This Is What Greece’s Refugee Crisis Really Looks Like

“Thanks to God I have made it here. I am free, I am alive!”

 Refugees arriving on the isle of Lesbos in a dinghy from Turkey. (Lazar Simeonov)
Refugees arriving on the isle of Lesbos in a dinghy from Turkey. (Lazar Simeonov)

By Jesse Rosenfeld

Lesbos, Athens, and northern Greece—In the baking midday August heat on the Greek island of Lesbos, Ziad Mouatash bounces out of an overcrowded inflatable raft and touches EU soil for the first time. The 22-year-old from Yarmouk—the Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Damascus that has been besieged and bombed since 2012 by Bashar al-Assad’s forces and recently invaded by ISIS and the Al Qaeda–affiliated Nusra Front—hugs everyone around him, ecstatic to be alive.

From the Greek shore, activists and locals had looked on helplessly as the boat’s motor broke down two miles away, water pouring into the barely floating rubber dinghy. Children and adults alike cried desperately for help, until they were towed to Greece by another boat of refugees coming from Turkey.

Mouatash paid human traffickers in Turkey over 1,000 euros for this near-death experience, but as far as he’s concerned, it was a far less risky choice than continuing to hide out in deteriorating Damascus, which he’d abandoned for Turkey two weeks before. As a Palestinian who grew up in Syria’s refugee camps, he is stateless, but he has a brother in Paris and hopes to start a new life in France.

He paces up and down the shoreline, unsure of which direction to go, while local activists try to bring the new arrivals together to tell them that they need to start a 40-mile walk to a registration center on the other side of the island.

 Although he has escaped the horrors of Syria’s grinding civil war, Mouatash is just beginning the difficult journey through Europe. He will have to cross more borders illegally; rest in filthy, makeshift camps; pay traffickers to help him cross those borders; dodge border police; and sleep in parks and fields, before he can reunite with his brother. Still, Mouatash is one of the lucky ones. Four days after his arrival, a raft off the Greek island of Kos capsized and six Syrians—including a baby—drowned.

Read more at The Nation

As Syria’s Revolution Sputters, a Chaotic Stalemate

 TORN BY WAR The view from a mosque in Homs, Syria, that has served as a rallying point for insurgents.  Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
TORN BY WAR The view from a mosque in Homs, Syria, that has served as a rallying point for insurgents. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

By Anne Barnard in The New York Times

ANTAKYA, Turkey — It was a victory that President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents had dreamed of: Insurgents seized a key army base in northern Syria after more than a year of trying. But the mood in this Turkish border town, flooded with Syrians who have fled both government bombings and extremist insurgents, was more bitter than celebratory.

The assault this month was led by the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, which claimed the spoils. By contrast, many of the first Syrians to rise up against Mr. Assad in 2011 — civilian demonstrators and army defectors alike — followed the battle from the sidelines here, unable to enter Syria under threat of death from the extremists of Nusra and its rival group, the Islamic State.

As Syria’s war heads toward its fourth year, the complex battleground is increasingly divided between the government and the extremists, leaving many Syrians feeling that the revolution on which they gambled their lives and livelihoods has failed.

Different insurgent groups battle one another, even as they fight against Mr. Assad’s forces and his allies, foreign Shiite militias. A chaotic stalemate reigns in a war that has killed more than 200,000 people and wounded one million.

In northern and eastern Syria, where Mr. Assad’s opponents won early victories and once dreamed of building self-government, the nationalist rebel groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army are forced to operate under the extremists’ umbrellas, to go underground or to flee, according to Syrian insurgents, activists and two top commanders of the American-financed F.S.A. groups.

Read more at The New York Times

Al-Qaida breaks ties with group in Syria

In this Sunday Feb. 2, 2014 citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center (AMC), an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows buildings damaged by Syrian government forces airplanes, in Aleppo, Syria. Syrian government helicopters and warplanes unleashed a wave of airstrikes on more than a dozen opposition-held neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, firing missiles and dropping crude barrel bombs in a ferocious attack that killed dozens of people, including at least 17 children, activists said. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)

CAIRO (AP) — Al-Qaida’s central leadership broke off ties with one of the most powerful militant groups in Syria, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and distanced itself from the rebel infighting in that country’s civil war, according to a statement Monday.

