fled. A vast number of them are Assyrians, an ethnic group with origins in ancient Mesopotamia and which now inhabits roughly the same area as the Kurdish people in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

Most of them have fled either to other parts of Syria or to Turkey. Those who can afford it or have family in Europe often travel to countries like Germany or the Netherlands, either legally or facilitated by people smugglers, a representative of the Assyrian community in Holland, Abraham Tunc, told Newsmax.

This often leads to harrowing scenes when rickety boats capsize in the Mediterranean on their voyage from Turkey to EU member Greece, or when refugees get stuck, abused and extorted at the eastern European frontiers. One family member of Tunc narrowly escaped death in such a boat accident while trying to make her way from war-torn Syria to the safety of Europe.

Tunc has lived in Europe from long before war in Syria broke out, but still has family in Aleppo with whom he sometimes manages to talk on the phone. He explained that the situation there is very bad and dangerous. Other members of his extended family now live in Turkey, near the border. Some were killed.

They were never supportive of the Assad regime, but the biggest problem for the Christian Assyrians right now, said Tunc, are the jihadist groups. These militias, linked to Al Qaeda, seek to establish a caliphate across the Levant, ruled by the laws of their extremist brand of Islam. In their view, those who are not “true Muslims” deserve to be killed, and Christians most certainly qualify. “I think my cousin was killed just because he had a Christian cross dangling from the rear view mirror of his car,” Abraham Tunc said.

Just months ago, the Lebanon based terrorist Hezbollah group, which is an ally of Iran and the regime of Syria’s Assad regime, drove out these Al Qaeda linked groups from the north-western coastal part of Syria, where many Christian minorities live.

Meanwhile, when mass in Damascus came to a close, this correspondent headed for the exit and, once outside, almost overlooked it: What appeared at first glance to be a nativity scene placed against the church, turned out to be an improvised little space to remember those who were killed during the ongoing war.

The wall was covered with portrait pictures and people were telling stories; a family was dragged out of their house and murdered, a man was killed by a bomb, others suffered even more gruesome treatment.

“We lost about 200 members of our community because of the war,” the aforementioned volunteer said.

“It all started as protests. People wanted more freedom, which everybody understood. And then it became war and we are where we are today,” he added.

When the singing inside subsided, the booms of the cannons at the edge of town came back. It took about 10 minutes to walk back to the car that was parked next to a military roadblock. They were checking trunks of passing cars. The news reported that the Pope prayed for Syria. On an otherwise tranquil Christmas day in Damascus, the war was never far away.

———————–

A different version of this story appeared earlier in NewsMax. This is the “director’s cut.”

European Muslims Join Terror Groups to Fight in Syria

Jolanda de Neijs posted a dramatic message on Facebook and appeared sobbing on Dutch television last month to voice concerns that her 18-year-old son Robbin van Dolderen had been recruited by jihadists.

“All available information indicates that he has been recruited for a mission to Syria,” she wrote about the saga that has become a major story in the Netherlands.

Shortly afterward, her worst fears were confirmed. The cellphone of van Dolderen had been located in Turkey and it was believed that he crossed the border into Syria to join one of the extremist Islamic jihadi groups fighting in the two-year-old civil war.

Van Dolderen is just one of more than 1,000 young men from all over Europe who have joined the ranks of various al-Qaida-affiliated groups in Syria, with Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands being the principal European suppliers of jihad fighters.

“He was very upset about the images of the children hit by the nerve-gas attack,” de Neijs said. “It bothered him that nobody seemed to come to the rescue.”

The two biggest terror groups operating in Syria are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, but there are dozens of smaller jihadi groups as well with most of them featured on the list of designated terrorist organizations.

When civil war in Syria broke out and the secular rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were unable to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad, these jihadi groups saw an opportunity to step in. Their stated goal is to overthrow the Assad regime and make Syria part of an Islamic caliphate, ruled by fundamentalist Sharia law. The groups are known for their brutal tactics, which include torture, public killings, kidnappings, and suicide-bomb attacks.

Al-Nusra counts between 7,000 and 15,000 fighters, and ISIS between 10,000 and 12,000. As has been the case with similar groups in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are many foreigners among those fighters from countries including Pakistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, and Tunisia.

The difference in Syria is that an unprecedented number of Europeans have joined the Islamic forces. Conservative estimates by various European intelligence services are between 1,100 and 1,700.

The real number is likely much higher. After Jolanda de Neijs appeared on television, more parents from the same Dutch town came forward saying their sons had gone to Syria, raising the number from one to 15 in that town alone.

A recent study by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment put the number of Dutch jihad fighters at 50, but Dutch authorities say the number is at least 100 to 150.

Most of these young men were Muslims already and have gone through a process known as radicalization. But others, like van Dolderan, converted to Islam only a few years ago. Recording rap songs under his artist name RBN and being an avid soccer player, van Dolderan wasn’t a fundamentalist, but that rapidly changed.

Radicalization can take place within just weeks and, before parents or friends know it, the young men are on their way to Syria.

In Vilvoorde, a suburb of Brussels, mothers are sleeping next to the front door to prevent their sons from sneaking out in the middle of the night to join the jihad, the mayor said recently.

Parents often claim that al-Qaida recruiters have lured their sons into joining the armed struggle. Although intelligence services and the police have arrested some of these suspected recruiters and are keeping others under close surveillance, there is no evidence that a vast network of terrorist recruiting agents is enlisting young adults for the jihad in Syria. Instead, there appear to be loosely organized networks to facilitate travel to Syria for the new recruits.

