dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Search Results for: “russia assad

Putin in Palmyra: how Russia won the ‘truth’ battle in Syria and learnt lessons for Ukraine

Putin’s ‘Victory Concert’ in Palmyra, 5 May 2016

When Russia entered the Syrian war in September 2015, I started to watch RT, Russia’s state-controlled TV network. That’s a six-year dose of studying how Russia projects its worldview to a global audience, a master class in alternative reality and information manipulation. These same techniques are now being reprised in Russia’s reporting of its “special military operation to liberate Ukraine from neo-Nazis.” All independent media outlets in Russia have been forced to close, ensuring that only President Vladimir Putin’s version of events reaches Russian ears and eyes.

The Arab proverb, “He who speaks the truth must not pitch his tent near ours,” might have been written for Putin. With skills honed through decades of working for the KGB, including time spent as a liaison officer to the Stasi in East Berlin, President Putin is a true aficionado of the art of disinformation. He knows how important it is to seize the narrative from the outset and never to deviate from the script. Syria provided him the perfect training ground for Ukraine. RT journalists were allowed free rein inside the country to report the Russian government’s version of events, while Western journalists were denied visas. Russian media repeatedly discredited the work of the White Helmets, whose first-hand film footage of Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes on schools, hospitals, and markets across the country flatly contradicted Russian propaganda. The BBC extensively researched and exposed this tactic in their Intrigue: Mayday podcast series.

To counter Western outrage in Ukraine, Putin uses tactics familiar from Syria, claiming Russian attacks were faked or that Ukrainians themselves conducted them as part of an anti-Russian smear campaign. In Syria Russia claimed to conciliate, while simultaneously denying humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas under siege, in the same way that humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of civilians are routinely thwarted in Ukraine. Residents under siege in Syria were given the choice — starve or surrender. When they eventually surrendered, the Russians brokered “reconciliation deals,” which were then reneged on. Russia used “de-escalation zones” as temporary strategic measures, allowing it to buy time to refocus on military efforts in other areas, exactly as it is doing in Ukraine now. In Syria it then broke the de-escalation agreements, blaming the “terrorists” for violations. To this day, the false narrative persists in many Western quarters that the Syrian war was all about fighting “terrorists” like ISIS. But research has established that more than three-quarters of the deaths in the Syrian war were perpetrated, not by ISIS terrorists and other extremists, but by the Assad regime and its supporters — Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. ISIS and its ilk killed just 6%. Rarely did Bashar al-Assad and his Russian bosses target ISIS. Instead they went after the moderate opposition — as did ISIS — well aware that they were the real threat. Of the half million Syrians killed, the overwhelming majority were innocent civilians, women and children, not “terrorists.”

Putin and Bashar merchandise on sale in an Aleppo hotel, in April 2018, author’s photo.

As reports mount of chemical weapon use by Russian forces in Ukraine, expect more lessons learned in Syria. Russian media claimed the numerous horrific photos of dead gassed Syrians, uploaded by witnesses at the scene, were fakes, using “actors.” When teams from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tried to reach sites to collect evidence, they were barred for “security reasons” and told that soldiers were making the area “safe.”

While Russian-sponsored trolls and bots were active on social media in support of Syria’s President Assad, just as they are today in support of Putin’s actions in Ukraine, Assad apologists, including respectable British academics and Members of Parliament, were seduced into parroting these Russian memes, causing untold damage to public perceptions of the Syrian war. The Times newspaper conducted its own investigation into such people. In April 2018 I myself travelled with a delegation dubbed “the Crazy Club” to undermine its message from within. Invited to visit and tour Syria by the Syriac Orthodox Church, we were treated like royalty, and it was easy to see how Christians throughout the 11-year war chose to align themselves with Assad to ensure their own survival. The same thing is happening today with the Russian Orthodox Church, where Patriarch Kirill in Moscow is standing by Putin, giving the Ukraine invasion his blessing and branding it “a Holy War.” By contrast, a multi-faith mission of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists led by Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, has travelled, at some risk to themselves, to Ukraine to meet refugees, hoping to persuade President Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church of the error of their ways. Williams is even supporting calls for the Russian Orthodox Church to be excluded from the World Council of Churches.

If only a similar high-level multi-faith group had spoken out years ago against the way both President Assad and President Putin have used their relationships with the Orthodox Church to project themselves as guardians of the minorities, the war might have taken a different course and much bloodshed might have been avoided.

Instead, tragically, despite initially appearing to support anti-Assad protesters, Western governments, weary of Middle Eastern conflicts, and with no appetite for involvement, kept their distance, leaving a vacuum that first ISIS in 2013 and then Russia in 2015 stepped in to fill. Their inaction was a gift to Russia, emboldening Putin to pursue his goals in Ukraine.

Bashar and Putin together in their ‘virility’ poster: the caption reads ‘The Age of Virility and Men’ in Arabic and in Russian.

