Areeha’s Love/Hate Relationship with the UN Monitors
by Shakeeb Al-Jabri
Annan’s Plan has entered its second month and most Syria observers are debating its effectiveness. The daily death toll hovers at 30. Assad’s assaults on rebellious cities, though less frequent, remain brutal. Security forces continue suppressing protests and detaining activists. In the city of Areeha, the residents are having a debate. They haven’t quite decided whether they love or hate the monitors.
Areeha, an agricultural city 50 kilometers southwest of Aleppo and 15 kilometers from the provincial capital Idleb is an important city in terms of produce output. Areeha’s residents grow olives, cherries, apricots and almonds, their produce sold across the country is also an important exporter to Turkey.
Areeha joined the revolution on April 22 of last year, with a large protest demanding an end to the rule of fear. Security forces responded swiftly by opening fire on protesters and detaining a large number of participants. The regime’s attitude only emboldened the city’s residents and Areeha quickly secured its role as a revolutionary city by persisting despite the efforts of the security forces to extinguish the protests. The Syrian army invaded the city in June of last year laying waste to the city and killing many civilians. Security forces set up frequent checkpoints and positioned snipers on rooftops. Nonetheless, almost a year has passed since the initial invasion and Areeha is still protesting.
The army maintained two military bases, AlNayraq and AlMastoome, in close proximity to the city, making it a crossing point for all armored vehicles. Making use of the Aleppo/Lattakia highway, the army are frequent visitors to Areeha. Residents lead a life of misery due to the ongoing chokehold of this strategically important city.
Now, the residents of Areeha are hoping UN monitors will be able to bring some semblance of normalcy back to their city. The monitors have visited Areeha six times so far, but the first few visits left the residents wondering if the monitors had any intention to help. The first visits lasted less than 10 minutes each during which the monitors refused to leave their armored cars and talk to the residents. They rejected all guidance provided by local activists and instead drove through the city.
After each UN visit, Assad’s army opened fire on the residents, a move that was seen as regime punishment for receiving the monitors. The short, and largely useless, visits enraged Areeha’s residents. “We hated them for this,” Ahmad, a local activist said, “They came, did nothing of use to us, they didn’t even talk to us, but we still got punished.”
However, the activists admit that the mere presence of monitors in Idlib, the main city 15 km away, has helped reduce the regime’s assaults. The army used to shell Areeha daily with heavy weapons killing scores of residents. Soldiers positioned at checkpoints and snipers on rooftops randomly opened fire on passers-by forcing the city into a state of paralysis. “As God is my witness they kill us just for fun,” Ahmad said. Now that has stopped, almost.
On May 6 a farmer walked up to checkpoint and asked permission to tend his farm. He was allowed through along with a young aide. He was discovered dead with a bullet wound in his head later in the day. Activists said that the same soldiers who allowed him to go his farm opened fire, killing him and injuring his aide. Such incidents still occur in Areeha but less frequently since the monitors’ last visit.
In the month since the UN mission was authorized activists say that the monitors have increased their coordination substantially. A small team of observers are deployed in Idlib and the activists have their phone numbers. The monitors stayed more than an hour on each of their two most recent visits. They met with many residents and heard their complaints at length. They also toured the city taking note of the heavily damaged neighborhoods.
Jalal, another activist, says the monitors listened to the people. “The last time they drove through our city we surrounded their cars and told them ‘don’t come here anymore unless you want to talk to us and see our damaged homes,’” Jalal said. “Last time they stayed for an hour and a half.”
During the first lengthy visit, Ahmad and Jalal met with the monitors who explained to them the parameters of the mission. They said the monitors refused to conduct interviews while the activists were filming. The monitors also weren’t interested in seeing protests. “They told us they’re worried it might provoke the soldiers into firing at us,” Jalal said, “but we told them we’re used to this.”
Monitors were asked to secure the release of the city’s detained, or at least, to understand the fate of the missing. There are some twenty detainees from Areeha, some of whom have been missing for more than seven months. Ahmad says he evaded arrest by the security forces who falsely accused him of being an armed militant but his brother has been abducted from his university in Damascus. “He is just a student, he has nothing to do with the revolution,” Ahmad said. “We gave the monitors a full report about him and all the detainees.”
The activists have mixed feelings about the monitors’ potential. “Every time they visit we get punished,” Jalal said “things have improved a bit, but not enough.” Ahmad is more optimistic, “They made promises,” he said, “we need to give them time to deliver.”