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Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the category “Syria”

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.

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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.”

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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)

 

Advice to Donald Trump – do Marshall Plan-style deals in Syria and the wider Middle East

trump

The multibillionaire businessman who is shortly to become President of the United States of America is an ace deal-maker. Since his shock victory in the elections of 8 November the world has wondered how on earth this larger-than-life figure who has never before held political office will handle the complex challenges of the Middle East where wars are destabilising entire nations, leading to refugee exodus, extremism and terrorism. Trump has yet to appoint his Secretary of State, the person who will take over from Obama’s man John Kerry, whose valiant efforts have so far failed to secure peace in the Middle East on any front.

My advice to Trump, based on a lifetime’s living and working in the Middle East, most notably of late in Syria, where I still own my courtyard house in the Old City of Damascus, is to play to his own strengths – and the region’s – and combine them to mutual advantage.

His own deal-maker abilities are legendary, but so are those of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel – the area which for 400 years under the Ottoman Turks was known as ‘Greater Syria’.  Located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, these communities have always been outward-looking, open to trading opportunities from east, west, north and south. The very identity of these countries has been shaped by their engagement in commerce and deals. Across the centuries as civilisation after civilisation crisscrossed the terrain, some stayed and settled, leading to a society that is multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic. The merchants and businessmen in the Middle East are actually the true power holders, not the politicians or the armed forces.

What he should do therefore, in my view, when he becomes President on 20 January 2017, is to devise a massive Marshall Plan-style deal for the Middle East from which everyone will benefit. Negotiations will be tough and complex as to who gets what, just as they were in 1947 with the Marshall Plan. It described itself as “An Act to promote world peace and the general welfare, mutual interest and the foreign policy of the United States through economic, financial and other measures necessary to the maintenance of conditions abroad in which free institutions may survive and consistent with the maintenance of the strength and stability of the United States.” In other words, entirely consistent with his “Make America great again” slogan, while simultaneously solving many of the world’s destabilising foreign policy crises. Sometimes called “The European Recovery Plan”, the Marshall Plan, named after then Secretary of State General George Marshall, the fund of $12 billion (equivalent today to roughly $120 billion), was administered over a four-year period. It rebuilt regions devastated by war, removed trade barriers, modernised industry, dropped regulations, encouraged increased productivity and the adoption of proper business procedures.

The Trump administration would not need to start from scratch. It could cooperate with the 1,000-strong team already in Beirut working on  a project called the “National Agenda for the Future of Syria.” Under the auspices of the United Nations’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, a team of regional experts including civil engineers, agricultural specialists, architects, water experts, conservationists, hospital administrators, traffic coordinators and more, is planning for “Day One”, when the fighting ends. Their Deputy Executive Secretary, Abdullah al-Dardari, was till 2011 the Deputy Prime Minister of Syria for Economic Affairs and Minister for Planning, a highly skilled and dedicated man, and the work is apolitical, designed to be implemented irrespective of who the future political masters may be.

440px-abdallah_dardari

Thierry Grandin, consultant to the World Monuments Fund, describes their work, saying: “It is good to do the planning now, because on day one we will be ready. It might come in a year, it might come in 20, but eventually there will be a day one. Our job is to prepare.”

In Iran a similar approach could be adopted. A policy expert in the US is reported as saying Trump is so unpredictable “he could open hotels in Iran or go to war with Iran.”

Iran has an acute accommodation shortage and cannot meet demand for the new surge in tourism that followed the dropping of US sanctions. Doing deals to build hotels – something Trump has plenty of experience in – would be an ideal way to maintain good relations with Iran.

What a turn-up it would be if Trump could harness his business acumen to steer the ultimate deal for peace in Syria and the wider Middle East that no politician before him has achieved. Maybe I am a hopeless dreamer, but that really would be a deal to remember.

