More than 94,000 people have been killed in more than two years of conflict in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a newly-revised toll on Tuesday.
The watchdog group said it revised the toll — just two days after it announced a tally of 82,257 dead — after receiving new information from regime-controlled Alawite areas of the Sunni-majority country.
“Based on this information, the number of martyrs and dead killed since the beginning of the Syrian revolution is more than 94,000,” it said in a statement.
The group said it had received new figures from areas including Tartus and Latakia — strongholds on the Mediterranean coast of the Alawite minority to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.
The information showed “that the number of casualties among the ranks of the Alawite community was much higher than the Observatory’s statistics which were published two days ago.”
On Sunday, the Britain-based watchdog which relies on a vast network of activists and medics on the ground put the death toll since the March 2011 start of the anti-regime uprising at 82,257, including 34,473 civilians.
Street demonstrations to bring an end to the Assad family’s 42-year rule over Syria have turned into a bloody conflict, now in its 15th month, between one of the Middle East’s best-equipped fighting forces and a growing insurgency of protesters and militia largely comprised of government soldiers who defected in support of the armed rebellion. How much longer this conflict – and President Bashar al-Assad as its apparent cause - will last is a question pondered by many today, but not easily answered.
The success of the rebels’ guerilla tactics against Assad’s larger and more formidable military and security forces have surprised many experts. Observers following recent advances by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel militias have discovered new leadership among these disparate fighting units. Given the situation on the ground, they wonder not only who will win, but how long the conflict will last.
“If you look at the battlefield, Bashar [al-Assad] is not president of all of Syria anymore, because he has lost control of so much of Syria, even his own suburbs,” said Ken Katzman, a Middle East Affairs specialist with the Congressional Research Service, in an interview this week with alHurra TV.
“Even without foreign intervention, these rebels are making significant progress,” said Katzman. He cautioned, however, that he does not believe that FSA units are “about to march on the presidential palace.”
The rebels’ success is not assured, but even if they did win, some say Syria would suffer a power vacuum and be entrenched in internal strife for years to come.
“Any expectation of a short-term outcome, for example, an escalation with Turkey or the Assad regime being somehow magically whisked away through force or a political outcome doesn’t change the reality of the underlying social, economic political and communal pressures…” said Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies,
A diplomatic solution to Syria’s crisis may be remote. It remains to be seen if Assad, who has all but ignored a six-point peace plan put forward by joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, will honor his latest commitmentto end the violence less than three weeks before the mandate of 300 U.N. monitors in Syria is set to expire. Even Russia agreeing recently in Geneva to an Action Group for Syria road maptoward the formation of a “transition government” in which Assad would play a role offers no end to the fighting as Syrian opposition leaders have unanimously rejected the agreement.
The first 15 months of the conflict, according to some sources, have resulted in more than 16,000 deaths – mostly civilians. Thousands more have been detained and tortured, according to a Human Rights Watch investigationreleased July 3. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports an average of a 100 killings in Syria per day.
Rebel military councils dominate in crucial rural areas
Military offensives on both sides are changing the strategic landscape of Syria daily. The government’s heavy weapons have destroyed rebel-held neighborhoods in at least a half dozen cities with rebel forces fading into the countryside only to return and attempting to reclaim positions lost.
Joseph Holliday, author of ”Syria’s Maturing Insurgency,” a report released in mid-June by the Institute for the Study of War, writes that the Assad regime “retains the capacity to clear whatever it chooses through the use of overwhelming firepower” but did little in the first year of the conflict to try to capture and hold several urban rebel strongholds. In major engagements over the past few weeks, Assad’s security forces have retaken three urban centers – Idlib, Homs and Zabadani – and established large military garrisons for their defense. However, Holliday added that the regime does not have the forces necessary to pursue rebel divisions that now prosper in the countryside.
“Neither side has the strength to defeat the other,” Holliday writes.
Holliday’s report provides a graphic look at the positions of rebel forces listing political and military structures of the opposition inside Syria, as well as the names of leaders and battalion strengths of military councils in Homs, Hama, Deraa and Idlib. A map identifies enclaves in rural areas within striking distance of all major cities along the Route M5 corridor that links all major inland population centers along a western corridor from Lebanon to Turkey, including Damascus, the capital, and the major commercial city of Aleppo.
Nerguizian said the Holliday report “is accurate to the point that you have an Assad regime which has largely failed in implementing a security response over the early months of 2012.” The regime tried to retake the rebel-held rural areas around Aleppo and Idlib, but “those have been largely unsuccessful efforts so far,” he said.
Many of the government advances were “short-term successes” in cities closer to Damascus such as Hama and Homs, Neeguizian said. He pointed to sizeable pockets of rebel autonomy in Idlib and on the Lebanese frontier that “reflect a decision by the Assad regime that it’s far more important to maintain support and over-watch in Damascus and… Aleppo.”
Riad Khawaji of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai believes the Holliday report is “a bit out-dated.”
“Most of the rural areas and especially the major urban centers of Idlib and Aleppo in the north are now under the control of the rebels,” Khawaji said. He added he had seen reports that FSA forces had taken control of two Syrian military airfields. Khawaji said Turkish jets that were scrambled recently along the Syrian border to prevent another downing of a Turkish jet by Syria have, in effect, created a no-fly zone that gives the rebels air cover for their advances in the north.
Looking for new leadership in Syria
“An alternative source of authority and security in Syria may be emerging,” writes Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the Syria Comment blog. Following the Geneva agreement of last weekend, Landis speculates that, in time, the militias of the FSA that can effectively cooperate with the revolutionary councils and can deliver field successes “will rise to the top, pulling the smaller brigades into their ranks.”
Experts attribute the successes of the FSA and its array of militias to several factors: growing popular support among majority Sunnis who see no government reforms coming from Damascus; increasing defections from Assad’s forces to the anti-government militias; a government and national economy weakened by global sanctions; and increasing FSA access to better weapons and communications systems smuggled across the Turkish and Lebanese borders.
Despite the early summer stalemate, the regime refuses to order many battalions into action to reduce defections by predominantly Sunni divisions, said Khawaji. Instead, it seems to rely on four Alawite divisions of known loyalists, supplemented by intelligence services and non-uniformed militia knows as the shabiha.
“Today they are over-stretched and they focus on Damascus,” Khawaji said.
Provincial military councils of the FSA have also coordinated closely with the three major organizations of the civilian opposition within Syria, said Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War. In addition to staging the protests that sparked the revolution, revolutionary councils organized a number of general strikes in several cities. In her “Syria’s Political Struggle: Spring 2012” backgrounder,” O’Bagy describes a three-week commercial strike in May in Hamadiya, the major marketplace in central Damascus where 70 percent of the shops shut down.
“Even after government forces ordered the shops to open, about 50 percent of them remained shut” for the entire three-week period, O’Bagy said.
O’Bagy said rebels have created alternative civic institutions in areas they control. In the Homs and Idlib countrysides under militia control, she said, “they are training teachers for the upcoming school year, opening medical services, food and aid distribution, sending representatives to Turkey and Lebanon to solicit aid.”
Experts believe that cooperation between protesters and the FSA militias may eventually produce a new type of Syrian political leadership, one more promising than the mostly expatriate Syrian National Council which seems unable to garner the support of rebel forces and the political opposition inside the country.
Signs of strength within FSA forces and the revolutionary councils that drive the revolution do not, however, assure an end to the conflict any time soon. And a possible alternative political structure coming either from a power-sharing agreement crafted by the Action Group for Syria, or competition for power from within a successful rebel leadership would also not promise a quick end to the crisis either, experts say.
“We don’t talk in terms of an Arab Spring in Syria, anyway,” said Nerguizian. “It was always going to be a decade.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued three new “counter-terrorism” laws on Monday, the official SANA news agency said, 16 months into a deadly crackdown on an uprising against his rule.
The first law stipulates that a state employee convicted of “any act of terrorism—whether he is directly engaged, an accessory to the crime, or providing material or moral support to terrorist groups in any way—will be fired,” SANA said.
The second law provides for jail terms of 10 to 20 years with hard labor for any act of violence or kidnap for ransom, the news agency said.
It gave no details of the third law.
SANA said that during a debate on Thursday, members of parliament said the laws were “needed at this stage, given the negative impact of terrorism on the security of the country and its citizens.”
Last month, Assad told government ministers that the country was in a “state of war” and ordered them to crush the uprising that broke out in March last year.
Syrian authorities refer to both rebel fighters and unarmed activists as “terrorists.”
(CNN) — The U.N. peacekeeping chief says Syria is now in a civil war.
Some experts agree with U.N. official Herve Ladsous that the war-torn country has reached that chilling milestone. Others say the country is hurtling in that direction. The conflict began in March 2011 when a fierce Syrian government crackdown on peaceful protesters morphed into a bloody government uprising.
Stephen Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations said popular conversation about civil war tends to be dominated by images of the U.S. Civil War and it conjures a vague picture of a “really bad conflict.” But the rigorously-defined scholarly meaning of civil war fits Syria now, just as it applied to Iraq last decade, he said.
“A civil war is a conflict in which at least one side is a non-state actor, with at least 1,000 total battle deaths and at least 100 on each side,” he said.
Anuradha Chakravarty, assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, cites a similar threshold and notes that the estimates of 10,000 to 14,000 battle-related deaths so far in Syria fulfills the definition. She said the definition has “little to do with the growing use recently of attack helicopters” to wage war.
“Syria did not start out as a case of civil war because the opposition to the government mainly took the form of a popular uprising in March 2011,” she said.
