banner reads: was the martyr Hatem Hana, a Christian, also a Salafi?
Yesterday President Bashaar al-Asad lifted the Emergency Law, dissolved the notorious State Security Courts, and legalised peaceful protests.
After the president’s decree, a lawyer asked permission to hold a protest in Hasakeh. He was detained by security forces.
Today – ‘Great Friday’ – large, peaceful, unarmed protests were held in all regions of the country. Police, army and militia used tear gas, electric rods and live ammunition against the people. At least 75 sons and daughters of Syria were murdered. Regime forces prevented some of the wounded from receiving medical help. Other wounded have been arrested from their hospital beds. (Here are ugly scenes in Homs).
Damascus is under lockdown, mukhabarat clustering on every corner. Someone I know tried to cross the city today for entirely apolitical reasons. During the journey he was taken off the bus (with everyone else) and marched to a police station where he was questioned and his details recorded. But protests and gunfire still roared from the suburbs as far into the city’s heart as Meedan.
Words are one thing, actions another. The president’s words have no meaning at all.
The words of the newly-formed, grass-roots Local Coordination Committees, on the other hand, seem to hold great meaning:
Freedom and dignity cannot be achieved except through peaceful democratic change. All prisoners of conscience must be freed. The existing security apparatus has to be dismantled and replaced by one with with specific jurisdiction and which operates according to law.
At this pivotal moment Syria is divided – many individual Syrians are divided – between hope and fear. Minorities in particular fear what might come next: a dispensation in which secular freedoms may be limited, and worse, the misguided ‘revenge’ of those who blame entire communities – the Alawis specifically – for real and imagined regime crimes. Prominent Alawis who have nothing to do with the regime have received mysterious, threatening phonecalls (which could of course come from the secret police). It reminds them of the seventies and early eighties when they were targetted by Muslim Brotherhood terrorists. Many Sunnis, meanwhile, remember the massacre of 20,000 in Hama, 1982, not as a brutal, unforgiveable overreaction to a terrorist group but as a calculated attack on Sunnis as a community.
So the sectarian danger is real. And it isn’t helped by such outside figures as the viciously sectarian shaikh Yusuf Qaradawi, al-Jazeera’s favourite, who so eloquently supported the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya yet opposed the revolution in Shia-majority Bahrain, going so far as to cheer on the Saudi occupiers and the Khalifa family’s ridiculous ‘foreign conspiracy’ narrative. Sermonising on Syria, Qaradawi described Bashaar as a prisoner of his sect, and Syria as a nation of Sunnis unjustly ruled over by Alawis.
Not only does this story exacerbate sectarian tensions in Syria, it simply isn’t true. Baathist rule has not sought to impose Alawi identity on the country in the way, for instance, Saddam Hussain cast Iraq in heroic Sunni terms. Syrian school religious education is traditionalist Sunni in emphasis. Although the highest ranks of the military and intelligence services are overwhelmingly Alawi, the broader regime constitutes an alliance of all Syria’s sects. Most Alawis are no more favoured by the regime than anybody else. Many Alawis have suffered at the hands of the regime. Many have been imprisoned, tortured or killed.
The regime’s strategy has previously been to keep all communities happy by co-opting each one’s elite. Now this has come unstuck. The ordinary people are marching, angry with the corrupt of all sects. This could be a sign that sectarianism’s grip is loosening from Syrian society.
Syrians worry about democracy. Of course they do. The neighbouring ‘democracies’, after all, are torn across violent sectarian faultlines. But it need not be the same in Syria. Neither Iraq nor Lebanon won democracy through unarmed popular uprising. Iraq was destroyed by sanctions, invasion and occupation before ‘democracy’ was established. Lebanon is a sectarian democracy because it was created so by France. Neither country (in the contemporary period) built a sense of national identity through a common national struggle.
The security forces have lost over 40 men since the uprising began. The families of some soldiers claim their dead were killed for refusing to fire at protestors. Families of dead soldiers in the north west, however, blame infiltrators, Hariri-backed Salafis or men allied to former (and exiled) vice president Khaddam. Near Banyas, commanders were ambushed and killed with their families, their bodies mutilated. Opposition figure Mahmoud Issa was arrested after telling al-Jazeera that he knew who’d killed the officers.
I don’t know who killed them, but let’s imagine it was Salafis, or vengeful relatives of dead protestors. Still it would be wrong to associate the whole uprising with these criminals. That’s the sort of illogic to keep people in their cage. The protestors in their vast majority are chanting for freedom and national unity.
