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Archive for September, 2011

Watching the chaos in Syria, it is only natural that the international community might be feeling somewhat impotent right now. Despite growing international condemnation and ever more aggressive rhetoric, including from once strong ally Turkey, the killing in Syria continues as it has done for the past half year.

Even sanctions, one of the few weapons in the arsenal of diplomacy, may not prove as effective, or straightforward, as hoped. More specifically, the West will have to decide how far to take the sanctions and at what price to the population and to themselves.

As it stands, the most significant sanction has come at the hand of the European Union, which has banned the import of all Syrian crude oil, a policy that the EU wonks predict will hit the regime hard. Since 95 percent of oil exports head to Europe, this new sanction should deny the Syrian government a vital source of income.

But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The oil export industry is relatively small in Syria and accounts for only 25 percent of the regime’s hard currency earnings. This is not Libya, where switching off the oil taps effectively brought the income to a halt.

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Today’s Reading

Hezbollah supporters have been watching the turbulence next door in Syria with apprehension. Rhetorically, the Lebanese Party of God has backed its patron in Damascus, although its embrace has grown tepid of late. But Hezbollah was worried enough to shift its weapons caches from Syria into Lebanon, reportedly, and its emissaries have been working behind the scenes to mend relations with Syria’s opposition. At the core of their worry is a sectarian concern: Syria without Bashar al-Assad might be willing to jettison Hezbollah — after all, Syria is a majority Sunni nation, and Hezbollah is a Shia standard-bearer.

In coordination with Turkey, the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among Syria’s Alawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects, a conflict that could quickly ignite other tensions in an already volatile region.

While other countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus, Obama administration officials say they are leaving in place the American ambassador, Robert S. Ford, despite the risks, so he can maintain contact with opposition leaders and the leaders of the country’s myriad sects and religious groups.

…some governments are ramping up efforts to help Syria’s fragmented opposition. Turkey and Qatar have hosted gatherings to forge opposition fronts. France is building up links. Many protesters look eagerly to Turkey, which shares a border of nearly 900km (560 miles) with Syria. Some say that, especially if the pace of killing rises, the Turks may be persuaded to create a buffer zone to protect refugees in a “safe haven” along the border. Others air the idea of other havens, for defecting soldiers as well as civilian refugees, in the south and north-east of the country, along the borders with Jordan and Iraq.

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A week ago I spent an afternoon in Hama in the hope of seeing how the city was recovering after several military blockades and attacks (for various security reasons I decided to hold off posting this until now). An afternoon is far too little time to accurately gauge the condition of a place but from what I could tell Hama has done remarkably well and many of its residents seemed cautiously optimistic.

The central clock tower – note the missing clock 

I arrived in Hama by regular public transport. The road from Aleppo had already revealed evidence of what was happening in Syria’s central provinces. From Idlib down to Homs, the region has suffered the full brunt of Assad’s security forces. The bus passed dozens of tanks sitting in fields and amid olive groves, their long barrels pointing toward the road. The army had taken up residence in numerous half-built houses, turning them into observation posts and barracks. (more…)

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After several months confined to the city of Damascus I recently decided that it was time to travel to the northern commercial centre of Aleppo to see how the uprising had affected Syria’s second largest city. While the road and the towns along the way held plenty of evidence of the 5 months of protest and brutal crackdown, Aleppo, like much of Damascus, remains in comfortable denial of the thousands of deaths throughout the country.

Along with a partner in crime, I headed north from the Harasta bus terminal in an air-conditioned Pullman coach. The bus quickly escaped the polluted suburbs of Damascus and after being waved through a makeshift military checkpoint we were out on the open road, surrounded by rocky desert and scraggly bushes.

After a couple of hours we knew that we were approaching Homs by the increasing number of military trucks on the road.

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Eid at the BBC

The BBC recently asked me to give a brief description of how people were celebrating Eid in Damascus. They used some of my comments, as well as the image of Naufara Cafe, as part of a piece focusing on Eid during the Arab Spring. I didn’t choose the pseudonym Faisal!

My article on Flash-mobs in Damascus was also featured on Syria Comment.

 

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