dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

A Surreal Trip to Syria

Through a quirk of fate, I was on a bus travelling from Beirut to Damascus on the day that the US, Britain and France launched airstrikes on Syria. The group I joined was on a pastoral visit arranged months earlier, at the invitation of the Syriac Orthodox church, to offer support and solidarity to Syria’s Christians.

The name of the bus, Al-Ma’arri Travel & Tourism, was well-chosen, for Al-Ma’arri was an 11th century blind Syrian poet-philosopher whose Treatise on Forgiveness is thought to have directly influenced Dante’s Divine Comedy. His poems expressed the cynicism and pessimism of his times, where political anarchy and social decay were prevalent. He became a vegetarian and adopted a life of seclusion.

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Breezing through the checkpoints with no obvious bribery or checking of luggage, our bus clearly shone with the sanctity of those on board.  My previous trip in late 2014 to rescue my Damascus house from war profiteers had involved packets of cigarettes passed to soldiers and profuse sweating as grubby hands rummaged among my bags. Our clergy-led coach party was treated like royalty throughout; there was no need even to sully our feet with a descent from the bus at the border.

When I bought my crumbling courtyard house in 2005 at the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old City of Damascus, I did so as an individual, with no shortcuts or favours. For three years I battled to complete its restoration, fighting the labyrinthine bureaucracy, helped only by ordinary Syrians like my architect and his team of craftsmen, my lawyer and my bank manager. Various friends who lost their homes in the suburbs to regime bombardment have lived there since 2012 – up to five families at some points, more after the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013 when the courtyard was full of mattresses. Today, just one extended family lives there at my invitation, in residence since 2015.

In the Christian quarter of the city, we were whisked on to a smaller bus that wiggled its way past the Damascus citadel into the pedestrianised square, directly in front of the spiritual heart of the city, the Umayyad mosque. Its magnificent courtyard had been cleared of worshippers in our honour and we were ushered into an audience hall I had never known existed, despite scores of previous visits. Here, the grand mufti – the country’s most senior Muslim authority – Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, presided over an atmosphere of bonhomie and spoke of the joy of Muslim-Christian relations. Amnesty International notes that the grand mufti’s approval would have been required for between 5,000 and 13,000 executions carried out at Saydnaya prison since 2011.

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In Homs, our next stop, we passed countless chilling posters of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, mainly in his dark glasses and military fatigues, the slogan beneath assuring his people he would protect Syria from “the terrorists”. Before the war the Assad look was more tracksuited, on a bicycle taking his son to school, or tenderly planting trees at the roadside. In posters of Christian martyrs, he appears opposite the Virgin Mary in his role as the ‘God Bashar’.

Homs was shockingly empty, acres of devastation, with only the famous Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque hastily restored by the military construction department to be viewed from afar. It is an empty shell for show, like so much else.

Through accidental timing, we were in Aleppo for Syria’s national day on 17 April and found ourselves invited to an elaborate concert put on for the country’s elites inside the citadel. As we walked up the ramp of one of the world’s greatest pieces of military architecture, we looked down over the destroyed souks and mosques, and were issued little Syrian flags to wave and shout “Hurriya” (freedom) followed by “Halab” (Aleppo) when prompted. It seemed like a cruel echo of the earliest peaceful chants for freedom in 2011. Freedom is now on the regime’s terms only.

Back in Damascus, on 19 April I visited my house and watched helplessly from the roof as Russian/Syrian fighter jets from Mezzeh airbase flew in broad daylight over central Damascus and dropped cluster bombs on the residential southern suburbs of Yarmouk and al-Hajar al-Aswad. Through accidental timing again, it was the first day of weeks of incessant bombing, day and night, till the ISIS rebels agreed a deal and were bussed out into the eastern desert.

“Trapped” was the word I heard again and again from my Syrian friends, Muslim and Christian, to describe their predicament. While the world debates the legality of airstrikes, to those on the ground the action amounts to no more than hot air. Not one of my friends even mentioned the strikes, knowing their fate remains unchanged – to be killed if they dare to protest or to submit to the will of Assad. It is far too late for the west and the international community to intervene militarily in Syria – that should have been done in 2011, or 2013 at the latest, before Islamic State or Russia came in to fill the lawless vacuum we ignored.

Now the only option is to keep up all forms of pressure on the Assad regime and on Putin, to make both feel the heat. In the past, Assad has caved in quickly to pressure, such as when he removed his troops from Lebanon in a matter of weeks following the international outrage at the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, in 2005. Assad and Putin are umbilically connected at present, but if the cord were cut, leaving Assad stripped of his Russian shield, he would capitulate much faster than anyone imagines. All it needs is a united and coherent policy. That’s something that has been sadly lacking so far.

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Putin and Assad merchandise for sale in a hotel lobby in Aleppo

A version of this article appeared in The Guardian on 1st May 2018:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/01/syria-rebuke-western-inaction-military-intervention-assad

Related article:

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/guests-rebelled-at-syria-trip-lunacy-6hcpgmkdg

 

Finally, Assad addresses the real “terrorists” on his Damascus doorstep

President Bashar al-Assad makes no distinction between ISIS and other rebel groups – all are “terrrorists” to be annihilated, legitimate targets. He could have expelled ISIS years ago from their pockets of control in Hajar Aswad and Yarmouk in the southern suburbs of his capital Damascus. But he was content to let them to be there because since 2015 they were doing his job for him – fighting against the more moderate rebels in the suburbs and weakening them year by year.

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The famous photo from February 2014 showing the residents of Yarmouk under siege, flowing out like a river of humanity to get aid.

But while I was inside Syria last week the campaign against them started, following on directly from the ‘liberation’, that is, total displacement of residents from Douma, the Ghouta’s most rebellious area. I stepped into the courtyard of my house and almost immediately the sound began of fighter jets – Russian ones by most accounts – flying in broad daylight across the centre of Damascus and almost casually dropping their cluster bombs on Hajar Aswad.

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Smoke from cluster bombs exploding over Hajar Aswad, southern suburbs of Damascus

It took me a while to see them, they were flying so much higher than I expected, but as my eye grew accustomed to them, I traced their course from the Mezzeh military airport, over the Presidential Palace, and in a loop over the southern suburbs and back again. It was utterly surreal. Yet this is the new normal inside Syria. A government dropping bombs on its own people, in its own capital, and everyone helpless to do anything about it. It is impossible not to think about the people being killed and maimed beneath those bombs. Even if they survive, thousands are sleeping in the streets, their homes destroyed. There is no longer any running water and the last hospital has been targeted and destroyed. The bombing continued all that Thursday 19 April and has been going on relentlessly for a week.

