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A rare insight into Damascus

The priceless mosaics with scenes of Paradise, Damascus Umayyad Mosque

The priceless mosaics with scenes of Paradise, Damascus Umayyad Mosque

It is rare in current reporting on Syria to find anything that goes beyond sensationalist headlines about Islamic extremists, massacres, battles won and lost. Horror stories about cannibals compete with more horror stories about rape as the international perception of Syria and its people spirals ever downwards.

But the New York Times’ recent reporting by Anne Barnard bucks the trend, showing the complexities of life in Damascus while at the same time exposing some of the regime’s ploys to control the Old City of Damascus. Barnard and her interpreter were taken by their government minder to attend one or two of the so-called ‘reconciliation’ committee meetings held in Maktab Anbar, the Ottoman palace which serves as the headquarters of the Old City’s municipal offices. But even though they were shown these meetings as examples of how the communities are cooperating to protect their neighbourhoods, they were able to see through the charade and identify many of the same attendees as members of the armed ‘neighbourhood militias’ and observe that ‘security’ was the main topic rather than ‘reconcilation’. If only more media reporting was as perceptive.




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.

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