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Syria’s Second Revolution

So silent for so long on Syria, the international community has finally been jolted out of its slumber. “Let them kill each other. It’s so far away and nothing to do with us.”  The wake-up call came in the form of the Paris bombings of Friday 13 November and the massive media focus on their aftermath.

Kafranbel Paris bombings banner

Now that the dangers of allowing ISIS to thrive in the vacuum of Syria’s chaos have finally exploded in Europe, the nature of the conflict has changed in most people’s minds. Suddenly Syria looks different. In reality nothing has changed at all in Syria’s tragic crisis. Simply our perception of it has changed.

Syria’s first revolution which, lest we forget, began with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011, was hijacked long ago by extremists masquerading as Muslims -ISIS moved into the Syrian provincial capital of Raqqa as long ago as spring 2013, but no one paid attention  (except Father Paolo, who paid the price https://dianadarke.com/tag/father-paolo-dalloglio/). Like a germ left undisturbed in the perfect environment, ISIS multiplied exponentially.

Coming hot on the heels of the largely ignored 12 November Beirut bombings and the much publicised 31 October Rusian plane crash in Sinai, the 13 November Paris bombings were cleverly timed to be a day before the 14 November Vienna international talks on Syria and the 15 November G20 talks in Turkey’s Antalya.

ISIS planners wanted maximum world attention and they succeeded. The 33-year old US/Syrian ISIS Head of Media is not paid a fortune for nothing.

ISIS prepares for beheadings in Palmyra's theatre May 2015

ISIS prepares for staged beheadings in Palmyra’s theatre May 2015

So now what? All the signs are that the international community is ready to unite and take action, especially after confirmation that the Russian airliner was definitively downed by an ISIS bomb. The chief outside players in what the media insists so cruelly on calling Syria’s “civil war”  (as if this war is the fault of the Syrian people) have been stoking this war in their own ways. Russia and Iran with their military and tactical support for the Assad regime are heavily involved on the ground inside the country, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have been feeding in weaponry to their preferred rebel groups but careful to do it from the sidelines, no actual boots on the ground. The US-led coalition of 60 countries has been dropping bombs on ISIS for over a year to little effect. Russia has been dropping bombs on opposition groups inside Syria, usually not ISIS, for the last six weeks, also with little effect.

Bashar al-Assad bigging himself up in the mirror (Ali Ferzat cartoon, 2010)

Bashar al-Assad bigging himself up in the mirror (Ali Ferzat cartoon, 2010)

Everyone realises it is time for something new.

Momentum is building for Syria’s second revolution. A rare consensus is taking shape. It happened before with the surprisingly speedy UN deal to rid Syria of its Chemical Weapons, after Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” in August 2013. It could happen again:

“this time to rid the country of the growing extremist groups like ISIS. Maybe moderate elements from the rebels can find a common cause and unite against this greater extremist menace whose terrorist jihadi agenda threatens not just Syria’s future but the future of the entire international community…For such a second revolution to succeed, everyone must forget that the first began with peaceful protests, everyone must forgive regime troops for gunning down unarmed protesters. The diversity of Syria’s identity must be its strength, not its weakness.” [ref page 256 My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, January 2015]

And that is the key. In Syria’s second revolution there must be unity among all Syrians. Even “the silent majority” and the “greys”must find their voice. Most Syrians living under ISIS are there by coercion, longing for their nightmare to end, praying for someone to set them free. There is still a sense of what it means to be Syrian. Partition, convenient though it may appear to outside governments looking for quick-fix solutions, would be a disaster, resulting in massive ethnic cleansing and waves of emigration on a scale Europe cannot imagine.

This time the international community must not abandon Syria, as it did during the first revolution. For all our sakes, Syria’s second revolution must succeed.

