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Saving Syria’s Children

November 25th, 2013 · Culture, Politics

Londoners: this is happening on Wednesday night, an Intelligence Squared debate with Save the children:

How should the world protect Syria’s children?

The panel includes:

  • Mikhail Kasyanov, former Russian Prime Minister;
  • Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children;
  • Dr Rola Hallam, the British-Syrian doctor and war-zone medic who was recently involved in BBC’s Panorama documentary, ‘Saving Syria’s Children’;
  • Lord Mark Malloch Brown, former UK government minister (2007 – 2009) and United Nations Deputy Secretary-General (2006)
  • Paul Conroy, World-renowned photojournalist and war-photographer
  • Jon Sopel, award-winning BBC News presenter and correspondent who will chair.

If you can’t attend, you can watch live, here: http://livestream.intelligencesquared.com/ from 1900 to 2030 on Wednesday 27 November.

The hashtag is #iq2syria.

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A left-wing response to left-wing delusions on Syria

May 28th, 2013 · Commentary

I can’t say I agree with everything in this, but it’s certainly an interesting read. It’s a response to a comment piece by Lindsey German. By Shiar:

A left-wing response to left-wing delusions on Syria

I have no idea where you get your news about Syria from, but it strikes me
that it’s probably mostly from the Guardian, BBC and other establishment
mouthpieces (when it comes to foreign policy anyway). For how else can one
explain your sudden realisation that Syria is only now “descending into
hell”? Really?! All this death and destruction over the past 26 months has
not been hellish enough for you? Only now, when your beloved mainstream
media start to recycle some state propaganda nonsense about the conflict
in Syria taking (yet another) dangerous turn or crossing some ‘red line’,
do your alarm bells start to ring?

You see, information sources are not just about information; they also
shape your perspective. As a Leftist activist, one would have thought you
would mention – at least once, in passing – the popular uprising or the
revolution, what Syrians think and want, or anything remotely related to
people. Instead, all you obsess about is big politics from a statist
perspective: regime change, foreign intervention, regional war, Israel,
Iran, bla bla bla.

If you’d argued that, after Tunisia, the prospect of mass, popular
uprisings bringing regimes down seemed too frightening for Western and
regional powers, so they opted for pushing the revolutions into prolonged
armed conflicts or wars (mainly by not intervening when they could), I
might have paused and thought a bit about your argument. If you’d said
that the prospects of progressive governments emerging from mass uprisings
demanding freedom and social justice seemed too frightening for the
conservative, neoliberal forces, both regionally and internationally, so
they converged to divert the revolutions and paint them as something else,
I might have listened to you. But dismissing everything people have been
fighting for because of some archaic geo-strategic equations… that’s
just too much to swallow.

The only time you seem to remotely allude to people’s agency is when you
fall into the trap of Western media’s obsession with Middle Eastern
sectarianism, reducing complex political dynamics to a savage ‘civil war’
between religious sects: “Syria, locked into a bitter civil war between
the government of Bashir Assad and the various opposition forces…” Here
is what a friend posted on Facebook a while ago:

“Dear friends everywhere,
We, Syrians, or a vast majority of us, do not accept using the term ‘civil
war’ when talking about our revolution. We hope that you can take serious
note of that. It is a popular revolution against a mass-murdering
dictatorship. Calling it a civil war is unacceptable to us. Thanks.”

Your misinformed, or disinformed, sources of information may also explain
your simplistic analysis of the political games unravelling in Syria, such
as your talk about the imaginary “alliance of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel,
Jordan and the Western powers.” Had you bothered to look a bit closer,
check some more informed and reliable sources, or even talk to some
Syrians, you would have realised that this ‘alliance’ is riddled with
power struggles, with different regional and international powers
supporting different factions fighting in Syria, with very different
agendas and strategies. The only thing that seems to unite them is their
opposition to the regime.

But even this does not mean that ‘the Syrian people’ are united in their
position regarding these factions. Had you bothered to look or ask, you
would have discovered that many Syrian Leftists are fighting alongside
members of the Muslim Brothers, that there have been numerous protests
inside Syria against Jabhat al-Nusra when its members have gone too far in
their authoritarian or sectarian practices, and so on and so forth.
Instead, you chose to quote Robert Fisk – who has long lost it, as far as
I’m concerned – saying: “The rebels so beloved of NATO nations are losing
their hold of Damascus… This war – beware – may last another two, three
or more years. Nobody will win.”

