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November 21, 2011

Maher Arar on Syrian Conflict


Dispatch from Tahrir: The Egyptian revolution continues

by Sarah Hawas on November 21, 2011 10

Police beating protesters in Tahrir Square, November, 20 2011. (Photo: Mostafa Sheshtawy)

The horror of the Maspero massacre had barely begun to settle before the morning of Saturday 19 November. Egyptians were generally convinced that we had seen the worst of the Supreme Council of the Armed Force’s (SCAF) sectarian alliances and its drive to destroy the fabric of the revolution. Intra-ruling class feuds were mostly manifesting as debates around the convoluted parliamentary election process. Yet, once again, the churn of a death-machine trained, funded, and programmed by market-worshipping foreign investors intent on preserving the subsidiary function of the Egyptian state has resumed. Countless reports from Tahrir over the last two days have detailed the open-air mayhem, in which the bodies of the dead and the unconscious have been systematically dragged across the rubble and piled on one another among heaps of garbage.

Friday witnessed a massive rally occupying Tahrir Square behind the single demand for a transfer of power to a civilian government. Annoyed at the SCAF’s moves to impose supra-constitutional principles that protect them from any kind of transparency and accountability while affording them a permanent seat at the head of the political table, the Muslim Brotherhood capitalized on the moment by temporarily joining in the anti-SCAF call and thus dominating the demonstrations, which were supported by most political parties and activist groups. Friday also witnessed a large celebration of Alaa Abdel Fattah’s birthday in absentia, while promoting his mother’s continued hunger strike in solidarity with her son and other victims of military trials. For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood voiced sectarian slogans and boasted campaign posters before leaving in the early evening. Although a few groups toyed with the idea of declaring a sit-in, none did, and the square was more or less cleared by midnight.

Tahrir (Photo: Mostafa Sheshtawy)

Late Saturday morning, following a surprise attack on a stray sit-in consisting of less than 100 people – mostly the critically wounded victims of Jan25, their family members and family members of the martyrs – in which Central Security Forces (CSF) and the military police jointly descended upon protesters, beating them and chasing them out of the square, activists quickly gathered in force and number to occupy the central garden of Tahrir before proceeding to pelt a number of riot police vans and trucks deployed from the Ministry of Interior with rocks, hijacking and destroying one police van before the CSF promptly withdrew from the square. After the demonstration rapidly grew to encompass up to 2000 protesters, CSF returned with a vengeance, engulfing protesters in endless tear gas and firing rubber bullets to disperse them into the side streets of Tahrir. In the narrow streets of Talaat Harb and Mohammed Mahmoud, protesters were chased down with rubber bullets and more tear gas, but continued to return to the square pelting rocks in self-defense and advancing with unshakably solid resolve to re-occupy the square. The number of protesters swelled to the tens of thousands, tents went up, and shortly after Saturday midnight, Tahrir was re-taken.

The Egyptian police have been shooting people in the eyes. (Photo: Maggie Osama)

The police forces have also been systematically shooting people in the head. Countless protesters were shot in the face, and at least seven individuals sustained critical wounds to their eyes. One of them, Malek Mustafa, veteran leftist blogger and activist and a beloved revolutionary, was rushed into surgery after receiving a rubber bullet to his right eye. In 2006, Malek – part of a generation hardened in uprisings during the second Palestinian intifada and the Iraq invasion – was brutally beaten and imprisoned, along with several other activists from the then-prominent Kefaya (enough) movement, for 40 days in 2006 for participating in the legendary Judges’ Club sit-in. Like Alaa Abdelfattah, he is one of the many activists who laid the groundwork over the last decade for the 25th January revolution, and has actively participated in protests since. He emerged from Saturday night’s operation, performed to preserve the eye structure but with no promise of a functioning eye, boasting his characteristically unwavering sense of humor, breathlessly discussing strategy and tactics for the re-occupation of Tahrir square that was underway. Another revolutionary, Ahmed Harara, lost one eye to police ammunition on January 28th, and lost his other eye shortly after Malek. Another, Ahmed Abdel Fattah, sustained the same injury.

Eye injuries.

Others languished among the over-700 wounded in Tahrir, many of them fearful of rushing to emergency rooms owing to widespread reports that most of the central hospitals were (as they typically are) under the direct supervision of the State Security apparatus. In the late hours of Saturday evening, activists mobilized tens of thousands of Egyptians to occupy and secure the square. Skirmishes continued to take place on the peripheries, and street fighting persisted against the CSF in neighboring streets. Though protesters were able to hold the square for a couple of hours, after midnight the CSF returned, with an onslaught of tear gas, bullets and flares, targeting field clinics and relentlessly attacking protesters in street battles that continue as I write. Amidst the fighting, running and utter chaos unleashed on the protesters, the square throbbed with a single, thundering, unified chant: “The people demand the ouster of the field marshall (Tantawi)” and “the people demand the downfall of the regime,” while protesters’ determination to fight back only grew stronger. State television continued to peddle the narrative of chaos and instability, while private channels laced their wariness with measured criticism of the army. Of course, they are aware that its henchman in the Ministry of Information had shut down nearly all private channels during the Maspero massacre.