Putin understood from the outset how to ensure Russia benefitted from the conflict. He enlarged the Russian naval base at Tartous and developed an air base at Hmeimeem near Latakia, extending the Russian state’s lease to operate them by 49 years. A Russian import-export village was established in Latakia port after 2015 and Russia’s military hardware was showcased. Putin boasted of testing over 320 weapons systems in Syria, while 85% of Russian army commanders gained combat experience in Syria. The cruelest and most efficient of them, Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, has now been appointed to take charge of operations in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Neither nation-building nor reconstruction were ever on the Russian agenda in Syria. On the contrary, the Kremlin was content to have a client state that was just stable enough to safeguard Russia’s interests, but not so strong that it no longer needed Moscow’s protection. The same is likely to be true in Ukraine, with Russia spending just enough money in areas it considers strategic, but avoiding large-scale investment that would bog it down, as happened in Afghanistan. Unlike Western governments that require clean endings and to bring their troops home, Russia has shown in Syria that it is comfortable with protracted low-level conflict, often using mercenaries as cannon fodder. In Ukraine battle-hardened Syrian soldiers are said to be recruited at 25 times their Syrian salary to fight for Russia. The Russian TV network Zvezda News, owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense, posted a recent video showing Brig. Gen. Suhail al-Hassan, “The Tiger,” commander of the Russian-backed elite 25th Special Mission Forces Division, involved in air landing operation drills in northern Syria. The Russians are clearly in charge, while the Syrian soldiers are interviewed afterwards, raving about the experience and praising their Russian trainers. Russian media likewise show upbeat interviews with Syrian soldiers purportedly queuing up to fight for Russia in Ukraine, while Western media report coercion among Syrian recruits, who acknowledge that 90% of them die.

Putin and Bashar watching over a Syrian regime checkpoint, January 2019.

Today Syria is a puppet state, with Russia controlling security and defense, while Iran has taken charge of the religious and cultural files. An Aleppo businessman summed up the situation well, describing Bashar as “a man with two false legs, one Russian, one Iranian, hopping from one leg to another as the ground he is standing on is very hot.”

As for the Russian propaganda climax, that came in Palmyra on 5 May, 2016. Knowing the world was fascinated by the fate of Syria’s most iconic ancient site, a magical trading city in a desert oasis first seized by ISIS in 2015, Putin flew in a Russian orchestra from Moscow, led by his favorite conductor, to stage a victory concert in the Roman theatre after Russian forces helped recapture it from ISIS. To crown it all, with the eyes of the world watching, Putin popped up by videolink on the Palmyra stage to project himself as “the Saviour of Syria,” the only international leader truly fighting terrorism. Pocketing massive credit, it was the moment he moved from the Palmyra stage to the world stage, his dream come true, a global player at last.

Soviet ties to Syria go back to the 1970s when the USSR was Syria’s main economic partner and one of its strongest political and military allies. Hafez al-Assad’s long-term vice-president from 1984-2005, Abdel Halim Khaddam, said in an interview from exile in Paris: “You have to understand that, at some point, practically half the Syrian population worked for the Secret Police. Remember that we were formed by the Soviets. That’s why they were so powerful. The intelligence services soon became the main factor in maintaining the regime. The model was the KGB or Stasi. They were everywhere. Thousands of Syrians went to Russia to train and study, learnt Russian, and married Russians.”

Putin has learned much from his Syria playlist, tactics perfected over the years in which he had a free hand in the country. After the fighting in Ukraine is over, with many cities reduced to empty shelled buildings, expect the same tactics employed in Syria, where the regime confiscated all property from people it deemed “terrorists,” using new laws on land it had taken to prop up regime agendas and create facts on the ground, a sly way of gaining revenue while avoiding sanctions.

Today, ironically, I can no longer watch RT on Freeview, Sky, or other Western media channels because, just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was taken off the air across Europe and the U.K., deemed “unfit to hold a license.” If only such a concerted Western consensus had been garnered against Russian disinformation in Syria, providing a challenge to the Russian and Syrian regime’s narrative that it was always “fighting the terrorists,” the Syrian war might, in my view, have ended by now, instead of dragging on into its twelfth year. May the Ukraine war at least not share that fate.

This piece first appeared on the Middle East Institute’s website, where Diana Darke is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Syria Program. She is an independent Middle East cultural expert and Syria specialist, author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis (2016), The Merchant of Syria (2018), and Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe (2020). The views expressed in this piece are her own.

https://www.mei.edu/publications/putin-palmyra-how-russia-won-truth-battle-syria-and-learned-lessons-ukraine

Is Bashar al-Assad really the Guardian Angel of Syria’s Minorities?

Photo by the author, Homs, April 2018

Look at the imagery in this poster plastered on a wall in bombed-out Homs. I photographed it on a visit in April 2018. Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, sporting dark glasses and military fatigues, looking resolute and determined, appears in the heavens opposite the Virgin Mary, floating above the head of a martyred soldier. Bashar, on a par with the Virgin Mary, is presented as the guardian angel of Syria’s Christians. The message is spelled out even more clearly in war slogans liberally scrawled by regime militias on the walls of buildings everywhere, even on mosques — “There is no god but Bashar” and “Do not kneel for god, kneel for Bashar.”

