Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category
This was published at the National…
For a week in June, Syrian writers and artists toured England, giving readings and workshops to promote “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline”, a book reflecting the country’s new revolutionary culture. British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab describes the experience.
In Bradford we met a woman who had tried as hard as she could to forget she was Syrian. We didn’t discover her original trauma, but we heard its symptoms over a British-Pakistani curry. She hadn’t spoken Arabic for years, and never told anyone where she was from. Once a policeman detained her for an hour because she refused to tell him her origin.
In Bristol, on the other hand, we met a little old woman who, with her red hair and flowery dress, we might have mistaken for English. But she was a Damascene, and she wept when I read a description of her city. Afterwards she came to introduce herself. “I’ve lived in England for thirty years, and I didn’t realise until the revolution that I had a fear barrier inside. Then I noticed I’d never talked about Syria. I’d tried not to even think about it. But those brave youths gave me courage; they gave me back my identity and my freedom.”
So the Syrian revolution is alive and well in Bristol if not in Bradford, for this is where the revolution happens first, before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations – in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words. Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’ in which public discourse was irretrievably devalued by enforced lip-service to the regime and its propaganda pieties. As a result, many Syrians describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, a kind of rebirth. In “Syria Speaks”, Ossama Mohammed’s story “The Thieves’s Market” concerns a woman who attends the state’s official demonstrations, until her friend is murdered for participating in an oppositional one. “I grew up,” she says, “came of age, abandoned someone and was abandoned, on a march that finished yesterday.” When that coerced march ended and a thousand new ones began, Syrians found unprecedented liberation simply by expressing honest opinions in the presence of their neighbours, by breaking the barriers of fear.
I am a signatory to this letter published by the Guardian.
As supporters of the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy, we are concerned by the British government’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran in response to the crisis in Iraq (Shortcuts, G2, Iran, 18 June).
There is a grave danger that the Iranian government will see this as a licence to extend its already substantial intervention in Syria in support of its client – the Assad regime – which could not have survived this long without Iranian support.
Thousands of troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia are actively fighting in Syria on the regime’s side, as are Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias. To ally with Iran in order to combat Isis is deeply ironic, since there is considerable evidence that the Syrian regime has been colluding with Isis: Assad’s air force bombs civilians, schools, markets and hospitals without mercy but declined to attack Isis’s massive headquarters in Raqqa until the Iraq crisis erupted.
The Syrian regime has been playing a game of shadows in which this covert collusion with the growth of Isis has been used to undermine the democratic opposition and strengthen its own claim to be a bulwark against “terrorism”. To accept Iran – and by implication Bashar al-Assad – as allies in the fight against Isis is to fall for this deception.
Now that ISIS has supposedly taken over vast swathes of northern Iraq (in reality, ISIS is a small minority of the Sunni Arab forces that have risen against the Malki government), the newspapers are full of articles telling us that the West should align with Iran to defeat the common foe. Of course, Iran’s sectarian and aggressively expansionist policy in both Iraq and Syria is a major contributor to the rise of ISIS and similar groups. Working with Iran against ISIS is as intelligent as working with Hitler against anti-Semitism. I discussed the issue with Hayder al-Khoi and Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s Newsnight.
I spent the last eight days on tour with Syria’s greatest novelist Khaled Khalifa, artist Khalil Younis, and writers Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen. We were promoting the Syria Speaks book, a collection of art, cartoons, essays, short stories and novel extracts from revolutionary Syria. It felt useful to approach the subject through human stories rather than banging the head against the tired old political discourses. I’m writing about the tour and book for a piece which should be published next month. In the meantime, here on BBC Radio 4′s Front Row, Khaled, Malu and I discuss the new culture, Khaled’s experience under bombs, and the ISIS phenomenon.
Here’s a brief extract from my essay on Syria’s Alawi community, its history and doctrines and its political fortunes under Assadist rule and during the revolution, written for the Sects issue of the Critical Muslim. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe, and encourage your library or college to do so. The next issue will be a Syria special.
Syria’s CIA-backed military coup in 1949 was the first in the Arab world. Although there was a later parliamentary interval, the coup brought the army (and therefore rural minority groups) into the centre of Syrian political life, and a pattern of coup and countercoup set in, only brought to an end when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi air force officer, rose to absolute power in the 1970 ‘Correctionist Movement’, achieving stability through totalitarian control.
From one perspective, Assad’s early years were golden years for the Alawis, as they and other hitherto marginalised sects (Druze and Ismailis) as well as rural Sunnis moved into the cities and entered state elites. (“Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and their Politics” by Palestinian Marxist Hanna Batatu is a wonderfully comprehensive, wonderfully written study of the mechanics and personalities of this movement). The regime settled Alawis (often low-ranking soldiers and their families) in strategic suburbs on the approaches to Damascus. In these early years too, the Ba‘ath demonstrated loyalty to its rural base and its proclaimed socialist values by building schools, clinics and roads for the villages.
