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Syria conflict – the biblical river at the heart of the Damascus water war

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The Roman aqueduct system is still visible in the cliffs of the Wadi Barada gorge (2011, DD)

The flashpoint for Syria’s war, six years old this March, took the form in recent weeks of an elemental struggle over water. Drinking water to some 5 million residents in the Syrian capital Damascus was cut on 23 December by the Damascus Water Authority, blaming diesel contamination of the supply by the rebels.

The historic water source of Ain al-Fijeh lies in a valley 18km northwest of the capital in Wadi Barada, where a cluster of 13 villages has been under rebel control since 2012. Local people joined the revolution early in protest against government neglect, corruption and land grabs made legal under new state land measures, where whole hillsides were requisitioned for sports clubs and luxury hotels.

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The hillsides of Wadi Barada, with a Roman quarry in the bottom left (2011, DD)

On 22 December the Assad government, using barrel bombs dropped from helicopters and supported on the ground by Lebanese Shi’a militia fighters of Hezbollah, began a campaign to take control of the strategic valley and springs. The timing was significant, just days before the announcement of the countrywide ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey on 29 December.

The Barada Gorge was cut through the Anti-Lebanon Mountains geological eons ago by the Barada river, which still runs through the centre of Damascus. Today it is just a shadow of its former self, diminished for most of the year by drought and pollution to a dirty trickle by the time it reaches the city-centre. But in earlier times it was the source of the city’s legendary fertility, and the reason for its location in an oasis of gardens and orchards known as the Ghouta. The river was and still is fed by the melt waters of Mount Hermon, Syria’s highest peak. Mentioned no less than 15 times in the Bible, it retains its snow-capped summit till early June. The amount of snowfall in winter is a direct indication of how much water Damascus will have throughout the year.

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The distant snows of Mt Hermon, seen from Damascus rooftops (2011, DD)

The Barada, the ancient Abana, was supplemented through seven further rivers whose course was diverted by means of elaborate channels as far back as Roman times. Guided by aqueducts into the centre of Damascus, the city was fed by a complex network of waterways and channels that allowed water to flow in and out of every house. Sophisticated Ottoman water distribution points throughout the city also allocated water in agreed quantities to the public bathhouses, mosque ablution areas and public drinking fountains. Even today most houses have a special drinking tap in their kitchen directly connected to the spring.

In high summer families would come to Wadi Barada on Fridays and holidays, often renting a riverside platform for the day. Rigged up as tent awnings open only onto the river side, they formed an idyllic private arbour where families could relax, enjoying the coolness of the fast-flowing river. Little iron ladders were fixed onto the platforms, so that children could climb down and swim.

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A swimming platform and ladder used by picnicing families along the river (2011, DD)

In the 16th century it was along the banks of the Barada river on the outskirts of Damascus that the first coffee houses grew up. Pilgrims would be assembling, waiting for the annual Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca to set off in one huge joint caravan, protection in numbers from raiding desert tribesmen. Many engravings from the 19th century show scenes of coffee houses on the banks of the brimming Barada.

Near the village of Souq Wadi Barada, huge gaping holes in the cliff above can be still be scrambled into. They are part of the original Roman water system, elaborate tunnels cut into the rock conducting the melt-waters into the aqueducts of Damascus.

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Wadi Barada’s ancient Roman aqueduct system, cut into the cliff, to guide water from Ain Fijeh to Damascus (2011, DD)

Sections of the old Roman road between Baalbek and Damascus, inscriptions in Greek, the official language, and in Latin, the language of the soldiers, can still be seen, describing how the road was rebuilt higher up to avoid destruction by flooding.

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A Latin inscription above the Roman road in Wadi Barada connecting Damascus to Baalbek (2011, DD)

For Hezbollah too the battle is a geographical one. They regard this area as their backyard, connected to their Baalbek stronghold in Lebanon. They have been determined to take it, along with the Qalamoun Mountains a little further north, to ensure total control of this area which they see as vital to their and their sponsor Iran’s strategic interests, part of their Shi’a Crescent linking Tehran to the Mediterranean.

The Syrian government claimed there were fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) present in Wadi Barada, to justify its ongoing campaign, since that group was excluded from the countrywide ceasefire. Local residents have always insisted there were only ever Free Syrian Army moderates present in the valley.

