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#Syria – Who is driving the car?

Unbelievably antiquated, an ISIS model maybe? [DD]

Unbelievably antiquated, an ISIS model maybe? [DD]

The crisis in Ukraine has taken the spotlight away from Syria of late,  unfortunate timing, since  huge developments are going largely unnoticed inside Syria. These developments are all being driven by a race to achieve a tangible outcome before 10 June, the date currently set for the Syrian presidential elections, when Bashar Al-Assad could become ‘president for life.’ But who is racing and who is driving the car?

The first racer of course, and the one with most to lose, is the Syrian regime. In recent months it has probably become the favourite to win, now that it has developed such a clever race strategy, making high profile propaganda stunts like yesterday’s release of 13 Greek Orthodox nuns and their three maids in exchange for many more female prisoners and even a few children detained inside regime prisons. Between now and June it is doing whatever it can to project itself as Syria’s only saviour, guardian of the minorities, defender against ‘terrorism’. It is on a course to what it calls ‘reconcilation’ (musaalaha). The car windows are blacked out, so no one on the outside knows who is driving or how many are in the car. Transparency has never been a virtue in Ba’athist eyes.

Shady saloon on Straight Street, Damascus [DD]

Shady saloon on Straight Street, Damascus [DD]

The second racer, extremely determined to knock all other racers right off the track, is the grouping of Al-Qa’ida-affiliated opposition groups. Their ruthless driving technique has served them surprisingly well so far, enabling them to capture whole swaths of northern and eastern Syria, including some oil wells, very handy for pit stops. Their image is in serious need of a boost in the international media, and maybe the release of the nuns will give them that, now that the ladies have said how ‘sweet’ the Jabhat al-Nusra rebels were to them. The particularly rabid extremist group ISIS (Arabic Daesh) looks like it might have been thrown out of the car.

The third racer, something of an outsider for the last year or two and often dismissed as a hopeless case, is the group of moderate,  secular opposition groups loosely known as the Free Syria Army (FSA). But might it come from behind with a sudden surge? Many reports are now appearing, since the driver was changed from General Salim Idriss based in the north, to Colonel Abd al-Ilah al-Bashir based in the south, which suggest that a late bid will soon be made, supported by western intelligence and Saudi backers, to overtake the favourite in the capital. Its car will need to be ultra-serviced and revved-up to achieve that.

Damascus taxi - the FSA maybe? [DD]

Damascus taxi – the moderate FSA maybe? [DD]

Most certainly not driving the car, probably not even in the race any more, is the Geneva ‘peace process’, widely seen as a complete waste of time and money, nothing but a brief media circus. Respected mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, the poor man who never even had a car of his own, is said to be on the verge of resigning his ‘mission impossible’. The Ukrainian crisis has now resulted in a rift in Russian/American relations, so cooperation in the Syrian political arena, recently looking so rosy, is now indefinitely on hold.

Going backwards, like Geneva II [DD]

Going backwards, like Geneva II [DD]

So who is driving the car of Syria? Does anyone even know? What we do know is that the Syrian car is on an unknown course, with unknown drivers, while others, often with the best of motives, try desperately to push it one way or another, convinced they know a better route. Whether or not any of them will succeed before the car loses its way, gets derailed or just straightforwardly crashes is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the best outcome is that it just runs out of petrol and everyone has to get out and push.






Chemical immunity in Damascus

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

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

The priceless mosaics with scenes of Paradise, Damascus Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]
The priceless mosaics with scenes of Paradise, Damascus Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]


The peaceful mood of the photos above has long since gone in Damascus. For months now the friends living in my house in the Old City have been saying they noticed strange symptoms among themselves of coughing, eye-watering and extreme fatigue. They wondered about chemical weapons but knew no one would believe them if they mentioned anything, so as usual, they kept silent and hoped it would pass.

Now that a huge chemical attack has taken place nearby in the eastern Ghouta, where my caretaker lives, they also know there is no way the regime will permit the UN inspection team to go anywhere near it to investigate. The team will be virtual prisoners in their hotel, unable to go anywhere unless escorted by government minders and then only to places which the regime is content for them to see – in the full knowledge there will be nothing conclusive to find.

To imagine that the UN inspection team will be free to go to where it pleases, is not to understand the regime at all, not to understand its games. Of course the team will be told it is too dangerous to go there, that it cannot go for its own safety, that they, the regime, are responsible for its safety, so are just doing their duty. The excuses will be fulsome and convincingly explained.

The truth is that the UN inspection team, sitting in its hotel in Damascus little over half an hour’s drive away from the site of the chemical weapons attack, is impotent, as is the international community. Once again the Assad regime will run rings round them, laughing privately at how easy it is to retain power when you have a vast security apparatus, held in place by the like of Hizbullah and Iran. They have chemical immunity.

Only Israel may decide the time has come to take action.

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