Dutch broadcaster EO obtained a copy of travel instructions for new jihadis, telling them to fly to Turkey from a German airport and then travel overland to the border with Syria. The document listed several names and phone numbers, including some belonging to jihad fighters who had previously joined al-Nusra.

Once in Syria, the recruits receive weapons, clothing, and about six weeks of military and religious training before they are allowed to participate in actual fighting, they said in interviews.

The most recent opinion poll on the subject, held in the Netherlands in May, found that 73 percent of the Muslim population sees jihad fighters as heroes who are in Syria protecting Muslims and fighting the brutal Assad regime. About 50 percent of the overall population sees them as warriors for justice and not so much as extremist Islamic fighters.

The jihad fighters themselves contribute to this perception through interviews, websites, and social media, where they deny that people are being recruited.

“We have no use for people who come here against their will,” said a fighter who goes by the name Yilmaz, a former soldier who served in the Netherlands military and joined one of the fundamentalist jihad groups in Syria about a year ago. He doesn’t want to say which group.

Yilmaz was wounded during a battle and is currently recovering, giving him plenty of time to connect to the outside world through a variety of social media. His Twitter and Instagram accounts were recently suspended, but he has started a Tumblr blog where he posts photos, videos, and quotes related to the struggle, and he maintains a page at Ask.fm where anyone can ask him questions.

For more private conversations he can be contacted on his smartphone through a chat application. These activities have turned him into something of a media phenomenon and his activities are an example of what is being called the “pop-jihad.”

Ten years ago, terrorist organizations would communicate through obscure Internet forums and private chat groups. That has radically changed, and the Syrian jihad is being broadcast through social media sites like Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, and blogs on WordPress.com.

It is even possible to buy al-Qaida flags, banners, and head scarves through Facebook and have them either sent by mail or made available for pickup at an improvised store. And a group of Dutch jihad fighters published an e-book, “De Banier” (The Banner), earlier this year explaining their activities.

“The da’wah (proselytizing or preaching) is being practiced in the streets, in the schools, and more than anywhere on the Internet. The jihad is proudly being propagated,” the newspaper de Volkskrant said, quoting worried Dutch intelligence officials.

The latest da’wah fad emerged when the free Metro newspaper left empty space on its front page for readers to leave a message for the next reader who’d pick up the paper. Through Facebook, Muslims were encouraged to write something about Islam on the paper, take a picture of it, and post it on the “Happylines Da’wah” page.

“ISIS is coming. Even if they want us to die, we wish them life,” one message reads.

“Media is half of jihad,” said Yilmaz on Ask.fm.

And indeed, Facebook pages like “Shaam al-Ghareeba” keep their readers updated with regular sermons on the necessity of jihad, often referring to the teachings of the late al-Qaida scholar Anwar al-Awlaki. There is a constant stream of videos from Syria which either glorify the accomplishments of the jihadi groups or show in gruesome detail the atrocities committed by the forces of Assad, usually against children.

One recent video showed a German member of ISIS talking on camera, praising the activities of the brutal organization and urging viewers to come to Syria. When he finished talking, music started and the video showed a huge explosion in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, presumably the result of an ISIS suicide attack.

A regular feature is also the glorification of death by posting pictures of fighters killed in battle who have “received martyrdom,” with captions pointing out happy smiles on the dead faces.

It’s impossible not to notice the difference between these online efforts and what the mainstream media present. While Jolanda de Neijs cried on national television about her son Robbin who has joined the terrorists, he was praised and welcomed as a hero by the pop-jihad.

“I would like to meet this young man, God willing. He has a bigger heart than most Muslims from Islamic families,” wrote Yilmaz on his Ask.fm page.

On the jihadi news site “The True Religion,” Ibn Mohammad wrote de Neijs an open letter telling her to stop crying and be proud of her son.

With the Syrian jihad acquiring underground cult status, it has also turned into an “open source insurgency” — a phrase first coined by former U.S. Air Force pilot and counterterrorism expert John Robb, who authored the book “Brave New War.”

The term is inspired by the open software movement in which people with different backgrounds collaborate on a common goal that is then shared freely. Robb names three elements that define this type of insurgency.

First is a “plausible promise,” a cause that people rally behind because it seems attainable. The Syrian jihadi groups have indeed accomplished some remarkable military victories against Assad’s forces.

Second is to adopt “open-source behavior,” in other words, collaboration between different groups for the common cause. In Syria, dozens of jihadi groups form loose coalitions and when the need arises, even cooperate with the secular rebel forces that have support from the West.

Third is the necessity to obtain critical mass, or enough influx of new members to sustain the fight. In Syria, the jihadis enjoy considerable support among the population. In Europe, the various groups have successfully built a network that can sustain itself and are working to re-brand terrorist groups as a clandestine hipster cult.

In a cafeteria in a dreary suburb of Delft, a mid-sized Dutch town where a dozen young men have left for Syria, an older Turkish man told Newsmax, “At least they are doing something to protect the people. The international community has let the Muslims in Syria down.”

These are widespread sentiments among the European Muslim community, as is the complaint that media attention focuses on the new jihad stars instead of on the situation on the ground in Syria.

Dutch fighter Yilmaz told Newsmax in a private chat that he had been approached by many media organizations begging for an interview. On his Q&A page he added, “Strange all this attention, front pages and people stalking me — writing articles about me as if they know me. What happened to the thousands and thousands of people killed here? … This is a joke.”

However, when this journalist asked him for an interview as well, he replied: “Money talks.” Yilmaz proceeded to ask for 10,000 euro (about $13,000), “and some chocolate.”

Originally published on Newsmax.com.