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Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Syria”

Syrian Secrets rising from the ashes of Notre-Dame

1024px-Incendie_Notre_Dame_de_Paris Notre-Dame fire

Notre-Dame roof and spire aflame on 15 April 2019, but structure intact. Photo from Wikipedia LeLaisserPasserA38.

Who would have thought that last year’s catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame de Paris would reveal so many secrets from its ash? A team of scientists has been gathered under the leadership of a military general to conduct deep background research into the fabric of the cathedral, hoping to understand how on earth the medieval masons and craftsmen made the building stand up. Nothing was written down, no plans were used. The study will take an estimated six years, helping to guide the restoration work.

The fire also sparked my own desire to study further. This time last year I wrote an article explaining the architectural backstory of the cathedral, how, like all medieval Gothic cathedrals, the origins of its twin towers flanking a monumental west entrance, its pointed arches, its rose windows, its ribbed vaulting can all be traced to the Middle East. Now, after extensive research, I have discovered many more connections, all of them unexpected. The full results will appear in my forthcoming book Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture shaped Europe:  https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/stealing-from-the-saracens/

Meanwhile, here are just a few pointers, to give the flavour. Let’s start with the stained glass, thankfully still intact after the fire. Recent analyses of stained glass in the main cathedrals of England and France between 1200 and 1400 all show the same high plant ash composition typical of Syrian raw materials. High-grade Syrian plant ash soda, known as ‘the cinders of Syria’, was considered superior to the pre-Islamic Egyptian natron ash used by the Romans and the Byzantines in their glass manufacture, and all Venetian glass analysed from the 11th to the 16th centuries shows its consistent use, by law. Medieval Continental Europe imported the raw materials for all its glass since there was no known local source.

Coloured glass windows have been an integral and innovative element of Islamic architecture since the 7th century, starting with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock which carried coloured glass in its many high windows. They were known as shamsiyyat (from Arabic for sun) and qamariyyaat (from Arabic for moon), showing how the solar and lunar imagery of windows continued into European religious architecture. The Templar knights adopted the Dome of the Rock as their chief Christian shrine after the First Crusade, mistaking it for the Temple of Solomon, an error which resulted in many churches being modelled on a Muslim shrine. Notre-Dame’s famous rose windows on its west and north facades date from 1225-50 and are designed for the light to radiate out from the centre, hence the so-called Rayonnant style.

1280px-Gothic-Rayonnant_Rose-6 North rose window Notre Dame c1250

Notre-Dame Rayonnant-style North Rose Window, c1250, photo from Wikipedia, by Zachi Evenor and Julie Anne Workman, Aug 2010.

Light was also at the core of Gothic cathedral design.  Saint-Denis in north Paris was where the wealthy and powerful Abbot Suger first used Illuminationist thinking as the guiding principle in his new basilica. But who was Denis?

Paris_-_Cathédrale_Notre-Dame_-_Portail_de_la_Vierge_-_PA00086250_-_003 Notre Dame St Denis head

The martyr Denis, Bishop of Paris, holding his head after decapitation on Montmartre, Notre-Dame, Portal of the Virgin, photo from Wikipedia by Thesupermat, Sept 2011.

The Abbot and his contemporaries believed him to be a disciple of Paul, who later became confused with the first Bishop of Paris and patron saint of France, martyred on Montmartre. Centuries later, scholars realised that Denis’s influential work the Celestial Hierarchies, was in fact a hoax, written by a 5th century Syrian mystic monk calling himself Denis in order to get his philosophy noticed. As a result he is known in ecclesiastical circles as Pseudo-Denis, but his trick worked. Today the Basilica of Saint-Denis is universally acknowledged as the first true example of ‘Gothic’ with tall pointed arches enabling the lofty elegant choir. It was used thenceforth as the burial place of French kings.

1024px-Coeur_de_la_Basilique_de_Saint-Senis Saint Denis choir by Bordeled

Basilica of Saint Denis, the first, new, light-filled ‘Gothic’ choir, based on the philosophy of Denis, a 5th century Syrian mystic, photo from Wikipedia by Bordeled, July 2011.

The very symbol of French nationhood and French royalty is the fleur-de-lis. But where was that first seen as an emblem? On the plains of Syria the Crusaders copied the local sport of ‘jarid’, knightly jousting tournaments on horseback where the players attempted to dismount each other with a blunt javelin. Heraldry and the use of family or dynastic symbols was already in use under the Ayyubids and the fleur-de-lis first appeared in its true heraldic form, the three separate leaves tied together in the middle by a band, as the blazon of Nur al-Din ibn Zanki and on two of his monuments in Damascus. Later Mamluk helmets often had nasal guards terminating in a fleur-de-lis. The boy king of England, Henry VI, was crowned king of France aged ten inside Notre-Dame in 1431, against a backdrop of fleur-de-lis.

Sacre_Henry6_England-France_02 Henry VI of England Fleur-de-lis

Coronation of the boy king Henry VI as king of France inside Notre-Dame, against a backdrop of fleur-de-lis, photo from Wikipedia public domain.

Notre-Dame’s central portal carries a stone-carved allegory of Alchemy, a statue of a woman holding books with a ladder and staff. The very word comes from the Arabic al-kimya’ and in medieval times the Middle East was widely acknowledged as the home of advanced experimental science. The use of plant ash in glass was itself a kind of alchemy, an experiment in which the addition of the alkaline (from qily another Arabic word) plant called ushnaan to the silica of the crushed pebbles of the Euphrates produced the world’s finest and most delicate glass, based at Raqqa, the centre of the Syrian glass industry from the 9th to the 14th century. The addition of further chemicals coloured the glass, cobalt for blue, copper oxide for turquoise, manganese for purple/pink and so on.

Alegoría_de_la_alquimia_en_Notre-Dame Alchemy Allegory Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame Allegory of Alchemy on the central portal, photo from Wikipedia by Chosovi, April 2006.