After two attempts at local ceasefires failed and the key mediator was killed in a targeted assassination, the battle continued for a month, till the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah ally shelled the valley into submission. Under a deal, some fighters were permitted to leave for rebel-held Idlib province in the north. Others were permitted to stay if they agreed to join Assad’s army. Russian media says the repairs to the Ain Fijeh water source are nearly complete and Damascus’s drinking water will soon be restored after nearly eight weeks of shortages where the residents had to use wells or bottled water.

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Syrian soldiers reclaiming the source of the spring at Ain Fijeh, Wadi Barada 29 January 2017 (Sputnik News)

Each side continues to blame the other.

Since both UN monitors and Russian officials were denied access to the area by Hezbollah checkpoints, the truth remains hidden – as so often in Syria – behind the fog of war, or in this case, beneath the waters of the Barada.

This article is an updated version of this BBC feature which first appeared on 8 January 2017 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38532338

Other related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38782935

https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/01/04/wadi-barada-happened-damascuss-water/

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/syrian-army-captures-wadi-barada-170129131830656.html

https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/201702071050429093-wadi-barada-damascus-water-supply/

 

 

Russian and Iranian tentacles dig deeper into Syria

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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

 

 

 

Schizophrenia in Damascus

Nothing in Damascus was as expected. Convinced there would be food shortages, I had vowed to eat very little during my stay. Yet while the besieged suburbs are starving, the central food markets are overflowing.

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The fruit stalls of Sharia al-Amin boast bananas from Somalia, the Bzouriye spice markets are buoyant with top-quality saffron from Iran and walnuts from Afghanistan. Lebanese wine and beer are freely available. Prices are higher than before, but still largely affordable for most people.

Sandwiched between the heavily-armed checkpoints, street stands selling thick hot Aleppan sakhlab, a sweet white drink, are everywhere.

Cafes and pastry shops are bursting with sticky delicacies, the famous Bakdash ice-cream parlour is buzzing with people as ever.

Bakdash ice cream parlour, October 2014

To judge from the carpets of cigarette butts on the pavements, smoking rates, always high, are higher than ever. In the main thoroughfare of Souq al-Hamidiya all the usual clothes and flamboyant underwear outlets are still thronging with customers – not a single boarded shopfront – quite a contrast to the average British high street.

Sporadically, in the days as well as the nights, shelling is disturbingly loud, but strangely offstage.

President Bashar al-Assad’s artillery is fired from Mount Qassioun, directly above the city, towards the eastern Ghouta region – the scene of last year’s chemical attack, whose pockets of resistance are still a thorn in the side of the government. Villages there have suffered a food blockade for the last 18 months.

But by all accounts there is much less noise than there was a year ago.

Mount Qassioun, seen from DamascusMount Qassioun, seen across the rooftops of Damascus

From that point of view, very gradually, life in central Damascus is getting better. Yet from other points of view, just as gradually, it is getting worse.

Beyond the 3.5 million who have fled the country as refugees, a further 7.5 million have been internally displaced – added together that accounts for half of Syria’s entire population. Homes which are left empty, if they have not been flattened, are vulnerable to immediate seizure by others – usually the owners have no idea who has moved in and it is too dangerous to go back and find out.

Almost as often, but rarely reported, Syrian homes are taken by profiteers, exploiting the weak or the absent.

My own house in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Damascus, bought and restored in 2005, fell victim a few months ago.

It had been lived in for more than two years, from the summer of 2012 to the summer of 2014, with my consent by displaced friends whose homes had been destroyed in the suburbs. Now they had been evicted by my ex-lawyer and the previous owner conniving together to take it for themselves and split it 50:50.

Determined to get it back I recently returned to Damascus to throw them out and after 15 roller-coaster days, I succeeded. Things can happen surprisingly fast in Syria. You go to meet the judge one day, and he comes to inspect the house the next – without payment.

The old and the new doors to the houseA blacksmith made a new metal door to cover the smashed antique one.

Among the many moments of high drama were two break-ins, six changes of lock, the installation of two metal doors and the exposure of the bogus security reports which had led to my friends being evicted in the first place.

Bit parts were played by a fake general on a forged 25-year lease, and a Baathist single mother in the house with her newborn baby. It was with her that I felt most threatened by violence.

