Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Some Thoughts on the Battle for Aleppo

I listened to the snow bursting under the tires/ like teeth crunching an apple/ and I felt a wild desire to laugh/ at you/ because you call this place hell/ and you flee from here convinced/ that death beyond Sarajevo does not exist

“Corpse” – Semezdin Mehmedinović

Amnesty International, in cooperation with Science for Human Rights has published a series of satellite images of the city of Aleppo. The images show evidence of the use of heavy weapons and artillery in residential neighborhoods. We knew this, but the independent confirmation is important.

Military Activity in Aleppo, July 23 - August 1, 2012

I used to live in Aleppo. The streets and neighborhoods now listed in battle dispatches are places where my friends live, where I shopped for books and went for walks in the evening.

What those satellite images can’t show is the human misery that has befallen the city of some 4 million people. Refugees are moving from one neighborhood of the city to another in advance of government forces and my contacts in the city tell of schools and churches filling with displaced people and shortages of everything. Electricity, water, sewage have failed; food has disappeared from store shelves and state bread bakeries – which feed the city subsidized flat pita – have run out of flour. The specter of kidnapping for profit, which was a hallmark of the civil war in Iraq, is rampant, and the fear of reprisals against Christians and Armenians whose leadership have been among the régime’s supporters grips those communities.

Despite my earlier thought that the Battle for Aleppo would be short, it appears that the Free Syrian Army rebels have dug in. The ferocity of the régime’s response also tells me that for it, recovering the city and dealing a decisive blow to the rebels have become absolute necessities. If it loses Aleppo, it loses northern Syria – from the Turkish border to Iraqi Kurdistan. The rebels would then be able to resupply at will and establish in the city an alternative government. Aleppo would be the new capital of a “Free Syria” – complete with an international airport and the physical infrastructure of a government.

The rebels have fought running battles throughout Aleppo, and have now moved into the city’s ancient walled old city. The old city is a collection of narrow streets, winding alleys and cul-de-sacs. The walls of the houses are made of thick cut stone. The rebels could hold out here for weeks. My fear – beyond the human cost – is that the Syrian army will, as it hunts down its enemies, harm the mosques, churches and caravansaries that led UNESCO to designate the city a “World Heritage Center.”

What the satellite images also confirm is that nothing — international opprobrium, the Geneva Accords, nothing restrains the Syrian army. What I think is happening is that the Syrian Army is beginning to encircle pro-rebel neighborhoods: Salah al-Din, Hannanu, Sakhur, and Ashrafiyya. These are among Aleppo’s newest neighborhoods and are inhabited by immigrants from the countryside. IDPs fleeing fighting near the Turkish border have also fled to these places, often because they have relatives there.

These neighborhoods will then become free-fire zones, where anyone is a target – whether rebel or civilian. This is what the régime did in Homs earlier this year. I’m not sure that this will have any real military value, but act to terrorize the surviving population, and reassure the elite of Aleppo and Damascus that the régime is prepared to do everything it can to stay in power.

Massacres in Aleppo will dwarf what has happened so far.

Aleppo, unlike nearby cities of Beirut, Damascus, or Jerusalem hasn’t been the scene of a battle since the time of Tamerlane some 600 years ago. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed hands. Conquerors from the Mamluks, to the Ottomans and the French all preferred to negotiate the city’s surrender to trying to breach its walls and capture its imposing citadel.

I worry that Aleppo will now join Sarajevo in our collective imagination as a once vibrant cosmopolitan city reduced by the fires of hatred to a monument to inhumanity.

I will write more as I am able to resume contact with friends in the city.

Why the targeting of children in Syria?

I’ve been away from the Eleanor Blog for some time as I had both a heavy human rights teaching load (Human Rights; Genocide) as well as organizing the Human Rights and the Humanities Week. Which also included a remarkable lecture by the Mideast Director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson. The week was a great success and the study and teaching of human rights has really begun to blossom at UC Davis, like our redbud and ceanothus plants.

I am coming back to the blog, in part because of real sense of resignation over the turn of events in Syria and in particular the attacks on children. The depravity encompassed by the assault on Syria’s children is a shocking new low, even for the régime in Damascus. 384 have been killed – around 10% of the total casualties and thousands have been rounded up and tortured.

