Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On the Myth that is "Assad is here to stay"

Jim Muir recently wrote that "Bashar al Assad and his leadership are there to stay" and explained why. Hassan Nasrallah also declared triumphantly that the danger facing Assad's regime in Syria has now passed, and Assad himself said that the war has reached a "turning point". What most people forget as they get carried away by headlines like this is that the number of "turning points" we have had since the start of the revolution leave us all exactly where we started.

A little bit of perspective would not go amiss here. What kind of turning point is it for Assad when he had said exactly the same thing as he "toured" the Baba Amr district in Homs two years ago. That was supposed to be a big deal. And remember that three months into the conflict the popular regime slogan was "it's over" and yet here we are three years later. The world lampooned President Bush for his "Mission Accomplished" slogan on an aircraft carrier and yet they still take Bashar al Assad seriously. With hindsight we know now that the Syrian revolution was always going to be a near impossible task. It should not have succeeded, and by all rights Assad's fearsome intelligence services and the cast-iron support of his international allies should have stamped out the Syrian people from the very first days of protest. And they tried, very hard.

The fact is, and I agree with Muir on this, the war of attrition is the only reality we have in Syria. But we shouldn't confuse the ebbs and flows of the war with turning points, the reality is far more fluid, and it shows us that the water has been creeping closer and closer to Assad's power base with each successive new tide. He pushes back constantly, and sometimes he pushes back harder when an influx of arms and troops from his allies helps him, but where his soldiers patrol during the day, the rebels come back at night. The old adage, "the situation is critical but not serious" sums up everything about the "Assad is here to stay" mantra.

The Syria rebels continue to consolidate their positions in the north of the country, his stronghold in Western Aleppo came under serious attack only recently, and in spite of their war against the Assad regime the Syrian rebels have also managed to push back the much hated extremist group "The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" ISIS. They spent the first months of the year fighting ISIS, then a few weeks ago they took over Kassab and the last stretch of Syrian territory under Assad's control that borders with Turkey. They are constantly assassinating and killing his commanders. A few days ago they assassinated Major General Salim al Sheikh, and earlier they had killed yet another of his cousins, Hilal al Assad, as they pushed closer into his hinterland.

Assad's posturing and the buttressing of his image abroad as "here to stay" is really all a matter of timing. As is the case with his Iranian tutors, Assad pays very close attention to the political calendar. Whether it was his forces shelling Hama on the eve of Ramadan in 2011 or today as he "campaigns" in Damascus by visiting Syrians displaced because of the fighting, what Assad is doing is trying to shape perceptions. He wants the world to believe he is there to stay. But if that were true he wouldn't have to do that. He would simply just crush his opponents and take a walk down the streets of his capital, something that he cannot do. After all the strongest kid on the block does not need to keep telling people what he is. He simply does what he needs to do.

Then there is the matter of the help he's been getting. It's true that he has maintained his grip mainly with Hezbullah and Iran's aid, but to say he is here to stay misses a crucial fact. He is there only as long as there are Iranian and Hezbullah fighters propping him up. When they leave, he leaves. Machiavelli once said that only an invader who has come to live in a country can ever maintain his grip on it. I don't see the families of Shiite fighters from Hezbullah, Iraq or Iran bringing their families to live in Syria any time soon. In fact recent tensions over coverage by the Hezbullah propaganda channel (Al Manar) and the pro-Assad channel al Mayadeen have highlighted what could be cracks in the alliance with Assad. He is still under immense pressure, domestically and abroad, and he is haemorrhaging soldiers and equipment while his economy is losing billions of dollars a year. He also has to pay at some point for all the support that Iran and Russia are giving him. There comes a time when the tab gets too big for you to get another drink and you must pay the bartender.

What is really holding back real change in Syria hasn't been Assad's tenacity or the resolve of his allies, but the weakness and division in the opposition against him. This too has changed in leaps and bounds. People noticed the professionalism of the Syrian National Coalition in Geneva 2 in contrast to the demagoguery and hysteria of the Syrian regime's entourage. The current head of the coalition, Mr Ahmad al Jarba, has been constantly engaged in quiet diplomacy since then and the Syrian opposition today is certainly not the same confused, disjointed opposition that blinked its eyes into the light three years ago. It is a completely different beast and it has formed, stormed and normed itself into something that is proving far more agile at playing the diplomatic game whilst also strengthening connections with units on the ground. Only recently Jarba toured the front in Lattakia - always a big publicity boost for the Syrian revolution and a matter of hysterics for regime apparatchiks. This is because such visits by heads of the opposition inside Syria, and in areas that Assad only recently controlled, are direct snubs to his power and authority and the Stalin-esque nature of his regime is pathologically incapable of accepting such new realities. So really the slogan "Assad is here to stay" should be read "Assad is here for now" and he's only keeping the seat warm in Damascus.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Go then and take a part, but I will not. "Why?" Because you consider yourself to be only one thread of those which are in the tunic. Well then it was fitting for you to take care how you should be like the rest of men, just as the thread has no design to be anything superior to the other threads. But I wish to be purple, that small part which is bright, and makes all the rest appear graceful and beautiful. Why then do you tell me to make myself like the many? and if I do, how shall I still be purple?


