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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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This article was originally published in October 2011 in The Vibe

Triumphantly touring post-revolution Arab countries, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped off his plane in Cairo to be met by droves of cheering Egyptians. Time magazine reported that he was “greeted like a rock star”. The purpose of the visits was clear: to solidify Turkey’s role as one of the region’s key players. After a century looking west towards Europe, forcefully changing society and politics with the desperate aim of joining the European Union, Turkish foreign policy priorities would now appear to lie east and south of its borders.

Turkey has found itself managing crisis and conflict throughout the region, despite its long serving policy of “zero problems with the neighbours”. While Arab governments have publicly welcomed resurgent Turkish interest in the region they will also undoubtedly be anxious to ensure it doesn’t become too overbearing.

Take Turkey’s role in the Israel-Palestine arena. While it has long played the role of impartial negotiator, deliberately set back from the often-impassioned rhetoric and diplomatic tit-for-tat, relations with Israel have taken a nose dive (of late) lately. Much of this has been a calculated and deliberate political manoeuvre. Erdogan is effectively commandeering the Arab Spring, steering the Middle East’s fledgling democracies in a distinctly Turkey oriented direction.

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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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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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There have been numerous comparisons made between the now successful Libyan revolution and the ongoing Syrian uprising, even though the two scenarios are wildly different. The Syrian opposition cannot look to Libya for tips in how to topple a dictator. Mass defections in the military and NATO intervention can’t be expected in Syria.

But Syrians will be looking back at the early stages of the Libyan campaign, in particular at that crucial moment when the until-then peaceful protest movement took up arms and turned itself into a violent rebellion. With hindsight, that decision seems to have paid off. After only 6 months, the rag-tag rebels have put an end to over 4 decades of brutal and mindless repression. It is also possible that the opposition had little choice but to arm itself. When an already violent and unpredictable despot promises to hunt you down like “cockroaches”, grabbing your gun seems like a logical course of action.

But in doing so the opposition also alienated large parts of the Libyan population that would have otherwise been willing to join the cause. It’s a lot easier to take part in non-violent street protests than it is to reconcile with the possibility of killing someone.

We should also remember that the Libyan uprising enjoyed several successes before it took up arms. Massive, unarmed protests shut down most of the country and encouraged the defection of several high ranking military and political figures. Incredibly, they even took the city of Benghazi with little blood spilt.

If the early Libyan opposition campaign had any weakness it wasn’t that it was unarmed but that it focused too much on a single tactic – protests. When movements rely exclusively on protests they become extremely vulnerable to the state security apparatus. An opposition campaign should instead combine protests with strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and go-slows. Even the most well organised security services can’t handle such widespread civil disobedience and the effect on the national economy will eventually drain the regime’s available resources. (more…)

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A different set of colours has been hoisted above the Libyan embassy in Damascus. The Libyan ambassador and diplomatic staff in Damascus announced on Sunday that they had changed loyalties and were now supporting the opposition National Transitional Council and so the red, green and black of the old Kingdom of Libya flag is now flying proudly over the diplomatic mission in Roudah. The propagandist pictures of Libyan children killed by NATO air strikes have also been ripped off from the display boards.

The development actually made the front page of al-Watan, one of the largest state owned Syrian newspapers, alongside a picture of a burning poster of Muammar Gaddafi. Unsurprisingly, the regime controlled media has jumped on the ‘people power’ bandwagon, recently championing the cause of the plucky rebels in the face of a demented and ruthless dictator. One headline relished in the fact that “The rebels are searching for him [Gaddafi], alley by alley… house by house”, a jibe at one of the Colonel’s rants early in the revolution.

The Syrian propaganda machine took a similar stance after the Egyptian revolution, suggesting that Arab leaders must listen to their people. Of course Syria would never have to worry about disgruntled citizens; Mr President Bashar al-Assad understands the wishes and desires of the Syrian people.

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