Relevant articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38086933

https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/02/21/daring-plan-rebuild-syria-matter-who-wins-war/oD5IxhqveGjfPQryW6q3OJ/story.html

http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/264225/trumps-marshall-plan-inner-city-kids-matthew-vadum

http://sa-news.com/trump-said-africa-should-be-recolonised-now-germany-announces-marshall-plan-to-rescue-africa/

 

Syria’s Cultural Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen a country has been at war for over five years, it might seem natural to assume that all cultural life is suspended. In the case of Syria, this is far from true. But just as with the war itself, there are many levels and layers to be unravelled, and the definitions of “culture” vary according to who, and where, you are.

In the areas firmly under the control of the Syrian government, the Assad regime has, from the start, kept to a “business as usual” narrative. In September 2016 Damascus boasted several “cultural” events on its SANA (Syrian state media) website under the title of “Arts and Culture”, including the“St Ephrem the Syrian Patriarchal Choir”, staging a performance at Al-Thawra Sports stadium (al-thawra means “revolution” in Arabic – not the current revolution of course but the Ba’athist revolution of 1963 which ultimately brought Hafez al-Assad to power). Christian events like this are always high on the agenda since the Syrian government is keen to project itself as the “protector of the minorities”, who then give their loyalty in return.  There was also the twenty-eighth Book Fair at Al-Assad National Library – “beyond disappointing” was the comment of one hopeful Syrian who visited but who wishes to remain anonymous, “we cannot fool ourselves”.

Dar al-Assad (the Damascus opera house) still holds concerts, music festivals, cinema screenings and poetry readings in its three halls, the largest of which seats 1,200 people. In April 2014 it was struck by a mortar and closed briefly. Fewer than half of its employees and musicians remain, the other half having either fled or been conscripted. Prices have been slashed to increase audience size. Many Syrians might question whether “culture” is the right word for such contrived and unreal occasions, when “propaganda” might be closer to the truth, but many would also acknowledge the strong public desire to keep the wheel of life turning.

dar-al-assad

Beyond Damascus, other festivals have also been held across the summer in the government-held areas on the Mediterranean coast, such as Tartous and Safita, while at the village of Ma’aloula in the Qalamoun Mountains, north of the capital, a widely publicized song festival was held in Aramaic to preserve the language of Christ – another example of the government showcasing support for minorities.

Even in Aleppo, divided between the regime-held west and rebel-held east, the population remains highly receptive to cultural events. In fact the need for them is arguably greater than in Damascus as people seek respite from the horrors of daily life. Abdul Halim Hariri, a sixty-year-old violinist, feels it is more important than ever to run theatre performances and festivals for filmmakers in defiance of the political situation. “We have turned our anger and sorrow into a source of music”, he says, echoing the widely held sentiment that war can drive creativity, as people struggle to prove they are still human despite the inhumanity that surrounds them. Abdul Halim holds his concerts “for young people who are lost. I also wanted to show through art that Aleppo is still united and that its thought is still progressive and civilised . . . as soon as the war is over, Aleppo will be reunited. Aleppo citizens don’t hate each other. Their life is love and intertwined”. Audiences for his concerts, a mix of classical and traditional pieces, have been huge, with hundreds gathering inside the theatre and hundreds outside, even as mortars fall, and despite the fact that many musicians, including Abdul Halim’s own son, have now left.

During the holy month of Ramadan, soap operas, musalsalat, grip audiences in all Arab countries, and Syrian soaps are generally the most popular – one of the country’s most prized exports, especially to the Gulf. In 2010 no fewer than forty soaps were made by Syrian television production companies, but the number has now dropped to less than half that because so many actors and producers have left the country. One of the most popular, Bab al-Hara, depicts life in a Damascus quarter of the Old City under the French Mandate of the 1920s and 1930s. Rife with political digs and overtones, it has just completed its eighth season, but Syrians outside the country, such as the actress Sawsan Arsheed, the actor and theatrical director Maher Sleibi, and the director Abdulrahman Dandashi, say the regime is increasingly using such soaps to promote its own version of the crisis, to distort the image of the moderate opposition, portraying them all as armed terrorists and radical Islamists.