Aylan Kudi drowned on a Turkish beach September 2015

Aylan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach September 2015

Relevant articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/world-europe-34840858

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/16/world/middleeast/beirut-lebanon-attacks-paris.html?action=click&contentCollection=Middle%20East&module=MostPopularFB&version=Full&region=Marginalia&src=me&pgtype=article

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34840943

 

 

 

 

Syria’s soul is being erased – Britain’s role

The world thought it could ignore the Syrian crisis with impunity. Let them kill each other; it’s so far away and nothing to do with us. Bruised by failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West had no appetite for involvement. But four years of indecision disguised as “noble non-intervention” has been a decision with deadly consequences, as Syrian refugees quite literally wash up on Europe’s shores. After remaining unmoved by thousands of images of carnage and devastation caused by President Assad’s barrel bombs, one image has changed perceptions overnight.

Aylan Kurdi drowned on beach Sept 2015

Syria is the cradle of civilisation, where the cross-fertilization of cultures and ideas resulted in a highly creative and innovative people. It is no accident that the first phonetic alphabet was invented here, the first musical notation, the first hymns, the first female choirs and even female orchestras. This blend and fusion of cultural influences is part of the Syrian identity, an identity that has been traditionally open, tolerant and welcoming.

Palmyra, the desert oasis city on the Silk Road linking the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River, Mesopotamia and beyond, represented this fusion of cultures through the blended Roman Oriental style of its architecture, its statues, its temples and its funerary monuments. Open to trade and the worship of many gods of the region, it too was part of the Syrian identity.

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This is the identity which ISIS is intent on destroying. Masquerading as true Muslims, they are blowing up anything they can claim is idolatrous, anything with human or animal forms, while in practice Islam has always coexisted with earlier cultures – except in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia of course, which has also destroyed all manifestations of earlier religions.

Palmyra Baal Shamin destruction

But ISIS is only part of the jigsaw. Syria’s cultural heritage is also being destroyed by the Assad regime’s relentless aerial bombardment and barrel bombing of opposition-held areas like Aleppo, along with residential areas, schools, hospitals and ordinary citizens. All are inextricably linked, all are part of Syria’s identity and this rich, multicoloured fabric of Syrian society is being shredded systematically, day after day with no end in sight and no one coming to help.

Syrian fighter jetbarrel bombing syria

The result is the wave of Syrian refugees  in ever greater numbers fleeing to Europe, their only option since the wealthy Gulf Arab countries have closed their doors, and their official asylum applications are repeatedly turned down. Today I heard Raida, a former resident of my Damascus house, speaking to the BBC from Beirut about her six failed applications to Saudi Arabia, her failed applications to Canada, Austria, France and the UK. Her dignity shone through when she ended by saying she would never resort to people smugglers, neither would she give up her struggle for a better life.

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

The dignity also shines through in the Syrian refugees interviewed on the road as they walk through Hungary to Germany. They are well-behaved and respectful of each other, in spite of their ordeals. They have not lost their humanity. Neither has Angela Merkel, with her vision and leadership, making me proud to be half-German.

Germany Merkel poster mimicking Bashar's August 2015

Of my British half however, I am ashamed. The British government has shown no vision or leadership, feebly waiting for an American strategy on Syria that never came, then taking a cowardly vote (thanks to Ed Milliband) in the House of Commons against military intervention in Syria after the supposed “red line” of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack. The Department for International Development’s much vaunted overseas aid projects are about as effective as a sticking plaster for a man whose guts have been blown out.

For the last four years Syria has been left like an open wound, untreated, slowly bleeding to death. Had Syrian pleas for a safe haven to be established on the Turkish border in summer 2011 been heeded, hundreds of thousands of refugees now fleeing the country could have stayed inside Syria; their destabilising pressure on the infrastructures of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey would have been avoided; the Assad regime’s handling of the uprising would have been challenged early on; the germ of ISIS would not have been left to multiply exponentially in Raqqa since April 2013 and to grow into the Frankenstein monster it is today, hijacking Syria’s revolution, overrunning Iraq and distorting perceptions of Islam.

isis on move

Syria’s soul is being systematically erased. Only intervention can stop it. It will be infinitely more difficult to establish a safe haven now, four years too late, but it still has to be the first step, to stem the exodus of refugees. For those already on the road, Britain needs to adopt the German approach – take thousands according to each region’s wealth and population spread evenly and equally across the country. If Germany can take in 1% of its population, so can we. The only alternative is to stop Syria’s war, something for which there is, it seems, neither the strategy nor the political will so far.

