March 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
This was published at the National.
Syria is my father’s country, where I spent an important part of my young adulthood, where my son was born. Living there was inspiration for my first novel (though it’s set mainly in London). In fact, I fell in love with the country – with its enormous cultural and historical heritage, its climatic extremes, and its warm and endlessly diverse people. Of course there were moments – for example, visiting a broken man who’d been released after 22 years imprisonment for a ‘political offense’ – when I felt like getting the next plane out. And before too long I did move on, because a stagnant dictatorship was no place to build a future.
Then in 2011 the revolution erupted. This instant of hope was followed by a counter-revolutionary repression of unprecedented ferocity. How to respond? For a long time I wrote and spoke to anyone who would listen on one theme: the necessity of funding and arming the Free Army – civilian volunteers and defectors from Bashaar al-Assad’s military. Nobody did arm them, not seriously, and as a result the Free Army lost influence and Islamist factions filled the gap. Assad’s calculated manipulation of sectarian fears and hatreds produced a Sunni backlash. Al-Qa’ida franchises set up emirates near the Turkish border, and the West increasingly understood the Syrian drama not as a battle for freedom, but as a security issue. In illustration of this fact, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport as I started my most recent trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, in December, and questioned under the UK’s Terrorism Act. “Which side do you support?” they asked me. I explained there are many sides now, but the question seemed to be either/or: either the regime or the jihad – and support for the (genocidal) regime was the answer which ticked the ‘no further threat’ box.
March 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
Palestinian Youth Perspectives on Syria, Palestine and a Liberated Arab Region
by Loubna Qatami
In December of 2010, Palestinian youth of the world watched anxiously, and participated in, the monumental dawn of the Arab revolutions. Many Palestinian young people, despite our inclination to be suspect of any emerging forces and rapid power shifts occurring, instinctively supported the political earthquake as the means of rupturing decade’s long neo-colonial structures. We joined our brothers and sisters in Tunisia, in Egypt and across the Arab world, in some cases symbolically and other cases literally, in the fight against their repressive regimes. Palestinians are a transnational people, deeply immersed in the disadvantages of being placeless and refugees. We are subject to the repression of those regimes not only by living under them but by their corroboration with the Zionist entity consequentially resulting in our people’s long exile and occupation. Support for the revolutions means standing with our brothers and sisters across the Arab world who suffer from the same systems from which we suffer, dictatorships structurally aligned with Zionism working to stifle movements of dissent as a liberatory catalyst in our region.
December 2010 began a new era in which the face of existing power structures was obliterated. Yet, to some degree, a remaking of our part of the world became a grab for power to whoever has the most force and swiftness. In some cases, quick institutionalization through processes of Western-adopted “democracy” bolstered opposition entities into a position of “power” with limited opportunities to change realities on the ground. Rather, opposition entities were obliged to inherit the former regimes. Neo-liberalism rendered the new governments disadvantaged in their ability to yield real change on the ground for lack of economic autonomy, stability and resources. A turn to Western imperialist allies thus played a critical role in appropriating the aspirations of the masses which had deposed the former dictatorships. Still, the emerging new leaderships cannot be absolved of the partnerships they are choosing which contradict the aspirations of the people and concede on the political principles which had ultimately bolstered their position of power in the first place.
February 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees spoke Tuesday of the “shocking” conditions he had seen inside a Syrian Yarmouk camp which has been under siege and bombardment for months.
For more on Yarmouk see All That Was Left of Yarmouk: Notes to an Accomplice by Talal Alyan.
February 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
Tonight I’ll be joining Stephen Walt on the wonderful Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon to debate the crisis in Syria. I rarely disagree with Steve on anything but on Syria our views diverge. Steve is a formidable interlocutor and Chris is a radio legend who knows how to cut to the heart of a subject. I am hoping that today’s debate leads to greater clarity. Here’s from Chris’s introduction:
The nightmare in Syria has slipped off the front page. Yet civilians are still dying by the hundreds every day. Thousands are dead and millions more displaced across Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. Petroleum “barrel bombs” have replaced sarin gas and the specter of al-Qaeda seems to hover over it all.
We’ve been there before, debating how to respond to a humanitarian crisis halfway across the world. Vietnam in the ’70s, Beirut in the ’80s, Kuwait and Bosnia in the ’90s, and of course Iraq and Afghanistan. Four months ago, Syria looked like the next in that series, with destroyers sailing to the Gulf and Tomahawk missiles armed and ready to fire. Were we right to breathe a sigh of relief, or was non-intervention a worse course than risking another quagmire?
What should we have done, what can we still do, and is it too late to pass the test in Syria?
February 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
A short film about Syrian human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, a revolutionary heroine now abducted, probably by Jaish al-Islam. Contributions from writer Samar Yazbek and activist Razan Ghazzawi.
February 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
My eloquent and courageous friend Dr. Rola Hallam on ways to end Assad’s war.
February 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Mohammad Ojjeh made a short film in which the children of the Salam School for Syrian refugees in Reyhanli, Turkey, speak about their experiences and the Karam Foundation’s Zeitouna programme.
February 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.
Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.
Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.
Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.) « Read the rest of this entry »
February 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
An edited version of this piece was published by the National.
Our car turns through the crowded alleyways of single-storey breezeblock houses, foggy with coal smoke in the icy December morning. This is the poorest quarter of Reyhanli, a Turkish town just across the Syrian border, and it’s crammed with Syrian refugees.
The woman whose story I’ve come to hear puts on a niqab when the camera comes out. And she prefers to be nameless, because she fears for her two married daughters still living in regime-controlled territory.
She lives in an empty, unheated house. Her son sits with us, and her small daughter shivers under a blanket. The woman is in early middle age but looks older. Her face is long, worn, and haggard, her voice pain-strained and sharp.
Her husband, born in 1972, worked with the military security for seventeen years but retired early when he needed an operation on a vertebral disc. After that he opened a roast chicken place in his Homs neighbourhood, Bayada. The family lived what his wife describes as a working-class life “of an acceptable standard”. They had six children. Bayada comprised both Sunni and Alawi families, “and the relationship between us was very good, even if the state favoured Alawis. We drank maté together. There was no problem.”
The revolution broke out less than a year after her husband’s retirement, and the newly-pressured military security began asking him to return to work. He refused. “How could he work for them? At that time Bab Dreib was being shelled. In our area there were house searches and random arrests of young men. They even took women, those who attended demonstrations and those who shouted ‘God is Greater!’ from their windows at night.”
Her husband supported the revolution and was part of a local network which helped the revolutionaries, finding shelter for those on the run and collecting food, medical supplies and money. His wife believes an Alawi neighbour informed on him. On the other hand, it was an Alawi friend who warned him that his name was on the wanted list at regime checkpoints.
January 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).