Although Saturday’s attacks were conducted almost entirely by the CSF, yesterday – Sunday – saw the return of the military police to partake in what most have described as the most vicious bout of violence visited upon protesters in the course of the last nine months. They deployed live ammunition, rubber bullets and buckshot, along with at least two different sorts of tear gas, all produced by US companies. Most insist that they have had the most toxic and debilitating effects of any they have ever experienced, with countless protesters fainting and experiencing various neurological reactions upon inhalation. By late afternoon, police forces had set fire to countless tents in the center of the square as well as motorcycles belonging to protesters. As night fell, snipers could be seen shooting at protesters from balconies surrounding Tahrir. Around 3 am, a ceasefire was negotiated between the Imam of Omar Makram mosque (on the corner of Tahrir, the mosque has become one of the safe-houses of the revolution) and the generals directing the ammunition, only to be followed by fresh rounds of bullets and tear gas canisters. As I write, the revolutionaries continue to hold the square.

Tahrir standoff on November 19. (Photo: Jonathan Rashad)

Many reactions to the violence have sought to explain the SCAF’s strategy, particularly as it relates to the nearing parliamentary elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is poised to dominate. The argument is that because of the recent tensions between the MB and the SCAF, the SCAF may wish to again postpone elections (last night’s communique categorically stated otherwise). Instability, chaos and violence help them justify this. Prior to Friday’s demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood – in between tentative alliance with a myriad of liberal parties, old and new – had largely refrained from challenging the SCAF directly. They were eager to speed up elections and ensure a swift institutionalization of the political facts on the ground – meaning, their organizational dominance. To that end, they have cooperated directly with the SCAF over the last ten months in policing and repressing the labor movement – the leading edge of the revolution, against too many analyses focusing on the mediatic spectacle of Tahrir in between confrontations and the hype of violent confrontation with the state. What’s most important is what people do between highly public mobilizations.

But the SCAF’s abrasive publication of supra-constitutional principles protecting against any kind of transparency or accountability for the military and securing the military’s position in the political field perhaps signaled an end to its honeymoon with the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the publication of those documents which prompted the MB to join the demo on Friday. Still, measured against the benefits – to the SCAF’s short-term and long-term control – of holding elections as soon as possible, fatally violent though they would certainly be, no rift with the Brotherhood can reasonably cause them to postpone the elections. The SCAF and Muslim Brotherhood differ, mostly rhetorically, on moral and strategic grounds, but effectively answer to the same economic agenda. There is nothing to be gained by either of them from a postponement of an electoral process designed and equipped to preserve the status quo, and indeed, heighten the stratification of the Egyptian political economy by concentrating privilege yet further amongst the elites, be they remnants of the Mubarak regime, businessmen coalitions, or of course, the bourgeois leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood itself.

What is clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the liberal parties, were nowhere to be found among those who mounted a committed response to the intolerable behavior of police forces over the last 48 hours. Although, of course, many of their politicians made appearances once the square had been temporarily secured, and others suspended their election campaigns and issued statements in support of the protesters.

“Forget about the last revolution, peaceful protest is dead.” When protesters chant this, they are not referring to Jan25. They know that this was not and has not been a peaceful revolution. They are referring to a mythical narrative constructed by the US and the SCAF to refer to the contained uprisings which were hijacked by the ruling council and upon which empire’s regional counter-revolution has been feasting. In this narrative, the moral economy of the wheel of production is wedded to national security and stability, dissent is demonized and usurped, and ‘marginal’ (or what the counter-revolution has named ‘factional’) groups are attacked: women, Copts, the Bedouin of the Sinai, workers, non-Egyptians, and more. In a different vocabulary, the people of Egypt. The chant is a reminder that the 18 day uprising that ousted Mubarak, and the ‘transitional’ period since, has been written in the blood of hundreds of martyrs, along with over 12,000 victims of military kitchen tribunals. It echoes the urgency to defend the revolution against a wretched wave of violence, one that has no end in sight.

From Alexandria and Mansoura to Port Said, Suez, Qena, Assiut and Minya, among others, those that have not given their lives to the revolution have lost limbs, organs, and eyes; they have been humiliated and made targets of thuggery by state media; and subject to all manner of torture, including virginity tests and ongoing extra-legal military trials without due process that end in arbitrary sentencing – from five years to life. The SCAF has persisted in its belligerent behavior for the last ten months, fighting court decisions for the re-nationalization of the public companies that were privatized under Mubarak, and like a loyal dog that can respond to none but his own master, allowing former NDP members to run in elections. The martyrs that lost their lives in the last two days did not die thinking about elections and constitutions. They are not members of the political elite vying for a redistribution of power among themselves. They are not (as articulate experts and wheedling and wheeling-and-dealing politicians suggest) awaiting transition schedules sketched behind closed doors among the squabbling ruling class. They did not mandate the regime in which the SCAF belligerently rules with iron fist like a racket of henchmen for the United States and Israel. And they are aware of the material interests that cause the SCAF to be allied with the hyper-capitalist class of the Muslim Brotherhood. And they are acting upon that awareness. How far that action goes remains to be seen.