But the ashes of ushnaan also had other properties. They had been used since biblical times as a cleaning agent (Aramaic shuana) where there was no access to water, both in personal hygiene and in clothes laundry. To this day it remains an essential natural ingredient in the Syrian soap industry, as the plant grows especially well south of Aleppo round the salt lake of Jaboul. This is what gives Aleppo soap such a wonderfully soft and silky feel on the skin. It even has the bubbles trapped inside just like the Syrian glass.

IMG_20200302_1634507 Stained glass Canterbury Cathedral c1180 V&A

Stained glass c1180 from Canterbury Cathedral, showing the trapped bubbles from the plant ash. These bubbles also gave the glass extra strength, making it less liable to fracture.  Photo by Diana Darke, taken 3 March 2020 in the V&A Museum, London

The team of scientists at Notre-Dame have made their own unlikely cleaning discovery – that the best way to remove the toxic yellow lead dust from the stained glass windows without danger to the colours is to use baby wipes from Monoprix. The commercial chemical wipes risked being too abrasive. Gentle Aleppo soap would no doubt be even better. How fitting it would be if the cathedral could be cleaned using the very same plant ash that is already inside its stained glass windows.

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Syrian soap from Aleppo, with bubbles, made using Syrian plant ash known as ushnaan, famous for its natural cleansing properties, photo by Diana Darke, taken 31 March 2020

A version of this article first appeared in Middle East Eye on 14 April 2020:

https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/syrian-secrets-notre-dame

NATO’s dilemma over the controversial Turkey/Syria border & the Kurds who straddle it

On 22 November 2019 I gave the annual John Martin lecture to the British Society of Turkish Area Studies (BATAS) at Regent’s University, London. My chosen title was ‘Turkey and Syria: deep past connections and deep present differences’, picked months earlier in order to focus attention on what had been, in my view, the long neglected border between Turkey and Syria. Little did I know that it would become, just weeks before the talk, the focus of worldwide attention after a phone call between President Trump and President Erdogan on 6 October 2019. The call was quickly followed by two connected events – the sudden US troop withdrawal from northeast Syria and Turkey’s incursion into Syria to create a long-demanded 30km deep safe zone along the border.

Originally agreed by the French and the new Turkish Republic after World War I, much of the border follows the course of the Berlin to Baghdad railway. A vastly long 822km line running from the Mediterranean eastwards, it crosses the Euphrates River and ends in Syria’s northeast corner where the Tigris River forms the border with Iraq.

It is an area I know well, having visited southeastern Turkey regularly since the late 1970s when first writing and then updating my Bradt guides to Eastern Turkey and to Syria. In fact it was where my feet first touched Turkish soil, after crossing from Syria at the Bab al-Hawa border post in my ancient Citroen 2CV. I therefore discovered Turkey ‘backwards’, entering from the east. At that time Syria was the safe haven, Lebanon was in the grip of civil war (I had just been evacuated from MECAS, my Arabic school in the hills above Beirut) and most of eastern Turkey was under martial law.

Syria engraving by John Tallis & J.Rapkin, c1851, showing wilayats of Aleppo,Tripoli, Acre, Beirut, Gaza (Diana Darke own copy)

To give an overview, I began the lecture by showing a series of historical maps of the region, starting from Ottoman times, when there were no physical borders, only administrative boundaries for tax purposes. The maps showed how, after World War I, what had been the Ottoman province of Syria gradually became smaller and smaller, losing Jerusalem, Gaza and Nablus to Britain in the south, losing Lebanon to a separate state created by the French, and losing the Sanjak of Alexandretta (Hatay) to Turkey in 1939. Syrian maps to this day still show Hatay as part of Syria, since the land transfer by the French was in clear breach of the terms of their Mandate.

Map of Syria drawn by N. Partamian in 1953, showing Banias in the Golan and Antioch within Syrian borders (Diana Darke, own copy)

Perhaps the least known historical map, and the one most relevant to today, is the one I discovered in the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient in Damascus, which shows the religious and ethnic groupings inside Syria and Lebanon. It was compiled by the French Mandate authorities ruling the region in 1935, and it marks the areas inhabited by Kurds along the Turkish border. These Kurds arrived after World War I as refugees from Mustafa Kemal’s new Turkish Republic. Non-Turkish minorities who stayed in Turkey were obliged to assimilate into a new all-Turkish identity and forgo their own cultural identities, so many left, either voluntarily or forcibly. The Kurds who crossed into Syria were later granted Syrian citizenship by the French Mandate authorities, only to have it taken away again by the Ba’athist government in 1962, which left 300,000 of them stateless, known as ‘bidoon’ (Arabic for ‘without’). President Assad of Syria hastily announced he would grant them citizenship in reaction to the 2011 uprising against him, but the UN estimates there are still 160,000 stateless Kurds inside Syria and that the remainder have mainly left the country.

Une_carte_des_communautés_religieuses_et_ethniques_de_la_Syrie_et_du_Liban_(1935)

This 1935 French map also clearly shows that the area in which Turkey has now created its ‘safe zone’, the stretch between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, was historically a Sunni Arab and Turkmen dominated region, a fact well known to Turkey and which is why it chose to begin its ‘safe zone’ operation here. Kurds settled there only since 2012 during the Syrian civil war, often displacing the original Sunni Arab population, as part of their push for an autonomous Kurdish region here – what they call Rojava, meaning ‘Western Kurdistan’. These Kurds belong to the PYD, the strongest of the seven main Syrian Kurdish political parties, founded in 2003. Though it seeks to deny such links today, the Syrian PYD is so closely affiliated with the Turkish PKK Kurdish political separatist party that it was commonly referred to as its Syrian wing. When the Assad regime army quietly withdrew from these border regions in 2012, the PYD were quick, as the best organised Kurdish group, to take their place, and have also kept lines of communication open to the Syrian Assad regime, which continued to operate Qamishli airport and to pay local salaries for civil servants and teachers.   

Both the Syrian Kurdish PYD and the Turkish Kurdish PKK parties follow the ideology and teachings of the jailed Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, a fact that is made clear by his face appearing outdoors in flags on the battlefield and indoors in PYD office buildings. 

