Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Syria: British Fighters Seek Jihad

This article was published to the BBC website on 16.08.12

However vague the picture in Syria may have been before this conflict began, the blood of many thousands has now muddied it further still.

But in this complex web of armed civilians, defected soldiers, paramilitary units and bloodthirsty militias, a further dynamic is growing in strength: militants from outside Syria joining the fray.

Foreign fighters have been heading to Syria for some time – many of Syrian descent but living in Europe or the US, keen to help their brothers in arms. A similar pattern emerged in Libya, where young western Libyans joined the battle against [late leader Col Muammar] Gaddafi.

However, a different, more dangerous contingent is joining this struggle now.

Militant groups thought to be linked to al-Qaeda are operating in the country. Among their ranks, a small number of young British men – at this stage, probably only running into the dozens – are joining this fundamentalist fringe, having been recruited from towns and cities across the UK.

Thrill Seekers

Driving along the Asian district of Coventry Road in his Birmingham constituency, local MP Khalid Mahmood explained that from amongst the Muslim communities in Britain that have embraced the Syrian cause, a small number have taken their grievances a step further.

“I’m extremely concerned at the moment because I see similar things to those that happened in Afghanistan. We encouraged people to fight – to fight for the jihad. In the Syrian situation, similar messages are going out. Quite a number in Birmingham are heading out.

“Some are of Syrian origin, others of South Asian origin – for whom religion is the main pull. As this conflict goes on, I would anticipate greater numbers going forward.”

Malik al-Abdeh, a prominent Syrian journalist based in the UK, explained why the conflict in Syria has pulled in these young fighters.

“Most of these people are essentially thrill-seekers wanting to experience the jihad, which for some people is a lot of fun. They get to carry a gun for the first time in their lives. They get trained up and it’s exciting.

“I think it’s inevitable that people from the UK would go to Syria. Fighting for God and fighting for Islam is one of the pillars of being a Muslim.

“There was an opportunity against the Soviets in Afghanistan, against the Russians in Chechnya, against the Serbs in Bosnia and now against the Alawites in Syria.

“They see it as another stop on the jihadi tour, if you like. And they have to be there otherwise they are missing out on a big opportunity.”

Language barrier

So far, says Mr Abdeh, the numbers are limited because mainstream rebel groups do not want them in the country.

“The phenomenon so far of non-Syrians going to fight in Syria is quite limited simply because people within Syria don’t want those people coming to fight.

“Actually these foreigners hamper the effort. You have the language barrier, different cultures and no knowledge of the local area.”

But their differences could grow into armed confrontation, as British photographer John Cantlie found after having been abducted by an extremist group in Syria. It was the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who rescued him. He paints a similar picture of embittered and disillusioned British youths seeking to find purpose.

“They were hostile to us, I believe, because many of these were disenchanted young men from Britain. And I believe we represented everything that they were disenchanted about.

“They were young, they were impressionable and they were united under an extremist flag in Syria. And I think the sight of genuine western hostages excited them; it fulfilled their concept of what jihad was about.”

Legacy of conflict

These young Brits are a prime target for an al-Qaeda leadership keen to show its relevance in a region where peaceful, rather than armed protest, had been the trend.

Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King’s College, explained the attraction for al-Qaeda in Syria and the battle against President Assad.

“This is not just about a secular dictator. This is about a secular dictator considered to be a Shia. So there is a sectarian dimension. For a lot of extremist Sunni Arabs, this has particular significance and it may motivate them more perhaps than European jihadists who are supportive, but not yet coming in big numbers.”

While the numbers remain small, Professor Neumann pointed to experiences in Afghanistan, where foreign fighters hijacked a fight that was not their own.

For the moment, extremist groups in Syria are not a significant threat. But as the situation deteriorates and the structures keeping the state intact start to crumble, these small groups may get the chance to grow.

“As in Afghanistan in the 80s, the foreign fighters – the (Osama) Bin Laden types – were the small minority,” says Prof Neumann. “But afterwards, they claimed the legacy of that conflict.”


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Death or Exchange Fate of Captured Militia

The following was published on the BBC website on 06.07.12

Staring half-dazed and terrified into the camera, a young soldier stands with his hands against a wall.

Struggling to compose himself, and with blood streaming from his head, he pleads with his captor to allow him a few minutes to regain his senses.

After some brief questioning by the cameraman, the video cuts. Seconds later, the camera pans along the soldier’s lifeless body.