A child protester in Beirut

Broadly, it strikes me that this round has to go to House of Assad. The last two weeks’ attack on Hama and Idlib had the feel of “mopping up” operations and weren’t characterized by the slower escalation that took place in Homs. The Syrian régime senses that it can act with impunity and as long as it doesn’t escalate beyond light artillery and tanks, can pretty much do what it wants.

Even though the EC placed additional sanctions on the Syrian super-elite, including Asma, Bashar’s wife, the US has toned-down its rhetoric to delink humanitarian assistance from régime change. This is being done for Russia’s benefit and may lead to some form of real humanitarian help. On the other hand, this public change in rhetoric (the Annan Plan) has given the régime additional space to maneuver.

Human Rights Watch’s reporting on the rebel Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) war crimes, that of the Vatican on ethnic cleansing in Homs and other sources are undermining international support for the FSA and other Syrian rebel forces. Without a reliable non-Assad partner, régime change seems less attractive than “régime reform.” I think that what this also means is that the urban middle-class coalition supporting Assad will continue to do so even though the sanctions will begin to really hurt. For Arab Christians, Armenians and the urban middle-class elite this is an existential problem.

The recent meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul where aid was pledged to the rebels notwithstanding, I don’t see the régime being dislodged anytime soon and rather repression will continue and mount.

However, the international human rights community has begun to call attention to the fact that children are targeted for torture and abuse by the régime to an unprecedented degree. I think it’s worth exploring why the Syrian secret police has adopted this tactic.

First some facts: Human Rights Watch and the UN have both documented widespread detention, torture, and killing of Syrian children.

Human Rights Watch quotes one Hossam, age 13 who was held for three days in a military detention facility in Tel Kalkh:

Every so often they would open our cell door and yell at us and beat us. They said, “You pigs, you want freedom?” They interrogated me by myself. They asked, “Who is your god?” And I said, “Allah.” Then they electrocuted me on my stomach, with a prod. I fell unconscious. When they interrogated me the second time, they beat me and electrocuted me again. The third time they had some pliers, and they pulled out my toenail. They said, “Remember this saying, always keep it in mind: We take both kids and adults, and we kill them both.” I started to cry, and they returned me to the cell.

HRW tells us that Hossam and his family are now refugees in Lebanon.

But what these reports tell us is that the attacks on children are systematic. There is a rhyme and reason to this horror.

This has in large part to do with the role of children in Syrian and Middle Eastern society more generally, as well as the specific position of youth in the Arab uprisings.

We forget this in the West, but children are not just offspring you take care of for 18 years and then they’re out the door. They are your future, especially among the urban lower-middle class and rural people of Syria. They are an investment – a biological 401k. There is little or no safety net and your children will care for and comfort you in your old age.

Children are targeted because of their inherent value to adults. Protecting your children is also a point of honor; taking and torturing them undermines the very stability and integrity of the home.

Reports also indicate that children are being subjected to rape. This is calculated to demoralize and discipline the régime’s opponents, and to suppress the participation in demonstrations and activism by girls, in particular.

Young people – 13, 14, 15 year olds have been at the forefront of the revolutions in the Middle East. Youth has been the vanguard of these movements, in part because of their ability to master social media, and also they know that they have the most to gain from change. I think the Syrian régime also knows that it is involved in a generational struggle for control of the region.

Breaking young people now is a key element of that struggle for the future.

Prague-Cairo-Damascus – Remembering Havel and his “Power of the Powerless”

Vaclav Havel was buried today.   His state funeral in Prague’s main cathedral was attended by the great and mighty.  He would have been uncomfortable with the ritual, but have understood the drama of the moment all the same.  Outside thousands of Czechs gathered and their faces showed signs of real grief and sadness at the passing of a playwright who fell into the role of president.  He wasn’t the architect of 1989 and the collapse of Soviet power in his homeland, and by most accounts he wasn’t a very good president, as his rigid belief structure wasn’t well matched to the quotidian demands of modern politics.

