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Archive for the tag “Damascus”

A Surreal Trip to Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related article:

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

 

Finally, Assad addresses the real “terrorists” on his Damascus doorstep

President Bashar al-Assad makes no distinction between ISIS and other rebel groups – all are “terrrorists” to be annihilated, legitimate targets. He could have expelled ISIS years ago from their pockets of control in Hajar Aswad and Yarmouk in the southern suburbs of his capital Damascus. But he was content to let them to be there because since 2015 they were doing his job for him – fighting against the more moderate rebels in the suburbs and weakening them year by year.

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The famous photo from February 2014 showing the residents of Yarmouk under siege, flowing out like a river of humanity to get aid.

But while I was inside Syria last week the campaign against them started, following on directly from the ‘liberation’, that is, total displacement of residents from Douma, the Ghouta’s most rebellious area. I stepped into the courtyard of my house and almost immediately the sound began of fighter jets – Russian ones by most accounts – flying in broad daylight across the centre of Damascus and almost casually dropping their cluster bombs on Hajar Aswad.

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Smoke from cluster bombs exploding over Hajar Aswad, southern suburbs of Damascus

It took me a while to see them, they were flying so much higher than I expected, but as my eye grew accustomed to them, I traced their course from the Mezzeh military airport, over the Presidential Palace, and in a loop over the southern suburbs and back again. It was utterly surreal. Yet this is the new normal inside Syria. A government dropping bombs on its own people, in its own capital, and everyone helpless to do anything about it. It is impossible not to think about the people being killed and maimed beneath those bombs. Even if they survive, thousands are sleeping in the streets, their homes destroyed. There is no longer any running water and the last hospital has been targeted and destroyed. The bombing continued all that Thursday 19 April and has been going on relentlessly for a week.

‘Trapped’ was the word I heard again and again, as people are forced to listen to the constant soundtrack of destruction. They feel totally helpless in the face of Assad’s overwhelming grip, backed by the might of Russian air power and military planning.

Yarmouk was one of the earliest refugee camps in Syria, formed after 1948 when the first waves of Palestinians were displaced from the newly created state of Israel.  It was home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees and over 100,00 Syrians. Now the survivors are being bussed to Idlib, where the final showdown awaits in this barbaric war.

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The Orwellian outline of the Presidential Palace lowering over the city of Damascus

Related articles:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/26/palestinian-refugee-camp-syria-turns-unimaginably-brutal-assad/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/26/10m-syrians-at-risk-of-forfeiting-homes-under-new-property-law

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/28/shocking-image-syria-brutal-war-yarmouk

Assad bombs the Ghouta, but ignores ISIS in Damascus – why?

Damascus suburbs who controls what 28 March 2018

There is a mystery in this map of Damascus that requires explanation. It shows clearly the Eastern Ghouta rebel suburb where all the current focus in the media is concentrated. But just as clear is the area of Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus’s southern suburbs, marked as under the control of the Islamic State group (ISIS). So why are the ISIS rebels in Hajar al-Aswad allowed to stay, while the rebels in the Ghouta are forced out?

Al-Ghouta means ‘the basin’ in Arabic, the fertile area of land fed by the River Barada which supplied Damascus with its agricultural produce like milk, cheese and yogurt, chicken, eggs, fruit and nuts. Historically it is one of the locations claimed as the Garden of Eden. Since mid-February 2018 it has become instead Hell on Earth.

Ghouta bombing March 2018

Today the final pocket of Douma, largest town in the Ghouta, awaits what many expect will be the final massive bombardment that will force its inevitable surrender to the Syrian regime. Other parts of the Ghouta – Harasta, Arbin and Zamalka – have all surrendered, worn down by years of siege, rounded off by the recent burst of apocalyptic Russian bombing. Douma, headquarters of the rebel group Jaysh Al-Islam, has been a thorn in Assad’s side since 2012, yet was considered moderate enough by the international community to participate in the Geneva peace talks, even heading the opposition delegation.

Ghouta evacuation March 2018

So why has Assad allowed ISIS to sit on his doorstep unmolested for years, despite them being closer to the presidential palace than rebels in the Ghouta and despite ISIS being unquestionably far more extreme in its ideology than any of the Ghouta rebels? The answer is that it suits him to do so, because they fight each other, not him, and over the last five years the ISIS fighters have weakened and depleted the FSA groups in Babila, Yalda and Beit Sahem. Neither Al-Nusra nor ISIS are present in the Ghouta, yet the Russians and the Syrian regime have continued to bombard the area with impunity, in violation both of their own agreed ‘de-escalation zones’ and of the UN ceasefire resolution unanimously passed in February 2018.