The officers of the Republican Guard, the special forces and the security agencies – the real powers running the country – were almost exclusively Alawi. This ‘empowerment’ of the community arguably reversed its growing acceptance by the Sunni majority. Once despised, Alawis were now feared and resented. It was also the reason why the regime found it necessary to reduce Alawi identity to its Ba‘athist, or more properly Assadist, component. Because the regime depended on Alawis for its survival, it was potentially at their mercy. Therefore it needed to ensure that no alternative source of authority existed within the community, so independent Alawi shaikhs were killed, imprisoned, exiled, or intimidated into silence. The president’s brother Jameel, unqualified to say the least, attempted to make himself a spiritual leader in their place. Against the urging of the clerics, Alawi doctrines were not studied in universities. Religious education in schools centred on Sunni tenets and rituals (Christian students had their own classes). The president prayed Sunni-style in public, and Alawis were encouraged to give up their difference and build mosques and to go on Haj.
This was published by the Guardian.
This must be how the Palestinian camps began their slow transformation into towering townships. The Syrian families here are still living in canvas or plastic tents, but the little shops selling falafel and cola on the Atmeh camp’s ‘main street’ are now breeze block and corrugated iron constructions. And now nobody dares to talk about going home.
Atmeh camp, just inside Syria, hugs the Turkish border fence. Its population has risen in the last six months from 22,000 to almost 30,000. This newly-sprung settlement is one of very many – there are more than six million people displaced inside Syria, and over two million in neighbouring states. The camp’s population dwindles and swells according to the vicissitudes of battle. When the regime reconquered (and obliterated) the Khaldiyeh quarter of Homs last July, an additional 50 to 60 families a day arrived.
Six months ago, when I last visited, I was able to travel deep into liberated Syria – as far as Kafranbel in the south of Idlib province – with nothing to fear from the Free Army fighters manning checkpoints. This time I didn’t dare go as far as Atmeh village, sitting on the nearby hilltop, because it was occupied by the al-Qa’ida franchise the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In June the camp’s residents referred derisively to the mainly foreign jihadists as ‘the spicy crew’. Now they are a real threat – abducting and often murdering revolutionary activists, Free Army fighters, and journalists. This development contributes greatly to the gloom of the camp’s residents. (At the time of writing the Free Army and more mainstream Islamic battalions are finally striking back at ISIS, fighting and arresting its cadres.)
In the camp, the steaming vats of the Maram Foundation’s charity kitchen are cooking the same meal they were cooking six months ago: lentil soup. Children wait for lunch to be distributed with buckets in the red mud outside. Also on main street is a new clinic and one-room dentist (funded by the Syrian-American Medical Society). Dr. Haytham grins as he complains about the conditions. The roof leaks, and the recent snowstorm flooded his crowded space, destroying electrical equipment. As he served us tea, a boy called Mahmoud walked in to observe us, his face marked by post-treatment leshmaniasis scars (a resurgent disease caused by the sand flies which prosper in uncollected rubbish). Mahmoud, about five years old, seemed a pleasant child at first, but after a smiling photograph with one of our group his mood flipped, he violently pinched the hand of the man he’d been cuddling up to, and then took to whipping his older sister with a cable. “Nobody can control him,” somebody remarked. “He doesn’t have a father.”
Fatherless, husbandless, homeless… When I asked a man where he’d come from he changed the name of his town from Kafranboodeh to Kafr Mahdoomeh, ‘the Demolished Village’. I asked him why. “Because they haven’t left one house standing nor any animals in the fields. What will we ever return to? The whole town’s gone.”
Mohammad Ojjeh made a short film in which the children of the Salam School for Syrian refugees in Reyhanli, Turkey, speak about their experiences and the Karam Foundation’s Zeitouna programme.
This was published at the National.
Syria is my father’s country, where I spent an important part of my young adulthood, where my son was born. Living there was inspiration for my first novel (though it’s set mainly in London). In fact, I fell in love with the country – with its enormous cultural and historical heritage, its climatic extremes, and its warm and endlessly diverse people. Of course there were moments – for example, visiting a broken man who’d been released after 22 years imprisonment for a ‘political offense’ – when I felt like getting the next plane out. And before too long I did move on, because a stagnant dictatorship was no place to build a future.
