As Syria struggles to recover from over a decade of US-imposed conflict, it faces a new deadly threat in the form of sweeping sanctions under the Caesar Act.
Talib Mu’alla served as a soldier in the Syrian Arab Army before he was wounded in Aleppo in 2014. As he described the multiple shots he took to his body, I thought it remarkable that he survived.
“A shot (bullet) to my chest, a shot to my stomach, three shots in my spine. My chest, stomach, and intestines ruptured, and I lost a kidney. I was also shot in the right side of my face,” he recounted. “I fell into a coma for 25 days, then woke for a few days and fell back into a coma for another 16 or 17 days. It took two years for me to be able to walk again.”
The media’s monsters
As a consequence of the war on Syria, there has been immeasurable loss: the destruction of historic places like Palmyra, Maaloula (the ancient Aramaic village northeast of Damascus), Aleppo’s souqs; and the destruction of city districts in the fight against terrorism. Aleppo’s souqs were being carefully restored when I traveled to Syria in March. Yet, there is still much rebuilding to do and thanks to the Caesar Act, that just got harder.
More appalling than the destruction of Syria’s historic places is the human loss, civilian and military alike. Regarding the latter, little concern is meted out by Western press over the deaths and maiming of members of Syria’s national army. On the contrary, the Syrian Arab Army is portrayed in Western media and by Western politicians as murderers and thugs personally belonging to President Assad and not to Syria.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and indeed countless videos and anecdotes of Syrian soldiers putting their lives on the line in order to protect and save civilians from terrorists are available for any who wish to see them. The army is a conscript army but also includes career soldiers and men and women who voluntarily joined in order to defend their country.
Last August, I interviewed the Syrian Arab Army’s Head of Political Administration, General Hassan Hassan. He noted that the Syrian army “includes in each of its formations, soldiers from all Syrian governorates, with no exception.” This defies Western media’s portrayal of the Syrian army as “Assad’s army” or their claims that those fighting “rebels” (terrorists) are only from the Alawi sect. These types of claims are put forth in an attempt to create the illusion that in Syria, it has been President Assad and “his forces” against disenchanted Sunnis, an utterly false claim.
This sectarianism exists largely in the minds of those backing terrorism in Syria, be they Saudi, Turkish, Qatari, or Western leaders.
When I asked General Hassan to speak more on the army, he replied:
The two greatest armies in modern history have failed to achieve what the Syrian Army has accomplished. In Afghanistan, fewer than 10 percent of the number of terrorists in Syria were able to defeat two armies: the Red Soviet Army and the U.S. Army.
But, the Syrian Army defeated such terrorism. The Syrian Army fought battles that can be classified as new in military science. The Syrian Army fought above ground and underground battles in addition to their battles against the media war, intelligence war, information war, economic war, gang and street-to-street wars. Despite all of that, the Syrian Army achieved victory. Therefore, can we imagine the magnitude of the sacrifices made in this respect by the Syrian Army?”
On various trips to and around Syria over the years I’ve encountered Syrian soldiers in hot zones where terrorists linger nearby and in liberated areas, at checkpoints and in hospitals. Many are young, and others are grey-haired, proud to be serving in the defense of their country and citizens.
Many drive taxis in their off-hours to compensate for the meagr salary they receive, a salary that doesn’t compare to the hefty salaries paid to members of Gulf and Turkish-backed armed militants.
Together, and with the help of Syria’s allies, they staved off some of the most heinous and powerfully-backed terrorists the modern world has known, but at a great price.
The numbers of wounded soldiers, particularly critically-wounded, are not published, so it is hard to gauge just how large their numbers are. However, given that the war on Syria has raged for nearly a decade, with soldiers fighting well-armed terrorists from around the world–terrorists with the backing of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria — the numbers of martyred and maimed can only be tragically-high.
Wounded veterans prepare for life after war
Given that the U.S. government frequently criticizes the government of Syria for not taking care of its citizens, it’s worth reflecting on the shameful manner in which the U.S. neglects its own veterans of war. But in Syria, a myriad of associations work with war-wounded soldiers to provide prosthetic limbs and rehabilitate them after their injuries, giving them life skills to work or start their own businesses.
