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Why Assad is still there

 

Putin, Assad, Rouhani and Nasrallah on poster

Putin, Assad, Rouhani and Nasrallah. The Arabic caption reads: “Men who do not bow down except to God.”

Complexity reigns in Syria, with multiple players still engaged on the world’s most chaotic battlefield. But three new books, despite their very different approaches, share a simple refrain – the ruling Assad regime sees no need to discuss a political solution. Thanks to the consistent military backing of its powerful allies Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah, it is incrementally getting its own way.

Ghaith Armanazi’s The Story of Syria makes “no apology for a work I always intended to be a personal take on Syrian history.” Such a statement coming from a former diplomat often labelled an Assad apologist might put many a reader off. Yet Armanazi uses his position of particular privilege to provide not just an interesting collection of early photos (one of which shows Syrian women demonstrating in the 1950s) but a surprisingly candid account of how his country became ‘Assad’s Syria.’

The real meat comes halfway through, where he unravels the unique Hafez al-Assad methodology, essential to understanding how the Syrian state has survived nearly seven years of war. The detailed chapter on Assad senior’s thirty-year rule takes up a quarter of the book, explaining his trademark caution and how his 1970 coup was ‘the most understated in a long line of coups for the last twenty years’.

Hafez al-Assad in November 1970 soon after seizing power

Hafez al-Assad in November 1970 soon after taking power in Syria

Armanazi charts how the rising trend of political Islamism from the 1970s onwards was driven by a flow of funds from a newly oil-rich Saudi Arabia, leading to feverish building of mosques and religious schools, and how this in turn led to the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood, culminating in Assad’s revenge, now known as the 1982 Hama massacre.

From that point on, we learn, Hafez al-Assad styled himself ‘Commander for Eternity’ (Qaiduna ila al-Abad), following the useful models of Kim Il Sung in North Korea and Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. Large public portraits and statues proliferated, a leadership cult which passed to his son Bashar, together with the bloated, inefficient government institutions, the corruption, the nepotism and the ‘shadowy security agencies…  silencing all voices of dissent.’

The narrative peters out in a much shorter chapter on Bashar’s rule from 2000. It stops before the current war, as if fearful of saying too much, but the tone conveys Armanazi’s clear anger at the international community’s ‘frenetic mood of activity over Daesh’ while the root cause of Daesh is ignored. ‘The inescapable truth,’ he ends prophetically, ‘is that Daesh is a symptom and all efforts to deal with it independently of Syria’s sickness are doomed to failure.’

Nikolaos Van Dam’s short book Destroying a Nation is precisely that ‘product of meticulous and dry academic research’ which Armanazi’s is not. But after the excellence of Van Dam’s seminal earlier work The Struggle for Power in Syria, this new one disappoints. Focussing on what it calls ‘the civil war in Syria’, over a quarter is taken up with lengthy notes, bibliography and lists of abbreviations and factions together with an extensive 16-page index. One of its stranger entries is ‘Wishful thinking’, listed ten times, more entries than ‘Kurds’.

Van Dam was, like Armanazi, a career diplomat, and has been Dutch Special Envoy for Syria for the last two years, deeply engaged, with the support of an expert Dutch Syria team, in the Geneva and Riyadh peace talks. As a result this is a book for political analysts who are interested in the minutiae of the ever-shifting alliances, first within the ruling Ba’ath Party and now, within the opposition parties, which would be fine if the book were up to date. But it went to press before the 2017 Astana talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran – the vital trio with most at stake inside Syria – agreed on the current de-escalation zones, thereby rendering the previous processes immaterial.

What the book does succeed in illustrating however, only too clearly, through its depressing account of those convoluted processes thus far, are the gulfs in belief between all parties, the different versions of a future Syria which they hold, all shades of which are in any case irrelevant since the Assad regime ‘is not prepared to negotiate its own departure, downfall or death sentence.’

Bashar flags

A shopkeeper displays Bashar al-Assad flags for sale, 2017

With its overlong paragraphs and ponderous style, the book claims to deal with prospects for a solution to the conflict, yet ducks the issue and simply ends with another inconclusive summary of the ‘Basic elements of the Syrian Conflict since the Revolution of 2011’. Other Western political analysts are quoted at length but the only Syrian voice to appear is that of Bashar al-Assad himself, declaring on the final page that he will remain president till at least 2021 when his third seven-year term ends, and that he will rule out any political changes before winning the war.

