Syria Direct 2.23.16
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February 23, 2016 
In battle for one corner of Al-Hasakah, 30,000 displaced move south toward Islamic State territory amidst fears of Kurdish-led SDF

AMMAN: Tens of thousands of residents in Islamic State territory in the southern Al-Hasakah countryside have fled south towards neighboring Deir e-Zor in the wake of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) lightning advances towards the former’s last stronghold in Syria’s far northeastern province.

Residents are reportedly heading south, deeper into IS-controlled areas, rather than north, east or west into territory currently controlled by the Kurdish-majority SDF because they say they are afraid of arrests, expulsions and revenge killings, Abdullah al-Ahmad, an activist in Al-Hasakah city, told Syria Direct on Monday.

“The crimes that civilians witnessed the Kurdish militias commit in neighboring villages, such as expelling them [from their homes], along with arrests, killings and pillaging, is driving them toward IS despite people’s hatred of them,” said al-Ahmad.

Last week, the SDF launched the Anger of al-Khabur campaign to take IS’s last stronghold in Al-Hasakah province, a-Shadadi. [Ed.: The campaign is named after the al-Khabur river, the largest tributary inside Syria that feeds into the Euphrates River.]

Located approximately 50km south of Al-Hasakah city, a-Shadadi is a way station on the supply route connecting IS’s de facto Syrian capital, A-Raqqa, to their Iraqi stronghold in Mosul.

Though pro-opposition and Western media reported the SDF had captured a-Shadadi last Friday, IS forces counter-attacked, and have since reportedly retaken most of the town, Ahmad Awwad, an activist from the southern Al-Hasakah countryside told Syria Direct on Monday.

The SDF then sent in “a huge number” of reinforcements to the a-Shadadi front.  Both sides are now digging in for a “vicious” battle over the town, Umr a-Shami, an activist from a-Shadadi who is on the ground near the frontline, told Syria Direct Monday.

Syria Direct could not confirm the exact position of SDF forces inside or around the town due to conflicting reports and since fighting is ongoing.

Despite IS’s counter offensive, SDF forces maintain control over most of the hundreds of oil and gas wells surrounding a-Shadadi to the east and west, including the al-Jabiseh gas field, one of the largest in Syria.

Losing these oil and gas wells means IS’s situation in Al-Hasakah is now “dire,” said a-Shami.

“IS will try and maintain control of a-Shadadi by all possible means.”

‘Between two flames’

While most residents of a-Shadadi have chosen to flee deeper into IS territory rather than take their chances living under SDF rule, an estimated 100 families fled north into areas recently captured by the Kurdish-led coalition, said Ahmad Awwad, the activist from the southern Al-Hasakah countryside.

But displaced Syrians’ fears of abuse at the hands of the Kurdish factions of the SDF grew over the weekend when SDF forces allegedly killed five civilians, including a 12-year-old girl, in one village gained over the past week after accusing them of being Islamic State sympathizers, reported local pro-opposition Al-Hasakah Youth Union on Facebook on Monday. Syria Direct could not independently verify the report.

Tensions between Kurdish YPG forces and their allies in the SDF, which include Sunni Arab rebel brigades in north and northeast Syria, manifested almost immediately after the formation of the US-backed coalition, originally formed last October with a mandate to battle the Islamic State. The SDF has made significant gains in Al-Hasakah since.

Though primarily made up of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), SDF forces also include Arab tribal militias and FSA rebel factions. 

Pre-existing tensions between some Sunni Arab brigades and tribal militias and Kurdish YPG forces in Al-Hasakah increased following the formation of the SDF and subsequent military campaigns, due to what those factions call YPG encroachment on Arab territory. In March 2015, Syria Direct reported on YPG units burning Arab homes in Al-Hasakah.

Though the SDF claims to be a multi-ethnic “national force for a future Syria,” many Arab residents in Al-Hasakah cast doubt on that narrative.

During a joint two-week campaign by YPG and rebel Arab forces in southern Al-Hasakah that began at the end of last October, thousands of residents fled farther south to escape the YPG. One reason is that the Islamic State provides certain “essential goods,” including a monetary stipend to internally displaced Syrians, Abu Jad al-Hasakawi, a citizen journalist form the southern countryside, told Syria Direct at the time.

“This has forced people to live between two flames, that of the Islamic State and the YPG,” said al-Hasakawi. “Most prefer getting burned by IS—it's less hot as far as they're concerned.”