Mourners in the streets of Prague

But what Havel will be most remembered for is how he created an intellectual framework for understanding both the specific content of dissent and the role of the dissident in Eastern Europe as well as a way to see beyond prevailing ideologies of the Soviet Bloc and the West to something different, something better.  His was a rejection of older revolutionary ideologies and models; it was a new understanding through his own lived experience of the transcendent value of dissent and how it is both a product of the dehumanizing nature of modernization and the last best hope for modern society to resist the forces that would finish robbing it of its last shreds of humanity.

His essay, The Power of the Powerless” (1978) remains the clearest statement of the role of the dissident, his relationship to power, the arts and humanity.  Written as a working paper for a meeting of East Bloc human rights defenders that never took place, the essay has the added virtue of telling us something about what is happening today on the streets of Cairo, where tens of thousands occupied Tahrir Square in protest of the violent crackdown on dissent (and in particular on women protestors), demanding the immediate transition to civil rule.  It is also a warning about the moral cost of subordinating human life to ideology and “the cause” – a bloody reminder of which we saw today in an upscale Damascene suburb.

At the center of Havel’s essay is the idea that in a totalitarian-bureaucratic state like his 1970s Czechoslovakia or 2010s Egypt and Syria, truth is a product of power: “The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.” Thus for the “powerless” their power exists in absenting themselves from the truth produced by the state and, in Havel’s words, “living outside the lie.”  He uses a “greengrocer” as an everyman around which to explain the process.

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.

Those of us who have lived in bureaucratic-totalitarian states like Egypt, Syria and pre-war Iraq know this greengrocer and when his brother and sister Cairenes and Homsis took the streets earlier this year, we saw echoes of Havel’s ideas in what they were doing.  It was about breaking the power of fear, but also disconnecting truth from the state in ways Havel, whose own ability to share his ideas was limited by the rules of Samizdat, could have only dreamed of.   But he understood the cumulative power of that act.

It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division. This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power; rather, it makes its influence felt in the obscure arena of being itself. The hidden movements it gives rise to there, however, can issue forth (when, where, under what circumstances, and to what extent are difficult to predict) in something visible: a real political act or event, a social movement, a sudden explosion of civil unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure, or simply an irrepressible transformation in the social and intellectual climate. And since all genuine problems and matters of critical importance are hidden beneath a thick crust of lies, it is never quite clear when the proverbial last straw will fall, or what that straw will be. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action preventively, even the most modest attempts to live within the truth.

Even as Havel was describing the power of dissent he was looking beyond it to how making the active choice to live outside of the lie and inside of the truth would form a new basis for society.

Above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the “human order,” which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community-these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.

Havel located this “moral reconstitution” in the promise of human rights, taking the existence of rights as a serious starting point for morality in a post-revolutionary system. This is the hard (utopian) part of Havel’s thought.  He went from being a dissident to being a politician and every dissident loses some of their charm when this happens.  It was not an easy transition for him and suggests how difficult such transitions are.  But human rights are not at the center of the moral conversation in Cairo.  Havel couldn’t have anticipated how Islamist visions for state and society would come to dominate the aspirational idealism of the post-revolutionary environment there, where another kind of truth, dogma is ascendant.  For Havel, “life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self-organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom,” the politics of the moment in Cairo suggest the opposite system and one which in Havel’s words,   “demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline” instead.

Yet the bombing in Damascus this morning reminds me that Havel’s theory of the dissident makes it clear that law is at the “innermost structure of the ‘dissident’ attitude. This attitude is and must be fundamentally hostile toward the notion of violent change-simply because it places its faith in violence.”  While he does accede to the possibility of violence as a “necessary evil in extreme situations,” he also notes how the dissident is skeptical about any system based on “faith” in change in government or ideological system.  What happened in Syria was part of the internationalization of the civil war there and the marginalization of peaceful dissent that advocated for an existential revolution – not just the replacement of one tyranny with another.  My thinking is that for Syria, any hope for a peaceful transition is gone.

In the end, the passing of Havel gives us an opportunity to also reflect on the role he believed that art, scholarship and music, especially the raw, malformed rock of the Plastic People of the Universe have, in remaking society.

