June 4th, 2012 · Politics
Below his usual low standard, today Robert Fisk tells us that:
“[In] Lebanon. Its press is free. Its people are. It got shot of Syria in 1995 (albeit at the cost of an ex-Prime Minister’s life)”
So Hariri died 10 years before he was killed, apparently.
“In Yemen, there are bad times – the government helping the US drone attacks on Al Jazeera operatives.”
Topped off with a healthy dose of sectarianism:
“Ahmed Shafik, the Mubarak loyalist, has the support of the Christian Copts, and Assad has the support of the Syrian Christians. The Christians support the dictators.”
Bad times indeed.
June 1st, 2012 · Politics
Another ‘we sneaked into Syria’ story. A brave journalist and photographer spent time with the FSA in Idlib. I’m not sure what to make of this. Opinions on Twitter please, @ me (@syrianews).
Two hundred men and children shouted anti-Assad chants, drums beat loudly and people lifted their arms, swayed and waved flags and banners. Suddenly, a hail of bullets flew from the rooftops, the crowd scattered and chaos ensued. FSA fighters charged towards the bullets, returning fire, and we followed close on their heels. As the two sides exchanged fire, we found ourselves in the middle of a terribly one-sided gun battle.
As with all these engagements, the FSA’s strategy is to return a bit of fire and then pull back; There is little they can do against the vastly superior weapons of the army.
We had retreated to our hideout when suddenly a group of flustered men ran in. The army had been tipped off that western journalists were in the country and that we had filmed them opening fire onto the protests. They had left their base and were making a move to capture us.
Read the full story at VICE Magazine. Will this divide opinions like the same magazine’s Paintballing with Hezbollah did?
The FSA seems to be claiming that it has killed Asef Shawkat. (This has NOT been reported elsewhere yet).
6 or 8 high-ranking officials were rushed to the Shami hospital in Malki, according to the LCC, after they were poisoned by a chef. Malki is the richest neighbourhood in Damascus, and is home to the president’s house.
Shortly afterwards, there were reports of heavy gunfire in Malki and neighbouring Abu Rumaneh. Further downhill, in Shalaan, there was apparently a large explosion.
Is this the night that changes it all? Or just another moment in Syria’s enduring tragedy.
May 18th, 2012 · Politics
Just stop what you’re doing and read this from an incredibly brave Economist reporter in a village next to Zabadani.
A report from Rankous – The Economist
THE houses in the western half of Rankous, a small town north of Damascus, reek of acrid smoke. A burned shoe lies on the floor while fans droop from the ceilings like dead flowers. The living rooms are the most haunting: the televisions that were once a centrepiece of family life are crumpled and withered, a testament to the heat of fire. Walls have gaping wounds in them; some have been demolished entirely. The top floor of one house has collapsed.
One of the reasons I started this site was to raise awareness about a country rarely in the news. A country whose stories were not being told. The past year has changed everything.
On the anniversary of the start of the revolution a couple of months ago, The Syria Report did an excellent job of collating the best writing on the uprising. You need to work your way through each one of these articles.
Of course, it starts with the now infamous WSJ Bashar interview in January – after the Arab Spring had set the region on fire, but before it arrived in Syria. He confidently predicted that Syria would remain under his thumb. Six weeks later he was proven oh, so wrong.
There are contributions from Elias Muhanna, Camille Otrakji, Robert Mackey, Bassma Kodmani, Josh Landis, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Robert Worth, Amal Hanano, Bassam Haddad, Donatella Della Ratta, Peter Harling, Sarah Birke and Nir Rosen. In other words, almost anyone who counts as an essential read on Syria. Of course there are a few names missing from that list and a few stories not included. I’m especially sad not to see A Rose in the Desert on there.
At least 40 are dead after double bomb blasts in Qazaz in the south of Damascus.
The attacks hit military intelligence headquarters and have been claimed by the Nusra Front, a small Islamist group. The Guardian is reporting that the group appears to be real, rather than a figment of state media’s usual wild imagination.
However, the SNC, itself no stranger to conspiracy theories, is already blaming the government despite a lack of evidence.