Then in 2011 the revolution erupted. This instant of hope was followed by a counter-revolutionary repression of unprecedented ferocity. How to respond? For a long time I wrote and spoke to anyone who would listen on one theme: the necessity of funding and arming the Free Army – civilian volunteers and defectors from Bashaar al-Assad’s military. Nobody did arm them, not seriously, and as a
result the Free Army lost influence and Islamist factions filled the gap. Assad’s calculated manipulation of sectarian fears and hatreds produced a Sunni backlash. Al-Qa’ida franchises set up emirates near the Turkish border, and the West increasingly understood the Syrian drama not as a battle for freedom, but as a security issue. In illustration of this fact, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport as I started my most recent trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, in December, and questioned under the UK’s Terrorism Act. “Which side do you support?” they asked me. I explained there are many sides now, but the question seemed to be either/or: either the regime or the jihad – and support for the (genocidal) regime was the answer which ticked the ‘no further threat’ box.
They also asked why I was going. The answer: I was lucky enough to know a group of committed and talented Syrian-Americans, including Chicago-based architect and writer Lina Sergie Attar, interviewed below, founder of the Karam Foundation. Karam delivers aid and opportunity to war-struck Syrian communities, and I was on my way to participate in its Zeitouna programme.
How do you act usefully in the face of a tragedy which unfolds on an incomprehensible scale? Syrians and their friends were forced to address this question as Assad’s genocidal repression transformed the popular revolution into a civil war, and as an unthinkable third of the population were made refugees. Every city except two has crumbled in whole or in part under bombardment. Ancient mosques and churches have been reduced to dust. The country’s multicultural social fabric appeared to dissolve.
An edited version of this article was published by al-Jazeera.
In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.
Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.
Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.
Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.)
But even these simple aims are difficult to achieve, even in the regime’s absence. ISIS closed one printing press (a second ran at a secret location), and arrested and beat Yasser for ‘taking photographs of women’ (the ‘women’ in question were girls under the age of thirteen participating in one of his workshops). In July 2013 he witnessed ISIS attacking Saraqeb’s media centre and its abduction of a Polish journalist.
An edited version of this piece was published by the National.
Our car turns through the crowded alleyways of single-storey breezeblock houses, foggy with coal smoke in the icy December morning. This is the poorest quarter of Reyhanli, a Turkish town just across the Syrian border, and it’s crammed with Syrian refugees.
The woman whose story I’ve come to hear puts on a niqab when the camera comes out. And she prefers to be nameless, because she fears for her two married daughters still living in regime-controlled territory.
She lives in an empty, unheated house. Her son sits with us, and her small daughter shivers under a blanket. The woman is in early middle age but looks older. Her face is long, worn, and haggard, her voice pain-strained and sharp.
Her husband, born in 1972, worked with the military security for seventeen years but retired early when he needed an operation on a vertebral disc. After that he opened a roast chicken place in his Homs neighbourhood, Bayada. The family lived what his wife describes as a working-class life “of an acceptable standard”. They had six children. Bayada comprised both Sunni and Alawi families, “and the relationship between us was very good, even if the state favoured Alawis. We drank maté together. There was no problem.”
The revolution broke out less than a year after her husband’s retirement, and the newly-pressured military security began asking him to return to work. He refused. “How could he work for them? At that time Bab Dreib was being shelled. In our area there were house searches and random arrests of young men. They even took women, those who attended demonstrations and those who shouted ‘God is Greater!’ from their windows at night.”
Her husband supported the revolution and was part of a local network which helped the revolutionaries, finding shelter for those on the run and collecting food, medical supplies and money. His wife believes an Alawi neighbour informed on him. On the other hand, it was an Alawi friend who warned him that his name was on the wanted list at regime checkpoints.
Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).
I was interviewed by ITV Border about my trip to the Turkish/Syrian border, where I was working with the Karam Foundation.
I’ve just returned from a brief visit to the Syrian/ Turkish border, to the Salaam School for refugee children in Reyhaniyeh on the Turkish side, where I was working with the Karam Foundation, and to Atmeh camp inside Syria, where almost 30,000 people are sheltering from the slaughter. Northern Syria is dotted with similar camps.
You can view pictures from the trip here.
Something that doesn’t come across in the pictures is how cold it is. Snow was lying on the ground in Atmeh the day before I arrived, and a child had frozen to death. I’ll be writing about my experiences and some of the stories of the people I met. In the meantime, here is the trip summed up by my Facebook status updates:
December 6th – the first stage of my trip to the turkish-syrian border involved being examined at edinburgh airport under schedule seven of the terrorism act (2000). To this the failed human beings of east and west have reduced the syrian people’s revolution.
drank tea and ate knafeh with the teachers of the Salaam School in Reyhaniyeh. very inspiring to see the organised hard work that’s gone into fitting new walls into a villa (and building an olive grove) to make a school which serves over a thousand refugee children. forget Assad, ISIS, and the Coalition – the future of Syria belongs to self-organised and committed Syrian women and men
December 7th – Assad forces backed by foreign Shia terrorists have executed dozens of civilians in Nabk. Watch the silence of the Western media, which seems to have no problem with terrorism and religious extremism when it seeks to preserve the status quo.