“However, later that year, the Free Syrian Army and its organization of an armed rebellion against the government (in defense of the civilian uprising) fulfilled at least the most basic criterion of a civil war — the armed confrontation between a rebel group and the government. Thus, Syria turned into a civil war situation much earlier than recent observations by the U.N. would suggest.”
Like other civil wars, she said the situation has “notable international dimensions,” with reports of Russian military support for the regime and reports of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey backing the rebels.
James Fearon, a professor of political science at Stanford University, defines a civil war as “an armed conflict within a country between organized groups who are fighting to control the central government or over control of a region.” The Syrian conflict “has qualified as a civil war for a while now,” said Fearson.
He cited the same academic thresholds political scientists and sociologists use for a civil war: 1,000 killed or a higher 1,000 killed per year, but added, “How many is enough to qualify is matter of opinion, and this arbitrariness might be the source of some of the disagreement about whether Syria, etc, is having a civil war or not. “
It doesn’t matter how much of the country is in conflict for unrest to be defined as a civil war, he said.
“For instance, we call the conflict in the U.S. in the first part of the 1860s a civil war even though things were entirely peaceful in almost all of the North,” he said.
Two organized forces facing off against each other is also a necessary part of the definition, said Joseph Holliday, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War. In Syria, there have been sectarian tensions between the Sunnis and the Alawites, with the opposition overwhelmingly Sunni and the pro-government Alawites, who dominate the regime of Bashar al-Assad, also an Alawite.
“When you let the sectarian genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to put back in,” Fearson said.
He said the opposition fighters are becoming an organized militia force. The pro-regime Shabiha militias, dominated also by Alawites, are becoming more significant, signaling an erosion in the government’s chain of command.
“I think Syria is a civil war or has all of the components to become one in the future.”
Michael Weiss, Syria expert at the Henry Jackson Society, said parts of Syria are in civil war.
“Civil war suggests the previous state that exists all but failed and collapsed,” he said. In some regions, the government lacks control and there is a “growing equalization” of forces, he said.
Steven Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the U.S. Institute for Peace, said the regime’s tactics, the escalation in violence and a growing supply of weapons to the opposition indicate the conflict is moving closer to a civil war.
While “some isolated areas in Syria where conditions have crossed the threshold for civil war,” Syria has not yet “crossed that threshold with respect to the conflict as a whole.”
He used Lebanon and Libya as the model for civil war.
In Lebanon during the 1980s, the state collapsed and “we saw a proliferation of armed groups across society in multiple directions” in a society with no controlling authority, Heydemann said. During last year’s civil war in Libya, there were two competing armed forces, with the quality of weapons and the scale of the units largely comparable on each side.
“Neither of those conditions exist in Syria,” he said.
The regime commands armed forces totaling about 200,000 troops and has ample resources such as tanks and helicopters, he said. The armed opposition is basically a “localized insurgency,” much smaller, poorly equipped and trained and “not integrated into any coherent command and control structure.”
So while the conflict between these forces does not constitute a civil war at the moment, said Heydemann, the pace and intensity of opposition activity could change that.
Jeff White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Syria is edging toward civil war, but is not there yet.
“My definition of civil war is a situation which is characterized by conflict between two, or more, segments of society. I still see the situation in Syria as one of fundamentally an armed and unarmed insurrection against the government. That is, the people are fighting the state not each other.”
That said, the elements of civil war are taking hold.
“The regime is heavily, perhaps increasingly reliant on Alawite fighters both within the regular military and in its irregular forces. The regime has also begun using Alawite villagers in attacks on neighboring Sunni towns and villages. There are also reports of Sunni retaliation for attacks. This is the kind of activity that creates its own dynamic and can spread easily,” he said.
The tipping point could be a “tipping period.” That would be when “communal violence increases in scope and intensity until it dominates the situation,” White said.
“We will know it when we see it; but things to look for would include: organized and directed violence by one sect against another (as opposed to spontaneous actions), declarations by community political and religious leaders that the enemy is the other sect (as opposed to ‘Bashar’s dogs/pigs’ and ‘terrorists’), cleansing of areas, organization of irregular forces along sectarian lines, regime arming of Alawite villages for ‘defense’ against Sunnis, breakdown or Syrian military forces along sectarian lines. We have bits and pieces of this now and the bits and pieces seem to be accumulating.”
The rhetoric used to describe the conflict has important meaning. The term “civil war” can change the dynamics of a conflict.
“In the Iraq war, the Bush administration didn’t want the conflict described as a civil war because it feared that this would increase public opposition — if it’s a civil war, then it’s their business and we shouldn’t bother with it, or expect to be able to fix it,” Fearon said.
“In the Syria case, it is the advocates of greater intervention (and/or greater pressure on Russia) who are saying ‘It may be soon be a civil war,’ by which they mean ‘This is really bad and we have to do something about it,’ ” he said.
White said defining a conflict as a civil war has political implications.
“There is always reluctance to get involved in a civil war. So defining it so supports non-intervention. It also tends to spread the blame for violence more or less evenly across the parties. It is much easier to get behind an insurrection than take sides in a civil war.”
Chakravarty said once a conflict is deemed a civil war, it can compel “more assertive forms of actions from various international actors concerned about their interests in the country.”
This could be in the form of international intervention and heightened diplomatic efforts at negotiation, she said.
Heydemann said the specter of a civil war could increase pressure on policy makers to act so decisively that incremental measures to deal with the conflict might be “left by the wayside.”
Also, he said, the international community has been reluctant to support the opposition because it would contribute to instability, international spillover, the presence of jihadists, and the militarization of the opposition. Now that all of those factors have emerged, they might determine that “some form of engaging” would be the response to a civil war.
Holliday said labeling a conflict as a civil war matters politically, but doesn’t know how much it alone would make a difference. He cited the slaughter of civilians in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which helped prompt international involvement in that civil conflict in the 1990s
“The instances of sectarian violence against civilians will make a difference,” he said. “That type of thing is the biggest factor to push toward U.S. involvement.”
The growing opposition to Assad and the intensifying international calls for his downfall will ultimately bring about that fate for him. The only thing that remains unclear is how and when he will leave, and allow the Syrian people to rebuild their governance system and their country on a more rational basis, writes Rami G. Khouri.
Middle East Online
BEIRUT - We have learned many things about Syria during the past year, while some other things remain unclear. The most important thing we have learned is that President Bashar Assad is not the modern, liberal reformer that many had painted him as in the past decade. The truth is, nobody really knew the reality of Assad’s personality or political instincts. In the past year, since many of his own people have openly risen up against him and demanded his ouster, he has responded with consistent force and frequent inhuman tactics, lies, and broken promises, culminating to date in the two recent massacres of helpless villagers in Houla and Qubayr. We now know without any ambiguity what Assad represents, and what he will do, and it is very ugly.
He has pursued a policy that requires continued use of massive and cruel violence against his own people, with the expectation that he will terrorize and traumatize the Syrian population into submission. That policy has not worked in Syria, as it usually does not work for long in any other such authoritarian police state that relies on fear rather than legitimacy as its basis for authority and incumbency. Rather, his violent approach has only caused the rebellion against him and his circle of equally cruel rulers to grow, while also eliciting greater and greater regional and international support for the opposition that wants to bring down Assad and end the terrible security state that he and his father have managed for 42 years.
The growing opposition to Assad and the intensifying international calls for his downfall will ultimately bring about that fate for him. The only thing that remains unclear is how and when he will leave, and allow the Syrian people to rebuild their governance system and their country on a more rational basis. I wrote about 9 months ago that Assad had lost the critical legitimacy — at home, regionally, and internationally — that he needed to rule, and it was only a question of whether he would depart peacefully or through a bloodbath. I wondered then if Assad had it in him to recognize his loss of legitimacy, and initiate from the top the kinds of changes that Mikhail Gorbachev had done in Russia a generation ago. We now know the answer, which is that Assad is incapable of any peaceful reform process that brings about a democratic Syria or ends his family’s rule.
The most critical trend now underway is the improved performance and capabilities of the local opposition groups and some of the ones based abroad, resulting in patches of territory from which the government has withdrawn, and where opposition groups rule. As these areas expand, which is likely, the political and military ability of opposition groups to demoralize government troops and officials will expand steadily, bolstered by significant injections of Arab and foreign support. When the revolt against Assad started in late March 2011, most of the world thought that trying to bring about the removal this regime would result in local and regional consequences that were both too dangerous and unpredictable to risk. In the last year, Assad has pursued such an incalculably stupid policy that most of the world now feels that the dangers of allowing his regime to remain in power are greater than the dangers of toppling him.
The world has given the United Nations-Arab League plan of Kofi Annan many months to achieve a breakthrough, but without success, mainly because the Syrian government’s inability to stop killing its own people. I would guess that the next step now is for the international community that opposes Assad to explore formal diplomatic means of delegitimizing and strangling his government, by helping to form and then officially recognizing a unified Syrian opposition movement as the official government-in-exile of the Syrian people. This will not happen quickly, due to the fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition. The enticement of official international recognition — which has informally started with the support that opposition groups already receive from abroad – will probably hasten the movement to achieve minimum coordination among Syrian opposition movements inside and outside the country.
The increased sectarian nature of the killings in Syria are a problem, but a problem that has only recently emerged, and mainly due to the sectarian-based regime’s apparent determination to stoke this fire without considering its ultimate consequences. Neighboring Iraq is a sad example of what happens when sectarianism is allowed to become politicized and then militarized, leading to years or even decades of internecine violence.
