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Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Syria”

How #ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, declared himself ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ in June 2014. Claiming a genealogy traced back to the Prophet Muhammad and his noble tribe the Quraysh, together with a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, his religious credentials are certainly stronger than previous Al-Qaeda leaders.

The caliphate in early Islam was a military and political office, not simply a religious one. The Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime was religious leader, lawgiver, chief judge, commander of the army and civil head of state all in one. ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is following this model. The Prophet Muhammad died suddenly in 632 leaving no male children. Disputes over who was to be his khalifa or caliph, (Arabic ‘successor’) have been responsible for most of the schisms of Islam, including the major Sunni/Shi’a division. ‘Never was there an Islamic issue which brought about more bloodshed than the caliphate,’ wrote the respected historian Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153) in his Book of Sects and Creeds.

To boost his standing further, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ appears to be modelling himself on the first four Sunni Orthodox caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali – known as Al-Rashidoun, ‘the rightly-guided ones’, who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. Under them the Islamic state expanded within a decade from Arabia to conquer first Syria, then Iraq, Persia, Egypt and beyond. Those early conquests were characterised by military campaigns led by brilliant strategists like Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-Aas, using horses and camels in lightning raids against their enemies – the Byzantines and the Sassanians – whose armies were generally on foot. Today’s ISIS attacks too are characterised by their speed and surprise, always mounted on vehicles, attacking from many sides like a Bedouin ghazwa (raid). Raiding was seen as a noble occupation in early Arabia – much poetry is devoted to its praise. Acquisition of new territories was one of the principal duties of the caliph, and it is to this tenet of jihad (religious war) that Islam owed its fast early growth.

The Prophet Muhammad’s great achievement was to break tribal allegiances and replace them with a new fraternity of Islam: “Know ye that every Muslim is a brother unto every other Muslim, and that ye are now one brotherhood.”  All new converts of whatever tribe, race or nationality were welcomed. The new ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is using the same tradition to welcome foreign fighters to his fold.

New actors on the world stage like ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ do not come out of nowhere. Conditions have to be right for them to flourish. When the Prophet Muhammad preached the new religion of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia, anarchy already reigned in the 7th century world around him. Arabia’s political structures had broken down, sapped of energy by never-ending tribal feuds and disputes over springs, pasture and livestock – the bare necessities of life in an arid desert environment.  Long-running wars between the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanians, heavy taxes imposed by both empires and the multiple schisms of the Christian Church paved the way for the rapid advance of the early Muslim armies.

Like the early caliphs, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’s’ conquests have been eased and enabled by the chaotic regional environment. The post-2003 ‘de-Ba’athification’ process carried out by the Americans after deposing Saddam Hussein left an Iraq reeling and beset with government in-fighting. Ripe for harvest, its oilfields beckoned tantalisingly.

Syria’s tragic revolution-turned- civil-war provided the perfect cloak to ISIS ambitions. Under a general amnesty in early 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists were released from Assad prisons. Some regrouped with remnants of Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq and organised themselves into what has evolved as ISIS. In March 2013 they captured Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, 25 miles east of Tabqa, Syria’s largest dam, just as in August 2014 they captured the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, on the Tigris – now wrested back for the time being by the Kurdish peshmerga with the help of US air cover. In Syria ISIS practised its fighting skills, not on the well-equipped Assad army, but on Syria’s Kurds and on the poorly-armed rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army. ISIS now controls most of Syria’s eastern oilfields, and in Iraq too its strategy involves systematically seizing the northern oil installations, fuelling its wealth. Conservative estimates put ISIS income from oil alone at US$1 million a day. The bearded chiefs have grown rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Thanks to such control of oil and water, new followers flow strongly into the fold. An impoverished population suffering from the effects of drought, unemployment and disenchantment with the powers-that-be, makes fertile recruiting ground. Most of the Prophet Muhammad’s early converts to Islam were slaves and lower classes – people with something to gain. The first caliph Abu Bakr, when recruiting for his armies, wrote to the people of Mecca promising them there was rich booty to be won from the Byzantines. To raise more money from its conquered territories, early Islam also imposed a means-assessed poll tax on Jews, Christians, Sabians (and later Zoroastrians) considered ‘People of the Book’, acknowledged to be monotheists. Only groups like the Yazidis, who were misunderstood as ‘devil-worshippers’, were presented with the stark choice of ‘convert or be killed’. The poor paid a quarter of the rich, while women, children, beggars, the old, the insane and the sick were exempt. ISIS has been taking taxes from towns under its control in Syria since 2013. In Iraq it has been demanding protection money from local business, whilst also presenting a generous face through handing out food, petrol and subsidising electricity.