Related posts:

Syria is not Iraq: 10 key differences https://dianadarke.com/2013/09/01/syria-is-not-iraq-10-key-differences/

A Syrian in Saarbrucken https://dianadarke.com/2015/08/17/a-syrian-in-saarbrucken/

The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Art https://dianadarke.com/2015/02/15/the-prophet-muhammad-in-islamic-art/

How ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions https://dianadarke.com/2014/08/23/how-isis-uses-early-islamic-history-to-justify-its-actions/

 

 

 

The “Iranification” of Syria

Iranification of Syria Iranification of Umayyad Mosque

The pictures say it all. Iranian and Shia militia flags are now paraded in the spiritual heart of Damascus, the magnificent Umayyad Mosque, using the legend that the head of Hussein, martyred at Kerbala in 680AD, was buried here beneath a shrine in the eastern precincts.

Iran’s involvement in Syria used to be discreet but these days it is blatant. The ‘Iranification’ of Syria is gathering pace, almost as if it is a race to seize as much as possible before its puppet Assad regime collapses. Iran may be prepared to sacrifice chief puppeteer President Bashar al-Assad and his corrupt elite, but under no circumstances is it prepared to surrender its vast economic investment in Syria, or more precisely, in regime-controlled Damascus and the “Shia crescent” that links to the coast via Hizbullah heartlands in Lebanon.

The most recent manifestation of this open determination to control Syria’s capital is the forced confiscation of hundreds of acres of land around the Iranian Embassy in the western suburb of Mezzeh.

iranification of mezzeh

Dubbed “Iranian Towers”, the scheme is tantamount to changing the demographic of this entire neighbourhood of Damascus. Residents displaced by the eviction order, mainly Sunni families on low incomes, are reported not to have been offered compensation. Evidently the opinions of such people will count for nothing in the Syria of the future which Iran is seeking to engineer.

On my recent visit to Damascus to retake my house from war profiteers, Iranian influence was already evident behind the scenes. Friends and neighbours in the Old City told me that the CCTV cameras along Al-Amin Street, a Shia quarter, had been installed by Iran, and the only building projects underway were all known to be Iranian-funded. Wealthy Iranians are also distorting the property market by buying up prestige homes in the affluent areas including the Old City, especially near Shia shrines like Sayyida Rouqqaya. Among ordinary Damascene residents the strong perception is that Iran is increasingly pulling the strings behind the facade of the Assad regime: as the regime weakens, Iran is taking advantage.

Masquerading as religious affinity between Shia Iran and Alawi-ruled Syria, this relationship has never been anything other than a marriage of convenience. It began when Syria supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War back in 1980 to spite Saddam Hussein. But these days the partnership has become so unequal it is more like a master/slave relationship, one of total dependence.

Since the 2011 Syrian uprising the Iranian government has been maintaining the Assad regime in power by supplying riot control equipment, intelligence monitoring techniques, snipers and oil to sustain its war activities. Using experience honed during its own 2009 Green Revolution, Iran developed  the world’s most sophisticated “cyber-army” technology in the world after China. Assad’s shabiha paramilitary forces were trained by Iranian militia, and General Qasim Sulaimani (commander of the Iranian clandestine Quds Force) personally masterminded Syrian military strategy and oversaw the creation of the volunteer reserve “National Defence Forces” (NDF) modelled on the Iranian basij paramilitary force.