A version of this post originally appeared on Max Ajl’s blog Jewbonics

Freedom Rides to Jerusalem 15.11.2011


In his own words


Too little, too late and too much blood

Framing Syria

[Still image from the documentary, [Still image from the documentary, “Syria: Inside the Repression, Magneto Presse, 2011]

Over the last forty years, the Assad regime has mastered the method of burying our stories almost as well as burying our people. Our cities, like their residents, carry the scars of brutality, hiding decades of bloody secrets within their thick stone walls. One city in particular, Hama, lives with a twenty-nine-year-old secret, its 1982 massacre. It’s not really a secret, rather classified as a taboo subject never to be discussed in voices louder than whispers behind closed doors. Syrians didn’t even call it a massacre, they vaguely referred to it as al-ahdath, the events, as if there were an unspoken deal between the murderous regime and the people. We thought all these years if we never mentioned Hama again, the crimes would never be repeated, and the rest of us would be safe. We were wrong. The dark February month, when tens of thousands of Syrians were slaughtered (the real number will never be known) and thousands more were imprisoned, was destined to be swept under the regime’s dirty rug, and Hama, was destined to be forgotten forever. But after March 15th, the deal of silence was breached, as the crimes of the father were repeated by the son, and the blood of Hama’s past mixed with its present, its stories emerging from the repressed collective memory to join the new painful chapters written every day.

Twenty-nine years later, the tactics have changed but the intention is the same: bury the story with the people and cover the evidence in a fog of misinformation and confusion. The Syrian revolution’s media war has become almost as fierce as the battles on the streets. From satellite channels, social media platforms, and international newspapers, there is a PR war to be won by both sides. The regime’s strict ban on independent journalists entering the country has created two kinds of stories, undercover reports by journalists who dare to slip into the country for a few days through the Turkish or Lebanese borders, like Anthony Shadid, or reports by the privileged few who enter with the regime’s consent, like Hala Gorani, and are escorted by minders to “protect” them from mysterious “armed gangs,” and obviously, the truth.

These stories do not help strengthen the narrative that the regime wants to sell its supporters and the world. In the last few months, Bashar al-Assad seemed to realize that no news from his side is not necessarily good news. Perhaps in an effort to generate a more favorable narrative, a selective few have been granted access to Syria. These journalists, like Robert Fisk, Andrew Gilligan, and Nir Rosen, are vaguely not escorted, but not undercover. Their articles are branded as “exclusive,” “unique,” with unlimited access to “all sides,” commissioned to expose a radically different side of the revolution than what currently floods the regional and international media outlets which have been based on the steady stream of daily videos and eye-witness accounts.

Although these journalists vary in background and expertise, their accounts are similarly framed: focusing on the brewing, deadly sectarianism; proving the existence of an armed opposition; equalizing the regime’s force with the people’s dissent; while casting the protesters’ narrative in a cloud of doubt. Fisk’s recent reportage reads as if he were speaking directly from the presidential palace, or humble, unguarded, “largeish suburban bungalow,” if you are to believe Gilligan. And surprisingly, Nir Rosen’s recent series for Al Jazeera English seems to suffer from the same regime-tainted myopia.

Rosen spent seven weeks this summer in Syria, touring Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, speaking as he says, “to all sides.” But from the first article entitled, “The revolution will be weaponized,” it is clear how heavily one-sided this series was designed to be. His focus on the deep, historical grievances of the Alawite (but not Sunni) sect and his endless comparisons of Syria to Iraq casts a distinct air of doom and hopelessness over every piece.

Inspired by Rosen’s “A Tale of Two Villages,” in which he compares an Alawite village to a Sunni one, I would like to tell you two tales of al-Rastan. This small town, with a significant population of military families, located between Hama and Homs, has become the geographic and revolutionary heart of Syria. According to Rosen, al-Rastan is the headquarters of the “armed opposition.” But French journalist Sofia Amara, who visited the town around the same time as Rosen, witnessed another side to the same story.

Amara visited Syria undercover, for eleven days in early August, traveling to Zabadani, Damascus, Hama, Homs, and al-Rastan. When I met her, she spoke with guarded hesitation, even in the safety of her Paris apartment, although her fifty-two minute documentary film, Syria: Inside the Repression, exposes her name and face to the world. She is still afraid. For weeks after her safe return from Syria, Amara slept with hands formed into tight fists, thumbs protected, a habit she picked up from the locals. They sleep with their fingernails digging into their palms, because they fear of having their fingernails ripped out because of their dissent. Maybe the fear stems from the stories of the Daraa children, maybe from older prison stories, or maybe because it is the only form of torture that you imagine you can protect yourself from, even while you sleep.