Jerih al-Watan (The Wounded of the Homeland), is a veteran support program founded in 2014 by the Syrian Presidency with the support of the Syrian Trust For Development and medical experts. The aim of Jerih al-Watan, according to its Facebook page, is “providing adequate care and appropriate rehabilitation to secure a decent life for the wounded,” from the army, popular defense forces, and internal security forces.”
Jerih al-Watan focuses on physical rehabilitation, social and psychological support as well as vocational training for jobs ranging from construction to food production.
The latter is what I saw last week when I traveled to the Qardaha region in northwestern Syria. A region I had not previously visited, Qardaha is a paradise that the average person may not associate with Syria, as many mistakenly imagine the country to be all desert. It is not, of course.
Traveling a familiar route from Damascus to the coast, I passed rows of greenhouses and the citrus and banana trees that are prevalent in the Tartous and Latakia region and finally moved up along a road lined with pine trees and wildflowers, winding up through the mountainous hills of Qardaha. Photos of martyred soldiers appeared when passing through Qardaha itself, as they do all over Syria.
I reached the training point, where, in the evening, a gorgeous pink sunset descended over the layered hills, the sea in the distance.
Soldiers were receiving training in the skills of cheese and yogurt making, staples of the Syrian diet. They were first shown how to make the products, then had a hand at making them themselves. The final results were the delicious spice-colored yogurt balls and black-sesame-laden cheeses that are ubiquitous in Syria’s restaurants.
With these skills, the soldiers are able to start a small enterprise and support their families.
In between training sessions, wounded soldiers sat chatting in the shade. With their permission, I spoke with some of them about their injuries and feelings about having served in the army. With injuries ranging from vision and speech impairments to difficulties walking or loss of hands, I was struck by the graceful confidence of the injured soldiers.
Instead of wallowing in their injuries, they looked to future prospects, improving their knowledge to improve their lives.
A reservist in the army, Ayet Yusef was wounded in 2013 while serving in Aleppo. “We were attacked at 2 am by armed terrorist gangs. A clash occurred, during which I was wounded by shrapnel in my left eye. I lost sight in that eye. But after treatment, it is now fine.” Yusef, like most wounded soldiers I’ve met, is proud of having served, and even prouder of his injury. “We raise our heads to the sky. We were in the Syrian Arab Army and that is an honor for us. And if they now asked me to serve again, no problem,” he said.
Another soldier, 30-year-old Du’a Ijna, had difficulty speaking as he explained how he was injured in 2011. “We were on patrol in Khan Sheikhoun (Idlib),” he recalled, “A terrorist group attacked and I was wounded by shrapnel to my brain. That affected my hands, legs, and speech. I was paralyzed for a month and a half, but after physiotherapy, it got a little better.”
Jaafar Badran was injured in 2016 while serving in Aleppo. His injury left him without his right hand or left leg. “We resisted the terrorism, and there will be martyrs and wounded among us, and that’s okay. What matters is the country returns to stability.”
Inad Ahmed was injured while serving in Tulul al-Himr, al-Qunaytra. “I was shot in my spinal column, and for three years I couldn’t walk.” Ahmed now walks with a severe limp but speaks with a smile. “I have to be optimistic about what I’m going through and keep looking ahead. What happened happened.”
Just beyond the training location, a beautiful sunset burst out and I thought about the many wounded soldiers, some whose lives were disrupted forever, others who overcame major injuries to the point they could walk, or at least hobble, again. They were all gracious. Some on the shy side, others — including men whose injuries were the worst — gregarious and humorous. Spending time with them was humbling, but also reaffirmed what I already knew about the army: they are some of the most courageous people I’ve met and those who write lies about them should hang their heads in shame for being so far from the truth.
Initiatives like this, teaching and encouraging economic self-reliance, are more critically-important than ever these days in Syria. After over nine years of war and relentless sanctions on the country, Syria’s economy is as shattered as the cities formerly occupied by terrorist groups. Neither would be devastated had the U.S. and allies not launched its clandestine war against Syria, but they did, and the economic war on Syria will only worsen.
The Syrian Trust, a nonprofit national development organization headed by the first lady of Syria, has been quietly helping soldiers with rehabilitation and prosthetics as well as giving them training, even supplying machinery and other equipment needed for small businesses.