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In rebel-held parts of the country, the lack of infrastructure makes life very difficult, with limited electricity, water, cooking gas or fuel. Yet even there, in areas like the Idlib countryside, culture is flourishing. Though they do not have the financial means needed to produce competing TV dramas, local people have started their own radio channels such as Radio Fresh (recently closed down by extremists for employing a woman), and internet channels such as SouriaLi (a clever play on words meaning both “Syria is mine” and “surreally”).

In the Damascus suburb of Darayya, subjected to a “starve or surrender” siege for over four years and now forcibly evacuated since its fall in August, the local residents established a secret library deep underground with over 14,000 books, including poetry, plays and novels in Arabic, French and English. It was hugely popular with children out of school reading to their mothers, doctors and dentists looking for academic or technical handbooks, and even Free Syrian Army soldiers taking a supply to the frontline with them. Particular favourites were books about earlier rebellions, such as those by the Syrian author Al-Tantawi. “We read about how in the past everyone turned their backs on a particular nation, yet they still made it”, says Omar Abu Anas, a former engineering student. “So we can be like that too. Books motivate us to keep us going. They help us plan for life once Assad is gone. We want to be a free nation. And hopefully, by reading, we can achieve that.”

secret-library-darayya-summer-2016

Many of the library users were students whose studies had been interrupted. “In a sense,” says Adbulbaset al-Ahmar, a former student in his mid-twenties who discovered Shakespeare and especially Hamletthanks to the books in it, “the library gave me back my life. It’s helped me to meet others more mature than me, people who I can discuss issues with and learn things from. I would say that just like the body needs food, the soul needs books. I believe the brain is like a muscle. And reading has definitely made mine stronger. My enlightened brain has now fed my soul too.”

The fate of this secret library is currently unknown.

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/

 

 

 

 

 

Aleppo, the endgame

APSA Aleppo-souk-AFPGetty-Feb201

Syria’s civil war came late to Aleppo. It was July 2012. But after four years of bitter bloodshed between its regime-held west and rebel east, the beating heart of Syria’s commercial and industrial capital has entered cardiac arrest. The Castello Road, last rebel artery north towards the Turkish border, has been choked off by President Assad’s forces backed by Russian air support, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian government militia. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last month  declared Syria’s “real, strategic, greatest battle is in Aleppo and the surrounding area.”

Aleppo is no stranger to sieges – there have been at least eight recorded across its turbulent history. But this one promises to last longer than all the others put together.

Many of the 400,000 unfortunates trapped inside expect to suffocate and slowly starve as extortionately-priced food, medicine and fuel supplies are systematically blocked. Some will die before then from the Syrian and Russian government barrel-bombing. Latterly supplemented by incendiary cluster munitions burning to 2,500 Centigrade, the bombers are steadily eradicating schools, hospitals and markets from above with impunity. Months of such punishment lie ahead for Aleppo, as the stage is prepared for the Syrian endgame, a game the rebels look doomed to lose, along with their entire anti-Assad revolution.

Aleppo’s dramas have gone largely unnoticed by Europe and the West, preoccupied with their own dramas closer to home – the Nice attacks, the US shootings, the Turkish coup attempt, the Brexit fallout. Last week’s OPCW report accused the Syrian government of failing to declare its stocks of sarin and other illegal warfare agents for the Russian-brokered 2013 chemical weapons deal: it raised barely a murmur in the western media.

Broken promises

Syria’s moderate opposition groups have suffered years of broken promises of support from the international community. Myriad proclamations of “Assad must go” were followed by handwringing from the sidelines. But even the rebels were not prepared for the latest twist that took place in Moscow a few days ago when John Kerry agreed with Sergei Lavrov to coordinate US-Russian military strikes on ISIS and Syria’s Al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

lavrov and kerry

Nusra’s aim has always been to set up Islamic emirates inside Syria, an ideology at odds with Syria’s FSA-linked moderate opposition, yet the two have often found themselves allies of convenience in the fight against Assad. The dynamics of the battlefield are such that, were Nusra to withdraw their military support or be targeted, the FSA rebels would be left even more vulnerable to attack. North of Aleppo they are already battling on three fronts – against ISIS, the Kurds and the Syrian regime. In Aleppo itself there is no ISIS presence and very little Nusra either – yet civilians on the ground do not trust the bombs will stop simply because of the new US-Russian deal.