ISIS in Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad Damascus

The Assad regime has shown itself to be calculated and astute in its strategic management of the war. Early on in the uprising that erupted  in March 2011 the regime branded everyone who protested against them as a ‘terrorist’, and labelled the uprising a ‘foreign conspiracy’. Through its violent crushing of the early peaceful protests, along with wholesale and widely documented rape of women from the rebel neighbourhoods, often in their own homes in front of their male family members, it systematically goaded the local populations to take up arms. Whilst people passing through checkpoints were carefully scrutinised, lorry-loads of weaponry were allowed easily through – the regime wanted demonstrators to weaponize and become fighters. Then it could call them all ‘terrorists’ and kill them indiscriminately.

The leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, was killed on Christmas Day 2015 by a targeted airstrike with the help of Russian intelligence, less than three months after Russia entered the Syrian war arena to help its ailing ally Bashar al-Assad stay in power. Zahran’s brother, Muhammad, was sent in his place to represent the group in UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva, but the talks stalled like all the others, and he resigned soon after in May 2016.

Every time the Ghouta enclaves have been subjected to heavy regime bombardment, the rebels have retaliated with sporadic mortar fire sent into the heart of Damascus. Innocent residents of the city have been killed this way, it is true, just as in the western regime-held side of Aleppo when the east Aleppo rebels fired retaliatory mortars. But mortar shells can hardly be said to equate to the massive aerial bombardment inflicted by the Syrian regime and the Russians, whose response has by any measure been totally disproportionate. No matter, the text is in place and the Assad regime has succeeded in provoking the violent reaction from the rebels which it has been seeking all along. Now it is on familiar territory – violence is its default setting for problem-solving, as it showed in Hama in 1982.

The biggest threat to the Assad regime, as both Assad and Putin well know, has never come from ISIS rebels, many of whom are foreign and have little to do with the Syrian people. It has come from the more moderate opposition rebels, most of whom are Syrian and who have long wanted his overthrow. That is why Assad forces have rarely fought ISIS, and why he leaves them sitting on his doorstep – for now. They fit his narrative perfectly, that he is fighting ‘terrorists’.

Syria-ISIS Damascus map

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-43127189

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-32356307

https://rfsmediaoffice.com/en/2017/10/13/entire-family-rubble-hajar-al-aswad-damascus/

https://friendsofsyria.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/isis-advances-in-southern-damascus-captures-more-positions-inside-yarmouk-camp/

https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2018/02/06/how-de-escalation-zones-in-syria-became-a-war-management-strategy

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/25/zahran-alloush-leader-syria-rebel-group-killed-airstrike

https://www.albawaba.com/news/assad-leveling-eastern-ghouta-leaving-isis-unchecked-

inside-damascus-1097302

http://syriadirect.org/news/%E2%80%98ghouta-is-a-glimpse-into-the-future-of-south-damascus%E2%80%99-says-rebel-negotiator/

Syria’s Cultural Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen a country has been at war for over five years, it might seem natural to assume that all cultural life is suspended. In the case of Syria, this is far from true. But just as with the war itself, there are many levels and layers to be unravelled, and the definitions of “culture” vary according to who, and where, you are.

In the areas firmly under the control of the Syrian government, the Assad regime has, from the start, kept to a “business as usual” narrative. In September 2016 Damascus boasted several “cultural” events on its SANA (Syrian state media) website under the title of “Arts and Culture”, including the“St Ephrem the Syrian Patriarchal Choir”, staging a performance at Al-Thawra Sports stadium (al-thawra means “revolution” in Arabic – not the current revolution of course but the Ba’athist revolution of 1963 which ultimately brought Hafez al-Assad to power). Christian events like this are always high on the agenda since the Syrian government is keen to project itself as the “protector of the minorities”, who then give their loyalty in return.  There was also the twenty-eighth Book Fair at Al-Assad National Library – “beyond disappointing” was the comment of one hopeful Syrian who visited but who wishes to remain anonymous, “we cannot fool ourselves”.

Dar al-Assad (the Damascus opera house) still holds concerts, music festivals, cinema screenings and poetry readings in its three halls, the largest of which seats 1,200 people. In April 2014 it was struck by a mortar and closed briefly. Fewer than half of its employees and musicians remain, the other half having either fled or been conscripted. Prices have been slashed to increase audience size. Many Syrians might question whether “culture” is the right word for such contrived and unreal occasions, when “propaganda” might be closer to the truth, but many would also acknowledge the strong public desire to keep the wheel of life turning.