Since the start of the current war, Bashar al-Assad, in power since 2000, has consistently sought to promote himself as the protector of Syria’s minorities — be they Christian, Alawi, Shi’i or Druze — from Islamist extremists. Many Western audiences have been seduced by his smart casual look and by his increasingly prominent, beautifully turned-out British wife, Asma. What has happened to minorities over the last 10 years of war and how does that compare to their treatment historically inside Syria?

Syria’s constitution is secular, but states that the president must be Muslim. When Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in 1970, he was the first Alawite to become head of state. Alawites were considered by mainstream orthodox Sunni Muslims, who make up around 75% of Syria’s population, to be an heretical offshoot of Shi’a Islam, so Hafez engineered a convenient fatwa from Musa al-Sadr, a respected Shi’a cleric, declaring Alawites to be “within the fold of Islam.” Before the current war, Alawites accounted for about 10% of the population. Precise figures today are notoriously difficult to assess but most experts think the proportion may now have risen to something closer to 15%, partly because the majority of the many millions who have left Syria as refugees have been Sunni Muslims. Christians account for around 10% of the population, while Druze and Ismailis (further offshoots of Shi’a Islam) together represent about 5%.

Sectarianism and internal divisions

It is a common misperception in the West that sectarianism in the region is some ancient phenomenon rooted in age-old feuds. The Assads know this and understand only too well how to play on Western fears of Christian persecution by Muslim extremists, especially after the rise of ISIS and its public beheadings of Western Christians. But such divisions as existed between people were as likely to be found within the plethora of Christian and Muslim sects historically represented, and still present, in Syria as between the different religious communities themselves. One colorful story told to me by a Syrian dentist who grew up in a majority Orthodox Christian village in Syria’s Wadi Nasara (Valley of the Christians) described how his church felt so upstaged by a fancy new Evangelical church built with money brought in via the Allied army after World War II that the rival church was blown up! Syria’s Christians are not one homogenous group — there are many internal divisions, just as there are within Muslim and indeed Jewish groupings. The root of the problem is often economic inequality, rather than religious difference.

A striking historic example is the 1860 Damascus massacre of thousands of Christians. Covered in the European press at the time as a sectarian event, it triggered outrage and public sympathy, followed by the dispatch of French troops in what was labelled the first humanitarian intervention in defense of minorities. Yet the problem was never sectarian — it originated within the silk industry of Mount Lebanon. The Maronite Catholics were commercially closest to the French and many lived in socially-isolated grandeur, rich from the privileges awarded them by Western powers seeking to gain new markets at a time of European recession. As the Ottoman grip on its empire weakened, a feeding frenzy began in its provinces, with foreign interests competing for the spoils. The result was not only the ensuing inter-confessional violence among communities that had lived together largely peacefully up to that point, but also the complete undermining of the regional silk industry. It was gradually bought out by foreigners, mainly French Catholics, leading more and more locals to lose their livelihoods.

In Damascus the predominantly Catholic wealthy quarter in the Old City was burnt and looted by a mix of impoverished Druze and Bedouin, while many indigenous Orthodox Christians who lived in poverty-stricken Midan outside the walls to the south were spared and protected by their Muslim neighbors. The same resentments based on privilege and inequalities are building in today’s Syria, as churches in Homs and Aleppo are rebuilt and refurbished while the vast Sunni suburbs and their local mosques remain flattened. Only the flagship Aleppo Umayyad mosque and the Homs Khaled ibn al-Waleed mosque are being rebuilt for show, as empty shells.
 

Newly made church pews in Homs about to be varnished.
Newly made church pews in Homs about to be varnished. Photo by the author.
Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque under restoration, funded by Chechnya's Ramzan Kadyrov, a key ally of Russia's Putin.
Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque under restoration, funded by Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, a key ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Photo by the author.
Khalid ibn al-Waleed Mosque in Homs, restored to a very rudimentary standard by the regime's Al-Iskan al-Askeri, the Military Housing outfit.
Khalid ibn al-Waleed Mosque in Homs, restored to a very rudimentary standard by the regime’s Al-Iskan al-Askeri, the Military Housing outfit. Photo by the author.

The 1860 war, like the war that rages today in Syria, was often mislabeled a civil war. Episodes of persecution were frequently misread by Europeans as sectarian, rather than economic, in nature.

But as with the current war, it only exacerbated the root cause of the grievances, deepening foreign interference. In the wake of French troops educational and philanthropic agencies began to arrive, often run by Catholic missionaries, founding orphanages, boarding schools, and dispensaries in which their own religion was privileged.

Engineering demographic change

Once the French took over Syria after World War I under their mandate, they continued their “divide and rule” methods by creating separate statelets, including for the Alawis and the Druze. But their attempts were resisted in the Great Revolt of 1925, which began in the southern Druze region. The Syrian people showed their innate pluralism by refusing to identify themselves by sect. Not until after the Ba’athist coup in 1963 did sectarian sentiment in Syria begin in earnest, when the sense of exclusion felt by many Sunnis led to the first real appearance of Sunni Islamist militancy in the 1980s, the trigger for the Muslim Brotherhood Hama massacre led by Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad.