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In my lecture I considered the historic unity of the region, as revealed by the shared architecture of cities like Aleppo and Gaziantep built under the same Ottoman governor, shared trade, and the shared geography of the Fertile Crescent, where dams on the Euphrates have turned deforested plains into productive fields of cotton and wheat. Next I explained about the pockets of Christianity that straddle the border, looking at monasteries that have been newly established on old foundations by Syriac monks like Father Joachim of Mar Augen, on the ridge above Nusaybin in Turkey, looking out over Qamishli in Syria.

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Many Syriac communities and other minorities found refuge here after escaping from the Sayfo massacre by the Kurds in 1915. When I had first visited Mar Augen in the 1980s the ruins were being lived in by a Yezidi family.

Before the current Syrian war, the border was very open and easy to cross. There were no visa requirements for Syrians and Turks to cross into each other’s countries, and as a result, many Syrians holidayed in Turkey and vice versa. President Erdogan and President Assad even holidayed together, in a symbol of these close ties.

But this porous border became a problem once jihadi fighters of all nationalities, including Europeans, started crossing it to join ISIS in its newly-proclaimed caliphate based in Raqqa, on the Euphrates in eastern Syria from 2013 onwards. Assad saw Raqqa as a provincial backwater and ignored the rise of ISIS there. Erdogan also underestimated what ISIS would become and was accused of turning a blind eye.

The four-month battle for Kobane in September 2015 was the turning point, when US fighter jets teamed up with PYD Kurdish fighters on the ground to expel ISIS from the city – the US/Kurdish coalition was born. Erdogan protested loudly from the start about this alliance between America and the Kurdish separatists it has considered terrorists since the 1980s when the PKK first began a long-running guerrilla war against the Turkish army in which 45,000 lives were lost. The PYD, in an effort to legitimise themselves in the eyes of the outside world, formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) by recruiting some local Arab and Syriac fighters, but it was always Kurdish-dominated. To help understand, consider for example what would happen if Basque separatists, regarded as terrorists by the Spanish government, were to team up with the French army to defeat a group like ISIS. Spain would no doubt have been equally vocal about its displeasure from the outset.

In other words, the current problem that countries like France have with fellow NATO member Turkey’s actions against the PYD Kurds was foreseeable from the start. Turkey was willing to use its own army, but France and others in the US-led coalition against ISIS took the short term, expedient method of fighting ISIS using PYD Kurdish boots on the ground who were already there and only too willing to partner with the US and its allies. These PYD Syrian Kurds wanted to defend their Kurdish majority cities like Kobane and they knew it would play well to them and their image in the long-term, if they were seen to be reliable partners against ISIS.

They also showed themselves to be experts in PR, campaigning in Moscow, in Washington and in European capitals for support of their Rojava project – PYD offices abroad have opened in Moscow, Prague, KRG Sulaymaniyah, Stockholm, Berlin and Paris. Photo features on their Kurdish Kalashnikov-wielding female fighters have appeared so often in the western media that you could almost be forgiven for thinking the female fighters defeated ISIS single-handed. Rarely mentioned is that many of those female fighters were on the battlefront to escape patriarchal domestic dominance, notoriously prevalent in Kurdish society with its ‘honour killings’ and blood feuds. Some women have even set up all-female villages where they can live freely away from their controlling menfolk. Fighting ISIS offered an escape route.

In this highly complex and combustible situation along the Turkey/Syria border, everyone is fighting for different reasons, driven by conflicting aims and beliefs. When it was first formed after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire by the Allies, this new border between modern Turkey and Syria was porous and easy to cross, and remained so till very recently. But in late 2014, largely in response to European criticism that it was allowing ISIS fighters to cross into Syria without checks, Turkey began construction of an impenetrable 3m high concrete security wall along the border, topped with razor wire. The EU funded the construction, according to German Der Spiegel, keen to protect itself from ISIS.

Today it is complete, the third-longest wall in the world after the Great Wall of China and the US-Mexico border wall. The communities that once straddled it are now divided permanently, for the first time in their long and interwoven history. Such barriers, as has been amply demonstrated in the past, erected as short-term solutions to complex problems, have a way of creating long-term obstacles to peace as well as to people. NATO’s future is at stake, so a well-coordinated, long-term solution must be found.

Syria Turkey border wall

New book ‘The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo’

9781472260574 (1)

The cat man of Aleppo, Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, touched the hearts of millions when his sanctuary featured in a BBC video in 2016. He had to leave the city when it fell to Syrian government forces, but he’s now back – in an area nearby – and helping children as well as animals.

My new book ‘The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo‘ is a joint venture telling his story in his own words, from his childhood growing up in Aleppo, loving cats, becoming an electrician, getting married and having children, till the war turned his whole life upside down and gave him the chance to do what he’d always dreamed of. He is still inside Syria, so we used WhatsApp to communicate, me sending him questions, him replying orally in voice messages. He only speaks Arabic, which is why the publishers approached me, as they needed an Arabic speaker with extensive background knowledge of Syria. After collecting all the information, I wrote the book very fast, 80,000 words in two months. The intensity helped me to turn myself into him, so I could write in the first person, which was the publishers’ brief! A trusted Syrian refugee couple, Raida Mukarked and Ammar Hasan, who used to live in the upstairs flat of my house in Damascus, but who are now displaced to Beirut, helped me collect the information and we have now all become good friends with Alaa, a real team.

Just weeks after the BBC video was filmed, Mohammad Aljaleel (known to everyone as Alaa) watched helplessly as his cat sanctuary was first bombed, then chlorine-gassed, during the intense final stages of the siege of Aleppo.

Most of his 180 cats were lost or killed. Like thousands of other civilians he was trapped in the eastern half of the city under continuous bombardment from Russian and Syrian fighter jets.

As the siege tightened, he was forced from one Aleppo district to another, witnessing unimaginable scenes of devastation. Yet throughout, he continued to look after the few surviving cats and to rescue people injured in the bombing, driving them to underground hospitals.

The evacuation of east Aleppo, December 2016GETTY IMAGES
The evacuation of east Aleppo in December 2016

When the city fell in December 2016, he left in a convoy, his van crammed full of injured people and the last six cats from the sanctuary.

“I’ve always felt it’s my duty and my pleasure to help people and animals whenever they need help,” Alaa says. “I believe that whoever does this will be the happiest person in the world, besides being lucky in his life.”