But in some ways life goes on almost as normal: dining with one friend in her 50s, whose car was lost in a random mortar attack, she explains how she now accompanies her 16-year-old nephew by taxi to play in the orchestra at the Opera House to make sure he is not picked up and enlisted into the army. At the checkpoints she clutches his cello between her legs so that the soldiers will not take it.

Checkpoints and road blocks in Yusuf al-Azma SquareCheckpoints and road blocks, such as this one in Yusuf al-Azma Square, are a common sight

Another friend works for the national electricity grid: his job is to repair electric cables damaged in the clashes. Over lunch at his home with his family, he tells me how one of his team stepped on a mine and was blasted to pieces in front of him – the man next to him had his eyes blown out.

He himself was lucky, escaping only with shrapnel in his intestine. He spent two weeks in hospital, two weeks at home recuperating, then went straight back to work. His attitude is simple: anyone who damages Syrian infrastructure is hurting the Syrian people.

The alleys of the Old City are full of children playing football. Many go to the school round the corner from my house.

Such is the overcrowding – some say Damascus’s population has risen from four to seven million because of internally displaced refugees – that their school-day is from 11:00 to 15:00, with one shift before them and another shift after them. They have 50 to 60 in their class but their enthusiasm to learn and to do their homework is undiminished.

The only other foreigners I saw on the streets were Iraqi Shia, men and women led round in groups to visit the shrines by a man wielding an orange lollipop sign.

When I met an old friend at the tourism ministry who still works at his office every day, he explained how this kind of religious tourism is now all they have left, some 200,000 pilgrims a year, after 8.2 million foreign visitors in 2010. He expresses no political views – he is just someone who has chosen to stay and do his job as best he can, like millions of others.

All over the country, even in ISIS-held Raqqa, I was reliably informed, government employees now draw their salaries direct from cash points on specific days, causing long queues outside the banks.

For the last two nights when I was finally able to sleep in my house in Old Damascus I experienced what everyone else has to suffer on a daily basis – scarcely four hours of electricity a day, no gas, no hot water, limited cold water.

It was tough, yet strangely invigorating, crossing the chilly courtyard to wash in a dribble of icy water, warmed by the knowledge I was surrounded by loyal neighbours who were looking out for me. Without them I could never have retaken my house: they protected me, helped me at every turn.

Bait Baroudi

A crisis brings out the worst and the best in people. What I found in Damascus was that a genuine kindness, a shared humanity and an extraordinary sense of humour are well and truly alive. Decent Syrian citizens are together doing their best to fight against immorality and corruption. Morale, in spite of everything, is high. Laughter keeps them sane.

Not once did anyone mention sectarianism. “DA’ESH” (the Arabic acronym for ISIS used across the Middle East) was universally condemned as beyond the pale.

How much longer, as the war approaches its fifth year and the number of greedy opportunists in society increases, such neighbourhood camaraderie can survive is an unanswerable question. But after this fortnight in Damascus I am more optimistic than before.

Diana Darke, Middle East cultural expert and Arabic speaker, is the author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, new 2015 edition now available as paperback and e-book from:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=11301

My House in Damascus

http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/190832399X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421401514&sr=8-1&keywords=9781908323996

Related post:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30494989

 

 

The paradox of Iran and its links with Syria

Cameron and Rouhani

How fitting it is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani  should have used his Twitter account to announce last month’s historic meeting with UK Prime Minister David Cameron: “1st meeting b/w UK & Iran heads of state in 35 years: 1 hour of constructive & pragmatic dialogue, new outlook #UNGA” the tweet boasted, attaching a photo to prove it, of the pair engaged in earnest dialogue. A week later the brief warming in relations was over, as Rouhani criticised Cameron for calling Iran ‘part of the problem in the Middle East’; Tehran headlines again referred to Britain as ‘the old fox.’

What is the Iranian leadership aiming for, in its apparent new accessibility, its seeming new willingness to talk and engage with western governments? How seriously should we take Iran’s ‘new outlook’, as the UK joins the US-led air strikes against ISIS in Iraq (and possibly Syria in future), a fight in which Iran’s help will, sooner or later, almost certainly be needed?

In Twitter-silent Iran, it was the silence of the ordinary Iranian people that struck me most. After the failed Green Revolution of 2009 in which around 100 protesters were killed and over 4,000 arrested, most Iranians learned to be silent – unlike the Syrians. Ordinary Iranians admire the courage of ordinary Syrians. “We gave up when we saw how the regime reacted, but they continued.”