From 2012 onward “starve or surrender/reconciliation” deals were imposed on populations perceived to be disloyal. The first such deal was in Homs, where opponents of the Assad government were transported out in the famous “green buses” to the rebellious Idlib Province, whose population has now swelled to bursting with more and more displaced rebels, overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims. By late 2016, after half the Syrian population had been displaced and Syrian citizenship had been granted to tens of thousands of Iranian mercenaries who had fought to keep him in power, Bashar boasted to an American interviewer that “the social fabric is much better than before.”

Demographic change continues to be engineered or precipitated in today’s war, as it has been throughout Syria’s history. Centuries ago Sayf al-Dawla, founder of the Hamdanid dynasty, relocated the entire Shi’a population of Harran (in today’s Turkey) to repopulate his capital Aleppo after it had been ravaged by a Byzantine attack. After the end of the Crimean War, the Russians, needing to create a Christian majority, brought in Christians and by 1865 had pushed over half a million Muslims out into the Ottoman heartlands. In 1939 the French separated the Sanjak of Alexandretta from Syria and ceded it to Turkey, triggering the exodus of thousands of Armenians and Arabic-speaking Alawi, Sunni, and Christian refugees into northern Syria. In 1967 after capturing the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, Israel began almost immediately to settle Israeli Jews there, before illegally annexing the territory in 1981. Israeli maps show it as Israeli territory, not as Syrian territory occupied by Israel. Official Syrian maps continue to show both the Golan and the Sanjak of Alexandretta (renamed Hatay by Turkey) as part of Syria. Future maps of Syria will no doubt vary depending on who publishes them.

The ultimate irony is that within so-called secular Syria as represented by the nominally secular Ba’ath Party, in power under the Assads for the last 50 years, sectarianism has been consistently on the rise. The mentality has been you have either been a Ba’athist or not. You are either with us or against us. Loyal Ba’athists have been protected, be they Sunni, Alawi, Christian or whatever. Those perceived as disloyal to the Ba’athist Party have been punished, either through imprisonment, detention or torture.

Before the Assads, religious identities were pluralistic, and were only relevant at the social level. They were not politicized or institutionalized. The Assad legacy is to have turned Syria into a sectarian society for its own ends, following the French mandate model, setting community against community. But once Assad and his dynasty are gone, the Muslim-majority Syrian society will, in time, revert to its natural state of tolerance and co-existence with religious minorities, given the chance. It is the default position of every Syrian I know. All of them mourn the current triumph of Assad’s mock-secular sectarianism and pray collectively for its speedy passing.

***

This article first appeared on 12 April 2021 as part of a series written for MEI, the Middle East Institute based in Washington DC, where I am a non-resident scholar on their Syria Program:

https://www.mei.edu/publications/bashar-al-assad-really-guardian-angel-syrias-minorities

Assad’s New Syria

On my recent trip to Syria, a bus-full of bishops, reverends and members of the House of Lords was my cloak of disguise, the perfect garb in which to pass under the radar of the regime and hear, not the official line which was pumped at us full throttle at every opportunity, but the voices underneath. As one of our group, who had come with an open mind, described it at the end: “It’s like an orchestra in which the strings are playing too loud, drowning out the other instruments. Some sections of the orchestra are simply missing, their instruments broken, unable to play any more……”

How do you heal a broken society? Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, has one answer – you set up branches of Syria Trust, her flagship charity founded in the year 2000 when her husband Bashar al-Assad inherited the throne. Before the war it had roaming 4WDs with teams of manicured rich kids dispensing computers in villages. Today it has 15 community centres round the country dispensing “Intellectual Capacity Development” and “Psychological Support Programmes”. We were given tours of two such centres in Aleppo, surreal pockets of ultra-modern, high-tech installations amid the devastated wasteland, by grinning youthful Assad loyalists fitted out in spanking new uniforms embroidered with the charity’s name. Films ran constantly in the foyer areas showing regime soldiers treating children and citizens with gentle care. Black and white photos gracing the walls did the same. Silent women sat in front of empty sewing machines, summoned to be on parade.

The cheerful staff left on buses as soon as we did, but while we were there, they handed out brochures called ‘Manarat’, (Beacons) describing how they would encourage ‘critical thinking abilities’ in children. To what end? To challenge the system? A fake freedom since the curriculum is tightly controlled. The “Life Skills” development programme for over 13s talks scarily of “effective citizenship” and “purposeful contribution”. A whole generation is about to be brainwashed into the service of Assad alone. Graffiti all over the country, on the long drive from Damascus to Aleppo, spells it out: Al-Assad lil-Abad (Assad for eternity), Al-Assad wa laa Ahad (Assad and no one else) and Allah, Hurriya, al-Assad wa bass (God, Freedom, Assad and that’s it). The merchandising is also in full swing – Bashar mugs, Bashar and Putin photos for sale in hotel lobbies, Kerbala soap for Iranian visitors.

A society is being broken, bit by bit. For now, Assad is rewriting history, with Putin’s help, to cover up the original cause of the damage. Everything is laid at the door of ‘the terrorists.’

