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.
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.
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.
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.
The Arab world loves satirical cartoons. BBC Arabic’s current affairs TV show 7 Days even used to devoted the final ten minutes of each programme to a discussion of the week’s cartoons from the Arab press. So what is all this fuss about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons?
The Koran explicitly tells Muslims how to react when their religion is mocked, in verse 140 of Sura Al-Nisa:
“God has sent down upon you a commandment in the Book, that if you hear disbelievers denying and mocking the verses of God, do not sit with them until they change to a different topic, otherwise you will become like them.”
The Koran, regarded by all Muslims as the word of God, is not open to dispute.
Why therefore does the mockery of Islam using cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad provoke such extreme reactions across the Islamic world?
The obvious answer lies in orthodox Islam’s position on religious figural art, whereby images of God, the Prophet Muhammad and other prophets, though not explicitly forbidden in the Koran, are not permitted according to longstanding tradition: only God is permitted to create humans, not humans themselves. That is seen as idolatry and therefore blasphemous. Traditional religious Islamic art is therefore overwhelmingly composed of geometric shapes and designs through which it seeks to represent God’s infinity, beauty, all-embracing nature and much more.
But there is another answer, behind the obvious, which has its roots, not in religion, but in socio-economic frustration and the perceived hypocrisy of the West.
All too often, when westerners look East, they see nothing but the chaos of the Middle East apparently created by Islamic extremism. A few, looking more closely, see the socio-economic inequalities fuelled by the rise of greedy dictators and their equally greedy cronies. They may even see how the rise in literacy across the region has led, not to better opportunities for employment, but to a massive dissatisfaction with the status quo among the under 30s who account for at least 60% of the population. Few realise that even in Saudi Arabia 60% are under 21 and far from rich.
Very rarely do westerners acknowledge their own governments’ role in creating the conditions for such chaos to flourish; in the creation of artificial states whose boundaries were drawn to suit western political and economic interests; in the creation of mandates whose remits were supposedly to protect and lead local populations to independence after World War I, but which in practice exploited them and set the various religious groupings against each other, sometimes in an expressly ‘divide and rule’ policy; and last but not least, in the creation of the state of Israel imposed on existing local populations without consultation.
When Muslims look West, they in turn see extreme, and in their eyes often hypocritical, reactions. Why does the West make so much fuss over the death of 17 people in France, four of whom were Jews, when over 200,000 Arab lives have been lost in Syria to apparent western indifference? Why does the execution of four western hostages trigger a massive wave of outrage, when the earlier execution of hundreds of Muslims by ISIS inside Syria and Iraq drew no reaction? Why does the plight of the Yezidi minority, escaping up Mt Sinjar in Iraq, attract worldwide attention and lead to US air strikes, when indigenous Muslims have already been killed in their thousands by ISIS?
Then on 19 January British Communities Secretary Eric Pickles sent a letter to 1,100 imams across Britain which, though well-intentioned, clumsily implied blame on the Muslim community for allowing Islamic extremism to flourish, as if it were in some way their fault and responsibility. The letter did not acknowledge that such a global phenomenon cannot be pinned on one community, that it is spread more than anything by savvy propaganda on the internet and social media.
Tragically, such faux-pas feed into a western perception that Islam cannot take criticism, and into a Muslim perception that the West is always setting itself up above Islam, taking the moral high ground. The many instances of Christian and Jewish extremism across history are somehow seen differently by their own adherents, as excusable reactions to unreasonable provocation. Guantanamo Bay sums it up. This is why the West’s ‘holier than thou’ approach often leads to accusations of hypocrisy from inside the Islamic world.
A recent slogan tweeted by the Kafranbel activists inside Syria gave their balanced reaction to the Charlie Hedbo massacres and the subsequent adulation across the West of the satirical magazine via the ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign:
“Magazines’ Self-Glory should be built neither by mocking religions nor by their employees’ skulls. Islam has nothing to do with terrorism.”