The announcement appeared to be an attempt by al-Qaida to put its house in order and reassert influence among rival Islamic groups that have turned against one another in Syria, where the groups have joined rebels in fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

In past months, the Islamic State — created by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq — has increasingly clashed with other hard-line Islamic factions, including assassinating commanders of rival groups with car bombs and shootings.

Al-Baghdadi created the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant last year in defiance of orders from the terror network’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, who at the time ordered him to remain the head of al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, while authorizing another group, Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, to operate in Syria in al-Qaida’s name. Al-Baghdadi went ahead and created the new group, becoming a powerful force in Syria’s conflict.

In Monday’s statement, al-Qaida’s general command announced it has “no connection” with the Islamic State, underlined that the group “is not a branch of the al-Qaida organization,” and said al-Qaida “is not responsible for its actions.”

Al-Qaida did not condone the group’s creation “and in fact ordered it to stop,” the statement said.

It also condemned the infighting among Islamic groups, saying, “We distance ourselves from the sedition taking place among the mujahedeen factions (in Syria) and of the forbidden blood shed by any faction.” It warned that mujahedeen, of holy warriors, must recognize the “enormity of the catastrophe” caused by “this sedition.”

It also condemned the infighting among Islamic groups, saying, “We distance ourselves from the sedition taking place among the mujahedeen factions (in Syria) and of the forbidden blood shed by any faction.” It warned that mujahedeen, of holy warriors, must recognize the “enormity of the catastrophe” caused by “this sedition.”

Read more at the Associated Press

Under siege: the uncertain fate of Arab Christians – Al Arabiya

Hisham Melhem

Rarely do I write about my personal feelings and passions. The situation is different this time. I write with pain, nay, I write with anger. While watching with horror the savage assaults against the Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean, one of the first and oldest Christian communities in the world, I am shocked. From the beginning of the season of Arab uprisings I kept reminding myself, and others, that when we analyze and assess the rapidly unfolding events we should not lose sight of the fundamentals: the civil and human rights of all the peoples living in theses societies regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds or their gender. By that I meant that we should denounce and resist repression and injustice inherent in transitional times when the old entrenched powers, along with absolutist radical groups, continue to undermine peaceful inclusive change. Both state and “revolutionary” repression and intimidation should be confronted, although state repression is more dangerous because it is systemic and institutional.

Events in Syria

I was shocked by, and denounced, the destruction of the great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, a jewel of a structure with its elegant 11th century minaret. This was a beastly act perpetrated by a cruel regime and primitive gangs of fanatic Islamists. Also shocking was the shelling and looting of the historic Jobar synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in the world. Now, I am seized with deep anger because the terror of both the Syrian government forces and elements of the radical Islamists Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front have visited the iconic town of Maaloula, a truly unique and special Christian sanctuary nestled in the rugged mountains not far from Damascus where many inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ . Maaloula’s Christian inhabitants, with their family tree going back to the first Christian communities in ancient Syria, fled the town when it was taken and retaken by the marauding gangs of Assad and al-Nusra.

I was born, and grew up, in Beirut in a decidedly conservative Christian (Maronite/Catholic) environment. I still remember the pride we felt as youngsters when we used to pray and chant Syriac/Aramaic hymns written in Arabic script. In my teens I read Nahj al-Balaghah by Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (usually translated in English as “Peak of eloquence”) the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, who is considered by his Shiite followers as the most important figure in Islam after the Prophet. The book is truly a magnificent collection of speeches, invocations and aphorisms written by a man of wisdom, courage and compassion. This was the beginning of my love affair with the Arabic language. Another great Muslim Caliph I admired was Omar Ibn Al Khattab, the second of the four wise Caliphs that succeeded Prophet Muhammad. Omar, one of the most powerful and consequential figures in the history of Islam, was known for his strong sense of social justice. I named my son after him.

Even when I parted ways with religion and became a secularist, I remained attached to the rituals and aestheticism of Christianity and Islam and their civilizational legacies. When I find myself in a European capital I do my own version of (Gothic) church hopping. On my first visit to Cairo and Istanbul I was intoxicated with their charming mosques and ancient churches. All this is to say that what I am writing here is not emanating from my religious background but from my moral and political convictions.

Read more at Al Arabiya