On the drive back from Aleppo we stop at Adhra Al-Madaris, one of the many ‘reception centres’ housing refugees displaced from the Ghouta after the Russian-led Syrian Army offensive just over a month ago. This one holds about 5,000 and they are being held like animals. It is the first taste of reality on the trip, raw humanity without filters, deeply affecting for everyone. Surprisingly, the soldiers guarding the camp allow us in to talk directly to the refugees, and because of the size of our group, the Arabic-speakers among us are able to slip off into the crowds. I was invited by a woman and child to come to her ‘home’ and she led me through a maze of small curtained spaces, each one for a family, to her own tiny space with nothing but a thin mattress, a plastic sheet on the floor and a gaping hole in the concrete roof.

The room fills up quickly with more and more women till we are about 15 squeezed into the tiny space. They offer me water from a tin cup, since they have nothing else, no facilities to cook or make tea. Desperate to tell me their stories, it emerges hygiene facilities are horrific, with just one squalid toilet, food is a sandwich for breakfast and macaroni served up centrally as their cooked meal. They hate it and agree they were better nourished under the siege where they had meat and vegetables in their village of Hammoura. All they want is to go home but they are trapped with no information and nothing other than the clothes they are wearing. I ask how they had been treated by the rebel fighters during the siege and they say fine. There was no problem.

There is an Arab proverb that runs: If God wants to make a poor man happy, he makes him lose his donkey, and then find it again. Assad, like a vengeful god, has destroyed the country and driven out half its population, pronouncing it much ‘cleaner’ than before. Now he is preparing to give back the donkey, lame and mutilated, to those left behind, hoping they’ll be so grateful they won’t dare complain. But social justice in Syria, so smothered under the official narrative now, will break through soon enough – it is only a matter of time.

A version of this piece was first broadcast on the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme on Radio 4 on 28 April 2018, see link below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09zt3vc (starts at 06.00 minutes in)

Related articles:

https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/06/30/how-a-victorious-bashar-al-assad-is-changing-syria

https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/06/30/syrian-refugees-could-turn-into-the-new-palestinians

https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/the-crazy-club-inside-the-british-propaganda-trips-that-seek-to-legitimise-assad-s-barbarism-1.724176

 

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.

Residents-wait-to-receive-012 Yarmouk

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.

IMG_20180419_162327

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.

IMG_20180419_162428 (1)

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/

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.’

Bashar flags

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.

Assad posters

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

 

Russian and Iranian tentacles dig deeper into Syria

lattakia-beaches-and-hotel-august-2015-holiday-beach-resort-near-tartous

Recent days have seen increasing evidence of both Russia and Iran, the key supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus-based regime, consolidating their military occupation of Syria. Their clear intention is to make it impossible for their interests to be displaced from those parts of the country that matter to them, namely Damascus and the two corridors that connect first west to Lebanon and Hezbollah and then northwest via Homs to the Tartous and Lattakia provinces on the Mediterranean.

Russia has its naval base at Tartous and its airbase at Hmeimim south of Lattakia, converted from the former Basil al-Assad airport, from which it flies all its sorties Aleppo and the rest of the country.

russia-flag-and-bashar

New infrastructure is being built around the airbase  to accommodate Russian servicemen. Now it has been announced that Russian companies will be investing in Syria’s electricity and tourism industries in Tartous and Lattakia provinces, by setting up electrical generators and supplying houses and factories direct according to their needs. Syrian contractors had sought to do the same in the past but were turned down. Russian-financed hotels and chalets are being built along the coast near Jableh and Lattakia and in the summer hill resorts of Slunfeh and Kasab, as well as Qardaha, Assad’s home village, as part of the tourism drive which is seeking to draw visitors under the slogan “Syria Always Beautiful”. Exact locations are decided based on recommendations from Assad’s security services and the presidential palace. Bit by bit Syria is being sold off to Putin’s Russian mafia friends, while Syrian investors are being frozen out.

Meanwhile in Damascus Iran is making sure its interests are secured, the latest announcement being a new “coordination office” ostensibly to bring together the Sunni and Shia ideologies, but financed by Iran and located in the dominantly Shi’a quarter of Al-Amin in the walled Old City. Under Bashar al-Assad’s presidency an unprecedented 15 Iranian seminaries have been set up inside Syria, now with over 5,000 Shi’a students mainly from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. The first public Shi’a rituals took place in Damascus in 2005 with the “Kerbala March” along the main Old City artery of Medhat Basha, the biblical Street Called Straight. The spread of Shi’ism in Syria however goes back to Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad when the first Shi’a seminary was set up in 1976 near the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Midan, south Damascus, still the most important Shi’a shrine in the country. Its founder, one Hassan Mehdi al-Shirazi who had fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1975, made himself useful to Hafez al-Assad by issuing a fatwa that “every Shi’ite is an Alawite doctrinally and every Alawite is a Shi’ite in ideology.”

sayyida-zainab

With every week that passes, Syria is being sold off to the regime’s supporters. Russia and Iran are digging their tentacles deeper and deeper into Syrian soil, even altering the local demographic in their favour by resettling their own people in areas evacuated under “starve or surrender” sieges, as in Homs and Darayya.

Cushioned by Russian and Iranian support, Assad sleeps well in his bed while the West, the UN and the international community express righteous “outrage” at the bombing of aid convoys but little else. They are powerless to change the dynamic on the ground, leaving ordinary Syrians in despair that their country can ever return to the single entity that it was pre-2011.