Kafranbel’s own media centre satirising Bashar al-Assad, and its Radio Fresh broadcasting outlet was recently closed down by Jabhat an-Nusra extremists, on the pretext of it being against Islam: at the same time they closed down the Kafranbel Women’s Centre where local women trained as hairdressers, nurses and seamstresses, telling them they would be beheaded if they returned. The real reason for the closure was that the extremist group could not cope with being mocked, like all dictatorial regimes round the world. The widely circulated hashtag #We are all Hadi against Nusra (Hadi Al-Abdullah was the Kafranbel activist attacked by Al-Nusra) proved that Muslims will freely criticise other Muslims when necessary.
Kafranbel cartoon on ISIS v Free speech with a jihadi shooting the microphone of Radio Fresh at the Kafranbel Media Centre, by Iman
Satire of political leaders has long been popular in the Arab world, much to the chagrin of autocratic dictators. Egypt’s former president Muhammad Morsi hated being mocked by the ultra-popular comic satirist Bassem Youssef on TV. The current President Al-Sisi was equally unable to handle it, and Youssef’s slick show, modeled on that of American comedian Jon Stewart, went off air.
The Arab world’s most famous cartoonist Ali Ferzat was allowed in 2000 to set up a satirical magazine called Ad-Domari, The Lamplighter, in Syria, the first such magazine since the Ba’athists took power there in 1963. The new president, Bashar al-Assad, had been his friend and encouraged him during what was called ‘The Damascus Spring’. Three years later, the magazine was closed down for its irreverent cartoons against the Syrian regime, and in 2011 Ali Ferzat was beaten up on a Damascus street, his hands broken to punish his satirical cartoons against his former friend.
The singer Ibrahim al-Qashoush who wrote a popular anti-regime song was found in the river Orontes with his vocal chords cut out.
Torturers inside Assad’s prisons were known to force detainees to pray to a picture of Bashar and recite: “There is no God but Bashar”.
Defending free speech is easy if you like what is being said. But many Muslims feel damaged by the Charlie Hedbo media circus, misunderstood and unfairly vilified by the West. Islam’s absence of a conventional hierarchy also makes it difficult for moderate Muslims, especially Sunnis who account for about 85% of Muslims worldwide, to have a unified voice. While the minority Shia, largely found in Iran and Iraq, look to a handful of Grand Ayatollahs to guide them, Sunnis have no Pope or head of the church equivalent. No one Sunni group can speak for another and there are at least four main Sunni schools of law, each with their own theologians.
The West fears what it does not understand. But it must not allow distorted views of Islam’s nature to take hold. In the past, in its foreign interventions in the Arab world, the West has been driven by self-interest, despite its rhetoric to the contrary. Its own economic ambitions have been paramount, leading it to exploit the Middle East’s strategic location and natural resources.
If Western countries could honestly declare that their actions will in future also consider the interests of local populations, it might be a first step towards healing the misunderstandings which have led to so many of the region’s seemingly intractable problems. Respect between the West and Islam is essential.
Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker
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 ]
This post includes extracts from the book.
What an irony. Fear of the Syrian government and its many-tentacled security apparatus is greater now even than it was before the revolution began. Why should that be? The government is generously offering ‘reconciliation’ deals across the country, with gracious amnesties like the one that enabled several hundred rebel fighters to leave the exhausted city of Homs with light weapons in early May. Yet anyone who knows Syria from the inside knows full well that the Assad regime’s generosity and grace is to be feared above all else.
When peaceful calls for dignity and reform were met in March 2011 by crushing violence from the outset, the protesters knew what awaited them if they were arrested. Their bravery in breaching the fear barrier even to take part in such demonstrations is beyond admirable. Tens of thousands have gone missing over the last three years, detained in prison, never seen again, or sometimes simply returned to their families in a body-bag as a warning, like the mutilated body of the 13-year old Hamza Al-Khatib, early icon of the revolution. Like so many, Hamza was not even demonstrating – he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As the presidential election is held on 3 June all over the country in regime-held areas only, Syrians know full well what it means. It is not so much an election – everyone knows the result after all – it is more like a census, a head count of government supporters. To vote anything other than for Bashar Al-Assad is to sign your own death warrant and that of your family, and not to vote at all means you are forfeiting your chance of any kind of future in Syria. Of Syria’s 23 million population some 4 million are estimated to have left and some 9 million are thought to be internally displaced. At least a further million have lost their identity papers in the fighting and are thereby disqualified. Only refugees outside the country who fled ‘legally’ – just 200,000 out of 3 million according to the Syrian Ministry of Interior’s own figures – are eligible to vote, thereby ensuring a situation cannot arise where one of Bashar’s two opponents might actually win abroad. These ‘legal’ expatriate Syrians can vote in Syrian embassies in certain selected countries like Russia and Romania, and those living in a country where the embassy is closed, like the UK, have been cordially invited back to Syria ‘to exercise their civil right’. Some have taken up the offer knowing that they must, if they ever wish to return to their country while the Assad regime still holds sway. In Paris I was reliably informed of one Syrian who went, not to vote since France has banned the embassy from participating, but to renew his passport. Known to be anti-regime, he had his passport torn up in front of him and was told: ‘There – now go and get yourself a new passport from your Friends of Syria.’