After a brief recuperation in Turkey, he smuggled himself back into Syria – bringing a Turkish cat with him for company – and established a new cat sanctuary, bigger and better than the first one, in Kafr Naha, a village in opposition-held countryside west of Aleppo.

Map

Using the same crowdfunding model employed successfully in east Aleppo, funds were sent in by cat-lovers from all over the world via Facebook and Twitter.

But Alaa has always worked for the benefit of the community, as well as the cats themselves.

In Aleppo, he and his team of helpers bought generators, dug wells and stockpiled food. Even at the height of the bombing, they ran animal welfare courses for children, to develop their empathy. They also set up a playground next to the sanctuary where children could briefly escape from the apocalyptic events taking place all around them.

Alaa and Ernesto
Alaa and a cat called Ernesto

The new sanctuary has expanded to include an orphanage, a kindergarten and a veterinary clinic. Alaa and his team resemble a small development agency, providing services that government and international charities cannot or will not. He strongly believes that helping children to look after vulnerable animals teaches them the importance of kindness to all living creatures, and helps to heal their own war traumas.

“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war,” he says. “It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”

Alaa rescues a child in 2016GETTY IMAGES
Alaa rescues a child from rubble in Aleppo in 2016

As a boy growing up in Aleppo, Alaa had always looked after cats, spurring his friends to do likewise, even though keeping cats and dogs as pets is not customary in Syria or the rest of the Arab world.

He started working aged 13, as an electrician, but also turned his hand to many other jobs – painter, decorator, IT expert, satellite-dish installer… he even traded toys between Lebanon and Syria.

Alaa and a kittenGETTY IMAGES

He worked hard and he learned how to get things done. “May the dust turn to gold in your hands, Alaa,” his mother used to say.

His dream was to become a fireman like his father and work in search and rescue, but such jobs were handed out only to those with connections, and the connection through his father was not enough. So for years his applications were rejected.

The sanctuary's vet, Dr Youssef
The sanctuary’s vet, Dr Youssef

“Of course I would never have wished for a war in order to make my dream come true. I wish I could have achieved these things without the suffering I have seen,” he says.

“God blessed me by putting me in a position where I could help people by being a rescue man, but in my worst nightmares I never imagined a war like this for my people or for my country, or even for a single animal.”

During the siege in Aleppo he used to visit both Christian and Muslim old people’s homes, distributing food. Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra regularly chided him, calling him a kaafir, an unbeliever, but he continued regardless.

Vet checking cat's mouthGETTY IMAGES

“Our Prophet Muhammad was good to everybody. He spoke with all Christians and Jews. I believe in Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, because all of them had a noble aim. I’m a Muslim, but I am not a fanatic. I just take from religion everything that’s good and that I can learn things from,” Alaa says.

Despite the difficulties he has endured, Alaa has always maintained a wicked sense of humour. At the new sanctuary, a tabby called Maxi the Marketing King is chief fundraiser, soliciting “green kisses” in the form of dollar bills via social media accounts.

Maxi, aka King Maxi
Maxi, chief fundraiser

Alaa wears a T-shirt with “Maxi’s Slave” written on it, and gets ticked off for smoking too much or for not cooking gourmet meals. He admits his shortcomings. “We submit to Maxi’s authority as the ruler of his kingdom. But even with Maxi’s leadership it wasn’t easy to launch the new sanctuary,” he says.

Maxi's "slave"

This is an understatement. The rebel-held area where Alaa now lives is semi-lawless and when powerful gangs realised he was receiving funds for the sanctuary, they attempted to kidnap him. He was no longer being bombed, but his life was still at risk.

As well as cats, the new sanctuary has dogs, monkeys, rabbits, a chicken that thinks it’s a cat, and an Arabian thoroughbred horse.

“There are so few thoroughbred horses left inside Syria now that I worry about finding him a mare to breed with. I plan to perform the role of a traditional Syrian mother and try to find him a wife, so that he can have children and start building up the population of thoroughbred horses in Syria again,” Alaa says.

Fox at the sanctuary
An injured fox, rescued by the sanctuary…

All the animals have names, generally awarded by Alaa. An aggressive black-and-white cat who came to the sanctuary, stole food and terrified all the other cats was nicknamed al-Baghdadi, after the Iraqi leader of Islamic State (IS).

“Of course, this cat was a million times better than that evil murderer al-Baghdadi, but this name came to mind because his presence in the sanctuary coincided with the arrival of IS gangs in Aleppo,” Alaa says.

Cat and cockerel
… a cockerel that behaves like a cat…

A large ginger tomcat was given a Trump hairstyle and christened The Orange President of the Sanctuary. A pair of speedy acrobatic cats were called Sukhoi 25 and Sukhoi 26, after Russian fighter jets.

“They’re old planes, but effective enough for the job required of them in Syria. We always knew when the Russians were coming to bomb us because of their very loud engine noise. We’d shout: ‘Watch out! A Sukhoi is coming!'”

Alaa’s reputation inside Syria has travelled far and wide, and the government is well aware of his activities.

A hawk
… and a resident bird of prey

In 2017 he was called by the Magic World Zoo, south of Aleppo, which asked desperately for his help to feed the neglected lions, tigers and bears – which he did, despite the dangers of the journey which involved passing through Jabhat al-Nusra checkpoints. While there, he discovered he had been recommended by the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture.

“It was funny that the ministry knew about us and was handing over responsibility for the zoo animals to us,” he says. “The Magic World Zoo gave me a lot of headaches.”

Alaa was eventually able to negotiate a solution for the animals with a charity called Four Paws, which arranged for the animals that hadn’t died to be transported out of Syria to new homes in Belgium, the Netherlands and Jordan.

A rescued tiger from the Magic Zoo, in transit through TurkeyGETTY IMAGES
One of the rescued tigers, in transit through Turkey

In the new sanctuary he looks after 105 children, of whom 85 are “orphans” (in Syria the word covers children who have lost a breadwinner, as well as those who have lost both parents). Only 11 children actually sleep in the orphanage at present, because it isn’t finished, but all receive education, food and clothes, for which Alaa pays 25 euros per month.