We know much more now about Bashar Assad than we did last year, but we also know more about the people of Syria, who have demonstrated mind-boggling courage and determination to live as free and dignified citizens in a democratic and modern Arab state. That day is nearing.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Syrian Future: No Role For the Corrupt Dictatorship #Syria
by Ghassan Karam
Dictatorship is illegitimate by definition since it represents taking power by force and it maintains it through oppression, fear and brutality. That is one reason that most dictatorships, Arab ones in particular have felt the need to pretend that they are legitimate by setting up sham elections. As if anyone really believed that 99.9% support abuse and cruelty.
The Arab Spring has not given the Arab world a single dynamic democracy yet but it has given voice to the Arab masses who have decided to stand up and demand their right to be heard. Governance in the Arab world will never be the same again. Finally a movement has been born to tell dictators that the long journey to democracy and personal freedom, the journey to human dignity will not be stopped.
Bashar Assad of Syria exemplifies the tyranny of Arab dictatorships. His father rose to power through a coup and ruled the country under emergency law for 30 years. When Hafez Assad died his son Bashar, an ophthalmologist, inherited a country and continued the exploitation and the one man rule of governance.
Many Syrians were encouraged by the relative success of the Arab masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and so initiated small roving peaceful demonstrations. Dictators do not seek the approval of those that they govern; instead they maintain control by the use of brutal secret service supporters/gangs that inflict random violence. The response of the Bashar Assad regime was initially subdued because he had feared that a sharp escalation would bring about a response from the world community similar to that in Libya. As time passed the Syrian forces became more forceful but stopped shy of leveling civilian quarters in major cities with tanks and artillery. The West had warned that such attacks will not be tolerated but will be met with a stern response.
This is when Russia decided to step in and protect its only client in the Arab world. Russia sent armaments and assured the Syrian regime that Russia and China will veto any attempt by the Security Council to pass any measures similar to what had happened in Libya. The regime then tested the will of the international community by waging a strong military attack on a neighbourhood in Hama. No meaningful Western response was forthcoming. Russia and China delivered on their promise to keep the UN Security Council in check. This emboldened the Syrian regime to try its strong military tactics again in Homs. Again the West failed to act. Since then the Syrian government, shielded by Russia and China and helped by Iran has been acting with impunity.
One Arab League initiative, which was passed through the UN Security Council, appointed Kofi Annan to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. This was not opposed by either Russia or China and so Mr. Annan is trying to apply the same rules to the victims as well as the victimizers. It appears that this effort will be abandoned since so far the level of violence by the Syrian forces has not diminished, actually it has led to the most grotesque massacre in this conflict so far; Al Houla Massacre.
So where we and what are next in this conflict? The current government is illegitimate, it is a dictatorship that has failed to evolve and reform for over forty years, it has sought and obtained Iranian help in putting down the insurrection, it has used Russian and Chinese political protection to increase the frequency and ferocity of its military attacks against its own civilian population. It has taken advantage of the well meaning efforts by Mr. Annan in order to increase the level of violence and it has called on its Lebanese minions to expand the Syrian conflict into Lebanon so as to make the Syrian government’s warning that without Bashar regional instability will ensue a reality.
This is a regime that has never had any legitimacy, a regime that does not value personal freedom, a regime that survives by oppression and brutality a regime that is best described as a regime of human depravity. This regime must be held accountable for all its human right abuses over the past 14 months of this uprising as well as all its previous excesses against Hama, Kurds and all its political opponents. To argue that this regime must be negotiated with only because it has large guns is an insult to reason and rationality. Furthermore the efforts to justify a continuation of this regime on the ground that its level of brutality is not as grotesque as it is in some other dictatorships are ludicrous and actually contemptuous. And last but not least, as the world evolves and as cosmopolitanism spreads the circle of ethics widens from the self to the family then the tribe the state and eventually the world. That would then call for a universal right to protect against slavery, exploitation and flagrant violation of the most basic principles of human rights. The Syrian people are entitled to freedom of expression and self determination in an open and free election without having to fear the ghosts of the Assad secret services and their egregious acts.
Leading article: It is time for Turkey to take the lead on #Syria
Outrage over the Houla massacre remains high, but there is also a growing sense of despair that nothing effective is being done to prevent its repetition. Almost every day, evidence is produced of fresh killings by Syrian government-backed death squads that bring the country closer to all-out sectarian civil war.
The expulsion of Syrian diplomats this week was a purely symbolic gesture, and the economic sanctions in place are more likely to hurt ordinary Syrians than their leaders. And although Russia shows signs of becoming weary of paying an ever-increasing political price for its support for Syria, the stalemate in the UN Security Council is also unlikely to change for the moment.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the impasse is Turkey’s failure to act effectively during the crisis. It is a country which shares a long land border with Syria and had previously been on exceptionally good terms with President Bashar al-Assad, helped by its exporters’ domination of the Syrian market before 2011 and the Turkish goods that fill shops throughout the country.
Here was Ankara’s first serious test as a regional power: it is a test that it has so far failed. But any future resolution of the crisis must involve Turkey, as the only one of Syria’s immediate neighbours capable of exerting influence.
At the start of the popular uprising 15 months ago, the Turkish government appeared well-positioned to act as a conduit between the Syrian government and the opposition. Sadly, Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan set too much store by the laudatory press clippings about the rise of “the new Ottomans” and exaggerated his government’s influence in Damascus.
When Ankara discovered that Mr Assad was stringing them along, without any intention of implementing their proposals for reform, warm relations between the two countries turned ice-cold over night.
But for all the talk of establishing a “safe haven” for refugees on the Syrian side of the Turkish border, it never happened, most likely thanks to the combination of threats from Iran and a desire to avoid the risk of war with Syria. Ankara would also be conscious that, until 2000, Syria was the main supporter and base for the Turkish Kurd guerrillas – the PKK – and Damascus could unleash these once again.
It would have been preferable if Turkey had not broken so wholly with the Syrian regime. As a result of Mr Erdogan’s mis-playing of his cards, it is not the Turks but the Russians who have ended up as the one country with pivotal influence in Damascus. But there is still time to take back the initiative. And if there is to be regional action, it would be better led by Turkey than Saudi Arabia and Qatar – not least to avoid the absurd hypocrisy of pretending that two of the last absolute monarchies on earth are trying to overthrow Mr Assad because of their concern for the democratic and civil rights of the Syrian people.
It will be difficult at this stage to ease the Syrian regime out of power, and the prospect facing the world is rather of a prolonged guerrilla war, with alarming regional implications, that still may not produce a conclusive winner. International military involvement, or even just arming the rebels, have little to recommend them, even in the unlikely event that Russia could be brought on board. But there is much else that the international community can do, including the establishment of humanitarian corridors to ease the appalling suffering of Syria’s civilian population. It is up to Ankara to take a lead.
Syria’s turmoil is threatening the country’s rich archaeological heritage, experts warn.
Some of the country’s most significant sites have been caught in the crossfire in battles between regime forces and rebels. Others have been turned into military bases, raising archaeologists’ fears of damage.
The government’s shelling of neighborhoods where the opposition is holed up has smashed historic mosques, churches and markets. Looters have stolen artifacts from excavations and museums.
In one of the most egregious examples, shells thudded into the walls of the 12th century al-Madeeq Citadel, raising flames and columns of smoke as regime forces battled with rebels in March.
Local activists said regime forces carried out the assault and afterward moved tanks into the hilltop castle. Later Internet videos showed bulldozers knocking through part of the walls to create an entrance.
The government and opposition have traded blame for damaging and looting of sites around the country.
Blaming the government
A group of European and Syrian archaeologists tracking the threats through eyewitness reports from the ground blames the government. In several cases, Syrian troops have directly hit historic sites and looted them.
“We have facts showing that the government is acting directly against the country’s historical heritage,” said Rodrigo Martin, a Spanish archaeologist who has led past research missions inside Syria.
An important crossroads, Syria’s rich archaeological treasures extend over millennia.
The capital, Damascus, is often claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Archaeologists have uncovered cities dating back 5,000 years to the early Bronze Age, and the country is dotted with hills that likely hide more such cities, still not excavated.
A series of cultures have left their mark - from biblical civilizations toChristian Crusaders and Muslim kingdoms.
“What we know of Syrian heritage has already provided a huge quantity of information, but we can safely say that the part that has not yet been studied is even bigger,” said Mr. Martin.
Each incident of destruction “is like burning a page in the book of history of mankind,” he said.
The heritage also helped fuel tourism, giving a much-needed economic boost before the uprising erupted more than a year ago. More than 8.5 million tourists visited Syria in 2010, 40 percent more than the year before. Now there are virtually none.
The 2,000-year-old Roman ruins of Palmyra - an ancient oasis city more than four centuries old and one of the biggest tourist draws - is deserted.
Government forces have surrounded the ruins and a nearby town and have set up a base in a historic castle on a hilltop overlooking the site, deep in Syria’s central deserts.
Heritage in the crossfire
Besides the break-in at Krak des Chevaliers in March, gunmen have also targeted a museum in the city of Hama. They have stolen antiques and a priceless gold statue dating back centuries, said Mr. Jammous, of the government’s museum agency.
Other sites have been endangered in the crossfire of the daily battles.
Several weeks ago, activists in the northwestern province of Idlib said, troops and dissidents battled near the ruins of Elba, a Bronze Age city where archaeologists in the 1960s discovered a massive trove of cuneiform tables that revolutionized their understanding of the ancient Mideast.
The once-bustling covered ancient market in old Homs - famous for its unusually tall arched roof where people bargained for colorful textiles, rugs, perfumes and clothes - has been heavily damaged. Its walls are now blackened from a fire. Its walkways littered with debris and shop shutters twisted and pierced with shrapnel.
Traditional Homs houses with arched doorways and inner courtyards have also been bombed.
Mosques have served as launching pads for anti-government protests in Syria. Government troops have targeted many of them, particularly in the provinces of Daraa, birthplace of the Syrian revolution.
Early on in the uprising, the government shelled Daraa’s Omari Mosque, built during the Islamic conquest of Syria about 1,400 years ago. Activists say government forces deliberately sabotaged the mosque and hid weapons inside it to prove that armed gangs were sheltering there.
Videos show the bombed-out minarets and shell-pocked facades of several mosques and churches in Homs. They include the Umm el-Zunnar church, which was built underground in 59 A.D.
In January, artillery fire struck the Sednaya Convent north of Damascus, believed to have been build in A.D. 547 A.D. The opposition blamed the attack on Syrian troops.
“They have absolutely no respect for the country’s cultural heritage,” said activist Tarek Badrakhan, speaking from Homs’ battered Khaldiyeh district. “Mosques, citadels, the old city, they spared nothing.”
Over the last forty years, the Assad regime has mastered the method of burying our stories almost as well as burying our people. Our cities, like their residents, carry the scars of brutality, hiding decades of bloody secrets within their thick stone walls. One city in particular, Hama, lives with a twenty-nine-year-old secret, its 1982 massacre. It’s not really a secret, rather classified as a taboo subject never to be discussed in voices louder than whispers behind closed doors. Syrians didn’t even call it a massacre, they vaguely referred to it as al-ahdath, the events, as if there were an unspoken deal between the murderous regime and the people. We thought all these years if we never mentioned Hama again, the crimes would never be repeated, and the rest of us would be safe. We were wrong. The dark February month, when tens of thousands of Syrians were slaughtered (the real number will never be known) and thousands more were imprisoned, was destined to be swept under the regime’s dirty rug, and Hama, was destined to be forgotten forever. But after March 15th, the deal of silence was breached, as the crimes of the father were repeated by the son, and the blood of Hama’s past mixed with its present, its stories emerging from the repressed collective memory to join the new painful chapters written every day.
Twenty-nine years later, the tactics have changed but the intention is the same: bury the story with the people and cover the evidence in a fog of misinformation and confusion. The Syrian revolution’s media war has become almost as fierce as the battles on the streets. From satellite channels, social media platforms, and international newspapers, there is a PR war to be won by both sides. The regime’s strict ban on independent journalists entering the country has created two kinds of stories, undercover reports by journalists who dare to slip into the country for a few days through the Turkish or Lebanese borders, like Anthony Shadid, or reports by the privileged few who enter with the regime’s consent, like Hala Gorani, and are escorted by minders to “protect” them from mysterious “armed gangs,” and obviously, the truth.
These stories do not help strengthen the narrative that the regime wants to sell its supporters and the world. In the last few months, Bashar al-Assad seemed to realize that no news from his side is not necessarily good news. Perhaps in an effort to generate a more favorable narrative, a selective few have been granted access to Syria. These journalists, like Robert Fisk, Andrew Gilligan, and Nir Rosen, are vaguely not escorted, but not undercover. Their articles are branded as “exclusive,” “unique,” with unlimited access to “all sides,” commissioned to expose a radically different side of the revolution than what currently floods the regional and international media outlets which have been based on the steady stream of daily videos and eye-witness accounts.
Although these journalists vary in background and expertise, their accounts are similarly framed: focusing on the brewing, deadly sectarianism; proving the existence of an armed opposition; equalizing the regime’s force with the people’s dissent; while casting the protesters’ narrative in a cloud of doubt. Fisk’s recent reportage reads as if he were speaking directly from the presidential palace, or humble, unguarded, “largeish suburban bungalow,” if you are to believe Gilligan. And surprisingly, Nir Rosen’s recent series for Al Jazeera English seems to suffer from the same regime-tainted myopia.
Rosen spent seven weeks this summer in Syria, touring Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, speaking as he says, “to all sides.” But from the first article entitled, “The revolution will be weaponized,” it is clear how heavily one-sided this series was designed to be. His focus on the deep, historical grievances of the Alawite (but not Sunni) sect and his endless comparisons of Syria to Iraq casts a distinct air of doom and hopelessness over every piece.
Inspired by Rosen’s “A Tale of Two Villages,” in which he compares an Alawite village to a Sunni one, I would like to tell you two tales of al-Rastan. This small town, with a significant population of military families, located between Hama and Homs, has become the geographic and revolutionary heart of Syria. According to Rosen, al-Rastan is the headquarters of the “armed opposition.” But French journalist Sofia Amara, who visited the town around the same time as Rosen, witnessed another side to the same story.
Amara visited Syria undercover, for eleven days in early August, traveling to Zabadani, Damascus, Hama, Homs, and al-Rastan. When I met her, she spoke with guarded hesitation, even in the safety of her Paris apartment, although her fifty-two minute documentary film, Syria: Inside the Repression, exposes her name and face to the world. She is still afraid. For weeks after her safe return from Syria, Amara slept with hands formed into tight fists, thumbs protected, a habit she picked up from the locals. They sleep with their fingernails digging into their palms, because they fear of having their fingernails ripped out because of their dissent. Maybe the fear stems from the stories of the Daraa children, maybe from older prison stories, or maybe because it is the only form of torture that you imagine you can protect yourself from, even while you sleep.
With her sharp mannerisms, precise expressions in English, French, and Lebanese Arabic, and unruly, jet-black hair, Amara exudes an electric intensity. Although she is probably the toughest woman I have ever met, the hard, confident shell disappears when she speaks about al-Rastan, “Al-Rastan was amazing. I had the chance to be there when it was liberated. It was surrounded by tanks, but inside, it was free. The revolutionaries were in control of it, not with weapons, but with their strength.” Her affection and respect for the men who gave her complete access to tell their story is reflected in her voice and her eyes. One man was arrested and tortured for accompanying Amara. Her voice oscillates between excitement as she describes their courage, and sadness when she remembers, “But they have no one to support them.” Some of those same men are now dead.
Rosen similarly describes al-Rastan when he visited it on August 31st, “We drove north to Rastan, a city with a strong opposition presence. The last time I was there, several weeks earlier, I had counted 50 tanks along the perimeter of the town. As we drove toward the town, the scene was wholly different, not a single tank in sight. Rastan felt liberated.”
While in al-Rastan, both Amara and Rosen visited the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigade, a group of defected soldiers who were hidden in a safe house outside the town. Before Rosen meets the soldiers, he builds up the fear scenario with an over-dramatized, detailed description of a complicated set up that included a ski mask, switching vehicles, and a forced, sweaty, wardrobe change. “I felt claustrophobic and trapped. I could hear my own breathing louder than usual as we bounced around on a rough road. In eight years of working in conflict zones with armed groups I had never been told to put a mask on.” What he does not mention is that this extreme fear stems from knowing that the defected soldiers are probably the most wanted group by the regime because these soldiers had decided to stand with the people instead of shooting them.
At the safe house, Rosen meets first lieutenant Muhamad Abdelaziz Tlass who explains, “We are free officers rejecting the oppression of people and we are protecting the innocent people.” Rosen continues, “Tlass claimed their first operation occurred on June 20 when they defended a demonstration. Military security ordered an armored personnel vehicle belonging to the army to shoot at a demonstration. Four children were killed and he claimed security forces killed an army general for refusing to shoot. But it was more likely that the deserting soldiers had killed the general.” Rosen also admits, “The overwhelming majority of the opposition is peaceful and unarmed.” But the statement is followed by a suspicious, “For some it is a question of principal or strategy; for many it is simply because they do not have access to weapons that would be useful against the powerful Syrian security forces. There are various different armed opposition actors in Syria. Together they have killed around 700 hundred members of the Syrian security forces in various clashes and ambushes.”
This judgmental language is a continuous thread throughout Rosen’s accounts, which jump between dates and locations, and splice current events into the summer journal. He, like other journalists, does not differentiate between the peaceful protesters on the street and the defected soldiers who now form the Free Syrian Army, lumping them together into the “armed opposition” category. His statements are tainted with sectarianism that frames every piece in the series. He says, “Certainly violence tends to divide people, they watch different media, they go to different funerals, Alawites go to funerals for Alawite martyrs who may be in the police or in the army, Sunnis will go to funerals for martyrs who are demonstrators.” According to Rosen, the situation in Syria, “reminded me of Iraq,” or the way people spoke were “euphemisms I heard in Iraq.” Even when he witnesses protesters’ anti-sectarian chants he says, “although, in my opinion, whenever demonstrators condemn sectarianism in an all-Sunni demonstration, it is probably already too late, as I had witnessed in Iraq.” One especially divisive statement caught my attention, “Increasing communal violence, this is the scariest part of what’s happening in Syria, in the villages of Homs and Hama, you have local militias being developed in Alawite and Sunni areas, you have the beginning of sectarian cleansing, Alawite families being kicked out of Sunni villages, if you are a Sunni who goes into an Alawite village you will be killed sometimes, if you are an Alawite who goes into a Sunni village you will be killed.” Is communal violence really the “scariest part of what’s happening in Syria”? And if you are an Alawite you will be killed, but if you are a Sunni you will be killed “sometimes”? I wish someone, Rosen or others, would tell us, out of the over 4000 confirmed dead in Syria plus the over 700 soldiers, how many were Sunnis and how many were Alawites? But then that would be very sectarian of me to ask, wouldn’t it?
When Amara visits the defected soldiers, she gets there riding on a motorcycle in the dark, on the main highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo. On the motorcycle, the driver explains, “The entire road is monitored with night vision goggles, so we turn the headlight off and go through dirt roads between the trees.” When I ask her if she was scared, she acts cool and says, “It’s my job.” She arrives to the safe house and proceeds to interview the soldiers, their faces exposed, their IDs in hand. She plainly films their weapons lined on the wall. No drama. One of the defected soldiers tells Amara, “It’s only a few hours or days before I will die, so let me do a good deed in my life before I die and make you coffee, so you can drink coffee made by the hands of a martyr!”