‘Trapped’ was the word I heard again and again, as people are forced to listen to the constant soundtrack of destruction. They feel totally helpless in the face of Assad’s overwhelming grip, backed by the might of Russian air power and military planning.

Yarmouk was one of the earliest refugee camps in Syria, formed after 1948 when the first waves of Palestinians were displaced from the newly created state of Israel.  It was home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees and over 100,00 Syrians. Now the survivors are being bussed to Idlib, where the final showdown awaits in this barbaric war.

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The Orwellian outline of the Presidential Palace lowering over the city of Damascus

Related articles:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/26/palestinian-refugee-camp-syria-turns-unimaginably-brutal-assad/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/26/10m-syrians-at-risk-of-forfeiting-homes-under-new-property-law

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/28/shocking-image-syria-brutal-war-yarmouk

Assad bombs the Ghouta, but ignores ISIS in Damascus – why?

Damascus suburbs who controls what 28 March 2018

There is a mystery in this map of Damascus that requires explanation. It shows clearly the Eastern Ghouta rebel suburb where all the current focus in the media is concentrated. But just as clear is the area of Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus’s southern suburbs, marked as under the control of the Islamic State group (ISIS). So why are the ISIS rebels in Hajar al-Aswad allowed to stay, while the rebels in the Ghouta are forced out?

Al-Ghouta means ‘the basin’ in Arabic, the fertile area of land fed by the River Barada which supplied Damascus with its agricultural produce like milk, cheese and yogurt, chicken, eggs, fruit and nuts. Historically it is one of the locations claimed as the Garden of Eden. Since mid-February 2018 it has become instead Hell on Earth.

Ghouta bombing March 2018

Today the final pocket of Douma, largest town in the Ghouta, awaits what many expect will be the final massive bombardment that will force its inevitable surrender to the Syrian regime. Other parts of the Ghouta – Harasta, Arbin and Zamalka – have all surrendered, worn down by years of siege, rounded off by the recent burst of apocalyptic Russian bombing. Douma, headquarters of the rebel group Jaysh Al-Islam, has been a thorn in Assad’s side since 2012, yet was considered moderate enough by the international community to participate in the Geneva peace talks, even heading the opposition delegation.

Ghouta evacuation March 2018

So why has Assad allowed ISIS to sit on his doorstep unmolested for years, despite them being closer to the presidential palace than rebels in the Ghouta and despite ISIS being unquestionably far more extreme in its ideology than any of the Ghouta rebels? The answer is that it suits him to do so, because they fight each other, not him, and over the last five years the ISIS fighters have weakened and depleted the FSA groups in Babila, Yalda and Beit Sahem. Neither Al-Nusra nor ISIS are present in the Ghouta, yet the Russians and the Syrian regime have continued to bombard the area with impunity, in violation both of their own agreed ‘de-escalation zones’ and of the UN ceasefire resolution unanimously passed in February 2018.

ISIS in Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad Damascus

The Assad regime has shown itself to be calculated and astute in its strategic management of the war. Early on in the uprising that erupted  in March 2011 the regime branded everyone who protested against them as a ‘terrorist’, and labelled the uprising a ‘foreign conspiracy’. Through its violent crushing of the early peaceful protests, along with wholesale and widely documented rape of women from the rebel neighbourhoods, often in their own homes in front of their male family members, it systematically goaded the local populations to take up arms. Whilst people passing through checkpoints were carefully scrutinised, lorry-loads of weaponry were allowed easily through – the regime wanted demonstrators to weaponize and become fighters. Then it could call them all ‘terrorists’ and kill them indiscriminately.

The leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, was killed on Christmas Day 2015 by a targeted airstrike with the help of Russian intelligence, less than three months after Russia entered the Syrian war arena to help its ailing ally Bashar al-Assad stay in power. Zahran’s brother, Muhammad, was sent in his place to represent the group in UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva, but the talks stalled like all the others, and he resigned soon after in May 2016.

Every time the Ghouta enclaves have been subjected to heavy regime bombardment, the rebels have retaliated with sporadic mortar fire sent into the heart of Damascus. Innocent residents of the city have been killed this way, it is true, just as in the western regime-held side of Aleppo when the east Aleppo rebels fired retaliatory mortars. But mortar shells can hardly be said to equate to the massive aerial bombardment inflicted by the Syrian regime and the Russians, whose response has by any measure been totally disproportionate. No matter, the text is in place and the Assad regime has succeeded in provoking the violent reaction from the rebels which it has been seeking all along. Now it is on familiar territory – violence is its default setting for problem-solving, as it showed in Hama in 1982.

The biggest threat to the Assad regime, as both Assad and Putin well know, has never come from ISIS rebels, many of whom are foreign and have little to do with the Syrian people. It has come from the more moderate opposition rebels, most of whom are Syrian and who have long wanted his overthrow. That is why Assad forces have rarely fought ISIS, and why he leaves them sitting on his doorstep – for now. They fit his narrative perfectly, that he is fighting ‘terrorists’.

Syria-ISIS Damascus map

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-43127189

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-32356307

https://rfsmediaoffice.com/en/2017/10/13/entire-family-rubble-hajar-al-aswad-damascus/

https://friendsofsyria.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/isis-advances-in-southern-damascus-captures-more-positions-inside-yarmouk-camp/

https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2018/02/06/how-de-escalation-zones-in-syria-became-a-war-management-strategy

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/25/zahran-alloush-leader-syria-rebel-group-killed-airstrike

https://www.albawaba.com/news/assad-leveling-eastern-ghouta-leaving-isis-unchecked-

inside-damascus-1097302

http://syriadirect.org/news/%E2%80%98ghouta-is-a-glimpse-into-the-future-of-south-damascus%E2%80%99-says-rebel-negotiator/

Syria’s Afrin, a perennial battleground

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PYD checkpoint in Afrin, the northernmost corner of Aleppo Governorate, August 2012 (public domain)

When Afrin University opened in 2015 it was like a dream come true for some Kurdish students. At last they were free of Assad-regime oppression, masters of their own future. By 2017 the university boasted 22 professors and 250 students, with plans to expand to 10,000. From the start it drew controversy, from local Kurds as well as Arabs, for its Kurdish language instruction and a course called ‘The Nation’s Democracy’, championing the radical ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – Turkey’s nemesis.