The same can be said of your eye-opening revelation that the sole aim of
the Syrian revolution, as a Western conspiracy, is “a transformation of
the Middle East aimed at permanently weakening Iran and its allies.” I do
not want to comment on this any further but you might want to commission
one of your coalition members to investigate the complex and changing
attitudes of Syrians towards Hizbullah and Iran. A cursory look at recent
images posted on Facebook of Syrian banners and placards ridiculing Hasan
Nasrallah and Hizbullah might be a good start.

My point is that your objections to a military intervention in Syria seem
to stem from the same place as the intervention: that ‘we’ (Europeans,
Westerners, whatever) know better than Syrians what should be done about
Syria. Had you bothered to talk to some Syrians, they might have told you
how complex and nuanced the issue of foreign intervention is for most
Syrians (I’m obviously not talking about a few sell-outs or parasites who
are capitalising on the events for their own advantage). Their angry
responses to the Israeli air strike on Damascus last week are just one
example.

Did it not cross your mind, for instance, that ‘those people’ have already
experienced Western colonialism and have grown up with strong
anti-imperialist discourses (Leftist, pan-Arab nationalist and Islamist)?
That they too might have learnt something from the Iraq war like you?
(even though I would object to equating the invasion of Iraq with the
recent popular revolutions in the region, but that’s another discussion.)

I doubt any of this has ever crossed your mind. Because had it done so,
you might have paused for a moment and thought: what is that pushes these
people to resort to the support of antagonistic regional and Western
powers, knowing full well that the conditions of this support or the price
they would have to pay is very high? I can tell you what I think the main
reason is.

If you and your comrades had shown the Syrians who started the revolution
any sort of support from the beginning – I mean serious, material support,
not conditional solidarity and empty, confused slogans – they might not
have had to resort to the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other powers, and
to form coalitions with ‘backward’ forces. Instead, all you and your
comrades have been obsessing about is an imaginary peaceful or civil
society movement that would mysteriously succeed in bringing down a
blood-thirsty regime just like that. Then you turn to slag off those who
join the Islamists or whoever is actually fighting the regime. This is not
only delusional, allow me to say, it also does not exactly strike a chord
with the majority of Syrians at the moment, given the context of extreme
violence.

Every time I hear people here talking about a peaceful uprising being
hijacked by militant Islamists or great Western powers or whatever, I
cannot help thinking that it is not just their ignorant arrogance that is
making them so blind to what is actually happening on the ground; it is,
rather, an ideologically driven habit of twisting facts so that they
conveniently fit into a pre-constructed narrative about ‘those people’ and
how they do things. It is, in other words, Orientalism.

Here is another example from your article: “The impact of Western
intervention in Syria is becoming more destructive as time goes on. [...]
Syria… is continuing its descent into hell, aided and abetted by outside
powers whose concern is not humanitarian nor democratic, but is about
reshaping the region and especially destroying Syria’s ally in Iran.”

To me, the position of Western anti-war activists and politicians
vis-a-vis the Arab revolutions can be best descried as ‘schizophrenic
delusion’. On the one hand, they stand against ‘the war’; on the other,
they find themselves not only supporting repressive regimes but also
supporting the wars waged by these regimes against their peoples because
they are stuck in an archaic anti-imperialist discourse.

Being anti-imperialist yet West-centric just does not work: it is still
Orientalism. This Orientalist (and statist) world view is so dominant
within the Western Left that even a mass, popular uprising is reduced to a
Western-manufactured conspiracy (which is, incidentally, the same line as
that the Syrian regime has been repeating). It not only ignores facts on
the ground and the complex political dynamics at play in those countries,
but also overlooks those people’s agency and reduces them to either some
inferior and stupid stereotype (Islamist terrorists) or some romanticised
mythical version that is compatible with the dominant Western values
(pro-democracy, peaceful, etc.).

Regional and Western powers will, of course, try to capitalise on the
Syrian revolution and attempt to hijack or utilise it for their own ends
(they’ve always done so; that’s politics.). But by imposing your own
values and political agendas on the revolution, instead of showing real,
unconditional solidarity with the people living it, you do exactly the
same, dear comrade: you use it to feel better about yourself; to feel
you’re still relevant, superior and intelligent.

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Thanks for nothing

April 22nd, 2013 · Politics

Unprecedented anger from the Syrian Coalition tonight, the bloodiest day of the Syrian revolution, and the day of yet another alleged massacre.

