dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

#Syriac Christians threatened with the ‘Sword’ again

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

The threat of  ‘the sword’ has special resonance for Syriac Christians. Syriac for ‘sword’ is Sayfo, the name they use to refer to the massacre they suffered in 1915, when tens of thousands of them were slaughtered. On Friday 19 July the Syriac Christians of Mosul, whose ancestors were the Assyrians with their capital at Nineveh on the bank of the Tigris opposite Mosul, were threatened with the sword, unless they converted to Islam or paid the jizya, a tax levied by early Islam on religious minorities. Beheading by the sword was the earliest form of capital punishment in Islam. This time, to escape such a fate, they are fleeing northwards in their thousands, mainly into Iraqi Kurdistan, whose Kurdish rulers do not define themselves or anyone else by religion. Islam is one among many religions and Kurdish schools there teach all religions equally. Nearly a hundred years ago,  the Syriacs fled southwards from Turkey. On that occasion their persecutors were mainly Kurdish tribesmen acting on the instructions of  Turkish masters seeking to purge the Turkish state of non-Turkish minorities, but today their tormentors are fanatical fighters of mixed nationalities from the State of the Islamic Caliphate (formerly ISIS), who took control of Mosul,  Iraq’s second city, on 10 June 2014.

As Europe remembers the outbreak of World War One a hundred years on, the oft-forgotten group of Aramaic-speaking Christians has been gearing up for its own centenary. Their original heartlands are the region known as the Tur Abdin (‘Mountain of the Servants of God’ in Syriac),  a remote corner of what is now southeast Turkey, where their churches and monasteries date back to the 4th century. As their anniversary approaches, this resilient community, helped by members of their increasingly active diaspora from Sydney to Stuttgart, has been resolutely fighting back.

Their expulsion from Mosul will definitely not be the end of them. The following text of my BBC From Our Own Correspondent piece with accompanying photos, describes their determination to survive:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3 (direct link to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of 10 July 2014)

“No need for alarm clocks in Midyat. Every day in this ancient Syriac Christian town high on its plateau in southeast Turkey I am woken by goats bleating at my window and by cattle clattering past on cobbled streets. Kurdish children are herding them to nearby pastures from once elegant mansions that now serve as stabling.

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

For visitors like me the livestock lends a rustic charm, but not for members of the Syriac diaspora like Gabriel Khoury, whose ancestral home is one such pungent stable. Gabriel’s family emigrated to Australia when he was a boy, but now he has come back to claim his property. ‘I have six court cases to fight,’ he declares, his blue-eyes flashing angrily.  I encounter him at church where he leads the chanting in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Then he takes me to the one-roomed hovel, his current home, which is all he has left of his heritage. His surname ‘Khoury’ reveals he comes from a line of priests.  ‘Long story short,’ he explains, ‘I will not give up till I have my family’s houses and shops back. Then, if God wills, I will rebuild them.’

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Rebuilding is a constant refrain in this region known as the Tur Abdin,  where the Syriacs, one of the world’s earliest Christian communities, suffered heavily at the hands of the Kurds and Turks, especially in the 1915 massacres. At the village of Kafro I meet Niall, who has returned from 30 years in Stuttgart to help rebuild his community. An imposing row of large walled villas with a slightly fortified feel now flanks the single street. Alongside the ruins of the house where he was born, he has opened an al fresco pizzeria shaded by a nine-sided gazebo draped with vines. Multiples of three, representing the Trinity, are everywhere in the architecture here, and vines too hold deep spiritual significance, producing wine from the precious blood-stained soil. Traditionally each family planted just enough for its own modest consumption, but now some Syriacs have set up a wine factory imaginatively concealed in a mock mansion carved with friezes of grapes and wine glasses. Producing five reds and two whites to growing worldwide acclaim, its carefully chosen trademark  Shiluh means ‘peace’ in Syriac.

‘Two more families are coming back this year,’ smiles Niall, as he takes me to see the derelict shell of their original church. ‘When our community is bigger, we will restore this one. For now we are using a smaller one.’ He leads me past a well-tended cemetery where an open grave is awaiting the body of a 90-year-old returnee from Germany. This land reclaims its old, but reclaiming the young is more problematic. ‘Our teenagers,’ he explains, gesturing at a group just finishing their pizzas, ‘will leave soon for universities in Germany. A school bus takes the three of them from Kafro to Midyat where they are the only Christians in classes of over 40. How can we expect them to return here?’