The gulf between the Iranian people and their regime is striking. Rouhani’s smiling face and his carefully managed tweets project one image of Iran to the West, but conditions inside the country tell a very different story. Far from opening up, Iran is busily clamping down on its own people. Since Rouhani took office in August 2013 executions have been on the rise, more than 400 in the first half of 2014 alone according to the NGO Iran Human Rights (to give perspective, Saudi Arabia managed a mere 79 last year). Two gay men were publicly hanged in August for consensual sodomy; in recent weeks ’91 lashes’ were meted out to unveiled Iranians dancing in a YouTube video, and a British-Iranian woman was charged with ‘propaganda against the Iranian regime’ for attending a male volley-ball match. Iran’s hard-line ruling elite back home is determined to suppress any kind of resistance, fearful that, were they to allow greater freedoms in Iranian society, a wave of dissent might rise up and engulf them. Rouhani recently declared his view that internet controls and tight restrictions on women’s headscarves do not work – but will the anti-reformist clerics take any notice?

Iran is not a particularly religious country, given the power of the mullahs. The call to prayer is muted – it took three days till I heard the first one – and mosques are places more to sleep than pray.

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Shrines on the other hand are crowded, thanks to a superstition that throwing a few notes or coins through the grille of a holy man’s tomb will resolve life’s problems. “We never did Islam the way the Arabs wanted us to,” grinned a helpful bystander inside the segregated women’s area, confirming what my Syrian friends in Damascus had always told me about the Iranian pilgrims who thronged the city in their all-black chadors. “They are pretending. Underneath they are just on holiday.”

Painted high on random buildings within view of the main highways the faces of Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader Khamenei  smile down on their subjugated flock like a pair of benevolent dictators.

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Closer questioning reveals that maybe some 10-15% of the population is tied into supporting the regime for their own economic reasons. Iran is at heart a trading nation. Its entire history has been built on centuries of skilful bartering. Visit any Iranian city and the bazaar is the central nervous system, the driver of the economy. The bazaaris and the clergy were enabled by the 1979 Iranian Revolution to preserve the traditional positions of power threatened by the Shah and his corruption. They do not want to lose this power now through relaxing their grip and allowing Western influence and culture to take over. They rail against the evils of the Western model – drug abuse, family breakdown, immoral behaviour – yet the paradox is that these have all increased on their watch inside Iran anyway, thanks to unemployment, poverty and their own corruption.

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Iran is said to have one of the highest rates of drug addiction in the world at 5% of the population, the divorce rate is soaring in the cities where most people now live and prostitution is so rife that even the regime itself mentions it as a problem. And the solution of the hardline clerics? More floggings.

Iran’s demographic is suffering from a ‘Japanese curve’. After 1979 Khomeini encouraged everyone to have many children, resulting in a baby boomer generation. But the middle classes of that generation, now in their mid-30s, are the ones most excluded from influence, struggling with unemployment and deprivation. The average birth rate has plummeted to one child per family, partly because of women’s education, but also for affordability reasons. Worried that this is not enough to sustain the aging population, the regime is offering financial incentives for people to have more children, incentives which are not working: couples say it is still too expensive.

Most Iranians now live in cities, meaning that traditional barriers are breaking down as different groupings find themselves living side by side. Sunni-Shi’a intermarriage is becoming commoner, much to the horror of the mullahs. In schools the clergy controls the syllabus, with Islamic religious education forming a bigger element of the day’s lessons than any other country in the world, leaving less time for other subjects. Iran’s brightest and best are leaving the country.

For those who stay there are subtle ways of showing opposition and Iran has these in abundance. The BBC is banned, yet the BBC’s Farsi channel is the most watched, while Iranian state TV offerings on religion and wildlife languish. Facebook is blocked yet 58% of Iranians circumvent the ban, gmail accounts were till recently banned yet 63% of Iranians use gmail as their preferred email address. Women, for the last ten years or so accounting for more university graduates than men, show passive resistance through pushing the boundaries on Islamic dress, so that in Shiraz, Iran’s most liberal city, the mandatory headscarf is worn tantalisingly far back to reveal a full head of hair, with figure-hugging brightly coloured jackets leaving nothing to the imagination.