“The deafening silence of the international community is shameful… Syrians no longer expect a chivalrous intervention from our brothers and neighbors. We no longer expect to be supported with the necessary arms.”

The world is sleeping, the Arabs are interfering but there is no benevolent intervention, and arms aren’t being sent. Syrians only have themselves to rely on. There’s no reverence in this statement towards the so called Friends of Syria. And rightly so.

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Syria Across the Lines

April 19th, 2013 · Media

Olly Lambert‘s excellent documentary must be watched. (If you’re outside the UK, watch it in the American language).

He spent five weeks in Syria, risking his life to tell the story of the civil war through a village divided. He uses a young FSA fighter on one side, and a regime soldier on the other as his lead characters. Both of them talked of wanting to become martyrs, and both of them talked of the existential nature of the battle. We either win, or die.

The moment that brought tears to my eyes: shocking scenes of the aftermath of an airstrike on a village full of refugees. One man was pulled out alive, kids were running for their lives. Refugees became refugees twice over.

Fun fact: the Channel 4 / PBS documentary was field produced by Nir Rosen.

A few quotes:

“There will be vendettas for 50 years because of these crimes” – old motorcycle-riding farmer whose crops are trapped in no-man’s land.

“We’re not going to have a truce. These declarations are being made by people who are abroad” – FSA commander. The morning that the UN truce was due to begin, his men attacked a regime checkpoint.

“We will take our revenge on Alawite civilians. We will go to their villages and kill them” – villager on the day of a regime airstrike.

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Refugees in their own country

December 19th, 2012 · Politics

While the plight of Syrians who have crossed the border into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon is well documented, Syria’s domestic refugees are a forgotten tragedy.

Officially called Internally Displaced Persons, they are refugees who are still in Syria. Some have fled home towns which have become war-zones, others have escaped from massacre sites, yet more are homeless after their properties were demolished by the regime.

Many end up living on the streets, while others take refuge in abandoned houses or with family elsewhere in the country.

No-one can be sure how many Syrians are refugees inside their borders, but the UN and EU say the number is at least 1.5 million. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent puts the figure at 2.5 million (a figure which the UNHCR believes could be much higher), while the Local Coordination Committees estimates that between 3 million and 3.5 million Syrians are internally displaced. In other words, around one-in-six Syrians are refugees in their own country.

And that’s before we start counting the hundreds of thousands who have fled the country. And then tens of thousands dead.

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The lowering of the flag

November 21st, 2012 · Politics

Flags are traditionally held at half-mast during times of mourning. Syria has been in mourning for almost two years. At least 38,000 are feared dead, and 340,000 are refugees. The vast majority are civilians. The vast majority were killed by the foot soldiers of a family that will do anything to stay in power. 

Until August 2011, Syrians, revolutionaries and Basharists, would fly the Syrian flag. Then something changed: Tripoli fell. The symbolism of Libya’s change of stripes was powerful.

A regime had been forced from power by a population that had risen up against a tyrant. Statues were pulled down, posters defaced and flags were swapped. It was a literal handover of power, expressed through a new cloth on the mast.

From this point on, Syria’s mandate-era flag (also known as the freedom flag or the revolutionary flag) became more widespread.

It was also a reaction against the way regime supporters had claimed the Syrian flag as a symbol of the tyrant. They printed his face on the flag. It had ceased to become a national flag, and instead turned into the mark of a militia – with the warlord’s face adorning the tricolour.

In May 2011, Amal Hanano returned to her hometown of Aleppo, and wrote a moving piece called This Flag is My Flag.  It was her attempt to reclaim the Syrian national flag from the clutches of Bashar’s ever-dwindling gang of supporters:

Each group should stick to the symbols they already have to clearly express their position. Dear Loyalists: This flag is our flag, Syria’s flag. If you want to show your love for the regime, please wave a Ba’athist flag. Dear Brave Syrian Opposition: Carry with pride our Syrian flag, the flag of unity.

Things changed very quickly after that.

Syria is a country at war with itself. It can not agree who should lead it, it can not even agree on its national symbols. These things will be settled after the fall of the regime and the rise of the country’s next rulers.

The abuse of the country’s symbols was inevitable by a regime that has spent a generation abusing the country’s institutions. And it seems likely that the flag will fall with the fall of the regime.

