Memories and lives destroyed by brutality in Darayya, Syria

Zaher Shehab lost his mother, brother, and five other relatives in attacks on the Damascus suburb, and could only listen to their funeral on the phone.

When seven members of my family were killed in a single attack this summer, I didn’t think that things could get any worse. My mother, brother, and five other relatives died after being hit by rocket fire on our farm in the Damascus suburb of Darayya. Thousands of miles away at Bath University, where I am a student, all I could do was listen in to their funeral on the phone.

Then, last month, Darayya became the victim of the biggest atrocity that we have seen so far in Syria in 18 months of revolution. 

You might have seen the pictures – rows of bodies of men, women and children wrapped up in white, makeshift shrouds, lined in communal graves because there were too many to bury them one by one.

It began on Monday 20 August, the second day of the Islamic festival of Eid. There was a terrifying campaign of shelling, which got worse and worse. Forces loyal to the murderous President Assad surrounded all routes out of the town. After four days, on the Friday, they invaded and went on a killing spree.

They executed hundreds - tying their hands, lining them up and shooting them. Others they dragged from their homes and killed them on the threshold. Mothers were murdered in front of their daughters, sons in front of their fathers.

Any group of men or boys found together were killed immediately. I know someone who was killed because a wooden bracelet bearing the revolutionary flag was found in his house.

My 18-year-old cousin, Morhaf Shehab, worked to distribute food to those who had been left destitute. He was kind and modest, and always concerned with helping others. He decided to take some supplies to a group in a shelter taking refuge from the bombing. But Assad forces arrived while he was there, and killed him and dozens of others. When his body was returned to his family it bore signs of torture.

During the attack on the town, many were also arrested. One Sunday, two of my cousins, aged 26 and 29, were detained along with 13 others.  In some ways this is the worst fate of all. They could be being tortured right now, as you are reading these words.

For those lucky enough not to be killed or captured by the regime, life is still impossibly difficult. The government cuts off electricity and water for long periods. There is not enough food. There is a huge shortage of doctors and medicines. Being caught with first aid equipment is a crime – many medical workers have been killed. 

One evening during the siege of the town, my 70-year-old grandmother fell ill. It was too dangerous to leave the town, which is dotted with checkpoints and surrounded by snipers. In the morning, my father woke up to find that she had died in the night.

My old memories about Darayya are amazing. It was surrounded by beautiful farms, bearing all different kinds of fruit. In spring it would fill me with hope as the colourful flowers woke the town from its winter sleep.

Now, the place is unrecognisable. They have destroyed the roads and burnt the buildings. They broke into shops to steal everything that is valuable. About 250 homes were damaged. The infrastructure is ruined, and rubbish is piling up on the streets.

So far, 683 bodies have been buried from the massacre. We only know the identity of 460 of them – some were tortured so badly, or so decomposed, that no one could tell who they were. From my extended family 30 have been killed. There are 1,100 wounded, many of whom are in need of urgent medical help. Almost 3,000 families have been left in urgent need.

I have a hard time knowing how to cope with what is happening. I do not know what to do, or how to help. All I can do is tell the world about these terrible events. The state media spread lies, saying that the people of the town had killed each other and that bastard Bashar al-Assad had sent his army to protect civilians. My friends and family feel that no one knows what really went on.

Our biggest hope is that we will eventually get justice. We keep careful lists of all those killed or arrested, and the names of those who committed these terrible acts. We are waiting for the day when we will use them against Assad and his supporters in the International Criminal Court.

Zaher Shehab is studying for a PhD in pharmacy at the University of Bath. He is from the Syrian town of Darayya.

A young boy holds up a sign during an anti-regime demonstration. Photograph: Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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