Qasim Sulaimani

In early June this year General Sulaimani deployed thousands of extra Iranian, Afghan and other foreign fighters round Damascus to protect the city after ISIS victories in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour left it vulnerable. Reports of the numbers range between 7,000 and 15,000. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has publicly announced Iran will support the Damascus regime “till the end of the road”, not for ideological reasons, but because he knows that the current weakness and dependence of the Syrian regime means that Iran can secure political and strategic goals that had previously been out of reach.

With the announcement of the new nuclear deal and its accompanying sanctions relief, Iranian investment and wealth is set to soar. Iran has been described as the ‘world’s largest untapped market’ by British business guru Martin Sorrell and it boasts the world’s third largest oil reserves. Already major oil companies have visited Tehran to discuss the future of Iran’s oil industry.

Will Iran divert large amounts of this new wealth to fund its military activities in Syria, to protect its investment? Almost certainly, which makes it more and more likely that Iran will be enlisted by the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany) to fight ISIS, a common enemy to them all, inside Syria and to jettison Assad, but leaving Iran’s investment in Syria intact. It is almost certainly part of the deal. In this latest twist of the game, the Syrian people are again helpless pawns on the chessboard, with the big international players moving their pieces around to fit their own economic and political interests as ever.

Related articles: 

http://www.alaan.tv/news/world-news/133872/starting-iranian-project-demographic-change-damascus-syria

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/29389/Resentment_Soars_Shiite_Militias_Flood_Damascus/

https://www.alsouria.net/content/%D8%B5%D8%AD%D9%8A%D9%81%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B9-%D8%A5%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D9%85%D8%B4%D9%82-%D9%8A%D9%87%D8%AF%D8%AF-%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%AF%D9%85-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B2%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%86-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%86

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.664456

https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/565473-damascus-residents-displaced-for-iran-project-report-says

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/6/24/syrias-economy-lies-in-tatters-says-uk-report

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/6/25/iranian-oil-fuels-syrian-regimes-war-machine

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2015/6/16/body-bags-from-syria-and-irans-state-of-denial

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/middle-east/iranian-fighters-go-to-syria-to-help-defend-damascus-1.2240812

 

 

ISIS Road to Damascus starts at Palmyra

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ISIS has confounded its critics. Instead of dynamiting the priceless temples and colonnades of Palmyra, Syria’s most visited UNESCO World Heritage site, it has blown up the cells and torture chambers of nearby Tadmur prison, Syria’s most powerful symbol of Assad regime brutality. Palmyra’s prison, synonymous with suffering in the minds of Syrians, represents perhaps more than any single building in Syria, the 40-year Assad stranglehold on its people.

Tadmur prison

This carefully staged PR coup will have gained it many friends, even from among those who would have thought themselves anti-ISIS. It is like a loud fanfare announcing: Beware, Bashar, your days are numbered and we are on our way to get you.

Think of the wealth that ISIS now has at its disposal through its capture of Palmyra. With the prize of the ancient city came other prizes: the oilfields to the north and the military hardware captured from the regime’s nearby airbase, T4, thought to include 21 tanks, 12,000 machine guns and 40 ammunition stores. Then came capture of the last regime-held border crossing into Iraq, at al-Tanf due east of Damascus with its own road linking into the Palmyra highway to the capital. And don’t forget the sheep. The Sunni tribes of this Syrian semi-desert steppeland, known as Badiat ash-Sham, still number around one million, and are mainly nomadic Bedouin from the Rwala, Beni Sakhr and Beni Khaled tribes. Syria was one of the first lands to be inhabited by the Bedouin outside the Arabian Peninsula and today these Bedouin still rear most of Syria’s sheep, considered the tastiest in the Middle East. Every year 10 million of them are exported to Saudi Arabia, earning high yields.

badia sheep bedouin

Four centuries before the advent of Islam the historic oasis city of Palmyra grew wealthy from the taxes it levied on goods transiting the Silk Road via camel caravans. The highest taxes, according to the famous bilingual Greek/Aramaic ‘Palmyra Tariff’ stone, were due on perfumes, dried fish, olive oil, water and prostitutes. Now ISIS has captured today’s equivalent wealth for itself – oil, military equipment, sheep plus potential extra manpower from the local Sunni tribes. In addition it will no doubt harvest the archaeological site for artefacts, levying its usual 20% tax on anything dug up from the outlying areas.

