Anchal Vohra
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A Syrian family froze to death fleeing the war. So why hasn’t the world noticed?

The family were only a couple of hours’ drive from the glitz and comfort of Beirut. Please note: this story contains a graphic image.

Aged just one-year-old, Yasser al-Abed was travelling towards safety with his family of 14. But the journey turned into a death trap. In total, 16 people, including six from the Abed family, froze to death in the mountains. They were just a couple of hours’ drive away from the glitz and comfort of Beirut.

The frozen bodies of the Abed family and their fellow refugees are a stark reminder that the conflict in Syria is not over. Not for those like the Abeds, whose neighbourhoods were destroyed during the assault on Islamic State, nor for the misery of those still living in the middle of a warzone.  

Half a dozen children are screaming in the packed, tiny room in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli, where I meet the surviving members of the Abed family. The adults sit on the carpet with fallen faces. The mood is bitter. 

Amal, an 18-year old mother, is hiding in a corner of the room, her face buried in her knees despite her three-year-old daughter nudging her for attention. Amal is Yasser’s mother. Her son was the youngest of the six to die.

Eventually, she pulls out her phone and runs her fingers through the picture of her boy. “This is all I am left with. I miss him very much,” she says. Her eyes well with tears.

The Abed family came from the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. The province had changed hands during the long conflict, falling to Islamic State in 2015 before being taken again by the Assad regime. Caught between airstrikes and extremists in the ground, up to 95,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting, according to an October UN estimate

In the Abed family’s case, their home was shelled in December 2017, leaving the family no choice but to seek safety somewhere else. For a month, they say, they stayed in a hotel in Damascus known as a collection point for Syrians hoping to leave the war-torn country. One day, they were approached by a smuggler who offered to escort them to Lebanon illegally.

Home to at least a million Syrian refugees, Lebanon started restricting access for more such cases in 2015. That has not deterred Syrians from trying to seek a safe haven, often endangering their lives a second time. Since December last year, 300,000 have fled Syria in renewed fighting on several fronts. The Abed family is one of them.

Desperate, they took the smuggler at his word. They decided to march in the middle of the night, braving the snow, the cold, and the violent winds.

After clearing immigration on the Syrian border, the smuggler sat them in a café and advised them to follow blinking lights emanating from a point on the mountain in the border area. He collected a sum of $1,500 for the group, told them it would be a short walk and left.

On the night of the journey, Yasser was in the arms of his aunt, Amal’s sister Abir. Seven months pregnant, Abir found it difficult to carry the infant. “The smugglers said it would be a 30 minute walk, but we walked all night,” she says.

The family followed the blinking lights as instructed and met three men. They discovered they weren’t the only ones to be transported but that a large gathering of 60-70 people would make the same journey. The three guides, possibly local shepherds, divided them into groups and they began their quest.

At some point in the night, the man leading Abir’s group disappeared. She was with her mother and some other family members, but deep in a winter storm, she became separated from the rest. Tired and lost in the dark, after hours of hard climbing, Abir succumbed to sleep. “When I woke up, everyone around me was dead,” she says.

Abir found her nephew Yasser lying still on the ice. His eyes were open, his face pale and his body tilted to the right. His sweater was labelled “Ferrari”. He had not survived the night.

His photograph, the snow encasing his lifeless face, reminded many of that of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old who drowned in the Mediterranean and whose picture after he washed up on a beach near Turkey shocked the world in September 2015. 

The image of Yasser and other Syrians, his face blurred. Source: Lebanese Civil Defense

Both Yasser and Alan were small children whose families were fleeing the war in Syria. Yet the response has been drastically different. Alan’s picture changed the nature of the debate about refugees in much of the Western world; Yasser’s has hardly received any attention.

When Alan died, it was the height of the refugee crisis, and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were knocking on the European door. By the time Yasser met his end this January, Islamic State was on the run, Assad was thought to be winning and the news cycle had moved on.

The reality is that the Syrian war isn’t ending, but flaring up anew, and Syrians are continuing to die.

Since December, several hospitals and clinics have been targeted by the Syrian regime in Idlib in northern Syria. Scores have been killed. They include civilians who were bussed out of Aleppo in December 2016 after rebels who had held the east of Syria’s second city surrendered. They died in Idlib instead.

In the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, 400 have been killed since late December, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights and a 100 of these are children. Thousands continue to live under a regime-imposed siege.

Both Idlib and Ghouta are in theory opposition-controlled “de-escalation zones” under terms of a ceasefire agreement negotiated between Turkey, which supports the rebels, and regime-backers Russia and Iran. The Assad regime is supposed to have given its assent, but has shown the rules little regard.

In August last year, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad’s media boss and close adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, told me that there is no doubt the Syrian government will attempt to regain all of Syria. “We have got Aleppo and now we are in Deir Ezzor, next we will go to Idlib and get back every part of Syria under the control of terrorists,” she said.

The Syrian regime has gone about eliminating all shades of opposition and regaining the country in a systematic manner. First, it cracked down on the original, democratically-minded protesters. With the moderates crushed, it could create a narrative of “Assad versus the extremists”. Then, it used the fight between regional and world powers against IS to its advantage. Having won time with the four de-escalation zones, it focused on reasserting dominance in major financial and resource-rich regions. Now strengthened, it is targeting the opposition in these zones, including the civilians stuck among the rubble.