In this country we face no repercussions for not voting – in Syria it is very different. ‘If you are not for us, you are against us.’ We in the West may dismiss the Syrian election as an absurd process, a mockery of democracy. We have that luxury. But if you are Syrian it is a matter of life and death.
Fear is forcing thousands to vote for Assad, whose tender mercies are well known. Stories are circulating about the ways in which the regime seeks to take revenge on those whom it considers have betrayed it. Even those who have done nothing and never taken sides are at risk. All it takes is one report written by one security official who takes a dislike to you. It has already happened to several of my neutral Syrian friends.
Whilst western democracies will scoff at Syria’s election process, Russia and Iran will use it to their advantage. It plays beautifully into their narrative of supporting ‘whoever is elected by the Syrian people’ and legitimises their unwavering support of Assad.
Syria has lost c40% of its GDP since 2011 according to the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research in conjunction with the UN and the IMF. Eleven million have lost their livelihood. Fear of losing their right ever to live in their country again is driving them to vote. Hard as it may be for us to grasp, for them it is a vote for life or death.
The Syrian accents at the tables all around us suggest he is not the only visitor. We sit with a view of Sidon’s Crusader Sea Castle and try hard to strike a holiday mood. He has brought magnificent gifts of Damascene produce – dried apricots, almonds and seed-covered biscuits.
He refuses a meal, even though the journey has just taken him six hours thanks to overcrowding on the border. His only appetite is for tea and cigarettes.
“What news of Abu Khalil?” I ask. Last time it was he, my elderly caretaker, who came out to meet me, so proudly braving the checkpoints from his village east of Damascus. But that was where the massive chemical attack took place last summer.
“He’s been blockaded in his village since October,” says Marwan. “It’s easy to get money to him. We give it to someone going in on the special buses. But food is impossible. The soldiers search the buses and throw away whatever they find.”
We almost laugh at the absurdity, but more absurdity follows.
Marwan asks me to sign the rental contracts for the refugees living in my Damascus house. They pay no rent, but this is vital documentation they must show when regime soldiers call round unannounced. Without it, arrest and imprisonment will follow. Each street is cordoned off in turn, each person’s papers checked, each room searched for weapons.
I ask about the checkpoints inside the Old City. “Are the lijaan sha’bia (peoples’ committees) still guarding the neighbourhood?”
“Yes,” he replies, “but now they are all either very old or very young. The young ones are easily recruited because of the salary. Their families are desperate for the income, so they agree to it, thinking their sons will be just round the corner. But sometimes the boys are transferred with no warning to the frontline, lambs to the slaughter. They come back to their families in a body-bag labelled ‘shaheed’ (martyr) with a pittance as compensation, but no one dares say anything.”
We cannot laugh, but both of us sense more absurdity, not least because of where we’re sitting. Sidon is in some ways a mini Damascus-on-Sea, a tinderbox just 40 minutes’ drive south from Beirut. There are photos all over town of one of Sidon’s most famous sons, the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, who was blown up on Valentine’s Day 2005. Sidon’s buildings bear the scars of Lebanon’s own 15-year-long civil war.Like Damascus it has a Sunni Muslim majority, a sizeable Christian minority and Palestinian refugee camps incorporated in its suburbs. The same blend of church towers and minarets rises from its bustling bazaars. But it also shares the increasing sectarian flare-ups, like the arson attack on a Sidon mosque that happened the very next day. The highly combustible city is surrounded on all sides by Hizbullah, the well-disciplined Lebanese Shi’ite militia led by the cleric Hassan Nasrallah. We joke grimly about how in Damascus Hizbullah is considered not the enemy but the ally, openly fighting alongside President Bashar Al-Assad to keep him in power.