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Life through a Window

My beautiful window. I can't pass a day without having opened you to peer out into the wide world. I see terrible things, some beautiful things, and some things I probably shouldn't see. But it's the world, even though sometimes it's a bit caricatured and exaggerated. I admit that without you I wouldn't be half the person I am today.

My window, through you I saw some amazing people. People I learned from, loved, lost, and found again. It's not easy living my life through you, and sometimes it is scary. I remember first turning to you when I felt tired and listening to the conversations people had outside. Life is a bit like that too. You have some people who are loud and brash, who want and get all the attention. Then there are the quiet ones, the "watchers" as Le Carré once put it. They are the ones who see what people were, what they become, and how they got there. They see the world through windows, and they shake their head at the folly of it all. 

I like to think of myself as a watcher, as somebody who wrote down what happened in these days. I opened my window and saw the world exploding outside and I watched how people went crazy. It hasn't been easy, but when the ashes cool and the smoke drifts away I'll be there, looking at you. Judging. Yes, it isn't enough to be a passive observer, to be swept away by the oceans of life and time. We make judgements all the time, about each other, about ourselves, and about the things that happen to us. Sometimes the judgements are bad, but occasionally they are good. And they get better with time. I've pronounced my judgement on this time, through my little window. I wanted to damn it all to hell. And yet out of it a few glittering souls shone through. It's just too beautiful at times to damn, not when there is still hope and there is still goodness and beauty and kindness and all that is worth fighting for. So I sentence it to life. From my little window. And I'll sit here sipping my tea and watching you all, shaking my head and crying sometimes but mostly smiling. One day I will shut the window and walk out the door, melting in with everybody else. To disappear, and then maybe rest.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why Yabroud Fell

Yabroud fell because the rebels were busy fighting ISIS. Because they don't have enough resources to fight the regime and ISIS, because ISIS was moving into the liberated areas and cutting people's heads off for listening to music or smoking. Because the regime is being supported by Hezbullah and Shiite militias from Iraq that are paid for by Iran and that Iran is giving the Syrian regime technical advice, expertise and weaponry, and that Russia, which is now occupying parts of Ukraine, has torpedoed every effort by the international community to prevent "foreign intervention" in Syria, the type of foreign intervention that is unpalatable to Western leftists and not to be confused with the foreign intervention of Russia in Ukraine or Iran in Syria. But that is alright because the West is backing these rebels according to the conspiracy theorists, and they are being told to cut off people's heads and incite sectarianism, not the sectarianism of a regime that shells mosques and slits the throats of children in Sunni villages. The other sectarianism that is alright to mention because you won't be labelled a sectarian yourself for calling it out. And of course the West is worried about chemical weapons, or any weapons, falling into the wrong hands. The same wrong hands that the conspiracy theorists think the West is funding, but they're not really funding, because if they were funding them then the rebels would have been able to fight both ISIS and the Syrian regime at the same time. But they couldn't, so they fought ISIS during the time when Assad and Hezbullah were mounting their campaign near the Lebanese border. And that is why Yabroud has fallen. Thank you for reading. Good night.


Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Perfect Day

A twenty nine year old photographer that I'd never heard of died today. Twenty nine years old - he was born in 1985! Where were you in 1985? Where were you today? Right now there is a family whose world has just come crashing down over their heads. Does the pilot know who he killed today? Did the man who loaded the bomb this morning know where it was going to fall and what it was going to do? Would he have even cared?

I spent the day in London walking in a rare bit of sunshine, seeing your face in the crowds at every turn, wishing you were there. Life felt good, normal, safe. Away from the madness of the news and a twitter feed gone mad. You said it was raining and that you missed the sun, I would have chained it to your balcony if I could. I held the hand of a three year old girl who hadn't seen a merry-go-round since this damn war started. She wanted to play, to shriek with the kids. Her parents said they didn't want to spoil her, but then again it had been so long since things had been normal that how could they deny her? Maybe tomorrow. Maybe they would stop spoiling her tomorrow. But today she waved with delight as her father held her on the beautifully painted horse they were riding. It felt good to see something so right. 

I looked at her sweet face and remembered seeing a girl her age with the scars of leishmania, of another girl who had been burnt by an exploding heater in her pathetic tent. Of the mud, a lot of mud, and then images of her trying to pick her living through garbage to survive. Her parents were oblivious, but my mind was always somewhere else. Either with you, with the little girl enjoying her time in a civilised country, or with those children wading through the mud with scars on their faces. At what point did that bomb fall and kill that young man? That boy. I feel like everybody younger than me, even if by a few years, is still a child. It's something I'm noticing more often the older I get. What time did that bomb fall and kill him? Was it when we were still having breakfast? Before we left the house?

Was it when I was still waiting for you to see my first "Good morning" as my heart fluttered in worry waiting for the message status to go from "Delivered" to "Seen"? Was it later? As we sat on the train - the little girl's first train ride? She had a lot of firsts today. First time on the London Underground, first time in London, first time seeing the horse guards, first time seeing Big Ben, first time seeing a swan. Was it when we were telling her who the Queen was and where she lived? When was it that another young life thousands of miles away was snuffed out like a candle?

I was once in bed for over a month with hepatitis A. Nobody told my mother I was ill, but she phoned all the way from Saudi Arabia because she had suddenly become worried about me and felt that something was wrong. Did his mother also feel something at that moment when he left this world? How do we explain that? I know from experience that this kind of bond is there, when two people feel joined somehow, for better or worse. When words aren't even necessary sometimes. This kind of acute psychic link washes away all the dogmas, sharias, customs. It leaves behind that raw human experience of something we can't describe. And it hurts sometimes, a lot. So we get scared and dress it up, or dismiss it. But now it doesn't matter. Somewhere out there is a twenty nine year old man who has just been buried. That I think I love you doesn't matter, the swans and the sunshine don't matter. Even the giggles of a beautiful three year old girl don't matter. At this moment in time nothing really matters. What's the point? What can small people like us do against so much violence and fear?

Monday, March 03, 2014


What if we could go away from here right now. At this very moment, and leave all the awfulness, the horror, the dirt behind. What do we care for these terrible people? For the things they do to each other and to themselves? It's all so bad.

What if we could go to that garden, that beautiful garden where we can sit and eat fruit. Where we can play and enjoy the shade as the wind rustles the leaves beneath the hot sun floating in a clear blue sky. Where the earth is rich and red, and the water gurgles past us as it flows through its little channels between the trees. To that place where we can just about hear our loved ones talking and laughing a muted laugh in the distance, and we know they are waiting for us as they prepare for lunch when we can all sit down together and share stories.

But now, in this moment, I sit with you, laying my head on your lap as your hair brushes down on my face. You look down on me and smile, and it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. My heart feels as if it would burst. We are in an old place, an ancient place. Where nothing changes, and time moves like the blue mountains in the distance. We can go there too one day, if we like we can go wherever we want, because this land that surrounds us is all ours, as far as the eye can see.

I reach up my hand to touch your cheek, still, even now, I cannot believe you are here. I feel the softness of your cheek and caress your lips, and you rub your face against my hand as if to tell me that my senses aren't lying to me. Above your head the branches of the tree sway gently, and little flecks of that blue Mediterranean sky peek down at us between the leaves. I want this moment to last forever, to be like this with you, as we lay together in the garden of our everlasting delight, away from death and sadness.


Friday, February 21, 2014

The Man on the Bench

There's a picture I saw recently, of a man slumped on a park bench with his head split open. On one foot you can see his shoe and the neatly tied shoe laces. I'll bet when he tied them earlier that day the last thing he thought of was that a man tens of thousands of miles and a world away would be staring at them through a computer screen. That he himself would be dead, oblivious to the problems that were troubling him only the night before. Death is so final, so unsettling.
Then there are the pictures of emaciated bodies, many bearing the marks of torture. The men are strangers. They mean nothing to me. As I stare into the eyes of one of them I feel a strange disquiet. What would I look like if that had befallen me? A week's worth of stubble, my colourless lips slightly parted to show teeth, my hands bound together. I wouldn't feel anything of course, but then it occurs to me that those we leave behind do feel something. They feel a lot. I once heard a story about a wise king who told his followers that when he was to be buried that he must lie in state with his hands outstretched and palms upwards. It was to show the world that he was leaving it with nothing, exactly the way he entered it. I've never heard of such a king, but I listened politely because clearly the person telling me the story was far less concerned with the historical accuracy than with instilling in me the understanding that it's not the money we make, the station we reach or the things that we acquire in this little journey, it's just our actions that matter. And our actions determine the effect we leave behind on people, on those who might mourn us. All that decoration and fuzz that different religions demand, the rituals and solemn prayer, they are for the living, not the dead. The dead don't care about this world anymore. They are somewhere else, or nowhere. 

No, the ritual is there to help those of us left behind. So I stare now at the dead man on my screen and I think that somewhere there was a mother who carried him for nine months, who breastfed him and laughed as he took his first steps. Somewhere there were people who cared for this man, a woman who might have caressed his hair, children maybe that might have laughed as he carried them high. He might have been miserable enough to have never experienced any of these things, and in that case maybe death was a blessing for him, but let's say this dead man, let's call him Zeyd, had a blessed and happy life. He didn't know that somewhere in the world somebody was building the barrel bomb that would split his skull open and throw him on a park bench like a ragged drunkard who has just collapsed in a heap. We can say he had an infinite number of choices to make, whether to walk down that street or not, whether he could have decided to stay in whatever wretched hovel of a home he lives in and not come out that day, but after it happened, after that one singular event, nothing could have changed and it could never have been other than the way it happened. What a pity, what a terrible waste, what a sad sad day to live and see this being done to human beings.