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Beyond Damascus, other festivals have also been held across the summer in the government-held areas on the Mediterranean coast, such as Tartous and Safita, while at the village of Ma’aloula in the Qalamoun Mountains, north of the capital, a widely publicized song festival was held in Aramaic to preserve the language of Christ – another example of the government showcasing support for minorities.

Even in Aleppo, divided between the regime-held west and rebel-held east, the population remains highly receptive to cultural events. In fact the need for them is arguably greater than in Damascus as people seek respite from the horrors of daily life. Abdul Halim Hariri, a sixty-year-old violinist, feels it is more important than ever to run theatre performances and festivals for filmmakers in defiance of the political situation. “We have turned our anger and sorrow into a source of music”, he says, echoing the widely held sentiment that war can drive creativity, as people struggle to prove they are still human despite the inhumanity that surrounds them. Abdul Halim holds his concerts “for young people who are lost. I also wanted to show through art that Aleppo is still united and that its thought is still progressive and civilised . . . as soon as the war is over, Aleppo will be reunited. Aleppo citizens don’t hate each other. Their life is love and intertwined”. Audiences for his concerts, a mix of classical and traditional pieces, have been huge, with hundreds gathering inside the theatre and hundreds outside, even as mortars fall, and despite the fact that many musicians, including Abdul Halim’s own son, have now left.

During the holy month of Ramadan, soap operas, musalsalat, grip audiences in all Arab countries, and Syrian soaps are generally the most popular – one of the country’s most prized exports, especially to the Gulf. In 2010 no fewer than forty soaps were made by Syrian television production companies, but the number has now dropped to less than half that because so many actors and producers have left the country. One of the most popular, Bab al-Hara, depicts life in a Damascus quarter of the Old City under the French Mandate of the 1920s and 1930s. Rife with political digs and overtones, it has just completed its eighth season, but Syrians outside the country, such as the actress Sawsan Arsheed, the actor and theatrical director Maher Sleibi, and the director Abdulrahman Dandashi, say the regime is increasingly using such soaps to promote its own version of the crisis, to distort the image of the moderate opposition, portraying them all as armed terrorists and radical Islamists.

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In rebel-held parts of the country, the lack of infrastructure makes life very difficult, with limited electricity, water, cooking gas or fuel. Yet even there, in areas like the Idlib countryside, culture is flourishing. Though they do not have the financial means needed to produce competing TV dramas, local people have started their own radio channels such as Radio Fresh (recently closed down by extremists for employing a woman), and internet channels such as SouriaLi (a clever play on words meaning both “Syria is mine” and “surreally”).

In the Damascus suburb of Darayya, subjected to a “starve or surrender” siege for over four years and now forcibly evacuated since its fall in August, the local residents established a secret library deep underground with over 14,000 books, including poetry, plays and novels in Arabic, French and English. It was hugely popular with children out of school reading to their mothers, doctors and dentists looking for academic or technical handbooks, and even Free Syrian Army soldiers taking a supply to the frontline with them. Particular favourites were books about earlier rebellions, such as those by the Syrian author Al-Tantawi. “We read about how in the past everyone turned their backs on a particular nation, yet they still made it”, says Omar Abu Anas, a former engineering student. “So we can be like that too. Books motivate us to keep us going. They help us plan for life once Assad is gone. We want to be a free nation. And hopefully, by reading, we can achieve that.”

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Many of the library users were students whose studies had been interrupted. “In a sense,” says Adbulbaset al-Ahmar, a former student in his mid-twenties who discovered Shakespeare and especially Hamletthanks to the books in it, “the library gave me back my life. It’s helped me to meet others more mature than me, people who I can discuss issues with and learn things from. I would say that just like the body needs food, the soul needs books. I believe the brain is like a muscle. And reading has definitely made mine stronger. My enlightened brain has now fed my soul too.”

The fate of this secret library is currently unknown.

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.

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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/

 

 

 

A Syrian in Saarbrucken

“Politics is all about interests, everyone knows this of course,” said Muhammad, his earnest brown eyes looking directly into mine. “But none of us imagined it would end like this.”

In those intelligent philosophical eyes I could see echoes of Ramzi Read more…

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 legacy to ISIS

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This carved block at Palmyra pre-dates the advent of Islam by four centuries, and is thought to show the world’s earliest representation of veiled women, top right. It is one of the countless examples of how practices we now consider Islamic were often traceable to pagan times.

The early Muslim armies captured Damascus in 636 just four years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and went on to make it the capital of their Umayyad Caliphate. It was the first encounter Muslims had with cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, cultures which were themselves the products of rich intermingling of Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian influences and which had in turn been under Greek and Roman influence for centuries. Commerce, as ever the driver of human inter-action, was thriving as new trade routes evolved, while religious and cultural trends co-existed.