“This is our gift to the regime,” says the voice. “This is a gift to President Assad.”

The amateur video posted on YouTube is one of the many hundreds on the internet, apparently showing Syrian rebels interviewing captured militia, soldiers and other regime collaborators, in some cases before their execution.

Most show the prisoners kneeling or sitting in bare rooms, sometimes with armed rebels standing over them. They give their names, dates of birth and positions in the security services or military.

In some videos they are asked their religion. They then recount their involvement in the repression of protests and detail the orders they were given by their superiors.

Amidst all the doubt and speculation that surrounds the violence in Syria, these “confessions” are part of opposition groups’ efforts at proving to the outside world that the government is behind the bloodshed.

But when the camera has stopped rolling, and the point is made, the captured are no longer of use. So what becomes of these men?

UK-based Syrian journalist Malik al-Abdeh told the BBC: “What do you think they do with them? They kill them. What else can they do?”

‘Prisoner’ swaps

For all the gains made so far, most territory in which opposition groups operate in Syria is still strongly contested, which means keeping prisoners for any length of time is virtually impossible for the rebels.

These groups are therefore faced with a stark choice: execute the detainee, or exchange him for prisoners held by the government.

“Exchanging captured militia or soldiers for prisoners is an option, but this depends on the group in question,” says Mr Abdeh.

“If they have links with a local community leader or cleric, and if the rebel commander feels it’s safe, they may be able to ensure a handover is made.”

It is claimed that thousands of men, women and children sit in detention centres around the country, and this is one of the only ways in which rebels can get their friends and families freed.

One activist told the BBC: “Exchange is happening regularly for the captured Free Syrian Army (FSA), civilians and even corpses to be returned, in deals often brokered by the government.”

Activists claim rebel groups only kill the detainee if he “has been heavily involved in killing civilians.”

But since the FSA holds the government responsible for massacres like those in Houla and Qubair, along with frequent brutal attacks around the country that may have left nearly 16,000 people dead, how many of the detained could have committed crimes that, in the eyes of the rebels, do not merit death?

Estimates of soldiers killed in the conflict range from 1,500 to nearly 5,000, but it is unclear whether these numbers include those facing rebel firing squads.

This local brand of rebel justice points to a new trend in insurgent operations, with an opposition instituting its own makeshift tribunals as it prepares for what could be a long, drawn-out war.

Propaganda confessions

In a conflict that is being fought just as hard on the internet and on television as it is in the streets, rebel groups are not the only ones gathering confessions from their detainees.

The government has long sought the power of these sorts of testimonies to convince the population at large that a foreign-backed conspiracy has engulfed the nation.

In a special documentary for Syrian television, the former head of the opposition media office in Baba Amr, Ali Mahmoud Othman, recounted his experiences as a “terrorist” who had aided foreign combatants in Syria.

This was perhaps the most bizarre example of the frequently broadcast detainee confession videos put out by the government.

Whatever the truth of these confessions, both Mr Othman’s testimony and the rebel videos offer a small window into a far murkier picture that both sides are keen the world does not see.


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Divisions in Syria reflected in Lebanon

The following was published on the BBC website on 23.03.12

“There is no god but God!” protesters chant as they march through Tripoli’s old town. Islamist party Hizb ul Tahrir assembles its supporters every Friday after prayers, and on Syria’s ‘Day of Dignity’ – the day following the Syrian uprising’s one-year anniversary – black flags bearing the party’s standard are being handed out to an eager crowd.

“No one is doing anything to help our brothers in Syria. Europe, America – they have no answers,” a young man shouts over the loudspeaker rallying the faithful. “Syria will be free – and we will be there when that happens.”

Sectarian divides in Lebanon’s second largest city mirror those in neighbouring Syria, and loyalties are being severely tested.

A large Sunni majority – which feeds into a growing Free Syrian Army network – smaller Alawi and Christian populations, and increasingly vocal Islamist groups all vie to support their respective allies just over the border, and as the violence continues, each have established Tripoli as a base of operations for their work in Syria.

“Islam will save the people of Baba Amr, of Idlib and Deraa,” the man continues. “The Alawis,” he says, referring to the sect to which much of the senior echelons of the Assad regime belong, “they are kufr (apostate) – and they are killing Muslims all over Syria.”