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Women fighters of the Kurdish YPJ, the female equivalent of the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, the best organised of the 40+ Kurdish political parties in northern Syria, holding a picture of their ideological leader, Abdullah Ocalan, photo from 2014.

Most of Afrin’s Kurds had studied in Aleppo 50km to the south, before the war morphed that 40-minute drive into a tortuous 20-hour back-route fraught with checkpoints. So when Assad’s soldiers quietly withdrew from northern Kurdish areas in summer 2012, the well-organised Kurds of the PYD – the PKK in Syrian clothing – quickly took charge, setting up their own education system, administration and army. Kurdish soldiers are tough, used historically by the Ottomans and the French, and today by the Americans to help fight ISIS in Syria.

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Walking down from the citadel at Cyrrhus, on the Syrian/Turkish border in July 2010 [DD]

Afrin and its environs are beautiful, a rich prize worth fighting for. The region is known as Kurd-Dagh, the ‘Mountain of the Kurds’, where 360 thriving Kurdish villages make it the most densely Kurdish populated part of Syria. One million of Syria’s 2.5 million Kurds live here. The Afrin River runs north-south through heavily treed hills, the lush valleys and fertile red soil renowned for their excellent fruit and nut produce, especially olives, the best in Syria. No snakes or scorpions are said to inhabit this soil. Water flows in abundance. The Midanki Falls were tamed in 2004 by a dam so the old road now vanishes abracadabra-like into a long thin lake. At weekends locals picnic and barbecue round its shores. Arabic is hardly spoken north of Midanki and older men still dress traditionally in baggy black trousers.

Neighbouring A’zaz is also home to many Turcoman and Arab communities. Almost everyone, Kurds included, is Sunni Muslim. Kurdish identity is based not on religion, but on ethnicity and cultural heritage.

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The unexcavated Roman hilltop theatre of Cyrrhus, dominating the surrounding olive orchards, July 2010 [DD]

Overlooking the Afrin River, within sight of the Turkish border, sprawl the vast Roman ruins of Cyrrhus, a suitable vantage point from which to digest the epic struggles of this region and to ponder the dilemmas unfolding here today. Cyrrhus once served as a military base for the Romans conducting campaigns against the Armenian Empire to the north. By the 4th century it had become an important centre for Christianity with its own bishop, but was abandoned in the 12th century after losing its strategic role.

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The tomb of Uriah the Hittite, at the foot of Cyrrhus, known locally as Al-Nabi Houri, today a Muslim shrine, mosque and modern cemetery, July 2010 [DD]

Nearby stands the landmark which gives the site its local name, Al-Nabi Houri, the pyramid-roofed tomb of Uriah the Hittite, sent to his death in battle by Israelite King David so that he could marry the lovely Bathsheba, his widow. Today the tomb is a Muslim shrine and mosque, tended by a Kurdish household whose patriarch lost his leg, not in battle, but in a minefield as he crossed the Turkish border to visit relatives.

Such complexities are reflected in a 1935 map of Syria compiled by troops of the French Mandate. It shows the religious and ethnic communities of Syria just before the French gifted the Sanjak of Alexandretta to Turkey as a bribe to keep it neutral in World War Two. The Turks renamed it Hatay, its population then estimated at 50% Arab, 40% Turkish and 10% Armenian.

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Map compiled in 1935 by troops of the French Mandate which controlled Syria from 1920-45, showing the religious and ethnic minorities as recorded at that time. Note that Lebanon was then also under the French Mandate and therefore all one region, as was Alexandretta in the northwest, given to Turkey the following year in 1936 and thereafter known as Hatay. The original map is held in the French Institute (IFPO) in Damascus

Syrian maps still mark the Hatay border as ‘temporary.’ Throughout the volatile seven-year Syrian war, conflicting parties routinely produce maps with differing claims of territorial control. Afrin, abutting Hatay to the west and rebel-held Idlib to the south, is the latest victim, as Turkey once again forces ‘terrorist Kurds’ out. The last time was in 1998, when Syria was sheltering Öcalan and the PKK.

Syria control map source IHS Conflict Monitor

Today the real fight may yet be among the Syrian Kurds themselves, for not all support Öcalan, despite the omnipresence of his photo. Thousands have fled PYD rule in order to escape large scale conscription and the use of child soldiers. Many complain the PYD are mercenaries and criminals. Stories of human rights abuses abound, like bulldozing Arab villagers’ homes on the pretext of clearing out ISIS extremists, stories denied by the PYD. Private schools teaching in Arabic are forced to close. Meanwhile, the Syrian state continues to issue all civil documents, such as birth, marriage and death certificates, in an attempt to maintain influence.

With so many competing interests, the fight for Afrin will be ugly. Kurdish dreams of ‘democratic federalism’ and Turkish dreams of safe zones free of ‘terrorists’ may lead inexorably to Syria’s de facto partition. Whatever the future holds for Afrin, one side’s dream is likely to be the other’s nightmare.

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A version of this piece appeared on the BBC website on 24 January 2018:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-42788179

 

Of Syrian Sheep and Goats

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Sheep in their flock

In December 2017 London’s Royal Court hosted a new play called Goats’ by Syrian Liwaa Yazji. The Times Literary Supplement asked me to review it. This is what I wrote, published in print and online on 13 December 2017:

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/goats-royal-court-theatre/

The Royal Court describes itself as “the writers’ theatre,” staging “restless, alert, provocative theatre about now”.  This unusual play certainly fits that bill, its Agitprop style echoing Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’, one of the greatest anti-war plays ever written. Like Brecht, Yazji uses Verfremdungeffekt to create a deliberate distance between the audience and the actors, seeking to make them focus on the issues rather than empathise with the characters. Brecht was frustrated by the critics’ response to ‘Mother Courage.’ The audience sympathised with her suffering, the loss of her children, one by one, to the war, but what Brecht said he intended was to show how misguided she was to believe she could earn her livelihood from the war. Yazji must be feeling very similar, for the interval chatter made it clear that the audience connected primarily with the live on-stage goats.

The play is surreal on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. The setting is 2016, a snapshot of a typical regime-held village in southern Syria five years into the current conflict. It is not, and never has been, on the frontline of the fighting, but the play opens with a neat row of coffins laid out on stage, each decorated with the photo of its occupant, a young soldier in uniform, killed fighting ‘terrorists’ somewhere else in the country. It is the weekly mass funeral, an event that has now become routine, but which has to be televised for the nation, to ‘honour the martyrs’, using a vetted script read out by the chairman of the local Ba’ath Party branch office. Suited security personnel are in attendance to make sure everything goes to plan, while a hard-as-nails female TV presenter, all hair and teeth, interviews the relatives, also to a fixed script.