As well as offering an attractive and powerful identity, ISIS can offer $400-500 a month as regular income to young Sunnis only too happy to believe in a new ideology based on their own supremacy, and in which the Arabian concept of ghanimah, booty, is legitimate.  Sura 8:42 of the Koran says ‘one-fifth of the booty is for God, the Prophet, those close to him, orphans, the poor and the wayfarer’ ie belongs to the state. By implication therefore the rest can be taken by the fighters. Yezidi women and children are legitimate spoils of war in this ideology.

Under the rallying cry of religion, the ISIS of today is driven by motives it sees as sanctioned under Islam – to gain territory, to acquire new converts, and to spread its strict Islamic rule of law – the Shari’a – with punishments like amputation for theft and beheading for apostasy or for non-believers who refuse to convert. It is copying the social mores of 14 centuries ago.

But behind this religious cloak the same economic forces that drove the Prophet Muhammad’s followers and led to his early conquests are driving the speed of ISIS’s advance. Many despairing Syrians and Iraqis who have watched their countries crumble around them are now joining ISIS out of pragmatism, rather than ideology. The attraction of being on the winning side cannot be overestimated. As long as the region remains in disarray, the likelihood is that ISIS will increasingly be seen by many as the only answer – and a rewarding one to boot.

Bombs

 

Iraqi/ISIS/Yazidi conflict is less about religion than about oil, water and power

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing the Peacock Angel, as God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

Article below as published in The Sunday Times 10 August 2014:

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/focus/article1444902.ece

Oil and water, not religion, are fuelling Isis campaign to wipe out minorities

Who could have dreamt that the plight of the secretive Yazidis, stranded without food and water up Mt Sinjar, would suddenly command worldwide attention, let alone lead to US air strikes against the self-styled caliphate of the insurgent group Isis? But the epic, near Biblical scenes of this resilient group of people fleeing up a bare mountain have caught the public imagination.

Look more closely at a map and it becomes clear that this entire region is filled with religious minorities, the remnants of the intermingling of many faiths. For here in the once Fertile Crescent was the birthplace of religion, even the birthplace of civilization itself. Three of the world’s great monotheistic religions were born here – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a deeply spiritual part of the world.

The origins of many of the religions practiced here remain shrouded in obscurity. Yazidi ancestry is Assyrian-Semitic but over the centuries they are thought to have moved north from Basra and become Kurdicised.

Successive persecutions at the hands of local rulers have stemmed from two misunderstandings:  that their name referred to the detested early caliph Yazid bin Mu’awiya (when it derives instead from the Persian for angel ized), and that they worshipped the devil (a confusion of the name shaytan, Arabic for devil, with the Peacock Angel whom Yazidis see as God’s alter ego on earth).

 

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Physically they resemble Kurds and most speak Kermanji Kurdish, though the Yazidis from Mt Sinjar also speak Arabic. They live separately from neighbouring tribes and do not intermarry, mainly settled in remote villages but are sometimes nomadic with herds of sheep. They have never been politically important – till now, when they have come under the glare of the international spotlight.

They have only ever sought to practice their religion in peace, away from prying eyes. At the core of their faith is a deep belief in transmigration,  that each life gives the chance to move gradually forward towards a better future. Hell and the existence of evil are denied as absolutes. They see all evil as man-made. Their current persecutors, Isis, are evil personified, threatening them with death or conversion, but no Yazidi can convert religion – it is tantamount to forfeiting the soul. As with the Druze and Alawi minorities found across Lebanon and Syria, it is not possible to convert to their religion, only to be born into it.

The images of bleak deserts that flash across our screens today also serve to obscure the region’s two secret treasures: water and oil.  The mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers both of which have their headwaters in eastern Turkey, run through Syria and Iraq before exiting into the Gulf near Basra. The very word ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘the Land between the Two Rivers’.

Whoever controls these waters controls the lifeblood of the region, and IS’s seizure in recent days of the fragile Mosul Dam has the potential to change the course of history – another epic flood of biblical proportions. Downstream, were it to burst, either accidentally from lack of maintenance or deliberately as an act of maniacal vengeance, Iraq’s first and second cities, Baghdad and Mosul, would disappear underwater. The oil wells of northeast Syria, northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan all lie within the grasp of IS, and it is systematically taking control of them to fund its operations.

Beside the religious there are further ethnic  minorities, such as the Turkmen who divide more or less equally between Sunni and Shi’a Islam with their own language and customs, and the Shabak, mainly Shi’a  but with elements of Yazidism. They too have their own language. The numbers of all these minorities have plummeted over the last decade, none more so than the Christians, down to about 400,000 in Iraq alone from 1.5 million before 2003. There are between 70,000 and 500,000 Yazidis worldwide.