Assad’s blood-stained track record shows he is unlikely to stop while he is winning, which means more death, more destitution, more debris and displaced Syrians becoming refugees.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s hostility towards the Kurds and America’s support for them has put two Nato allies on opposite sides. And in the south west of Syria, two regional rivals, Iran and Israel, are engaged in a stand off after an Iranian drone was intercepted flying over Israeli territory. The contested border region of the Golan Heights, up until now dorman, could potentially become a newly active battlezone. 

In short, the theatre of war in Syria has expanded, not contracted. And both living in the country and leaving it will continue to be a death trap for ordinary families like the Abeds. 

The family members had suffered from the social injustices imposed by the regime for all thier lives. When Islamic State took over, their problems magnified. Amal and Abir couldn’t leave the house, and Shihab, Yasser’s grandfather, lost his job as a TV repair mechanic because IS banned watching it. But after losing their home and belongings in the war and half of their family in the subsequent attempt to flee, they wonder if they were better off living under IS. 

Losing Yasser makes Amal want to return to Syria. She came to Lebanon looking for a new home and safety but the sorrow of her son’s death has swallowed her. She craves the surroundings she knows.

Shihab blames himself for asking the family to escape. He wonders had they not, may be his grandson would still be alive.

As he received condolences from relatives, he said: “Life under IS was difficult but there was no war. Our house was only bombed when the regime started clearing them up.”

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How Antifa uses no-platforming successfully to fight white supremacy

The left needs to figure out how to weigh its critiques of Antifa against the movement’s success.

After addressing a virtually empty performance hall at Michigan State University, the white nationalist Richard Spencer cancelled his college tour. The pathetic turnout was the work of Antifa and student organisers, who had blocked the entrances to the event.

This state of disarray is a familiar sight among white nationalist groups. The Traditionalist Worker’s Party has all but dissolved after its leader was arrested for choking the group’s top spokesman, while organisers of Charlottesville’s Unite The Right rally, Jason Kessler and Andrew Anglin, are facing a lawsuit for conspiracy to commit violence.

Even Milo Yiannopoulos, once a guest of American talk show host Bill Maher, has been reduced to hawking vitamin supplements on Infowars, a conspiracy theorist website. His fate is the perfect symbol of the fall of the alt-right, and, like much of their demise, can be largely attributed to the success of Antifa.

In 2017, little divided the American left more than Antifa. While some of the criticism was rather unhinged – like Robert Reich’s bizarre suggestion that Antifa was a false flag operation created by the right – much of it came from a place of sympathy. Noam Chomsky, for example, warned of the threat of escalating violence, branding disruptive tactics “a welcome gift to the far-right and the repressive forces of the state”.

Despite criticism from liberals and leftists, Antifa continued to grow; dealing significant blows to the alt-right throughout the year. This eventually culminated in the deadly clash in Charlottesville, from which the alt-right has been unable to recover.

The question is no longer whether Antifa’s tactics are a viable way to confront white nationalism, but how the left should weigh the critiques of Antifa against its success.

Philosophical or religious objections to violence aside, the left had two main issues with the movement. They argued that not only did its protests provide an excuse for young white guys to cause mayhem, but that the attention garnered in doing so actually boosted the alt-right by giving them notoriety – while increasing the possibility of violence against the left.

Although there were undeniably some young white men who appeared better motivated by the opportunity to smash windows than build solidarity, this criticism is superficial. It obscures the women, the people of colour, and participants from the LGBTQ+ community all of whom, in many cases, were not only members of Antifa, but actually lead the movement.

Masquerading as an intersectional perspective, the white-men-mayhem critique erased the contributions of people of colour in Antifa and mistakenly centred whiteness in the struggle against white supremacy.

Despite the tactics of the left, violence remains a distinct part of far-right practice, with frequent brutality seen by right-wing and white nationalists over the last year. From the shooting of a protester in Portland in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, to the seven people stabbed at a neo-Nazi event in Sacramento, to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, it seemed the white supremacist movement did not need much excuse to enact violence.

Under these conditions, self-defence is becoming an unwanted but indispensable activity for left activism. As the academic Dr Cornel West said after Charlottesville, where he was present: without Antifa, he and the members of the clergy there “would have been crushed like cockroaches”.

Lamenting his inability to hold college tours, Richard Spencer commented on how the carnival-like atmosphere around their events was good for recruiting. According to Spencer, such controversy allowed the alt-right to “present ourselves as curiosities”, attracting people wondering “what are these crazy racist ideas I’ve been hearing about”.

While he benefits from a contained chaos, there comes a point where opposition becomes unmanageable. It is unfair and irresponsible to ask communities to tolerate white nationalism by ignoring it; we must instead build a determined opposition to its growth.

The student activists at MSU offer an example of how coordinated opposition can successfully prevent the alt-right from achieving their goals – containing the scourge of white supremacy.

Antifa was alarming to many because its radical tactics disrupted our lives. It is harrowing to look around and see you are surrounded by rot. But to build a better future, we must see the world as it is and to stand in solidarity with each other to make changes.

David Griscom is a contributing writer and researcher with The Michael Brooks Show, a left-wing podcast whose guests typically include figures from left media including Jacobin, Current Affairs, and Chapo Trap House.