Tag Archives: Syria

Ceasefire, What Ceasefire?

The UN backed six-point ‘Annan Plan’ for Syria is ‘on track’, according to Ahmed Fawzi, a spokesman for Kofi Annan, despite the continuation of violence throughout a number of cities in Syria. Whilst it has been acknowledged that the signs of progress, and indeed cooperation from the Assad regime, have been rather small, there still seems to be an expectation that the Annan plan is the best possible option with which to go forward. At least for the time being.

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Tried and Tested

The ‘Friends of Syria’ Conference, based in Istanbul last week, finally yielded some movements towards a unified opposition to the Assad regime in nominally forming the Syrian National Council (SNC) – similar to that formed in Libya at the beginning of the Benghazi uprising last year. The move is a late one – in a conflict that has lasted over twelve months already there has been little success in providing a unified front in the conflict, and sectarian fissures have been prolific in creating a confused and haphazard attempt to overthrow the regime.

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Playing the Fiddle

In 64CE it is said that the Roman Emperor Nero played the fiddle whilst his capital, Rome, was burning to the ground in what would later be known as the Great fire of Rome. Whilst this legend is now regarded by most historians as false, it is telling of the nature of Nero – his brutality and sense of extravagance – that this rumour came into being in the first place. It is also telling that many believe that he started the fire himself to clear space to build his vast palatial complex. The result being, two millennia after his time as Emperor he is remembered with disdain and ridicule as the man who put his own whims, his own extravagant ventures, and his own desires before his Empire, before the people of his Empire.

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In the Line Of Fire

On the 22nd of February this year, British newspaper journalism lost one of its most fearless and resolute reporters to the Syrian conflict. Marie Colvin, who had long spoken of the dangers of front line war reporting, was killed alongside a French journalist, Remi Ochlik, and was among several others who were severely wounded and remained trapped in the besieged district of Babr Amr, Homs. In the days, and now weeks, that have followed, there has been a lot of debate over the ethics of foreign journalists being present during such volatile circumstances, and unintentionally becoming the focus of the news rather than simply acting as a conduit through which events are reported. This debate was further fuelled as video messages were sent by the injured and surviving journalists, asking for a ceasefire to allow their removal from Babr amr district, and then as several members of the Syrian Free Army lost their lives in aiding the removal of the journalists to neighbouring Lebanon. Continue reading

With Impunity

When  the uprisings started in Syria, just over a year ago, the regime denied that any such movement had started to swell up amongst the ranks of the Syrian people. It was easy to see why they would be in denial; between Bashar Al Assad’s slow moving reforms, an attempt to placate a population so often restless under his father’s rule, and the unrelenting comprehensive system of torture employed against any dissidents, those who were not so enamoured with their leader were at least fearful of voicing their opinions against him.

The outside world, too, for a time believed that the uprisings were nothing more than a faded mirror image of what was happening in the rest of the Arab world – a few isolated groupings trying to seize the regional momentum to push personal agendas. For state leaders in the United States, the UK and across Europe, their involvement in Libya meant that accepting that the uprising was factional, regional, and minor fitted better with their strategic military capabilities – with active engagement in two conflicts, in Afghanistan and Libya, they were not able to, nor were they prepared to, stretch themselves any further than they already had. The result was that the international community, its eyes turned towards its interests in Libya and elsewhere, largely ignored the increasingly bloody violence that was smouldering in Syria’s cities and the outskirts of Damascus.

When it did finally wake up to the fact that the conflict in Syria was not only more serious than they had first anticipated, but that it was also fragmenting along sectarian lines, there was a timid showing from the Arab League who made statements against Assad, and sent observers to the country, before trying to persuade the United Nations Security Council to step in and take action. But even then only in the form of selective sanctions.

By this time thousands of Syrians – military personnel, civilians, men, women, children and the aged – had lost their lives through gun battles which would erupt spontaneously in a suburb of Damascus, in the centre of Homs or Hama or Daraa, or through the torture and imprisonment dealt out by the Mukhabarat (Assad’s Secret Police) by anyone who voiced disagreement with the regime – notably this also includes children from the age of ten.

The regime weren’t even trying particularly hard to cover up the fact that the violence was happening, noting that the deaths had occurred, but asserting that it was limited to the suppression of extremist Islamist rebels. Throughout this time, and right up until Libya found closure with the death of Muammar Gaddafi, it didn’t really matter what Assad said – no journalists were in the country and, again, no one was really listening.

Then, towards the end of last year and after Gaddafi’s death – recorded as so much of that conflict was by crude camera phone video – the world finally woke up to the fact that Syria’s internal conflict was spiralling out of control. As already highlighted above, the response was still tepid, but as action started to slow in Libya US, UK and French rhetoric in particular started to acquire the sharp tones of impatience with the slow moving international efforts. The Arab League’s insistence that the UN acted in this matter, possibly out of concern for the impact on their own domestic situations just as much as the civilians suffering the brutal force of Assad’s military outfits, was not enough to get the gears in motion – however – as they ground to a halt with Russian and Chinese spanners thrown into works.