Assad posters

Street posters in Damascus, 2017

By contrast, Wendy Pearlman’s carefully crafted book We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled allows displaced Syrians to speak for themselves – 87 of them – men and women, young and old, ranging across students, mothers, doctors, poets, accountants, lawyers, beauticians, playwrights, musicians, barbers, computer programmers, engineers, business owners, teachers and finance managers. An American Arabic-speaking academic from Chicago’s Northwestern University, Pearlman conducted hundreds of interviews from 2012-16 with Syrians now living outside their country in Jordan, Turkey, Sweden, Denmark, the UAE, the USA, Lebanon and Germany, using a team of over twenty transcribers and translators to help her arrive at this selection.

Unencumbered by footnotes and other end material, its 292 pages can be easily read in a day. Pearlman’s introduction explains the book’s eight-part structure, offering a sensitive and compelling overview of the war to date. The voices then tell the story of Syria under the Assads, starting with Hafez’s rule, then Bashar’s, before passing through the phases of the war, from the early euphoria of the Revolution and its peaceful demonstrations, to the onset of disillusion and hopelessness, to their ultimate flight from the country as refugees. Imad, a student from Salamiyeh now in Berlin, explains their predicament: “Media has tied the revolution to terrorism,” so “it’s easier to say that you’re simply running away from war…not to mention the revolution, or even the regime.”

By selecting a particular group of voices there is always the problem that others will accuse you of skewing the narrative. But while Pearlman’s refugees necessarily reflect the anti-Assad views held by the majority of Syrian refugees, they also lend weight to the prevailing picture of what remains inside Syria today, chiming with much else that has emerged from other sources. What they confirm is that nothing has essentially changed since March 2011 when Abu Tha’ir, an aeronautical engineer from Daraa now in Jordan, witnessed regime soldiers storm the mosque, kill unarmed demonstrators, burn the holy books and scribble on the walls: “Do not kneel for God. Kneel for Assad.”

Nothing, that is, except the death of 500,000 people and the displacement of over half the population. Sham, a relief worker from Douma now in Sweden, is “disgusted by humanity. We’re basically the living dead.” He jokes sarcastically that all Syrians should all be killed: “Then we’ll all go to heaven and leave Bashar al-Assad to rule over an empty country.”

“One wonders,” Pearlman reflects, “what might have been different had we listened to Syrians’ voices earlier.”

Welcome to Assad's Syria banner

A Syrian-Lebanese border crossing which re-opened in December 2017. The sign reads: “Welcome to Assad’s Syria.”

This piece was originally published in Chatham House’s The World Today Oct/Nov 2017 issue:

https://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/twt/why-assad-still-there

 

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#Syria – Sidon and Damascus, Theatre of the Absurd in a Tale of Two Cities

Sidon's Crusader Sea Castle guards what was once the port of Damascus [DD, 2014]

Sidon’s Crusader Sea Castle guards what was once the port for Damascus [DD, 2014]

Marwan, my chain-smoking Syrian lawyer, has left his war-torn country for the day to meet me in the Lebanese port of Sidon. He wants to complete some paperwork and tell me news from Damascus.

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.

 

Sidon's souks are just like Damascus's - even the doves are the same. [DD 2014]

Sidon’s souks are just like Damascus’s – even the doves are the same. [DD 2014]

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.

Banner of Rafiq al-Hariri adorns the Khan al-Franj, caravanserai of the Franks, restored by Rafiq al-Hariri to be a craft centre and tourist office, now empty [DD, 2014]

Banner of Rafiq al-Hariri adorns the 17th C Khan al-Franj, Caravanserai of the Franks, restored by the Hariri Foundation to be a craft centre and tourist office, now empty [DD, 2014]

Sidon's Khan al-Franj, once seat of bustling commerce, sits empty [DD, 2014]

Sidon’s Khan al-Franj, once seat of bustling commerce, now languishes unused [DD, 2014]

 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:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01vzjqj/From_Our_Own_Correspondent_Cyprus_and_Lebanon/

Starts 4.12 mins in. Full text above. Identities changed.