In November 2016, after having visited Aleppo for the fourth time just weeks before the city was finally liberated from the array of terrorist gangs occupying its eastern and southern regions, freeing the people of the hell on earth they’d endured for years — I was back in Damascus and visited the Hamish Hospital in Barzeh, where Jarih al-Watan was manufacturing prosthetic limbs performing physiotherapy for wounded soldiers.
There, I saw many soldiers going through differing degrees of physiotherapy and rehabilitation after having been injured. Many were without one or both legs, others missing hands and arms.
I met Ali, a 30-year-old soldier who lost both his legs in a mine blast a year prior on the Khanasser road to Aleppo. The first time I went to Aleppo in July, the taxi driver told me that Da’esh (ISIS) routinely creeps onto the road at night to lay mines and the SAA in the morning has to clear them so the road is safe for civilians and transport trucks.
Ali was a slight young man, and emblematic of the stoic, strong nature of Syrians fighting this war against terror and for their country. Ten days after losing his lower legs, Ali was walking on artificial ones. When I met him, he was finishing physiotherapy and wants to go back to defending Syria.
I am discharged from the army but I want to go back. We want this war to be over.”
He isn’t the only gravely wounded soldier I’ve met who wanted to return to service. In May 2018, Syrian soldier and incredible photographer Wassim Issa was gravely injured in a terrorist landmine blast that blew off both his lower legs and left him in a coma for two days. When I visited him in the hospital three days after his injury, he was sitting up in bed wearing a huge smile at my visit. Although I already knew him to be a courageous and gentle man, I was surprised at how upbeat he was, having just escaped death and lost his ability to walk.
In subsequent visits over the years, Wassim maintained his positivity that he would walk again. Indeed, by October 2018 Wassim had been fitted with prosthetic limbs and done the needed physio in order to walk again.
On one of my visits, he told me: “I don’t need money, I don’t need a house, I just need peace for my country.”
I met Captain Ali, a Syrian pilot and soldier who was injured five times (more, actually, but he only counts the major injuries), several times in Latakia in July and August of 2016. He was shot by a sniper, the bullet going through his arm, sniped through his hip, shot in his head (requiring 26 stitches), received shrapnel in his chest, and finally lost his left leg to a Da’esh suicide bomber.
Captain Ali was awarded the Russian Medal of courage for his work in the Latakia countryside. He also had stories of the helicopter he was flying being hit on three different occasions but not being downed.
His personality was a mixture of humility, confidence, humour.
*Meeting with Captain Ali in a Latakia hospital in 2016. Photo | Eva Bartlett
And in Aleppo this past March, I met Ahmed Abo Alkef, 29, in then recently-liberated al-Zahra’a, Aleppo. Alkef joined the army in June 2010 and was close to fulfilling his conscription service when he was shot in the head by a terrorist sniper, leaving him in a coma for several months.
He is now paralyzed on one side of his body, the bullet still in his skull. Like other soldiers I’ve spoken with, Alkef without hesitation to my question replied he is proud of serving in the army and proud of his injury, life-shattering as it is.
In the Barzeh Center physiotherapy training hall, Ali walked with a young man who appeared to be around the same age, also missing his lower legs.
At the prosthetics factory, the Director, Dr. Yousef Sarraj, stressed that in his experience 25 percent of those patients they treat request artificial limbs specifically with the intent of returning to the battlefront to defend Syria, including the ten officers who are currently waiting for limbs so they return to the battlefront.
While there, the power briefly went out and roughly 20 seconds later, the generators kicked in. Dr. Sarraj noted: “We can overcome problems of power, but we can’t overcome the problem of getting raw materials for the prosthetics.”
Unsurprisingly, Western sanctions on Syria include prohibiting key materials needed in prosthetic limbs manufacturing, including (among many things) resin, the primary material used in the manufacture. According to Dr. Sarraj, to acquire 100 kg of resin would take around one year.
Meeting the needs of sanctions-ravaged Syrians
In addition to its work with injured soldiers, the Syrian Trust For Development also focuses on providing micro-credit, assisting disabled Syrians, supporting children with cancer, rural development, supporting families of missing persons, supporting victims of sexual violence, culture, and heritage, and children’s and women’s issues.