The religious nature of Syria’s uprising is difficult to gauge, but a number of Islamist groups, from Hizb ul Tahrir to the Muslim Brotherhood, are said to be supporting a growing number of individual local militias, gangs and brigades in Syria’s restive towns and cities.

The threat of Islam has long been the warning of pro-government groups, and Tripolis Alawis make similar arguments.

“Salafis think democracy is haram,” says Ali Feddah of the Arab Democratic Party – the Tripoli political party which supports Syria’s Baath regime and its Alawi constituents.

“The West does not realise its money and support is going to arming an Islamist uprising. Look at Tunisia, at Egypt and now Libya – Islam is sweeping through this so called Arab Spring, and now this conspiracy is hitting the last true democracy in the region.”

Ali’s office is in the Alawi area of Jabal Mohsin, which is protected on a Friday by Lebanese military checkpoints – ensuring a repeat of February’s violence, which left three dead in this city, does not happen again. The room is adorned with pictures of the Assads, and in pride of place a portrait of his brother is displayed. A brother killed, Ali says, by Islamist terrorists in Syria.

With the chant of the protesters in the distance, Ali continues. “Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding these people – they are sending money and arms to Tripoli. But we can send help also.

“As for us Alawis in Tripoli,” Ali continues, “we are not scared. We trust in Dr Assad to protect us. We are not scared for the future – Syria has withstood imperialism before and we will withstand it this time also.

“The fall of the president would mean the fall of Syria. And that will not happen. Syria is Bashar al Assad.”

Across town in a deserted coffee shop, a Syrian activist agrees to meet. The dangers of militant Islam is an argument he has heard time and again.

“We are regular people – not terrorists or criminals. Everyone is affected – my uncle was killed only recently,” he says as he scans the area for Syrian agents.

He doesn’t believe the country will collapse when the system falls. “The Free Syrian Army is getting stronger everyday. Here in Tripoli we have a growing number of senior officers who have defected. We want to establish a system that is ready to lead.

“Toppling the regime is our aim. We don’t want any transition or dialogue – why should we speak with someone who has killed so many of us?

“It might take a lot longer than six months but the Syrian people have been scared for 40 years.”

With Islamist pitted against Alawi, Syrian operatives scouting for FSA members and a growing refugee problem, members of the city’s large Sunni population are somewhat caught in the middle.

The stories they hear and images flooding in from nearby Homs are clearly disturbing, but worries that a power vacuum would provoke a civil war rouse painful memories.

“We had a long and bloody war here and we don’t want this to happen again,” says Bader Hassoun, owner of the city’s well-known soap factory Khan Saboun. “But this is going to go on for some time. All the leaders of the different groups are trying to make problems with one another. It’s just how politics works here in Lebanon.

“Businessmen like me can rise above these silly fights – war is not good for trade – but simple people can allow themselves to be drawn into other people’s battles.”

Already witnessing the growing flood of refugees, Bader’s concern is that Syrians forced to beg and steal will swamp Lebanon and drive away business.

“There are 25m people in Syria – if only 2% of their population arrives here in Lebanon, it will be a disaster for us.

“They should be careful. 80% of my business is outside of Tripoli. If it gets much worse, people like me will do what the Lebanese do best in troubled times: leave.”


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Frontline Club Discussion on Being A Foreign Freelance Correspondent

Frontline Club Discussion on Being A Foreign Freelance Correspondent

Click on the link above to see the panel discussion at the Frontline in which I shared my thoughts on reporting from Syria, along with Tom Finn, Portia Walker and Ruth Sherlock who have done the same from other parts of the Middle East.

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Defectors Report Mass Murders: ‘I Saw 100 Taken Away To Be Killed’

Two defectors hold their weapons

The following was published in The Telegraph on 16.10.11 under my pseudonym, Hussein al Haqq

In a safe house reached with the help of guides signalling a route through the warren of darkened streets, a clutch of Syrian army defectors plots the downfall of a feared regime.

The city of Homs is a virtual ghost town. Its medieval fort has been transformed into a garrison and checkpoints have been established around the city.

But in its back alleys groups of armed men have formed units to defend the population from the military onslaught.

Some are local revolutionaries, known as thwarr, who have joined the protests against President Bashar al-Assad that have convulsed the country for six months. Others are defectors from the armed forces who have now turned their guns on their former comrades.

The seven deserters at the safe house proudly display stolen weapons, including rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and grenades.

One, a 19-year old conscript, had been shooting at protesters a week beforehand. “The [secret] security would stand behind us and make us shoot,” he says.