The Umayyad Caliphate, far from seeking to ban or wipe out this multicultural heritage of earlier empires and civilisations, simply took over the existing infrastructure from the previous Byzantine and Sassanian rulers, going on to develop its own unique contribution to the art and architecture of the region. The Umayyads absorbed and adopted the customs of the cities they conquered. With the fall of borders, they unified the region thereby encouraging additional cross-fertilisation of ideas and artistic traditions. The results can be seen in all their buildings, from Jerusalem’s famous Dome of the Rock to the lesser known desert palaces like Mushatta (see photos below) and Khirbat Mafjar now scattered all over the deserts of Jordan, the West Bank and Syria.

Mshatta facade 2mshatta facade

When it comes to the case of Palmyra, this rich cultural legacy is especially clear. The carved stone blocks carry motifs of flowers, including the famous Palmyrene Rose, ringed with acanthus and lotus leaves.

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The Palmyra drawings by English architects Wood and Dawkins went on to influence directly the classical revival of the 18th century, where Palmyrene roses are often to be seen on the ceilings of grand British country houses.

The Umayyad desert palace of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi which stands in the desert some 100km northeast of Palmyra, has a mosque which incorporates columns and capitals brought from the site of Palmyra. The architecture of its monumental gateway displays an eclectic mix of Byzantine, Mesopotamian and Persian styles, with many recycled Roman and Byzantine capitals. Its twin, Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, which lies in the desert  80km southwest of Palmyra, likewise boasted a monumental 8th century facade, now incorporated into the modern entrance of the Damascus National Museum.

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These fusions are clearly visible in the vine scrolls, the bunches of grapes symbolising wealth, fertility and prosperity in both the stone carvings of Palmyra and the decorative patterns of the Umayyad palaces, not to mention later Islamic tile patterns.

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Mythical creatures like griffins, together with birds like peacocks and eagles, animals like gazelles and lions are often found entwined in the Tree of Life, an ancient concept pre-dating Islam by centuries, yet all such motifs are still found on the borders of prayer rugs across the Muslim world. If ISIS claims that such things are idolatrous, it would also have to destroy most of the Islamic carpets and tiles of the Middle East.

And what of the many mosques across the Muslim world that were built on the foundations of earlier churches and temples, such as the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus?

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Would they too have to be destroyed, like these early Islamic mosaic visions of fantasised trees and palaces?

In the nihilistic vision of ISIS there is, it seems, no room for diversity. They have set their course on the total destruction of relics from earlier cultures, thereby denying the roots of the very Islamic civilisation to which they claim to be returning. By destroying Palmyra, they will be destroying their own roots, ensuring their own eventual downfall, since a caliphate devoid of culture cannot endure. What a perfect contradiction.

Schizophrenia in Damascus

Nothing in Damascus was as expected. Convinced there would be food shortages, I had vowed to eat very little during my stay. Yet while the besieged suburbs are starving, the central food markets are overflowing.

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The fruit stalls of Sharia al-Amin boast bananas from Somalia, the Bzouriye spice markets are buoyant with top-quality saffron from Iran and walnuts from Afghanistan. Lebanese wine and beer are freely available. Prices are higher than before, but still largely affordable for most people.

Sandwiched between the heavily-armed checkpoints, street stands selling thick hot Aleppan sakhlab, a sweet white drink, are everywhere.

Cafes and pastry shops are bursting with sticky delicacies, the famous Bakdash ice-cream parlour is buzzing with people as ever.

Bakdash ice cream parlour, October 2014

To judge from the carpets of cigarette butts on the pavements, smoking rates, always high, are higher than ever. In the main thoroughfare of Souq al-Hamidiya all the usual clothes and flamboyant underwear outlets are still thronging with customers – not a single boarded shopfront – quite a contrast to the average British high street.

Sporadically, in the days as well as the nights, shelling is disturbingly loud, but strangely offstage.

President Bashar al-Assad’s artillery is fired from Mount Qassioun, directly above the city, towards the eastern Ghouta region – the scene of last year’s chemical attack, whose pockets of resistance are still a thorn in the side of the government. Villages there have suffered a food blockade for the last 18 months.

But by all accounts there is much less noise than there was a year ago.

Mount Qassioun, seen from DamascusMount Qassioun, seen across the rooftops of Damascus

From that point of view, very gradually, life in central Damascus is getting better. Yet from other points of view, just as gradually, it is getting worse.