When I took the photo below, it was a sunny day in March 2008 in Qaimariyah in the Old City of Damascus. Syria was a different place. I had a naieve hope that Bashar would lead the country to regional peace and domestic prosperity. The flag was a symbol of all of Syria. I was wrong and the flag is a symbol of that bygone era. It’s time to lower that flag.

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Opposing Bashar

November 12th, 2012 · Politics

Now that the killing has, in all likelihood, exceeded 30,000, the opposition has finally got its act together.

For the first time in more than a year, there is genuine, unabashed hope coming from the killing fields. Despite the horror perpetrated by an army that will continue murdering until there is only one family left in Syria, there is optimism today.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (#NC on Twitter) subsumes the discredited SNC, a body that – because of its ineffectual nature – has been riven by infighting and accusations of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover.

The new body is led by the independent, well-respected former Imam of the Umayed Mosque in Damascus, Muaz Al-Khateeb. His two deputies are activist Suhair Al-Attasi and Damascus Declaration veteran Riad Seif (the man who helped bring this meeting of minds together).

With the election of these three, the NC gains three important support bases: the (moderately) religious, the young activists and organisers, and the old guard opposition.

These three leaders all recently fled Syria, so they have far stronger connections to the grass-roots than the hotel-activists of the SNC ever had.

The SNC is a member of the NC, and so the newly-elected head of the SNC, George Sabra (a Christian former communist who also left Syria during the revolution) will also be a strong voice in the new coalition.

But perhaps most importantly, the FSA was at the Doha talks. They are the ones facing the regime’s tanks on the ground, but the SNC always had frosty relations with the armed rebels inside Syria, and that must have played a part in the SNC’s downfall.

If the NC is to avoid the fate of the SNC – marginalisation and irrelevance – it will need to secure some early victories from the international community (money and weapons) and avoid the infighting that tore apart its predecessor.

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Farouq Al-Sharaa’s missing week

September 6th, 2012 · Politics

It has been said that the Syrian regime only learns of a defection when an official doesn’t turn up to work. So when the country’s vice president disappeared from the public eye for a week, it seemed as though the FSA had claimed a major scalp.

“Farouq Al-Sharaa did defect [and] we were trying to get him through to Jordan,” said rebel spokesman Louai Miqdad on 18 August.

Apart from a press release claiming that, “Vice President Farouq Al-Sharaa has never at any moment thought of leaving the homeland,” the regime was silent. Not a single quote from the man himself, no written statement, no on-camera appearance. For 7 days, Syria-watchers were on the edge of their seats, waiting for Al-Sharaa to turn up in Amman and declare his support for the revolution.

But it never happened. Instead, on 26 August, Tim Marshall, Foreign Affairs Editor for Britain’s Sky News, said that he had just met Al-Sharaa – in Damascus. But his Houdini-act raised more questions than it answered. Marshall described him as “looking tired”. Was the 73 year-old just war-weary? Or was something else at play?

While attention was on the battle for Aleppo throughout August, Daraa was being pounded by the regime’s forces. That is important because the city that was the birthplace of the Syrian revolution also happens to be Al-Sharaa’s hometown, and a transit point to Jordan.

On 23 August, @the_47th, a reliable opposition source, claimed that there were unconfirmed reports of regime troops scouring Daraa for the city for the missing vice president. “Hand us Al-Sharaa now, or we’ll level this city over your heads,” they apparently told locals by loudspeaker.

Was he found, and then presented to the waiting media in Damascus three days later? Al-Sharaa certainly fits the profile of a potential defector.

Assad’s biographer, David Lesch, describes the vice president as a respected elder statesman, and “one of the few in the upper echelons of the leadership who acted in the interests of the country and was not corrupt”.

So it’s no surprise that he was picked to chair a relatively well-attended national dialogue conference in July 2011 that brought together the government and opposition. He opened by talking of a transition to democracy, and admitted that the meeting would not have happened without the sacrifices of those who had died.

In retrospect, it was clear that the conference was meaningless, and that while the politicians talked in Damascus, the regime was busy killing unarmed civilians. At the time, though, Al-Sharaa’s words carried a degree of sincerity to some: he was touted as a possible transitional president in Arab League meetings.

But it is precisely that support, from enemies of the regime, that may have been Al-Sharaa’s poisoned chalice. In one of the first opposition conferences, early in the revolution, participants released a statement hailing Minister of Defence Ali Habib as someone who would have a key role post-Assad. He was dismissed from his post three months later, and found dead the next day. (Thanks Liz Sly.)

