The Guardian asked ten Arab writers to reflect on the revolutions five years on (or in). My piece is here below. To read the rest too (including Alaa Abdel Fattah from Egyptian prison, Ahdaf Soueif, and notable others), follow this link.
Five years ago the Guardian asked me to evaluate the effects of the Tunisian uprising on the rest of the Arab world, and specifically Syria. I recognised the country was “by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society”, but nevertheless argued that “in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.”
That was published on January 28th. On the same day a Syrian called Hassan Ali Akleh set himself alight in protest against the Assad regime in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Akleh’s act went largely unremarked, but on February 17th tradesmen at Hareeqa in Damascus responded to police brutality by gathering in their thousands to chant ‘The Syrian People Won’t Be Humiliated’. This was unprecedented. Soon afterwards the Deraa schoolboys were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti. When their relatives protested on March 18th, and at least four were killed, the spiralling cycle of funerals, protests and gunfire was unleashed. Syria not only witnessed a revolution, but the most thoroughgoing revolution of all, the one that has created the most promising alternatives, and the one that has been most comprehensively attacked.
In 2011, I wrote that Assad personally was popular, and so he remained until his March 30th speech to the ill-named ‘People’s Assembly’. Very many had suspended judgment until that moment, expecting an apology for the killings and an announcement of serious reforms. Instead Assad threatened, indulged in conspiracy theories, and, worse, giggled repeatedly.
I underestimated the disastrous effects of Assad’s neo-liberal/ crony-capitalist restructuring during the previous decade. I was soon to be wrong about many other things too. In April the regime made conciliatory gestures to Islamists and Kurds. At first I thought this showed how hopelessly out of touch it was – the protest movement at this stage was pan-Syrian and non-sectarian. Then I understood its misinterpretation was deliberate. In the following years the regime would stick to reading the revolution through ethnic and sectarian lenses; and largely due to its own efforts, these eventually came to dominate the field.
“Bashaar al-Assad is the leader of the revolution,” one young Damascene told me. “Every time he kills someone, every time he tortures, he creates ten more men determined to destroy him.” At first the regime’s resort to the ‘security solution’ made me think I’d overestimated its intelligence. Then I realised I’d underestimated it. Knowing it couldn’t survive a genuine reform process, it provoked a civil war.
First the savage repression of peaceful, non-sectarian activists. Tens of thousands were rounded up, tortured, killed or disappeared. At the same time jihadists were released from prison.
Then, in response to the revolution’s inevitable militarisation, the regime applied a scorched earth policy. Soldiers burnt crops and killed livestock. Civilian neighbourhoods were blasted by artillery, fighter-jets, Scud missiles, barrel bombs and sarin gas. A string of regime-organised sectarian massacres in 2012 irretrievably hardened the mood.
The Syrian people’s supposed ‘friends’ failed to seriously arm the revolution, or to protect the people from slaughter. With Assad’s indirect aid, foreign jihadists stepped into this vacuum. Until July 2014 the regime and ISIS enjoyed an unstated non-aggression pact. Even today, when ISIS is fighting the Free Army, the regime (and Russia) bombs the Free Army.
An arsonist posing as fireman, Assad tells the world his survival is indispensable to defeating jihadism. Too many commentators agree with him, perhaps because commentary in general has tended to ignore the travails and achievements of the Syrian people in favour of the terrorism story and proxy-war chess. As a result the general public in the West seems to think Syria’s choice is between, as a man recently told me, “President Assad” and “the nutters”.
Since 2011 I have learned to distrust the grand pre-existent narratives of both left and right, to fear the dead(ly) ends of identity politics, and to focus instead on the human facts. Like the 300,000 dead and eleven million displaced (the worst refugee crisis since World War Two) – the vast majority at Assad’s hand. Plus the more positive realities, like the revolutionary local councils, usually democratically elected, which do their best to keep life going and which should be part of any settlement. Or like the revolution in culture which has produced groundbreaking music, poetry, critical radio stations and newspapers.
The people practised democracy where they could. Yet by August 2013, counter-revolution seemed to have won both regionally and globally. In Egypt that month’s Rabia massacre began the liquidation of the Muslim Brotherhood, then the repression of everyone else. In Syria, as Obama’s chemical ‘red line’ vanished, Assad killed 1400 people with chemical weapons. Assad continued to receive Russian weapons; the Egyptian army received theirs from America.
Iran and then Russia rescued the Assad regime from military collapse, although in a way it has collapsed already, subcontracting its powers to foreign states and local warlords. And it has lost four-fifths of the country. Some of ‘liberated Syria’ is held by beleaguered democratic-nationalists, Arab or Kurdish, and a lot is strangled by trans-national jihadists.
The crisis increases exponentially. The only thing sure about Russia’s invasion is that it is expanding the war in space and time.
So, a five-year accounting: Friends and relatives have lost homes, witnessed atrocities, been forced into clandestine migration. Nothing unusual – every Syrian family, from whatever side, has trauma tales to tell. Most are mourning their dead. I will never show Palmyra’s temples or Aleppo’s Umawi mosque minaret to my children – these monuments that survived earthquakes and Mongol invasions are now razed, and the complex social fabric of the country irreparably torn.
Syria has witnessed the depths of human depravity. Syrians have also demonstrated the most inspiring creativity and resilience in the most terrible of circumstances.
Change in Syria and the wider region is running at breakneck pace, and heading in contradictory directions. As to the final results, this time I’ll say it’s far, far too early to tell.
A new round of Syrian peace talks, known as Geneva III, was supposed to begin on January 25 but ended up being postponed to January 29. Now that the day has arrived, they’re still not quite ready to begin—but UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is putting on a brave face. He has already met with the Syrian government delegation headed by President Bashar al-Assad’s UN representative Bashar al-Jaafari, but other invitees remain absent.
The reasons for these delays are complex, but the primary issue is a dispute over who should be allowed to represent the Syrian opposition and perhaps whether it is useful to think in terms of a single Syrian opposition at all. Opposition groups and individuals who participated in the December Riyadh meeting as well as Russian-backed individuals have been invited in various capacities, while so far Kurdish groups are excluded. And while no one expects any significant progress toward a resolution of the Syria conflict to emerge from the meetings, de Mistura is hard at work trying to establish Geneva III as a framework for conflict management and the mitigation of Syrians’ horrific suffering.
By Lars Jellestad, Photos by Nikolai Linares
January 27, 2016
This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark
On Tuesday, January 26th a majority vote in the Danish Parliament ratified an extensive tightening of Danish asylum laws, in an attempt to make Denmark a less attractive destination for refugees and immigrants. Among other things, bill L87 extends the mandatory waiting period for the right to family reunification from one to three years, cuts asylum seekers’ financial support by 10 percent and shortens residency permits for future seekers of asylum in Denmark. And then there’s of course the widely reported fact, that the bill will also allow police officers to confiscate refugees’ valuables. This is in order to finance their stay in the country while they seek asylum.
That’s the part of the new law that Danes have dubbed “The Jewellery Act” as well as what’s caused most of the international outrage surrounding the controversial act.Denmark has not received this kind of attention since the newspaper Jyllands-Postendecided to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad ten years ago. And just like back then, it’s not the type of international attention that has people popping champagne corks in the offices of local tourist agencies.
One could argue the legitimacy of international media juggernauts comparing Danes to the Nazis, who stripped Jews of large amounts of gold and other valuables. But the fact remains that Danish police can now frisk a person seeking asylum in Denmark, and confiscate certain valuables that person may have in their possession.
Regarding the new law, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen stated, that “the point is to make sure everyone is held to the same standards, be they asylum seekers or Danes – those standards being that you provide for yourself, if you are able.” However, policemen are only allowed to confiscate valuables that exceed a value of 10000 kroner (£1022) and that are not of sentimental value. This begs the question of how deep the real-life implications of this law will actually run.
To get an idea of what valuables refugees had with them upon their arrival in Denmark, VICE Denmark visited an old hospital in the port town of Helsingør that has been repurposed into an asylum centre for approximately 150 refugees. This is what five of the guys that agreed to speak to us claimed to have been carrying with them when they first got there.
Abdul Khader is a 44-year-old Syrian man. He came to Denmark five months ago. His most important possession is the black bracelet, given to him by his 16-year-old daughter. She is currently in Turkey with her two siblings and their mother. Abdul Khader estimates that these items constitute a combined value of about 1500 kroner (£153).
Subhe Mohammad hails from Syria, and is 40 years old. He has been in Denmark for four months. His wife and three children still reside in Syria. His most important possession is his phone, which is filled with photos of his children. Subhe Mohammad estimates that his valuables have a combined value of about 1700 kroner (£173).
Laith Wadea is 31 years old and comes from Iraq. He has been in Denmark for five months. In Iraq, he worked as a teacher and a blacksmith. His most cherished personal possession is his silver necklace with a Virgin Mary medallion, that was given to him by his mother. Aside from the necklace, he also owns an iPhone 6 and a fake watch. He estimates that his possessions are worth a grand total of about 6000 kroner (£613).
Nashet Blank is a 40 years old. He travelled from Syria to Denmark four months ago with his wife and three children. They sold all of their valuables to be able to travel through Europe – their wedding bands included. His phone and wallet mean nothing to him. He estimates that the combined value of his personal effects can’t be more than 500 kroner (£51).
Ahmad Farman is 25 years old and from Iraq. He came to Denmark five months ago. All of his possessions are of equal importance to him, though his phone contains several photos that are especially significant to him. He estimates that it’s all worth a total of 1500 kroner (£153).