Residents now fleeing this most recent SDF advance are following similar logic, Abdullah al-Ahmad, the activist in Al-Hasakah city, told Syria Direct Monday.

“Civilians are afraid to flee to YPG-held areas or to regime territory because they believe they will be arrested under the pretext that they are IS partisans,” said al-Ahmad, adding that this is what people have experienced “every time” the YPG assumes control of IS territory.

“They have two choices and the best one is still bad.”

With public schools in tatters, a Damascene teacher fears ‘an ignorant, illiterate generation’

Five years of war has taken its toll on public education in Damascus. Experienced teachers have left Syria or been conscripted for military service, and classrooms are packed with displaced students seeking refuge in the capital.

“Education is going from bad to worse,” a kindergarten teacher at a private school in Damascus, who requested anonymity, tells Syria Direct's Nisreen Nassar.

“There are fears that we are raising an ignorant, illiterate generation, which doesn't understand a thing.”

Q: Why are families sending their children to private schools?

Because the quality of education at the private schools is a lot better than public in terms of the care bestowed on each child. These schools closely follow the child's educational level, and will always include his family in the process. Add to that private schools' focus on teaching English, and the fact that private schools offer bussing is comforting to families in light of the security situation.

Q: What's the quality of education like at public compared to private schools?

There are some decent and some subpar public schools. The teachers don't have sufficient experience, or they haven't finished their college degree yet, and did not take special courses in developing curricula and teaching. There is no interest in the student or her educational level, and classrooms are packed with large numbers of students. This is the opposite of private schools where the number of children in each class is ideal, and the learning process much better.

The public school teaching staff has gotten worse. Most teachers have left the profession: some traveled abroad, others have been taken for reserve military service. This has led to a decline in the educational process.

Additionally, families are afraid to send their students to school due to a lack of security.

Q: How much does private school cost? Can families afford it?

Tuition begins at SP50,000 ($265) and reaches SP100,000 ($530) or more for a single student per year. Of course this is a burden on families, which leads some to borrow money. Many can't afford the cost.

Q: What sorts of alternatives exist to private schools?

The alternative is private lessons at home. Some families do the teaching themselves because they can't pay for lessons.

Q: In your opinion as a teacher, what sorts of negative consequences are you seeing as a result of the decline in education?

Education is going from bad to worse, unfortunately. There are fears that we are raising an ignorant, illiterate generation, which doesn't understand a thing. This will impact future generations.

Smuggled dairy cows provide milk for encircled East Ghouta

Prior to the outbreak of war in late 2011, Syria was the only country in the region self-sufficient in agricultural production. 

Today, farm profits have fallen by 25-30 percent, with half the number of Syria’s pre-war livestock, according to a 2015 report by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

“Syria’s food chain is disintegrating–from production to markets–and entire livelihood systems are collapsing,” stated another FAO report from 2014.

In response, the Austria-based International Humanitarian Relief organization (IHR) provided 31 farmers in East Ghouta last December with dairy cows to replace livestock lost during the war.

Firas al-Marhoum, the Director of the IHR project in East Ghouta, declined to disclose how the cows entered the east Damascus suburbs, which have been totally surrounded by regime forces since June 2012. The point of the project, he tells Syria Direct’s Hiba al-Khajja, is to “create income-generating opportunities for Ghouta families by transforming consumers into producers.”

Q: What is the “Good Cow” (Baqrat Khair) Initiative?

The Good Cow project is a development initiative launched by the International Humanitarian Relief (IHR) organization in East Ghouta. The project provided 31 cows to farmers in the besieged East Ghouta area who lost their livestock as a result of the ongoing five-year war.

In the first phase of the project, IHR provided the farmers with dairy cows and feed sufficient for three months. In the second phase, we purchase milk from the farmers and sell it in local markets at a subsidized price. So far more than 1,000 people have benefited from the subsidized milk.

The initiative aims to create income-generating opportunities for Ghouta families by transforming consumers into producers.

Q: How did IHR select farmers to participate in the project?

Participating farmers were required to meet the requirements set by IHR, including owning their own stable and at least 2 dunums (2,000 square meters) of land for grazing. Additionally, farmers were required to pass an animal husbandry test administered by a committee of veterinarians. Finally, IHR worked to select farmers with land outside areas of intense shelling.

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