Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category
Israel’s attack on Assad’s military bases on Mount Qassioun above Damascus have provoked mixed feelings amongst Syrians. On the one hand, Syrians have been well aware for over two years that Assad’s army is designed not to confront Zionism but to slaughter the Syrian people. For a year and a half Mount Qassioun has been the launching pad for for artillery and missile attacks on civilian areas of Damascus and its suburbs. On the other hand, hatred and mistrust of Israel rightly runs very deep indeed among the people, far deeper than among the regime which, despite all its rhetoric, has not once (since 1973) responded to Israeli violations of Syrian sovereignty. Syrians know that Israel’s attack is an attempt to exploit the revolutionary situation for Israel’s own ends, that it is part of Israel’s confrontation with Iran – something Syrians want no part of, however much they may hate Iran’s criminal support of the genocidal Assad regime – and that it offers grist to Assad’s propaganda mill.
Here are some immediate responses to Israel’s attack. The Syrian National Coalition released this statement, including this line: “The Coalition holds the Assad regime fully responsible for weakening the Syrian Army by exhausting its forces in a losing battle against the Syrian people.” Many Arabic language Youtube videos show various Free Army and Salafist militias condemning both Israel and Assad’s regime.
I wrote this on Facebook:
Assad responds to the Israeli attack by escalating his sectarian massacres on the coast and his bombardment of Syrian cities, including the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk. Infantile so-called ‘anti-imperialists’ everywhere cheer on Assad’s ‘heroic resistance’.
By ‘sectarian massacres on the coast’ I was referring specifically to the ongoing slaughter of Sunnis in al-Bayda and other areas of Banyas, causing thousands to flee the area.
I was invited to al-Jazeera International’s Inside Syria programme to discuss the political opposition and its divisions with Najib Ghadban of the SNC and Professor Amr al-Azm.
This was published in the National.
From the very start, some commentators convinced themselves that the Syrian popular revolution was plotted, funded and armed by the West. From Seamus Milne to John Pilger, from Glenn Greenwald to George Galloway, they described the West supplying oppositionist ‘jihadist elements.’ Former leftist icon Tariq Ali spoke on Russia Today of “Russia and China resisting attempts by the West to take Syria over.” Russia is resupplying the Assad regime with the materiel with which to slaughter the Syrian people, making Ali’s performance on Russia’s satellite as unedifying, and as distant from reality, as that of a commentator telling Fox News that Palestinian resistance is simply an Iranian attempt to take over Israel.
These journalists have staked their positions against the evidence. They have done so by forcing Syrian realities, breaking the edges of these jigsaw pieces, to fit their prior geopolitical concerns (their opposition to concurrent Israeli-American and Saudi enmities towards Iran) or ideological stances (that, following Iraqi and Palestinian models, the West must always be the troublemaker in the Arab world).
But Syria is neither Palestine nor Iraq; Syrian events are moved primarily by internal dynamics – namely the violence of the regime and the agency of the rising Syrian people. The conspiratorial leftist perspective misses this, first by vastly overestimating Western influence on current events (a failure to accurately diagnose the historical moment) and, secondly, by misunderstanding how unenthusiastic the West is for any rapid democratic or revolutionary change in Syria.
A version of this review was published at the Independent.
“The Silence and the Roar” by Syrian novelist and screenwriter Nihad Sirees was written in 2004, long before the roar of revolutionary crowds, and the countervailing roar of gunfire and warplanes, filled Syrian skies.
The pre-revolutionary roar of the title is that of the (capitalised) Leader speaking, and of the crowd celebrating the Leader speaking, and of those being beaten because they aren’t celebrating loudly enough; a roar relentlessly repeated by radios and televisions throughout the city, accompanying the protagonist almost everywhere he goes.
Counterposed to the roar there are two forms of silence: of imprisonment and of the grave. The first holds an ironic allure, for “the most beautiful thing in the entire universe is the silence that allows us to hear soft and distant sounds.”
The narrator is Fathi Sheen, a writer fallen out of favour with the regime, silenced only to the extent that he doesn’t write any more. He’s very pleasant company, amusing and straightforward, his digressions into Aristotle and Hannah Arendt notwithstanding. Over the course of a day Fathi struggles against the flow of celebrant crowds and regime thugs to visit first his mother and then his lover. He’s been content thus far to continue not to write in return for being left alone, but it becomes clear as the hours pass that the Leader’s friends plan to drive a different sort of bargain. The novella is in part a parable of the artist surviving under dictatorship. How does he make space for creation between silent and roaring states of mind? How does he avoid the regime’s Faustian temptations? More generally, how should one resist?