Relevant articles:

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/31646/New_Stage_Submission_Lattakia_Electricity_Coastal_Tourism_Russian_Custody/

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/31645/Damascus_Iranian_Operations_Room_Spread_Shiism/

Vladimir Putin resurrects the KGB

http://europe.newsweek.com/russia-plans-permanent-naval-base-syria-tartus-tension-airstrikes-508436?rm=eu

http://www.syria-report.com/news/economy/iran-visit-seeks-enhance-bilateral-business-ties

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/31800/Ashoura_Damascus_Publications_Farsi_Children_Flogging_Selves_Streets/

 

 

 

 

 

Can Russia save Syria?

Caption reads: "The Time of Masculinity and Men."

[Caption] “The Time of Masculinity and Men.”

Since the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, no one has been more supportive of him and his ruling elite than Russia’s President Putin. The increased Russian presence was discreet at first, but gradually began to manifest itself in surprising ways. Plastered on buildings in central Damascus in December 2014 for the first time street I saw private adverts offering Russian lessons. Then I read in local newspapers that the Faculty of Arts and Humanities in Damascus University had just opened a new department for Russian language and literature in response to rising demand.

“Analysis of the labour market,” announced Syria’s Minister for Higher Education, “indicates an urgent need for the Russian language.”  Record numbers of students, it transpired, had applied to study Russian, indicating as the Minister explained the “strength of the relations between Syria and Russia, especially in the current social landscape.”

When I asked my Damascus friends and neighbours about this development, they laughed and joked: “Yes, we’re looking forward to the new lady Russian teachers. Russia is becoming the new foreign language in Syria now!”

russian language

Of course Russia’s relations with Syria go back a long way, to the early 1960s, when Hafez al-Assad and his Ba’athist comrades enjoyed steadfast support and military hardware from the Russians. The Syrian Armed Forces have for decades been supplied with Russian aircraft and tanks, and most top Assad regime military officials received training in Moscow. At university level there were many exchanges with Syrian students sent to study in Moscow while Russian professors were brought to Damascus to teach students in both arts and sciences.

Today Russia has long-term interests in coastal Syria, notably its naval base in Tartous and its oil-exploration rights in Syria’s territorial waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. In recent months these interests have come under threat from rebel opposition groups making a series of gains at regime expense in Idlib province, posing the first real threat to the Lattakia region, Assad’s Alawite stronghold, where much of Syria’s displaced population is now concentrated. Russia is additionally concerned at the number of Chechens who have joined ISIS, said to be as many as 4,000, fearing they may return to Russian soil and wreak havoc domestically in revenge-driven ‘blowback’.

chechens in isis

The Russian airstrikes within Syria which started on 30 September 2015 have not come out of the blue. They will have been months in the planning, possibly as far back as May 2015, when ISIS first seized Palmyra in a lightning offensive, taking advantage of a strategic redeployment when the Syrian army withdrew from Palmyra in order to bolster manpower in Idlib province.

Although Palmyra, situated on its own in the middle of the desert, does not fall within Russia’s area of interests in Damascus and Syria’s western coastal regions, it will not have escaped the Russian strategists that recapturing Palmyra and returning it to Syrian regime control would be a massive PR coup before ISIS can destroy what remains of the archaeological site in what appear to be monthly staged explosions. In August it was the Temples of Baal Shamin and of Bel, in September the funerary towers and most recently on 5 October the Triumphal Arch.

Palmyra Baal Shamin destruction palmyra arch

It would also fit the Russian narrative of seeking to drive ISIS out of Syria and should be a relatively realistic goal, since ISIS has only had a little over four months to dig in, not long enough to put down strong roots in the small town of Tadmur adjacent to Palmyra. On top of the obvious international kudos Russia could gain from such a move, it would be an important strategic reclaiming of the regime’s oil and gas fields in the area, as well as protecting the regime’s nearby air bases. So far Russia is denying it has struck targets round Palmyra, despite initial Syrian reports to the contrary.

As Russia raises the stakes ever higher with surprise cruise missiles launched onto targets inside Syria from the Caspian Sea, after first gaining permission to fire over both Iranian and Iraqi airspace, the West watches helplessly from the sidelines. Putin is becoming Syria’s saviour.

Syrian kissing putin

Russia and the Syrian army appear to be coordinating their strategy with the clear aim of eliminating ISIS and other opposition groups. The West’s strategy remains in disarray. The US-led coalition has been completely upstaged, its year of expensive airstrikes achieving remarkably little to date. The addition of British air power to that equation will change nothing.

Meanwhile Russia’s strategy on Syria has been consistent from the start. Now it has caught the ball from its Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi team players and is running with it, ready to score a series of goals which is bound to terrify and demoralise the opposition groups and even send them fleeing the country to join the exodus to Europe.