The biggest risk is the instability in the region. Clashes break out periodically, as it’s close to the border with Idlib province, which is controlled by rebel groups who often fight each other. No-one knows what will happen next to that part of Syria and who will end up in charge.

Feeding time at the sanctuary

“I blame all fighting parties equally – no matter who they are or why they say they’re fighting – for the killing of civilians,” Alaa says.

“We are rebuilding our communities and my role in that is to rebuild my sanctuary for cats. Friendship between animals is a great thing and we should learn from them. I’ll stay with them no matter what happens.

Alaa covered by cats

“It seems the world cannot solve wars and conflicts these days. That’s why there are now so many refugees around the world, but especially here in the Middle East.

“I do not want to be a refugee. I want to stay in my country, in Syria. I want to help people in any way I can.”

Related links:

My BBC Breakfast TV interview with Naga Munchetty about the book:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-47473772

  • House of Cats Ernesto (official website)

Assad’s New Syria

On my recent trip to Syria, a bus-full of bishops, reverends and members of the House of Lords was my cloak of disguise, the perfect garb in which to pass under the radar of the regime and hear, not the official line which was pumped at us full throttle at every opportunity, but the voices underneath. As one of our group, who had come with an open mind, described it at the end: “It’s like an orchestra in which the strings are playing too loud, drowning out the other instruments. Some sections of the orchestra are simply missing, their instruments broken, unable to play any more……”

How do you heal a broken society? Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, has one answer – you set up branches of Syria Trust, her flagship charity founded in the year 2000 when her husband Bashar al-Assad inherited the throne. Before the war it had roaming 4WDs with teams of manicured rich kids dispensing computers in villages. Today it has 15 community centres round the country dispensing “Intellectual Capacity Development” and “Psychological Support Programmes”. We were given tours of two such centres in Aleppo, surreal pockets of ultra-modern, high-tech installations amid the devastated wasteland, by grinning youthful Assad loyalists fitted out in spanking new uniforms embroidered with the charity’s name. Films ran constantly in the foyer areas showing regime soldiers treating children and citizens with gentle care. Black and white photos gracing the walls did the same. Silent women sat in front of empty sewing machines, summoned to be on parade.

The cheerful staff left on buses as soon as we did, but while we were there, they handed out brochures called ‘Manarat’, (Beacons) describing how they would encourage ‘critical thinking abilities’ in children. To what end? To challenge the system? A fake freedom since the curriculum is tightly controlled. The “Life Skills” development programme for over 13s talks scarily of “effective citizenship” and “purposeful contribution”. A whole generation is about to be brainwashed into the service of Assad alone. Graffiti all over the country, on the long drive from Damascus to Aleppo, spells it out: Al-Assad lil-Abad (Assad for eternity), Al-Assad wa laa Ahad (Assad and no one else) and Allah, Hurriya, al-Assad wa bass (God, Freedom, Assad and that’s it). The merchandising is also in full swing – Bashar mugs, Bashar and Putin photos for sale in hotel lobbies, Kerbala soap for Iranian visitors.

A society is being broken, bit by bit. For now, Assad is rewriting history, with Putin’s help, to cover up the original cause of the damage. Everything is laid at the door of ‘the terrorists.’

On the drive back from Aleppo we stop at Adhra Al-Madaris, one of the many ‘reception centres’ housing refugees displaced from the Ghouta after the Russian-led Syrian Army offensive just over a month ago. This one holds about 5,000 and they are being held like animals. It is the first taste of reality on the trip, raw humanity without filters, deeply affecting for everyone. Surprisingly, the soldiers guarding the camp allow us in to talk directly to the refugees, and because of the size of our group, the Arabic-speakers among us are able to slip off into the crowds. I was invited by a woman and child to come to her ‘home’ and she led me through a maze of small curtained spaces, each one for a family, to her own tiny space with nothing but a thin mattress, a plastic sheet on the floor and a gaping hole in the concrete roof.

The room fills up quickly with more and more women till we are about 15 squeezed into the tiny space. They offer me water from a tin cup, since they have nothing else, no facilities to cook or make tea. Desperate to tell me their stories, it emerges hygiene facilities are horrific, with just one squalid toilet, food is a sandwich for breakfast and macaroni served up centrally as their cooked meal. They hate it and agree they were better nourished under the siege where they had meat and vegetables in their village of Hammoura. All they want is to go home but they are trapped with no information and nothing other than the clothes they are wearing. I ask how they had been treated by the rebel fighters during the siege and they say fine. There was no problem.

There is an Arab proverb that runs: If God wants to make a poor man happy, he makes him lose his donkey, and then find it again. Assad, like a vengeful god, has destroyed the country and driven out half its population, pronouncing it much ‘cleaner’ than before. Now he is preparing to give back the donkey, lame and mutilated, to those left behind, hoping they’ll be so grateful they won’t dare complain. But social justice in Syria, so smothered under the official narrative now, will break through soon enough – it is only a matter of time.

A version of this piece was first broadcast on the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme on Radio 4 on 28 April 2018, see link below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09zt3vc (starts at 06.00 minutes in)

Related articles:

https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/06/30/how-a-victorious-bashar-al-assad-is-changing-syria

https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/06/30/syrian-refugees-could-turn-into-the-new-palestinians

https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/the-crazy-club-inside-the-british-propaganda-trips-that-seek-to-legitimise-assad-s-barbarism-1.724176

 

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

 

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/

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

 

Raqqa, City of Contrasts

Raqqa ISIS convoy

Today’s reality in Raqqa, claimed since 2014 as the capital of Islamic State, is hard to reconcile with its illustrious past as a leading city of the Islamic Golden Age. 

But Matthew Heineman’s powerful new film ‘City of Ghosts’, difficult to watch at times, does not concern itself with history. Its focus is the here and now, the story of the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), whose members are risking their lives to send the outside world painful footage from inside Raqqa, in their mission to counter ISIS propaganda. The documentary – in Arabic, with subtitles – follows four of the group’s leading members over the course of a year, starting from late 2015, and includes material recorded covertly in the city by RBSS and other footage from the Syrian revolution.