Sidon's old souks are indistinguishable from the souks of Old Damascus [DD, 2014]

Sidon’s old souks are indistinguishable from the souks of Old Damascus [DD, 2014]

Interior of Sidon's Great Mosque, formerly Church of St John of the Hospitallers - Damascus's Great Mosque was formerly the Cathedral of Jhn the Baptist. [DD, 2014]

Interior of Sidon’s Great Mosque, formerly Church of St John of the Hospitallers. Damascus’s Great Mosque was formerly the Cathedral of John the Baptist. [DD, 2014]

Debbane Palace in Old Sidon, now restored as a museum. 200 refugees sheltered here for five years duing the Lebanese Civil War [DD, 2014]

18th C Debbane Palace in Old Sidon, now restored as a museum. Hundreds of refugees sheltered here for five years during the Lebanese Civil War [DD, 2014]

Entrance to Sidon's Great Mosque, once the Church of St John of the Knights Hospitaller, restored by Rafiq al-Hariri and winner of the 1989 Aga Khan Award for Architecture [DD, 2014]

Entrance to Sidon’s Great Mosque, once the Church of St John of the Knights Hospitaller, restored by the Hariri Foundation and winner of the 1989 Aga Khan Award for Architecture [DD, 2014]

Crusader vaulting in Sidon's Great Mosque [DD, 2014]

Crusader vaulting in Sidon’s Great Mosque [DD, 2014]

As the #Syrian uprising enters its 4th year, some reflections

Damascus' Great Umayyad Mosque with its Jesus Minaret

Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque with its Jesus Minaret [DD]

In a recent clear-out of my study I came across a Syria Today magazine with the cover feature “Unlocking Civil Society”, 15 pages of in-depth coverage of how civil society inside Syria could move forward. It was dated March 2010. Re-reading the feature now, after three years of devastating conflict, is especially poignant.

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:

  1.  A candidate must be Muslim
  2. A candidate must have the support of 35 members of the parliament
  3. A candidate must be 40 years old or more
  4. A candidate must have lived in Syria for 10 years before the election
  5. A candidate must be Syrian by birth, of parents who are Syrians by birth
  6. A candidate must not be married to a non-Syrian spouse

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.

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Arming Syria’s opposition forces – to do or not to do

English: Cult of personality in Syria, Square ...

English: Cult of personality in Syria, Square in Aleppo displaying former president Hafez al-Assad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After more than two years of sitting on the fence, the West is being forced to decide. The trouble is the West is split, with some elements jumping off the fence on one side, and others jumping off on the other – and some are still clinging to the fence desperately trying to avoid having to make a decision at all. Countries are split, political parties are split, even families are split. There is no clear or easy option.

Islam’s greatest thinker, the medieval theologian Al-Ghazali, told the story of The  Donkey Between Two Carrots. The donkey agonised over which carrot might be juicier or bigger for so long that it ended up dying of starvation in the middle. And the moral of the tale? Indecision is a form of decision and its consequences can be fatal.

But the Syrian tragedy is being prolonged not just by one but by two metaphorical donkeys. It is not just our indecision in the West. The indecision of Syria’s own population is also a big factor. The ‘greys’, ‘the silent majority,’  after living for so many decades under repressive Ba’athist rule, have been silenced by fear, fear of reprisals, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment or worse.

In terms of numbers ‘the silent majority’ makes up at least 70% of Syria’s 22 million population – in other words over 15 million people. How do I work that out? Because the people actively involved in the fighting are an absolute maximum of one million on either side, those employed by the regime in government, military or intelligence positions are a further 2 million maximum, so the remainder, leaving 2-3 million aside who are now refugees in neighbouring countries, are ‘undecided’.

It is easy for us in the West to blame this ‘silent majority’ for their apparent quiescence in the current situation. But we have not lived through what they have lived through, not come anywhere near experiencing the pervading culture of fear they have endured since the 1970s when the Ba’athists and Hafez Al-Assad came to power. We have not had family members abducted and threatened, or worse.

They need our help. They need our courage to liberate them. They cannot liberate themselves. The overwhelming majority of them are moderate Sunni Muslims with decent human values and principles who want nothing more than to earn their living and look after their family. Yet the media has got hold of the kind of sensationalist scare stories it so loves, so that we now imagine them to be ‘cannibals’ to use Putin’s words, or fanatical Al-Qa’ida types intent on terrorizing the West. How can we be so misled by the media?

Of the 100,000 or so fighters opposing the Assad regime, a maximum of 5,000 could perhaps be labelled ‘extremist’. Most are in the Aleppo and Idlib area, where there are certainly some extreme groups who have been able to thrive thanks to the power vacuum we have left through our inaction. In Homs there are less than 50 such fighters, and in Qusair there were none at all.

Instead of obsessing about this 5% of extremists, who are too small in numbers to have any real say in a post-Assad era, we should be focusing instead on the 95% who desperately need better arms to a

Map of Syria with Idlib highlighted

Map of Syria with Idlib highlighted (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

void being slaughtered by regime forces. If we do not, they, like Al-Ghazali’s donkey, will die a long slow death while we, like Al-Ghazali’s donkey, do nothing but agonise in the middle.

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