Beyond the 3.5 million who have fled the country as refugees, a further 7.5 million have been internally displaced – added together that accounts for half of Syria’s entire population. Homes which are left empty, if they have not been flattened, are vulnerable to immediate seizure by others – usually the owners have no idea who has moved in and it is too dangerous to go back and find out.

Almost as often, but rarely reported, Syrian homes are taken by profiteers, exploiting the weak or the absent.

My own house in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Damascus, bought and restored in 2005, fell victim a few months ago.

It had been lived in for more than two years, from the summer of 2012 to the summer of 2014, with my consent by displaced friends whose homes had been destroyed in the suburbs. Now they had been evicted by my ex-lawyer and the previous owner conniving together to take it for themselves and split it 50:50.

Determined to get it back I recently returned to Damascus to throw them out and after 15 roller-coaster days, I succeeded. Things can happen surprisingly fast in Syria. You go to meet the judge one day, and he comes to inspect the house the next – without payment.

The old and the new doors to the houseA blacksmith made a new metal door to cover the smashed antique one.

Among the many moments of high drama were two break-ins, six changes of lock, the installation of two metal doors and the exposure of the bogus security reports which had led to my friends being evicted in the first place.

Bit parts were played by a fake general on a forged 25-year lease, and a Baathist single mother in the house with her newborn baby. It was with her that I felt most threatened by violence.

But in some ways life goes on almost as normal: dining with one friend in her 50s, whose car was lost in a random mortar attack, she explains how she now accompanies her 16-year-old nephew by taxi to play in the orchestra at the Opera House to make sure he is not picked up and enlisted into the army. At the checkpoints she clutches his cello between her legs so that the soldiers will not take it.

Checkpoints and road blocks in Yusuf al-Azma SquareCheckpoints and road blocks, such as this one in Yusuf al-Azma Square, are a common sight

Another friend works for the national electricity grid: his job is to repair electric cables damaged in the clashes. Over lunch at his home with his family, he tells me how one of his team stepped on a mine and was blasted to pieces in front of him – the man next to him had his eyes blown out.

He himself was lucky, escaping only with shrapnel in his intestine. He spent two weeks in hospital, two weeks at home recuperating, then went straight back to work. His attitude is simple: anyone who damages Syrian infrastructure is hurting the Syrian people.

The alleys of the Old City are full of children playing football. Many go to the school round the corner from my house.

Such is the overcrowding – some say Damascus’s population has risen from four to seven million because of internally displaced refugees – that their school-day is from 11:00 to 15:00, with one shift before them and another shift after them. They have 50 to 60 in their class but their enthusiasm to learn and to do their homework is undiminished.

The only other foreigners I saw on the streets were Iraqi Shia, men and women led round in groups to visit the shrines by a man wielding an orange lollipop sign.

When I met an old friend at the tourism ministry who still works at his office every day, he explained how this kind of religious tourism is now all they have left, some 200,000 pilgrims a year, after 8.2 million foreign visitors in 2010. He expresses no political views – he is just someone who has chosen to stay and do his job as best he can, like millions of others.

All over the country, even in ISIS-held Raqqa, I was reliably informed, government employees now draw their salaries direct from cash points on specific days, causing long queues outside the banks.

For the last two nights when I was finally able to sleep in my house in Old Damascus I experienced what everyone else has to suffer on a daily basis – scarcely four hours of electricity a day, no gas, no hot water, limited cold water.

It was tough, yet strangely invigorating, crossing the chilly courtyard to wash in a dribble of icy water, warmed by the knowledge I was surrounded by loyal neighbours who were looking out for me. Without them I could never have retaken my house: they protected me, helped me at every turn.

Bait Baroudi

A crisis brings out the worst and the best in people. What I found in Damascus was that a genuine kindness, a shared humanity and an extraordinary sense of humour are well and truly alive. Decent Syrian citizens are together doing their best to fight against immorality and corruption. Morale, in spite of everything, is high. Laughter keeps them sane.

Not once did anyone mention sectarianism. “DA’ESH” (the Arabic acronym for ISIS used across the Middle East) was universally condemned as beyond the pale.

How much longer, as the war approaches its fifth year and the number of greedy opportunists in society increases, such neighbourhood camaraderie can survive is an unanswerable question. But after this fortnight in Damascus I am more optimistic than before.

Diana Darke, Middle East cultural expert and Arabic speaker, is the author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, new 2015 edition now available as paperback and e-book from:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=11301

My House in Damascus

http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/190832399X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421401514&sr=8-1&keywords=9781908323996

Related post:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30494989

 

 

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