Armed with all Palmyra’s many forms of wealth, ISIS sees the open road to Damascus, to the exposed heart of the Assad regime.

isis on move

There are few settlements en route, just two more airbases where even more military hardware can be harvested. Inside Syria ISIS has seen that the international community is impotent, with no unified strategic policy, while Assad’s army is in retreat.

The world’s media pours out articles eulogising the ruins, while ISIS thrives like a germ in the perfect environment on the chaos deep inside Syria. May the world’s attention remain focussed on Palmyra long enough to understand that until Syria’s chaos is solved, ISIS will multiply exponentially and grow beyond anyone’s ability to stop it. Damascus is in their sights and Palmyra has been their launchpad.

Related posts:

https://dianadarke.com/2015/05/20/palmyras-double-life/

https://dianadarke.com/2015/05/22/palmyras-legacy-to-isis/

 

 

 

Palmyra’s Double Life

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[DD]

Nothing sums up Palmyra’s split identity more than this ‘egg and dart’ motif, found repeatedly all over the ancient caravan city’s ruins. The egg represents life and the cycle of rebirth, while the arrow/dart represents war and death. The two live side by side in the endless pattern of life, repeated across the centuries.

This is what is now taking place at Syria’s most famous and magnificent classical site, known throughout antiquity by romantic titles such as ‘Bride of the Desert’ or ‘Venice of the Sands’. In recent days, since news broke on 14 May 2015 of ISIS’s surprise attack launched on Palmyra from its headquarters of Raqqa just 100 miles/two hours’s drive to the north, the site has received worldwide attention with outraged cries of horror at the prospect of ISIS smashing the ancient stones to pieces as they have already done in the Iraqi sites of Nimrud, Nineveh, Mosul and Hatra. Almost every media outlet in the world has carried photos of the spectacular 1st, 2nd and 3rd century Roman streets, its temples and its tombs.

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[DD]

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[DD]

Standing alone in the middle of the desert, unfenced and unprotected, Palmyra is indeed vulnerable to attack. But take a close look at this photo below:

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[DD]

A pair of camels sit awaiting custom in the shade of Palmyra’s monumental entry arch. Behind them is the Temple of Bel, one of the world’s most important religious sanctuaries. But just above the left-hand camel, notice the whitewashed simple building. Originally built as the residence of the Ottoman governor of Palmyra, it functioned in the heady pre-2011 tourist days when Palmyra welcomed thousands of visitors, first as a folklore museum with displays of traditional Bedouin costumes and jewellery, then as the Tourist Reception Centre complete with cafe in the courtyard.

But since 2011 this building has served as the regime’s intelligence (mukhabaraat) headquarters, and it is to here that Assad’s soldiers first fled, after being driven out of their local state security branch in the north of the modern town (known in Arabic as ‘Tadmur’). As fierce fighting raged round the northern security buildings and close to the infamous Tadmur prison in the east, the top regime officials cut their losses and escaped west by road, abandoning their men to the tender mercies of ISIS. Also close by are valuable oil and gas fields, another primary target of ISIS.