Marwan flicks his ash compulsively.
“God knows,” he says, “how Syria will ever get out of this swamp. Now the regime is preparing us for the June elections, being gentler with us at the checkpoints, announcing a policy of ‘musaalaha’ (reconciliation), freeing prisoners and doing deals to let people back into their homes in the suburbs. Their slogan is everywhere, ‘Bashar al-Assad ila al-Abad’ It’s a rhyme which means ‘Bashar al-Assad forever’.”
You realise,” Marwan continues, “that if he gets voted in a third time, like his father, the constitution says it is for life. Hafez Al-Assad was born in 1930 and ruled for 30 years; Qaddafi was born in 1942 and ruled for 42 years; Bashar was born in 1965 – so maybe he will rule for 65 years!”
We laugh uncontrollably.
“How do you feel about going back?” I ask, when I have recovered.
His laughter erupts again.
“I have the female Russian teachers to look forward to, now that Russian will become our first language. Farsi will soon become our second, there are so many Iranians on the streets. And Hassan Nasrallah is billed as our saviour, side by side with Bashar on the posters.
Damascus feels safer to me than Sidon!” Marwan insists. And he explains, “The regime’s control is so tight, nothing can happen there. Sidon might explode. Damascus cannot. The regime has taken out the fuse!”
First broadcast on Friday 28 March 2014:
Starts 4.12 mins in. Full text above. Identities changed.
I was in Damascus during March 2011 when the first peaceful demonstrations took place. On 15 March I even tried to find them, but they were over so quickly I could not get there in time. The atmosphere inside the city was tense and the regime was very edgy, all too aware of what had just happened in Tunisia and in Egypt. Police and security officials were under instruction be to nicer to members of the public, not to do anything that might provoke a reaction. For a brief and wonderful interlude, drivers were waved on at red traffic lights, and government offices became places of politeness, joviality even.
Three days later, the instruction was broken. The over-zealous governor of Dera’a ordered troops to fire on a crowd of protesters whose children had been arrested for drawing graffiti, resulting in the first deaths of the revolution. The die was cast, and as protests quickly escalated all over the country in the following weeks, the government response switched to its default setting – violence.
The scale of what has happened since defies credulity – at least 140,000 dead, untold thousands injured, missing or imprisoned, 6.5 million internally displaced and 2.5 million forced to flee as refugees to neighbouring countries. Where is it all heading?
Every Syrian I have ever spoken to about what they want for the future of the country has always said the same thing, namely, that top levels in government, the police, the armed forces and the security services should leave the country, that the rest should stay, and that a transitional temporary government should be put in place till new elections. Thereafter the priority would have to be reconciliation. Those without blood on their hands would have to be forgiven and re-assimilated. Most Syrian people are proud of the diversity of their society and want to preserve it. Its loss makes them value it all the more and they want it restored as soon as possible. Syrians have a very distinctive character, even the poorest ones. They have a natural sense of dignity and identity, a strong sense of self. It must somehow be the legacy of their deep and rich Syrian history, absorbing the complexities of many cultures that have ruled the region over the centuries.
The timing of the country’s descent into war was particularly ironic in Damascus: the new EU-funded Modernisation of Administration Management (MAM) project had just come to fruition with a series of themed walks round historic Damascus; the new basalt paving in all the neighbourhoods of the Old City around Straight Street had just been completed; and Al-Jaza’iri’s famous 19th century house on the Barada River just north of the Old City had just been restored and was serving as a museum and regional centre for sustainable development.
The last time I was inside Syria in April 2012, Christian and Muslim friends alike agreed that the Ba’ath Party had destroyed the country. For over 40 years they destroyed the education system, with a kind of brainwashing of the young in state schools, a Bashar cult, making all children worship, obey and love him. Both Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar settled their fellow Alawis in the mountainous parts of Damascus like Mezzeh 86 close to the Presidential Palace. After the 2006 war in Lebanon between Israel and Hizbullah, Bashar was very influenced by and impressed by Hassan Nasrallah because of their success in bloodying Israel’s nose. He became closer to Iran and the Shi’a at that time. Lots of Sunnis were actually paid to become Shi’a, given salaries.