“Anyone who refused would be shot right there, as a lesson to everyone else. The snipers were there to shoot at us as well as protesters.” Another was in air force intelligence – a feared branch of the security apparatus – but left in disgust. “I was a prison guard in Damascus,” he says.

“I watched as men had their fingers cut off with pliers, and as cattle prods were pushed down people’s throats.

“Women were raped and murdered in front of me. I saw one young man – he was 18 – as his stomach was cut open and his intestines ripped out whilst he was still alive.”

Another incident could amount to an account of a war crime by the Syrian government. “I saw 100 people being loaded onto a bus to be taken away. We all knew what would happen to them. I never saw them again – they were killed and buried in the hills. After this I knew I had to join the opposition. Many of us guards knew the truth, and I think many are willing to leave the regime. It is just so hard to do.’

Another is an Alawi – the sect long assumed to be totally loyal to the regime. He says: “Not many of us have left, but they will. It is just so obvious that they are lying to us. We are offered privileges the others don’t get, like better barracks and equipment. But it’s not worth it.”

The Daily Telegraph toured Homs and saw the bullet holes, smoking rubble and graffiti that the conflict had left behind. One message scrawled by regime forces reads “This is Assad’s Syria”.

Citizens reply with the simple statement: “Islam. Syria. Freedom.”

Abu Ali, a demonstrator who volunteered to act as a guide, says most people have fled or are confined to their homes.

“People are afraid to leave their homes and they are not even safe there,” he says. “The army enters into these small streets and just opens fire randomly. One 65-year-old woman was killed when a shell hit her house – she had been mourning her dead husband who was killed the previous week.”

Scenes in Homs’s Charity Hospital show the brutality of the crackdown. A man of 26 lies semi-conscious in his bed, barely breathing.

His father produces an X-ray showing a bullet still lodged in the man’s chest. “I lost my 12-year-old son two weeks ago. Now my other son could die. I have nothing left,” he says.

Another 28 year-old lies in the next bed, a mass of tubes and cords attached to machines keeping him alive. “These men can only stay here for two or three days,” Abu Ali continues.

“Their families are worried about security coming and taking them away. When their situation is no longer life threatening, they will be taken home.”

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Pimp My Hajj

As read in a monologue for Monocle 24 Radio on 6/11/11

If you thought that making Hajj was about hoards of people, traipsing their way across sun burnt plains on their way to a rather hot, inhospitable desert town – think again. The biggest pilgrimage in the world started a few days ago, and for some it’s an opportunity to get spiritual in style. The wealthiest pilgrims making their way to the holy city of Mecca will be pimping their Hajj on the doorstep of the holiest sites in Islam.

Whilst others make do with regular packages which consist of 2 star hotels, rushed visits of the major sites and simple itineraries – one operator insists on its website for example, that ‘sacrifice is not included’ (what a relief!) the more exclusive packages ensure every whim is taken care of.

Raffles’s new Meccan Palace Hotel, which adjoins the Grand Mosque, is one such destination. Describing itself as a ‘discreet yet highly refined residential sanctuary for elite and discerning Muslim travelers,’ high rolling Hajjis can expect an exclusive personal 24 hour butler service, a chocolate room for hand-made bespoke pralines, along with a spa and even a four-story mall. Quite what you need a ‘chocolate room’ for when going on religious pilgrimage is debatable, but touches like these certainly form part of the £1,200 a night Raffles Mecca experience. For a truly other worldly stay, a night in one of the presidential suites would set you back £4,000.

Even better perhaps is the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, just metres from the Kaa’ba. Sitting in one of the tallest towers on earth, and visible from 10 miles away, this hotel boasts a lunar observation centre, giving guests an extra chance perhaps, to communicate with their maker. An Islamic heritage museum is another added bonus, giving the elite Hajj traveler all he could possibly need to ponder the history of his faith.

Humility and modesty aren’t the first words that spring to mind when details of the ‘Super Deluxe Hajj’ are explored, but those things are after-all what the journey is supposed to be about. In its earliest incarnations, the holy trip was fraught with danger and disease, as pilgrims had to negotiate rough seas or looting bandits, and were thus reminded of their insignificance in the greater scheme of the universe.

It is possible that one may be reminded of that, as one gazes through a telescope from the lunar observation centre. But it’s unlikely that the thought would remain for long, given all the delights these 5 star Meccan palaces have to offer. Indeed, one might feel as though death had already come, and that the jewel encrusted beds and marble laden baths were part of a heavenly reward.