One answer for Fathi and his lover Lama, as for Winston Smith and his Julia, is through sex, which they find to be “a form of speech, indeed, a form of shouting in the face of the silence.”
I and Malu Halasa discussing cultural change in the Syrian Revolution at BBC World TV. I’m looking forward to seeing Khaled Khalifa and other Syrian writers and artists in Copenhagen in a couple of days, at the exhibition organised by Malu.
This was published at The National.
On January19th Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem gave an apparently conciliatory interview to state TV. “I tell the young men who carried arms to change and reform, take part in the dialogue for a new Syria and you will be a partner in building it. Why carry arms?” In the southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus his voice was drowned out by the continuing roar of the regime’s rocket, artillery and air strikes.
The UN and parts of the media have also called for negotiations. Until late January this year, however, the Syrian National Coalition – the widely-recognised opposition umbrella group – opposed the notion absolutely. But then SNC leader Moaz al-Khatib announced that he would talk directly to regime representatives (not Bashaar al-Assad himself) on condition that the regime releases 160, 000 detainees and renews the expired passports of exiled Syrians.
In the context of Moallem’s media offensive (and in the absence of concerted international financial or military support for either the SNC or the revolutionary militias) al-Khatib’s announcement calls the regime’s bluff. It doesn’t, of course, mean that negotiations are about to be launched. For a start, the regime only intends to negotiate with, as it puts it, those “who have not betrayed Syria”. Like successive Israeli regimes, it will only talk with the ‘opposition’ it chooses to recognise. This includes, as well as pro-regime people posing as oppositionists, Haytham Manaa’s National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, a group which has no influence whatsoever on the revolutionary fighters setting the agenda. The SNC – which does have some influence on the ground, and would have far more if it were sufficiently funded – is definitely not invited.
Last night I was at London’s Purcell Room, honoured to be in the presence of novelist and screenwriter Nihad Sirees and poet Golan Hajji. The event was chaired by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet. We were talking about writing in the context of the Syrian revolution. Then I participated in the morning edition of the BBC World Service’s World Have Your Say, discussing Syria, and I joined the WHYS in the evening too, discussing Syria and Mali (on which I’m no expert) at greater length.
Here is the morning edition.
And here is the longer evening programme.
This piece, a rebuttal to Marc Lynch, was published at Foreign Policy under the title Fund Syria’s Moderates.
In response to non-violent protests calling for reform, the Baathist regime in Damascus has brought Syria bloodshed, chaos, and created the conditions in which jihadism thrives. The now partially armed revolution is doing its best to roll back the bloodshed and to eliminate the regime that perpetrates it.
Yet Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch, one of the more perceptive analysts of the Middle East, argues that after more than 60,000 lives have been lost, “the last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels.” In a previous article, Lynch noted, “Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons.”
Anyone laboring under the delusion that pro-revolution foreign powers have flooded Syria with hi-tech weaponry should scroll through the blog of New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers or peruse the web pages displaying improvised catapult bombs and PlayStation-controlled armored cars. These are hardly the tools of a fighting force that has been armed to the teeth.
While it’s true that some armed groups — particularly the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra — have sometimes found themselves in possession of plenty of weaponry, the resistance remains overwhelmingly dependent on the weapons it can buy, steal, or seize from captured checkpoints and bases.
Simply put, the assumptions of those who called for arming the rebels have not been tested because the rebels have not been armed — except in irrelevant, sporadic and, in Lynch’s words, “poorly coordinated” ways. For instance, an ammunition shortage slowed the original rebel advance in Aleppo to a destructive halt.
This was written for the excellent Lobelog.
In August 2012 Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. His presence at the conference was something of a diplomatic victory for the Iranian leadership, whose relations with Egypt, the pivotal Arab state, had been at the lowest of ebbs since the 1979 revolution.
Egypt’s President Sadat laid on a state funeral for the exiled Iranian shah. A Tehran street was later named after Khalid Islambouli, one of Sadat’s assassins. Like every Arab country except Syria, Egypt backed Iraq against Iran in the First Gulf War. Later, Hosni Mubarak opposed Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, worked with the US and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s nuclear program, and was one of the Arab dictators (alongside the Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to warn darkly of a rising “Shi’ite cresent”. Not surprisingly, Iran was so overjoyed by the 2011 revolution in Egypt that it portrayed it as a replay of its own Islamic Revolution.