First lieutenant Tlass, one of the first defectors, an al-Rastan native and relative of former Minister of Defense to both Hafez and Bashar, Moustafa Tlass, is also interviewed by Amara. He has traveled with the army from the beginning of the uprising from Daraa to the central Homs/al-Rastan area. He clearly states, “I was a witness to the massacres that the regime has inflicted on the people. There are no armed gangs. There is no one but us, the Free Syrian Army, to protect the people. We have the right to protect the people, and the use of weapons, and the use of force, against any security forces or any force that wants to hurt our people.” These men have witnessed the regime’s crimes of murder, torture and rape; some of them were imprisoned on the accusation of “showing leniency towards the people.” The Khaled bin al-Walid Brigade recently entered Homs during the government crackdown on the city during the Eid celebrations. This video shows Tlass speaking about their mission.
The only historical analysis Rosen was willing or allowed (I’m not clear which) to enrich his pieces with was atwo-part detailed account on the history of the oppressed Alawite sect in Syria. It reads like a Syrian version of the American “Why do they hate us?” argument. He pays special attention to the history of the Alawite sect that apparently has also suffered greatly under the Assad rule. “The regime denied any public space for Alawites to practice their religion. They did not recognize any Alawite council that could provide religious rulings. This could have been a tool to clarify the Alawite religion to other sects and religions and to reduce suspicions over what many Syrians perceive as a mysterious faith. Alawites struck a bargain; they lost their independence and had to accept the myth that they were ‘good Muslims’ so as to win Sunni acceptance. Assadism then filled the gap left by the negation of traditional Alawite identity.”
While this history is significant, where was the missing piece of the Syrian sectarian puzzle? Where was the historical account of the non-Alawite majority being trodden upon for forty years by an oppressive regime? And where were “the events” of Hama? In Rosen’s accounts to date, although Hama the city is mentioned several times, and the 1979-82 assassinations by the Muslim Brotherhood is repeated multiple times, the massacre of Hama is mentioned only once. Rosen describes it as a “violent crackdown” that left at least 10,000 men, women, and children dead. If 10,000 murdered people (which is the most conservative number used for Hama’s victims) is a crackdown, then what is a massacre?
While Rosen focuses on growing “sectarian hate,” we are inspired by the incredible courage of prominent Alawite figures such as writer Samar Yazbek and actress Fadwa Suleiman who stand clearly with the opposition and against the regime. He reluctantly admits, in the piece titled “Ghosts in the mosques,” “There have even been cases of Christians, Alawites or secular Sunnis standing outside mosques waiting for prayers to finish so they could join demonstrations.” Rosen should be clear about his narrow perspective. Did he spend more time with Alawites because of preconceived notions, the urge to report the “other” story that wasn’t being covered, or simply because that is what he had easiest access to? It seems all of these reasons aligned; this is the story he knew, this is the story he wanted to tell. In fact, if you read only Rosen’s articles on Syria, you would assume it is already the site of a raging civil war that erupted out of nowhere, complete with “sectarian cleansing,” just like in Iraq. Propagating the common western narrative of a people, who are ruled for decades under an oppressive dictatorship, waking up after centuries of social and religious cohabitation, and deciding: today, we will kill each other.
Amara traveled to Syria to tell a different story. During her short trip, she remembers a couple of moments that affected her the most, “I was in a house in Hama, poor people, they sat on the floor, on cushions. They were laughing, making coffee, saying they accuse us of being Salifis and Islamists, but look at us wearing shorts and drinking coffee in Ramadan. A man who had been tortured told me, ‘We now dream to die in a civilized way, with a beautiful bullet that would end our lives quickly, a bullet made for humans, not birds like the ones they fire at us, that we would die in way our families would be able to recognize our corpses.’” This is what the desperation in Syria looks like, our men dreaming of “beautiful bullets.”
The second instance was in Hama, Amara continues, “There was a man who was sitting near a grave in a public garden, the man was buried in the garden because there was no way to reach the cemetery. I followed him, asking questions. Then I asked, ‘Can you give us your name?’ He replied, ‘No, I can’t.’ He took out a cardboard sign with a name written on it and said, ‘This is the name of the martyr Milad Gimmosh.’ I asked him, ‘In this country, only the dead can give their names?’ He replied, ‘Of course, only the dead, the living cannot.’ You have to be dead to give your name.”
In Syria, martyrs’ funerals begin with one coffin and end with more dead bodies to bury, an unbreakable cycle. As a recent tweet explained, “Only in Syria, a man goes to a funeral of a man who was killed at a funeral of a man who was killed at a funeral of a man who was a protester.”
But not all the dead are buried in parks and marked by a piece of cardboard. At least not in the funeral Fisk chooses, or is escorted, to attend. He describes the official funeral of two soldiers as “the send-off their families would have wished for; coffins draped with the Syrian flag, trumpets and drums and wreaths held by their comrades, and the presence of their commanding officer.”
Maybe Rosen is right, our funerals are different from theirs.
Fisk continues, “They were shot dead in Deraa – by snipers, according to their commanding officer, Major Walid Hatim. ‘By terrorists,’ he said several times. Assad’s opponents might have no sympathy with these dead soldiers – nor Amnesty, nor Human Rights Watch, nor the United Nations, who say 3,000 civilians have been killed by Syrian security forces, nor the Americans, nor the British et al – but those two coffins suggested that there is more than one story to the Syrian Revolution. Syrian officers told me yesterday that 1,150 soldiers have been killed in Syria in the past seven months, an extraordinary death toll for regular Syrian troops if correct.”
Fisk is urged by the dead soldier’s uncle to tell the world about the atrocities facing the regime, ”I hope you will be honest and tell the truth,’ he said. ‘Tell the truth about the killing of Syrian people. The hand of terrorists took my nephew. We are all ready to be martyred for Syria and for our President Assad.’ It sounded too pat, this little speech from a grieving man, and a reporter must ask if this was a set-up. Yet the military had only four minutes before I arrived for the funeral, and I doubt if they could have coaxed this poor man to say these words.” Actually, any reporter who has spent a fraction of the time Fisk has in the region, would know that no Syrian needs coaxing to say those words, they were bred to say them.
Amara makes an important point about the opposition being nameless in Syria. Rosen’s and Fisk’s accounts are filled with real names, people who are not afraid of telling their version of the story. I wonder why they would not be afraid, if there were so many “armed gangs” or Rosen’s “weaponized opposition” out to get them? I wonder why the pro-regime demonstrations openly occupy our city squares, with no snipers or scary, fundamentalist Sunnis to fear? I wonder why the balance of fear is so skewed, if the two sides were equal as these journalists would like their readers to believe? Or worse, as in this hysterical announcement by Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, the Syrian “expert,” that “the death toll among the security forces is now starting to surpass that of the protesters.” The source of this gem? None other then The Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, who was also granted the latest exclusive interview with the president, in which we learned that the Syrian dictator is relaxed in his jeans, not worried, and acting pleasantly “like a nerd.” (We also learned that the president leads a normal life, that’s why he is popular.) The interview was conducted on the same Friday when the protesters demanded a “No Fly Zone” and over twenty protesters were killed in Homs. Perhaps in Assad’s delusional world, it truly was a care-free Friday.
These media games are designed to portray Syria as a land of confusion, where the truth is elusive, undefined, impossible to verify, and impossible to know. But even a subject as ugly and divisive as sectarianism can be treated in a sensitive and honest way, like in two of Anthony Shadid’s recent articles, released back-to-back. The first examines the current sectarian rifts in Homs, and the second is a historical account of the Arab Christian experience, bleakly offering a warning and a lesson. Shadid serves grim reality alongside hope grounded in history. He, is not afraid to “speak truth to the people” as Rosen says. But this truth (and proof) of rising sectarianism comes after months well-rounded reporting, thus legitimizes the source and the the story. So here is the truth: it should not be disputed that the Alawites have suffered a brutal history of abuse and atrocities in pre-Assad Syria; that there are sectarian rifts in the society (although heavily propagated by the regime); that there is an armed element to the uprisings; that supporters of the regime do exist and not every pro-regime demonstrator was threatened, bussed in, or paid to wave the flag. It is wrong (and not smart) for the opposition to deny any of these facts. It is also true that both sides are afraid, but there is a significant difference: one side is afraid of an uncertain future, and the other is afraid it will not survive another day in the present.
While the media speculates the “inevitable” civil war, and Assad’s thugs move from attacks on the streets to attacks on university campuses, and the Free Syrian Army adds more names to its roster of defected soldiers and boldly escalates the scale of their attacks on regime buildings, the opposition marches on, nameless and faceless. Amara’s film zooms in close to show the heart of this revolution: the people. She understands the importance Rosen’s concept of “hanging out” with the people. She visits their kitchens; eats iftar with them on the floor; she walks in protests; and even descends into a grave in al-Rastan where defected soldier, Fadi al-Kassem was being buried after security forces killed him. She invents creative ways of filming her subjects while concealing their identities, exposing only torsos, hands, knees, backs of legs. She artfully frames her shots through mesh, closed windows, and holes in doors. Heads are filmed from the back or covered, and faces are blurred.