It is one of the great ironies of history that all these minorities lived out their beliefs in relative peace under the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the Assads in Syria. But the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ and now the rise of Isis have combined to turn this part of the world upside down. Into the power vacuum left by the floundering Syrian Revolution and the chaos of the Maliki-led Iraqi government stepped Isis, making its headquarters at Raqqa on the Euphrates in Syria.

As the patchwork of Iraq and Syria disintegrate under the onslaught of Isis, it is north to Iraqi Kurdistan that the overwhelming majority of persecuted minorities are fleeing. Perceived as a haven of relative stability, the Kurdistan Regional Government is seeking to gain independence from Iraq, though its Peshmerga fighters, low on cash and weaponry, will be tested to the full in the coming weeks and months. Its Education Ministry has introduced the enlightened policy that its schools must teach all world religions equally. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim but Islam is accorded no special status. A person’s faith is seen as a private matter. For Isis such a policy is of course anathema.

Many refugee minorities would flee to Turkey, if the borders were opened, as the Turkish government now also allows its Syriac Christians and its Yazidis to live unmolested.

The biggest irony is that all the religious groups struggling to co-exist in this region believe in the same God, however they choose to address him or whatever symbol they choose to represent him – be it a peacock, a cross, the sun or simply an abstract geometric pattern. Proof if ever it were needed, that this conflict is less about religion, than about water, oil and power.

Diana Darke is author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution. She has specialised in the Middle East for more than 30 years.

Related posts on the Yazidis:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-now-we-can-all-share-the-boris-fantasy-9658001.html (scroll to second letter from Professor Christine Allison, Ancient community faces a grim fate)

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel, God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

 

 

Postcard from Nusaybin, southeast Turkey

POSTCARD from NUSAYBIN (as published in Chatham House’s The World Today magazine (Aug/Sept 2014 issue)

Mar Yakoub Church and university, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

Syriac Mar Yakoub (St James’s) Church and university dating to the 4th century, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

One glance at a modern map is enough to understand why Nusaybin is a hotspot in today’s world. Situated in southeast Turkey, it looks across the border at its southerly reflection, Qamishli in northeast Syria; its main east-west highway hosts an endless convoy of tankers with their precious cargo heading out from Erbil in oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan into oil-poor Turkey;  and another highway leads southeast to Iraq’s Mosul. This volatile triangle of territory is delineated by watchtowers and fences along the Syrian-Turkish border, erected in the 1970s, and by the long Syrian-Iraqi desert frontier which became a physical barrier only after 2003.

All this talk of borders would have made no sense at all before World War One. Sykes-Picot had yet to draw their ‘lines in the sand’ creating the modern states of the Middle East. The maps in Baedeker’s 1906 Palestine et Syrie show only the loose provincial Ottoman boundaries and the journey from Nusaybin to the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire on the banks of the Tigris opposite Mosul, is described as ‘five days on horseback requiring a strong escort.’ Even in the 1930s under the French Mandate when Agatha Christie accompanied her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan to dig the famous tells of Mesopotamia, they would arrive by train at Nusaybin via the Berlin-Baghdad railway, then head south with no customs formalities, despite their trunkloads of luggage.

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

Nusaybin’s strategic location on east-west trade routes ensured a complex past. Beginning with the Assyrians, empires came and went, and as Roman Nisibis it formed a fortress-frontier against the Persian Sassanids. Forever caught in the power-play of outside forces, there are two indigenous peoples, the Kurds and the Syriacs, in and around Nusaybin who rarely get a mention, stateless peoples whose aspirations for nationhood were repeatedly thwarted. But an unintended consequence of recent events like the US invasion of Iraq, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the rise of ISIS militants has changed the dynamic.

The city’s residents today, like most in the area, are overwhelmingly Kurdish, with just a small Syriac community, but in the 4th century the population was mainly Syriac, and Nusaybin’s Syriac roots are still deep. St James’ Church in the centre is one of the world’s oldest functioning churches, dating back to 325. Alongside it sits the newly excavated university where famous scholars like St Ephrem the Syrian, ‘Harp of the Spirit’ (306-73), composed  hymns and trained all-female choirs. His language was Syriac, and his descendants, ancestors of the Assyrians, still speak a dialect of ancient Aramaic known locally as ‘Suryani’, using its classical form in their liturgy.

Successive persecutions at the hands of fellow Christians, Muslims and Kurds across the centuries caused most to escape to Europe and beyond, but to ensure the language does not die, each year dedicated members of the Syriac diaspora  send their children to Syriac summer schools run by monks at the nearby monasteries. Those who stayed scattered into small broken communities across the region within cities like Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria, Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq.  Qamishli was largely created by Christians fleeing the fighting of World War One.