They may be writers who write as they wish without regard for censorship or official demands and who issue their work-when official publishers refuse to print it-as samizdat. They may be philosophers, historians, sociologists, and all those who practice independent scholarship and, if it is impossible through official or semi-official channels, who also circulate their work in samizdat or who organize private discussions, lectures, and seminars. They may be teachers who privately teach young people things that are kept from them in the state schools; clergymen who either in office or, if they are deprived of their charges, outside it, try to carry on a free religious life; painters, musicians, and singers who practice their work regardless of how it is looked upon by official institutions; everyone who shares this independent culture and helps to spread it; people who, using the means available to them, try to express and defend the actual social interests of workers, to put real meaning back into trade unions or to form independent ones; people who are not afraid to call the attention of officials to cases of injustice and who strive to see that the laws are observed; and the different groups of young people who try to extricate themselves from manipulation and live in their own way, in the spirit of their own hierarchy of values. The list could go on. Very few would think of calling all these people “dissidents.” And yet are not the well-known “dissidents” simply people like them? Are not all these activities in fact what “dissidents” do as well? Do they not produce scholarly work and publish it in samizdat? Do they not write plays and novels and poems? Do they not lecture to students in private “universities”? Do they not struggle against various forms of injustice and attempt to ascertain and express the genuine social interests of various sectors of the population?

Some thoughts on the humanitarian challenges of the coming civil war in Syria

Sitting with Gilbert Achcar and several of my UC Davis Jewish Studies and Middle East Studies colleagues in a local café after a talk on his book The Arabs and the Holocaust, the conversation turned to Syria.

Achcar’s conclusion, which I share (as does the UN) is that Syria is on the road to civil war.  Indeed, I would argue that parts of Syria, in particular the cities of Homs, Hama and Idlib and their hinterlands are already in a state of civil war.  Those cities have been placed under siege, death squads roam them in broad daylight rounding up and “disappearing” civilians and uniformed security forces fight running gun battles with bands of defectors who are often just defending their neighborhoods.

Still protestors take to the streets each Friday like they have since last March and each Friday dozens are killed. Over 3000 so far, including some 190 children.   This persistent courage in the face of unrestrained brutality inspires not just heart rendering awe, but also confirms how resilient the Syria opposition is.  This resiliency will force the Syrian régime to increase its use of organized violence and at some point the largely peaceful resistance will itself become violent, perhaps in a battle for the city of Homs.

The longer the conflict continues the more “international” it will also become.  This isn’t in the sense of Libya, where Western forces sided with the Libyan TNC.  There appears to be none of the international will to intervene in Syria that there was in Libya and various sanctions régimes have been blunted at the UN by Russian and Chinese opposition.  Instead the international component of the civil war in Syria will be regional, with Iran extending support to the régime with help from Iraq and Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Saudi Arabia and Turkey providing assistance to the opposition, which is not coincidently dominated by Sunni Muslims, as well as help from Iraqi Kurdistan for Syria’s vast Kurdish population. Arms, money and military and cyberwar expertise are flowing into Syria from all sides.

With the coming of civil war in Syria, it is important to begin to anticipate what kinds of humanitarian challenges will arise and how the international community could mobilize to meet them.  The Syria Civil War will resemble that of Iraq between 2006-2008 and Lebanon 1975-1990.  It makes sense to draw some lessons from the humanitarian experience of those conflicts.  What follows are some very preliminary thoughts and observations.

1)   Like Iraq and Lebanon, very little distinction will be made between combatants and non-combatants.

This fact will have critical implications for refugee flows, the creation of IDPs, the safety of civilians in situ, and refugees in transit across international borders.  The Iraqi experience shows how quickly large numbers of IDPs can result from civil conflict, especially if this civil conflict is accompanied by forms of ethnic cleansing.  The kind of ethnic cleansing that accompanied the civil war in Iraq, in particular in Baghdad, is unlikely in Syria.

Still minor refugee flows out of Syria over the last few months give some indication of where major flows will go: from northwestern Syria into the Turkish province of Hatay and from central Syria into northern Lebanon.  In both of these cases people moving probably have relatives on the other side of the border.  Currently the UNHCR is providing assistance to about 3200 Syrians who have fled to Wadi Khalid, which is just across the border from Homs.  I’m also certain that three to four times this number of Syrians has already crossed into Lebanon, but those refugees have not registered with the UN.  Recent cross border raids by Syrian forces into Lebanon to seize deserters and opposition figures confirms that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not safe.  Lebanon is in no position to oppose these incursions even if there were political will in Beirut to do so.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, October 2011

Attacks on Kurds in Syria’s Mesopotamia will force Kurds into Iraqi Kurdistan where the problem will be less political will to assist, but rather logistical support.  Indeed Iraqi Kurdistan could provide a very useful staging ground for refugee assistance.