Iran also rhetorically supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, the uprising in Yemen, and, most fervently, the uprising in Shia-majority Bahrain.
In Syria, however, Iran supported the Assad tyranny against a popular revolution even as Assad escalated repression from gunfire and torture to aerial bombardment and missile strikes. Iran provided Assad with a propaganda smokescreen, injections of money to keep regime militias afloat, arms and ammunition, military training, and tactical advice, particularly on neutralising cyber opponents. Many Syrians believe Iranian officers are also fighting on the ground.
“It was operatic in its otherworldly fantasy, unrelated to realities outside the building,” wrote Rami Khouri of Bashaar al-Assad’s latest speech, delivered as the bombs fell on southern Damascus. I was a guest on the BBC World Service to discuss the speech alongside Patrick Seale (Hafez al-Assad’s biographer), Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, Faisal Yafai of the National, and Dr Yazan Abdullah. You can listen to the conversation here.
‘A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution’ by novelist Samar Yazbek is part journalism, part personal memoir, and all literature. It’s literature of the instantaneous sort, a staggered snapshot of the first four months of the revolution, a public history of “a country succumbing to the forces of death,” and an interior history too. Yazbek tells us about her headaches, her insomnia and Xanax addiction, her crying fits, her fears for her daughter and herself, her constant panic. How sometimes in the speeded-up context the rush of information precedes all feeling: “The daily news of killing,” she writes, “was more present inside of me than any emotion.”
Samar Yazbek has always been problematic. Having consecrated herself “to the promise of a mysterious freedom in life,” she left home (in Jableh, on the coast) at sixteen, later divorced her husband and lived in Damascus, a single mother, working in journalism and writing sexually controversial novels. When Syria rose up against the Asad regime she publically supported the victims and their cries for freedom. And she’s an Alawi, a member of the president’s largely loyalist sect, of a well-known family. As an unveiled and obviously independent woman, a secularist and daughter of a minority community, her support for the revolution proved the lie of regime propaganda, which characterised the uprising as Salafist from the start.
So leaflets slandering her were distributed in the mountains. She was called a traitor, made recipient of death threats, publically disowned by family and hometown. Naturally she was visited by the mukhabarat and made to experience, vicariously at least, the domestic wing of regime propaganda – for the theatre of blood is as important inside Syria as the projection of civilised moderation used to be abroad – by being walked through a display of meat-hooked and flayed torturees.
Israel has launched yet another attack against the Gaza Strip, striking the densely-populated and besieged territory from the air and the sea, and as usual the United States, Canada and Britain have lined up in support of Zionist terrorism.
Speaking from a system poisoned by the Israel lobby, State Department spokesman Mark Toner says: “There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself.” Confusing Zionist settlers for ‘the Jewish people’, confusing perpetrator with victim, and then parroting outmoded ‘war on terror’ propaganda, Canadian foreign minister John Baird vomits the following: “Far too often, the Jewish people find themselves on the front lines in the struggle against terrorism, the great struggle of our generation.” Then Britain’s foreign minister William Hague makes the following immoral and illogical comment: “I utterly condemn rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel by Hamas and other armed groups. This creates an intolerable situation for Israeli civilians in southern Israel, who have the right to live without fear of attack from Gaza.”
Two things must be said. First, this round of escalation, like the 2008/2009 slaughter, was started by Israel. It is totally mendacious to pretend otherwise. The Hamas government in Gaza refrained from stopping other groups from firing missiles as a result of Israel’s murder of a disabled man and of a twelve-year-old boy in Gaza. Here is a timeline of events. Second, the settlers of southern Israel do not have the right to live without fear of attack while the original inhabitants of ‘southern Israel’ are herded into refugee camps. Eighty percent of people in Gaza are descendants of refugees ethnically cleansed from their villages and towns by Zionist militias in 1947 and 1948.
Following my previous comment on the astounding failures of Syrian political elites, I must report some optimism. The Syrian National Council has accepted its place within the new Syrian National Coalition (it makes up a third of the new body), and the Coalition has won recognition by the Arab League, France, Japan and others.
The Coalition’s choice of leaders is the most inspiring sign, one which suggests both that the Coalition is no foreign front, and that another, much more positive aspect of Syria is finally coming to the fore.