Next summer  will be the centenary of their worst ever persecution, the 1915 Sayfo (The Sword), little known in the West, a massacre in which tens of thousands of Syriacs were slaughtered alongside Armenian Christians, mainly at the hands of Kurdish tribesmen.  Yet remarkably, today the highly educated and talented Syriac community is reviving, fed not only by families from abroad, but also by refugees from Syria,  returning to their ancient homeland. Most significantly of all, they are gradually healing historic rifts with their Kurdish neighbours, acknowledging that they were manipulated during the 1915 Sayfo by their Turkish masters.

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man's land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2013]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man’s land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2014]

Looking across today’s barbed-wire border from Nusaybin, through the no-man’s-land where the last relics of Roman Nisibis still rise, the houses and grain silos of Syria’s Qamishli are clearly visible. Blessed with fertile wheat fields, Syria’s largest oilfield and three major rivers, this panhandle of northeast Syria  is quite a prize, and in January 2014 Syria’s Kurds, as the dominant population, declared Qamishli capital of ‘Rojavo’  or western Kurdistan. The 22 cabinet ministers are a Christian/Muslim/Kurdish mix, in line with their secular ideology. Kurdish identity is defined by ethnicity, language and culture not by religion, a fact reflected in Iraqi Kurdistan’s schools where all world religions are taught equally.

Today’s fragile balance is now threatened by new invaders, the Sunni militants of ISIS, who want to rid the region of imperialist borders, and impose an ultra-conservative Islamic state across Iraq and Greater Syria.  A year from now, at the centenary of the Sayfo, will Nusaybin still be in Turkey? What will the map look like? Only one prediction can safely be made – that it will still be a hotspot.

 

 

Saving #Syria’s Cultural Heritage – how to help

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Little known and little recognised, groups of Syrians inside Syria are working together to try to save the destruction of their country’s cultural identity. Confronted with the inertia of the international community, the occasional statement and handwringing from UNESCO and the Syrian government’s own narrative presenting itself as the custodian of the country’s rich treasures, these groups are taking matters into their own hands. A mix of academics, archaeologists, students and ordinary citizens with a deep love for their country, they have almost no funding and most are volunteers.

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

A recent study (by Heritage for Peace see link below) has shown that 38 organisations are involved worldwide in efforts to highlight the damage to Syria’s cultural heritage, including the big names like UNESCO, Blue Shield, the Global Heritage Fund, the World Monument Fund, ICCROM and ICOMOS. The overwhelming majority are talking shops, gathering data and posting it online. They are largely based outside Syria and function only through the official channel of the Syrian Directorate-General of Museums and Antiquities (DGAM) which in turn only functions in the regime-held areas of the country. Of these 38 organisations, 14 have been formed since 2011 specifically in response to the Syrian crisis, mainly from volunteer groups. Only six of the organisations are Syrian, working on the ground inside the country, and of these only three that we are aware of are taking pro-active, pre-emptive measures to protect ancient buildings. It is a chronic state of affairs, but such is their commitment to doing whatever they can that they are prepared sometimes even to risk their lives in order to protect and save their cultural identity.

Bricking up Zachariah's Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Bricking up Zachariah’s Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest and richest city, is where such actions have been most prevalent. The Division of Antiquities of the Free Council of Aleppo was founded in 2013 and has sandbagged and walled up the precious sundial in the Aleppo Great Umayyad Mosque, and bricked up its shrine of the Prophet Zachariah. With the help of the Tawhid Brigade from the Free Syrian Army, they have dismantled its 12th century wooden mihrab for safe-keeping away from the front line.

The Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks was founded in Aleppo in 2013. Its members, many of them archaeology students from Aleppo University, at considerable risk to themselves, saved the stones from the fallen minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque and have put them safely elsewhere awaiting reconstruction after the war. They also helped the Free Council of Aleppo with protecting the sundial and removing the mihrab.

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) was founded in 2012 in Strasbourg by a group of Syrian archaeologists and journalists. Together with collaborators on the ground they have compiled an extensive website cataloguing the damage (www.apsa2011.com) and have also held short workshops in Turkey’s Gaziantep to train Syrians in techniques of how to record damage and how to carry out simple protection measures.

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge rebels from the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, Idlib Province

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge refugees sheltering in the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, near Al-Bara, Idlib Province

A team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, Idlib Province

An APSA team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, near Al-Bara and Kafaranbel, Idlib Province

All of this work goes unrewarded financially and unrecognised internationally. Syria’s concentration and range of cultural heritage sites far exceed that of neighbouring Iraq. Yet while Iraq benefited from a UN resolution in 2003 after the US invasion banning trade in its antiquities, the Syrian case has been largely ignored, complicated by politics. Stepping up to the challenge, the Global Heritage Fund UK has recently agreed to help by acting as a channel for funds for anyone who would like to help support this work. The sums involved are small by the standards of international organisations. But international organisations like UNESCO cannot operate inside Syria without the permission of the Syrian government – a permission which has not been forthcoming.

APSA is looking to raise £32,000. So far they have raised £6,400. If each of the 624,000 people who clicked to view the recent BBC feature highlighting the problem (see below) had been able to contribute just £1, the target could have been met 20 times over.

Anyone who would like to do something tangible to help can contact cgiangrande@globalheritage fund.org, or use the donation form below. Even small amounts will make a huge difference. Handwringing and nostalgia, alas, do not.

Global Heritage Fund – 2014DonationFormV2

Related links:

http://www.heritageforpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Towards-a-protection-of-the-Syrian-cultural-heritage.pdf

http://www.apsa2011.com/index.php/en/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28191181

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria's Cultural Heritage

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria’s Cultural Heritage

 

Syria – a book to help you understand it differently

http://www.timeoutistanbul.com/en/books/189/My-House-in-Damascus-An-Inside-View-of-the-Syrian-Revolution

Full text of review in Time Out Istanbul by Pat Yale below:

My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution

Diana Darke was one of the first foreigners to buy a house in Damascus, offering her a unique view into the Syrian conflict.

Three years of increasingly savage fighting. More than 150,000 dead. Many thousands more injured. Nearly three million people turned into refugees. Another 6.5 million displaced inside their own country.

 The bald statistics for the damage done to its citizens by the Syrian conflict are utterly shocking, but for most people the initial “Something Must Be Done” attitude has gradually been replaced by a grim acceptance that nothing probably can be done in a situation that lacks clear goodies and baddies. And so we tune out the horror of it all, unable to focus on so much human suffering day by day.

 Into the void left by those who have turned away has stepped Syria guidebook writer Diana Darke, one of the first (if not the first) foreigners to buy a house in the country. Darke offers just the sort of first-person account of what has been going on that makes it possible for people to re-engage with the story. Her book ‘My House in Damascus’ describes how the chance sighting of an open door in the old city in 2005 brought her into contact with an architect engaged in the then-blossoming business of restoring the lovely old mansions.

 “You realize that you can buy property here,” he tells her, thus triggering a search for the perfect bolthole. It turns out to be the lovely if dilapidated house of Bait Baroudi just round the corner from the great Umayyad Mosque.

This is no story of love lost and refound against a Middle Eastern background. Darke was no ingénue, stumbling uncertainly into a country about which she knew little. Instead, she was an old hand with form in this part of the world, a fluent Arabic speaker whose research for the Bradt Guide to Syria had taken her to every corner of the country. Read her description of exploring the great Byzantine “Dead Cities” north of Aleppo and weep for what has almost certainly been lost.

But the heart and soul of the book is always Bait Baroudi, a courtyard house that still retained its lovely original decorations, albeit partially obscured, when she bought it. Darke poured her savings into a gentle restoration aimed at preserving the building’s heritage; when the work was completed after three years “the house looked and felt as if the inhabitants of earlier centuries had only just left.” But as she skips over the bureaucracy she encountered and revels in every detail of the restoration process, always lurking in the background is the knowledge of what is to come: the day when she will no longer be able to live in the house and its courtyard will have to be turned into a mini-refugee camp for some of those with whom she had worked over the years.

Despite the book’s subtitle, ‘An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution’, Darke doesn’t bother with the finer details of which armed group is doing battle with which other one. Instead she introduces us to a roll call of colorful characters – Ramzi the Philosopher, her state-imposed guide in the early days, Maryam the Christian bank manager, Marwan the lawyer, and Bassim the architect – all of whose lives are irrevocably changed as the conflict intensifies.

All books eventually come to an end but of course the story of the Syrian civil war has yet to reach its conclusion. As you turn the last page of the book you know that you can go straight online to continue reading on Darke’s blog, dianadarke.com. Tragically Darke herself is no longer able to get a visa to enter Syria, but in her blog she recounts the ultimate absurdity of when she travels to Sidon in Lebanon and meets up with Marwan. He hands her some rental agreements that she must sign to ensure that the refugees now living rent-free in Bait Baroudi will not be booted out by the authorities.

War may ravage and destroy people’s lives, it seems, but the wheels of the bureaucracy will keep on turning until the end.  Pat Yale

Damascus June 2011 061

Living in the eye of Syria’s storm

Book Review of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution

by Mary Russell, The Irish Times, 28 June 2014

Diana Darke’s account of her life in the ancient city glows with an understanding of and affection for its people.