Except the mothers. The mothers face the camera. Because they have nothing more to lose. Amara followed one mother whose son had been buried in the same park-turned-graveyard in Hama. Shrouded in black with her face exposed, she sat on the ground caressing the dirt, and she told Amara, “I’ve been sleeping for ten days over his grave. What shall I say? Where is my voice going to reach?” Amara asked her, “Would you like me to cover your face?” She replied in anger, “Don’t cover it. Because I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of him, even if he wants to come and cut me to pieces, him and his party. They’ve slaughtered us for forty-two years and silenced our tongues. My children’s father was taken in the ‘80s, hung in Tadmor by the dog Hafez al-Assad.” She moved her hand over the ground again, “I wish they were here and we were eating this beautiful dirt; instead of being under it. Instead of being dead.” This mother refuses to live with the secret any longer. Is this what is takes to completely break the barrier of fear?
This year, our new “events” began in Daraa, circulated around the edges of our map from Deir al-Zor and Latakia, and moved to the heart of our country, pulsing from Hama, al-Rastan, Idleb, Jisr al-Shughour, and Jabal al-Zawiyeh. And today, Homs is our future city of secrets. We have yet to know how many are buried in the rubble of Baba Amr. We have yet to know how many people will die this winter from the government-enforced fuel, gas, and electricity shortages. Until Syria’s borders are open for all journalists to report freely without minders and handlers, to verify videos or record them themselves, those of us who know Syria will read every story with care. No amount of over-dramatized fear, like the comical account of Richard Engel, will convince us. And Rosen’s description of the too-tight polyester tracksuit and side of extra sweaty details adds color but not courage to his reporting, though it may qualify him for a TMI award.
In the end, despite the quest for objectivity, we write what we know and we search for what we wish to see. Every story, imagined or real, is nothing but a reflection of its writer’s frame of reference, and thus, their bias. Sometimes biases merely mirror another side, other times biases become lethal. It is up to the reader to sift through the information, and to believe, or not.
When it comes to Syria, I’ll take my stories faceless and nameless. Except of course, when the stories are of the dead. Then, the faces are uncovered, the tortured bodies are exposed. We learn their histories after they are buried in graves marked by pieces of cardboard. Those are the faces we see, the names we memorize, the ones we will never forget, because Syrians are no longer in the business of keeping bloody secrets.
Al-Rastan has lost dozens of people in this uprising, and hundreds more have vanished into the prisons. One day, people will be able to visit al-Rastan to decide for themselves what really happened in this small, but infinitely brave town. Those who have escaped bullets, beautiful and ugly, will live to tell their stories and their truth.
Syria’s online army is simply playing into Assad’s hands #Syria
David Blair 09/04/12
A few miles from the advancing tanks of President Bashar al-Assad’s army, a young Syrian pledged to leave the safety of a Turkish border town and make a perilous return to his homeland. This twentysomething dissident, his eyes blazing with courage, was preparing to join the struggle against an obdurate and pitiless dictator. And how was he planning to speed the regime’s downfall? The activist – I’ll call him Ahmed – told me that he would tweet, text, blog and Skype, to ensure that the outside world knew the terrible reality of Assad’s rule.
There was no doubting his bravery, nor his dedication. But if Ahmed does become another citizen journalist, a “networked individual” plugged into the full array of social media, will it really be the best way to loosen Assad’s grip on power?
Earlier, I had talked to fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the country’s nascent rebel movement. They were stuck in Turkey, on the wrong side of a border laced by minefields, patrolled by troops and menaced by snipers. The guerrillas were ready and willing to strike into Syria, but realistic enough to know that any raid would probably become a bloody failure. Even if it succeeded, these lightly armed fighters could only inflict a pinprick on Assad’s forces.
So does Syria’s uprising need more technologically savvy multimedia activists? Or – to be blunt – does it require more people inside the country blowing things up? In the end, which poses the greater threat to a repressive regime: its atrocities being instantly relayed across the world on Twitter, or a well-armed, tightly organised insurgency?
The 13 months of Syria’s revolt have starkly illustrated the limits of social media as an engine of revolution, and of the claims made for the internet’s transformative power. Yes, countless supporters within Syria and across the globe have been galvanised on Facebook and Twitter. Yes, the harrowing video clips on YouTube mean that no one – anywhere – can plead ignorance of Assad’s atrocities. All this has unquestionably helped to keep Syria at the forefront of the diplomatic agenda, despite the mainstream media being largely excluded from the country.
But Assad is still there – and over the past two months, his stranglehold has tightened. This new self-confidence is shown by the elaborate game he is playing when it comes to the peace plan devised by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general. Almost a fortnight ago, Assad formally accepted the proposals. Since then, he has hedged his “yes” with a thicket of conditions. His minions announced yesterday that he will keep the deal to order a ceasefire by tomorrow, and withdraw troops from major cities, only if the rebels provide a written guarantee that they will lay down their arms. In short, his opponents must surrender; then Assad might do what he is supposed to have already agreed upon.
To overthrow a dictator as skilled and as ruthless as this, you need more than a vast, horizontal, global network of online activists, filling cyberspace with tweets, texts and videos. You need a rigidly hierarchical, relatively small and highly organised circle of people, located within the country, capable of taking direct action against the state. Put simply, you need to forget Twitter and adopt methods that are as old as insurrection itself.
When the FLN took up arms against French rule in Algeria in 1954, this prototype revolutionary army created a cell structure based on a simple triangle. Every new insurgent was ordered to recruit two more; each newcomer then chose two others. And so the triangles multiplied, eventually giving the FLN the ability to shut down Algiers with a general strike, call mass demonstrations, set off bombs or ambush French troops.
French intelligence, meanwhile, had an immensely complicated task. If an FLN fighter was arrested and broken under interrogation, he would only be able to offer up three names: the person who chose him, and the two volunteers he enlisted. If he could hold out for a few days, this might allow these people to go into hiding, and others to be chosen in their place. The triangles not only multiplied, but were self-replacing.
France came within an ace of crushing the FLN during the urban counter-insurgency campaign known as the Battle of Algiers in 1957. But, somehow, the triangles always reproduced faster than they could be broken. And any intelligence veteran from that era would envy the task of their Syrian counterparts today. Assad’s security men can identify their enemies simply by hacking their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Once compromised, these will obligingly yield reams of conveniently listed “friends” and “followers”. Worse, the activists will probably have no idea what has happened, allowing Syrian intelligence to learn all about what they are doing, before choosing the moment to strike. And social media can also be turned against its users, with the creation of fake activists, stolen identities, lies and disinformation.
The whole point of these platforms is ease of access and use: unlike the FLN’s triangles, they are inherently easy to penetrate. As such, social media is the exact opposite of a useful tool for a revolution. Had Twitter existed in the 1950s, perhaps Algeria would have stayed French for another decade or two.
We can be sure that Syrian intelligence is well aware of these vulnerabilities, because it has an exceptionally well-informed tutor. Iran faced a Twitter and Facebook-fuelled revolt in 2009 after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in a rigged election. The unrest was a classic product of the networked age: leaderless, horizontal, vast, inchoate and organised – if that is the right term – in ways that were totally insecure and open to penetration. Iranian intelligence duly turned social media against the activists, using it to identify and arrest the regime’s opponents by the thousand. Iran’s stillborn revolt was crushed in a matter of months.
But what about the uprisings last year as part of the Arab Spring? Surely the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were classic examples of Facebook and Twitter earthquakes, allowing activists to rally unstoppable protests against two repressive regimes?
Certainly, the crowds that filled Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis and Tahrir Square in Cairo could not have been mobilised with such speed in the absence of social media. But they could also have been shot out of hand. These first two revolts of the Arab Spring succeeded mainly because the regimes concerned held back from using overwhelming force. The armies of Tunisia and Egypt were not turned on the crowds: Tahrir did not become another Tiananmen.
There were two reasons for this comparative restraint – and both were decidedly old-world. Egypt and Tunisia gave the mainstream media free access to their countries, meaning that any massacre would have been carried live on the BBC. And both were allies of the West, which made clear that it would not tolerate such bloodshed.
When it comes to Assad, neither constraint applies, which is why he is ruthlessly suppressing his opponents and trying to use social media against them. Nor, incidentally, was Col Gaddafi much bothered by these moderating factors: his overthrow was the result not of Twitter but of a classic military campaign. If Syria’s regime is to fall as Libya’s did, the venerable methods of revolution, uncluttered by social media, will have to be used once again.
The sound of the caterpillar tracks could be felt as much as heard, a deep rumble that sent a rattle through windows and a tremble of fear through the guts.
Then we saw them. Huge Soviet-made T72s, accompanied by troop carriers driving slowly into town, extra plates welded onto the sides to deflect rocket-propelled grenades. It was just after 9.30am, and the tanks were coming to Saraqeb.
“Light the tyres!”
The rebels of the Free Syrian Army in Saraqeb, a farming town of 30,000 in northern Syria, are better organised than many in the surrounding Idlib province. Squaring themselves away into formation around the central marketplace, they poured petrol on to truck tyres and lit them sending plumes of thick black smoke into the air, obscuring the sun and - hopefully - the tank gunners’ visibility.
I had been smuggled into Saraqeb last weekend by a local guerrilla unit, keen to show the world that despite playing along with international efforts to broker a ceasefire, President Bashar al-Assad was continuing to use all-out force to crush his opponents. While he agreed last week to a six-point peace plan brokered by the veteran diplomat, Kofi Annan, what I saw for myself suggests the Syrian leader intends anything but.Still the tanks came, driving into town one after another. The troop carriers stopped to take up holding positions, while the T72s turned in pairs to face towards the centre.
As Syrian army snipers deployed to Saraqeb’s high buildings to provide covering fire, the rebel fighters around me took up positions on street corners and pavements.
Their pick-up trucks screeched to a halt, bringing reinforcements, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised bombs built from gas bottles and steel pipes which are placed against kerbs and disguised with cardboard. Then came the click-clack of 200 Kalashnikovs being loaded, a few unaimed rounds loosed off in anger.