Was Al-Sharaa hunted down after defecting? Or was the regime just playing the propaganda game? The government has always been very slow at responding to claims made by an opposition that it doesn’t even recognise. It sees reacting as a sign of weakness, and would rather deal with the story on its own terms.

Whether or not he attempted to switch sides, the most significant effect of the regime’s extended delay in wheeling out Al-Sharaa has been to undermine the credibility of at least some of the opposition’s claims.

And more importantly, it sets the rules of the defection game: the next time there are claims that a government ally has deserted, the regime no longer has to prove that a minister is still loyal. The Al-Sharaa debacle means the burden of proof has shifted to the opposition.

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Syria: the bad old good old days

August 21st, 2012 · Politics

An interesting argument is brewing over on The Spectator blog, between Nick Cohen and the always readable Matthew Teller.

It started off as a rant against travel guidebooks, Lonely Planet in particular. But it has ended up in a fight over who knew what, and when, about Assad.

Cohen’s opening salvo pulls out a few lines from the (2004?) Lonely Planet guide to Syria, as if to mock with his crystal clear hindsight:

Assad’s pre-revolutionary Syria, the guide informs readers, was a land with cautious hope for the future. ‘Reforms by the young president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, may not have been as wide-ranging as many might have hoped, but there is certainly a feeling of optimism in the capital. Culture and tourism are high on the agenda and Damascus has responded with a flurry of art gallery and hotel openings (including the long-awaited Four Seasons).’

The thing is, the book is absolutely right. There was cautious hope in Damascus, the regime was pushing culture and tourism hard (the Arab Capital of Culture was a massive deal for the regime), and expat Syrians were returning to the country.

Elsewhere in the book, the Hama massacre, political prisoners, and the death of the Damascus Spring are all detailed. Cohen’s selective reading fails to pick up on this.

Matthew Teller, never a fan of Assad, picks up the argument:

Perhaps Cohen doesn’t know much about the Middle East, but there really were, on all sides, high hopes for Syria in the few years after Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power: indeed, the Western media dubbed the period the “Damascus Spring”. I can personally vouch for the accuracy of Lonely Planet’s identification of “a feeling of optimism in the capital” around that time. It’s easy to imply, as Cohen does, that writing about gallery openings and new hotels is a pernicious insult when placed beside the murderous violence we are now witnessing, but then hindsight has always been a seductive tool. At the time, in 2006, Syria-watchers were well aware that the opening of the Four Seasons in Damascus signalled the possibility of improving economic liberalisation. By 2009 even The Economist – notorious, of course, for its lefty whitewashing – was noting that “reforms have tapped suppressed entrepreneurial vigour [in Syria]”. Then the wheels came off, with unspeakably awful consequences. Journalists were wrong about Syria. Academics were wrong. Diplomats were wrong. Syrians themselves were wrong. But Cohen thinks the author of the Lonely Planet should have got it right.

Cohen can’t let it go. His argument is hollow, and he doesn’t seem to understand that a paragraph he copies and pastes from the Lonely Planet website about Syria coming in from the cold is probably years old.

The fact is this – the revolution took us all by surprise, even lifelong anti-Assad activists. Cohen, though, saw it all coming. Shame he didn’t tell us back then.

If you’re struggling to remember what the world thought of Syria pre-March 2011, have a look at this compilation of Syria stories by Jillian York.

 

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Fighter jets bomb Aleppo

July 24th, 2012 · BREAKING NEWS

Syrian fighter jets have bombed Aleppo, according to the BBC’s Ian Pannell.

Separately, ITV News reporter Bill Neely has caught on camera warplanes bombing Douma, in Damascus.

This is possibly the first time jets have been used in this conflict (although this is disputed, with some saying they were used in Rastan).

Using jets stinks of desperation, and shows just how hard the regime is having to fight to keep hold of Syria’s two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus.

It is a desperate move, because it is so flagrant. When the army sends in plain-clothed thugs to massacre women and children in their own homes, it can blame the opposition. When regular soldiers kill civilians in cold blood, it can accuse rebels of donning army uniforms. But when Syrian jets are in the skies, it has no-one to blame but itself. I wonder how Russia Today will report this.

It is also desperate, because it risks losing pilots and planes. It’s hard for a soldier on the battlefield to go AWOL. It’s a different story when you are at the controls of a plane that can fly at 1,000MPH.

The Syrian regime is bringing out the big guns. For Bashar, it really has got that bad.

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