Consider for a moment the irony of the situation. While the world’s attention is commanded by the international outcry over the threat to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, they will now learn too of the double life of Palmyra, its modern life under the Assad regime. Palmyra Prison, Syria’s most feared by its citizens, was home for years to men such as Yassin al-Haj Saleh (subject of a 2014 film ‘Syria Our Terrible Country’) and Bara Sarraj (‘From Tadmor to Harvard’ 2011), men who had done nothing to deserve the horrific torture they endured inside the prison. Bara’s unbelievable experience can be digested here:

http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3500/the-cell-of-survival_bara-sarraj

The prison was closed in 2001 but reopened in 2011 to receive new dissidents of the Revolution. Hundreds if not thousands are once again housed in the buildings originally built as military barracks by French Mandate forces. Once the prison is captured by ISIS, will the inmates join up in gratitude and swell their armies further?

Palmyra prison

Whereas Assad had hoped to gain kudos by presenting himself to the international community as a protector of Syria’s cultural heritage, the ISIS attack has instead exposed the ruthless accoutrements of his regime. Assad soldiers have been photographed running off with their own booty from the Palmyra site:

Palmyra looting Assad soldiers

They, like ISIS, have always seen such treasures as legitimate ‘spoils of war’, and no one has done more damage to Syria’s cultural heritage than the Assad regime. The difference is that while ISIS broadcasts its damage to the world, the Assad regime keeps it quiet and seeks to blame it on others.

Palmyra map

But thanks to the double-sided nature of Palmyra, the world will no longer be fooled.

Related articles:

http://www.apsa2011.com/index.php/en/provinces/homs/palmyra.html

http://www.wsj.com/articles/syrian-monuments-men-race-to-protect-antiquities-as-looting-bankrolls-terror-1423615241

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-32807858

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Middle_East/article1557098.ece

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)

Turkey’s dilemma over Kobane

It is a case of deja vu for Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Three years ago, as Turkey’s Prime Minister, he was urgently calling for a no-fly zone and the setting up of a safe haven on Syrian soil along its border with Turkey. No one listened. Now he is calling for it again. In late summer 2011 after many months of trying to reason with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, when high-level delegations shuttled regularly between Ankara and Damascus, Erdogan finally lost patience with his former ally, a man he had even gone on holiday with, and began his support instead of the Syrian opposition rebels. It was a bold move, partly influenced by his thinking that support for Islamist rebel groups inside Syria would act as a counterbalance to the Kurds, who make up c20% of Turkey’s population.

What he did not foresee, was that Syria’s Kurds, taking advantage of the vacuum left by the Assad regime in the northeast, would seize control of the northeast areas round Al-Hasakah and Qamishli, even seizing some of the border crossings into the Kurdish parts of southeast Turkey like Ras al-Ayn and Ayn al-Arab (known to Kurds as ‘Kobane’).

The Syrian Kurds were more prescient. They had foreseen in the Syrian revolution a major opportunity to further their aspirations for their own homeland, or autonomy at the very least. The Kurdish street slogan was: ‘Democracy for Syria. Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan.’ Bashar finally gave them citizenship in 2012 after 50 years of state deprivation, in an attempt to deter them from joining the revolution, but by then it was too little too late.

Kurds have historically been bad at uniting, with seven dialects and seven political organisations to bring together, but over the course of the Syrian Revolution some of Syria’s Kurds linked up with their fellow Sunni Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, and have been openly receiving military training from them. Turkey’s government has been horrified, fearing the effects on their own restive Kurds, whose guerrilla activities under the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) recently flared up again after ten years of near stabilility. Some 45,000 were killed in that struggle inside Turkey since 1984.

Ankara is currently engaged in a delicate peace process with its Kurds, giving them greater freedoms and rights in return for them laying down their arms and withdrawing to Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey knows how easily Kurdish ambitions could derail plans for the economic expansion of its southeast regions and how expensive that would be.

Pre-revolution, Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying ‘Turkey is the model [for religious toleration in a secular state] because we have the same society and similar traditions.’ Over the last ten years under Erdoğan, Turkey opened up much faster than Syria under Bashar, liberalising its economy, embracing privatisation and free enterprise. As a result its economy has been booming, with growth peaking at about 12 per cent in 2010–11, though that figure has since slackened off considerably. It declared a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy, trading with them all, and in 2009 opened its borders to Lebanese, Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians, dropping all visa requirements. More and more Syrians started going to Turkey for their holidays.