While so many commentators and journalists write about Syria the victim, and zoom in on the death and destruction of that great country, Darke affords the Syrians she meets the dignity of being individuals.

Click here for the full review:

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/living-in-the-eye-of-syria-s-storm-my-house-in-damascus-1.1846142

My House in Damascus

Dreams of a better #Syria

 

Refreshment for passers-by, Souk Al-Hamadiye, Damascus  [DD]

Refreshment for passers-by, Souk Al-Hamadiye, Damascus [DD]

Review as published in The Times Literary Supplement June 20, 2014 by Gerald Butt

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1423819.ece

“Diana Darke’s My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution is written with the pace of a novel and the colour of the best travel writing. The book hangs on the author’s purchase and refurbishment of a house with a courtyard in the Old City of Damascus in 2005 – and all the insights that the legal and bureaucratic battles gave her into Syrian society, echoing in this sense Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons. But the book offers much more than a personal memoir: it is an eclectic but learned encyclopedia of Syrian history, of the Arabs and their language and traditions, of Islamic art and architecture, and more.

Darke, fluent in Arabic and an authority on Syria, befriends Syrians who, well before 2011, are surviving as best they can in an atmosphere of fear, of “plainclothes policemen, the dreaded mukhabarat, looking grim and brutal in their black leather jackets”. A Syrian tells her: “You must understand. They can arrest me any time they want, throw me in prison. My family would never even know where I was or whether they would ever see me again.”

In the face of such repression, one can understand why the revolution against  Ba’athist rule erupted. But that does not make it easy to predict how it will end. Some of the most insightful passages of Darke’s book describe the dilemma faced by the silent majority of Syrians whose views are least represented in the foreign media. They feel unable or unwilling to choose between the two extremes on offer: the regime or the rebels. This partly explains why, she writes, so many Syrians felt compelled to flee the country: “Had there been a moderate alternative in the middle, a carrot so obviously juicier and bigger than the others, all parties would surely have chosen it long ago.” Instead, the distance between the two extremes is growing. The worsening violence and intimidation in Damascus eventually forced the author, too, to give up her beloved house and leave the country. Since September 2012 the building has served as a refuge for her displaced friends.

Darke muses finally on what must happen for Syria to emerge from the current nightmare. She imagines, for example, a second revolution to secure the middle ground. But for this to succeed, she says, everyone must forget that the first revolution began with peaceful protests, and they must forgive regime troops for gunning down unarmed protesters. “Maybe I am a hopeless dreamer”, she concludes. Hopeless or not, she is right in her assessment that a solution to the Syria crisis still resides only in the realm of dreams.”

Carefree child playing the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]

Carefree child playing the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]

Refutation of Mother Agnes Mariam’s narrative on #Syria

As submitted to The Tablet, published 21 June 2014
“Abigail Frymann tries hard to present both sides of the narrative in her feature interview (“The rebels want my head”, 7 June) with Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross. Sadly, in so doing she falls hook, line and sinker for the controversial nun’s take on matters inside Syria. The view that ‘the majority of anti-Assad fighters in Syria are foreign’ is presented as ‘widely accepted’, yet all reputable media outlets like The Financial Times and the BBC regularly report that whilst there are indeed now many foreign fighters inside Syria, they began in small numbers and only started expanding a year after the uprising began. Even now they account for less than 25% of the total opposition. Assad himself has of course brought in far greater numbers of foreign fighters – from the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – to defend his own regime, but no mention is made of that. 
Certainly matters ‘are not black and white’. But the ‘more complicated reality’ to which Mother Agnes refers is that Assad, under the guise of a general amnesty in early 2012, released al-Qaeda affiliated prisoners from his jails, knowing full well they would regroup and pursue their extremist ideology. Again, no mention is made of that. Now, two years later, the proof is before us, as ISIS, untargeted by regime airstrikes, was allowed to consolidate itself in Ar-Raqqa, from where it has swept into Iraq and taken large swathes of territory. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically – why is it that they have yet to fight each other?
The ‘reconciliation’ initative of which Mother Agnes is part, so loudly trumpeted by the Assad regime that well-meaning people like Mairead Maguire are fooled into nominating Mother Agnes for the Nobel Peace Prize, is a naked attempt to deceive the world that Assad is keen to forgive and forget. Had ‘reconciliation’ been his message at the outset in March 2011 instead of savage crushing of peaceful demonstrations, ISIS extremists could never have thrived on Syrian soil. As to her assertions on the chemical weapons attack,  Human Rights Watch has systematically dismissed the basis for her arguments.
Only when Assad, no doubt amply aided by Hizbullah and Iran, finally orders his forces to drop barrel bombs on ISIS headquarters, instead of on moderate rebel headquarters in Aleppo and Dera’a, will his narrative that he is fighting ‘extremism and terrorism’ become true. Maybe then we can nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Diana Darke
Author of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution
All that remains of St Simeon Stylites' pillar in St Simeon's Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting 'souvenirs' across the centuries [DD]