In October 2016, I visited a community center in Barzeh, Damascus, supported by the Syrian Trust. The community center manager, Ahmad al-Khodr told me the center had opened in 2015 and served a diverse community.
“There is a lot of political and religious diversity here in Barzeh, as many people from all over Syria left their homes, due to the war, and settled here in Barzeh. In this community center, you’ll see a small glimpse of Syrian communities around the country. Every day there are more than 400 beneficiaries here, between children, men, and women.
Barzeh and nearby Aysh al-Warwar had big battles. The FSA (Free Syrian Army) was there for a long time. In 2014, there was reconciliation here between the Syrian army and the FSA. This community center is very near the region under truce. So this place is more diverse than other regions of Damascus (in terms of political leanings).”
He explained the Trust’s approach to assisting those in need:
We study the cases to know what are the needs of the people here. We visit their houses. We don’t implement any plan without knowing what is needed and knowing that the plan will meet their needs.
We have a law department which, among other things, helps people who have lost their identity papers during the war.”
Vocational training is offered at the center, including teaching women to sew and men to paint homes.
We also support them with courses on how they can start their own businesses, how to market their products and business. After the workshop we provide them money to start their own businesses, some are loans and others they don’t need to repay. After the courses, we connect the beneficiaries with factories or places of work. And others start their own small businesses.”
Khodr explained that psychological support is offered to women whose husbands were martyred or kidnapped by the FSA or other terrorist groups and to victims of domestic violence. “We teach them to know their rights,” he said.
Children also received psychological support, and for children who have left school because of the war, the Trust gives them special classes to get caught up enough to return to schools.
“This applies to children up to baccalaureate level. We also have classes for people who never studied, elderly who don’t know how to write or read. They receive a certificate from the Syrian government.”
I asked about the women whose husbands might have been members of the FSA or other terrorist groups. “Aren’t you worried that the women will earn money and give it to their husband, to the fighters?”
Khoder replied, “The people who live here are very poor, very in need. They want to live, eat, sleep in peace, they won’t be giving their money to fighters, they need it simply to live. Here we work with beneficiaries as people, not numbers. Other NGOs (UN etc) you’ll see them working in high-class clothing. Here we work with them as brothers and sisters. We work with them whatever their religious or political view. We work with them as humans. They are our brothers and sisters in Syria.”
This last point, about how the Trust deals with those it helps, I saw for myself when Trust employees were talking with the injured soldiers receiving vocational training. They indeed took an interest in the soldiers’ lives, engaging with them as fellow Syrians, to the point that when it was learned that it was the one year birthday of a soldier’s daughter, a cake was procured and we visited the family.
Over the tabbouleh and kibbeh the family offered, as the birthday girl wobbled around the room charming all, the grandfather, himself having served many years in the army, spoke with pride about his wounded son’s service. The personal insights gleaned from conversations and from seeing the state of homes helps the Trust to assess their needs, even needs not mentioned by recipients themselves.
More misery from the West: increased sanctions
In 2020, it’s no secret, and no longer debatable, that the misery Syria’s people have faced for almost a decade—the relentless, savage, terrorism of civilians and military alike—is a product of Western, particularly American, covert and overt meddling.
Western countries use forums like the United Nations as well as government-funded media to further their goals and distort the reality about events on the ground in Syria. The West supports terrorist gangs who have slaughtered and pillaged since the war on Syria started in 2011. In fact, the West and its Gulf allies instigated the non-revolution, flooding money and weapons into Syria before the first protests even emerged.
As I wrote in 2015:
In 2002, then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton added Syria (and Libya, Cuba) to the “rogue states” of George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil,”…meaning Syria was on the list of countries to “bring democracy to” (aka destroy) even back then.
Anthony Cartalucci’s “U.S. Planned Syrian Civilian Catastrophe Since 2007” laid out a number of pivotal statements and events regarding not only the war on Syria but also the events which would be falsely-dubbed the “Arab Spring.” Points include:
- General Wesley Clark’s revelation of U.S. plans to destroy the governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.
- Seymour Hersh’s 2007 “The Redirection” on NATO and allies’ arming and training of sectarian extremists to create sectarian divide in Lebanon, Syria and beyond.
