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This article was originally published in November 2011 in the Vibe

The Arab Spring was out in full force in London on the last weekend of November. The flags of Arab nations waved outside of embassies; angry Syrians, Egyptians and Bahrainis shouting in solidarity with their brethren back home. I went down on Saturday to stand in the cold with some of these demonstrators and to see how their own little wars in this affluent corner of London reflected the wider struggles in the Middle East.

First stop was the Egyptians. Just south of the Americans’ imposing behemoth on Grosvenor Square, the Egyptian embassy is tucked away down a small road, housed in an unassuming white building. Even from only a block away, the protest sounded quiet. The narrow streets contained the noise, preventing the sound of guttural Arabic slogans from escaping the tightly confined protest area. But it made it all the more impressive once you had reached the fenced-in group of demonstrators.

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This article was originally published in the Vibe in November 2011

On Saturday the Arab League, best known for tea sipping diplomats and rambling diatribes, will officially suspend Syria in reaction to the Assad regime’s continuing campaign of brutal violence against the uprising.  Referred to as an ineffectual talk shop, it has long been happy to ignore violence and abuse in pursuit of the elusive goal of “Arab unity”. But this year an unusually active League has finally stood up to some of its member states’ more heinous crimes.  First regarding Libya, when its call for a no-fly zone helped pave the way for NATO intervention, and now the threat of suspension for Syria.

An extra 3 days was granted to the Assad regime on Wednesday to implement the terms of the November 2 deal, whereby the regime would stop its brutal onslaught, pull out the military from all cities and open up the country to foreign journalists. Assad’s consent to the deal surprised many, especially as compliance would inevitably have led to his downfall. But even the disparate and fractured opposition could agree here: Assad was merely stalling, buying himself a bit more time.

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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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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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Kafar Souseh

I updated the post ‘Last Friday of Ramadan’ to include the ugly events early on Saturday morning in Kafar Souseh, a suburb just south of central Damascus. You can read the new article at MidEastPosts.

 

And Eid Mubarak! inshallah kul 3am wa antum bikhayr

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