At first Turkey welcomed Syrian refugees from the fighting, providing camps for them along the border. They began as a small trickle, building up to about 10,000 after the first year, then increasing exponentially to hundreds of thousands once the violence in Aleppo flared up. The flow then became such that they ran out of camp space, hurriedly building more, while backlogs of desperate refugees piled up on the Syrian side of the border. Now the numbers are close to a million and the strains are becoming unbearable.

Today once again Turkey is calling for a no-fly zone and a safe haven inside Syrian territory. Erdogan wants the US-led coalition to help him achieve this, knowing it means taking on the Assad regime, knowing it is too risky alone. Once again no one is listening. The reaction of the Syrian government is unpredictable. So far the US-led coalition air strikes and the focus on Kobane have enabled them to make gains on the ground around both Aleppo and Damascus. Even Iran is now talking of getting involved, to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, though it is far from clear how it would do this.

The longer the dilemma goes on, the harder Turkey’s decision will be. It has to juggle the pros and cons, knowing that its involvement in the Syrian conflict is deeply unpopular with its own Turkish population who have no appetite for war, yet also that its international reputation is at stake. Its ideal solution would be for Kobane to be saved by US-led airstrikes and Kurdish peshmerga battling ISIS on the ground, and for its peace process with its Kurds to be saved by securing a deal with the PKK similar to that which Ankara already has with Iraqi Kurdistan, whose oil Turkey badly needs. Erdogan knows he must save Turkey’s domestic stability at all costs, for the sake of the future and of investor confidence, for once broken, it will take years to put back together again.

Kurds on the Turkish borber, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Kurds on the Turkish border, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Related:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/iranians-ask-soleimani-defend-kobani.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=59e97cd3b2-October_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-59e97cd3b2-93116701

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/08/us-increasingly-frustrated-turkey-inaction-islamic-state

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01gsjdw

http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/postcard-nusaybin-turkey

 

 

Is Syria solvable?

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]

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

At the funeral yesterday of a dear friend who died of natural causes in his own bed, I wept for Syria. Life coming to an end is hard to bear in any circumstances, but in Syria I cannot come to terms with why the lives of 200,000 people have ended, unnaturally, not in their beds, often with no funerals at all. What have they died for? Have their deaths achieved anything at all?

The mess that is Syria today scarcely resembles a country. Its identity has been shredded. After three and half years of a revolution that began peacefully but was met with violence, is it still even a revolution? So many opposing forces, so many countries are now involved that it has become impossible to see the way forward. Lawlessness has become the new norm. Inside Syria people are so confused about who is fighting whom and for what, that they have lost sight of what to strive for. Corruption is everywhere, the opportunism of war creating its own economy, with a ruthless few getting rich beyond their wildest dreams. Apart from the deaths, tens of thousands remain in prison. No one knows the numbers for sure. All across the country millions have been displaced and homes have been snatched – mine among them – sometimes just by needy people, but more often by immoral individuals taking advantage of the breakdown of law and order. Even in areas that used to be under tight regime control people are starting to realise that the government cannot protect them. Kidnappings purely for ransom money have become commonplace but no one is sure who the perpetrators are. More and more cases are being reported of the pro-government militia, the NDF (National Defence Force), tricking people into leaving their homes by warning them of imminent danger from DAESH (ISIS), then looting the contents and selling them on. As Lina Sinjab reports in her recent BBC piece about the NDF and its behaviour (see link below):

A few men with guns call themselves the ‘protectors of the neighbourhood’… They then set the rules and bypass the law, in a country that is already lawless.” (words of a Damascus resident)

As for the increasing cases of young people going out to Syria to fight, I cannot help but think of the scene in the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where Mary Macgregor’s brother goes out to Spain to join in the Spanish Civil War, trying to do something noble with his life, only to join the opposite side to what he intended and be pointlessly killed. Seen from so far away, the idealism can seem so clear. From close up, all clarity vanishes, as it has done inside Syria. The Spanish Civil War lasted less than three years but killed around 500,000. The rebels finally prevailed and Franco went on to rule Spain for 36 years till his death in 1975. But the Syrian war has no precedent in history. We are in uncharted territory.