For five tense minutes, nothing happened.
Then the T72s began to advance toward the market square, the shriek of their tracks reverberating up the street as white smoke belched from their engines. Together with several dozen rebels, I watched from 100 yards away as the gun turrets swept first left, then right, scanning the side alleys for threats. For now, their 125mm cannon remained silent.
Chanting the rebel cry of “God is great”, one fighter shouldered his RPG launcher, aimed down the tube and fired. The rocket flew straight and true, catching the lead T72 just to the left of the driver’s porthole. A cheer went up, the rebels punching the air in celebration. Yet no-one had noticed the rocket had not exploded, but merely shattered into a hundred useless pieces of metal.
And that was when the tanks opened fire.
The first shells punched into nearby buildings, producing a shockwave of sound and a sea of grey dirt and dust that rolled up the road like a tsunami. Fist-size pieces of hot shrapnel sliced through the air, decapitating one fighter instantly.
His rifle clattered against a wall as his friends dragged his headless torso from the line of fire. The body was bloodless, cauterized. Another rebel caught a piece of shell in his leg, a deep femoral bleed that left a crimson trail across the road.
“RPGs! Get more RPGs up here!” shouted one game fighter, to little avail. With no real chain of command, the rebels use as much energy arguing amongst themselves as they do fighting the enemy. As panicky bickering ensued, a woman ushered her terrified children out of the door.
“Please don’t shoot from here,” she begged the rebels. “My mother is very old and cannot move - if you shoot at them here they will destroy our house.”
“We will use our bombs to stop them, I promise,” replied a fighter. But home-made bombs do little against a battle tank. As the T72s began shooting at the base of buildings to make them collapse Muktar Nassar, a young man in white robes, ran up with another RPG, one of the few with a functioning warhead.
Clearly terrified at being just 50 yards from a T72, he briefly got the perfect firing angle to hit the tank’s more vulnerable side armour, only to be forced to run for cover again as the tank behind his target fired again.
“No good, it’s no good” Muktar muttered as we retreated, showered again in dust. Up above, sniper rounds peppered the mosque minarets. The fighting was brutally one-sided. As a show of force it was absolute.
By 3pm the rebels knew it was over, retreating to cover to smoke cigarettes, leaving the tanks to roam and shell as they pleased. In the space of just a few hours, Saraqeb had been broken. Then it was everyone for themselves. Some families remained in their homes, hoping for the best, others threw belongings into cars and headed out of town.
The guerrillas, meanwhile, staged their own chaotic withdrawal, driving cars at 100mph down small country roads to villages beyond range of the shells, while an army helicopter circled overhead. If the tanks hadn’t killed the rebels, their driving may have finished the job.
“What could we do against that?” lamented Abdul Karali, a student whose family live in Saraqeb. “We’re not soldiers, we have no training and few weapons.”
Seven were killed in the fighting that day and 28 wounded. Next morning, Sunday, an attempted rebel counter-attack ended in retreat, the fighters stranding themselves between two tank positions, 500 metres of open ground and a footbridge in full view of government machine guns.
The uprising in Syria is turning into a hit-and-run guerilla war, with the rebels disrupting government forces any way they can. But without money, training or anti-tank weapons, they have little bite. Until the big city businessmen from Damascus and Aleppo commit to the fight, Syria’s revolution is a working man’s uprising of limited means.
Farmers and students in the countryside sell their belongings to raise the $2,000 required for an AK-47 smuggled from Iraq and to pay $4 for each round of ammunition. But bullets are as much use as a catapult against a T72.
“Until the big cities help us we will scrape along for ways to fight this revolution,” said Hussein al-Brahim, an activist from Saraqeb. “But Aleppo businessmen don’t want to get involved. They cannot be anti-Assad because he gave them everything.”
For those on the receiving end, the smoke and chaos that engulfed Saraqeb last weekend disguised the well-drilled military procedure that was under way. It has been honed during sieges of other rebel hotspots, from Homs and Deraa to Idlib city and other towns across the province. The tanks go in first, shelling rebel positions and driving them out. The next day, there is random shellfire to soften the target. Then, once every rebel - and foreign journalist - has left, the ground forces go in. This way, there are few witnesses to what happens next.
The accounts of atrocities committed when Syrian ground forces move are impossible to verify, but the numbers hurt and arrested are unquestionably high.
Using information stored on laptops, army intelligence officers detain all manner of people. Bad-mouthing the regime? Arrested. Seen at a protest? Arrested. Got an internet connection? Arrested. The list goes on.
“The shabiha (pro-government militia) came to my house and took my children,” said Fatoum Haj Housin, a resident of the town Sarmin, five miles north-west of Saraqeb, which had been attacked a few days earlier.
“They took all three of them. They were young men in the army but they defected in January. The militia shot them in the head and burned their bodies in front of me in our courtyard. In the name of God, bring me a Kalashnikov and I will kill Assad myself!”
There was still scorching and ash in front of her house - and much evidence elsewhere in Sarmin of destruction by ground forces. The field hospital had been torched, walls and houses sprayed with AK47 fire and the mosque smashed by three shells.
When the tanks leave the city centres and the ground forces come in, this is what happens - with nobody from the outside to see.
Yet for every person killed the rebels’ resolve seems to grow day by day.
“We can never go back now,” said Feras Mulheen, a student from Saraqeb who had just seen his house destroyed by the tanks. “There’s nothing to go back to. We either win or we die trying. There’s nothing in between.”
A tent city among the ruins of a former tobacco factory along the Turkish-Syrian border is home to Syrian refugee Ciwan and his four-year-old son. The Yayladagi camp is swarming with Syrians fleeing the bloodshed of their homeland. But for Ciwan, a Syrian Kurd, it’s unfamiliar living among the predominantly Arab population.
“Over there I lived mostly with my people, but here I am with them, it’s not very easy but slowly I am getting used to it,” he said.
His unease defines the struggle of Syria’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds. The violent year-long political and social upheaval in Syria has left the country’s estimated two million Kurds reeling.
Lodged between decades of oppression and the uncertainty of a future Syria ruled by the Arab-Sunni majority, Kurds have approached the uprising with caution.
They say they want to see President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal reign end, but they also see this as an opportunity to reverse their suffering under the hand of an Arab nationalist regime. The Kurds fear a post-Assad, Sunni majority government might enact conservative Muslim policies curtailing a secular state.
As Syria’s largest ethnic minority, Kurdish leaders and some experts believe the Kurds have the power to tip the scales of the conflict and help an emerging opposition bring down Mr. Assad.
A haunting past
The Kurds are a non-Arab population native to the central Middle East. Oppression of culture, language and their national identity has defined life for the Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq to varying degrees over the last half century and longer.
In 1962, the Syrian government stripped the citizenship of more than 100,000 Kurds, after holding a census in the Kurdish region. With this data, the government claimed these Kurds had illegally crossed the border into Syria. Today that number has grown to nearly 300,000, with the descendents of these Kurds unable to claim Syrian citizenship.
Even in peaceful times, Ciwan, who asked that his last name be withheld, had to protect his son from the Syrian state’s oppression of the Kurdish population.
“They did horrible things to us, they changed our villages’ names into Arabic,” he said. “They brought Arab people from other parts of Syria to our land, and they now live in our land. They don’t let us give Kurdish names to our children. My child’s name is Sexubun, but I have to give him an Arabic name too.”
At the start of the government crackdown in April 2011, in an attempt to appease the ethnic minority, the Assad government granted citizenship to about 200,000 of the stateless Syrian Kurds.
Still, Kurds were not safe as anti-government protests spread nationwide.
Ciwan says he escaped the violence in his hometown of Idlib, after seeing Kurds killed in the unrest.
Haunted by their past, the Kurdish consensus seems to be it is time for Mr. Assad to step down.
“We as Kurds envision [see] our rights in this revolution and in toppling this Assad regime with all its symbols,” said Radwan Hussein, a Syrian Kurd, as he protested outside an Arab League meeting in Cairo.
But for the Kurds, the challenges would not end with the downfall of President Assad.
“The regime is illegitimate,” said Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar, secretary-general of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria. “We’re done with that already. But we need to think of a post-Assad era now.”
Kurds seek parity
As the former head of the Kurdish National Council, a unified bloc of Kurdish parties, Bashar outlined the Kurdish demands to join the Syrian National Council, Syria’s opposition umbrella group.
They are seeking constitutional recognition, human rights initiatives, compensation for suffering, and participation in a nationwide democratic process. They promote the idea of a decentralized government, a decision to be made by Syrians through a referendum vote. And they want to drop the word “Arab” from the country’s official name.
“Arab nationalists need to understand that Syria doesn’t only belong to them,” Bashar said. “They shouldn’t hijack the revolution for their own agendas.”
This stance has left them at odds with opposition groups.
The Kurdish delegation walked out of a meeting of Syrian opposition figures in Istanbul this week. In protest, the Kurds refused to sign on to a declaration naming the opposition Syrian National Council as the “formal interlocutor and formal representative of the Syrian people.”
The SNC is emerging as the main political group backed by the West and Arab nations as the replacement for the Assad government.
Tipping the scales
Michael Weiss of the London-based Henry Jackson Society said the Kurds are the “decisive minority group” in Syria playing a “savvy game” with the opposition to ensure their rights.
“It’s hard to imagine the revolution succeeding without their full participation in it,” he said.
Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser for the Middle East at the Stimson Center, says Kurdish support for the opposition would force a tougher hand on Kurds by the Assad government.
The Assad government has minimized its assault on Kurdish areas in what analysts see as an attempt to keep the Kurds from rising up.