With her sharp mannerisms, precise expressions in English, French, and Lebanese Arabic, and unruly, jet-black hair, Amara exudes an electric intensity. Although she is probably the toughest woman I have ever met, the hard, confident shell disappears when she speaks about al-Rastan, “Al-Rastan was amazing. I had the chance to be there when it was liberated. It was surrounded by tanks, but inside, it was free. The revolutionaries were in control of it, not with weapons, but with their strength.” Her affection and respect for the men who gave her complete access to tell their story is reflected in her voice and her eyes. One man was arrested and tortured for accompanying Amara. Her voice oscillates between excitement as she describes their courage, and sadness when she remembers, “But they have no one to support them.” Some of those same men are now dead.

Rosen similarly describes al-Rastan when he visited it on August 31st, “We drove north to Rastan, a city with a strong opposition presence. The last time I was there, several weeks earlier, I had counted 50 tanks along the perimeter of the town. As we drove toward the town, the scene was wholly different, not a single tank in sight. Rastan felt liberated.”

While in al-Rastan, both Amara and Rosen visited the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigade, a group of defected soldiers who were hidden in a safe house outside the town. Before Rosen meets the soldiers, he builds up the fear scenario with an over-dramatized, detailed description of a complicated set up that included a ski mask, switching vehicles, and a forced, sweaty, wardrobe change. “I felt claustrophobic and trapped. I could hear my own breathing louder than usual as we bounced around on a rough road. In eight years of working in conflict zones with armed groups I had never been told to put a mask on.” What he does not mention is that this extreme fear stems from knowing that the defected soldiers are probably the most wanted group by the regime because these soldiers had decided to stand with the people instead of shooting them.

At the safe house, Rosen meets first lieutenant Muhamad Abdelaziz Tlass who explains, “We are free officers rejecting the oppression of people and we are protecting the innocent people.”  Rosen continues, “Tlass claimed their first operation occurred on June 20 when they defended a demonstration. Military security ordered an armored personnel vehicle belonging to the army to shoot at a demonstration. Four children were killed and he claimed security forces killed an army general for refusing to shoot. But it was more likely that the deserting soldiers had killed the general.” Rosen also admits, “The overwhelming majority of the opposition is peaceful and unarmed.” But the statement is followed by a suspicious, “For some it is a question of principal or strategy; for many it is simply because they do not have access to weapons that would be useful against the powerful Syrian security forces. There are various different armed opposition actors in Syria. Together they have killed around 700 hundred members of the Syrian security forces in various clashes and ambushes.”

This judgmental language is a continuous thread throughout Rosen’s accounts, which jump between dates and locations, and splice current events into the summer journal. He, like other journalists, does not differentiate between the peaceful protesters on the street and the defected soldiers who now form the Free Syrian Army, lumping them together into the “armed opposition” category. His statements are tainted with sectarianism that frames every piece in the series. He says, “Certainly violence tends to divide people, they watch different media, they go to different funerals, Alawites go to funerals for Alawite martyrs who may be in the police or in the army, Sunnis will go to funerals for martyrs who are demonstrators.” According to Rosen, the situation in Syria, “reminded me of Iraq,” or the way people spoke were “euphemisms I heard in Iraq.” Even when he witnesses protesters’ anti-sectarian chants he says, “although, in my opinion, whenever demonstrators condemn sectarianism in an all-Sunni demonstration, it is probably already too late, as I had witnessed in Iraq.” One especially divisive statement caught my attention, “Increasing communal violence, this is the scariest part of what’s happening in Syria, in the villages of Homs and Hama, you have local militias being developed in Alawite and Sunni areas, you have the beginning of sectarian cleansing, Alawite families being kicked out of Sunni villages, if you are a Sunni who goes into an Alawite village you will be killed sometimes, if you are an Alawite who goes into a Sunni village you will be killed.” Is communal violence really the “scariest part of what’s happening in Syria”? And if you are an Alawite you will be killed, but if you are a Sunni you will be killed “sometimes”? I wish someone, Rosen or others, would tell us, out of the over 4000 confirmed dead in Syria plus the over 700 soldiers, how many were Sunnis and how many were Alawites? But then that would be very sectarian of me to ask, wouldn’t it?

When Amara visits the defected soldiers, she gets there riding on a motorcycle in the dark, on the main highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo. On the motorcycle, the driver explains, “The entire road is monitored with night vision goggles, so we turn the headlight off and go through dirt roads between the trees.” When I ask her if she was scared, she acts cool and says, “It’s my job.” She arrives to the safe house and proceeds to interview the soldiers, their faces exposed, their IDs in hand. She plainly films their weapons lined on the wall. No drama. One of the defected soldiers tells Amara, “It’s only a few hours or days before I will die, so let me do a good deed in my life before I die and make you coffee, so you can drink coffee made by the hands of a martyr!”