President Ahmad Muaz al-Khatib is a mosque imam, an engineer and a public intellectual. He is Islamist enough for the Islamists and less extreme Salafists of the armed resistance to give him a hearing, but not Islamist enough to scare secularists and minority groups. He has written books on the importance of minority religious rights and women’s rights in a just Islamic society. His speeches since assuming his position have reached out to minorities and to the soldiers in Asad’s army, who he described as victims of the regime.
Vice President Riyadh Saif is a businessman, former MP, and a liberal democrat.
And Vice President Suheir al-Atassi, daughter of foundational Ba’athist Jamal al-Atassi, is a human rights activist, a secular feminist, a founder of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and a key activist of the grassroots Local Coordination Committees. She is the sort of person who should have been representing the Revolution at the highest level from the very start.
All three leaders have been active participants in the revolution inside Syria, and all three have suffered imprisonment. All three are known and respected by Syrians inside the country.
George Sabra has been elected new head of the Syrian National Council. He seems like a good man and his first interviews suggest he’s an effective talker. But his election comes as the SNC loses the last of its relevance. Despite the gravity of its historic responsibility, the Council failed to connect properly with revolutionaries on the ground, it failed to do enough to reassure minorities, or to aid refugees, it put all its eggs in the basket of a foreign military intervention which was never going to happen, it overrepresented the Muslim Brotherhood, it was bedevilled by factional and ego-based conflict, and its self-renewal process ended up with no women in the leadership. Foreign governments have lost interest in it. Crucially the grassroots Local Coordination Committes say the SNC no longer represents them. Other opposition bodies and individuals outside the SNC (some of them doubtless secretly backed by the regime) have added to the sniping and backstabbing.
Today the news is that a new, broader body has been formed to coordinate the fight against Asad, to implement law in liberated areas, and to oversee the post-Asad transition. It’s called the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary Forces and the Opposition, or the Syrian National Coalition. Perhaps this initiative will be more successful than others; we’ll see. Very sadly, it took Qatari and American badgering and perhaps promises of better weaponry (at this late stage with the country in flames and the resistance finally capturing heavy weaponry for itself) to force the ‘opposition’ to coalesce. You’d think Syria’s elite politicians would have been self-motivated to compromise and act by the destruction and mass slaughter in their homeland, by the urgency of the tragedy, by the vacuum allowing nihilists and potential warlords to call shots. But no. While Syria’s grassroots revolutionaries are unparalleled heroes, seemingly capable of endless self-sacrifice, Syrian political elites have failed their people massively.
Like ‘armed gangs’, armed Islamists are one of the Syrian regime’s self-fulfilling prophecies. Most grassroots organisers and fighters are secularists or moderate Islamists, but the numbers, organisational power and ideological fervor of more extreme and sectarian Islamists are steadily rising. So why is the revolution taking on an increasingly Islamist hue? Here are some points in order of importance.
First, the brute fact of extreme violence. As the saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Not only is faith intensified by death and the threat of death, and by the pain and humiliation of torture, but tribal and sectarian identities are reinforced. We want to feel like we when in death’s presence, not like I, because I is small and easily erased. So in Syria at the moment many Sunnis are identifying more strongly as Sunnis, Alawis as Alawis, Kurds as Kurds, and so on. This is very sad and it immeasurably complicates the future task of building a civil state for all, but it is inevitable in the circumstances. The violence was started by the regime, and the regime is still by far the greatest perpetrator of violence, including aerial bombardment of villages and cities, and now the liberal use of child-killing cluster bombs.
Second, beyond patriotic feelings for Palestine and Iraq and an unarticulated sense that their government was corrupt, two years ago most men in the armed resistance were apolitical. Finding themselves having to fight, and suddenly entered onto the political stage, they search for an ideology within which to frame their exciting and terrifying new experience. At present, the most immediately available and simplest ideology on offer is Salafism. As well as for their stark message, Salafists are winning recruits because of their organisational and warfaring skills honed in Iraq and elsewhere, and because of their access to private funds from the Gulf. If this were the sixties, the revolutionaries growing beards would have had Che Guevara in mind (and if much of the ‘left’ in the world were not writing off the revolution as a NATO/Saudi/Zionist conspiracy, the left might have more traction). At present, Salafism is in the air. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the historical moment. And why were all these young men apolitical before the revolution? Why hadn’t they learned more of debate and compromise? Simply put: because politics was banned in Asad’s Syria.