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The roots of Syria’s sectarianism

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.

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A year in revolt

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.

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The SNC – standing with the Syrian people. Sometimes.

March 10th, 2012 · Politics

The SNC is dedicated to defending the Syrian people. Unless those Syrian people happen to live in the UAE, one of the campaign group’s sponsors.

Last week, the UAE cancelled residency permits for Syrians and refused to issue visas to anyone holding a Syrian passport.

The SNC’s weasel-worded statement accuses the world of stirring up a controversy and trying to divide the two brotherly peoples:

The cancelation of residency permits for several Syrian citizens residing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)…have built up a controversy and misunderstanding that has overshadowed the UAE’s sustained policy of support to the Syrian people’s cause.

The SNC hopes that the UAE will treat the Syrian people (that it claims to support) with forgiveness. What! It also asks Syrians to abide by the law of the Gulf dictatorship.

Kicking out Syrians and refusing to let refugees across its borders shows exactly how much the UAE really cares about the ‘Syrian people’.

And as for the SNC – don’t bite the hand that feeds you, eh.

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The revolution in a paragraph

March 4th, 2012 · Politics

This sums up the past year pretty well.

“Bashar has not got the message. I, for example, loved him when he took over. I thought he would be different to his father,” he said. He pointed to a part of his little finger. “If he had just given us this little bit of freedom, we would have remained quiet. But whenever he slaughters someone from our families he simply increases our desire to kill him.”

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Syria from afar

March 4th, 2012 · Politics

Two real must-reads from two very dear friends who care a lot about Syria. And I don’t say ‘must read’ lightly. You need these two pieces in your life.

First, Jillian York looks at how activists are feeding the mainstream media with the story (it’s something The Listening Post has looked at many times over the past year – if you’re interested in that sort of thing, check out their podcasts from the past two months especially).

What concerns me is that the media–whose job it is to report factsobjectively*–is not only pushing a certain narrative, but also ignoring certain truths: the non-civilian casualty toll, for example (this one in particular bothers me when I think about all of my friends that did or almost did their compulsory Syrian military service).

What bothers me most, however, is the sheer certainty with which both sides attempt to make their points. The New Yorker in the screenshot above, for example, is so sure that “one side is for life, the other for death.” I’m not so sure. I’m certain that the regime is killing civilians (if you’re going to argue with me on that, just go away), but I’m not sure that there aren’t bad actors amongst the legitimate opposition. I can’t be sure…especially not when the media isn’t doing their job.

Of course, one of the reasons that journalists have to rely on activist reports is that for much of the past year, reporters have been banned from entering Syria. One man who has reported from inside is Stephen Starr. This fine journalist has lived in Damascus since 2007 and – unlike many of his peers who were flown in from London and New York – knows the country intimately well and speaks Arabic. He left last week, and we are all a lot poorer for it.

How many other journalists picked up on the rich-poor gap that was surely one of the key factors behind the spread of this revolution:

In Damascus, at least, laptops flourished in Western-style cafes. The $4 coffee arrived in 2010, and then iPhones and Cinnabon bakeries. Syria’s rapid modernization spurred massive migration to urban centers, while in the countryside to the northeast, hundreds of thousands of farmers fled starvation from a devastating drought. They drove taxis at night and lived in Harasta, Qaboun, and Madamia, satellite towns of Damascus where rent was cheap — and that are now centers of protest.

Now that Starr is out of Syria, that others (who may not want to be named) have had to leave too, now that we can never again read a dispatch from Anthony Shadid, and now that the regime appears to be targetting journalists in Homs, the reports of activists will become louder and louder.

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Anthony Shadid

February 17th, 2012 · BREAKING NEWS

New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid died today in Syria, at the age of 43.

As many of you know, he is one of my journalistic heros. A brave reporter, an objective writer, and a man with a passion for the Arab World. He grew up outside the region and only learned Arabic as an adult.

His reporting on Syria was unparalleled. It’s easy to say that after someone’s death, but what was special about Shadid was that many said it while he was alive.

Shadid died today in eastern Syria. It is thought he had an asthma attack.

And as if that is not bad enough news for Syria – another person fighting to give Syrians a voice, Razan Ghazzawi, has been arrested for a second time.

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Large assault on the eastern suburbs

January 29th, 2012 · BREAKING NEWS

The eastern suburbs of Damascus seem to be under attack this morning. There were reports of gunfire, and possibly heavier artillery just east of the city just after dawn.

Residents are being turned away at military checkpoints on the outskirts of Damascus. These are areas that have seen a build up in military and paramilitary presence in the past few days.

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The Arab League, Bashar and death

January 12th, 2012 · Politics

A day after an Arab League monitor quit Syria in disgust, another one is apparently threatening to resign. Yesterday, Anwar Malek left the mission in Syria, appearing on Al Jazeera English to call it a ‘farce’:

The Algerian (although some sources call him Tunisian) said:

“What I saw was a humanitarian disaster. The regime is not just committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people. The snipers are everywhere, shooting at civilians. People are being kidnapped. Prisoners are being tortured and none were released.”

The Arab League, though, seriously undermined this man’s statements, saying he hadn’t even been out on the streets.

He was ill and bedridden at his Syria hotel. So how could he make those claims?

Another monitor has apparently threatened to quit today, although he has chosen to remain anonymous and the claims remain impossible to verify.

The Syrian authorities have exploited the weakness in the performance of the delegation to not respond. There is no real response on the ground.

The military gear is still present even in the mosques. We asked that military equipment be withdrawn from the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque in Deraa and until today they have not withdrawn.

Bashar, wasn’t fazed. In fact, he seems positively glowing. The Arab League mission is in disarray, they can’t even agree among themselves. Unannounced, he made his first public appearance since the start of the violence 10 months ago.

The interesting thing about his speech was not the content – for there was nothing new – but the fact that Bashar’s wife and kids appeared alongside him. There have been many rumours that British-born Asma Al-Assad may have fled to her home in London. Also, note the weird people in puffer jackets in the colours of the Syrian flag.

Before the party in Damascus had even ended, there was tragic news from Homs. Two groups of international journalists were taken up there, when there was a mortar and RPG attack on a pro-government crowd. Some of the journalists ran over to see what was happening, and celebrated French documentary maker Gilles Jacquier was killed. 8 Syrians also died in the attack.

Ian Black, who was in the other group sums it up with his headline: ‘If the regime wanted to prove Homs was safe, it failed’.

Joseph Eid, a photographer with the AFP news agency, said the attack had come without warning. “We were expecting there to be violence, yes, but we never expected there to be an attack. They had warned us that the two districts attack each other in the evening, they said that after three o’clock in the afternoon it’s dangerous, we were there at three, and it started, it kicked off.”

The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has accused the Syrian government of not doing its job by protecting him properly. Which is interesting, considering that the Syrian government can’t even protect its own troops.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was more careful with his statement:

I condemn the incident in Homs today which caused the death of at least eight civilians including a French journalist, Gilles Jacquier. These deaths highlight once again the terrible price being paid by the people of Homs, as well as the courage of journalists who take great personal risks to bring to light what is happening to the people of Syria.

David Kenner, Associate Editor of Foreign Policy magazine, summed up the predictable responses with this tweet:

He was referring to the ink blot test: look at the pattern and tell us what you see. What you see reveals something about your inner character. And in the same way, how you interpret the latest massacre tells us who you support in this deadly race to the bottom.

The French ambassador is now accompanying Jacquier’s body from Homs back to Damascus. There’s no international official to accompany the bodies of the eight nameless civilians who were killed alongside him.

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The Twitter bomb

January 6th, 2012 · BREAKING NEWS

At least a dozen people are thought to have died in a bomb targeting a police bus in Medan, southern Damascus.

It comes exactly two weeks after explosions killed at least 44 people outside security buildings in the west of the city.

No-one yet knows who is to blame. We may never know. But within minutes, the twitterati had made their minds up. Pro-regimers slavishly towed the state TV line that ‘terrorists’ were to blame. Armchair revolutionaries knew it was the government’s fault.

Twitter is at its most ugly when people die and net activists dogmatically use the deaths to further their own argument. People have died. There is blood on the streets of Damascus. This isn’t the time for point scoring.

Syria is polarised. Someone lacked so much humanity that they felt it right to place a bomb on a bus, knowing the consequences. Surely this is a sign that Syria needs less aggression, division and polarisation – and more reconciliation.

It’s one thing when tweeps are inappropriate or tactless. It’s another when Riad Al-Assad is.

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Beating the drums of war

January 2nd, 2012 · Politics

When Christopher Hitchens died, there was renewed debate about the power his pen wielded. When he wrote in defence of Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, he crossed the line. He crossed over from the bubble that observers and commentators inhabit into the political arena. He had become a player.

Now, one of his friends, Nick Cohen, is doing the same with Syria. He wants war, and who cares what Syrians want.

Actually, he does care. He asks a London-based Syrian journalist, who now works as a PR manager for a lobby group (shorthand: “pro-democracy activist”) and he asks a US-based campaigner, Ammar Abdulhamid. Both of them give him vivid accounts of life in Syria, but neither calls for war.

Well, if they won’t do it, Cohen will put the words into their mouths:

“The Syrian incarnation of the “Arab Street” we used to hear so much about now wants Nato planes in the skies.”

It’s a barefaced lie. And it follows a simple recipe. Find a Syrian in Britain plus a Syrian in America. Refer to them as the “Arab Street”. Make it look like they said things they didn’t actually say.

But that’s not enough for Cohen. He feels the need to put a bit of meat on his fairly weak defence. I give you the Syrian National Council:

“The ferocity of the regime’s violence has pushed the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group for much of the opposition, from calling for civil disobedience and passive resistance to begging for outside help.”

Except that they didn’t. Here’s the very first point they made in a statement three days ago:

Following talks lasting for more than a month involving the leadership of the NCB and the SNC, the parties agreed on the following:

1 – Rejection of any foreign military intervention that affects the sovereignty and independence of the country. The Arab intervention is not considered to be foreign.

Nick Cohen claims to care about human rights, but Amnesty’s Campaigns Manager Kristyan Benedict, who has been involved in the campaign against Syrian repression, isn’t so sure.

“Cohen serves an agenda which doesn’t have the human rights of Syrians at its heart – plus he is an ignorant Orientalist tool,” he told me.

At some point, the Syrian people – inside Syria – may indeed call for “Nato planes in the skies”. Until that moment comes, we in our comfortable homes in London and Washington, should refrain from pretending to speak on behalf of Syrians.

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