Sunday, 24 January 2016
Syria's real life stories
"Living conditions are absolutely unbearable, in some places people are actually starving to death. There's constant barrel bombing, etc., etc., chemical weapons, and so on. Having said that, the inspiring thing, and the thing the media really hasn't covered very well, is that there are over 400 democratically elected local councils in Syria.
Now this is something that is quite amazing, and I can't understand why we're not talking about it much more, because in the previous decade the West was invading the Middle East, to bring them democracy supposedly, on the back of tanks, and that didn't really work out. Now, out of necessity, in places where the state has collapsed, or has been driven back; people have got together, they've organised elections, and they've got local councils that are trying to keep life going in the most difficult of situations. These people should be part of the solution.
They've done it in different ways in different places, but in some ways they are elections as we would recognise here. So, for example, in the south, where the dominant militia is the Southern Front, a group of Free Army militias, they have refused to enter into alliances with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida group, they have had no problem at all with people organising elections in the south. The leaders of militias were not allowed to stand, so we've got civilian councils.
And the reason why those people must be part of the solution, is not only because they are democrats, but because they would allow for a decentralisation of power in the future. Now for example, currently in Syria, because of this war, we have explosive polarisations, ethnic and sectarian. In the future, it may be, in a liberal, coastal city like Tartous, which has many Christians and Alawis living in it; the local council may decide - when they get their own local council, it's under régime control, so they don't have their own, at least not in public, at the moment - if they have their own local council, they may decide that alcohol should be freely available in Tartous, whereas a conservative Sunni city like Hama or Deir Ezzor, they may decide, the local council in the area may decide that alcohol should be illegal. In that way, with decentralisation, you could allow for people with very different ideas and traditions in the same country in the future.
Most people are not able to leave the country. You need at least one or two thousand* dollars to get someone to smuggle you over the border. There are however some people who have decided to stay, either because they've seen some neighbours who've gone off to live in Beirut for a year, and their money run out, and they came home and the army had taken their house, or another family was living in their house, or their furniture had been stolen, and they wished they'd never left. There's that. And there is also the issue that some people are so committed to the situation, that if they are going to die, they want to die on their own soil, and they want to stay doing the best they can for their community.
We've seen the absolute depravity of the human being in Syria over the last five years. We've seen absolute horrors, people torturing children to death, a mass rape campaign; at the same time, we've seen really inspiring human stories of people being self-sacrificing, and creative, and intelligent, in the most difficult of circumstances.
We saw Mr. Fallon, the British minister, the other day pointing out that 80% of Russia's bombs are not dropping on ISIS. They're dropping on the opposition to both Assad and ISIS, the people that we need for a solution. Now a peace process under the aegis of the power that's backing Assad and murdering the Syrian people is not going to work, it's not going to be acceptable, it's not going to begin to work. And it's rather irresponsible to be pretending we've got a peace process going on, when this enormous catastrophe on the Eastern Mediterranean, with huge implications for everybody's security, is still escalating and intensifying, the Russian intervention has made it much, much longer, it will go on for years more I would expect. It's getting much worse, it's a huge problem, it's growing exponentially, and we're pretending there's a peace process, when there isn't."
"I remember the story of my friend Aziz Assad from Salamiyeh. He was in prison for two years before the revolution started, when he was 19, for writing an article for a French magazine. As soon as he came out of prison, the revolution started, and he was involved in the local coordination committee in Salamiyeh. He then became a media activist working with the Free Army. And then he ended up leaving the country, because he was being threatened by ISIS and Nusra and people like this, as well as being in danger from the Assad régime. This kind of encapsulates the tragedy of the whole thing.
I remember Raed Fares, the director of the media centre in Kafranbel, he's a great character; I remember him being being asked, 'If you'd known what was going to happen, would you have come out in the spring of and demonstrated?" And he said, no, absolutely not, if had any idea that this would happen, that so many people would die, the country would be burned, no, I would have stayed at home. But here we are now, this is the situation we find ourselves in, there's no going back, and all we can do is keep going. Of course many of them are now out of the country, or dead, or disappeared; but there are still hundreds of local councils, for example, in Syria, which not many people talk about. Everybody's heard of ISIS, nobody's heard of the Syrians who have organised democratically selected local councils, which are keeping life going in the most difficult of circumstances, in the war zone. So those people still exist, and a lot of the ones outside have said to us that they want to go back; as soon as they feel safe they will go back and continue agitating for freedom and democracy.
I'm not against bombing ISIS, if the people doing the bombing, as I think the British are at the moment, are very careful to try and not hit civilians, which will help the ISIS narrative. I think that ISIS is being pushed back, certainly from the Kurdish areas. I think the West should be working far more with Arab opposition militias, people who've already driven ISIS out of their areas, to continue driving ISIS further back. Having said that, none of that is going to change the big problem, because even if ISIS itself is defeated, something will come and replace it. Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, the al-Qaida franchise, which is less extreme than ISIS, it's also much more intelligent at embedding itself in Syrian society, and a lot of people who don't like al-Qaida's politics in Syria, are willing to work on the battlefield with al-Qaida, with al-Nusra, because they see the greater enemy as the régime which is barrel bombing them.
At the moment, the Syrian people are being attacked by Iran, by transnational Shia militias, by Russia - 80% of Russia's airstrikes are not hitting ISIS, they are hitting the opposition to ISIS and Assad - and there are British and French planes mixed up in there too, and there are American planes. The Syrian people on the ground, all they can see is, everyone is bombing us, the western Christians, the Eastern Christians, the Shia are attacking us, maybe it's because we're Sunni Muslims. The only thing they're not attacking is Bashar al-Assad, the man who is responsible for 95% of the civilian casualties, and the vast majority of the displacement.
So the narrative, or the vacuum, which allows these transnational jihadis to step in and take advantage, that's the real problem that has to be dealt with, and so long as Assad and his allies are bombing people from the sky, this radicalisation will continue and grow."
*Corrected from "hundred".