The 2009 Brookings Institution report, “Which Path to Persia?,” on plans to weaken Syria and Lebanon, to later attack Iran.
- U.S. funding to the Syrian opposition began flowing under the Bush administration in 2005.
- Since its founding in October 2011, the Syrian National Council has received $20.4 million from Libya, $15 million from Qatar, $5 million from the UAE.
Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria. This operation goes way back. It was prepared, preconceived and planned….”
The Caesar Act
The recent passage of the Caesar Act is the newest level of criminality targeting Syria, even the name of the act is based on a lie. An implementation of yet further brutal sanctions against the people of Syria, it will cause immense suffering, all under the premise of targeting Syria’s leadership and helping Syria’s people. The flawed and hypocritical logic is one which the U.S. has applied to tens of nations who have refused to cower to its hegemony.
Even U.S. envoy for Syria James Jeffrey has acknowledged America’s intentional destruction of Syria’s economy, allegedly stating recently that the sanctions, “contributed to the collapse of the value of the Syrian pound… the Syrian regime is no longer able to manage an effective economic policy… due to the economic crisis that is also affecting Lebanon. ”
In the same statement, Jeffrey claimed the sanctions will “protect” Syrians, a comment far from reality.
Recall that after the sanctions-induced murder of between one million-one and a half million civilians in Iraq, the Western narrative of sanctions as merely targeting leaders of nations has long been exposed for the malevolent lie that it is.
The website Sanctions Kill notes that “Sanctions are imposed by the United States and its junior partners against countries that resist their agendas. They are a weapon of Economic War, resulting in chronic shortages of basic necessities, economic dislocation, chaotic hyperinflation, artificial famines, disease, and poverty. In every country, the poorest and the weakest – infants, children, the chronically ill and the elderly – suffer the worst impact of sanctions.”
In Venezuela, sanctions led to the deaths of 40,000 Venezuelans in 2018 alone.
Heavily-sanctioned for years, Syria faces the same risks.
As Syrian-American activist, Johnny Achi, told me:
The sanctions on Syria have been imposed since I could remember. Firstly in 1979, when the U.S. first designated Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism for its roll in support of the PLO and the Palestinian cause.
In 2004, a new set of sanctions was imposed by Bush the son after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and after Syria refusing to kneel to the demands of the new world order.
Since the so-called “uprisings” began in March 2011, the Obama administration intensely pursued calibrated sanctions to deprive the Syrian government of the resources it needs to quell the terror and violence inflicted on the Syrian population by Obama’s supported Nusra and ISIS terror groups, and to pressure the Syrian president to give in and resign, “to allow for a democratic transition as the Syrian people demand.” Which could not be further away from the truth, since President Assad, by most Western reports, continued to enjoy no less than 70% popularity amongst all Syrians.
All these sanctions up to the new Caesar Act were bearable since Syria has always pride itself of being self-sufficient economically and never needed help from the international community, and refused to be in debt to the IMF or the World Bank.
The Caesar Act of 2019 came in direct response to the series of victories by the Syrian Army against terrorists across the whole country, setting the stage to the final battle of Idlib, the terrorists’ final hotbed.”
Under the sanctions levied by the Caesar Act, Syria cannot import vital medications or the materials to produce them, including for cancer, hypertension, and other critical ailments. Sanctioning Syria’s ability to import medicines, medical equipment, and among many other things, materials for rebuilding, is criminal and an act of terrorism.
When I was in Syria last October, a man told me his wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but because of the sanctions he couldn’t get her the conventional treatments most in the West would avail of.
In 2016, in Aleppo, before it was liberated of al-Qaeda and co, Dr. Nabil Antaki told me how –because of the sanctions– it had taken him well over a year to get a simple part for his gastroenterology practise.
In 2015, visiting Damascus’ University Hospital, where bed after bed was occupied by a child maimed by terrorists’ shelling (from Ghouta), a nurse told me:
“We have so many difficulties to ensure that we have antibiotics, specialized medicines, maintenance of the equipment… Because of the sanctions, many parts are not available, we have difficulties obtaining them.
In 2018, Syria’s Minister of Health told me that Syria had formerly been dubbed by the World Health Organization a “pioneer state” in providing health care.