Destabilising factors

In Turkey the climate is also changing. Heavily destabilised by a series of ISIS and Kurdish PKK attacks, the subsequent collapse of its tourist industry, the absorption since 2011 of two million Syrian refugees and then by last week’s coup attempt, even Turkey, once solidly pro-rebel, is talking of future ‘normalising’ of relations. Like Europe and the US, it has too many problems at home to worry about Syria.

But therein lies the biggest danger. The international community is forgetting that all these destabilising factors – the surge of refugees, the exporting of ISIS terrorism and Jabhat al-Nusra extremism – have been incubating undisturbed inside Syria for the last five years. The link between our inertia and their rise was denied, leaving Syrian civilians little option but to flee. Thousands more will follow once the new US-Russian deal ‘legitimises’ the bombing.

Aleppo is no stranger to refugees. Across the centuries it welcomed many, as has Syria. Some were Christians escaping persecution from fellow Christians in Europe. Aleppo has long been multi-cultural, a complex mix of Kurds, Iranians, Turkmens, Armenians and Circassians overlaid on an Arab base in which multi-denominational churches and mosques still share the space.

While the West obsesses about fighting ISIS and Nusra, this colourful tapestry of Aleppo’s innately tolerant population is being shredded. Despair will inevitably drive some to copy the extremists. If we help stop the fighting, extremism will become impotent and disappear. But if we turn away and leave Aleppo’s wounds to fester, the infection will spread back to us in an even more virulent form.

This article was published on the BBC website 22 July 2016 in the following format:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36853689

Related articles:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-doctors-plea-to-president-obama-please-act-to-save-civilians/2016/07/21/092e081a-4f42-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/27/dozens-dead-in-syria-bomb-blast-qamishli

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/28/syrian-rebels-offered-amnesty-as-regime-tightens-aleppo-siege

 

 

 

 

 

 

The siege of Aleppo – last chapter of Syria’s civil war

APSA Aleppo Souq destruction Picture1Today the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad completed its stranglehold on Aleppo. Its forces cut off and sandbagged the Castello Road, the last road north via which rebel fighters and residents of east Aleppo could escape from the city. Weeks of relentless aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian planes, aided on the ground by Hezbollah fighters and Iranian militias have led up to this point. Hospitals and schools have been savagely targeted. The final chapter of the war has begun. Many Syrians see it as the beginning of the end.

The rebel opposition is in despair after the recent deal struck between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov his Russian counterpart in Moscow. Although the details are being kept under wraps, the consensus is that it involves US-Russian military coordination to target and eliminate Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS elements. This is a particularly difficult pill for the moderate rebel opposition to swallow since Jabhat al-Nusra have consistently been helping them to fight the Assad regime. The US-led coalition has been almost exclusively engaged in fighting ISIS, who in turn have been annihilating the moderate opposition groups. Assad and ISIS, the two extremes in this war, have only rarely fought each other – both extremes know that their real threat comes from the moderate middle.

Friday’s attempted coup in Turkey  will add to rebel despair as it will inevitably lead the Turkish government even further down the road of normalising relations with Bashar al-Assad’s government. Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim just days ago appeared to do a volte-face in its foreign policy towards Syria of the last five years, as it now seeks to stabilise its borders, mend fences with Israel and Russia, and focus its energies instead on its internal threats and troublesome Kurds.

All of this affects us in Europe and the West whether we like it or not. Our failure to challenge Assad’s barbarous barrel-bombing of his own civilian population, our failure to set up a safe zone along the Turkish border, has led to the surge of refugees driven out of Syria with nowhere to go except Europe. The sight of this tide of desperate humanity was too much for most Europeans to deal with. Instead of following the noble example of Germany’s Angela Merkel  in welcoming them, other European countries erected barbed wire fences. Britain voted for Brexit to keep them out, a disgrace that will surely come back to haunt its people and for which history will judge them. Russia’s President Putin is back on top and laughing. Through his intervention in Syria’s war last September to support his faltering protege Assad, he has created waves of new refugees, destabilised Europe and projected himself as a superpower once again. Watch Russian state TV (Freeview channel 135) to see for yourself.