Throughout the play there are three TV screens on stage simultaneously playing footage of these and other funerals, interspersed with programmes about villages being liberated, an ‘Everything is fine’ strap-line and occasional white-noise explosions. Such techniques are reminiscent of Brecht’s use of placards, as is the unflinchingly bright stage-lighting irrespective of whether it is night or day, adding to the sense of the surreal. Sometimes the stage is littered with looted fridges, war booty stolen from opposition homes.

The Ba’ath Party, sensing the rising unease of the villagers, has the brainwave of compensating the martyrs’ families with a goat, a token of the state’s esteem and respect for their loss. This is beyond surreal, especially because during the Arab Spring, artists have often used the goat, with its naturally curious and independent character, to represent the rebels, the protesters, as opposed to the compliant sheep who do as they are told and flock together.

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Cartoon by Syrian Ali Ferzat, showing sheep carrying placards with “Freedom” in Arabic, as they follow a heavily weaponised thug.

The young men of the village relieve their tensions by fornicating with the goats, and question what the point is in going to school if they are soon going to be sent off into the army anyway. ‘Won’t it be over by then?’ asks one. ‘Like hell it will,’ replies another. “There might be another ten years of this,” says a third.

The key protagonist is Abu Firas, the local schoolteacher, whose son is supposedly inside one of the coffins. He insists on seeing his son’s body so he can be sure he is dead – he is finally departing from the state-controlled script. “Enough of this madness!” he shouts, in the middle of the ceremony. “You’re scared of me. Why?” he yells at the Ba’ath Party official, “Because now I have nothing left to lose. In a country like this, that is the most dangerous thing!” He starts to question: “Why don’t any of our boys come back wounded, why only dead?” and jokes bitterly “Thank goodness our sons don’t realise they’re only worth a goat.”

As his defiance grows, the realisation dawns that his son was brainwashed into the ‘martyrdom mentality’ and the leitmotif of the play becomes clear – overcome with regret for not speaking up against the regime’s tactics all these years, he howls: “I missed my chance!” One of the young boys agrees, reproaching him: “You’re the originator – you and your whole fucking generation!” A mother grieving for her elder son refuses to speak. “This is not the time to stay silent,” Abu Firas reproaches her, “Do you think your silence will change anything?” Her younger son, who has run away from the army on her instructions, also reproaches her: “When I turn into a goat, will we be able to talk to each other?”

This very real generational divide within the war is rarely focussed on, in literature or in the media, but it is certainly the case that many of the old blame themselves for staying silent too long, while the young blame the old for landing them in this mess, for acquiescing in the regime’s methods all their lives rather than challenging the system. “Did I kill Firas?” the father wonders by the end. In despair he hangs himself, a schoolteacher who has failed in his duty to educate the young.

Most surreal of all is the audience’s reaction to the play. “We open our doors to the unheard voices and free thinkers that, through their writing, change our way of seeing,” states the Royal Court Theatre blurb. The audience looked but appeared not to see.  “The goats are the real heroes” laughed some, while others declared that the goats stole the show, and were better than the actors. Yazji lays bare with chilling accuracy the horrific realities of the Syrian war, how it has brutalized families and a once-cohesive Syrian society. But an ongoing war of these proportions, where over half the population has been displaced, disabled or killed, is so far removed from a London audience’s comfort zone, that it can’t relate to the message – only to the goats. Yazji, like Brecht, may have to wait a few generations before the enormity of the Syrian war – and her play’s attempt to bring this home – will be better understood.

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Why Assad is still there

 

Putin, Assad, Rouhani and Nasrallah on poster

Putin, Assad, Rouhani and Nasrallah. The Arabic caption reads: “Men who do not bow down except to God.”

Complexity reigns in Syria, with multiple players still engaged on the world’s most chaotic battlefield. But three new books, despite their very different approaches, share a simple refrain – the ruling Assad regime sees no need to discuss a political solution. Thanks to the consistent military backing of its powerful allies Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah, it is incrementally getting its own way.

Ghaith Armanazi’s The Story of Syria makes “no apology for a work I always intended to be a personal take on Syrian history.” Such a statement coming from a former diplomat often labelled an Assad apologist might put many a reader off. Yet Armanazi uses his position of particular privilege to provide not just an interesting collection of early photos (one of which shows Syrian women demonstrating in the 1950s) but a surprisingly candid account of how his country became ‘Assad’s Syria.’

The real meat comes halfway through, where he unravels the unique Hafez al-Assad methodology, essential to understanding how the Syrian state has survived nearly seven years of war. The detailed chapter on Assad senior’s thirty-year rule takes up a quarter of the book, explaining his trademark caution and how his 1970 coup was ‘the most understated in a long line of coups for the last twenty years’.

Hafez al-Assad in November 1970 soon after seizing power

Hafez al-Assad in November 1970 soon after taking power in Syria

Armanazi charts how the rising trend of political Islamism from the 1970s onwards was driven by a flow of funds from a newly oil-rich Saudi Arabia, leading to feverish building of mosques and religious schools, and how this in turn led to the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood, culminating in Assad’s revenge, now known as the 1982 Hama massacre.

From that point on, we learn, Hafez al-Assad styled himself ‘Commander for Eternity’ (Qaiduna ila al-Abad), following the useful models of Kim Il Sung in North Korea and Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. Large public portraits and statues proliferated, a leadership cult which passed to his son Bashar, together with the bloated, inefficient government institutions, the corruption, the nepotism and the ‘shadowy security agencies…  silencing all voices of dissent.’

The narrative peters out in a much shorter chapter on Bashar’s rule from 2000. It stops before the current war, as if fearful of saying too much, but the tone conveys Armanazi’s clear anger at the international community’s ‘frenetic mood of activity over Daesh’ while the root cause of Daesh is ignored. ‘The inescapable truth,’ he ends prophetically, ‘is that Daesh is a symptom and all efforts to deal with it independently of Syria’s sickness are doomed to failure.’

Nikolaos Van Dam’s short book Destroying a Nation is precisely that ‘product of meticulous and dry academic research’ which Armanazi’s is not. But after the excellence of Van Dam’s seminal earlier work The Struggle for Power in Syria, this new one disappoints. Focussing on what it calls ‘the civil war in Syria’, over a quarter is taken up with lengthy notes, bibliography and lists of abbreviations and factions together with an extensive 16-page index. One of its stranger entries is ‘Wishful thinking’, listed ten times, more entries than ‘Kurds’.