The last voting farce inside Syria was the February 2012 ‘referendum on the constitution’. Syrian friends living in the city told me no one went out to vote except those who had their IDs taken away at checkpoints and were therefore forced to go and vote in order to get them back again. Government employees were obliged to vote of course, but most ordinary people stayed at home and were very angry at the way the Syrian state TV then showed people queuing at voting booths, presenting it so misleadingly, as if 86% of people really went out. It made even the doubters realise what this regime would do to stay in power. In Damascus the streets in the Old City and elsewhere were full of banners for candidates, men in their 30s, 40s and 50s, with slogans below reading something like: ‘Your independent candidate for Damascus’. It was ridiculous and fooled no one. Not one of the men was ‘independent’ All were regime-sanctioned.
A similar farce awaits the country with the upcoming presidential elections in June. On 13 March 2014 the Syrian parliament unanimously approved a new election law permitting other candidates to run against Bashar al-Assad for the first time. Theoretically this is wonderful – in practice it will be the same as the constitution vote, entirely controlled from behind the scenes, with approved candidates notionally standing against the president. The constitution states that:
By these rules all external opposition figures are rendered ineligible.
Given that the ‘international community’ cannot agree on anything about Syria except that the statistics are terrible, Syrians are on their own. No one is coming to their rescue. The rich have mainly left to start new lives abroad. Those that are left behind will need to work overtime if Syrian civil society is ever to free itself from the 43-year stranglehold of Assad rule. Syria deserves to be rescued and needs all the help it can get. It will be a long struggle but I am certain it will eventually succeed.
Also this morning, British Foreign Secretary William Hague speaking in London on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, was extremely bold and even outspoken, in the way he referred to the Syrian regime and to President Bashar Al-Assad. Hague always chooses every word with great care, so he made the British government’s position very clear when he declared it ‘inconceivable’ that a future Syrian transitional government could be led by the same person who had been responsible for blockading aid and thereby starving his own people.
Yet, for all Bashar Al-Assad’s stupid mistakes in the early mishandling of peaceful demonstrations in Dera’a and elsewhere, he has been nothing if not clever in how he has handled matters more recently. From the start he announced to the world he was fighting ‘terrorist gangs’ and ‘sectarianism’. Under the guise of an amnesty he then slyly released around 1,000 jihadi and Al-Qa’ida fighters from his own jails, a fact which has now been corroborated by many sources including defectors. Bashar knew exactly what he was doing, that these fighters would go on to spearhead and swell Islamist groups. In other words he set out to make his own prediction come true. As a result the regime can present itself at Geneva II as a government that is fighting foreign terrorism, a fact reflected in the composition of its delegation – all foreign affairs people. It is worth noting an irony here, incidentally, that many of the released jihadis had been languishing in regime jails since they were arrested to please America, but before that the regime had itself sponsored them to cross over into Iraq to fight the Americans following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. It is a move that would have made Bashar’s wily father Hafez proud.
Last September’s Chemical Weapons deal has also worked in the regime’s favour, enabling it to present itself as a responsible partner, cooperating with the UN and the West, struggling valiantly to get the CW out of the country through rebel-held territory. Everyone forgot that just months earlier the regime was denying it even possessed CW. No matter, it is the image of cooperation that has stuck with the world’s media.
Now with the humanitarian agreements on Homs, and maybe elsewhere in coming days, the regime will once again be able to portray itself as ‘the responsible partner of the West’. UN aid agencies and Red Cross workers are only permitted under international law to work with the ‘recognised government’ of a country, so the Syrian regime will relish the attention and take all the credit, playing it for all it is worth. With the massive sum, rumoured to be over $50 million, that they have allocated for media ‘coverage’ of Geneva II, the world needs to have its eyes wide open and not allow Assad to hijack public opinion. If anyone is in danger of believing the regime’s self-publicist and conciliatory rhetoric, they should remember the report released just ahead of Geneva II by three highly respected war crimes prosecutors, detailing the systematic ‘industrial-scale killing’ of 11,000 detainees in his prisons – the ones whom it served no purpose to release.