But no, these monster hotels are a very definite reality, and as more of them cover the increasingly crowded Meccan hills, it looks like this holy city could soon have more in common with its Gulf counterpart Dubai. From Holy Mecca to Shopping Mecca….not the greatest transformation, I think you’d agree.

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Children Fall Victim as the Battle Rages for Syria’s Gateway City

The following was published in the Telegraph on 26-5-11 under my pseudonym Hussein al Haqq

A critical battle is under way in one of Syria’s gateway cities with forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad launching full scale attacks on civilian neighbourhoods, killing and injuring children and protesters by the dozen.

The Daily Telegraph has witnessed devastating scenes from the key city of Al Rastan – a city which bridges the country’s north-south divide – in which tanks and other heavy weapons are being used against schools and homes.

Armed opposition groups have taken to building barricades against the onslaught. And according to residents many parts of Al Rastan have become no-go zones with skirmishes and military raids a daily occurrence.

The much feared ‘shabiha’ – pro-Assad militias- storm houses, hunting defected soldiers and arresting suspected dissidents as they go – ‘looking for reasons to kill’ one resident said. Government snipers sit atop local security headquarters during the day, picking off those who venture too close, whilst at night more random shootings follow.

All public services in Rastan have been cut – including the vitally important schools. With nowhere to go during the day, children have in some cases become helpless targets.

One father wept as he recounted how a bullet meant for him had passed through his shoulder and into the head of his five-year-old son.

‘I was running from a gunfight near my house and was holding my son against my chest,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “I felt the bullet hit me from behind, but I didn’t realise he’d been hit until I got inside the house, and I was covered in his blood.’

Surrounded by family in his small living room, he held up photographs of the child victim as proof of the event – the lifeless body and bloodied face offering an awful glimpse into the reality of Assad’s cruel regime. The boy had been killed the previous day, and still clearly in shock from his loss, he was unable to keep back the tears.

The boy’s uncle spoke up: “The world took notice of Hamza Khatip,” he said speaking of the 13yr old who’s mangled body was returned to his parents a full month after his arrest in April and who has become a symbol of the Syrian revolution. “Well our children are dying too.”

He continued: “How can the government accuse such small children of being terrorists? There are hundreds more Hamzas.”

He told of another death – a seven-year-old killed by a bullet to the heart as he sat in his parent’s car. ‘The problem is that after these children are killed, State TV airs interviews with people it says are the parents, and they blame ‘armed gangs.’ It’s all lies. Its disgusting – this man’s son died in his arms, and the government calls us violent! How many more children are going to die before someone helps us?’

Reports of the dead come almost daily, and those whose injuries have not killed them must brave the hospitals which security forces often raid. The National Hospital in Homs is the nearest major hospital, but locals have learnt not to go there for help with reports of attacks on patients and brutal treatment.

‘These people are animals,’ one dissident exclaimed. ‘I went with my friend to a funeral for 13 people the government had killed, but rather than let us mourn our dead, they killed even more. I came home without my friend that day.’

But the battle in Al Rastan is not totally one sided. Despite facing such force – 60 tanks and armoured vehicles were reported to be on the city’s fringes yesterday – man people refuse to run from the gunfire.

A mid week evening protest last week was free from government interference such is the level of security the opposition has managed to establish in some areas. ‘They know not to come here,’ one member asserted as he observed the crowd. ‘We have hundreds of fighters coming from all over Syria to help us.

The government keeps talking about armed gangs. Well we do have weapons, but we use them to protect ourselves. The army has launched a war against its own people – even more tanks lie in wait outside the city. We know its going to be hard but we can’t give up now – we’ve come too far.’

Rastan has become a focal point in the country’s ongoing protest movement because of its strategic and symbolic importance. The largely Sunni city is 20km north of the provincial capital Homs, and sits on the vital access route to the cities of Latakia and Hama. Without Rastan, the country is essentially divided in two, and the regime would be unable to continue quelling unrest in the north. The city also has a long history of political activism, where the regime once found willing Sunni allies to bolster its minority rule; the recently retired Prime Minister Mustafa Tlas is from Rastan, as are over 1,000 army officers. For such an important city with these strong military ties to have become an opposition heartland is seen as being of consequence to the regime, and as such its response has been fierce.