Bashar and Putin virility poster

In Damascus much of Syria’s uprising is conducted underground these days. Tunnel warfare in the suburbs has become the new normal. Residents regularly feel the earth shake but the sounds of battle are muted. In Aleppo on the other hand the battle is all too audible and everyone in Syria knows that Aleppo’s fate, as the country’s second city, will determine the outcome of the war.

We are entering the final chapter, where that once unthinkable outcome, an Assad victory, is beginning to look inevitable. God forgive us.

Relevant articles:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/syrian-troops-cut-rebel-held-parts-aleppo-160717101330517.html

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/17/syrian-regime-troops-besiege-rebel-held-parts-of-aleppo

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/17/rebels-fear-assad-victory-in-syria-as-noose-tightens-around-aleppo

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/13/turkey-pm-greatest-goal-is-to-improve-relations-with-syria-and-iraq

 

 

 

 

Banias – case study of a Middle East boundary dispute

In the complex world of Middle Eastern boundary disputes, spare a thought for Banias, ancient City of Pan. Its location in the Golan Heights beside a water source on a strategic crossroads has condemned it to a history of tug and war for over 2000 years.

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 778

The settlement was based on the spring at the foot of Mt Hermon on whose summit, according to an Arab proverb, it is winter, on whose shoulders it is autumn, on whose flanks spring blossoms and at whose feet eternal summer reigns. The spring forms the Banias Stream, key tributary of the Jordan River, which then flows into the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest reservoir.

First to settle here and worship the divinity of the springs were the Canaanites (Joshua XI, 16-17). Then in 198BC it was the scene of the Battle of Panium between the Macedonian armies of Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Greeks of Syria whose elephants won the day. To commemorate their victory they built a temple to Pan, goat-footed god of nature and wild things, creator of panic in the enemy. The local name became Paneas, the origin of modern Banias – Arabic has no ‘p’, so uses ‘b’ as the closest sound.

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The Romans renamed it Caesarea Philippi (4BC – 43AD), after the son of Herod the Great, and the city was rich in biblical associations.  Here it was that Jesus told Peter he would be the Rock of the Church and be given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew XVI, 13-18).

Conflicts continued here between the pagan tradition and Christianity, then between Christians and Muslims. Under the Crusaders the site was known as Belinas and on the hills above, an hour’s walk away, they built the imposing Subeiba Castle, today called Nimrod, which still dominates the pass leading up towards Damascus. A Christian sanctuary dedicated to St George was built above the grotto, whom the Muslims called Al-Khidr (the’green one’) and later converted into a mosque. Today it is maintained by the local Syrian Druze of the Golan.

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After World War I Banias found itself contested by both the British Mandate over Palestine and the French Mandate over Syria. Britain wanted to retain control of the whole Jordan water system, while France wanted total control of the route linking Damascus and the Golan to Tyre on the Lebanese coast. The case of Banias was among the compromises reached, where Britain agreed for the line to be drawn 750 metres south of the springs so that it fell to the French. The French Mandate came to an end in 1946 and Syria gained its independence as a state within the same borders.

When the state of Israel was created in 1948 without the agreement of  its Arab neighbours, the stage was once again set for conflict. Israel insisted on control of the Jordan headwaters, but Syrian troops refused to withdraw from Banias. Israel began work in 1951 on a channel to drain the nearby Huleh swamps, bulldozing Arab villages that lay in the way, so Syria reinforced its military presence. A swimming area on the stream is still called the ‘Syrian Officers’ Pool.’

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Syrian and Israeli units attacked and counter-attacked, each determined to take control of the vital snowmelt from Mt Hermon. Israel announced a plan to divert the water from the Banias stream into its National Water Carrier, and Syria countered with a plan to build a canal from Banias to Yarmouk. When the heavy machinery moved in to start on the project, Israeli guns destroyed them.