1. In 2003 Iraq was not in a civil war. It was simply another repressive authoritarian Arab state not much worse than Mubarak’s Egypt and Gaddafi’s Libya.
2. Syria in March 2011 witnessed a peaceful spontaneous uprising against its repressive authoritarian leader Bashar Al-Assad.
3. The Iraqi people were not asking the US-led coalition to intervene.
4. A large section of the Syrian people asked the international community to intervene after the Assad regime countered their peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, arbitrary arrest and torture.
5. Iraq in 2003 did not present a threat to the international community. There were no Al-Qa’ida operatives or jihadis inside Iraq. They came in later to profit from the chaos we created.
6. Syria presents a serious threat to the security of the international community. The Al-Qa’ida-linked jihadi groups have thrived in the vacuum left by our non-intervention, and are growing. They are starting to dominate the moderate rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army.
7. Iraq was not a proxy war.
8. Syria has become a proxy war: America v Russia, Iran v Saudi Arabia, Hizbullah v Salafis. The interests of the Syrian people have been lost in the proxy war interests.
9. Iraq was not a humanitarian intervention. It was not in danger of collapse in 2003. It was not at war and was stable.
10. Syria would be a humanitarian intervention under the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine (Bosnia is the model). Syrians are dying of starvation and lack of medical attention as well as regime massacres and chemical weapons attacks. An entire generation is being lost.
For all those reasons, Syria is not Iraq, and for all those reasons, from the moment the regime made clear its intention to wipe out all opposition, I have supported intervention by the international community. Without it, Syria will disintegrate entirely over a period of years, and the fallout will come back to bite us big time.Looking at it objectively now 10 years on, the American-led invasion did inadvertently help one sector of the Iraqi people – the Kurds. Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan could almost be seen as a model for the Middle East. Its schools since 2012 are teaching all world religions equally, and Islam is just one of them, no favouritism. It is booming economically thanks to its oil and its trade with Turkey. But all that was an unintended consequence.
Syria’s Kurds could also benefit from the current crisis in Syria, but that is happening anyway, and will continue irrespective of American strikes. More and more of them are pouring out of Syria’s northeast corner into Iraqi Kurdistan, where they are being warmly welcomed. Kurdistan may well turn out to a lasting beneficiary of the chaos inside Syria, along with the Syriac Christian community in eastern Turkey:
On 21 July 2013 the New York Times published an article http://mobile.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/world/middleeast/enlisting-damascus-residents-to-answer-assads-call.html?from=world which confirms the point I made in my recent ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ piece, first broadcast 4 July http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0368kp4/From_Our_Own_Correspondent_A_House_in_Damascus/ – ie that neighbourhood militias composed of loyalists (often no more than teenagers) armed by the Assad regime, are posing as ‘reconciliation committees’ or ‘popular committees’.
Such a PR stunt is typical of the Assad regime and illustrates well how skilled it has become in projecting its own cause. Rafiq Lotof, a Shi’ite Syrian-American, is a convincing advocate of the ‘committees’, frequently appearing on Syrian state TV as part of a very successful PR campaign, telling ordinary Syrians how, starting from what they call the ‘model’ of the ‘peace zone’ of Old City of Damascus, they will begin rolling out this scheme of ‘people’s committees’ (Arabic ‘lijaan sha’abia’) across the country.
Meanwhile the regime is being given a helping hand by the international media, who are increasingly focussing on rifts in the opposition. As a result public opinion is turning against them, starting to think of them as cannibals, maniacs and extremists, when only a tiny proportion are extremists, around 5-10% – yet all the media focus is on them as they make good stories.
It is a tragic situation and the Syrian people deserve far better. The regime will never give anything up voluntarily. It is dug in to the death and has been from day one. The FSA knows this and that is why it knows the military approach is the only way to get rid of the regime. Attempts at dialogue are futile, as the last 2 years have shown, and the regime simply pretends to go along with these attempts, then finds reasons to obfuscate, while pursuing its own goals.
My worry is that it may well now be too late to arm the rebels, and that events on the ground are simply beyond anyone’s controlling. In my view it should have been done over a year ago, if not earlier. Thanks to the disarray and inertia of the international community, the extremist elements have the perfect climate in which to grow, risking an escalation of this conflict in ways we can hardly begin to imagine.