“The eastern part of Syria has been relatively quiet,” Yacoubian said. “If the Kurds decide they want to throw their lot in with the opposition, I think that could change things significantly.”
But Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, says he believes the opposition can succeed without the Kurds.
“I think some of them are watching and waiting to see which way it might swing,” he said. “And if it was swinging in favor of the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, I think the Kurds would very quickly become a part of it. But I don’t think their involvement is absolutely essential.”
Back at the refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border, Ciwan wants to bring his son home to a Syria free of the Assad government where he could live freely as a Kurd.
Kurds, Marginalized, Could Be Key to Syrian Revolt’s Success #Syria
LONDON — The Kurds of Syria could provide the tipping point in a year-long revolt against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. But on Tuesday night their delegates walked out of opposition unity talks in Istanbul over the failure of their Arab partners to acknowledge their national rights.
There are about 2.5 million Kurds in Syria or around 10 percent of the population — the Damascus regime never formally counts them for fear of acknowledging the size of their community. By some estimates, Kurds may be Syria’s largest minority, larger even than the ruling Alawite sect.
A new report by the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank, describes them as “the decisive minority” in the Syrian revolution. Their participation in a unified opposition that would be “in the interests of the U.S. for a stable and inclusive Syria and would boost the rapid overthrow of the Assad regime,” the report says.
The importance of the Kurdish position has been marginalized in the mainstream opposition narrative of the Syrian revolt, despite the fact that some of the earliest demonstrations took place in the northeast where Kurds inhabit a strategic area bordering Turkey and Iraq.
The Kurds are a combative people. In the face of more powerful enemies, they have had to be. As a nation of more than 20 million with their own language and culture, they have defended their presence for millennia in what is today the troubled borderland of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. “Fighting is better than idleness,” as the Kurdish proverb goes.
Yet overall their participation in the revolution has been muted — and so, notably, has been the response of the regime. It has spared this traditionally oppressed minority the worst excesses of its crackdown, as it attempts to play a “Kurdish card” in a strategy of divide and rule.
The Kurds have reasons enough to bide their time. When they rose against the Assad regime in widespread rioting in 2004, their short-lived revolt was met with disdain and even hostility from potential allies in the Arab opposition.
They now find themselves on the margins of an opposition movement dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists, two tendencies implacably opposed to recognizing Kurdish minority rights.
Worse still, from the Kurdish perspective, the Syrian opposition is being shepherded towards unity by Turkey, a country with a long history of repressing its own 14 million-strong Kurdish minority.
“The U.S. outsourced the task to Turkey,” Michael Weiss, a Syria expert and communications director at the Henry Jackson Society told Rendezvous. “If the unity conference were hosted by the U.S., the Kurds would have been much happier.”
The main Kurdish opposition alliance — the Syrian Kurdish National Council or KNC — has been pressing for the past year for its Arab allies to recognize the Kurdish people and their national identity in a post-Assad constitution. If the Assad government fell, the Kurds would likely press for reparations for past forced “Arabization” of Kurdish land.
But the current talks on unity have hardly been felicitous. As recently as Monday night, Kurdish delegates in Istanbul obtained a copy of a “national pact,” penned by the Arab-dominated Syrian National Council (SNC), which contained “no single word” on the Kurds in Syria, according to a Kurdish activist familiar with the document.
Recent efforts by the U.S. and others to cajole the SNC into embracing the Kurds may have come too late, as President Assad seeks to re-impose his control.
The Kurds have at least one loyal ally — the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan, the most peaceful and prosperous region of post-Saddam Iraq. Masoud Barzani, president of the region, has acted as the godfather of the KNC in Syria.
It is a partnership with a downside: the prospect of an alliance between an influential Iraqi Kurdistan and a possible autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria only serves to heighten Turkish fear about the unsettling effect it might have on its own Kurdish population.
As Syria’s Kurds debate their next move, they face divisions within their own ranks — the curse of Kurdish politics throughout the ages.
The Assad regime appears to have renewed its links with the cultish Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK, and is accused of employing a local offshoot of the PKK to crack down on other Kurds.
Although it proclaims itself to be a pan-Kurdish movement, the PKK is essentially a Turkish-oriented movement that Damascus has in the past used as a cat’s paw in its relations with Ankara.
A number of moderate Kurdish leaders have been assassinated since the PKK affiliate attacked Kurds demonstrating against the Damascus regime.
There is no mystery in why the regime seeks to divide the Kurds, according to Heyam Aqil, London representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria that is prominent in the KNC. “Assad knows the Kurds are well-organized,” she told Rendezvous. “If the SNC allied with the Kurds, other minorities would join.”
The Kurds and their supporters claim it would be a tragedy if they were cut out of the Syrian equation. They say the Syrian Kurds are predominantly secular, western-oriented and embrace a pluralistic vision for a “new” Syria, in contrast to some other opponents of the Assad regime.
Just the kind of people who deserve support, you might think.
The Good (notably former UN secretary general Kofi Annan) and the Not Quite Great (former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans) give us their high-profile thoughts on the grim situation in Syria.
Mr Annan is on a world tour to drum up support for a new peace plan. Here he is in Moscow:
Annan said it will be up to the Syrians themselves to decide if Assad should step down. “It may in the end come to that, but it’s not up to me, it’s up to the Syrians,” said Annan, a former UN secretary-general. “Our effort is to help the Syrians come to the table and find the way out of all of this.”
It’s safe to assume that the tried and proven way of the “Syrians deciding for themselves” what they want – namely through free and fair elections – is not what is envisaged here. This, of course, is the best the “international community” can come up with, given the strenuous Russian and Chinese opposition to anything which looks like taking sides against the Syrian regime.
Over at Project Syndicate, Gareth Evans gives us a similar positionwrapped in ingenious obfuscations about the “responsibility to protect” under international law. This idea of the “responsibility to protect” (or R2P as it is wittily known) has considerable moral force. These days we think it right to intervene vigorously to stop our neighbour flogging his spouse or his dog. Surely it must be even more right to intervene vigorously to stop our international neighbours committing mass murder?
Only up to a point. As Gareth Evans points out, various principles have emerged to define what may or may not be legal or acceptable in such circumstances. Other peaceful options must have been tried. Any intervention must be “proportional”. Above all, the “balance of consequences” must be considered: will military intervention do more harm than good?
Gareth Evans asserts that it is on this last question that any proposed military intervention is most problematic, as “any further militarisation in Syria runs the risk of turning what is already a nascent civil war into a full-blown one, with casualties on a much greater scale”. He sees all military options as “counterproductive”, with Annan’s political mediation the only show in town, albeit a tragic one:
Its unstated premise is that enough senior officials in the regime can be persuaded to change course, with enough safe exits for the most divisive figures, to enable the situation to stabilize and reform to start … That is a slim reed for the Syrian people to grasp, but unhappily it’s the only one around.
Hard not to agree that he has a point. But is it good enough?
Think what it means. It boils down to telling all Syrians who want a decent, democratic existence that they need to sit down nicely with the people who are torturing and oppressing them and try to cut a deal. That very process empowers the oppressors, not the oppressed. It defines the likely outcomes in ways which are more likely than not to allow some of the contemporary world’s most heinous villains to stroll away from their crimes, or even stay in political business indefinitely. It is not difficult to see why Moscow and Beijing might think that that is quite a handy outcome.
The idea that struck me most in Gareth Evans’ piece was his (probably accurate) claim that any further militarisation in Syria ran the risk of creating a full-blown civil war with casualties on a much greater scale. The implication is that this would be a Bad Thing.
This week I was in sunny Prague. I was reminded of the stunning day in Wenceslas Square on 19 January 1969 when a young history student called Jan Palach doused himself in petrol and fell in flames, dying of his terrible injuries three days later.
Of course the context for his self-immolation was the Soviet invasion of his country a few months earlier to suppress the Prague Spring reform initiatives. Palach hoped that his action would compel the Czechoslovak population to confront its own fatalism in the face of their oppression and humiliation. In a sense he succeeded. A vast crowd attended his funeral. But not much changed immediately. It took a full 20 years before anti-communist demonstrations in “Palach Week” helped set in motion the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in late 1989.
How do we look at Palach’s self-sacrifice now? An act of sublime heroism and moral leadership? Or a doomed and ultimately pointless waste of life?
One of the iconic principles of the Soviet Union still proclaimed by President Putin is the unimaginable sacrifice by the Soviet army and the general population to defend their country from the Nazis during World War Two. Indeed, any attempt to qualify that heroism and sacrifice (eg by pointing out that the war started because of a dirty deal between Stalin and Hitler at the expense of Poland, and that Soviet losses were far worse than they should have been because Stalin had murdered so many top generals) is furiously denounced by the current Moscow elite. In other words, the results justified the incredible loss of life used to achieve them. The fact that Soviet soldiers died in their tens of thousands attacking Berlin in the final frenzied days of the war is a measure of their country’s greatness.
By contrast we are solemnly told by Annan and Evans (and by Moscow and Beijing) that much the best way forward for freedom-loving Syrians is to lay down their arms and start talking to the people brutalising them. Any escalation in their struggle which leads to greater casualties has to be avoided. More people could die! It could be destabilising!
I think Kofi Annan and Gareth Evans are wrong for one specific reason. They appear to put no value on the idea of fighting and dying for freedom as an end in itself.
The Syrian people should sneer at Gareth Evans’ “slim reed”. They do have other options. Namely to escalate the conflict come what may, with whatever outside support they can get, deciding that it is better to die for freedom than slink around for a few decades more as slaves.
The more fiercely and mercilessly they fight and die, the more legitimate their cause will become. And the more bleak the final reckoning for those in their country and in smug international capitals who took sides against them.