Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Bashar al-Assad”

Syria is not Iraq – 10 key differences

Images of Paradise in the mosaics of Damascus' Great Umayyad Mosque [DD]

Images of Paradise in the mosaics of Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque [DD]

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus [DD]

Following on from ‘Syria’s Ghost’ (posted 31/08/2013) here are 10 key differences between the case for intervention in Syria as opposed to Iraq:

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.

Saladin's Castle in the mountains above Lattakia [DD]

Crusader Castle of Saone, later Saladin’s Castle in the mountains above Lattakia [DD]

Saladin's Tomb in Old Damascus. Saladin was a Kurd. [DD]

Saladin’s Tomb in Old Damascus. Saladin was a Kurd. [DD]

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:


Related articles

Beware Damascus neighbourhood militias posing as ‘reconciliation committees’

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.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) – a microcosm of Syria?

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text ...

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text God protects Syria on the old city wall of Damascus 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: View of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus,...

English: View of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria Français : Vue de la Grande mosquée des Omeyyades, Damas, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: A volcano called Syria

English: A volcano called Syria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


8 (Photo credit: Syrian Red Crescent)

In war scum rises to the top, and in Syria, as my friends inside the country tell me regularly, there is a lot of scum.

Take the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) for example. One friend applied for a job as project manager in the Damascus branch, hoping to play a useful role in helping civilian casualties caught up in the fighting. He went through several stages of rigorous assessment, and was finally offered the job. Delighted, he arrived on his first day full of enthusiasm, and was shocked to find the office full of young people sitting around doing remarkably little. It became clear very quickly that they were there thanks to their family connections – waasta in Arabic – and had no experience of project management. His job description kept changing and he was not given a contract of employment. ‘If you work here,’ his boss told him, ‘you cannot ask questions. You must just do what I say.’

The crunch came when he was handed some paperwork and told to sign it off by his boss. He read it first, something that was evidently not part of his job description. With rising horror he saw that by signing it, he would be giving his consent to blood and medical supplies being sold to an unnamed third party. He refused to sign and quit the job. He had been in it less than two weeks.

His boss tried to persuade him to stay. ‘You cannot leave,’ he said, ‘you are the only one here who knows anything about project management. We need you.’ He left anyway and is still unemployed today, wondering how he will support his young family.

The Damascus branch of SARC is run by a businessman with close ties to President Bashar Al-Assad. It is controlled by the regime, as are all official charities inside Syria, and hence an extension of the Assad clan’s vast business empire. The aid it does distribute is channeled overwhelmingly to regime-dominated areas.

That said, there are within parts of SARC many highly committed individuals doing their best to help their country, regularly putting themselves at risk, working within opposition-held areas. Many young SARC volunteers try to remain staunchly neutral, concentrating only on helping their fellow Syrians, whoever they may be.

SARC is perhaps a symbolic microcosm of Syria – it has neutral elements that  refuse to take sides – decent people who just want to get on with their lives and jobs and to work towards peace. They probably constitute the vast majority. Then it has people who actively help the opposition-held regions, thereby putting themselves and their families at risk – most have been detained at some point by the regime. And then it has evil corrupt elements which see Syria’s chaos as an opportunity to enrich themselves – and they, tragically, continue to hold the reins of power, both within SARC and within Syria.

The scum is sitting comfortably on top of the cleaner water. It will stay there till someone either scoops it off, giving the cleaner elements below a chance, or until someone pulls the plug, at which point all elements, good and bad, will be lost down the drain.

Flag of the Red Crescent

Flag of the Red Crescent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who or what was the target of the Damascus Old City bomb?

The destroyed Christian quarter of Damascus, 1860.

The destroyed Christian quarter of Damascus, 1860. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Ancient Roman triumphal arch (Al Khar...

English: Ancient Roman triumphal arch (Al Kharab) on Street Called Straight, Damascus, Syria Français : Arc de triomphe romain (Al Kharab) sur la Rue Droite à Damas, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: A greek Orthodox Procession

English: A greek Orthodox Procession (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world’s media is distracted by the build-up to Egypt’s 30 June showdown, so an important event was given only scant and even misleading coverage. On 27 June the BBC website reported what it called a blast from a suicide bomber in the Christian Quarter of Damascus’ Old City:


The BBC commentary went on to assume that the target was the Christian community, specifically the Greek Orthodox church of the Virgin Mary which was close to the blast, and then talked about how Christians have been targeted before and are being drawn into the conflict.

But the Greek Orthodox church of Miriamiye as it is known, is not really in a Christian part of the Old City, but beside the Roman Arch on Straight Street which marks the rough boundary between the Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters. The church is directly opposite Naranj, a classy restaurant right beside the Roman Arch, known to be one of Bashar Al-Assad’s favourite dining places and often used by regime figures.

Closer examination of the facts reveals that the bomb in fact exploded not outside the church, but 50 yards away outside a Muslim charity where the suicide bomber was said to be queuing up for food with other residents. Four people were killed, many more injured and nearby shops damaged. But Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen newspaper put forward another theory – that the target was a nearby post of the National Defence Forces, a regime paramilitary force fighting the rebels.

About three hours after that blast, two mortar shells landed in nearby Al-Amin street, a mainly Shi’a area, wounding a number of people.

No one has claimed responsibility for these blasts, and local residents are confused. Was the target Christian, regime, rebel or Shi’a? No one knows except those who perpetrated the acts.

It tragically sums up what is happening increasingly now in Syria’s civil war – that very often no one knows anymore who is doing what to whom.

Roman arch, Straight Street, Damascus.

Roman arch, Straight Street, Damascus. (Photo credit: jemasmith)

Hand-wringing about Syria

President Hafez al-Asad with his family in the...

President Hafez al-Asad with his family in the early 1970s. From left to right: Bashar, Maher, Mrs Anisa Makhlouf (the then new First Lady of Syria), Majd, Bushra, and Basil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hand-wringing about Syria comes far too late. Western powers who colluded in the invasion of Iraq were so shamed by what happened in the aftermath that in Syria they focussed exclusively on the aftermath, funding ‘civil society’ workshops and ‘citizen journalist’ training. They overlooked the small detail that the Assad regime was and is too strong to fall without outside intervention. In Iraq the West focussed only on the ‘now’ and forgot about the ‘after’, but in Syria they focussed only on the ‘after’ and forgot about the ‘now’.

Tragically, the lessons learnt from Iraq have cost Syria dear.  

[Letter as published in the Evening Standard

English: Former president Hafez al-Assad was o...

English: Former president Hafez al-Assad was on display everywhere, Maaloula – Syria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

13 June 2013]

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