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In June 1967 the penultimate day of the Six Day War saw Israeli tanks storm into Banias in breach of a UN ceasefire accepted by Syria hours earlier. Israeli general Moshe Dayan had decided to act unilaterally and take the Golan. The Arab villagers fled to the Syrian Druze village of Majdal Shams higher up the mountain, where they waited. After seven weeks, abandoning hope of return, the villagers dispersed east into Syria.

Israeli bulldozers raised their homes to the ground a few months later, bringing to an end two millenia of life in Banias. Only the mosque, the church and the shrines were spared, along with the Ottoman house of the shaykh perched high atop its Roman foundations. Within days Israeli volunteers began building on the banks of the river, creating Kibbutz Snir, the first Israeli settlement on the Golan. In 1981 Israel annexed the Golan Heights in an illegal move unrecognised by any state but international law remained impotent. No foreign power dared intervene.

Since 2003 Israel’s confidence has increased and the Golan is now covered in scores of settlements, while dozens of hotels offering settler-made ‘Chateau Golan’ serve as weekend getaways for Israeli city elites. A ski resort has been built on Mt Hermon. Tourist websites refer to ‘Israel’s Golan Heights’ and all local maps show it as part of Israel.

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As for Banias, now emptied of residents, the site has been incorporated into one of Israel’s many ‘nature reserves’ on the Golan. Four walking trails have been neatly laid out in loops around the ancient city, its springs and its waterfalls. The souvenir shop sells T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Israeli Air Force’ and ‘Mossad’.

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Explanatory signs give the Israeli version of history.

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The free leaflet that accompanies the entry ticket explains Banias is now  ‘a perfect place to understand the pagan world of the Land of Israel and Phoenicia’. On the map, the basilica has become a synagogue, the Ottoman shaykh’s house has become ‘Corner Tower’ and the Syrian Officers’ Pool is simply ‘Officers’ Pool.’

History in Banias has been rewritten once more. But is this the final version or are there more chapters to come?

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(This piece also appeared in Aeon digital magazine as below):

https://aeon.co/ideas/how-modern-disputes-have-reshaped-the-ancient-city-of-banias

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36548749

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36067643

 

 

 

Collapsing Syrian pound mirrors collapsing confidence in regime control

 

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest...

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest…

The collapse in the Syrian pound has accelerated dramatically in recent weeks. Businessmen whose interests are tied in with the Assad regime’s survival are getting increasingly anxious, fearing the exchange rate is now beyond Syrian government control. In March 2016 the Syrian pound traded at around 440 to the US dollar, now it is 650 and rising daily. Before the war began in 2011 it was 47 and had been stable for some years.

The collapsing pound seems to directly mirror the collapsing confidence of merchants and traders once loyal to the Assad regime. Many are buying dollars with their profits and quickly transferring them to bank accounts abroad. Meanwhile Western Union, the accepted method for relations and friends abroad to transfer foreign currency into Syria, has for months only been allowed to pay out currency from abroad inside Syria in local cash.

For Syrians on the government payroll – a staggering 2.7 million people or, even more staggering, roughly 35% of the population now living in the regime-controlled areas – this is a disaster. Life is becoming impossible. A friend who is head of one of the state-run banks in Damascus has been telling me that her monthly salary enables her to feed the family for two days only. More and more people are being forced to sell possessions and property; many are making the decision to abandon ship and leave, even though they know their chances of employment elsewhere are miserable. Neighbouring countries and Europe will inevitably feel the pressure of more refugees.

The reason behind the quickening collapse is thought to be twofold: firstly Russia’s reluctance to back Assad with full air strikes in the regime assault on Aleppo, which has led to another stalemate instead of the quick victory they had hoped, and secondly a new World Bank report estimating Syria’s foreign reserves to be a mere $700 million, down from £20 billion before the war.

ISIS has recently recaptured oilfields around Palmyra, increasing pressure on the regime’s ability to provide electricity to the capital. Income from taxation has plummeted as 80% of Syrians now live below the poverty line. Recruitment rates into the Syrian army are minimal, as more and more young men leave the country rather than be fed into the war machine.