The international community has allowed the situation inside Syria to fester so long that it has become insoluble. The US air strikes are not helping ordinary Syrians. On the contrary the bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra targets is likely to turn Syrians against the West and its belated involvement which is not to save them, but to save itself from DAESH (the locally used acronym for ISIS/IS). Syrians have been sacrificed at the altar of world indifference and now, with the rise of DAESH, we will all have to pay the price. Only a change in Iranian policy towards Syria would shift the dynamics on the ground. Lured by the incentive of a US rapprochement, might they abandon the Assad regime and do a deal with Saudi Arabia and Turkey to remove Assad and his top layers, whilst keeping the military and security establishments largely intact? It is the obvious solution, but what are the chances of it happening?  As I wrote in My House in Damascus, “Pigs might fly…”

More than ever, I will have to remain a ‘hopeless dreamer’,  for the sake of all those lives lost unnaturally.

My Damascus House

My Damascus House

 

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29429941

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/international-alliance-no-change-front-lines-syria-rebels.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=15b8a0b861-October_2_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-15b8a0b861-93116701

Refutation of Mother Agnes Mariam’s narrative on #Syria

As submitted to The Tablet, published 21 June 2014
“Abigail Frymann tries hard to present both sides of the narrative in her feature interview (“The rebels want my head”, 7 June) with Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross. Sadly, in so doing she falls hook, line and sinker for the controversial nun’s take on matters inside Syria. The view that ‘the majority of anti-Assad fighters in Syria are foreign’ is presented as ‘widely accepted’, yet all reputable media outlets like The Financial Times and the BBC regularly report that whilst there are indeed now many foreign fighters inside Syria, they began in small numbers and only started expanding a year after the uprising began. Even now they account for less than 25% of the total opposition. Assad himself has of course brought in far greater numbers of foreign fighters – from the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – to defend his own regime, but no mention is made of that. 
Certainly matters ‘are not black and white’. But the ‘more complicated reality’ to which Mother Agnes refers is that Assad, under the guise of a general amnesty in early 2012, released al-Qaeda affiliated prisoners from his jails, knowing full well they would regroup and pursue their extremist ideology. Again, no mention is made of that. Now, two years later, the proof is before us, as ISIS, untargeted by regime airstrikes, was allowed to consolidate itself in Ar-Raqqa, from where it has swept into Iraq and taken large swathes of territory. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically – why is it that they have yet to fight each other?
The ‘reconciliation’ initative of which Mother Agnes is part, so loudly trumpeted by the Assad regime that well-meaning people like Mairead Maguire are fooled into nominating Mother Agnes for the Nobel Peace Prize, is a naked attempt to deceive the world that Assad is keen to forgive and forget. Had ‘reconciliation’ been his message at the outset in March 2011 instead of savage crushing of peaceful demonstrations, ISIS extremists could never have thrived on Syrian soil. As to her assertions on the chemical weapons attack,  Human Rights Watch has systematically dismissed the basis for her arguments.
Only when Assad, no doubt amply aided by Hizbullah and Iran, finally orders his forces to drop barrel bombs on ISIS headquarters, instead of on moderate rebel headquarters in Aleppo and Dera’a, will his narrative that he is fighting ‘extremism and terrorism’ become true. Maybe then we can nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Diana Darke
Author of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution
All that remains of St Simeon Stylites' pillar in St Simeon's Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting 'souvenirs' across the centuries [DD]

All that remains of St Simeon Stylites’ pillar in St Simeon’s Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting ‘souvenirs’ across the centuries [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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