As Goethe wrote centuries ago: “Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.” Putin seems to suffer from no such difficulties. While Obama, NATO and the West continue their endless talking shops, Russia is creating new realities on the ground that will shape Syria’s future, maybe even for the better. If Putin succeeds where the West has failed, in eliminating ISIS and reuniting the country, ordinary Syrians will forever thank Russia.

putin and bashar handshake

Caspian sea Russian strikes on Syria 7 Oct 2015

 Related articles:

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/28168/Damascus+University+Opens+Russian+Language+Department

https://dianadarke.com/?s=russia+assad

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34453739?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbc_breaking&ns_source=twitter&ns_linkname=news_central

http://tass.ru/en/defense/826656

http://tass.ru/en/defense/826967

https://en-maktoob.news.yahoo.com/assad-allies-including-iranians-prepare-ground-attack-syria-115512216.html

http://sana.sy/en/?p=56985

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/06/nato-chief-jens-stoltenberg-russia-turkish-airspace-violations-syria

 

 

 

 

Russia tightens its grip on Syria

Lowering above Banias, the black basalt Crusader Castle of Marqab [DD]

Lowering above Banias, the black basalt Crusader Castle of Marqab [DD]

On Christmas Day 25 December 2013 a contract was signed in Damascus giving Russia the 25-year rights to explore, drill, produce and develop a massive offshore Syrian oil and gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean between the coastal cities of Banias and Tartous. The signatories were Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Company, Syria’s Oil Minister Suleyman Al-Abbas, and the Russian state-controlled oil company Soyuzneftegaz, represented by the Russian ambassador. The estimated costs of the deal are US$90 million, to be borne solely by Soyuzneftegaz, which is controlled by the Russian Central Bank and run by a former Russian Oil Minister. This offshore deal, covering an area known as Block No. 2 , a full 2,190 square kilometres, is the first ever to be awarded  from Syria’s offshore oil and gas reserves, which are estimated to be considerable – bigger potentially than those of Lebanon, Cyprus or Israel.

So a historic moment, and a fine Christmas present for Russia, a reward from the Assad regime for Russian loyalty. Historic for its timing, just weeks before the scheduled 22 January 2014 Geneva 2 talks aimed at solving the Syrian crisis, and historic for its sealing of Russia’s stake in Syria’s future. Syria’s Oil Minister announced that Russia would begin work immediately on implementing the deal. After all, there is not a moment to lose. Russia wants to make very sure it, and it alone, can exploit Syria’s offshore oil and gas reserves.

Then, this morning, comes the news that Russia has blocked a UN statement, sponsored by the UK, on the Assad regime’s recent air attacks on civilians in Aleppo. Russia does not want its ally condemned: it wants it protected.

There is a huge amount at stake here – potentially billions and billions of dollars. Syria’s oil production has dropped by 90% since the March 2011 revolution began, and most of its oilfields are in the eastern desert regions around Deir ez-Zour, now controlled by opposition forces. Syria’s refineries are already in the western Banias and Homs region, much more convenient for offshore rigs. The deal also includes training for Syrian staff at the state-owned Syrian General Establishment for Petroleum.

Russia knows well how to tighten its grip, and Bashar knows well how to maximise his country’s assets. They are a perfect match.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25663616

http://www.euronews.com/2013/12/25/syria-signs-deal-with-russian-firm-to-drill-offshore-for-oil-and-gas/

http://rt.com/business/syria-oil-gas-russia-795/

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/syria-inks-oil-gas-exploration-deal-with-russian-firm.aspx?pageID=238&nID=60132&NewsCatID=348

http://sana.sy/eng/22/2014/01/02/520493.htm

http://sana.sy/eng/25/2012/08/02/434600.htm

https://dianadarke.com/2013/11/06/bashar-fiddles-while-syria-burns-the-remarkable-oil-story/

Warlords v. conservationists: one of Syria’s new battles

Compare and contrast these two scenes: in Berlin, a team of highly qualified Syrian architects under the auspices of the Museum of Islamic Art carefully builds a digital archive of Aleppo’s historic monuments to help with future restoration. In Aleppo, a gang of semi-illiterate thugs under the auspices of “The Tiger” – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favoured Syrian warlord, General Suheil al-Hassan – takes credit for ineptly restoring the same ancient mosques it helped to destroy.

While a third of Syria’s housing stock is estimated to have been destroyed during seven years of war, the new battle is between armies of frustrated conservation experts outside the country and armies of looters acting with impunity on the ground.

In Aleppo, a new poster hangs from buildings in “liberated” areas back under regime control, reading in grammatically incorrect Arabic: “Together it will come back more beautiful.” It is tellingly ambiguous about exactly who will bring Syria back more beautiful; an unsavoury mix of gangs and shabiha thugs calling themselves the “Tiger’s Men” are currently claiming that role.

img-20181208-wa0000

Poster displayed in Aleppo square “Together it will come back more beautiful.”

Turning a blind eye

Their most recent trophy, Al-Akhal Mosque, dating to 1485 in the Jdeideh quarter, now bears garish, green-painted mortar.

img-20181208-wa0008

Al-Akhal Mosque, dating to 1485, now bears garish, green-painted mortar

YouTube video lauds their achievement, calling them the “White Hands”, perhaps meant to portray angelicness or innocence. They rebuilt the nearby Al-Fadila school and erected a plaque to ensure posterity knew it was them.