First lieutenant Tlass, one of the first defectors, an al-Rastan native and relative of former Minister of Defense to both Hafez and Bashar, Moustafa Tlass, is also interviewed by Amara. He has traveled with the army from the beginning of the uprising from Daraa to the central Homs/al-Rastan area. He clearly states, “I was a witness to the massacres that the regime has inflicted on the people. There are no armed gangs. There is no one but us, the Free Syrian Army, to protect the people. We have the right to protect the people, and the use of weapons, and the use of force, against any security forces or any force that wants to hurt our people.” These men have witnessed the regime’s crimes of murder, torture and rape; some of them were imprisoned on the accusation of “showing leniency towards the people.” The Khaled bin al-Walid Brigade recently entered Homs during the government crackdown on the city during the Eid celebrations. This video shows Tlass speaking about their mission.

The only historical analysis Rosen was willing or allowed (I’m not clear which) to enrich his pieces with was atwo-part detailed account on the history of the oppressed Alawite sect in Syria. It reads like a Syrian version of the American “Why do they hate us?” argument. He pays special attention to the history of the Alawite sect that apparently has also suffered greatly under the Assad rule. “The regime denied any public space for Alawites to practice their religion. They did not recognize any Alawite council that could provide religious rulings. This could have been a tool to clarify the Alawite religion to other sects and religions and to reduce suspicions over what many Syrians perceive as a mysterious faith. Alawites struck a bargain; they lost their independence and had to accept the myth that they were ‘good Muslims’ so as to win Sunni acceptance. Assadism then filled the gap left by the negation of traditional Alawite identity.”

While this history is significant, where was the missing piece of the Syrian sectarian puzzle? Where was the historical account of the non-Alawite majority being trodden upon for forty years by an oppressive regime? And where were “the events” of Hama? In Rosen’s accounts to date, although Hama the city is mentioned several times, and the 1979-82 assassinations by the Muslim Brotherhood is repeated multiple times, the massacre of Hama is mentioned only once. Rosen describes it as a “violent crackdown” that left at least 10,000 men, women, and children dead. If 10,000 murdered people (which is the most conservative number used for Hama’s victims) is a crackdown, then what is a massacre?

While Rosen focuses on growing “sectarian hate,” we are inspired by the incredible courage of prominent Alawite figures such as writer Samar Yazbek and actress Fadwa Suleiman who stand clearly with the opposition and against the regime. He reluctantly admits, in the piece titled “Ghosts in the mosques,” “There have even been cases of Christians, Alawites or secular Sunnis standing outside mosques waiting for prayers to finish so they could join demonstrations.” Rosen should be clear about his narrow perspective. Did he spend more time with Alawites because of preconceived notions, the urge to report the “other” story that wasn’t being covered, or simply because that is what he had easiest access to? It seems all of these reasons aligned; this is the story he knew, this is the story he wanted to tell. In fact, if you read only Rosen’s articles on Syria, you would assume it is already the site of a raging civil war that erupted out of nowhere, complete with “sectarian cleansing,” just like in Iraq. Propagating the common western narrative of a people, who are ruled for decades under an oppressive dictatorship, waking up after centuries of social and religious cohabitation, and deciding: today, we will kill each other.

Amara traveled to Syria to tell a different story. During her short trip, she remembers a couple of moments that affected her the most, “I was in a house in Hama, poor people, they sat on the floor, on cushions. They were laughing, making coffee, saying they accuse us of being Salifis and Islamists, but look at us wearing shorts and drinking coffee in Ramadan. A man who had been tortured told me, ‘We now dream to die in a civilized way, with a beautiful bullet that would end our lives quickly, a bullet made for humans, not birds like the ones they fire at us, that we would die in way our families would be able to recognize our corpses.’” This is what the desperation in Syria looks like, our men dreaming of “beautiful bullets.”

The second instance was in Hama, Amara continues, “There was a man who was sitting near a grave in a public garden, the man was buried in the garden because there was no way to reach the cemetery. I followed him, asking questions. Then I asked, ‘Can you give us your name?’ He replied, ‘No, I can’t.’ He took out a cardboard sign with a name written on it and said, ‘This is the name of the martyr Milad Gimmosh.’ I asked him, ‘In this country, only the dead can give their names?’ He replied, ‘Of course, only the dead, the living cannot.’ You have to be dead to give your name.”

In Syria, martyrs’ funerals begin with one coffin and end with more dead bodies to bury, an unbreakable cycle. As a recent tweet explained, “Only in Syria, a man goes to a funeral of a man who was killed at a funeral of a man who was killed at a funeral of a man who was a protester.”

But not all the dead are buried in parks and marked by a piece of cardboard. At least not in the funeral Fisk chooses, or is escorted, to attend. He describes the official funeral of two soldiers as “the send-off their families would have wished for; coffins draped with the Syrian flag, trumpets and drums and wreaths held by their comrades, and the presence of their commanding officer.”

Maybe Rosen is right, our funerals are different from theirs.

Fisk continues, “They were shot dead in Deraa – by snipers, according to their commanding officer, Major Walid Hatim. ‘By terrorists,’ he said several times. Assad’s opponents might have no sympathy with these dead soldiers – nor Amnesty, nor Human Rights Watch, nor the United Nations, who say 3,000 civilians have been killed by Syrian security forces, nor the Americans, nor the British et al – but those two coffins suggested that there is more than one story to the Syrian Revolution. Syrian officers told me yesterday that 1,150 soldiers have been killed in Syria in the past seven months, an extraordinary death toll for regular Syrian troops if correct.”