Back in Midyat, Gabriel is on the case. The refugee camp established on a nearby hill was intended just for Syriac  Christians fleeing the fighting in neighbouring Syria, but so successful were they in being sponsored to leave, that only one family now remains.

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

 People like Gabriel took responsibility for the Christian refugees, many of whom have since moved west to Istanbul. Some have stayed in Midyat, like Maryam, a fair-haired beauty originally from Qamishli just across the border in northeast Syria. She now works as a waitress at one of Midyat’s magnificently restored Syriac mansions, converted to a 15-room hotel.

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

‘Long story short,’ says Gabriel, ‘we need more like this to bring our people back, more girls and more hotels.’ He even wonders if one of his sons might marry Maryam – his own wife was from Qamishli – and plans how young men might return from Europe as architects and managers to design and run hotels, as businessmen to create new enterprise, and above all  as lawyers to champion their cause. I dare to raise December’s controversial settlement of the land dispute with the biggest of the monasteries. ‘Don’t make me laugh,’ he retorts  tossing his head, ‘they gave us 20% only, the other 80% is still held back. Long story short,’ he continues, ‘we will fight on till we get back what is rightfully ours. ‘

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk at Mor Awgen, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk  who has revived Mor Awgen Monastery, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

As the centenary of their historic massacre, the Sayfo, approaches, long story short, maybe they will.

Related links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/conversion-of-iraq-as-isis-drives-christians-out-of-their-homes-the-groups-genocidal-intentions-take-on-horrible-clarity-9617651.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/time-runs-out-for-christian-iraq-isis-deadline-passes-with-mass-flight-9617606.html

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/07/jabhat-al-nusra-announce-islamic-emirate.html

Church of the Mother of God, Haho July 2013

Church of the Mother of God, Haho [DD, May 2014]

Saving #Syria’s Cultural Heritage – how to help

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Little known and little recognised, groups of Syrians inside Syria are working together to try to save the destruction of their country’s cultural identity. Confronted with the inertia of the international community, the occasional statement and handwringing from UNESCO and the Syrian government’s own narrative presenting itself as the custodian of the country’s rich treasures, these groups are taking matters into their own hands. A mix of academics, archaeologists, students and ordinary citizens with a deep love for their country, they have almost no funding and most are volunteers.

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

A recent study (by Heritage for Peace see link below) has shown that 38 organisations are involved worldwide in efforts to highlight the damage to Syria’s cultural heritage, including the big names like UNESCO, Blue Shield, the Global Heritage Fund, the World Monument Fund, ICCROM and ICOMOS. The overwhelming majority are talking shops, gathering data and posting it online. They are largely based outside Syria and function only through the official channel of the Syrian Directorate-General of Museums and Antiquities (DGAM) which in turn only functions in the regime-held areas of the country. Of these 38 organisations, 14 have been formed since 2011 specifically in response to the Syrian crisis, mainly from volunteer groups. Only six of the organisations are Syrian, working on the ground inside the country, and of these only three that we are aware of are taking pro-active, pre-emptive measures to protect ancient buildings. It is a chronic state of affairs, but such is their commitment to doing whatever they can that they are prepared sometimes even to risk their lives in order to protect and save their cultural identity.

Bricking up Zachariah's Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Bricking up Zachariah’s Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest and richest city, is where such actions have been most prevalent. The Division of Antiquities of the Free Council of Aleppo was founded in 2013 and has sandbagged and walled up the precious sundial in the Aleppo Great Umayyad Mosque, and bricked up its shrine of the Prophet Zachariah. With the help of the Tawhid Brigade from the Free Syrian Army, they have dismantled its 12th century wooden mihrab for safe-keeping away from the front line.

The Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks was founded in Aleppo in 2013. Its members, many of them archaeology students from Aleppo University, at considerable risk to themselves, saved the stones from the fallen minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque and have put them safely elsewhere awaiting reconstruction after the war. They also helped the Free Council of Aleppo with protecting the sundial and removing the mihrab.