All that remains of St Simeon Stylites’ pillar in St Simeon’s Basilica west of Aleppo, thanks not to the current fighting, but to Christian pilgrims harvesting ‘souvenirs’ across the centuries [DD]

Assad and ISIS – the ‘marriage of convenience’ is over

By the end of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, nearly every party had allied with and subsequently betrayed every other party at least once. The age-old pattern is the same: groups like ISIS began in Syria by ingratiating themselves with the local population, as they are doing in Mosul now, offering free fuel, electricity supplies and appearing to restore security to the streets. Next they will provide food and medical services. At first, in such charm offensives, they seem to be a godsend, then in stages, the reality reveals itself and their hard-line Islamist agenda comes to the fore, with compulsory Quranic schools, summary public executions and enforced veiling of women. But just as this was not the real Syria, neither is this the real Iraq. Women will pull their headscarves out of their handbags to put them on at black-bannered checkpoints, then stuff them away again.

In the early months of the Syrian Revolution extremist rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra accounted for no more than 3-4 per cent of the rebels overall, maybe reaching 10 per cent around Aleppo. While most fighters in Al-Nusra are from Syria, the extremist group ISIS which appeared over a year later than Al-Nusra in April 2013 is both foreign-led (by an Iraqi) and foreign-dominated. Its fighters come mainly from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia, though there are also Chechens, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and Iraqis as well as a few Pakistani Taliban and even Chinese. Dressed in their Pakistani-style tunics and menacing black balaclavas, brandishing their weapons, they form a stark contrast to the conservative but moderate Sunni Muslims who make up 74 per cent of Syria’s resident population. Typical communiqués use language like: ‘Our army is full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones.’ It is hard to imagine their ideology ever taking root in Syria, despite their ceaseless propaganda videos on YouTube and their thousands of tweets – all the rebel groups have their own highly active Twitter accounts.

Many Syrians told me long before the revolution that the Syrian brand of Islam is close to the tolerant Sufi Islam of Ibn Arabi and Al-Ghazali – open to all and with no coercion. Yet groups like ISIS are so intolerant they even started to ban tobacco as un-Islamic in areas they controlled in Syria’s north, not just alcohol and what they called ‘immoral entertainment’.  The kind of Syria they are trying to usher in would end up destroying the country’s very identity, its tolerant character. Moderate Syrians have begun social media campaigns against them with slogans like: ‘DAESH [Arabic for ‘ISIS’] GO OUT. Bashar and DAESH are one. We didn’t have a revolution against a tyrant for another tyrant to come and control us in the name of religion!  Those who belong to Syria, Syria is for all of you. Those who belong to Al-Qaeda, go to Afghanistan!’ Dozens of Arabic language Facebook pages have been set up rejecting ISIS, its Islamic credentials and its brutal tactics.

The rebel group ISIS now controls the oil fields in Syria’s north eastern provinces. They have broken the pipelines, creating environmental disasters, then welded on crude taps from which they fill queues of tankers. The valuable cargo is then trundled mainly into Turkey and sometimes even into regime-held areas of Syria, where prices rocket. It is a money-making exercise, free of overheads, that has turned the bearded chiefs into millionaires. Thousands of amateur refineries have sprung up, converting the crude oil to petrol, diesel and mazout heating oil, sold in smaller canisters to anyone who has the money. None of them will give that up without a fight. As the ISIS accounts captured in recent days have revealed, the rebels have accumulated huge funds from this oil and from looted Syrian antiquities, enabling them to pay good salaries to new recruits and to acquire proper weaponry for them. From their Syrian headquarters in Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, they have in recent days swept east into Iraq and taken the second city of Mosul along with vast tracts of adjoining territory, capturing along the way much heavy weaponry from the American-supplied Iraqi army.

So now the equation has changed. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically, yet they have never fought each other. ISIS militants have slept sound in their beds without fear of regime air strikes and barrel bombs. Whereas the Assad regime was before quite happy to turn a blind eye to ISIS and its atrocities in the north and in Al-Raqqa, content that its energies were being directed towards fighting the more moderate rebels, now ISIS has become a real threat.