“Syria had 60 pharmaceutical factories and was exporting medicine to 58 countries. Now, 16 of these factories are out of service. Terrorists partially or fully destroyed 46 hospitals and 620 medical centers,” he told me.
I asked the minister about the complex in Barzeh, targeted with missile strikes by the U.S. and its allies in April 2018. It turns out that it was part of the Ministry of Health and manufactured cancer treatment medications as well as antidotes for snake or scorpion bites and stings, the antidote also serving as a basic material in the manufacture of many other medicines.
Syrian-American doctor Hussam al-Samman told me about his efforts to send chemotherapy medications to Syria for cancer patients in remission. He jumped through the various hoops of America’s unforgiving bureaucracy to no avail. It was never possible in the first place.
We managed to get a meeting in the White House. We met Rob Malley, a top-notch assistant or adviser of Obama at that time. I asked them: ‘How in the world could your heart let you block chemotherapy from going to people with cancer in Syria?’
The U.S. and allied Western countries imposing the sanctions on Syria should be imprisoned for their crimes against humanity and their support of terrorism in Syria. Yet, there is never justice and the criminals run the show.
Fares Shehabi, a Syrian member of Parliament from Aleppo, highlighted the attack on his country’s economy in 2011:
…when EU backed “rebels” began a systematic campaign of burning & looting thousands of factories in Aleppo, including my own!” The EU, he continued, “sanctioned the Syrian economy to make things worse for our people!”
The latest round of sanctions against Syria, which came into effect on June 17, will target not only the people but also Syria’s ability to rebuild the country. This includes rebuilding the city of Raqqa, utterly destroyed by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, whose presence is in violation of international law and of Syria’s sovereignty.
“Sanctions Kill” also notes, that, “Currencies are devalued and inflated when sanctions are levied. Countries are pressured to stop doing business with targeted countries. The first sectors affected are generally medicines, cost of food, power, water treatment and other essential human needs. Sanctions violate international law, the UN charter, Geneva and Nuremberg conventions because they target civilians by economic strangulation, creating famines, life threatening shortages, and economic chaos.”
According to the World Food Program, “7.9 million Syrians are food insecure – an increase of 22 percent in just one year. Syria is in the grip of a severe economic crisis, and this is driving levels of food insecurity. Rising food and fuel prices and a depreciating informal exchange rate are making it more difficult for families to access the food they need.”
This is precisely what is occurring in Syria, which, with the help of its allies, is attempting to rebuild. US sanctions will hinder the rebuilding process.
The other day I was chatting with a college student, Naji Kaskas, about how this new round of heightened sanctions affects him. He said:
I started working this year, my savings are in Syrian pounds. Now, they’ve lost half their value, or more. This Caesar Act, what it already has done to us is to contribute to the collapse of the Syrian currency.
We’re unable to buy food like chicken and meat, now, they’re way too expensive. Even milk. We’re not living a normal life, we have anxiety because our future is not stable.
Before, 500 Syrian pounds were equal to US$1 (Note: before 2011 it was around 50 Syrian pounds to the dollar). Now, it has reached 3,000 Syrian pounds, so our salaries are much less now.”
Jordanian political figures denounced the heightened sanctions appropriately as “economic terrorism”, calling them “one of the most dangerous types of crimes against humanity.”
Syrian-American activist Johnny Achi has been back to Syria countless times during the war, including since early 2011. He has seen the effects of the war and also the effects of the sanctions. He told me:
These final sanctions have broken the back of Syrians, whom after 10 years of war are exhausted, resources depleted, and simply put, were looking forward to the rebuilding process and the economic recovery. And that is precisely what these sanctions are meant to stop. Any country, or entity that attempts to help Syria gets back on its feet, will too become a target of the brutal US sanctions.
In a nutshell, what they could not take from us by force, they’re trying to take by punishing and starving an entire population.
But we will always remain resisting. After all that we’ve been through, and all the sacrifices we paid, we have no choice but to continue to live free or die free.”
Indeed, the people of Syria are fighting for their country, families and future, at great personal expense. Meanwhile, the US does everything in its power to destroy their future, country and livelihoods.
Who is really the terrorist state here?