The Turkish border is more militarized and the Turkish military more able to provided needed protection.  A possible option looking forward is the creation of a humanitarian corridor into Turkey through the Orontes River Valley, which would allow safe passage out of Homs, Hama and Idlib.  There are a host of other political problems with direct Turkish intervention in Syria, not the least of which are fears of Ankara’s Neo-Ottomanist designs on the Levant.   Nevertheless, any meaningful international commitment to the safety of Syrian refugees will require humanitarian intervention in Syria.

2) Like Iraq and Lebanon, violence will have political and sectarian dimensions.

Rightly or wrongly the régime of Bashar al-Assad is associated with the entirety of the Alawite minority in Syria.  The security apparatus and military elite in Syria is dominated by Alawites.  There will be ethnic reprisals in the civil war.  The most vulnerable populations, however, as was the case in Iraq, are the urban and rural Christian minorities.  A possible example of the shape of things to come came last week when a bomb exploded in the Armenian Orthodox Church in the Damascus’s old city.  It is unlikely that this bomb was set by régime opponents.  What is probably the case is that it was planted by state security forces as a message to the city’s Armenians that were they to support the opposition that they would face further attacks and/or that they would no longer be protected by the state from extremist violence.  Christians are disproportionately represented in Iraq’s refugee diaspora and it is likely that this would reoccur in Syria.  What this speaks to though is that where mass violence is probable,  genocide is  possible.

The West ignores the possibility of genocide in Syria at the peril of any humanitarian credibility it has achieved with successes in Libya.

Along the same lines, Syria remains one of the primary locations for refugees from Iraq – some 1.3 million with several thousand active asylum seekers.  Stepped up efforts to resettle and return these refugees would help reduce the possibility that this extremely vulnerable group would become victims of another conflict.

Syria’s problems and years of misery are just beginning.

Failing Syria at the UN, Killing Children and the Punishing of Dissidents

It was a moment of déjà vu in the UN Security Council this week when China and Russia voted against sanctions on Syria.  Their votes were out of line with a global consensus that the Syrian régime’s war on its people violates human rights and is a threat to regional peace and security.  What those two states did was dismissed on the streets of Syria’s smaller cities, where people carried banners that read “Russia and China do not [favor] freedom or dignity,” but is also reminiscent of the Cold War when the progress of human rights was held hostage by the Soviet Bloc and the US and its allies.

Some historians have argued that the Cold War merely interrupted the history of human rights; I tend to think the politicization of human rights by states in this fashion is the norm and that consensus building in the UN around human rights action is the unique, rare and now fleeting exception.

Still, the EU, Turkey and the US are continuing to build a sanctions régime against Syria.  And reports from inside the country show no let up in demonstrations, a trickle of military defections and the gradual organization in exile of an alternative government.  Still Aleppo and Damascus are quiet and their inhabitants, though fully aware of what is happening in the rest of the country have yet to rise in solidarity.

All this means for now is continuing misery in Syria: the UN has just announced that 187 children have been killed since demonstrations began last Spring and word comes of additional harassment of Syrian dissidents living abroad.

Syrian children hold a vigil for 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, who activists say was tortured and killed by Syrian security forces. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Along those same lines, I call your attention to the case of Yassin Ziadeh.  Yassin’s brother, Radwan, is an important Syrian dissident who fled Syria several years ago. Radwan has even visited Davis as a Scholar at Risk and was a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace a year before I was.  He has been at the forefront of identifying human rights abuse in Syria.  Now his family back home, in particular his brother, are being targeted by the régime.  According to Scholars at Risk, Yassin is being held incommunicado and without charge.  Presumabley this is being done to pressure his brother and frighten others in the Syrian diaspora;  if they support the opposition their families back in Syria are in danger.  If you have a chance please use the model below to write to the Syrian ambassador on behalf of Yassin.

I’ll blog more about Syria over the weekend.