Fisk is urged by the dead soldier’s uncle to tell the world about the atrocities facing the regime, “I hope you will be honest and tell the truth,’ he said. ‘Tell the truth about the killing of Syrian people. The hand of terrorists took my nephew. We are all ready to be martyred for Syria and for our President Assad.’ It sounded too pat, this little speech from a grieving man, and a reporter must ask if this was a set-up. Yet the military had only four minutes before I arrived for the funeral, and I doubt if they could have coaxed this poor man to say these words.” Actually, any reporter who has spent a fraction of the time Fisk has in the region, would know that no Syrian needs coaxing to say those words, they were bred to say them.

Amara makes an important point about the opposition being nameless in Syria. Rosen’s and Fisk’s accounts are filled with real names, people who are not afraid of telling their version of the story. I wonder why they would not be afraid, if there were so many “armed gangs” or Rosen’s “weaponized opposition” out to get them? I wonder why the pro-regime demonstrations openly occupy our city squares, with no snipers or scary, fundamentalist Sunnis to fear? I wonder why the balance of fear is so skewed, if the two sides were equal as these journalists would like their readers to believe? Or worse, as in this hysterical announcement by Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, the Syrian “expert,” that “the death toll among the security forces is now starting to surpass that of the protesters.” The source of this gem? None other then The Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, who was also granted the latest exclusive interview with the president, in which we learned that the Syrian dictator is relaxed in his jeans, not worried, and acting pleasantly “like a nerd.” (We also learned that the president leads a normal life, that’s why he is popular.) The interview was conducted on the same Friday when the protesters demanded a “No Fly Zone” and over twenty protesters were killed in Homs. Perhaps in Assad’s delusional world, it truly was a care-free Friday.

These media games are designed to portray Syria as a land of confusion, where the truth is elusive, undefined, impossible to verify, and impossible to know. But even a subject as ugly and divisive as sectarianism can be treated in a sensitive and honest way, like in two of Anthony Shadid’s recent articles, released back-to-back. The first examines the current sectarian rifts in Homs, and the second is a historical account of the Arab Christian experience, bleakly offering a warning and a lesson. Shadid serves grim reality alongside hope grounded in history. He, is not afraid to “speak truth to the people” as Rosen says. But this truth (and proof) of rising sectarianism comes after months well-rounded reporting, thus legitimizes the source and the the story. So here is the truth: it should not be disputed that the Alawites have suffered a brutal history of abuse and atrocities in pre-Assad Syria; that there are sectarian rifts in the society (although heavily propagated by the regime); that there is an armed element to the uprisings; that supporters of the regime do exist and not every pro-regime demonstrator was threatened, bussed in, or paid to wave the flag. It is wrong (and not smart) for the opposition to deny any of these facts. It is also true that both sides are afraid, but there is a significant difference: one side is afraid of an uncertain future, and the other is afraid it will not survive another day in the present.

While the media speculates the “inevitable” civil war, and Assad’s thugs move from attacks on the streets to attacks on university campuses, and the Free Syrian Army adds more names to its roster of defected soldiers and boldly escalates the scale of their attacks on regime buildings, the opposition marches on, nameless and faceless. Amara’s film zooms in close to show the heart of this revolution: the people. She understands the importance Rosen’s concept of “hanging out” with the people. She visits their kitchens; eats iftar with them on the floor; she walks in protests; and even descends into a grave in al-Rastan where defected soldier, Fadi al-Kassem was being buried after security forces killed him. She invents creative ways of filming her subjects while concealing their identities, exposing only torsos, hands, knees, backs of legs. She artfully frames her shots through mesh, closed windows, and holes in doors. Heads are filmed from the back or covered, and faces are blurred.

Except the mothers. The mothers face the camera. Because they have nothing more to lose. Amara followed one mother whose son had been buried in the same park-turned-graveyard in Hama. Shrouded in black with her face exposed, she sat on the ground caressing the dirt, and she told Amara, “I’ve been sleeping for ten days over his grave. What shall I say? Where is my voice going to reach?” Amara asked her, “Would you like me to cover your face?” She replied in anger, “Don’t cover it. Because I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of him, even if he wants to come and cut me to pieces, him and his party. They’ve slaughtered us for forty-two years and silenced our tongues. My children’s father was taken in the ‘80s, hung in Tadmor by the dog Hafez al-Assad.” She moved her hand over the ground again, “I wish they were here and we were eating this beautiful dirt; instead of being under it. Instead of being dead.” This mother refuses to live with the secret any longer. Is this what is takes to completely break the barrier of fear?