Not every ‘Allahu Akbar’ has a Salafi agenda behind it. For most protestors, it’s an uttered response to oppression. What they’re saying is, God is greater than tear gas, batons and bullets. It’s a way for them to master the fear of death. I watch them on the youtube videos, chanting Freedom as they march, then Allahu Akbar when the fire falls on them. It makes perfect sense.
Next, whether we like it or not, most Syrians are profoundly religious (spiritual is another matter), and will express themselves religiously. This in itself is fine, so long as the religious understand that for democracy to work they must allow minorities and secularists to express themselves too, to live in safety and conviviality with those around them.
How long should Syria wait for change? Half a century of one-party rule hasn’t solved the sect problem. It has in fact worsened. Curing sectarianism by dictatorship is like solving emotional problems with hasheesh – it might temporarily avert a crisis but only by numbing the patient and freezing his neurosis in place. In the long term, failure to address the problem feeds it. The talking cure is the best solution – for sectarianism as for emotional problems (and sectarianism is an emotional problem).
If Bashaar had made good his (implied) promise of political reform eleven years ago, we’d be in a stronger position now. If Syria had had a reasonably free press, if NGOs, activists and non-sectarian political parties had been permitted to operate freely, then there’d have been a debate, which would have allowed people to let off steam, and would have allowed political organisation beyond the mosques, on practical rather than mythic-symbolic issues.
Two snippets of news today: Kurds in Qamishli and Amouda chanted “The Syrian People Are One. Arabs and Kurds are Brothers.” The imam of a Banyas mosque told a journalist, “There is no problem between Alawites and Sunnis. The problem is loyalty to the regime.”
Meanwhile, video proof emerged of an armed gang terrorising Syria – not Salafis, Lebanese, or Americans, but pro-regime shabeeha militia.
It’s become academic to discuss whether or not the uprising is justified. It’s happening. History is on the move.
I remember Maadamiya very well. It’s a fairly poor western suburb of Damascus, friendly, and it’s where my wife and I ‘wrote the book’ for our marriage. The following snippet is from al-Jazeera’s live blog.
A doctor from Madamia, a Damascus suburb, tells a journalist working with Al Jazeera:
“There are four people killed and about 50 wounded and we cannot take them to the public or private hospitals. At Daraya hospital security were shooting and arresting people. So I have been treating people inside homes. It is very hard to treat the wounds because many have been shot in the head.
“I can tell you now, the situation in Madamia will never be calm. Today is an historical day for the country. There is now a new strategy to kill all the protesters, not even arrest them.”
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Exclusive new cables released by WikiLeaks reveal the United States’ heavy-handed efforts to help Israel at the U.N.
BY COLUM LYNCH | APRIL 18, 2011
In the aftermath of Israel’s 2008-2009 intervention into the Gaza Strip, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, led a vigorous campaign to stymie an independent U.N. investigation into possible war crimes, while using the prospect of such a probe as leverage to pressure Israel to participate in a U.S.-backed Middle East peace process, according to previously undisclosed diplomatic cables provided by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
The documents provide a rare glimpse behind the scenes at the U.N. as American diplomats sought to shield Israel’s military from outside scrutiny of its conduct during Operation Cast Lead. Their release comes as the issue is back on the front pages of Israel’s newspapers, following the surprise recent announcement by Richard Goldstone — an eminent South African jurist who led an investigation commissioned by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council — in a Washington Post op-ed that his team had unfairly accused Israel of deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians.
In one pointed cable, Rice repeatedly prodded U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to block a recommendation of the board of inquiry to carry out a sweeping inquiry into alleged war crimes by Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. In another cable, Rice issued a veiled warning to the president of the International Criminal Court, Sang-Hyun Song, that an investigation into alleged Israeli crimes could damage its standing with the United States at a time when the new administration was moving closer to the tribunal. “How the ICC handles issues concerning the Goldstone Report will be perceived by many in the US as a test for the ICC, as this is a very sensitive matter,” she told him, according to a Nov. 3, 2009, cable from the U.S. mission to the United Nations.
Rice, meanwhile, assured Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during an Oct. 21, 2009, meeting in Tel Aviv that the United States had done its utmost to “blunt the effects of the Goldstone report” and that she was confident she could “build a blocking coalition” to prevent any push for a probe by the Security Council, according to an Oct. 27, 2009 cable.
Israel launched a three-week-long offensive into Gaza in late 2008 in an effort to prevent Hamas and other Palestinian militants from firing rockets at Israeli towns. The Israel Defense Forces killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israel soldiers were also killed during Operation Cast Lead, and a number of U.N. facilities faced repeated attacks. The military campaign raised calls at the U.N. for an investigation into reports of war crimes.
In response, Ban commissioned a top U.N. troubleshooter, Ian Martin, to set up an independent U.N. board of inquiry into nine incidents in which the Israeli Defense Forces had allegedly fired on U.N. personnel or facilities. The U.N. probe — which established Israeli wrongdoing in seven of the nine cases — was the first outside investigation into the war, with a mandate to probe deaths, injuries, and damage caused at U.N. locations.
The board’s 184-page report has never been made public, but a 28-page summary released on May 5 concluded that Israel had shown “reckless disregard for the lives and safety” of civilians in the operation, citing one particularly troubling incident in which it struck a U.N.-run elementary school, killing three young men seeking shelter from the fighting. Israel denounced the findings as “tendentious, patently biased,” saying that an Israeli military inquiry had proved beyond a doubt that Israel had not intentionally attacked civilians.
But the most controversial part of the probe involved recommendations by Martin that the U.N. conduct a far-reaching investigation into violations of international humanitarian law by Israeli forces, Hamas, and other Palestinian militants. On May 4, 2009, the day before Martin’s findings were presented to the media, Rice caught wind of the recommendations and phoned Ban to complain that the inquiry had gone beyond the scope of its mandate by recommending a sweeping investigation.
“Given that those recommendations were outside the scope of the Board’s terms of reference, she asked that those two recommendations not be included in the summary of the report that would be transmitted to the membership,” according to an account contained in the May 4 cable. Ban initially resisted. “The Secretary-General said he was constrained in what he could do since the Board of Inquiry is independent; it was their report and recommendations and he could not alter them, he said,” according to the cable.
But Rice persisted, insisting in a subsequent call that Ban should at least “make clear in his cover letter when he transmits the summary to the Security Council that those recommendations exceeded the scope of the terms of reference and no further action is needed.” Ban offered no initial promise. She subsequently drove the point home again, underlining the “importance of having a strong cover letter that made clear that no further action was needed and would close out this issue.”
Ban began to relent, assuring Rice that “his staff was working with an Israeli delegation on the text of the cover letter.”
After completing the cover letter, Ban phoned back Rice to report that he believed “they had arrived at a satisfactory cover letter. Rice thanked the Secretary-General for his exceptional efforts on such a sensitive issue.”
At the following day’s news conference, Ban flat-out rejected Martin’s recommendation for an investigation. While underscoring the board’s independent nature, he made it clear that “it is not my intention to establish any further inquiry.” Although he acknowledged publicly that he had consulted with Israel on the findings, he did not say it had been involved in the preparation of the cover letter killing off the call for an investigation. Instead, he only made a request to the Israelis to pay the U.N. more than $11 million in financial compensation for the damage done to U.N. facilities.
When contacted about the cable by Turtle Bay, a U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, declined to comment on its contents, noting only that the original investigation was designed only to resolve a dispute with Israel over the damage done to its facilities and seek restitution.
But the issue was far from over. The U.N. Human Rights Council, which the United States has long criticized for singling out Israel for censure, had already established its own commission headed by Goldstone. Goldstone agreed to take on the assignment after he revised the terms of reference to allow for investigation into both Israel and Hamas. The Goldstone investigation coincided with U.S. efforts to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process. Israel was livid over the development, warning that it could undermine peace prospects.
In a Sept. 16 meeting with Rice, Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, called the Goldstone Report, which had been released the day before, “outrageous,” according to a diplomatic cable, adding that it would give Hamas a “free pass” to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Rice agreed, calling the report deeply flawed and biased. But she also saw its release as an opportunity to convince Israel to pursue a U.S.-backed peace process. She asked Ayalon to “help me help you” by embracing the peace process and highlighting Israel’s capacity to hold its own troops accountable for possible misconduct. She underscored that the Goldstone Report could be more easily managed if there was positive progress on the peace process, according to the cable. She also advised Israel that it “would be helpful” if it would emphasize its own judicial process and investigations” into the matter.
Rice reinforced that position a month later in a meeting with Lieberman, but the foreign minister was skeptical about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. “Israel and the United States had a responsibility not to foster illusions. A comprehensive peace was impossible,” said Lieberman, who “cited Cyprus as an example that Israel might emulate, claiming that no comprehensive solution was possible, but security, stability and prosperity were.”
The release of the cables comes as Rice is very publicly sticking with her position taking on the Goldstone Report. “The United States was very, very plain at the time and every day since that the Goldstone report was deeply flawed, and we objected to its findings and conclusions,” Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. “We didn’t see any evidence at the time that the Israeli government had intentionally targeted civilians or intentionally committed war crimes.”