Van Dam was, like Armanazi, a career diplomat, and has been Dutch Special Envoy for Syria for the last two years, deeply engaged, with the support of an expert Dutch Syria team, in the Geneva and Riyadh peace talks. As a result this is a book for political analysts who are interested in the minutiae of the ever-shifting alliances, first within the ruling Ba’ath Party and now, within the opposition parties, which would be fine if the book were up to date. But it went to press before the 2017 Astana talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran – the vital trio with most at stake inside Syria – agreed on the current de-escalation zones, thereby rendering the previous processes immaterial.

What the book does succeed in illustrating however, only too clearly, through its depressing account of those convoluted processes thus far, are the gulfs in belief between all parties, the different versions of a future Syria which they hold, all shades of which are in any case irrelevant since the Assad regime ‘is not prepared to negotiate its own departure, downfall or death sentence.’

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A shopkeeper displays Bashar al-Assad flags for sale, 2017

With its overlong paragraphs and ponderous style, the book claims to deal with prospects for a solution to the conflict, yet ducks the issue and simply ends with another inconclusive summary of the ‘Basic elements of the Syrian Conflict since the Revolution of 2011’. Other Western political analysts are quoted at length but the only Syrian voice to appear is that of Bashar al-Assad himself, declaring on the final page that he will remain president till at least 2021 when his third seven-year term ends, and that he will rule out any political changes before winning the war.

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Street posters in Damascus, 2017

By contrast, Wendy Pearlman’s carefully crafted book We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled allows displaced Syrians to speak for themselves – 87 of them – men and women, young and old, ranging across students, mothers, doctors, poets, accountants, lawyers, beauticians, playwrights, musicians, barbers, computer programmers, engineers, business owners, teachers and finance managers. An American Arabic-speaking academic from Chicago’s Northwestern University, Pearlman conducted hundreds of interviews from 2012-16 with Syrians now living outside their country in Jordan, Turkey, Sweden, Denmark, the UAE, the USA, Lebanon and Germany, using a team of over twenty transcribers and translators to help her arrive at this selection.

Unencumbered by footnotes and other end material, its 292 pages can be easily read in a day. Pearlman’s introduction explains the book’s eight-part structure, offering a sensitive and compelling overview of the war to date. The voices then tell the story of Syria under the Assads, starting with Hafez’s rule, then Bashar’s, before passing through the phases of the war, from the early euphoria of the Revolution and its peaceful demonstrations, to the onset of disillusion and hopelessness, to their ultimate flight from the country as refugees. Imad, a student from Salamiyeh now in Berlin, explains their predicament: “Media has tied the revolution to terrorism,” so “it’s easier to say that you’re simply running away from war…not to mention the revolution, or even the regime.”

By selecting a particular group of voices there is always the problem that others will accuse you of skewing the narrative. But while Pearlman’s refugees necessarily reflect the anti-Assad views held by the majority of Syrian refugees, they also lend weight to the prevailing picture of what remains inside Syria today, chiming with much else that has emerged from other sources. What they confirm is that nothing has essentially changed since March 2011 when Abu Tha’ir, an aeronautical engineer from Daraa now in Jordan, witnessed regime soldiers storm the mosque, kill unarmed demonstrators, burn the holy books and scribble on the walls: “Do not kneel for God. Kneel for Assad.”

Nothing, that is, except the death of 500,000 people and the displacement of over half the population. Sham, a relief worker from Douma now in Sweden, is “disgusted by humanity. We’re basically the living dead.” He jokes sarcastically that all Syrians should all be killed: “Then we’ll all go to heaven and leave Bashar al-Assad to rule over an empty country.”

“One wonders,” Pearlman reflects, “what might have been different had we listened to Syrians’ voices earlier.”

Welcome to Assad's Syria banner

A Syrian-Lebanese border crossing which re-opened in December 2017. The sign reads: “Welcome to Assad’s Syria.”

This piece was originally published in Chatham House’s The World Today Oct/Nov 2017 issue:

https://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/twt/why-assad-still-there

 

Raqqa, City of Contrasts

Raqqa ISIS convoy

Today’s reality in Raqqa, claimed since 2014 as the capital of Islamic State, is hard to reconcile with its illustrious past as a leading city of the Islamic Golden Age. 

But Matthew Heineman’s powerful new film ‘City of Ghosts’, difficult to watch at times, does not concern itself with history. Its focus is the here and now, the story of the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), whose members are risking their lives to send the outside world painful footage from inside Raqqa, in their mission to counter ISIS propaganda. The documentary – in Arabic, with subtitles – follows four of the group’s leading members over the course of a year, starting from late 2015, and includes material recorded covertly in the city by RBSS and other footage from the Syrian revolution.

Nothing in Syria is straightforward and there are cruel ironies. The bird’s eye view given by aerial drone footage in the film’s early shots of Raqqa’s desolate flat landscape with its sprawling mess of modern buildings, is the same bird’s eye view the US-led coalition pilots will be getting from their cockpits as they bomb “a forgotten city in Syria” as Aziz, the main RBSS spokesman, calls his hometown.

“A few thousand extremists,” he laments, “are deemed justification to blow up civilians.” But he was talking back in 2016, not about the massive aerial bombardment campaign currently being waged on Raqqa by the government of the same country that has just given his activist group a top press freedom award, but about the handful of token airstrikes the Assad regime and its Russian ally had seen fit to conduct against the ISIS capital up to that point.

Raqqa bombing August 2017

Over the coming months it is sadly inevitable that Raqqa’s civilians will be slaughtered all too loudly, as they get caught in the crossfire between ISIS mines and the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seeking to ‘liberate’ them. The UN estimates that up to 50,000 of Raqqa’s original 300,000 inhabitants remain trapped inside the city as human shields, prevented by ISIS from leaving.

The famous Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, immortalised in the tales of A Thousand and One Nights, moved his capital in 796 from Baghdad to Raqqa on the banks of the mighty Euphrates River.

Raqqa Old City overview

He built five hectares of palace complexes to symbolise his dominance of the region, from which his recreational summer palace Qasr al-Banat (Palace of the Maidens) and a colossal courtyard mosque with a 25m tower are all that remain today.

The Syrian astronomer Al-Battani (858-929), who calculated the 365-day length of the solar year to an accuracy of within two minutes and who is quoted as a major source by Copernicus over 600 years later, lived and worked in Raqqa.

 

But while future generations will forever associate Raqqa with savagery and Islamist terrorism, the University of Nottingham’s excavations of the 1990s focussed almost exclusively on another of Raqqa’s claims to fame – its 2km-long industrial complex where, from the 8th – 12th centuries, the city manufactured glass and pottery, becoming the Islamic world’s most important glass-making centre.

Raqqa glass 13th century

The well-preserved glass furnaces produced green, brown, blue and purple glass on a commercial scale, made from quartz pebbles of the nearby Euphrates river-bed, combined with the ashes of plants that grow in the surrounding semi-desert environment. The skilled artisans were both Christian and Muslim, buried side by side in an area close to the kiln sites.

“Death is death, as we say in Raqqa” declares Aziz, claiming he has gone beyond fear in his fight against the jihadists. Yet it is clear, as the film follows its four main members of RBSS, that their constant battle to report ISIS atrocities has taken its toll on all of them, as they chain-smoke to settle their nerves and steady their shakes. The opening scenes, juxtaposing the high glitz of the New York awards ceremony with horrific shots of decapitated bodies in Raqqa, capture this well, exposing the gulf between the two worlds. A female US photographer tries to shoot photos of Hamoud, the RBSS photographer, urging him to smile for the camera: “You’re so serious, my friend!” she exclaims.

As the film moves back to Syria, it charts the heady days of the 2011 Revolution with its singing and peaceful demonstrations. “After forty years of Assad, we started to scream for freedom,” Aziz recalls, and the footage moves to Dera’a where “the deaths of fifteen children were the spark that ignited revolution”. He explains how he had no political background before then, and how his father, well-aware what would happen, warns him to stay away from journalism.

The film’s main focus throughout is the danger to the men as activists, a shared danger which deepens their bonds of friendship. As ISIS seeks to silence them, and as their colleagues and family members start to be assassinated, they decide to leave for Turkey’s Gaziantep, assuming it will be safe to continue their work from there. But ISIS is not so easily deterred and their co-founder and mentor Naji Jerf is shot in broad daylight on the city’s streets. The intimate scenes shot at his funeral are among the most moving in the entire film.

Naji Jerf funeral

Some of the activists, including Aziz, are then granted expedited visas, immediate refugee status and free housing by the German government. Only Muhammad, a maths teacher, is married. His wife Rose is the sole female character to appear, and the film now shows footage of them all enjoying snowball fights in Berlin juxtaposed with surreal videos from Raqqa of casual street executions carried out by young ISIS recruits, their victims’ heads impaled on public railings. Mass destruction of satellite dishes is secretly filmed as ISIS cracks down on their activities, determined to cut them off from the world. Safely in Germany, they all suffer from survivors’ guilt. Hamoud, a self-described introvert, watches the video of his father’s assassination, posted online by ISIS, to “give me strength.” Meanwhile the friends experience the harsh reality of a Pegida anti-immigrant rally with heavily tattooed Germans chanting “One-way ticket to Turkey! Deport them!” Aziz is offered German police protection, from ISIS and from Pegida, but refuses it, feeling he cannot accept a protection that his friends lack.

A clear sense is given of how ISIS’s own films and propaganda material has become more professional through recruitment of media specialists, using Hollywood-style special effects to boost membership, making the ISIS lifestyle seem like a glorified video game. “Why play it online when you can play it for real?” reflects Aziz.

What the film does not explain is why ISIS chose Raqqa in the first place. They borrowed the black banner of the Abbasids, but their choice was much shrewder than their awareness of the city’s former glory. The last fifty years of Assad rule left Raqqa’s population neglected and exploited. Its poor and disadvantaged population, ripe with resentment and hatred of the regime, made it fertile ISIS recruiting ground. It is the only place in all of Syria where I have had stones thrown at me as a westerner. The takeover by a handful of extremists of an insignificant provincial backwater was considered unimportant by Assad, so his forces made no attempt to displace the ISIS fighters who first appeared in the city in early 2013. It was a bad miscalculation. The regime did not understand that Raqqa’s strategic location on the Euphrates,

Raqqa Euphrates banks

downstream from Syria’s largest reservoir Lake Assad, and the main hydro-electric dam at Tabqa, together with its proximity to the country’s oil and gas fields, would give the pretender caliphate a disproportionate stranglehold on Syria’s infrastructure from the start. This part of Syria, well-watered, fertile, cotton and wheat-rich, should be the wealthiest in the country, but Bashar al-Assad’s regime, unlike his father’s, has always been urban-focussed, treating the assets of the provinces like possessions to be milked as if they belonged to his personal farm.

The film ends with a warning. In his speech to the assembled New York glitterati, Aziz explains that the conditions and structural problems in Syrian society which enabled the rise of ISIS are still there. Even if their territory is lost, he reads in halting English from his script, their ideology will continue to find supporters among the brutalised and unemployed youth with nothing to lose. When Hamoud becomes a father in Germany (his wife is invisible) the responsibility changes everything for him: “I don’t want my child to struggle like me without a father.” He names his new-born son after his assassinated father, and footage moves from the German hospital where the naked baby gurgles and kicks, to a chilling scene showing Raqqa’s Caliphate Cubs chanting death slogans. A child barely older than a toddler uses a huge knife to saw the head off a startlingly white teddy-bear, then beams, holding up the head triumphantly for the camera and squealing Allahu Akbar on cue.

To recover from such barbarity I recommend a visit to the glass displays of London’s V&A Museum. Gaze at the exquisitely delicate Raqqa perfume bottles, and ponder the fall of such a city, which in happier times centuries ago was known for its beautiful artisanal creations, its earth-changing scientific inventions, its multicultural environment and its magnificent summer palaces – all fostered by an enlightened, outward-looking Islamic state.

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Exquisite glass perfume bottles made in Raqqa, displayed in London’s V&A Museum (DD)

Syria’s ‘Lourdes’ – the other Saydnaya

Saydnaya pilgrimage

The US State Department has just released satellite images of what they say is a crematorium at Saydnaya prison, built in 2013 to burn the bodies of prisoners who were starved or tortured to death. Saydnaya, in the Qalamoun Mountains just 26km north of the capital Damascus, is one of the Assad regime’s most notorious prisons, long used to detain and silence political opponents. According to a report by Amnesty International published in February 2017, between 5,000 and 13,000 prisoners have been executed at Saydnaya prison since the conflict began in March 2011. Most will have been Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of those opposing Assad, but body cremation is not permitted in Islam, so mass graves are the usual way of disposing of the dead. Such niceties are irrelevant however when the intention is to destroy the evidence.