Therefore it should come as little surprise that as The Times today reported, Syrian government forces for the first time bombed ISIS bases in eastern Syria and Al-Raqqa ‘acting in co-ordination with the Iraqi government’. The Assad regime has re-done its calculations, and is now banking on the expectation that its air-strikes against ISIS will also earn it grudging gratitude from the West. Bashar al-Assad must even be thinking this is his chance to become rehabilitated in the eyes of the international community, and undergo a transformation from ‘murderous dictator’ to ‘saviour from Islamist barbarians’.

The UN Chemical Weapons deal last autumn only happened because there was a rare consensus in the international community and no blame was attributable. Maybe such a consensus can be found again, this time to rid both Syria and Iraq of the growing extremist groups like ISIS. Maybe moderate elements from the rebels too can find a common cause and unite against this greater Al-Qaeda-affiliated menace whose terrorist jihadi agenda threatens not just Syria and Iraq’s future but the future of the entire international community. Maybe it will be Syria’s second revolution, a revolution in which even the ‘silent majority’ may find its voice.

In the meantime we can expect more Syrian air strikes against ISIS bases – their ‘marriage of convenience’ is over.

[This post includes extracts from the book My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution ]

Related articles:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/15/iraq-isis-arrest-jihadists-wealth-power?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/middleeast/iraq/article4120205.ece

This post includes extracts from the book.

This post includes extracts from the book.

To vote or not to vote – Syria’s elections

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ s Hijaz Railway Station with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

As published in The Guardian on 2 June 2014:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/02/syria-election-vote-for-assad-or-else

What an irony. Fear of the Syrian government and its many-tentacled security apparatus is greater now even than it was before the revolution began.  Why should that be? The government is generously offering ‘reconciliation’ deals across the country, with gracious amnesties like the one that enabled several hundred rebel fighters to leave the exhausted city of Homs with light weapons in early May. Yet anyone who knows Syria from the inside knows full well that the Assad regime’s generosity and grace is to be feared above all else.

When peaceful calls for dignity and reform were met in March 2011 by crushing violence from the outset, the protesters knew what awaited them if they were arrested. Their bravery in breaching the fear barrier even to take part in such demonstrations is beyond admirable. Tens of thousands have gone missing over the last three years, detained in prison, never seen again, or sometimes simply returned to their families in a body-bag as a warning, like the mutilated body of the 13-year old Hamza Al-Khatib, early icon of the revolution. Like so many, Hamza was not even demonstrating – he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the presidential election is held on 3 June all over the country in regime-held areas only, Syrians know full well what it means. It is not so much an election – everyone knows the result after all – it is more like a census, a head count of government supporters. To vote anything other than for Bashar Al-Assad is to sign your own death warrant and that of your family, and not to vote at all means you are forfeiting your chance of any kind of future in Syria. Of Syria’s 23 million population some 4 million are estimated to have left and some 9 million are thought to be internally displaced. At least a further million have lost their identity papers in the fighting and are thereby disqualified. Only refugees outside the country who fled ‘legally’ – just 200,000 out of 3 million according to the Syrian Ministry of Interior’s own figures  –  are eligible to vote, thereby ensuring a situation cannot arise where one of Bashar’s two opponents might actually win abroad.  These ‘legal’ expatriate Syrians can vote in Syrian embassies in certain selected countries like Russia and Romania, and those living in a country where the embassy is closed, like the UK, have been cordially invited back  to Syria ‘to exercise their civil right’. Some have taken up the offer knowing that they must, if they ever wish to return to their country while the Assad regime still holds sway. In Paris I was reliably informed of one Syrian who went, not to vote since France has banned the embassy from participating, but to renew his passport. Known to be anti-regime, he had his passport torn up in front of him and was told: ‘There – now go and get yourself a new passport from your Friends of Syria.’

In this country we face no repercussions for not voting – in Syria it is very different. ‘If you are not for us, you are against us.’ We in the West may dismiss the Syrian election as an absurd process, a mockery of democracy. We have that luxury. But if you are Syrian it is a matter of life and death.

Fear is forcing thousands to vote for Assad, whose tender mercies are well known. Stories are circulating about the ways in which the regime seeks to take revenge on those whom it considers have betrayed it. Even those who have done nothing and never taken sides are at risk. All it takes is one report written by one security official who takes a dislike to you. It has already happened to several of my neutral Syrian friends.

Whilst western democracies will scoff at Syria’s election process, Russia and Iran will use it to their advantage. It plays beautifully into their narrative of supporting ‘whoever is elected by the Syrian people’ and legitimises their unwavering support of Assad.

Syria has lost c40% of its GDP since 2011 according to the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research in conjunction with the UN and the IMF.  Eleven million have lost their livelihood. Fear of losing their right ever to live in their country again is driving them to vote. Hard as it may be for us to grasp, for them it is a vote for life or death.

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