Nothing in Syria is straightforward and there are cruel ironies. The bird’s eye view given by aerial drone footage in the film’s early shots of Raqqa’s desolate flat landscape with its sprawling mess of modern buildings, is the same bird’s eye view the US-led coalition pilots will be getting from their cockpits as they bomb “a forgotten city in Syria” as Aziz, the main RBSS spokesman, calls his hometown.

“A few thousand extremists,” he laments, “are deemed justification to blow up civilians.” But he was talking back in 2016, not about the massive aerial bombardment campaign currently being waged on Raqqa by the government of the same country that has just given his activist group a top press freedom award, but about the handful of token airstrikes the Assad regime and its Russian ally had seen fit to conduct against the ISIS capital up to that point.

Raqqa bombing August 2017

Over the coming months it is sadly inevitable that Raqqa’s civilians will be slaughtered all too loudly, as they get caught in the crossfire between ISIS mines and the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seeking to ‘liberate’ them. The UN estimates that up to 50,000 of Raqqa’s original 300,000 inhabitants remain trapped inside the city as human shields, prevented by ISIS from leaving.

The famous Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, immortalised in the tales of A Thousand and One Nights, moved his capital in 796 from Baghdad to Raqqa on the banks of the mighty Euphrates River.

Raqqa Old City overview

He built five hectares of palace complexes to symbolise his dominance of the region, from which his recreational summer palace Qasr al-Banat (Palace of the Maidens) and a colossal courtyard mosque with a 25m tower are all that remain today.

The Syrian astronomer Al-Battani (858-929), who calculated the 365-day length of the solar year to an accuracy of within two minutes and who is quoted as a major source by Copernicus over 600 years later, lived and worked in Raqqa.

 

But while future generations will forever associate Raqqa with savagery and Islamist terrorism, the University of Nottingham’s excavations of the 1990s focussed almost exclusively on another of Raqqa’s claims to fame – its 2km-long industrial complex where, from the 8th – 12th centuries, the city manufactured glass and pottery, becoming the Islamic world’s most important glass-making centre.

Raqqa glass 13th century

The well-preserved glass furnaces produced green, brown, blue and purple glass on a commercial scale, made from quartz pebbles of the nearby Euphrates river-bed, combined with the ashes of plants that grow in the surrounding semi-desert environment. The skilled artisans were both Christian and Muslim, buried side by side in an area close to the kiln sites.

“Death is death, as we say in Raqqa” declares Aziz, claiming he has gone beyond fear in his fight against the jihadists. Yet it is clear, as the film follows its four main members of RBSS, that their constant battle to report ISIS atrocities has taken its toll on all of them, as they chain-smoke to settle their nerves and steady their shakes. The opening scenes, juxtaposing the high glitz of the New York awards ceremony with horrific shots of decapitated bodies in Raqqa, capture this well, exposing the gulf between the two worlds. A female US photographer tries to shoot photos of Hamoud, the RBSS photographer, urging him to smile for the camera: “You’re so serious, my friend!” she exclaims.

As the film moves back to Syria, it charts the heady days of the 2011 Revolution with its singing and peaceful demonstrations. “After forty years of Assad, we started to scream for freedom,” Aziz recalls, and the footage moves to Dera’a where “the deaths of fifteen children were the spark that ignited revolution”. He explains how he had no political background before then, and how his father, well-aware what would happen, warns him to stay away from journalism.

The film’s main focus throughout is the danger to the men as activists, a shared danger which deepens their bonds of friendship. As ISIS seeks to silence them, and as their colleagues and family members start to be assassinated, they decide to leave for Turkey’s Gaziantep, assuming it will be safe to continue their work from there. But ISIS is not so easily deterred and their co-founder and mentor Naji Jerf is shot in broad daylight on the city’s streets. The intimate scenes shot at his funeral are among the most moving in the entire film.

Naji Jerf funeral

Some of the activists, including Aziz, are then granted expedited visas, immediate refugee status and free housing by the German government. Only Muhammad, a maths teacher, is married. His wife Rose is the sole female character to appear, and the film now shows footage of them all enjoying snowball fights in Berlin juxtaposed with surreal videos from Raqqa of casual street executions carried out by young ISIS recruits, their victims’ heads impaled on public railings. Mass destruction of satellite dishes is secretly filmed as ISIS cracks down on their activities, determined to cut them off from the world. Safely in Germany, they all suffer from survivors’ guilt. Hamoud, a self-described introvert, watches the video of his father’s assassination, posted online by ISIS, to “give me strength.” Meanwhile the friends experience the harsh reality of a Pegida anti-immigrant rally with heavily tattooed Germans chanting “One-way ticket to Turkey! Deport them!” Aziz is offered German police protection, from ISIS and from Pegida, but refuses it, feeling he cannot accept a protection that his friends lack.

A clear sense is given of how ISIS’s own films and propaganda material has become more professional through recruitment of media specialists, using Hollywood-style special effects to boost membership, making the ISIS lifestyle seem like a glorified video game. “Why play it online when you can play it for real?” reflects Aziz.

What the film does not explain is why ISIS chose Raqqa in the first place. They borrowed the black banner of the Abbasids, but their choice was much shrewder than their awareness of the city’s former glory. The last fifty years of Assad rule left Raqqa’s population neglected and exploited. Its poor and disadvantaged population, ripe with resentment and hatred of the regime, made it fertile ISIS recruiting ground. It is the only place in all of Syria where I have had stones thrown at me as a westerner. The takeover by a handful of extremists of an insignificant provincial backwater was considered unimportant by Assad, so his forces made no attempt to displace the ISIS fighters who first appeared in the city in early 2013. It was a bad miscalculation. The regime did not understand that Raqqa’s strategic location on the Euphrates,

Raqqa Euphrates banks

downstream from Syria’s largest reservoir Lake Assad, and the main hydro-electric dam at Tabqa, together with its proximity to the country’s oil and gas fields, would give the pretender caliphate a disproportionate stranglehold on Syria’s infrastructure from the start. This part of Syria, well-watered, fertile, cotton and wheat-rich, should be the wealthiest in the country, but Bashar al-Assad’s regime, unlike his father’s, has always been urban-focussed, treating the assets of the provinces like possessions to be milked as if they belonged to his personal farm.