The SNC says the army planted the bombs to scare the UN monitors into going home – even though it previously accused the regime of using the monitors to buy time. Can’t have it both ways.
UN Special Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen says arms are being smuggled into Syria across the Lebanese border.
Now, this is very interesting, because until recently, observers – myself included – had dismissed ‘discoveries‘ of arms factories and large-scale weapons shipments as theatrics aimed at tarnishing the Syrian rebels. When Syria’s allies in the Lebanese government impounded a ship full of arms (some Libyan) in Tripoli, eyebrows were again raised. What convenient timing, just as the UN monitors were reporting on breaches of the ceasefire.
Roed-Larsen believes he has confirmed, though, that arms are indeed going from Lebanon into Syria. There is an arms trade. Roed-Larsen was sent to Lebanon to report on the demilitarisation of Lebanon’s militias. The irony is that he has been monitoring the border for illegal arms crossing from Syria into Lebanon – now he’s seeing weapons going the other way.
While the arms trade is the inevitable result of a brutal, year-long attack on a civilian population by one of the world’s strongest armies, using the Lebanon border is unfortunate. It provokes the Syrian army into doing nasty things like mining the border which is more likely to kill refugees fleeing the fighting, than prevent weapons flooding into Syria.
The Red Cross has made an urgent appeal for $27 million for its vital work in Syria.
To date, it has helped 200,000 victims of the violence across the country. The International Committee for the Red Cross is the only international aid agency working in Syria, and despite occasional hiccups, it has managed to get help to those in need, while others talk only about violence and vengeance.
Any money you donate will go to Syrians displaced by the violence, and to those working with the 24,600 refugees currently living in camps in Turkey.
The ICRC’s President, Jakob Kellenberger, made a rare political statement on the situation in Syria, telling the BBC that he urgently wanted more UN monitors to be sent to the country:
“I am afraid [the Kofi Annan peace plan] might not succeed, but I really strongly hope it does succeed. But for this to happen, the deployment of the UN observers really [has to be] a rapid deployment. So far, very few are there.”
The organisation’s priorities are to:
- provide food for 100,000 people
- supply basic household items for 25,000
- and to restore public services such as water and electricity to 1.5 million
Despite their fantastic work, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and two volunteers have been killed. Please donate now.
April 15th, 2012 · Politics
Excellent argument by Robin Yassin-Kassab, who looks back at the history of Syria’s sectarian divides. And what can be done to avoid an intra-community battle.
Public discussion of sect and sectarianism was taboo. To an extent this was a good thing. When I lived in Damascus I heard about a Christian (the friend of a friend) who had a fist fight with a Jew. The fight was over the affections of a woman, and had nothing to do with religion or sect, but the Christian was nevertheless swooped upon by plain-clothes mukhabarat on suspicion of provoking sectarian dissension. This was unfair, but also somehow impressive. (Of course, if you were minster of defense – and your name was Mustafa Tlass – you could write volumes of ridiculous text on Jewish ‘blood sacrifice’ and no mukhabarat would swoop down on you). …
There is certainly some truth to the mosaic idea. A variety of ethnicities and religions have coexisted in Greater Syria for thousands of years, and peaceful interaction has been the rule. Yet there have been bloody exceptions. As Ottomanism degenerated and European powers moved in to sponsor favoured communities in the 19th Century, relations often broke down. Druze and Christians fought each other. In 1860 the Christian quarter of Damascus was destroyed by fire. And then there’s the case of the Alawis. Except in Antakya, now part of Turkey, Alawis didn’t share Syrian cities with Sunnis until the French arrived in the 1920s. Since Ibn Taymiyya, under Mamluks and Ottomans, Alawis were deprived of all legal and civil rights as soon as they set foot outside their own villages. Most young Alawis have no theological gripe with Sunnism, but they’ve heard stories of insult and humiliation from their grandfathers. …
Rather than eternally agitating for a Western military intervention that will probably never come, the Syrian National Council would do better to address Alawis and Christians specifically and repeatedly, to name the crimes committed against them in the past, and to welcome the migration of Alawis and others to the urban centres in the Ba‘athist years as a redress of historical wrongs. And anti-Sunni prejudice should also be addressed. Those Syrians who believe that a chant of ‘Allahu akbar’ is inevitably a call for Sunni supremacy, for instance, should be encouraged to confront their assumptions.