December 8th – there are the blue hills of syria, as ethereal as the future, so near and yet so far
December 9th – among the children’s chosen heroes in my storytelling workshop were Robin Hood, Batman, my brother the martyr, my father the martyr, and Sponge Bob. Among the problems to be solved were a dinosaur eating people, a car hitting a pedestrian, my house being shelled, and my cousin stuck in prison.
I wrote this review of Bente Scheller’s book for al-Jazeera.
Syrian poet Rasha Omran once told me that Bashaar al-Assad is “not a dictator, just a gangster boss.” But really he’s not even that. What he is, is what his father looked like in all those statues – one element in the managerial class, a (dysfunctional) functionary. Syria is a dictatorship which lacks an efficient dictator.
Hafez al-Assad – the father – was an entirely different matter. Born in a dirt-floor shack, he clawed his way to the top by brute cunning, deft flexibility, and strategic intelligence. The careful manipulation of sectarian tensions in order to divide and rule was one of his key strategies, yet he was also attentive to building alliances with rural Sunnis and the urban bourgeoisie – both constituencies now alienated by his son. Bashaar’s great innovation was supposedly economic reform. In practice this meant an unpleasant marriage of neoliberalism with crony capitalism. It succeeded in making his cousin Rami Makhlouf the richest man in the country. The poor, meanwhile, became much poorer, the social infrastructure crumbled, and unemployment continued to climb.
The thesis of former German diplomat Bente Scheller’s book “The Wisdom of the Waiting Game” is that the Syrian regime’s approach to its current existential crisis follows a “narrow path consistent with previous experience,” and she focuses on foreign policy to make this point. When the regime found itself isolated on Iraq after the 2003 invasion, for instance, or then on Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the Syrian army’s precipitous withdrawal, it waited, refusing to change its policy, until conditions changed, its opponents were humbled, and it was brought in from the cold. In his book “The Fall of the House of Assad”, David Lesch points out that Bashaar al-Assad felt personally vindicated by these perceived policy victories, and grew in arrogance as a result. Today, with the West handing the Syrian file over to Russia, and seemingly coming round to Bashaar’s argument that Islamism poses a greater threat than his genocidal dictatorship, it looks (for now at least) as if the refusal to budge is again paying off.
The most interesting parts of Scheller’s book are not actually dedicated to foreign policy, but describe – accurately and with balance – the causes of the revolution and the nature of the regime’s response. The most direct link she’s able to posit between domestic and foreign policy is that, in both, the regime’s only abiding interest has been self-preservation. In Scheller’s words, “regime survival … defines what is perceived as a security threat.” This chimes well with the shabeeha graffiti gracing Syrian walls – “Either Assad or we burn the country.” In regime priorities, Assad always stood far above the people, the economy, the infrastructure, and even the integrity of the national territory.
After provoking an armed uprising by his suppression of a non-violent protest movement (using rape, torture and murder on a mass scale), Syrian dictator Bashaar al-Assad lost control of large areas of the country. He then subjected those areas to a scorched earth policy, burning crops, killing livestock, shelling with artillery, dropping barrel bombs and cluster bombs from war planes, firing cruise missiles and sarin gas. Schools, hospitals and bakeries have been particularly targeted, alongside economic infrastructure. As a result a THIRD of Syrians, over seven million people, are now displaced. The Syrian winter is as cold as the Scottish winter, and this year millions of people will not be living in their homes but in half-demolished buildings, under trees, and in tents.
What’s the connection to the strange photograph of me? Well, I have shaved off my beard (the moustache and the central part of my monobrow will go on December 3rd). Such a traumatic assault on my facial hair, my very identity… Why? In the hope that you, dear readers, whatever your take on the conflict in Syria, will sponsor me, or in plainer terms, will donate some money. You can do so here. Every twenty dollars (or equivalent) buys blanket, coat and hat for a Syrian child. (If you remember, donate to Robin/ Wassim/ Team UK). I know the organisers of this charity and can vouch that they are absolutely honest, that every single penny will go to keeping a Syrian child warm this winter. Please do donate, and please share this page. We just have a few days to raise as much as we possibly can.
While I have your attention, please sign this petition to ask the British and French governments to boycott Rosoboronexport, imperialist Russia’s primary arms supplier to Assad’s genocide.