The city’s mounting opposition and continued resilience in the face of such brutal violence is encouraging for those who oppose the regime in other parts of the country. The dead are held up as martyrs, and as stories filter though to other cities and towns across Syria.

Many believe the image of city in revolt is one the government will find increasingly difficult to combat with stories about terrorists and ‘western agents’.

In Damascus one opposition member expressed his delight: ‘This is a whole city of 100,000 who oppose the government. It’s unbelievable! They may have tanks and heavy weapons, but the people fight on.’

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Syria: Peace Hopes Fade as Residents Turn to Violence to Defend Their Homes

The following was published in the Telegraph on 5-10-11 under my pseudonym Hussein al Haqq

Six months ago, Abu Sultan was a mechanic, earning his simple living and raising his two young children in the small Syrian town of Zabadani

But now he lives in the hills as part of a group of armed rebels, ordinary citizens who have decided that violence is the best way to resist the security services of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

“I am not a criminal,” he told The Daily Telegraph, surrounded by fellow fighters hiding in a remote farmhouse. “The West isn’t helping us so we have no choice. What would you do?

“I need to protect my family, my home and my land. I’m not just going to sit in my house and wait to be killed.”

The majority of protesters against the president and his government remain committed to peaceful means, but over the past few weeks there has been a discernible shift to armed resistance.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers, mostly poorly paid conscripts, have deserted the Syrian army rather than fire on their compatriots and formed armed rebel platoons.

The city of Rastan last week endured five days of sustained fighting between the security services and bands of defectors. Forces loyal to Mr Assad only asserted their control over the weekend after using helicopter gunships.

Syrian troops were yesterday reportedly continuing house-to-house arrests that have detained more than 3,000 people in three days.

Meanwhile, sporadic gunfire reportedly continued yesterday in Homs, which is now the centre of resistance, where some neighbourhoods remain under opposition control.

In a sign that a bloody civil war could develop throughout the country, the northern city has seen a series of assassinations in the past 10 days of those judged to be regime informers. A Free Syria Army has been formed across the border in Turkey, uniting three groups of army defectors, while civilian opposition groups of all stripes have joined hands to launch the Syrian National Council.

Speaking at the council’s launch in Istanbul, Bourhan Ghalioun, a prominent Paris-based opposition figure, said: “This regime has completely lost the world’s trust.

“The world is waiting for a united Syrian opposition that can provide the alternative to this regime, so that they can recognise it.”

In its mission statement, the SNC declared its commitment to non-violence, but there has been a small armed element in the resistance from the beginning, which now appears to be growing.

In Zabadani, just 30 miles from the capital Damascus, patience for peaceful protest has expired after an estimated 2,700 civilians have died since Syrians first joined the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

Mohammad Ali, who like Abu Sultan chose not to give his real name, was until this year an architecture student at the University of Damascus.

“We don’t want a war – Assad is the one who has started this,” he said.

“They are coming into people’s houses and raping our sisters and daughters. If anyone comes near my family, I would not hesitate to pull the pin on this grenade.

“Thousands of people have died here and still we wait for help. It seems that Syrian blood is cheap,” he added, expressing the group’s dismay at the international community’s failure to intervene.

Yesterday at the United Nations, Russia declared that it would not support a European-drafted resolution on Syria that carried the threat of sanctions at a later date. But even if the motion is passed, rebels and exiled activists still accuse the West of double standards by helping Libya’s resistance but not Syria’s.

Asked how they expected to defend themselves against the Syrian military, Mr Ali answered: “Whatever happens, we fight. Our problem is not so much with the army, it’s with the security services.

“The soldiers are men like us and are forced to fight. They always enter a town first with military or political security behind them, and if they refuse to shoot, they are shot themselves.”

This band of rebels was holding basic and dated weaponry – 20-year-old Russian-made machineguns and other light arms stolen from the military or provided by defecting soldiers. Some in the group hinted that more sophisticated weaponry was on its way from neighbouring Lebanon, including M16s and rocket launchers.

It may or may not have been fighting talk, but there could be no doubting their determination. Faris, a farmer before the uprising, was the oldest in the group and had more experience of government brutality. “You can’t start something like this and decide to stop,” he declared.

“I have not seen my family in months because I can’t go home in case our neighbours report me to the authorities. We are all wanted men here – ending this president’s rule is all we have.”