As all Syrians and former visitors to Syria know, Saydnaya has a namesake. While the prison is tucked away out of sight, standing in full view on the hillside at an altitude of 1,650m is the Greek Orthodox Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya. The Syrian ‘Lourdes’, it is the second-holiest pilgrimage site for Greek Orthodox Christians after Jerusalem, famed for its holy relic, an icon of the Virgin Mary reputedly painted by St Luke, and credited with miraculous powers.

Saydnaya convent, St Luke grotto

The devout, Muslim and Christian, mainly women, come to the convent’s inner shrine sanctum to be blessed by the holy oil said to ooze from the icon and to seek cures for illnesses and disabilities. The gift shop sells trinkets that sometimes show the blending of the two religions, such as a Madonna and Child inside a Hand of Fatima – a double dose of blessings.

The current war has left the buildings unscathed – except for a missile which crashed through the wall early on but never exploded, blamed by the regime on the rebels and by the rebels on the regime – but earlier wars and earthquakes have necessitated many rebuildings over the centuries. Saladin’s sister was said to have visited many times, making generous donations. The convent today dates from a hotchpotch of periods, a new part added whenever a large donation permits. Among the most recent is a wing added thanks to a donation made in 1958 by an American couple from Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

Saydnaya Convent

Like nearby Ma’aloula, the town of Saydnaya still boasts residents who speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, dominant language in the Near East from the 4th to the 6th centuries and the most important language of the eastern Roman Empire after Greek. It gradually gave way to Arabic after the 7th century Islamic conquest, but is still used as the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Classified by UNESCO as a ‘definitely endangered’ language, the most famous Aramaic words are those spoken by Christ on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?” – My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? A question many trapped inside Saydnaya Prison must, tragically, be asking today.

Saydnaya prison

Relevant articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39926914

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38885901

Syria: From “beautiful little babies” to “beautiful big safe zones”?

metrograb: A devastated father has been pictured cradling the bo

Russian state television has not been showing pictures of the victims, lifeless or still writhing, which have been flooding Western media channels since the sarin gas attack of April 4 on Khan Sheikhoun, a town between Aleppo and Hama. After all, Russia is supposed to be the guarantor of the deal under which President Assad of Syria signed up to the international treaty banning chemical weapons. Under threat of US military action, he quickly agreed to the removal and destruction of his stockpile, declared at 1,300 tonnes of chemical agents including sarin.

The deal was hailed as a great success. The international community congratulated itself on the historic Russian/American cooperation. That was back in 2013 after Obama’s notoriously illusory “red line” was crossed by the Syrian regime dropping sarin on the agricultural eastern Ghoutasuburb of Damascus. 1,500 died overnight. Only twice in history had sarin been used before this week: first in Halabja by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds in 1988, the second in Japan in 1995 by a new religious movement on the Tokyo subway. There have been nine recorded chemical weapons attacks in Syria this year alone, but this is the first where the agent has been sarin as opposed to chlorine, mustard or phosphorus. This time around 100 were killed, most dying from suffocation before they reachedhospital. Doctors Without Borders confirmed the signs – constricted pupils, muscle spasms and involuntary defecation – as have autopsies carried out by WHO and OPCW officials on corpses rushed to Turkey. Israeli and British intelligence report that the attack was ordered at “the highest levels” of the Assad regime. It comes hard on the heels of a spate of documentaries about the “disappeared” in his prisons and the decision of a Spanish court, last week, to file a case against some of his top officials for war crimes.

RT-syria-ml-170405_4x3_992 sarin victim 4 April 2017

Sarin is not easy to manufacture, say the chemical weapons experts. If, as the Assad regime claims, Isis or al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have the capability to manufacture it, why have they not used it, given they are not known for their restraint? The sarin is likely to be from old stockpiles not surrendered – 200 tonnes’ worth is the current OPCW estimate. Anyone who knows the Assad regime and how it operates can assume that it held some back as a “contingency”.

Khan Sheikhoun is in Idlib Province where the rebels and their families, all labelled “terrorists”, have been herded into a giant corral awaiting their extermination. It was the option they chose after being forcibly evacuated from areas like Homs, Darayya and most recently Aleppo and Wadi Barada under what the regime calls “reconciliation” deals. Almost everyone rejected the alternative on offer – to rejoin the regime and face a similar fate, but this time as cannon fodder for their own side. Madaya, Zabadani and Douma are next in line. So many of the victims are among the newly displaced that not all their identities have yet been established. Idlib has been targeted so heavily and for so long that its medical supplies were utterly unequipped to deal with something of this scale. Already there are rumours of a mass offensive on Idlib Province planned by the Assad regime, backed by Russia from the air and the Shia militias of Iran, Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah on the ground. The sarin attack is thought to have been conceived as a “softening-up” of the rebels in advance of this offensive. Dropping a sarin bomb is a way of extracting an early surrender, just as the US dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese to end the Second World War.

Trump

But it is Trump who has stunned the world with the speed of his reaction. Up to now his policy has been that strongmen are the best thing for the Middle East, to keep extremism at bay. Overnight he has swung US policy from tolerance of Assad to outright attack, launching fifty-nine cruise missiles from US warships in the eastern Mediterranean. The target, totally destroyed, was the Shayrat airbase near Homs from which the sarin attack was launched. Six Syrian soldiers were killed. He has done some “softening-up” of his own.

What next? Will he make good on “beautiful big safe zones”? Does he have plans for one in the huge swathe of Syria’s eastern desert that will fall to the West when Isis is driven out of Raqqa?  Or in the north along the Turkish border, something the Turks have been calling for since the summer of 2011? He could take out all Syria’s air bases in a matter of days if he wanted to. He would not target the Russian base at Hmeimim, Lattakia, leased in January of this year to Russia for forty-nine years, extendable for another twenty-five. No short-termism there. But Russians embedded in Assad’s bases, as advisers, engineers and even as contracted mercenaries, could still be killed, just as some were in the recent coalition bombing of Deir ez-Zor.

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The Americans have already intervened in favour of the PYD (Syrian) Kurds, using them as their preferred ally over Turkey to lead the fight against Raqqa, the Isis capital. The Kurds have also been courted by the Russians, granted an office in Moscow, in the full knowledge that through them Russia might gain a valuable land bridge from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. Turkey is determined to block Kurdish ambitions for autonomy, fearing the consequences for its own restive Kurdish population in southeast Anatolia. One in five Turks is a Kurd, a balance that is tilted in Kurdish favour through ongoing high birth rates. For a short time it looked as if President Erdoğan had given up on his long-held policy of ridding Syria of Assad, but after the sarin attack he has reverted, declaring: “Hey, the world that remains silent, the UN that remains silent. How will you be brought to account for this? Hey, murderer Assad, how are you going to escape their [the victims’] curse?”

Timings are never random in the Assad regime. The fact that the strike came the day before the EU conference on reconstructing Syria is no accident. Assad was pushing the boundaries, laughing at the world’s impotence and revelling in his own immunity. The Brussels conference was planning to kick-start reconstruction quickly, hoping the promise of funding would lure him into reforms. Any attempt to rehabilitate Assad and “reward” him for his war crimes will simply be like a sticking plaster to cover a running sore. While short-sighted European governments looking for a quick fix may see this as the answer for tomorrow, it will not be the answer for next week. If reconstruction contracts flow in from Europe and the UN organizations via the Assad regime through the usual corrupt channels to enrich and favour regime-held areas, the same corrupt cycle will repeat itself in Syria as it did so tragically for the exploited people of Somalia and South Sudan.  Assad’s budget is heavily dependent on UN and international NGO aid, much of which disappears into companies affiliated with Assad’s relations, as investigative journalists have shown. If the gap between rich and poor, urban and countryside, a major trigger of the 2011 uprising in the first place, is allowed to get worse, the result will be more extremism, more refugees and more terrorism, leading inevitably to more destabilization in Europe.

It has always been delusional to think that Assad could be part of the solution to the future of Syria – the best outcome from this sarin attack would be that his arrogance has derailed his own rehabilitation. That at least would be a first step in the right direction. Meanwhile Trump’s decisive action will stop sarin attacks from becoming the new normal in the Middle East.

This article first appeared on the TLS website 7 April 2017:

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/sarin-attack-trump-assad/

Related:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/29/un-pays-tens-of-millions-to-assad-regime-syria-aid-programme-contracts

UNHCR tents used by regime as base for Assad election posters 2014

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/donald-trump-full-statement-syria-missile-strikes-170407061519587.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39529264

Lessons from Lebanon’s Tyre: waiting for a parallel miracle in Syria

IMG_20170120_120631Lebanon’s southernmost city of Tyre once drew crowds of tourists to visit its magnificent marble Roman remains. Today, sitting on the grandstand steps of its colossal World Heritage status hippodrome, there is only the Shi’a call to prayer for company.

IMG_20170120_111905Wars and inter-communal battles between Muslims, Christians and Jews over the border in Israel meant it was for decades a no-go area, off-limits even for most Lebanese. The Foreign Office coloured it “red” on their Travel Advice website. But now it has turned green.

The fame of the ancient port, birthplace of Queen Dido, was built on colour – a royal dye, known as Tyrian purple, made from local murex shells. Its native Phoenicians, astute navigators and merchants, set sail in their celebrated cedar wood boats in search of fortune, founding new colonies like Carthage and Cadiz on the Mediterranean and Atlantic shores, just as today’s Lebanese have left in droves to seek more stable commercial opportunities abroad, often in America.

There are four times as many Lebanese outside the country as there are inside. Most have retained strong ties through frequent visits and remittances. The offices of money transfer companies like Western Union and OMT are everywhere.

Now the new Lebanese government wants to lure them, their brains and their investment back. Adverts have been running on US TV aimed at top Lebanese businessmen, telling them: “Lebanon is calling, I’m back on my feet again. Home is waiting.” Some are answering the call, and in Tyre a handful of boutique hotels have opened, anticipating new arrivals.

So what has changed in Lebanon’s mood music, and why? The answer is simple – the various communities have tired of war and decided to focus instead on rebuilding their economy together.

Tyre, known in Arabic as Sour, feels calm these days. A tangible cooperation has grown up between its Christian and Muslim residents. Last year a dazzling white statue of the Virgin Mary was erected in the picturesque harbour. She rises above the wooden boats and nets, arms outstretched as if to bless the city’s predominantly Muslim fishermen.

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Christmas is celebrated for 40 days, so a huge Christmas tree still stands on the corniche. and festive red poinsettias hang from porches.

IMG_20170120_130019Alcohol is freely available in restaurants and grocery stores; scarlet underwear hugs lurid female mannequins in shop windows, alongside fashion outlets selling full-length loose black Islamic gowns and headscarves.

IMG_20170120_101401IMG_20170120_101614_hdr

The Christian Evangelical School includes Muslim staff and pupils, while across the street a Shi’a mosque is under construction. Muslim charity boxes on the main street invite donations for orphans, the poor and disabled. The enthusiastic congregation at the cathedral of the Maronite Archbishopric sings melodically in Syriac, ending each prayer with “Aameen”. The pews are strewn with colourful cards marking a week of prayer for church unity, saying in Arabic “Our Beloved Messiah urges us towards reconciliation.”

IMG_20170128_094631

Heaven knows Lebanon desperately needs reconciliation. In its complex 15-year civil war nearly every faction allied with and subsequently betrayed every other faction at least once. There are 18 officially recognised sects, five of them Muslim, 13 of them Christian, making Lebanon the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East.

But after a dangerous political vacuum of nearly three years, Lebanon has now formed a national unity government, where all the communities are represented – and the former warlords, too. An anti-corruption minister has been appointed. The top priority is to decide a budget, the first since 2005. All parties have realised that to prosper, they need each other.

And anyway genetic studies have shown that the populations of Syria and Lebanon – Muslim and Christian alike – mostly share the same Phoenician DNA.

A short drive into the hills above Tyre the village of Qana – 83% Shi’ite – is claimed as the site of Christ’s first miracle, the Marriage at Cana, where the water was turned into wine. It has a pristine pilgrimage grotto complete with souvenir shop and vast car park, opened jointly by the Christian President and the Shi’ite leader.

IMG_20170121_094002But there is also a reminder of recent conflict. Nearby, a well-tended Shi’a cemetery marks the spot where 28 people, many of them children, were killed in an Israeli airstrike in July 2006. The photos of the dead are still displayed.

IMG_20170121_102217IMG_20170121_102537Since then, 15,000 UN troops from 40 countries have helped keep the peace.

In some future miracle, maybe it could be Syria’s turn to change from “red” to “green”. All parties would surely say a heartfelt “Amen” – or “Aameen” – to that.

[All photos copyright Diana Darke 2017]

This article was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent on 16 February 2017:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dr5r2

(starts at 11.40 minutes in)

 

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