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So how, in the face of such contradictions, has the political clergy of the Islamic Republic managed to retain its power and control? The answer lies in its ever-increasing dependence on its various law enforcement forces, above all SEPAH and the Basij – another parallel with Syria. SEPAH is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard set up in 1979 to preserve the Islamic nature of the revolution and to pre-empt a military coup or foreign interference, while the Basij is the volunteer militia under its control, numbering up to one million. To cement the loyalty of SEPAH and the Basij, the clerical elite has permitted them to enrich themselves through mafia-style smuggling rackets operating across the Straits of Hormuz to the UAE – shades of Syria again where Assad’s shabiha control the contraband routes through the ports of Lattakia and Tartous. A multi-billion dollar empire has grown up, transparent to ordinary Iranians who follow world affairs closely. Banned from Twitter, most use SMS, sending each other jokes by text message based on the news of the day. SEPAH and the Basij are particular targets, with messages like:  ‘How much do you think SEPAH will charge the mullahs for smuggled fridges? Reply: About five prostitutes a day for a month should do it,’ and ‘How many Basij fighters do you reckon are now in Syria? Reply: I don’t know, but a lot more than in Iran,’ and ‘Who runs Syria these days? Reply: Iran of course!’

The highly experienced Iranian commander of the Quds Force (special operations division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard), Major General Qassem Suleimani, has since early 2013 been masterminding the Assad regime’s fight against its rebels, sending advisers into Syria, helping bolster depleted ammunition/weapons supplies and re-train Syrian government troops. With consummate skill, he created the 60,000-strong National Defence Force (NDF) in Syria, modelled on the Basij, ostensibly to protect local neighbourhoods, in practice to exploit them and run smuggling rackets.

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

President Bashar al-Assad with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.

Rouhani is an ace negotiator and will feign flexibility while holding tight to his position. He knows that time pressure is on his side: the West needs him now in its fight against ISIS and he has till 24 November to reach a nuclear deal. The conditions are perfect for extracting concessions from the West, and of one thing we may be sure: the Iranian governing elite will do nothing that rocks the status quo domestically, nothing that interferes with its ability to enrich itself. Embassies may open in London and Tehran, cooperation over ISIS in Iraq (though not in Syria) may be forthcoming when its own border region is threatened, but the Iranian regime, SEPAH and the Basij will remain umbilically connected, to each other and to the Syrian regime. Their collective survival is at stake and their loyalty to each other is not negotiable.

Looking back at Rouhani’s Twitter account, I am struck by the fact that, set against his 257K followers, he is only following six people, one of which is his own Iranian language account. The others are Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Khatami, his own Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his own Vice President and Environment Minister the heavily headscarved Massoumeh Ebtekar – not exactly a broad range of opinion. All of which confirms that however much Rouhani smiles abroad, at home he is beholden to his hard-line masters.

Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution (Haus, 2014),http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/1908323647 has recently returned from an extensive tour of Iran arranged through Travel the Unknown www.traveltheunknown.com.

 

 

Shi'a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Shi’a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Related media:

http://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fooc/all (From Our Own Correspondent of 18 October 2014, starts at 17.25 mins)

Syrian Literary Festivals

This October My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution will be featured in three literary festivals:  Cheltenham, Henley and Wimbledon. Full details below with booking via their websites.

First, on Saturday 4 October 2014 at Cheltenham:

In association with Waterstones

diana darke cover - Copy.jpg

PRESENT TENSE: SYRIA

QUICKFIND L066

SAT 4 OCT 2014 9:00PM – 10:00PM

THE STUDIO, IMPERIAL SQUARE

£8 – MEMBERS 10% OFF

If you are a member then login to book your tickets, if you’re not a member then find out how to become a member and get access to priority booking.
Public booking opens on Mon 01 Sep at 12:00pm

The-Times-Logo-March-2011.jpg

DETAILS

Anthony Loyd, The Times war correspondent who was recently injured reporting from Syria, evaluates the Syrian crisis with Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus, and questions what might happen next.

All Literature events

MEDIA GALLERY

Saving #Syria’s Cultural Heritage – how to help

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bricking up Zachariah's Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Bricking up Zachariah’s Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

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

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

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Heritage Fund – 2014DonationFormV2

Related links:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dreams of a better #Syria

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[This post includes extracts from the book My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution ]

Related articles:

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

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

This post includes extracts from the book.

This post includes extracts from the book.

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