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Syria: Breaking the Deadlock

As Syrian students return to class for another school year amidst the turbulence of the continued government crackdown, the regime’s efforts at quelling the uprising have reached new levels of intensity. The seventh month of protests have seen security forces raiding houses all over the country, crashing into homes searching for protest organisers, and continuing to use massive force against the people. Where the crackdown used to meet protestors in the street, now sudden and unexpected midnight raids take place, where military units storm towns and villages in an effort to nip unrest in the bud. Reports of military defections have also got regime leaders worried, and so concerted efforts to find defected military personnel in countryside villages and farms have been a priority.

As the reality of the movement starts to hit home in this new climate of uncertainty and fear, there have been mixed opinions on how to break the deadlock. Protestors continue to call for limited regional help, insisting that the UN enforces a no-fly zone rather than permit a full military intervention. Whilst the revolutionary fervour I witnessed a few months ago is perhaps waning, the belief that Syrians should do this ‘on their own’ is alive and well. The plan – according to one dissident – is that after a no fly zone is enforced, the army would turn on the regime, and join the protestors in ousting Assad and his allies.

Unfortunately it is a little more complicated than that. In the first instance (as Admiral Mullen made clear to Congress over Libya), a no fly zone is, by definition, military intervention. Who enforces the no fly zone? What can the Syrian air force expect if they break the UN ruling? Shooting a plane out of the sky is an act of war, and would certainly be interpreted as such by the regime. The government’s propaganda machine would go into overdrive, branding foreign agents as anti Syrian imperialists who kill innocent Syrians. This argument still holds water with a large proportion of society, and must be taken into consideration. A no fly zone is a major step – it’s not simply a matter of asking the regime to comply – and in itself would not be enough to stop a government which has shown in no uncertain terms that it does not respect international law.

The assumption that army soldiers would defect on mass should such a ruling be made is also debatable. Whilst a number of officers are said to have grouped in both Turkey and Jordan, orchestrating attacks on security forces and coordinating the protection of some protests in towns closer to their respective borders, it is unlikely that the army would defect and turn into a benign ‘guardian’ of the people as the Egyptian military has styled itself. This is because the army is the regime in Syria; it is a mistake to regard the Assad regime as anything other than a military dictatorship. It is not just a tribal or filial group that runs the country as in Libya, or a bureaucratic elite as in Egypt. It is a sectarian military leadership, built on solid co-dependent networks of complicity which ensure deep and long-lasting loyalty.

Of the 300,000 or so regular soldiers in Syria, nearly a third are Alawi, and whilst presupposing their support for the regime would be an oversimplification, virtually all senior military figures are Alawi officials with too much to lose to turn back now. Just as protestors argue that they have gone too far to abandon the cause now for fear of reprisal, the same can be said of these army figures who must fear similar consequences from the opposition.

It is unwise to make sweeping predictions about events which form part of a greater regional movement that no one saw coming. But we shouldn’t assume a sectarian civil war is inevitable; we should give Syrians more credit than that. This ongoing stalemate is only resulting in catastrophic loss of life – much more than ineffective sanctions or simple understandings of what no fly zones mean are needed. Turkey has shown signs of its willing to take the lead in more serious action, and this would provide the opposition with a real focal point,  providing disaffected soldiers with a clear side to join. All this would clearly require Chinese and Russian agreement, and Israel may be unwilling to unleash the kind of chaos it sees in a post Assad Syria, but the government has already started a war – a war against its own people. And its time to end it.

Filed under: Middle East

Syria: The Use of Fear and Hope

What is keeping Syrian president Bashar al Assad in power? Why is it that Mubarak could go in 18 days, Ben Ali in 29, yet six months on, Assad junior is able to continue a brutal onslaught against his own people? As the streets of Libyan cities fill with jubilant crowds, celebrating the beginning of the end of Gaddafi, Syrians must be asking themselves: why won’t Damascus fall like Tripoli?

Answers lie in a number of areas. Much has been made of the Alawi power elite, which is keen to preserve its gains at all costs. Worried about the backlash from a brutal rule of over forty years, the very concentrated and powerful Alawi community could become an obvious target for revenge attacks. The wealthy Damascene merchant classes are also understood to prop up the government’s ‘coalition of the wealthy’; as long as they keep quiet, Assad can hold on. Finally, the divided and fragmented opposition – a product of what Joshua Landis has called a civil society ‘wasteland’ – is finding it hard to keep up the pressure. All these factors make a quick exit for Assad rather unlikely.