Saudi-backed Salafists are already talking about sect. Important sections of Sunni society in Lebanon and Iraq understand the Syrian tragedy in sectarian terms. Western journalists very often overemphasise the salience of sect. Why then do pro-revolution leftists, liberals and secularists tend to ignore the issue, and to leave the field to more retrograde voices? People are being killed. There isn’t any more time to waste on taboos.
Read the rest here.
March 15th, 2012 · Politics
One year ago today, Syria changed forever.
One year ago today, demonstrations were still called unprecedented. One year ago today, the country was silent. One year ago today, Syria found its voice.
I was sitting in Rawda Cafe, opposite parliament on February 4, the day a protest was called on Facebook. It turned out to have been called by a Swedish member of the Muslim Brotherhood. No-one turned out. The place was crawling with men in black leather jackets (inside the cafe and outside).
In March a small, brave group marched through Souq Al-Hamidiyeh chanting slogans and recording the whole thing on their mobile phones. Still, we said, nothing more would happen. And it might not have, if a group of children hadn’t been arrested and beaten in Deraa in the south of Syria.
They had scrawled revolutionary graffiti on the walls. Children with pens were considered enough of a threat to the state to justify detention and torture. The trouble was, these arrests hit right at the heart of a massive fault line: the kids were from big tribal families in Deraa, and the head of political security was the president’s cousin. This was the tribes against the Assads.
And so it begun. The families called for the kids’ release, they were reportedly insulted and kicked out of the office. Protests ensued. Killings followed. A siege began.
By the end of March, the deaths had started mounting. At the start of April, people stayed awake all night, listening to news of the storming of Al-Omari mosque where rebels had been holed up. Dozens were feared dead. It was the darkest moment in Syria’s history for decades.
People came out in their thousands across Syria calling for an end to the killing. Every Friday the numbers would swell. Peaceful demonstrators would be shot dead across the country. They called for the reform of the regime. But never for its overthrow.
The president spoke. He promised many things but didn’t deliver. Hopes were dashed. The death toll started to fall in April, and there were hopes that this would be a short lived episode. A convulsion. The much-hated State of Emergency was lifted but the arrests continued.
Bashar spoke again in late April, and expectation was high. It was called Bashar’s redemption speech. Many hoped that this would be the moment that he would give people what they wanted: reform.
Instead, it was filled with rhetoric about foreign conspiracy. It offered nothing new. The people began to demand the fall of the regime. The US toughened its rhetoric, telling Bashar that time was running out. It imposed sanctions on him personally for the first time.
May came, and the Friday death toll grew week by week. The army entered Homs.
In June, the army attacked the small border town of Jisr Al-Shughour. More than 100 soldiers were reported killed – the army’s biggest single loss of life in living memory. Around 10,000 people fled across the border into refugee camps in Turkey. Syria’s biggest mass exodus since the Israeli invasion of the Syrian Golan Heights.
In July as the holy month of Ramadan began, Hama was attacked, bringing back memories of 1982. The US called for Bashar to step down, and US and Turkish-backed opposition activists met in Istanbul.
The siege continued for most of Ramadan. And by the end of the month, there were the first tentative calls for foreign military intervention from some Syrians. There were reports of rebels taking up arms.
The Syrian National Council was formed in October, and the Arab League kicked out Syria in November.
Arab League monitors entered Syria in late December and the first suicide bomb hit Damascus. Another would explode a few weeks later, with a third in Aleppo in February.
Syria spent February watching the Free Syrian Army hold Baba Amr, a district of Homs, as the neighbourhood was besieged by the regular army. Thousands fled, many to nearby Lebanon. 2 foreign journalists were killed.
The army defeated the rebels, but the Red Cross was prevented from entering after fighting ceased. Activists say that was to allow soldiers to carry out summary executions of men and boys found hiding in the neighbourhood.
Syria has changed. The high hopes of March 2011 have turned into the despair of March 2012. Syria will not be at peace with itself until the regime falls.