This year, our new “events” began in Daraa, circulated around the edges of our map  from Deir al-Zor and Latakia, and moved to the heart of our country, pulsing from Hama, al-Rastan, Idleb, Jisr al-Shughour, and Jabal al-Zawiyeh. And today, Homs is our future city of secrets. We have yet to know how many are buried in the rubble of Baba Amr. We have yet to know how many people will die this winter from the government-enforced fuel, gas, and electricity shortages. Until Syria’s borders are open for all journalists to report freely without minders and handlers, to verify videos or record them themselves, those of us who know Syria will read every story with care. No amount of over-dramatized fear, like the comical account of Richard Engel, will convince us. And Rosen’s description of the too-tight polyester tracksuit and side of extra sweaty details adds color but not courage to his reporting, though it may qualify him for a TMI award.

In the end, despite the quest for objectivity, we write what we know and we search for what we wish to see. Every story, imagined or real, is nothing but a reflection of its writer’s frame of reference, and thus, their bias. Sometimes biases merely mirror another side, other times biases become lethal. It is up to the reader to sift through the information, and to believe, or not.

When it comes to Syria, I’ll take my stories faceless and nameless. Except of course, when the stories are of the dead. Then, the faces are uncovered, the tortured bodies are exposed. We learn their histories after they are buried in graves marked by pieces of cardboard. Those are the faces we see, the names we memorize, the ones we will never forget, because Syrians are no longer in the business of keeping bloody secrets.

Al-Rastan has lost dozens of people in this uprising, and hundreds more have vanished into the prisons. One day, people will be able to visit al-Rastan to decide for themselves what really happened in this small, but infinitely brave town. Those who have escaped bullets, beautiful and ugly, will live to tell their stories and their truth.


Bashar’s last chapter

The endgame has started for the Syrian regime, writes Dina Ezzat

The regime of Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad may be in denial but the writing is on the wall. The end is coming, later rather than sooner, but inevitable nonetheless. Such is the assessment of Arab, Western and other diplomats that spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly.

In the words of one: “There is no uncertainty left. Bashar has to go. What concerns us most at the moment is who will replace him, and how to ensure that regime change in Syria does not open the doors to chaos in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.”

“Everybody is aware that it has become impossible for the Syrian president to stay in office. The Egyptian authorities, like many others, are asking questions about post-Bashar Syria.”

Both Washington and Paris, say diplomats, have given the nod to diplomatic and political processes that will conclude with the removal from power of Bashar and the Al-Assad clan. They may step down and seek asylum in some other country, or stay put and face the wrath of their people.

It is hoped that accelerated communications with Syrian opposition factions, and between the factions themselves, will lead to a formula for transition that can accommodate the concerns of all parties. Egypt and Israel will want an alternative that does not shake the current strategic set-up, which precludes military action to liberate the Israeli occupied Golan Heights; Lebanon and Iraq are seeking guarantees there will be no intervention in their internal affairs. Western capitals and Israel will want a replacement that ends Syrian support of Iran, of Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

A leading opposition figure, speaking on condition of anonymity, says several factions within the still fragmented opposition are willing to offer the guarantees required by Syria’s neighbours and other concerned states.

“We are examining our options. I think we are almost ready to form a coalition of most opposition groups, in Syria and in exile,” he said.

Representatives of key in-exile opposition groups are due to meet at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League next week to discuss post-Bashar Syria scenarios.

“He might not have to come to terms with it yet but his days are numbered. We are already working with the secretariat of the Arab League, and with concerned capitals, on the nature of transition in Syria,” said another opposition figure.

Saturday’s Arab League foreign ministers meeting not only adopted a resolution suspending the participation of Syrian delegations in meetings of the foreign ministers council but also signalled its intention to host a meeting with the Syrian opposition.

The agenda was being contemplated on Wednesday by Arab foreign ministers, Turkey’s foreign minister and the Arab League secretary-general on the fringe of an Arab Turkish cooperation meeting in Rabat. According to diplomats close to the discussion the key item on the agenda will be to determine ways to ensure Syria is never again controlled by a single faction as it has been by the Alawites, under Hafez Al-Assad from 1970 to 2000, and his son Bashar from 2000 till now.

Fearing ties with Iran Sunni ruled Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, are also demanding guarantees that Syria’s Shia are held in check. Turkey, faced with Kurdish separatist demands, will want to prevent the consolidation of Kurdish influence in any future set-up.

Diplomats following the Syrian file say it is going to take months before an alternative to the Al-Assad regime is ready but a balanced combination is already emerging. Increasing defections from the Syrian army, they argue, auger well for the political set-up that is being assembled.

“We have no illusions. We know that the transition in Syria will not be easy and that even as we formulate the alternative we are going to face serious challenges with getting this alternative formula to work on the ground. Whatever the case, Bashar’s end is round the corner,” said a Western diplomat.

It is this Western certainty that helped prompt the change in the language and positions of the Arab countries that met on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon in Cairo and adopted a resolution that effectively issued the Syrian president with an ultimatum.

Syrian diplomats who took part in the meeting at the Arab League blamed Qatar for their growing isolation. They accused the Gulf state of “acting as a facilitator for the US in the region”.

Only Yemen, whose regime is also faced with upheaval, and Lebanon, whose government is closely associated with Syrian regime, rejected the Arab League resolution demanding protection for Syrian civilians and the recall of Arab ambassadors to Damascus. Iraq expressed reservations on the resolution, abstaining for what one Iraqi diplomat said were obvious reasons, “fear of antagonising the Syrian regime that could start unrest in Iraq”.