Peace talks are planned to resume in Geneva in the coming weeks. Bashar al-Jaafari, Assad’s head negotiator, arrived late at the last round, after first waiting for the 13 April Syrian parliamentary elections to be completed. Although the Syrian parliament is impotent under the current Syrian constitution and the result was a foregone conclusion with the election of regime cronies vetted by the security services, the message to the international community was clear – the Assad regime is the only legitimate government of Syria.

Assad votin in parliamentary elections April 13 2016

The propaganda value to the regime of Palmyra’s recent recapture in championing this message has also been key. Foreign journalists, normally denied visas, were suddenly invited in and bussed across the desert to photograph the fabulous ancient ruins, still 80% intact, that lie between Syria’s largest oasis and an extinct volcano – the perfect romantic backdrop to Assad’s rehabilitation as national hero valiantly fighting ISIS terrorism. The Russians then bussed in a further round of journalists to witness the absurd spectacle of a Russian orchestra playing in Palmyra’s theatre, with President Putin appearing live on a stage screen to congratulate all involved in the victory. Palmyra was the crown jewel in Syria’s tourism industry and its restoration is scheduled to be the flagship project for rebuilding Syria.

Putin in Palmyra May 2016

The opposition in exile and even the officially-sanctioned domestic opposition have dismissed all such stunts as ‘illegitimate’ tricks to gain leverage in the peace talks. The PYD, the largest grouping of Syrian Kurds, who are busy consolidating their semi-autonomous cantons in the north, have also dismissed the PR campaign. So far they not been invited to the Geneva talks, for fear of upsetting the main Turkey/Saudi-supported opposition.

Syria’s peace envoy Staffan de Mistura is putting a brave face on all such complications, stressing that the peace talks are “flexible”. His optimistic aim remains to achieve a political transition by August and UN-supervised elections within 18 months, where all Syrians can vote, even the diaspora, be they penniless refugees or wealthy businessmen. The upcoming US change of president in November is another pressure on John Kerry and the Obama administration to try to broker a Syrian political settlement with Russian help in the coming months.

The big question remains whether Assad will agree to negotiate his own exit, given all the mounting pressures, especially if it becomes clear his traditionally loyal inner elite are ready to sacrifice him. More likely in my view is that his skilful team in Geneva will simply continue their policy of appearing to offer national unity and reconciliation, even though their survival is at the expense of the entire country.

Related articles:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/369f583a-177a-11e6-b8d5-4c1fcdbe169f.html#axzz48RMygHJj

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36024370

http://www.syria-report.com/news/finance/four-main-factors-behind-recent-rise-dollar-syrian-forex-market

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest...

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest…

 

Syria’s Golan Heights – a new flashpoint in the war?

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On a recent visit to Syria’s Golan Heights I overheard an unexpected conversation. At the Quneitra Viewpoint, an Israeli guide was telling a group of American tourists that the Israeli Defense Force had just upgraded the threat of conflict here on the border from ‘low’ to ‘moderate’. The reason, he said, was that Israeli intelligence had calculated, following the success of pro-Assad operations in the northern Idlib area, that the field of conflict was now likely to move here to the south. Israel would act immediately, he said, to destroy any heavy weaponry Hezbollah might move into the area. ISIS has also recently become active close to the border, allying itself with the local Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.

Israel views the Syrian civil war as a gift, its chance to persuade the US administration to recognise its 1981 annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights. Pronounced illegal under international law and unrecognised by any country, Israel has simply ignored all condemnation and incrementally taken control of the Heights. My recent From Our Own Correspondent piece on the Golan, broadcast on 10 March, produced the predictable Israeli attacks.

But Israel  does not get everything  its own way. Four Syrian Druze villages continue to thrive defiantly on the Golan, their populations slowly increasing despite the fact that intermarriage is rare and they can only be born into the faith. The Israeli press likes to make much of the Druze increasingly taking up Israeli citizenship but in reality very few do.

Here is the text as broadcast:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072hlvz (starts at 19.12 minutes)

“Standing in a peaceful spot high on the volcanic cone of Mt Bental, I am gazing across into war-torn Syria. It is a surreal experience. But this is the Golan Heights – where anything is possible.