No one asked to see their permissions, according to a local source. Corruption is rampant throughout the city as gangs of shabiha (literally “ghosts”, the word used to describe armed militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad) run the show. Hated by many Aleppo residents, they are predominantly Alawites and Mardinli Turkmen.

But the government does not want the communities to reconstitute themselves. On the contrary, it wants society to remain fractured. A broken society is easier to control

The Assad regime seems unwilling -or unable- to rein them in, turning a blind eye to their looting of local residents’ houses. “There’s a hierarchy for the booty,” said an Aleppo resident who asked to remain anonymous. “The TVs are for the officers, the fridges and washing machines are for the middle ranks, and the wood and wiring pulled out of people’s abandoned homes is for the lower ranks. It’s disgusting.

“We see the trucks loaded up with booty being driven off openly in broad daylight. They don’t need to do it in secret … It’s their reward for their loyalty. We’re living in medieval times.”

Whole swaths of central and eastern Aleppo have been destroyed by a combination of Russian and Syrian aerial bombardment and rebel tunnel-bomb explosions. All parties to the conflict share blame for the destruction of Syria’s chief trading city. Its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site afforded it no protection once the war arrived in 2012, a year later than in Damascus.

Today, the only official restoration underway is for the Great Mosque of Aleppo, a flagship project paid for by the Chechen president, a friend of Putin’s.

me examining the sun dial still under protection in the courtyard of the great aleppo mosque 18 april 2018 pamela

Courtyard of the Aleppo Umayyad Mosque, April 2018, me examining the medieval sundial, the only item still protected from 2013 when rebels controlling the mosque built this wall round it. See https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/is-reconstruction-of-aleppo-s-grand-mosque-whitewashing-history-1.728715

The city’s churches and cathedrals have already been largely restored, thanks to well-connected priests and patriarchs close to the regime. Funds from wealthy Christian donors have somehow found their way in, despite financial sanctions.

Some individual homeowners engaged local labour to repair their damaged houses after the city fell in late 2016 – but then state structures started reasserting themselves. “It’s worse now than it was before the war,” said a resident from Aleppo. “At least back then, there was only one authority you had to get permission from. Now there are five, and each one wants his cut. The opportunities for corruption have multiplied.”

A government that genuinely cared about its people and its communities would clamp down on the shabiha thugs and their mafia-style gangs

Ordinary residents in Aleppo did what they could after the city fell. The streets of Jdeideh, a frontline in the conflict, were full of rubble from the debris of aerial bombardment and underground explosions. Volunteers painstakingly cleared the streets, a process for which the government was quick to take credit.

On 28 September, the government even staged an international tourism day in al-Hatab Square, that was filmed by Al-Mayadeen, a pro-Syrian regime TV channel, and a Russian state TV channel, to show the world how Aleppo was returning to normal after the reassertion of regime control. But it takes a long time to loot a city of more than three million people, and as long as there is money to be made from the illicit plunder, it will continue.

Bureaucratic inertia

In such an atmosphere, there is currently no scope for the repair of hundreds of Aleppo’s monuments. Local residents watch while their neighbourhood mosques, formerly the centres of their community, slowly disintegrate.

aleppo city centre 25 april 2014

Aleppo city centre

Winter months are the hardest, when rainfall can cause severe damage to buildings already in a precarious state. Domes with cracks or sections missing collapse, turning what would have been a relatively simple and inexpensive repair into a costly exercise that could take years.

The danger is that such buildings may even become too difficult and expensive to restore, simply because they have been neglected – victims of the bureaucratic inertia that is crippling all aspects of reconstruction in Syria. In many cases, all that would be required would be some plastic sheeting to cover the roof and make the building watertight – an exercise that would take only days and cost very little.

But the government does not want the communities to reconstitute themselves. On the contrary, it wants society to remain fractured. A broken society is easier to control.

Shared heritage

A government that genuinely cared about its people and its communities would clamp down on the shabiha thugs and their mafia-style gangs. It would have the vision to provide microfinancing to small-scale businesses and to harness cultural heritage for sustainable development, encouraging employment and the revival of traditional crafts.

This shared heritage could foster a strong Syrian identity across religious and ethnic divides, becoming part of a nationwide reconciliation process. It could empower women, now outnumbering men by four to one in the workforce, and help them rebuild the destroyed foundations of their country.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced on the internet of two metric tons of looted antiquities discovered in The Tiger’s Damascus home. Is this how Syria comes back more beautiful?

Berlin’s team of Syrian architects – like everyone outside Syria, including Unesco – is powerless to intervene. All they can do is hope and pray that, when the day comes that Syria can finally benefit from their digital archive, something remains of Syria’s cultural heritage to be saved.

aleppo room

The Aleppo Room in Berlin’s Islamic Art Museum, dated 1600-1603, shipped to Germany in 1912 from Beit Wakil in Al-Jdeideh, a part of Aleppo that suffered heavy destruction between 2012 and 2016.

A version of this article appeared in Middle East Eye on 14 December 2018:

https://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/syria-s-newest-battle-we-re-living-medieval-times-1350119160

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: