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January 2016

Five Year Reflection

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picture from anadolu agency

Russian bombing in the eastern Ghouta. picture from Anadolu Agency

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.


The Road to Geneva: the Who, When, and How of Syria’s Peace Talks

The Road to Geneva: the Who, When, and How of Syria’s Peace Talks

Posted by: ARON LUNDFRIDAY, JANUARY 29, 2016

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.


Message to the Syrian people by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura

We Asked Refugees in Denmark to Show Us Their Most Valuable Possessions

We Asked Refugees in Denmark to Show Us Their Most Valuable Possessions

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).

Malek Jandali

The Obama administration just ‘made a scary retreat’ in its Syria policy, and negotiations are quickly unraveling







In a meeting with members of Syria’s opposition in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, US Secretary of

State John Kerry demanded that rebels accept a set of preconditions dictated byRussia and Iran in order to participate in peace talks, according to an explosive report by thedaily pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat.The terms Kerry reportedly asked the opposition Saudi-backed High Negotiation Committee (HNC) to accept — including a “national unity government” instead of a transitional governing body that would phase Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power — represent “a scary retreat in the US position,” opposition sources told the head of Al Hayat’s Damascus bureau, Ibrahim Hamidi.

According to translations provided by multiple Middle East analysts on Twitter, Kerry told the opposition delegation that, based on an “understanding” he had reached with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Assad has the right to run for reelection and there will be no set timetable for his departure.

That stands in contrast to the White House’s previous position that while Assad does not have to go immediately, the timing of his departure should be addressed during negotiations.

Kerry also signaled the Obama administration’s endorsement of a four-point peace plan for Syria created by Iran, a staunch ally of Assad. The plan calls for an immediate ceasefire, the establishment of a national unity government, the anchoring of minority rights in the constitution, and internationally supervised presidential elections in Syria.

Thomson Reuters

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura pushed for the national ceasefire on Monday, saying in a press conference from Geneva that “the condition is it should be a real ceasefire and not just local.”

The ceasefire would apply to all warring parties but the ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. As Al Hayat has noted, that implicitly would grant legitimacy and “an official status” to the Shiite militias Iran has built in Syria to support Assad.

Including minority rights in the constitution, meanwhile, would serve as an attempt to anchor sectarian tensions” between Sunni and Shiite Muslims within a legal framework.

These demands are “a desperate move” by the US to make the negotiations “look like progress,” tweeted Hassan Hassan, coauthor of“ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” and resident fellow at the DC-based think tank Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“De Mistura also echoed Russia’s demands. Short-sighted of the US to think this will go well,” he added.

So far, it is not going anywhere. Members of the HNC reportedly rejected Kerry’s demands and have threatened to boycott the negotiations altogether. They reiterated that they will not attend the talks until the government halts air strikes and ends its sieges of rebel-held territory, in accordance with UN resolution 2254, adopted last month by the UN Security Council.

Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

Protesters carry banners and opposition flags as they march in Aleppo, Syria, asking for the release of prisoners held in government jails and the lifting of the siege on besieged areas.
Protesters carry banners and opposition flags as they march in Aleppo, Syria, asking for the release of prisoners held in government jails and the lifting of the siege on besieged areas.

The terms of that resolution have failed to materialize, but Kerry apparently pressured the opposition into attending the talks anyway. Rebel sources told Al Hayat that Kerry went one step further and threatened to cut off US aid to rebel groups if they failed to show up at the negotiating table.

On Monday, Kerry reiterated that preconditions are a nonstarter for negotiations. But he categorically denied that he had threatened to cut off aid to the rebel groups.

“The position of the United States is and hasn’t changed. We are still supporting the opposition, politically, financially and militarily,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “We completely empowered them. I don’t know where this is coming from.”

He noted, however, that “it’s up to the Syrians to decide what happens to Assad,” effectively echoing Russian officials.

Nawaf Obaid, an Al Hayat columnist and visiting fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, further noted the meeting’s most significant and “shocking” points in a series of tweets on Sunday:

1) agrees to four point peace plan for announced by foreign minister @JZarif in 2014 

2) agrees that Haytham Manaa, Saleh Muslim & Qadri Jamil will be invited by to attend talks in consultative capacity


While the HNC’s senior negotiator, Mohammad Aloush, promised a “strong reaction” to these demands in a press conference on Sunday,HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslat told Reuters that the meeting with Kerry had been “positive” overall.

Former Syrian opposition leader Hadi Albahra noted, too, that the reports circulating about Kerry’s requests for the HNC were “not fully accurate.”

On Monday, however, de Mistura announced that talks will be postponed at least four days, to January 29, while negotiators work to resolve lingering disagreements over which members of the opposition will be invited to participate.

Kerry apparently stipulated that the HNC has to include certain Moscow-friendly opposition leaders into its delegation, including Kurdish PYD leader Saleh Muslim, former Syrian deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, and Haitham Manna, exiled leader of the non-Islamist Syrian Democratic Council.

Thomson Reuters : US Secretary of State John Kerry takes his seat across the table from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Thomson Reuters : US Secretary of State John Kerry takes his seat across the table from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The Saudi-backed HNC has so far refused to expand its delegation, insisting that it represents all legitimate opposition players. In response,Bloomberg reported, the US and Russia are considering inviting a separate opposition delegation to the talks made up of rebel leaders Moscow has proposed and endorsed.

Middle East analyst Kyle Orton, an associate fellow at UK-based think tank The Henry Jackson Society, tweeted a grim analysis: “With the way things have stacked up, it’s hard not to see it as Obama and Kerry consciously working for the defeat of Syria’s opposition.”

Hassan Hassan put it bluntly: “US officials are telling Syrians what extremists have been telling them for years — the US isn’t your friend.”


Bernie Sanders Exposes Reality Of US Politics

Bernie Sanders exposes the reality of US Politics. We think it was his level of honesty and transparency that made this speech go viral. Read more:

How Australia is inspiring Europe’s immigration policies


Posted: 18 Jan 2016 06:27 AM PST

My column in the Guardian:

Australia first introduced onshore detention facilities in 1991 at Villawood in Sydney and Port Hedland in Western Australia. Mandatory detention came in 1992. Bob Hawke’s government announced it was because “Australia could be on the threshold of a major wave of unauthorised boat arrivals from south-east Asia, which will severely test both our resolve and our capacity to ensure that immigration in this country is conducted within a planned and controlled framework”.

More than 20 years later, the rhetoric has only worsened against the most vulnerable arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Policies that years ago seemed unimaginable, such as imprisoning refugees on remote Pacific islands, are the norm and blessed with bipartisan support.

The sad reality is Australia’s refugee policies are envied and copied around the world, especially in Europe, now struggling to cope with a huge influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Walls and fences are being built across the continent in futile attempts to keep out the unwanted. A privatised security apparatus is working to complement the real agenda. Australia is an island but it has long implemented remote detention camps with high fences and isolation for its inhabitants.

As a journalist and activist who has publicly campaigned against Canberra’s asylum policies for over a decade, this brutal reality is a bitter pill. In early 2014 I called for UN sanctions against Australia for ignoring humanitarian law and willfully abusing refugees in its case both on the mainland and Nauru and Manus Island. I still hold this view but must recognise facts; the international mood in 2016 for asylum seekers is hostile. As much as I’d like to say that my homeland is a pariah on the international stage, it’s simply not the case.

When Denmark recently introduced a bill to take refugees’ valuable belongings in order to pay for their time in detention camps, this was remarkably similar to Australia charging asylum seekers for their stay behind bars. Either directly or indirectly, Europe is following Australia’s draconian lead.

Consider the facts in Europe: after Sweden and Denmark reintroduced border controls, a borderless continent is now in serious jeopardy. The Schengen agreement – introduced in 1985 to support free movement between EEC countries – is on the verge of collapse. In early January, the European Union admitted it had relocated just 0.17% of the refugees it pledged to help four months earlier. In 2015 more than 1 million people arrived by boat in Europe.

This mirrors Australia’s lacklustre efforts to resettle refugees in its onshore detention camps. Figures released by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in December found that asylum seekers had spent an average of 445 days behind barbed wire. In both Australia and Europe there’s general acceptance of these situations because those seeking asylum have been so successfully demonised as potential terrorists, suspiciously Muslim and threatening a comfortably western way of life.

Germany, a nation that took in more than 1 million refugees in 2015 despite being unprepared for the large numbers, is now facing a public backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance, leading to fear and rising far-right support. Australia has taken far fewer people with little social unrest and yet still unleashed over two decades a highly successful, though dishonest, campaign to stigmatise boat arrivals. The result is the ability of successive Australian governments to create an environment where sexual abuse against refugees is tolerated and covered up. A politician is unlikely to lose his job over it.

Europe and Australia promote themselves as regions of openness. It’s an illusion when it comes to refugee policy. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, despite his bombastic and discriminatory attitude towards refugees and Jews, is increasingly viewed across Europe as providing necessary warnings of the continent’s struggles. EU officials in Brussels told the New York Times that Orban was often right but wished he hadn’t couched his comments in conspiracy theories. Too few in Hungary are publicly resisting this wave of racism.

“Whenever Hungary made an argument the response was always: ‘They are stupid Hungarians. They are xenophobes and Nazis,’” Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman, told the Times. “Suddenly, it turns out that what we said was true. The naivete of Europe is really quite stunning.”

Brussels has proposed an Australian-style border force to monitor the EU’s borders and deport asylum seekers. Germany and France support the move. This proves that the most powerful nations have little interest in resolving the reasons so many people are streaming into Europe (such as war and climate change) and prefer to pull up the drawbridge. Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott encouraged Europe to turn back the refugee boats and it seems Brussels is listening. Europe is also copying Australia’s stance of privatising the detention centres for refugees.

None of this worries Rupert Murdoch’s Australian. In light of the New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, the paper editorialised in early 2016 that Europe must avoid “reckless idealism” and embrace an “enlightened world” where gender equality is accepted by all. The outlet has not expressed similar outrage with the immigration department’s blatant disregard for refugee lives. It’s also unclear how pushing for military action in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, pushed by the paper for years, contributes to an “enlightened world”.

It’s comforting to think of Australia as a global pariah on the world stage, pursuing racist policies against asylum seekers from war-torn nations. But it’s untrue. Canberra’s militarised “solution” to refugees is admired in many parts of Europe because it represents an ideology far easier to process and sell than identifying and adapting to changing global migration patterns.

None of this should stop activists fighting for a more just outcome, in both Australia and Europe, but today it’s more likely European officials will ask Australian officials for advice on how to “stop the boats” than chastise it for mistreating a raped refugee.

Australia has become an inspiration for all the wrong reasons.


Mallence Bart Williams, TEDtalks Berlin

See Mallence Bart Williams speak on the contradiction of charity sent to Africa, the need of Afrca’s resources that supplies the world economy and how we change the way we view the way we “help” Africa and it’s people.

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