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Archive for the tag “Aleppo”

Assad’s New Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles:

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

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

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

 

A Surreal Trip to Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related article:

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

 

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.

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

 

 

 

 

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 War reaches the most dangerous point so far

 

Syria's intractable war feb 2016

No one seriously believes the ‘postponed’ peace talks at Geneva 3 will take place on 25 February 2016 as scheduled by the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan De Mistura. Like his two predecessors, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, both of whom resigned in despair, De Mistura is trying to lead a peace process backed only by the impotence of the UN and its increasingly violated and empty resolutions. While Ban Ki Moon and others express outrage about ‘unacceptable’ behaviour, the realities on the ground are making political and diplomatic posturing irrelevant.

Russia’s unprecedented air bombardment began on 1st February, as the talks in Geneva were trying to splutter into life. With no warning hundreds of bombs were rained down on rebel-held territory north of Aleppo, displacing thousands of families from their homes. Two days later De Mistura suspended the peace talks, exactly what Russia wanted. Intensifying their momentum, the Russian airstrikes within days went on to ‘liberate’ the Shia pro-regime villages of Nubul and Al-Zahra and push north towards the Turkish border at Kilis.

Chief losers in this ongoing battle are what remains of the armed opposition north of Aleppo, the 70,000 displaced families now stuck either in the town of A’zaz or in the no man’s land between the Turkish and Syrian border at Bab Al-Salama. 500 people have lost their lives since the Russian airstrikes began 10 days ago.

azaz refugees feb 2016

Chief winners are the Russians, the Iranian Republican Guard and Hezbollah fighters battling on the ground alongside what remains of the Syrian Assad army, now so depleted by deaths, defections and draft-dodging that it is but a shadow of its former strength.

But the biggest winners of all are the Syrian Kurds, the PYD whose efficient fighters were perfectly placed in northern Syria to take advantage of the Russian bombardment. As the areas were depopulated they moved in to increase the territory of their semi-autonomous region of Rojava. They have made huge progress since 2014, as the maps below show, and now control close to 20% of Syria, consolidating their hold on their three cantons. Their dream is to link up the western canton of Afrin with the two eastern cantons of Kobani and Jazira, currently separated by a tract of lawless land between A’zaz and Jarabulus controlled partly by ISIS, partly by Turkmen and Arab rebels.

map of rojava cantons Map of Aleppo and territory to north map of rojava within syria map of Syria Institute of war 25 Jan 2016

But all this is a nightmare for Turkey, not only because President Erdogan regards the Syrian PYD Kurds as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish militant PKK group, but also because the US under the Obama administration has in recent days even sent a delegation under Brett McGurk, the US’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, to visit Rojava, and has pronounced them not terrorists but allies in the fight against ISIS.

Erdogan is furious, accusing his supposed ally America of self-interest and betrayal. Even worse, Russia is arming and training the PYD Kurds, so both Russia and the US are together supporting Kurdish aspirations.

Will he be able to contain his rage and not send in Turkish troops to challenge Russia, Iran, Assad and the Kurds? Is he prepared to lose control of his whole southern border to a new Kurdish entity? Will Saudi Arabia (and the UAE and Bahrain) make good on its offer to send 150,000 ground troops onto that same patch of disputed land?

The thousands of displaced refugees now building up on the Syrian side of the border may give him that chance, to enter Syria on a humanitarian ticket and create the safe zone he has wanted to set up since summer 2011 but which was never supported by NATO and the international community. Up to 400,000 additional refugees could flee from Aleppo itself and add to the thousands at the border if the city, once Syria’s biggest, is encircled and put under siege.

Turkey’s position today is stronger than at any previous time in this five-year war, because of its powerful role in controlling the flow of migrants into an overwhelmed and vulnerable Europe. Erdogan’s AK party won a convincing election last November. But Turkey’s position is also more dangerous than ever before. Setting up a safe zone four and a half years ago would have been child’s play compared to now, when so many external actors are involved. ISIS did not even exist then. But the threat of ISIS pales into insignificance compared to the danger of Turkey and Russia sparking a confrontation in exactly the territory around Dabiq, where ISIS propaganda tells us the stage is set for Armageddon.

Syria’s war, after five years of unexpected twists and turns, is now way out of control, with a dynamic all of its own. No single state or actor, or group of states can dictate its course, not even Russia. Putin may consider himself invincible but even he cannot control what happens next inside Syria. As each day brings new escalations and dangers the spectre of World War III no longer seems like a far-fetched threat. How much worse can it get?

putin and obama

Related articles:

http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/08022016

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35541003

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35488073

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/02/turkey-syria-united-states-possible-military-intervention.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=f2cfd6b451-Feb_10_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-f2cfd6b451-93116701

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

 

Russia tightens its grip on Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Echoes of Aleppo in Gaziantep

English: Caravanserai in Aleppo

English: Caravanserai in Aleppo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Bawabet al-Yasmeen alley at the Chris...

English: Bawabet al-Yasmeen alley at the Christian quarter of Jdeydeh, Aleppo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gaziantep Castle

Gaziantep Castle (Photo credit: Turkish Travel)

gaziantep_fabric

gaziantep_fabric (Photo credit: unionpearl)

Photographs from Gaziantep

Photographs from Gaziantep (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Photographs from Gaziantep, Turkey.

Photographs from Gaziantep, Turkey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eastern Turkey’s ‘Paris of the East’ as it now likes to be known, Gaziantep (just Antep locally), is remarkably close to Aleppo in so many ways, historically, culturally and even in its famed cuisine based on the pistachio. It has at its heart a fortified citadel, its Christian quarter is being gentrified, with boutique hotels and cafes, just as Aleppo’s was a few years ago, but many of Aleppo’s have now been destroyed by the fighting. The Governor of Aleppo in medieval times built many of Antep’s mosques and hans (caravanserais), testimony to the shared trading links and thriving commercial traffic across the centuries.

Here today the links go even deeper. There are many Syrian refugees who are living on the charity of the governor, given soup and allowed to sleep in the mosques. The language problem is an issue for them, as most Turks here do not speak Arabic or English. The commercial links between this part of southeastern Turkey and northern Syria are stronger than ever though, with more trucks crossing the Bab Al-Hawa border than before the war, taking in food and various commodities to Syria, where the factories have to a large extent stopped functioning. Wandering round the souks of Gaziantep with their brimming sacks of spices and nuts, it is only the chatter of the Turkish merchants that force you to remember you are not in Aleppo.

Photographs from Gaziantep

Photographs from Gaziantep (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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