The film ends with a warning. In his speech to the assembled New York glitterati, Aziz explains that the conditions and structural problems in Syrian society which enabled the rise of ISIS are still there. Even if their territory is lost, he reads in halting English from his script, their ideology will continue to find supporters among the brutalised and unemployed youth with nothing to lose. When Hamoud becomes a father in Germany (his wife is invisible) the responsibility changes everything for him: “I don’t want my child to struggle like me without a father.” He names his new-born son after his assassinated father, and footage moves from the German hospital where the naked baby gurgles and kicks, to a chilling scene showing Raqqa’s Caliphate Cubs chanting death slogans. A child barely older than a toddler uses a huge knife to saw the head off a startlingly white teddy-bear, then beams, holding up the head triumphantly for the camera and squealing Allahu Akbar on cue.

To recover from such barbarity I recommend a visit to the glass displays of London’s V&A Museum. Gaze at the exquisitely delicate Raqqa perfume bottles, and ponder the fall of such a city, which in happier times centuries ago was known for its beautiful artisanal creations, its earth-changing scientific inventions, its multicultural environment and its magnificent summer palaces – all fostered by an enlightened, outward-looking Islamic state.

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Exquisite glass perfume bottles made in Raqqa, displayed in London’s V&A Museum (DD)

Syria: From “beautiful little babies” to “beautiful big safe zones”?

metrograb: A devastated father has been pictured cradling the bo

Russian state television has not been showing pictures of the victims, lifeless or still writhing, which have been flooding Western media channels since the sarin gas attack of April 4 on Khan Sheikhoun, a town between Aleppo and Hama. After all, Russia is supposed to be the guarantor of the deal under which President Assad of Syria signed up to the international treaty banning chemical weapons. Under threat of US military action, he quickly agreed to the removal and destruction of his stockpile, declared at 1,300 tonnes of chemical agents including sarin.

The deal was hailed as a great success. The international community congratulated itself on the historic Russian/American cooperation. That was back in 2013 after Obama’s notoriously illusory “red line” was crossed by the Syrian regime dropping sarin on the agricultural eastern Ghoutasuburb of Damascus. 1,500 died overnight. Only twice in history had sarin been used before this week: first in Halabja by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds in 1988, the second in Japan in 1995 by a new religious movement on the Tokyo subway. There have been nine recorded chemical weapons attacks in Syria this year alone, but this is the first where the agent has been sarin as opposed to chlorine, mustard or phosphorus. This time around 100 were killed, most dying from suffocation before they reachedhospital. Doctors Without Borders confirmed the signs – constricted pupils, muscle spasms and involuntary defecation – as have autopsies carried out by WHO and OPCW officials on corpses rushed to Turkey. Israeli and British intelligence report that the attack was ordered at “the highest levels” of the Assad regime. It comes hard on the heels of a spate of documentaries about the “disappeared” in his prisons and the decision of a Spanish court, last week, to file a case against some of his top officials for war crimes.

RT-syria-ml-170405_4x3_992 sarin victim 4 April 2017

Sarin is not easy to manufacture, say the chemical weapons experts. If, as the Assad regime claims, Isis or al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have the capability to manufacture it, why have they not used it, given they are not known for their restraint? The sarin is likely to be from old stockpiles not surrendered – 200 tonnes’ worth is the current OPCW estimate. Anyone who knows the Assad regime and how it operates can assume that it held some back as a “contingency”.

Khan Sheikhoun is in Idlib Province where the rebels and their families, all labelled “terrorists”, have been herded into a giant corral awaiting their extermination. It was the option they chose after being forcibly evacuated from areas like Homs, Darayya and most recently Aleppo and Wadi Barada under what the regime calls “reconciliation” deals. Almost everyone rejected the alternative on offer – to rejoin the regime and face a similar fate, but this time as cannon fodder for their own side. Madaya, Zabadani and Douma are next in line. So many of the victims are among the newly displaced that not all their identities have yet been established. Idlib has been targeted so heavily and for so long that its medical supplies were utterly unequipped to deal with something of this scale. Already there are rumours of a mass offensive on Idlib Province planned by the Assad regime, backed by Russia from the air and the Shia militias of Iran, Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah on the ground. The sarin attack is thought to have been conceived as a “softening-up” of the rebels in advance of this offensive. Dropping a sarin bomb is a way of extracting an early surrender, just as the US dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese to end the Second World War.

Trump

But it is Trump who has stunned the world with the speed of his reaction. Up to now his policy has been that strongmen are the best thing for the Middle East, to keep extremism at bay. Overnight he has swung US policy from tolerance of Assad to outright attack, launching fifty-nine cruise missiles from US warships in the eastern Mediterranean. The target, totally destroyed, was the Shayrat airbase near Homs from which the sarin attack was launched. Six Syrian soldiers were killed. He has done some “softening-up” of his own.

What next? Will he make good on “beautiful big safe zones”? Does he have plans for one in the huge swathe of Syria’s eastern desert that will fall to the West when Isis is driven out of Raqqa?  Or in the north along the Turkish border, something the Turks have been calling for since the summer of 2011? He could take out all Syria’s air bases in a matter of days if he wanted to. He would not target the Russian base at Hmeimim, Lattakia, leased in January of this year to Russia for forty-nine years, extendable for another twenty-five. No short-termism there. But Russians embedded in Assad’s bases, as advisers, engineers and even as contracted mercenaries, could still be killed, just as some were in the recent coalition bombing of Deir ez-Zor.

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The Americans have already intervened in favour of the PYD (Syrian) Kurds, using them as their preferred ally over Turkey to lead the fight against Raqqa, the Isis capital. The Kurds have also been courted by the Russians, granted an office in Moscow, in the full knowledge that through them Russia might gain a valuable land bridge from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. Turkey is determined to block Kurdish ambitions for autonomy, fearing the consequences for its own restive Kurdish population in southeast Anatolia. One in five Turks is a Kurd, a balance that is tilted in Kurdish favour through ongoing high birth rates. For a short time it looked as if President Erdoğan had given up on his long-held policy of ridding Syria of Assad, but after the sarin attack he has reverted, declaring: “Hey, the world that remains silent, the UN that remains silent. How will you be brought to account for this? Hey, murderer Assad, how are you going to escape their [the victims’] curse?”

