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While other countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus, Obama administration officials say they are leaving in place the American ambassador, Robert S. Ford, despite the risks, so he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.

Groaning in Hama

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. Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

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.


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

Last Friday of Ramadan

I wrote this on Friday but haven’t been able to upload it until now because the incredibly unreliable internet connection.

The last Friday of Ramadan held a lot of expectation for the opposition activists in Damascus. While protests have certainly picked up pace over the last month they still haven’t managed to unsettle the capital, the bastion of pro-regime support. So the opposition hoped that today would see a suitably dramatic finale to the holy month. But during a tour of the capital after the midday prayers, it was clear that few protests had managed to gain enough momentum to beat the overwhelming security presence.

In hot spots like Midan and Kafr Souseh, hundreds of shabeehah, the regime’s thugs, stand guard along with regular police officers and soldiers. Mukhabarat agents, the secret police, keep a watchful eye over everything, loitering in leather jackets next to their cars, occasionally barking orders into walkie-talkies. The shabeehah are better armed than on previous Fridays. Along with the usual batons and sticks many are also equipped with assault rifles and shotguns. A few carry riot gear. Pick-up trucks laden with paramilitary soldiers prowl the main streets of Midan.

But there is little sign of the opposition. Groups of 3 or 4, young men often dressed in white jalabiyahs, hang around leaning on cars, waiting for something to kick off but sufficient numbers never appear. Without a large group of protestors they wouldn’t stand a chance against the shabeehah. The few brave enough to start chanting are quickly beaten up and dragged off. An old bus parked beneath an underpass, its windows sealed with metal bars, acts as a holding cell for those unlucky enough to be arrested. Continue Reading »

Today’s Reading

The one lesson that Syrians must learn from Libya is this: set up a truly representative national council.

A national council including credible dissidents would convince many Syrians who currently sit on the fence to side with the protesters. By discussing post-Assad Syria, a council could also encourage the international community to move more aggressively against the regime. Military intervention is both unlikely and undesirable, but there is more to be done with smart sanctions and pressure.

In fairness, the opposition has little political or diplomatic experience, after decades of suppression. But although delay means more bloodshed, opposition figures are still disagreeing on lesser issues than the continuing killings. Some even pulled out of talks about starting a national council. If such discord continues, some in the opposition will bear some of the blame for a lack of success.

According to U.S. officials, as of April Iran was providing the Syrian security services with weapons, surveillance equipment, and training. Earlier this month, Ankara intercepted an arms shipment headed from Tehran to Damascus — the second such shipment it caught this summer.

The Iranian regime has also provided Assad with technology to monitor e-mail, cell phones, and social media. Iran developed these capabilities in the wake of the 2009 protests and spent millions of dollars establishing a “cyber army” to track down dissidents online. Iran’s monitoring technology is believed to be among the most sophisticated in the world — second, perhaps, only to China. Shortly after Iran shared its know-how with Syria this summer, Assad lifted restrictions on social networking Web sties, presumably to lure dissents out into the open.

In addition to sharing weapons and surveillance tools credible reports from Syrian refugees indicate that Tehran sent its own forces to Syria to quash the protests. A number of revolutionary guards from the elite Quds Force are also reported to be there, presumably to train Syrian forces. On May 18, the U.S. Treasury Department mentioned the role of the Quds Force directly, asserting that Mohsen Chizari, the Quds Force’s third-in-command, was training the security services to fight against the protestors.

Even if Assad should eventually fall, Iran will not stand idly by; Tehran will surely try to influence any successive government.