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) was founded in 2012 in Strasbourg by a group of Syrian archaeologists and journalists. Together with collaborators on the ground they have compiled an extensive website cataloguing the damage (www.apsa2011.com) and have also held short workshops in Turkey’s Gaziantep to train Syrians in techniques of how to record damage and how to carry out simple protection measures.

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge rebels from the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, Idlib Province

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge refugees sheltering in the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, near Al-Bara, Idlib Province

A team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, Idlib Province

An APSA team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, near Al-Bara and Kafaranbel, Idlib Province

All of this work goes unrewarded financially and unrecognised internationally. Syria’s concentration and range of cultural heritage sites far exceed that of neighbouring Iraq. Yet while Iraq benefited from a UN resolution in 2003 after the US invasion banning trade in its antiquities, the Syrian case has been largely ignored, complicated by politics. Stepping up to the challenge, the Global Heritage Fund UK has recently agreed to help by acting as a channel for funds for anyone who would like to help support this work. The sums involved are small by the standards of international organisations. But international organisations like UNESCO cannot operate inside Syria without the permission of the Syrian government – a permission which has not been forthcoming.

APSA is looking to raise £32,000. So far they have raised £6,400. If each of the 624,000 people who clicked to view the recent BBC feature highlighting the problem (see below) had been able to contribute just £1, the target could have been met 20 times over.

Anyone who would like to do something tangible to help can contact cgiangrande@globalheritage fund.org, or use the donation form below. Even small amounts will make a huge difference. Handwringing and nostalgia, alas, do not.

Global Heritage Fund – 2014DonationFormV2

Related links:

http://www.heritageforpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Towards-a-protection-of-the-Syrian-cultural-heritage.pdf

http://www.apsa2011.com/index.php/en/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28191181

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria's Cultural Heritage

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria’s Cultural Heritage

 

Syria – a book to help you understand it differently

http://www.timeoutistanbul.com/en/books/189/My-House-in-Damascus-An-Inside-View-of-the-Syrian-Revolution

Full text of review in Time Out Istanbul by Pat Yale below:

My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution

Diana Darke was one of the first foreigners to buy a house in Damascus, offering her a unique view into the Syrian conflict.

Three years of increasingly savage fighting. More than 150,000 dead. Many thousands more injured. Nearly three million people turned into refugees. Another 6.5 million displaced inside their own country.

 The bald statistics for the damage done to its citizens by the Syrian conflict are utterly shocking, but for most people the initial “Something Must Be Done” attitude has gradually been replaced by a grim acceptance that nothing probably can be done in a situation that lacks clear goodies and baddies. And so we tune out the horror of it all, unable to focus on so much human suffering day by day.

 Into the void left by those who have turned away has stepped Syria guidebook writer Diana Darke, one of the first (if not the first) foreigners to buy a house in the country. Darke offers just the sort of first-person account of what has been going on that makes it possible for people to re-engage with the story. Her book ‘My House in Damascus’ describes how the chance sighting of an open door in the old city in 2005 brought her into contact with an architect engaged in the then-blossoming business of restoring the lovely old mansions.

 “You realize that you can buy property here,” he tells her, thus triggering a search for the perfect bolthole. It turns out to be the lovely if dilapidated house of Bait Baroudi just round the corner from the great Umayyad Mosque.

This is no story of love lost and refound against a Middle Eastern background. Darke was no ingénue, stumbling uncertainly into a country about which she knew little. Instead, she was an old hand with form in this part of the world, a fluent Arabic speaker whose research for the Bradt Guide to Syria had taken her to every corner of the country. Read her description of exploring the great Byzantine “Dead Cities” north of Aleppo and weep for what has almost certainly been lost.

But the heart and soul of the book is always Bait Baroudi, a courtyard house that still retained its lovely original decorations, albeit partially obscured, when she bought it. Darke poured her savings into a gentle restoration aimed at preserving the building’s heritage; when the work was completed after three years “the house looked and felt as if the inhabitants of earlier centuries had only just left.” But as she skips over the bureaucracy she encountered and revels in every detail of the restoration process, always lurking in the background is the knowledge of what is to come: the day when she will no longer be able to live in the house and its courtyard will have to be turned into a mini-refugee camp for some of those with whom she had worked over the years.

Despite the book’s subtitle, ‘An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution’, Darke doesn’t bother with the finer details of which armed group is doing battle with which other one. Instead she introduces us to a roll call of colorful characters – Ramzi the Philosopher, her state-imposed guide in the early days, Maryam the Christian bank manager, Marwan the lawyer, and Bassim the architect – all of whose lives are irrevocably changed as the conflict intensifies.

All books eventually come to an end but of course the story of the Syrian civil war has yet to reach its conclusion. As you turn the last page of the book you know that you can go straight online to continue reading on Darke’s blog, dianadarke.com. Tragically Darke herself is no longer able to get a visa to enter Syria, but in her blog she recounts the ultimate absurdity of when she travels to Sidon in Lebanon and meets up with Marwan. He hands her some rental agreements that she must sign to ensure that the refugees now living rent-free in Bait Baroudi will not be booted out by the authorities.

War may ravage and destroy people’s lives, it seems, but the wheels of the bureaucracy will keep on turning until the end.  Pat Yale

Damascus June 2011 061

Living in the eye of Syria’s storm

Book Review of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution

by Mary Russell, The Irish Times, 28 June 2014

Diana Darke’s account of her life in the ancient city glows with an understanding of and affection for its people.

While so many commentators and journalists write about Syria the victim, and zoom in on the death and destruction of that great country, Darke affords the Syrians she meets the dignity of being individuals.

Click here for the full review:

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/living-in-the-eye-of-syria-s-storm-my-house-in-damascus-1.1846142

My House in Damascus

Dreams of a better #Syria

 

Refreshment for passers-by, Souk Al-Hamadiye, Damascus  [DD]

Refreshment for passers-by, Souk Al-Hamadiye, Damascus [DD]

Review as published in The Times Literary Supplement June 20, 2014 by Gerald Butt

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1423819.ece

“Diana Darke’s My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution is written with the pace of a novel and the colour of the best travel writing. The book hangs on the author’s purchase and refurbishment of a house with a courtyard in the Old City of Damascus in 2005 – and all the insights that the legal and bureaucratic battles gave her into Syrian society, echoing in this sense Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons. But the book offers much more than a personal memoir: it is an eclectic but learned encyclopedia of Syrian history, of the Arabs and their language and traditions, of Islamic art and architecture, and more.

Darke, fluent in Arabic and an authority on Syria, befriends Syrians who, well before 2011, are surviving as best they can in an atmosphere of fear, of “plainclothes policemen, the dreaded mukhabarat, looking grim and brutal in their black leather jackets”. A Syrian tells her: “You must understand. They can arrest me any time they want, throw me in prison. My family would never even know where I was or whether they would ever see me again.”

In the face of such repression, one can understand why the revolution against  Ba’athist rule erupted. But that does not make it easy to predict how it will end. Some of the most insightful passages of Darke’s book describe the dilemma faced by the silent majority of Syrians whose views are least represented in the foreign media. They feel unable or unwilling to choose between the two extremes on offer: the regime or the rebels. This partly explains why, she writes, so many Syrians felt compelled to flee the country: “Had there been a moderate alternative in the middle, a carrot so obviously juicier and bigger than the others, all parties would surely have chosen it long ago.” Instead, the distance between the two extremes is growing. The worsening violence and intimidation in Damascus eventually forced the author, too, to give up her beloved house and leave the country. Since September 2012 the building has served as a refuge for her displaced friends.

Darke muses finally on what must happen for Syria to emerge from the current nightmare. She imagines, for example, a second revolution to secure the middle ground. But for this to succeed, she says, everyone must forget that the first revolution began with peaceful protests, and they must forgive regime troops for gunning down unarmed protesters. “Maybe I am a hopeless dreamer”, she concludes. Hopeless or not, she is right in her assessment that a solution to the Syria crisis still resides only in the realm of dreams.”

Carefree child playing the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]

Carefree child playing the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]

Refutation of Mother Agnes Mariam’s narrative on #Syria

As submitted to The Tablet, published 21 June 2014
“Abigail Frymann tries hard to present both sides of the narrative in her feature interview (“The rebels want my head”, 7 June) with Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross. Sadly, in so doing she falls hook, line and sinker for the controversial nun’s take on matters inside Syria. The view that ‘the majority of anti-Assad fighters in Syria are foreign’ is presented as ‘widely accepted’, yet all reputable media outlets like The Financial Times and the BBC regularly report that whilst there are indeed now many foreign fighters inside Syria, they began in small numbers and only started expanding a year after the uprising began. Even now they account for less than 25% of the total opposition. Assad himself has of course brought in far greater numbers of foreign fighters – from the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard - to defend his own regime, but no mention is made of that. 
Certainly matters ‘are not black and white’. But the ‘more complicated reality’ to which Mother Agnes refers is that Assad, under the guise of a general amnesty in early 2012, released al-Qaeda affiliated prisoners from his jails, knowing full well they would regroup and pursue their extremist ideology. Again, no mention is made of that. Now, two years later, the proof is before us, as ISIS, untargeted by regime airstrikes, was allowed to consolidate itself in Ar-Raqqa, from where it has swept into Iraq and taken large swathes of territory. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically – why is it that they have yet to fight each other?
The ‘reconciliation’ initative of which Mother Agnes is part, so loudly trumpeted by the Assad regime that well-meaning people like Mairead Maguire are fooled into nominating Mother Agnes for the Nobel Peace Prize, is a naked attempt to deceive the world that Assad is keen to forgive and forget. Had ‘reconciliation’ been his message at the outset in March 2011 instead of savage crushing of peaceful demonstrations, ISIS extremists could never have thrived on Syrian soil. As to her assertions on the chemical weapons attack,  Human Rights Watch has systematically dismissed the basis for her arguments.
Only when Assad, no doubt amply aided by Hizbullah and Iran, finally orders his forces to drop barrel bombs on ISIS headquarters, instead of on moderate rebel headquarters in Aleppo and Dera’a, will his narrative that he is fighting ‘extremism and terrorism’ become true. Maybe then we can nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Diana Darke
Author of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution
All that remains of St Simeon Stylites' pillar in St Simeon's Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting 'souvenirs' across the centuries [DD]

All that remains of St Simeon Stylites’ pillar in St Simeon’s Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting ‘souvenirs’ across the centuries [DD]

Assad and ISIS – the ‘marriage of convenience’ is over

By the end of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, nearly every party had allied with and subsequently betrayed every other party at least once. The age-old pattern is the same: groups like ISIS began in Syria by ingratiating themselves with the local population, as they are doing in Mosul now, offering free fuel, electricity supplies and appearing to restore security to the streets. Next they will provide food and medical services. At first, in such charm offensives, they seem to be a godsend, then in stages, the reality reveals itself and their hard-line Islamist agenda comes to the fore, with compulsory Quranic schools, summary public executions and enforced veiling of women. But just as this was not the real Syria, neither is this the real Iraq. Women will pull their headscarves out of their handbags to put them on at black-bannered checkpoints, then stuff them away again.

In the early months of the Syrian Revolution extremist rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra accounted for no more than 3-4 per cent of the rebels overall, maybe reaching 10 per cent around Aleppo. While most fighters in Al-Nusra are from Syria, the extremist group ISIS which appeared over a year later than Al-Nusra in April 2013 is both foreign-led (by an Iraqi) and foreign-dominated. Its fighters come mainly from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia, though there are also Chechens, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and Iraqis as well as a few Pakistani Taliban and even Chinese. Dressed in their Pakistani-style tunics and menacing black balaclavas, brandishing their weapons, they form a stark contrast to the conservative but moderate Sunni Muslims who make up 74 per cent of Syria’s resident population. Typical communiqués use language like: ‘Our army is full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones.’ It is hard to imagine their ideology ever taking root in Syria, despite their ceaseless propaganda videos on YouTube and their thousands of tweets – all the rebel groups have their own highly active Twitter accounts.

Many Syrians told me long before the revolution that the Syrian brand of Islam is close to the tolerant Sufi Islam of Ibn Arabi and Al-Ghazali – open to all and with no coercion. Yet groups like ISIS are so intolerant they even started to ban tobacco as un-Islamic in areas they controlled in Syria’s north, not just alcohol and what they called ‘immoral entertainment’.  The kind of Syria they are trying to usher in would end up destroying the country’s very identity, its tolerant character. Moderate Syrians have begun social media campaigns against them with slogans like: ‘DAESH [Arabic for ‘ISIS’] GO OUT. Bashar and DAESH are one. We didn’t have a revolution against a tyrant for another tyrant to come and control us in the name of religion!  Those who belong to Syria, Syria is for all of you. Those who belong to Al-Qaeda, go to Afghanistan!’ Dozens of Arabic language Facebook pages have been set up rejecting ISIS, its Islamic credentials and its brutal tactics.

The rebel group ISIS now controls the oil fields in Syria’s north eastern provinces. They have broken the pipelines, creating environmental disasters, then welded on crude taps from which they fill queues of tankers. The valuable cargo is then trundled mainly into Turkey and sometimes even into regime-held areas of Syria, where prices rocket. It is a money-making exercise, free of overheads, that has turned the bearded chiefs into millionaires. Thousands of amateur refineries have sprung up, converting the crude oil to petrol, diesel and mazout heating oil, sold in smaller canisters to anyone who has the money. None of them will give that up without a fight. As the ISIS accounts captured in recent days have revealed, the rebels have accumulated huge funds from this oil and from looted Syrian antiquities, enabling them to pay good salaries to new recruits and to acquire proper weaponry for them. From their Syrian headquarters in Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, they have in recent days swept east into Iraq and taken the second city of Mosul along with vast tracts of adjoining territory, capturing along the way much heavy weaponry from the American-supplied Iraqi army.

So now the equation has changed. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically, yet they have never fought each other. ISIS militants have slept sound in their beds without fear of regime air strikes and barrel bombs. Whereas the Assad regime was before quite happy to turn a blind eye to ISIS and its atrocities in the north and in Al-Raqqa, content that its energies were being directed towards fighting the more moderate rebels, now ISIS has become a real threat.

Therefore it should come as little surprise that as The Times today reported, Syrian government forces for the first time bombed ISIS bases in eastern Syria and Al-Raqqa ‘acting in co-ordination with the Iraqi government’. The Assad regime has re-done its calculations, and is now banking on the expectation that its air-strikes against ISIS will also earn it grudging gratitude from the West. Bashar al-Assad must even be thinking this is his chance to become rehabilitated in the eyes of the international community, and undergo a transformation from ‘murderous dictator’ to ‘saviour from Islamist barbarians’.

The UN Chemical Weapons deal last autumn only happened because there was a rare consensus in the international community and no blame was attributable. Maybe such a consensus can be found again, this time to rid both Syria and Iraq of the growing extremist groups like ISIS. Maybe moderate elements from the rebels too can find a common cause and unite against this greater Al-Qaeda-affiliated menace whose terrorist jihadi agenda threatens not just Syria and Iraq’s future but the future of the entire international community. Maybe it will be Syria’s second revolution, a revolution in which even the ‘silent majority’ may find its voice.

In the meantime we can expect more Syrian air strikes against ISIS bases – their ‘marriage of convenience’ is over.

Related articles:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/15/iraq-isis-arrest-jihadists-wealth-power?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/middleeast/iraq/article4120205.ece

 

 

This post includes extracts from the book.

This post includes extracts from the book.

To vote or not to vote – Syria’s elections

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ s Hijaz Railway Station with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

As published in The Guardian on 2 June 2014:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/02/syria-election-vote-for-assad-or-else

What an irony. Fear of the Syrian government and its many-tentacled security apparatus is greater now even than it was before the revolution began.  Why should that be? The government is generously offering ‘reconciliation’ deals across the country, with gracious amnesties like the one that enabled several hundred rebel fighters to leave the exhausted city of Homs with light weapons in early May. Yet anyone who knows Syria from the inside knows full well that the Assad regime’s generosity and grace is to be feared above all else.

When peaceful calls for dignity and reform were met in March 2011 by crushing violence from the outset, the protesters knew what awaited them if they were arrested. Their bravery in breaching the fear barrier even to take part in such demonstrations is beyond admirable. Tens of thousands have gone missing over the last three years, detained in prison, never seen again, or sometimes simply returned to their families in a body-bag as a warning, like the mutilated body of the 13-year old Hamza Al-Khatib, early icon of the revolution. Like so many, Hamza was not even demonstrating – he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the presidential election is held on 3 June all over the country in regime-held areas only, Syrians know full well what it means. It is not so much an election – everyone knows the result after all – it is more like a census, a head count of government supporters. To vote anything other than for Bashar Al-Assad is to sign your own death warrant and that of your family, and not to vote at all means you are forfeiting your chance of any kind of future in Syria. Of Syria’s 23 million population some 4 million are estimated to have left and some 9 million are thought to be internally displaced. At least a further million have lost their identity papers in the fighting and are thereby disqualified. Only refugees outside the country who fled ‘legally’ – just 200,000 out of 3 million according to the Syrian Ministry of Interior’s own figures  –  are eligible to vote, thereby ensuring a situation cannot arise where one of Bashar’s two opponents might actually win abroad.  These ‘legal’ expatriate Syrians can vote in Syrian embassies in certain selected countries like Russia and Romania, and those living in a country where the embassy is closed, like the UK, have been cordially invited back  to Syria ‘to exercise their civil right’. Some have taken up the offer knowing that they must, if they ever wish to return to their country while the Assad regime still holds sway. In Paris I was reliably informed of one Syrian who went, not to vote since France has banned the embassy from participating, but to renew his passport. Known to be anti-regime, he had his passport torn up in front of him and was told: ‘There – now go and get yourself a new passport from your Friends of Syria.’

In this country we face no repercussions for not voting – in Syria it is very different. ‘If you are not for us, you are against us.’ We in the West may dismiss the Syrian election as an absurd process, a mockery of democracy. We have that luxury. But if you are Syrian it is a matter of life and death.

Fear is forcing thousands to vote for Assad, whose tender mercies are well known. Stories are circulating about the ways in which the regime seeks to take revenge on those whom it considers have betrayed it. Even those who have done nothing and never taken sides are at risk. All it takes is one report written by one security official who takes a dislike to you. It has already happened to several of my neutral Syrian friends.

Whilst western democracies will scoff at Syria’s election process, Russia and Iran will use it to their advantage. It plays beautifully into their narrative of supporting ‘whoever is elected by the Syrian people’ and legitimises their unwavering support of Assad.

Syria has lost c40% of its GDP since 2011 according to the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research in conjunction with the UN and the IMF.  Eleven million have lost their livelihood. Fear of losing their right ever to live in their country again is driving them to vote. Hard as it may be for us to grasp, for them it is a vote for life or death.

Christians in the Middle East, some thoughts

6th century murals at Mar Elian church in the Old City of Homs, possibly the oldest in Syria [2010, DD]

6th century murals at Mar Elian church in the Old City of Homs, possibly the oldest in Syria [2010, DD]

As Pope Francis conducts his tour of Jordan, the occupied Palestinain Territories and Israel, the moment seems right to consider some of the Christian communities of the Middle East and their ongoing role in the regional conflicts, especially the Melkite Greek Catholics and the Aramaic-speaking Syriac Orthodox.

It is refreshing to see that the Pope has been prepared to speak out about the 66-year impasse which has poisoned the Middle East since 1948. As the BBC reports this morning, “Speaking in Bethlehem on Sunday, the Pope said: “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.” He talked of the “tragic consequences of the protracted conflict” and the need “to intensify efforts and initiatives” to create a stable peace – based on a two-state solution.”

On 20 May in St James’ Church, Piccadilly, London Gregorius III Laham, the Patriarch of the Church of Antioch and spiritual head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, gave a talk entitled ‘Syria – What Hope?’ The Patriarch is based in Damascus but makes regular officially-sanctioned trips abroad to give speeches and has frequently appeared in the media, notably last year when he was vocal about the happenings in the mixed Christian/Muslim town of Maaloula. No doubt the Patriarch has to be very careful what he says, but his speech in London on 20 May was deeply disturbing for what he did not say. In his assessment of the current situation in Syria and how it came about, he began by talking about how Syrian people came out peacefully in demonstrations asking for dignity and peace – so far so good. But then he launched straight into lambasting Muslim extremists who, he said, had come in and hijacked the Syrian revolution. He blamed Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for their support of jihadi extremists who, he said, were the cause of the problem. ‘We are the victims,’ he declared, ‘of terrorist groups and their supporters, and those who send them.’ The violence of the Syrian government regime in crushing the peaceful protesters was not mentioned at all. The regime’s role in thereby escalating the conflict was completely passed over, jumping straight from the peaceful protests to the jihadi extremists as if there was nothing in between. The Patriarch cannot really be so ingenuous. He knows full well that the time lapse between the start of the peaceful protests and the arrival on the scene of the jihadi extremists was over a year, but no mention does he make of that missing year in his narrative. On the ‘problem of Palestine’, he is on safer ground, having the reassurance that he is fully in tune with the Syrian regime when he calls for a resolution of that conflict.

On 18 May I returned from spending 10 days in the Tur Abdin region of southeast Turkey, homeland of the Syriac Christians whose communities have been divided by the artificial border imposed after World War One between Turkey’s southeast and Syria’s northeast region. 1915 will be the centenary of what they call the Sayfo, the massacre of tens of thousands of their community at the hands of Kurdish tribesmen encouraged by the Young Turks, a catastrophe that caused the flight of many south into what is now Syria. Because of the ongoing war in Syria, many Christians from Hassaka and Qamishli in Syria’s Jezira Province have fled over the last year or so across the border near Nusaybin and were taken some 50km north to a refugee camp exclusively for Syriac Christians in Midyat. The situation was explained in a piece I wrote for the BBC last August:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23614968

Father Joaqim at Mor Augen Monastery, July 2013

Father Joaqim at Mor Augen Monastery, July 2013

This year however, the situation has changed. The camp is full instead with Syrian Kurdish families, as all the Syriac Christian families bar one have all left. All have been sponsored by local Syriacs to leave the camp and enter Turkey properly. Most have moved on to Istanbul, but some have stayed in local jobs in Midyat. The final remaining family is already half-way out, preferring to live in a squalid single room in town costing 150 Turkish lira a month than to live in ‘Guantanamo’ as they call it. A simple family, the father is a carpenter, but has no papers so cannot work. His five children have not been to school for the last two years, yet he tells me they feel comfortable in Midyat despite the cramped conditions because they are among their own community.

Right at the southern edge of the Tur Abdin, high on a ridge overlooking Syria and the Mesopotamian plain, the newly rebuilt Monastery of St Jacob of Qarno has just been connected to the water supply of the local village. Its solitary monk, Father Aho, dug the trench himself with the help of the local community who raised 400,000 euros for the monastery’s restoration thanks to remittances sent from Europe by members of the Syriac diaspora. At Father Aho’s ordination as a priest on 26 April 2014 over a thousand people attended from all over the world. In the monastery shop he sells commemorative mugs and T-shirts, and proudly shows me his multi-lingual library, his garden newly planted with potatoes, fruit trees and vines. All over the Tur Abdin members of the Syriac community are determinedly holding onto or rebuilding their heritage, fighting court cases against Kurds who occupied their empty properties and lands on the basis that they were the original owners, while the Kurds were merely squatters. They are gradually succeeding.

What does all this tell us about Christians in the Middle East? That they understand the plight of the displaced Palestinians very well, and are very good at looking after their own. It is to be hoped that the Pope’s readiness to speak out against injustice inspires a few more Middle Eastern Christians to do the same, be it injustice not just against their own but also  injustice against others.

 

The famous 5th century St Simeon Stylites' Basilica in the heart of a lawless area south of Aleppo [DD]

The famous 5th century St Simeon Stylites’ Basilica in the heart of a lawless area south of Aleppo [DD]

My House in Damascus

Originally posted on Jonathan Fryer:

My House in Damascus Bait Baroudi Diana Darke is one of those splendid British Arabists, in the tradition of Gertrude Bell, who combines a passion for Syria and the rest of the Middle East with an admirably Anglo-Saxon cool head, which has enabled her to work for many years as a translator, consultant and writer of Bradt travel guides on the region. Unlike Ms Bell, however, she is not al-Khatun , a Lady of the Court, with one dog-like ear and eye open to pick up on anything that could be of use to the powers that be — despite at one stage in her life being a diplomatic wife. Indeed, it is hard to imagine her hand-in-hand with either William Hague or the family and entourage of President Bashar al-Assad, who is hanging on in there in Damascus while his country proceeds fast down the road to perdition. Such was Diana Darke’s enchantment with the…

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