Timings are never random in the Assad regime. The fact that the strike came the day before the EU conference on reconstructing Syria is no accident. Assad was pushing the boundaries, laughing at the world’s impotence and revelling in his own immunity. The Brussels conference was planning to kick-start reconstruction quickly, hoping the promise of funding would lure him into reforms. Any attempt to rehabilitate Assad and “reward” him for his war crimes will simply be like a sticking plaster to cover a running sore. While short-sighted European governments looking for a quick fix may see this as the answer for tomorrow, it will not be the answer for next week. If reconstruction contracts flow in from Europe and the UN organizations via the Assad regime through the usual corrupt channels to enrich and favour regime-held areas, the same corrupt cycle will repeat itself in Syria as it did so tragically for the exploited people of Somalia and South Sudan.  Assad’s budget is heavily dependent on UN and international NGO aid, much of which disappears into companies affiliated with Assad’s relations, as investigative journalists have shown. If the gap between rich and poor, urban and countryside, a major trigger of the 2011 uprising in the first place, is allowed to get worse, the result will be more extremism, more refugees and more terrorism, leading inevitably to more destabilization in Europe.

It has always been delusional to think that Assad could be part of the solution to the future of Syria – the best outcome from this sarin attack would be that his arrogance has derailed his own rehabilitation. That at least would be a first step in the right direction. Meanwhile Trump’s decisive action will stop sarin attacks from becoming the new normal in the Middle East.

This article first appeared on the TLS website 7 April 2017:

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/sarin-attack-trump-assad/

Related:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/29/un-pays-tens-of-millions-to-assad-regime-syria-aid-programme-contracts

UNHCR tents used by regime as base for Assad election posters 2014

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/donald-trump-full-statement-syria-missile-strikes-170407061519587.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39529264

Advice to Donald Trump – do Marshall Plan-style deals in Syria and the wider Middle East

trump

The multibillionaire businessman who is shortly to become President of the United States of America is an ace deal-maker. Since his shock victory in the elections of 8 November the world has wondered how on earth this larger-than-life figure who has never before held political office will handle the complex challenges of the Middle East where wars are destabilising entire nations, leading to refugee exodus, extremism and terrorism. Trump has yet to appoint his Secretary of State, the person who will take over from Obama’s man John Kerry, whose valiant efforts have so far failed to secure peace in the Middle East on any front.

My advice to Trump, based on a lifetime’s living and working in the Middle East, most notably of late in Syria, where I still own my courtyard house in the Old City of Damascus, is to play to his own strengths – and the region’s – and combine them to mutual advantage.

His own deal-maker abilities are legendary, but so are those of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel – the area which for 400 years under the Ottoman Turks was known as ‘Greater Syria’.  Located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, these communities have always been outward-looking, open to trading opportunities from east, west, north and south. The very identity of these countries has been shaped by their engagement in commerce and deals. Across the centuries as civilisation after civilisation crisscrossed the terrain, some stayed and settled, leading to a society that is multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic. The merchants and businessmen in the Middle East are actually the true power holders, not the politicians or the armed forces.

What he should do therefore, in my view, when he becomes President on 20 January 2017, is to devise a massive Marshall Plan-style deal for the Middle East from which everyone will benefit. Negotiations will be tough and complex as to who gets what, just as they were in 1947 with the Marshall Plan. It described itself as “An Act to promote world peace and the general welfare, mutual interest and the foreign policy of the United States through economic, financial and other measures necessary to the maintenance of conditions abroad in which free institutions may survive and consistent with the maintenance of the strength and stability of the United States.” In other words, entirely consistent with his “Make America great again” slogan, while simultaneously solving many of the world’s destabilising foreign policy crises. Sometimes called “The European Recovery Plan”, the Marshall Plan, named after then Secretary of State General George Marshall, the fund of $12 billion (equivalent today to roughly $120 billion), was administered over a four-year period. It rebuilt regions devastated by war, removed trade barriers, modernised industry, dropped regulations, encouraged increased productivity and the adoption of proper business procedures.

The Trump administration would not need to start from scratch. It could cooperate with the 1,000-strong team already in Beirut working on  a project called the “National Agenda for the Future of Syria.” Under the auspices of the United Nations’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, a team of regional experts including civil engineers, agricultural specialists, architects, water experts, conservationists, hospital administrators, traffic coordinators and more, is planning for “Day One”, when the fighting ends. Their Deputy Executive Secretary, Abdullah al-Dardari, was till 2011 the Deputy Prime Minister of Syria for Economic Affairs and Minister for Planning, a highly skilled and dedicated man, and the work is apolitical, designed to be implemented irrespective of who the future political masters may be.

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Thierry Grandin, consultant to the World Monuments Fund, describes their work, saying: “It is good to do the planning now, because on day one we will be ready. It might come in a year, it might come in 20, but eventually there will be a day one. Our job is to prepare.”

In Iran a similar approach could be adopted. A policy expert in the US is reported as saying Trump is so unpredictable “he could open hotels in Iran or go to war with Iran.”

Iran has an acute accommodation shortage and cannot meet demand for the new surge in tourism that followed the dropping of US sanctions. Doing deals to build hotels – something Trump has plenty of experience in – would be an ideal way to maintain good relations with Iran.

What a turn-up it would be if Trump could harness his business acumen to steer the ultimate deal for peace in Syria and the wider Middle East that no politician before him has achieved. Maybe I am a hopeless dreamer, but that really would be a deal to remember.

Relevant articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38086933

https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/02/21/daring-plan-rebuild-syria-matter-who-wins-war/oD5IxhqveGjfPQryW6q3OJ/story.html

http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/264225/trumps-marshall-plan-inner-city-kids-matthew-vadum

http://sa-news.com/trump-said-africa-should-be-recolonised-now-germany-announces-marshall-plan-to-rescue-africa/

 

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