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Beside me is a bizarre hilltop cafe called Coffee Annan  – after Kofi, the former UN Secretary General  –  staffed by enthusiastic Israelis from the nearby settlement of Merom Golan,  Israel’s first to be built on the Heights. They are selling beer and pizza along with local pomegranate liqueur and skin creams.

Sharing the vantage point are busloads of Israeli tourists and a couple of blue-capped UN observers stationed here to patrol the ‘ceasefire’ line, while rising above the whole conflict is Mt Hermon, whose snow-covered summit  still lies inside Syria. Israel controls a listening post bristling with antennae lower down.

In the car park, I meet the cheerful Abu Miqdal, an elder from the Syrian Druze community, with a magnificent moustache and the distinctive black baggy trousers that mark him out as one of the enlightened ‘uqaal, a spiritual level attained only with the wisdom of age. He’s here to earn a bit of money in retirement by selling the famous local honey; he lives in one of the four Syrian Druze villages now cut off on the Golan.

“Down there in Quneitra is where I was working as a Maths teacher,” he explains philosophically, pointing at the now destroyed town, “When the Israelis captured it, I fled back up here to Buq’ata. Now the border crossing is closed, and our apple and cherry orchards are farmed by the kibbutz of Ein Zivan.”

Education is tremendously important to the Druze, a proud religious minority living mainly in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. Amal Alamuddin, now wife to George Clooney, was born a Druze and typifies the community’s talent.

Syria’s ruling Assad family was good to the Golan Druze, and earned their loyalty by allowing them to study free of charge at Syrian universities even after the ‘67 war, giving them a small monthly stipend. The Quneitra crossing was opened to allow several hundred students a year to continue their courses. The current war has put an end to that, so many now go to Germany instead.

Interrupted by periodic explosions from the direction of Damascus, Abu Miqdal and I exchange poignant memories of the Syrian capital, where he studied for four years.  “Although the Israelis pressurize us, we will never give up our Syrian nationality,” he assures me. “This war will end one day and our families will be joined again.”

His certainty is admirable but the realities on the ground are different. In the 35 years since its annexation of the Golan, Israel has built over 30 settlements here, 30 wineries with names like Chateau Golan, and devised nature reserves to market its tourism potential. It has built a ski resort on Mt Hermon and laid out hiking trails beside the waterfalls of Baniyas, ancient City of Pan.

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Israeli maps increasingly show the Golan as theirs, making it ever harder to remember that under international law all this is Syria, whose border once reached right down to the eastern shore of Lake Galilee.

While the world is distracted by ISIS and mass refugee migration to Europe,  Israel is quietly drilling for oil on the Golan, rewarded last autumn with a major find. It has recently completed a big barrier along its border with Syria similar to that on the West Bank, citing security concerns and the need to ‘bring stabilisation’ to the region.

But the Golan Druze are determined to maintain their identity and govern themselves. Ain Kinya, the smallest and most beautiful of the Druze villages, has its own local council.

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Numbers are steadily increasing and they are building more homes. Two Christian families live in their midst. The young Druze women I see appear free from inhibition, dressed in hot pants, ripped jeans and tight tops, strong and equal to their men.

Abu Miqdal’s generation still treasures memories of Damascus, but the Golan’s younger Druze, deprived of such cherished dreams, have found their own uniquely non-political vision of their future. Key to the Druze faith is reincarnation of souls, male to male, female to female, always into a newborn child.

They simply believe they will be reincarnated in their next lives – into the right part of Syria.”

Related articles:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0e060fea-0622-11e6-9b51-0fb5e65703ce.html#axzz47OguBDQ0

http://www.jns.org/news-briefs/2016/3/22/662aep6eruyayvxv0i95axvhzbt47n#.VvKy2uKLTIU=

http://www.timesofisrael.com/on-golan-heights-idf-fights-to-keep-israel-safe-and-out-of-syria/

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24544-israel-prepares-evacuation-plan-for-golan-heights-galilee-settlements

The pressure is building on the Golan Heights

 

 

 

 

 

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