The six Arab Gulf states declined a call made Sunday by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim for an Arab summit to discuss developments in Syria. No other Arab country has expressed interest in a summit being convened.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, a close US ally, said on Monday that were he in the shoes of the Syrian president he would have already stepped down.

Turkey is openly threatening more sanctions against Syria following the suspension of cooperation in petroleum projects and a partial halt in electricity exports. Ankara has said on more than one occasion that the Syrian regime will pay a heavy price for its continued violent repression of demonstrators.

What that price is, says one Turkish diplomat, is obvious: an end to the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and the rule of the Alawites. (see pp.8-9)

Interview of Syria’s Commander of the Free Syrian Army

225. Revlon (on Syria Comment) said:

العقيد : رياض الأسعد – تقديم : عمر خشرم تاريخ البث 2011/11/19
لقاء اليوم – العقيد : رياض الأسعد

This interview was aired yesterday on AlJazeera
It served to introduce Colonel Riad AlAsaad,
Commander of the FSA
President of the Transitional Military Council

He appeared in civilian suit.
He spoke with clear language and clarity of purpose.
He projected civility, assertiveness and good nature.
He spoke about the revolution and revolutionists with affection and pride.

The following is an English summary of the Q/A

On the identity of the members of the FSA.
– All are professionals of the armed forces.

On the types and sources of arms of FSA?
– Light and intermediate.
– Source is strictly within Syria: brought along with defectors, acquired from ambushing Asad units, or bought from black market; interestingly, such sources have included Alawis arms businessmen and smugglers, who are currently part of the regime!
– None of FSA arms come from any non-Syrian sources.

On the strategy of FSA: the protection of civilians
– Ambushing convoys of Shabbeeha and security forces on their way to crackdown.
– Attacking security checkpoints.
– Engaging armoured units enforcing blockade on cities.

On the number of the FSA and rate of defection from Asad army;
– Number of FSA members is >15,000
– Defection is taking place daily.
– Rate and size of defection are on the rise.
– The more and bolder FSA operations the more defections.
– Asad army officers and soldiers wait for the right time to defect, such as attacks on their units by FSA who provide them with fire cover for their protection.
– Defections have been seriously hampered by Asad air force which serves to track and capture many defectors, like happened in Rastan and Baba Amr.

On the Militarization of the Revolution
– WFSA rejects such concept.
– FSA members are professional army members who have the right to defend Syrians as per Oath.
– Our number and armament do not enable us to fight army to an army.
– However, we are able, through our targeted operations cum defections to dismantle the Syrian army from within.
– Our experience from ground operations and from own reconnaissance from Asad security forces have shown us that Asad army is crumbling and their members are utterly demoralised. One clear example is the use of Air force, Artillery and tanks to merely subdue a small unit of the FSA. To us, Baba Amr operation spells the beginning of the end of the Regime.

On the future of FSA operations in the wake of the failure of the AL initiative
– We spontaneously suspended all our operations against Asad forces once the AL initiative was signed, although we knew the regime will not honour the agreement.
– Asad forces instead attacked and shelled Homs city with tanks and shells.
– Asad released 550 prisoners, only to arrest 4000 just in the Reef Dimashq area (Countryside of Damascus).
– Asad forces have managed to repaint Army armoured vehicles in blue to claim that it belonged to police.
– There is a plan for Asad armed forces and security agents armed with light concealable machine guns, to dress in civilian cloths and infiltrate demonstrators and fire at the crowd to create a scene of chaos and perpetuate their claim of armed gangs.

On future plans for acquiring heavy arms.
– None!
– We incite terror in Asad forces with the light weapons we have.
– We draw strength from the bravery of our revolution and from our faith.
– We salute the Syrian people who give us the greatest of inspirations to defeat this regime.

On the way FSA is regarded by Revolutionists
– Their saviour and the future army of Free Syria.
– We are a national, non-ideological army

On the presence of Officers from minorities in FSA
– None so far.
– I have made an overture to Alawi officer friends and I hope they join us. We hope the honourables of the officers from Kurdish, Alawis, Christian and Druze communities join us in the future.

On FSA ties with Turkey
– We thank Turkey and its PM for hosting Syrian refugees.
– Turkey’s contribution to us has been limited to humanitarian aid.
– Unlike in Lebanon refugees feel safe and do not fear getting arrested.
– Turkey has not provided us with a single bullet.
– None of our arms came from Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan; we buy much of it from local market in Syria, including regime merchants in Aalwis Mountains.

On relationship with SNC
– We support the SNC as long as they stick to serving the goals of the revolution.
– We do not need foreign military forces to fight for us
– We call the international community to provide us with political cover, a no fly zone, and arms in order to expediate our operation in ousting Asad and his regime.
– I have met with a delegation from SNC and the meeting was fruitful.
– We have decided to form a coordination assembly mandated with drawing the strategy for future Syria.

End of interview

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