Now, as it stands, the international community are toothless – sanctions without Russia (Syria’s chief source of weaponry) and China (where Syria acquires the majority of its imported non-military goods) are a waste of time, and a military solution in a region that is currently chaotic in some corners, petrified of revolution in others, and has Israel and Iran staring at each other over nuclear potential, is simply not viable without creating a perfect storm for widespread and enduring sectarian conflict. What is more, there is not even a truly identifiable opposition with which to negotiate, to recognise, or even to support – with many different factions battling each other as much as they are battling the military mechanisms of Assad’s regime. For this to change, and it must change soon, a number of things have to happen.

First, the anti government forces in Syria need to form a single viable council or leadership group that acts as an umbrella group for all the disparate groupings that currently fight in amongst each other as much as they fight regime forces. This will not be easy, and it must find common ground and a common idea of what comes after the regime, not simply a path to its downfall, to avoid the country falling into chaos if the Assad regime does fall. This will provide a diplomatic core for the opposition which will offer an alternative instrument of government for the international community to back and rally around, but it will also ensure that grievances by and against opposition troops are addressed.

Second, once this entity has been forged, Russia and China must recognise that it is important to make new ties with the new representative body – in a similar way the international community did with Libya’s NTC – and resist blocking any movement in the United Nations. If they do not, it may be that frustrated members start acting outside of the organisation and end up risking a polarising of more than just Syria’s domestic situation. Worse, however, is if they do not act without the United Nations, and stand back to let the situation unfold by itself. The violence and torture against Assad’s opponents has increased dramatically since the failed UN resolution was vetoed, and the longer the international community stands by the more Assad will feel he can act with impunity.

Being Irresolute

The rapid movement of the United Nations diplomacy machinery in response to the brutal suppression of protest movements in Libya, by Gaddafi loyalist forces, seemed to set a precedent in international diplomacy. Of course there were obvious restrictions to this, the permanent members of the Security Council will never be likely to take up action against Saudi Arabia, with its lion’s share of the world’s petroleum supplies, and, despite the growing protest movements amongst their own populations, Russia and China are protected from any Security Council resolutions by their veto as permanent members.

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Throwing Diplomacy to the Dogs

Spectacular example of misjudgement on the part of Al-Assad in allowing loyalists to attack diplomatic installations throughout Damascus. Either way this particular move will prove negative for him and his government: if he survives the uprising (unlikely) he would have effectively broken ties with one of the most powerful international players, and if not he has even fewer options for a life in exile.


A Little History Repeating

In March I wrote about the deadly assault in 1982 on the Syrian town of Hama, a city which dared to square up to the might of Hafez Al-Assad and his powerful Ba’ath party, in which up to 40,000 people were estimated to have been killed. In 1982, though, there were no mobile phones or readily available internet access. The siege, with all its victims and bloody legacy, went virtually unnoticed by the international community, and unreported by the world’s press. It simply slipped into the realm of infamy, a tale whispered throughout the region as a parable, a warning to those who would challenge the autocratic and dictatorial leaders of their country. Over 15,000 of the city’s population have still not been accounted for, nearly 30 years later. Now, after months of conflagrations flaring up throughout many of the towns and cities in Syria, Hama has yet again become a focal point for the Assad regime as anti-government protests engulf the city.

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Playing the Loop

The announcement has been made, the press releases carried to journalists across the globe, hungry in anticipation. There is the waiting, the waiting, the cutting from one journo to another, correspondents sat on some dusty road in a city that may be linked to the story unfolding, somehow. There are the commentators, the analysts, with enough two cents between them to start up their own, brand new news enterprise. There is the volley of camera shots – in the studio, in the field, in the studio, in the field – and then the countdown, the momentary silence as the aides walk out and then there s/he is. Stood aloft a mighty podium, draped in the nation’s proud colours and paused with the promise of potential on their tongue.Then, with all the tension of anticipation making us hunch on the edge of our seats, we hear the same old, tired speech that has been spoken on a hundred different occasions for months, for years past.

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Weddings, Funerals and Friday Prayers

The power of collectivity is what has driven the Arab Spring as far as it has, across borders and tearing through a region as an unstoppable force of social change. It relies entirely on the quick development of a critical mass, a number of people large enough to overwhelm direct reprisals from governments, through security forces, the military or the police. This task of creating an initial burst of people onto the streets is a momentous feat of organisation, and in countries dogged by the decades-old states of emergency preventing mass gatherings for anything but religious events, doing this without raising alarm among security apparatuses is both extremely difficult and perilously dangerous.

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