But fear of the regime still grips the nation. It’s this fear that plays a major role in preventing change.

In 1999, American academic Lisa Wedeen published an ethnographic study of Hafez al Assad’s Syria. ‘Ambiguities of Domination’ provided a superb insight into the mechanisms of Assad power consolidation and the family’s pervasive leadership cult. As Assad was seemingly adored as ‘The Father,’ ‘the Last Combatant’ or even ‘Salah al Din of Our Modern Time,’ (!) and pictures of Assad family members adorned every street wall, shop window and car bonnet, Syrians had to make a choice: refuse to comply with the farce, or face the consequences. Confronted with the absurdity of the leadership’s efforts at garnering support, many of the Syrians Wedeen met responded positively to the stories and propaganda despite their probable scepticism, because it made them feel safe. ‘The system of fear that fascism creates, means that people will act loyally, even if they do not feel loyal.’ She called it a system of acting ‘as if.’

12 years on, and that fear is ever-present; a part of daily life enforced and re-enforced by the all-seeing eye doctor and his family. A fear fed by one of the most extensive and pervasive security forces in the region that creeps into every part of society, making people wary of even mentioning the Assad name in their own homes, let alone making the kind of jokes frequently heard in Egyptian taxis or grocers about Mubarak. Informants lurk in every corner in every town, ready to feed information to the authorities either for the money that can sustain their families, or the reprieve their cooperation earns them. Assad has also been able to legitimize his rule through the threat of sectarian war. Whilst the US has expressed its fear of starting such a conflict, it is nothing compared to the anxiety felt in Damascus – Syrians saw first hand what happened in Lebanon. They don’t want it to happen again. Whilst of course other regimes are known for their brutality and subterfuge, Assad’s true colours are evident in the lengths he is taking to stay in power – the shocking naval strike on Latakia one such example. Gaddafi started his onslaught after NATO arrived, whilst Mubarak and Ben Ali’s armies switched loyalties almost immediately. Indeed, all these leaders faced significant desertions and defections from their own militaries. Not Syria. The sense of fear in the country is also heightened by a feeling of isolation and vulnerability – ‘we can do it on our own’ has slowly turned into ‘we need Turkey and Saudi,’ as the reality of this revolution starts to hit home.

But this fear is combined with a faint hope in Bashar himself – and that is what’s really holding back a major uprising. Average Syrians – not the brave men and women in hiding who are orchestrating this movement – but average citizens, are suspended in a curious balancing act of fear of the regime, and hope in Bashar. Assad is genuinely thought different to the rest of the regime, and capable of great things. A young leader, seeking to enact reforms but hindered by meddling western nations who sponsor ‘terrorists, drug dealers and saboteurs,’ many – particularly in Damascus and Aleppo – still think he has what it takes to steer the country to peace and prosperity. The Assads have built a Syria proud of its anti-western stance, and so the west’s condemnation of Bashar has fallen on many deaf ears. Indeed it simply feeds their conception of a president battling against all odds against powerful imperialist nations.

It is a hope on which the regime has capitalised for its survival. Whilst Hafez was framed in the Cold War image of a warrior president, his son has become the typical ‘refurbished’ autocrat, as Landis puts it, with his soft manner, calm demeanor and pretty, popular wife Asma. As Bashar’s early reforms either didn’t materialise or were immediately repealed, the regime was able to maintain the sense of hope artificially. Now as it faces a major uprising, the propaganda machine has been in over-drive and Bashar has been paraded on public outings with Asma, providing an image of a young couple in touch with the people – not like the decrepit Mubarak or the madman Gaddafi. Whilst his speeches and promises are seen as empty and futile to the west, it is important to remember that they are not written for us – the regime knows what hopes and fears it can play on, and uses them to its advantage. Indeed, it’s probably Assad’s public popularity that has stopped other regime members from taking the reigns so far.

The regime’s days may be numbered, and this hope may recede as the brutality of the government’s response becomes clearer. It is difficult to see how Assad can come back from this. But fear of reprisal without foreign support still obstructs a massive public upsurge, whilst at the same time hope that Bashar can restore peace keeps others in league with the regime. For many Syrians, the response – however brutal – is legitimized by a faint hope in a president they see as having fought for Syria against western powers; the only lion in a region full of sheep. Support for the protests is broad and strong, but as long as the right people support the wrong man, the battle to take down the president will rage for some time yet.

Filed under: Middle East

Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo