Posts Tagged With: Syrian opposition

Keeping the Faith? Examining the Roles of Faith and Secularism in Syrian Diaspora Organizations in Lebanon (February 2020)

The “Diaspora Organisations in International Affairs” book, edited by Dennis Dijkzeul and Margit Fauser is now out! Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and I contributed with the chapter Keeping the Faith? Examining the Roles of Faith and Secularism in Syrian Diaspora Organizations in Lebanon. Here below our abstract.

For more details on the other contributions:

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Syrian diaspora organisations (Dos) in Lebanon have been providing diverse forms of support, relief and assistance to Syrian refugees. Whether in areas which are difficult for international providers to access, or in major towns and cities where international actors including the UN, INGOs and state actors have been providing assistance, Syrian Diaspora Organisations (DO)s have played a vital role in providing support and relief to their Syrian fellows. At times, these DO initiatives have been actively funded by international donors or developed in formal partnership with UN agencies and INGOs, while in other contexts they take place on the margins of (or at times in ways that directly challenge) formal humanitarian aid structures.

Against this backdrop, and based on long-standing research vis-à-vis local, national and international responses to displacement from Syria within Lebanon, this chapter examines the diverse roles that faith and secularism play in the initiatives developed by Syrian diaspora organisations based in Lebanon, exploring how and with what effect faith, religion, secularism (and secularist frameworks) relate to Syrian DOs’ relationships with different local, national and international actors, including Syrian refugees, members of host populations and diverse UN Agencies, NGOs and INGOs.

Syrian DOs in Lebanon include organisations established and led by activists, ex-protesters, established Syrian migrant workers, and religious leaders who have ‘become’ relief providers since the crisis broke out. On the one hand, by drawing on interviews with members of a range of Syrian DOs in Lebanon, this chapter explores the personal and collective reasons behind the act of establishing these organisations. On the other hand, it will investigate the social roles played by secular and faith-based DO members who engage in relief work, and their contextual relationship with their international and secular counterparts. This is particularly important in light of the strong financial and political support that a core group of popular secular(ist) Syrian DOs have received from international donors/agencies. In contrast, faith-based diaspora organisations have often been viewed by members of the international community (both in the context of Syria and more broadly) as exiled communities that do not fulfil key international humanitarian principles such as neutrality, impartiality or universality as they are assumed to prioritise political or sectarian dimensions through providing assistance (only or primarily) to their co-nationals/co-ethnics. This secular-centric interpretation of the partialist nature of faith-motivated assistance remains particularly biased towards diaspora groups that mobilise within the global South, where the source of crisis supposedly lies.

By providing examples from Beirut and from northern Lebanon, this chapter will show how DOs’ configuration and engagement with specific international and local communities have been changing since the outbreak of the crisis in Syria in 2011. By analysing the organisational configuration (including partnership models) and the forms of provision of these secular and faith-based DOs, we are particularly interested in examining how intra-community solidarity is (or is not) built within southern host societies through Syrian DOs’ initiatives – this is a dynamic that has received hardly any attention from scholars examining diaspora transnational endeavours.

With the purpose of investigating the human and social geographies of such secular and faith-based DOs, our chapter aims to draw on lessons from anthropological, sociological, and IR studies, in a bid to construct a deeper understanding of secular and faith-based DO-led aid provision and their social impacts in settings of the global South which geographically (and geopolitically) neighbour new and ongoing crises.

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My lecture at the Lebanese American University (March, 2019)


Beyond Humanitarianism Paradigm: The Effect of Displacement on Religious Authorities

posted on 10/04/2019


By Fidaa Al Fakih

LAU’s Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution (ISJCR) and the Department of Social Sciences hosted a seminar on “The Displacement of Religious Authorities from Syria and their Involvement in Aid Provision: Looking beyond Humanitarianism.”

The cross-campus seminar was based on the preliminary findings of Research Associate at University College London, Dr Estella Carpi.

Welcoming the attendees, moderator and ISJCR Director and Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs Tamirace Fakhoury said the seminar sheds light on the under-researched topic of “how the displacement from Syria has affected religious authorities and how religious authorities have had to reinvent their mission and involvement in aid provision.”

Dr. Carpi then kicked off the seminar by explaining that the field research she has been conducting in Lebanon is part of a much broader project with Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh of University College London under the framework of “south–south humanitarianism.” The research, she said, looks at southern agents of aid provision, particularly faith leaders or religious authorities who try to help their own displaced communities.

Dr. Carpi’s presentation built on her extensive research on faith-based organizations working in the Syria neighborhood, including her engagement with Syrian refugee faith leaders in Lebanon. “I relied on self-accounts of personal experiences in aid provision to the displaced communities once Syrian faith leaders became refugees themselves,” she said.

Dr. Carpi then mapped a geography of displaced religious authorities following their physical trajectories outside of Syria. She also focused on how displacement from war, violence and persecution reconfigures their spiritual role and their social status within receiving societies. By doing so, Dr. Carpi captured how the spiritual mission of such religious leaders changes in response to their own refugee status and their intent to provide aid, support and solidarity to the displaced communities.

Concluding the seminar, Dr. Fakhoury and Chair of the Social Sciences Department Marwan Rowayheb thanked Dr. Carpi for uncovering concepts of humanitarianism that shed light on new actors often overlooked by researchers when studying Syrian refugee challenges in neighboring host societies.

Dr. Rowayheb encouraged Dr. Carpi to account for the structural differences in the nature of the religious establishments in Lebanon, and to examine the competition between Lebanese religious authorities and displaced Syrian faith leaders that in some instances trigger sensitivities.

Categories: Europe, Lebanon, Middle East, Syria, Turkey, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toward an Alternative ‘Time of the Revolution’? Beyond State Contestation in the struggle for a new Syrian Everyday (May, 2018)

The Mabisir team has just published “Toward an Alternative ‘Time of the Revolution’? Beyond State Contestation in the Struggle for a New Syrian Everyday” on Middle East Critique:

The convoluted relationship between the state and citizens in conflict-ridden Syria often has been reduced to a binary of dissent and consent. Challenging these simplistic categorizations, this article analyzes how state mechanisms resonate in the everyday lives of Syrians since the beginning of the crisis. Drawing on ethnographic insights from Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Syrian Kurds in northeastern Syria, this article shows how state, society and political opposition function as relational processes. Then, it identifies the limitations of contemporary strategies of everyday political contestation through the theory of Syrian intellectual ‘Omar ‘Aziz’s ‘time of the revolution.’

You can read the whole article on:

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From the responsibility to protect to the responsibility to remain detached (March 2013)

Syrian Moral Hierarchies

Since March 2011, the Syrian Revolution received relatively minor support from political and human rights activists, compared with the strong support expressed for the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. While international media and some think-tanks have recognized the immorality of the Syrian regime, it appears insufficient to undertake a proper step towards real solidarity and activism.

The morality of the disparate tactics employed by the Syrian opposition has not been widely recognized. Besides, the high social cost of what is often portrayed from within as international treason, now weighs on the genuine social forces that had started the revolutionary process. Indeed, the weakness and lack of accountability by the opposition, which is believed to have prematurely failed, has certainly not come out of the blue.

Ultimately, the international community has limited its action to diplomatic support and mere rhetoric in favor of the opposition. Therefore, among the sizable presence of jihadi groups, the unprecedented ruthlessness that the regime is showing to a neo-skeptical public is too often equated to the other armed groups.

The Syrian refugees I recently spoke to in Akkar (North Lebanon) talk of “real betrayal” of a part of their society, as well as treason of the so-called international community, which, with its self moralized apathy, has ended up extending the regime’s life. According to many people I interviewed in North Lebanon, Islamophobia is viewed as one of the main reasons for the international skepticism around the revolution in Syria.

In Halba, I interviewed a Syrian refugee who vented the following:

“From outside things have been depicted as mere terrorism, whereas the anti-regime fighters’ violence is also product of the government’s oppression… The West is skeptical about our revolution because it fears Islam. Why do you constantly believe to be the universal definers of “extremism?” What is extremism, when we have to resist extremist cruel repression?”

Western analysis of Syrian Revolutionaries can be described as moral hierarchicalization. This position seems to be followed by self-defined “moderate” and nostalgic pro-revolutionaries, who declare to have been disappointed after the armament of the “rebels.” Competition exists for the second position on the morality podium with the allegedly “non pro-regime people, yet committed to prioritize the Palestinian cause and the regional balance,” who have actually ended up supporting the Syrian regime.

Finally, it is appalling to observe that Bashar Assad’s loyalists, who adopt tout court the regime’s rhetoric, have achieved a greater degree of morality if compared to unconditional revolution supporters, considered instead as the least moral. The most common accusations toward the people that have unquestioningly aligned with the revolution are warmongering and imperialism, for the sake of US interests.

By using the interpretative lens of my interlocutors, Syrians feel largely betrayed by the international community, that hypocritically ensures its solidarity by providing aid and alleviating their suffering, while considering their armed resistance immoral.

Internationals should wonder how they can still be suitable to advocate for rights and reconciliation, if they are locally perceived as hypocritical traitors by the revolutionaries. Despite the partial crisis of identification of Assad’s opponents in the various armed fringes – particularly in the case of the jihadi group Jabhat al Nusra – not only the jihadist groups, but even secular protesters had not been empowered with morality in official discourse. Indeed, the unarmed protesters were accused of serving foreign interests, and rejected Assad’s reform plans proffered in 2011.

As long as there is no accepted moral sphere, any foreign contribution to the Syrian reconciliation process seems to be arduous and schizophrenic in its goals.

After all, there is no more disguised imperialism than using ineffectiveness and detachment at will, as the West has done so far in Syria. As a result of moral suspension of judgment and opportunistic wariness for military intervention, outsiders will now have additional cause for hailing themselves as the role model for morality and human rights, while boasting their impartiality.

Post-war Syria, therefore, will probably have to face reconciliation with the international community too: maybe even more challenging than the first one between its several religious and political realities, much to our arrogant surprise.

(Estella Carpi is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney and a PhD Fellow at the American University of Beirut. Since 2010, she has been conducting her research on the local experience of humanitarianism in Lebanon from the 2006 war with Israel until the present, in the framework of the aid provision to Syrian refugees. After studying Arabic in Milan and Damascus, she has worked for UNDP-Egypt and the International Development Research Center based in Cairo (2008-2010). She has been active in supporting the Syrian Revolution in Lebanon and Australia. You can follow her on her blog)

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Meet the Syrian opposition in Turkey…and its endless conferences

Something I wrote while based in Istanbul in February 2012, after lots of meetings with figures from the Syrian opposition…little seems to have changed one year later. Originally published on The Majalla.

Voice of the People?

Just another conference for the Syrian opposition

Syrian national council

One year has passed since the beginning of Syria’s uprising, and Turkey has been providing opportunities for numerous Syrian opposition figures to coordinate their efforts against the regime. However, the results are largely discouraging.

Sheikh Nawaf Bashir, head of the Baqara tribe from Deyr az-Zour and former member of the Damascus Declaration, acts frustrated when he receives a phone call to organize yet another conference in Istanbul: “Abu Ja’far… another conference! What’s this conference for? Why do we keep on organizing conferences, if there is no international support?!”

One year has passed since the beginning of Syria’s uprising, and Turkey has been providing opportunities for numerous Syrian opposition figures to coordinate their efforts against the regime. However, the results are largely discouraging: an endless proliferation of rival groups failing to achieve international recognition. The outcome of a conference entitled Friends of Syria, held in Tunis on 24 February, failed to overcome such a deadlock, because no country recognized the major opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), as the unique legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Having met with representatives of at least four different blocs, there appears to be no consensus on the way the international community should tilt the balance in favor of the uprising. The SNC and the vast majority of committees on the ground call for arming the revolutionaries and establishing a buffer zone to protect civilians and increase defections. In contrast, the National Coordination Committee (NCC), a group of veteran dissidents headed by Haytham Al-Manna and Hassan Abdul-Azim, opposes foreign military intervention and does not exclude dialogue with the regime.

According to activists, the death toll has reached more than 9,000 people, and any bloc still wanting to negotiate is perceived as a tool created by the Government. “The NCC is a bunch of traders of blood, they’ve been bought by the regime,” says Ibrahim Al-Hajj Ali, an activist from Aleppo, who was expelled from the army for trying to form a Sunni Islamist cell. “Haytham Al-Manna called on the demonstrators to return to their houses…We don’t want these people back in Syria, even after the collapse of the regime!”

Samir Nashar, a representative of the Damascus Declaration on the SNC’s executive committee, holds a more balanced view of the NCC, considering it a representative of the elites tied economically to the regime in Aleppo and Damascus. An NCC member and lawyer from Dara’a, Hassan Al-Aswad, defends Manna’s intentions to focus on “those who are scared to participate in the uprising, particularly the minorities.” At the same time, Aswad believes that the NCC’s insistence on non-violence and dialogue to confront the regime’s brutality is remote from reality.

In its bid for support, the SNC is also accused of being driven by power struggles and subject to foreign pressures. Emblematic of this was the renewal of the presidential mandate of Burhan Ghalioun, despite being a council based on replacing its leader every three months. Samir Nashar, the only member of the executive committee who voted against the extension, claims that “a month ago, some were against the re-election of Ghalioun and then they changed their position, due to ‘regional influences’ possibly coming from Qatar.”

The Antalya conference’s organizer, Ammar Al-Qurabi, a Syrian human rights activist who is about to launch his own bloc, is proud of having kept himself outside the SNC. He believes that group is divided between Qatari support for Ghalioun and Turkey’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite trying to shape a democratic body, the SNC seems to lack the required political and financial transparency, according to its members’ accounts: “There is a problem when it comes to the transparency of funding,” says Nashar, “because so far the support came from businessmen, individuals and not from countries.”

The SNC appears to be the formation closest to the streets, counting on the support of various networks of local committees, but its critics claim it should go further, by including activists in decision-making bodies like the executive committee, Al-Maktab Al-Tanfidhi. These are exactly the demands of Nawaf Al-Bashir: “Seventy percent of the SNC have no followers in the Syrian streets; we want a presidential committee elected by Syrian activists to have them in the ‘political kitchen.’”

No one really wants to meddle in Syria

After almost one year, what is clear to all sides is the scarce will of the international community to intervene in support of the Syrian opposition. Even the Gulf countries have shown little intention to support the opposition militarily until recently. According to a source close to the Syrian Minister of Finance, Mohammad Al-Hussein, the Assad regime received $500 million from some Gulf States and $300 million from the UAE after three months of bloodshed in Syria last June.

Contrary to some reports published on the Iraqi daily Al-Mada, Nawaf Bashir denies that any sort of contact occurred between Syrian-Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders and the Gulf countries. When asked about the allegations against the Gulf States and the UAE, Mohammad Faruq Al-Tayfur, representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC’s executive committee replied: “I cannot confirm this information, but it could have happened in the beginning, while the Gulf countries were still supporting the regime, mainly to contain the stability of the region.” However, during the Tunis conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Sa’ud Al-Faisal finally promised to have Bashar leave “either voluntarily or by force,” thus nurturing the SNC’s expectations of Saudi military support.

Turkey is praised for having hosted the Syrian opposition both politically and militarily, but the SNC places no hopes on a unilateral military intervention coming from Ankara. Both Nashar and Al-Tayfur are convinced that Turkey will not act without the consensus of the international community, though Nashar still hopes to see Turkish ground forces enforcing a buffer zone, supported by Libyan-style NATO air strikes.

However, following the conference in Tunis, there is growing frustration about the Western—and especially American—stance, as US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton voiced her fears that a foreign intervention could lead to civil war. In that respect, the opposition is united in ascribing America’s concerns to the border Israel has been peacefully sharing with Syria for almost 40 years.  Nevertheless, for liberals within the SNC, Western support still holds some relevance to contain the Gulf’s brand of political Islam, as Nashar notes, “if the intervention occurs under the UN monitoring, it would prevent Saudi and Qatari political interests from prevailing in Syria.”

Armed resistance beyond the Free Syrian Army

After one year of massacres, many of the demonstrators who started calling for reforms one year ago consider violence as the only option for a way out. Violence means arming the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose structure is still unclear to many.

The SNC tends to recognize the Turkish-based leadership of Colonel Riyadh Al-Asad, but everyone is aware that there are other groups on the ground. The last relevant group to emerge is guided by Brigadier General Mostafa Al-Shaykh, who defected last January. Former officer Ibrahim Al-Hajj belittles the importance of the FSA as a unified structure and stresses the autonomous nature of the armed resistance active in Syria. “There is no such a thing as the FSA, it is only a name for the resistance,” confirms Al-Qurabi.

Even the SNC has no clear ties with the FSA according to Samir Nashar, who admits that there is “scarce communication” between them.  In order to strengthen this feeble coordination, a group of SNC members have recently set up a National Front for the Support of the FSA, and the SNC has created a Military Advisory Council, a sort of Ministry of Defense based in Turkey. According to Tayfur, this second institution is aimed at reassuring the international community that the SNC is in control of the armed resistance, but the project has yet to meet expectations. Colonel Riyadh Al-Asad rejected the institution, claiming he had not been informed of it beforehand. Outside the SNC, some believe the best strategy to control armed resistance, and violence in general, would be to enhance the power of civilian committees: “The issue of having civilian committees is aimed at controlling the military departments within them, in order to know who the weapons belong to,” suggests Hassan Al-Aswad. His model is the local council of Zabadani, a body created when the opposition took temporarily control of this suburb.

War of Egos

Besides the differing views, what is most discouraging about the opposition is the abortive war of egos. “The fact that any kind of opposition has been forbidden for the last forty years had an influence on its current structure,” admits Nashar. “It is not institutionalized, the individual still plays a big negative role.”

To understand how some figures of the opposition see themselves, one need only quote Al-Qurabi when he said that that when he was “working to support the revolution, most people from the SNC were drinking milk from their mothers.”

Another well-known dissident in exile in London, Wahid Saqr, claims that SNC members Fida Al-Majzub and Shaykh Khaled Kamal were in Damascus in January to bargain Ministries with the regime. Are these, as his critics claim, groundless allegations from a former Alawi officer who cannot tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence over the SNC?

Amidst personal resentments, each faction competes with the other in claiming to represent the streets, whilst, in the words of Nawaf Bashir, “leading the revolution from five stars hotels.”

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5. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: The Syrian deadlock: the dialogue favored by intellectuals and opposed by the streets

The Syrian deadlock: the dialogue favored by intellectuals and opposed by the streets*. 

21 July 2011

fanadiq khanadiqAfter four months from the beginning of the protests, what is evident of the Syrian opposition is its wide fracture between streets and intellectual dissidents.
The front of intellectuals based in Syria, including Luay Hussein, Anwar al-Bunni, Fayez Sarah and Michel Kilo, organized an unprecedented meeting at Hotel Semiramis in Damascus on June 27, where they were allowed by the regime to call for the end of violence and the beginning of a democratic transition.
Another main representative of the opposition, the economist Aref Dalila chose not to participate in the meeting: despite sharing the ideas of his companions of struggle, he told us in an interview that “the settings of the meeting were not free, with state media being the only ones allowed to distort the contents of the gathering.” The Damascus Declaration coalition, a major group of dissidents born in 2005, boycotted the meeting, arguing it took place under the control of Syrian security, featuring the participation of few real dissidents. Likewise, the Local Coordinating Committees, the most nationwide organized representative of the youth taking to the streets, refused to participate in the meeting, due to the ongoing violence perpetrated by the regime.
On June 30, the same intellectuals, including Aref Dalila drafted “A Road Map for Syria”, their vision on democratic transition in Syria. In this document, the controversial passage is the inclusion of the Ba’th Party into a newly established National Legislative Assembly, allowing Assad’s party to maintain 30 seats out of 100. This is crucial point of disagreement with part of the demonstrators, calling for the downfall of the regime, and some activists, who feel the voice of the Syrian people should be more fairly represented in this official meetings.
During a talk I had with Kamal Sheikho, a Kurdish blogger who spent long time in prison on hunger strike, he motivated his refusal to attend the Semiramis meeting by the unwillingness of the participants to ask for the resignation of the President. According to Sheikho, “there is a big proportion of the streets calling for the downfall of the regime and it is not possible to claim we represent the Syrian people, if we don’t convey their demands.” Demonstrations against the Semiramis meeting took actually place on the following Friday and the last Friday of protests, on July 15, has been labeled “No Dialogue.” The split between the streets and these groups of intellectuals is even evident from everyday’s conversations: a couple of days ago, I was exchanging views with Abu Sharif, the driver who takes me around during Friday protests, and he didn’t have a clue about who Michel Kilo was, despite being himself clearly opposed to the regime.
On the other hand, Aref Dalila commented on those protesters calling for the downfall of the regime by saying that “they don’t know how to bring the system down, therefore proceeding gradually is the only way out.” Among the participants to the Semiramis meeting, Fayez Sarah justified his choice, claiming this initiative had no ambition whatsoever to represent the streets.
Division among factions composing the Syrian opposition is not a new trend: even the meeting held in Antalya, Turkey (May 31- June 2), was met with skepticism, firstly by the Kurds, because of the choice of Turkey, a country historically unfriendly to the Kurdish cause. Only 5 parties out of the 12 Syrian Kurdish parties participated in the conference. Secondly, because a conference held in Turkey was perceived from part of the opposition as an excuse to ask for foreign intervention into Syrian affairs.
These features introduce another problematic divide within the opposition, the one between 1.5 million Kurds living in Syria and the Arab majority. Aref Dalila claims that the opposition has overcome differences, starting to unify itself along the lines of a shared project for democratic transformation. On the contrary, while I was speaking with Shanar, a Kurdish activist from the Future Movement, she clearly underlined the lack of understanding between Arab and Kurdish blocs, starting from the days chosen for mobilization: for example, the Arab groups refused to back protests taking place in commemoration of Kurdish Qamishli riots (March 2004). After I got to know Ahmed, an Arab activist in the University of Damascus, he admitted that Arabs should have been wary
 of Kurds, because after the collapse of the regime they would have had a different agenda.
Besides ethnic differentiations, divisions within the opposition revolve around whether a dialogue with the regime is possible or not, and It is unlikely that a group of intellectuals, despite their commitment to the cause, are going to convince the families of almost 1400 martyrs to accept dialogue with their killers. This remains the main stalemate preventing unity within the Syrian opposition.
* I wrote this piece a couple of days ago, integrating talks I had with local activists with the interview I had with Aref Dalila, one of the main Syrian dissident intellectuals, economist and member of the National Coordination Committee. The image chosen is a banner in Arabic saying “Those representing me are the revolutionaries of the trenches and not the inmates of the hotels” a clear sign of the distance between political and military opposition (with a particularly reference to those opposition representatives living abroad). Differently from the ‘inmates of the hotels’, Aref Dalila spent many years in the Syrian jails, but in this interview his position was already detached from the streets and their subsequent militarisation.  
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4. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: Kamal Sheikho boycotts Semiramis meeting

Semiramis Meeting of the Syrian Opposition: why someone decided not to participate?

30 June 2011
kamal_sheikoHere I transcribe part of the interview I had with a prominent figure in the opposition, who is really close to Michel Kilo, Luay Hussein and the other intellectuals who took part in the Semiramis meeting on June 27. I won’t name him because of security reasons, I will call him Ala*, since he has spent enough of his time in jail for his ideas. In 2010 Ala has been jailed for more than 8 months and he protested against his detention through a long hunger strike. After having been released in 2011, he spent only few days free to join the ongoing protests, but now he is out and resolute to pursue his struggle. Ala is still participating in demonstrations. He is an independent dissident not tied to any political party
.Q: What can you say about the status of human rights in Syria at the moment?
A: There are more than 1300 dead, 10.000 refugees in Turkey, 1000 in Lebanon, more than 13000 arrested since the 16 of March [the symbolic date in which protests started], more than 4000 wounded by undefined gangs [often referred to as shabbiha] and many people kidnapped.
The regime thinks it can keep on stifling demonstrations by violence, whereas protesters have asked the end to violence first of all. The regime thinks by killing the demonstrators people will go back home and won’t ask neither reforms nor to change the system.
QMilitary repression is the strategy adopted by the Syrian regime. What about those rumors which have been circulating about increasing division withing the armed forces, particularly along sectarian [sunni-shi’a] lines?
A: No, this is not the case, we are talking only about individual choices and low-ranking officers, when we speak about defections. There has been no relevant defection, I mean a phalanx or a brigade, as it happened in Libya or Yemen. While I was in prison, I heard the story of the division between the Fourth and the Fifth Brigade [the Fourth Brigade is the one headed by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the President] but I don’t believe it. In reality, we are not allowed to know what is currently happening within the Syrian army, because of the high secrecy surrounding this information. We don’t know if there are sectarian divisions.
Q: What is your evaluation of the current status of the Syrian uprising?
A: We have now entered in a phase of civil disobedience. Some call it a revolution, a protest, I call it a civil disobedience. Syrians have been 40 years under this regime. What is happening now is that a part of the Syrian people has said no, this is what I define as a civil disobedience. Naturally, we cannot compare our condition with Egypt or Tunisia, even if Syria is part of the Middle East.
From 2000, when Bashar took power, what his father was doing he started to do it, without any sort of difference in interior affairs. He preserved the ban on demonstrations, the imprisonment of dissidents, the security state, the ban on political associations and so on.
Q: What about the Damascus Spring in 2000?
A: The Damascus Spring was promoted by a group of intellectuals, -more or less the same ones who have participated now in the Semiramis meeting- who asked for limited political reforms and the end of the single-party system. The ruling regime refused the proposals and imprisoned 10 opposition leaders, with sentences ranging from 3 to 10 years: Dr. Aref Dalila was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Then we went through another crisis, the so-called Damascus-Beirut Declaration in 2006, which called for the normalization of relations between Lebanon and Syria. I was among the signatories and, together with other intellectuals, I was once again arrested.
At the end of 2007, when the signatories of the Damascus Declaration (2005) held a meeting in the Syrian capital, 11 figures of the opposition were arrested. I mean that there have always been arrest campaigns and long sentences under this regime. In 2005, Dr. Kamal Labwani, only for having given some interviews to satellite TV channels in England, France and the US, was arrested and sentenced to 12 years, upon his return in Syria.
All these events created among a Syrians a big bubble waiting to explode. We were in need of the Tunisian revolution to break that glass, which we have been afraid of crashing so far. People took the streets to ask for the end of the state of fear the Mukhabarat have been able to create.
Q: Actually, the main impression I had, while talking with people who take part in demonstrations, is that their uprising is first of all an act of rebellion against the power of the Mukhabarat. Do you agree?
A: Bashar and his father have been ruling this country by the strength of the security forces. There have never been democratic elections: the presidential elections take now place through a popular referendum and not trough regular elections, after the Constitution has been amended for this purpose.
Even the 10 parties, members of the National Progressive Front together with the ruling Ba’th Party, are scared to say a single word differing from the position of the Ba’th Party.
Q: Even the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP)? I personally got to know some young members of the party, who are taking distances from the official positions of the party, claiming also to respect the opposition legacy of their political history.
A: No, absolutely no. I talk as an individual dissident, I met with leaders of the SSNP and they are not dissidents, on the contrary, even historically the party has never been opposed to the regime.Q: What is the future of the Syrian uprising after more than 100 days from the beginning of demonstrations?A:I think the government has dragged Syria to a point of no-return. Why? If the government and the opposition had accepted small concessions in the beginning, thus reaching an agreement, then we might have been able to avoid what happened later on and these big figures of martyrs. For this reason, personally I cannot go back, I walk towards the collapse of the regime. If this revolution fails and Bashar al-Assad stays in power, I told the other dissidents many times that, even after 10 years of political activism, I will resign and leave politics forever. It is necessary to depose the current regime to start building a new modern Syrian city-state.

Q: Some of the youth participating to the demonstrations is getting upset by the slow, bloody pace of the revolution. There are people increasingly convinced of being more helpful by leaving the country and coordinating the struggle against the regime from abroad. Some believe that Syria might not be ready for a successful revolution and maybe it still needs time to overthrow the political elites. Are you more optimistic?

A: We cannot affirm whether three months are enough or not for a successful revolution in Syria. In Egypt three weeks were enough, in Tunisia one month. I think the Syrian situation is currently intertwined with the fate of two other regimes, which are supposed to collapse: Yemen and Libya. If one of these three dictators falls, then you’ll see the other ones following him. I think the situation is really similar to what happened in Eastern Europe in the 80’s. Poland started a 8 years-long successful uprising in 1982, when the Soviet Union was still a strong regime, following the example of Bulgarian and Romanian dissidents, who rose up first against totalitarianism. The effect of the downfall of another regime would be to encourage the rebels to insist and succeed in their revolution. Ok, If I was the Syrian President, and I listen now to the words of the streets, I wouldn’t feel myself exposed to the risk of ending like Mubarak in Egypt [being prosecuted in a court]. But I think that in the near future, the Syrian streets will become intransigent and call for the accountability of Bashar and high officials in his government. Because the Syria regime will continue with brutal repression, the people will start to ask to put on trial the President.

Q: Don’t you think that Bashar al-Assad is more popular in Syria, if compared with other rulers like Ali Abdallah Saleh and Qaddhafi?

A:No, absolutely no. Those joining rallies in support of the regime do this exclusively out of terror and fear of the future. They don’t trust the opposition, they believe the downfall of the regime will lead to a civil war, to a Lebanon-like scenario.

Q: And you don’t consider likely the possibility that the uprising will turn into a civil war?

A: No, I totally exclude this. I read Syrian history very well. We have numerous ethnicity and religious sects, but, historically, there has never been a single war between these communities. The situation in Syria differs from the one in Lebanon or in other Middle Eastern countries. In Islamic history, Damascus has been the capital of the ‘Ummayad Caliphate (661-750 AD) and, even in those times, fitna (sectarian strife) has never erupted. The regime describes the current events as sectarian strife to scare people, but this is not the reality on the ground.

Q: It happened to me to talk with some Sunni demonstrators, who clearly expressed their resentment towards Alawis in a way, which easily exceeds the hatred for the Ba’th regime to become pure religious hate. How do you comment on this aspect? Is there a risk of sectarian killings targeting Alawis, in case the revolution succeeds?

A: This is nothing more than a personal view, which has nothing to do with the Syrian situation. We don’t accept this way of thinking. There is a vision and among the opposition leaders, who will lead the transitional phase, there are personalities, who will not allow sectarian strife. I am not telling you there are no people willing to take revenge on other sects, but they are limited cases. Syria is composed of geographical areas mixed with regards to sectarian distribution and this has allowed everyone to get to know the cultural ‘Other’. To have the risk of sectarian strife, you need sectarian icons, figures representative of their sects. Now mention me one personality in Syria who is able to say: “I speak in the name of the Alawis, Sunnis, etc.”…Even Bashar al-Assad is not able to say: “I am an Alawi”, he is used to say: “I am the President of Syria.” On the other side, opposition prominent figures like Aref Dalila are Alawis and, in the same way, he doesn’t identify himself according to the sect.

Q: So you don’t think there is a sort of resentment towards the Alawis, due to their ties with the regime?

A: No, and I tell you why: many of the opposition leaders incarcerated in the past years are Alawis. The problem is that the poor status of our politics and the lack of cooperation among opposition groups have led Kurds, for example, to think that Alawi are privileged compared to them. The Kurd doesn’t know that the Alawi is even more oppressed than him: there are Alawi dissidents who have been jailed for 30 years. And the same goes for other minorities like Christians, if you think of Anwar al-Bunni and Michel Kilo. The regime is repressive on all Syrian citizens.

Q: What is your position on the meeting organized by the opposition in Damascus, at the Semiramis Hotel, on June 27? Why you didn’t participate to it?

A:The meeting was conceived only to gather under one roof the independent opposition leaders and express their position towards the regime and their support for peaceful demonstrations. Personally, I think it was a positive step and I share the ideas of the organizers. However it was not a ‘well studied’ step, it was organized hastily and, in fact, protests took place against this meeting. I didn’t receive any invitation for this meeting, because they knew perfectly that I wouldn’t have attended the gathering. At the beginning of the preparations for the meeting, I told to my friends, Michel Kilo, Luay Hussein and Fayez Sarah, who were organizing it: “Are you going to ask for the resignations of the President?” They told me: “No”. Then I replied them: “I cannot attend the meeting, because now there is a big proportion of the Syrian people, I won’t say everyone, who is calling for the downfall of the regime, and you cannot claim to represent the streets, if you don’t report the words of the streets.” I told the organizers personally that I don’t believe in diplomacy at this step, it is either you are the voice of the streets or you are not the opposition

Q: Are you still going to collaborate with these opposition leaders in the future?

A: Sure, I will participate in their meetings when there will be a clear vision and a shared agreement.

Q: So do you think diplomacy is useless at this stage? What about those dissidents who would approve armed resistance against the regime?

A: I am absolutely against the use of weapons. For sure, I don’t want neither my son nor my grandson to live under such a regime. It is about becoming a democratic, modern and developed country, if this won’t happen, then we don’t have to consider diplomacy. Politics is about listening to the people and implementing their will, diplomacy is about listening to the people, but implementing what is deemed more convenient. I don’t agree with this rule. The essential meaning of terms like ‘law’ and ‘democracy’ are unknown to everyone, hence the meaning of diplomacy has to change as well and become the implementation of people demands. The opposition which gathered in Semiramis is actually telling the people: “We are in front of a strong regime and we fear the failure of the revolution, therefore we have to accept limited gains and build the Syrian future on them.” They believe in the possibility of a political solution with the regime staying in power. What this will mean? The government preserving its security apparatus and allowing the opposition to have a few seats in the Parliament? Have them participating in local councils? I don’t think it’s enough. We, the opposition, need first to reverse the balance of power with the regime. This approach doesn’t convince me. For me it’s either the collapse of the regime or the failure of the revolution.

* ‘Ala is Kamal Sheikho. At the time I was worried about protecting my sources, but Kamal has published enough articles under his  real name, so that there is no need to conceal his identity anymore.

Categories: Kurdistan, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: Interview with Hervin Ose (Kurdish Future Movement)


tammo funeral
And here is a piece I wrote out of an interview with a Kurdish activist…
I have been trying getting in touch with Shanar* since I arrived in Syria at the beginning of April. She is an experienced Kurdish activist I met in Damascus last year, who has been jailed several times, the last time after one of the first protests which broke out in Damascus by mid-March. Shanar recalls that episode, when they dragged her by the hair across the street of Damascus and almost broke her hand, by beating her savagely in prison. She got used to the behavior of the security forces, like most of the Kurds in Al-Jazira, the Kurdish stronghold in North-Eastern Syria. The region already witnessed riots in 2004 in Qamishli, when a football match between an Arab and a Kurdish team degenerated into clashes with security forces and the subsequent decision to send the army to ‘restore security’. The death toll at the end of the unrest was of at least 36 Kurdish citizens.
The condition of Kurds in Syria has been constantly affected by discrimination.
 Following a census carried on in 1962 in the Al-Hasaka province, some 120.000 Kurds were stripped off their citizenship rights and registered as ‘foreigners’ (Ajanib). According to UNHCR, the Kurds without Syrian citizenship today are around 300.000. On 8 April 2011, in an attempt to contain Kurdish participation to the uprising, President Al-Assad issued a decree granting citizenship to those ‘foreigners’ of Al-Hasaka, but most of the Kurds have rejected this late concession. Another discriminatory measure was taken in 2008, when Decree 49 was issued to restrict the freedom of certain border areas to sell and purchase lands without prior government approval. The Kurds saw this as a further attempt to exacerbate their living conditions and force them to leave their lands.
When asked about Bashar’s latest concession, Shanar shows no hesitation replying: “Was it a compensation? We are not asking for citizenship now, we’re calling for freedom. We demand fundamental constitution amendments, like the abrogation of article 8 and not gifts from the President.” Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution states that “the leading party in state and society is the Socialist Arab Ba’th Party.” Another important aspect in the agenda of Shanar’s Future Movement (Tayyar al-Mustaqbal), one of the main Kurdish youth group, is that they demand “the recognition of Kurds not as a minority or the second largest ethnic group in Syria, but as first class citizens without any sort of distinction.”
Shanar made no mention of the historical aspiration to be part of an independent Kurdistan. However, at least among some Arab activists, a form of mistrust seems still to affect the relations with Kurdish parties: Ahmed, a university activist of the University of Damascus, is still convinced that the Arabs should beware of Kurdish support, because the Kurds will have a different agenda after the revolution. In fact, the cooperation between Arab and Kurdish opposition groups has not been smooth so far. Shanar told me her group had a meeting with the signatories of the Damascus Declaration on March 5. The Damascus Declaration is a document subscribed by several Arab and Kurdish opposition groups in 2005, which partially anticipated the current demands for political freedom. The outcome of that meeting was particularly frustrating for Shanar. First of all, the Arab parties did not seem to have a clear vision on whether there should have been reforms or the only acceptable solution was the collapse of the regime; secondly, unlike the Future Movement, they did not enjoy a base of support among activists in the streets; thirdly, there was no agreement between Kurds and Arabs on the days to be chosen for mobilization, with the latter not willing to take the streets on March 12, the anniversary of the Qamishli riots.
If disaccord affects the relations with the Arab opposition, the Syrian Kurdish political scene is already fragmented by itself.
There are 12 Kurdish parties for around 1.5 million Kurds in Syria, many of them tied to the Kurdish parties based in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Turkey. Shanar prefers to be member of a fully local Kurdish party, strongly connected with the network of young activists. “As Future Movement, we insisted on ‘stopping the violence’ (waqf al-‘unf) as a conditio sine qua non for national dialogue,” recalls Shanar about one of their meeting with the National Movement of Kurdish Parties [ndr the major coalition of Kurdish political forces in Syria], “other parties preferred a more diplomatic approach, talking about ‘avoiding the violence’ (tajannub al-‘unf), as if brutal repression was not already taking place!.” On March 16, following major disagreements, the Future Movement, the Yakiti Party and the Azadi Party quit the greater Kurdish coalition. Shanar’s conclusions on the Kurdish political scene are quite eloquent: “I call the Kurdish coalition a ‘Group of Division and Nothing Else’ (Majmu’a taqsim wa la shi’).”
On the other hand, Kurdish groups seem to have developed substantial organizational skills and a greater freedom of mobilization than their Arab ‘allies’.
The youth taking to the streets of Qamishli during the day, usually sleep in the surrounding villages to avoid security raids in the night. They also thought about new ways to expand the uprising, bringing people from other neighborhoods to ignite those areas still relatively quiet. This is a strategy said to be adopted even in Midan (Damascus) and in the university campus of Aleppo, populated by Hourani and Kurdish students.
In the Future Movement, not everyone is active by joining the demonstrations: there is a press room, formed by a group of online activists coordinating people on the ground and spreading news outside Syria. Nonetheless, Shanar agrees that, because the epicenter of the riots is located in rural and peripheral areas with no regular internet access, the Syrian uprising will never be a ‘facebook revolution’.
The lesson learned in 2004 helped developing new modes of action. In these days, Shanar’s movement goes knocking on people’s doors to have them joining the protests, while ensuring the participation of whole families to maintain the demonstrations completely peaceful. This is clearly a freedom of movement, which dissidents in ‘security-armored’ Damascus cannot enjoy. According to Shanar, the Syrian authorities have avoided to intervene militarily in Qamishli for two reasons, firstly, because no campaign of civil disobedience has paralyzed the city yet; secondly, because military intervention would have meant opening two diametrically opposed fronts (Dara’a and Qamishli), thus weakening the state capability to control unrest in the rest of the country. In case of military intervention in Qamishli, the Syrian regime would still have to consider the reaction of the big Kurdish community living in Damascus and already active in the protests of Rukn el-Din. However, in the last weeks, military intervention has become the norm in several flashpoints –Jisr al-Shughur, Tal Kalkh- so that the opening of a new front cannot be categorically ruled out.
Remarkable mobilization skills cannot bring about alone the collapse of the regime. After three months of unabated bloodshed this is a matter of fact, even for Kurds.
Those dissidents who gathered in Antalya, between May 31 and June 1, are confident of affecting internal change by agreeing upon a platform of demands from abroad.  The Kurds, like their ‘brothers’ did before in Turkey and Iraq, do not oppose the idea of coordinating the opposition from abroad, but the Antalya conference was not welcomed by all the Kurdish factions. According to a blog on Kurdish affairs (Kurdistan Commentary), only 5 of the 12 Syrian Kurdish parties were invited to the conference and, even among these ones, some refused to participate because of the choice of Turkey, which is not exactly the most sympathetic country to the Kurdish cause. Shanar has no objection to the choice of Turkey, but she admits that a meeting in Europe would have been a better option.
Shanar is expecting more from the international community and particularly from Europe, for example an arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, it is unlikely that such a resolution would stop the violence, considered the limited powers the ICC showed to have when willing to extradite political leaders. Syria, like Sudan, has never ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Since no one is eager to see neither an embargo imposed on Syria, which would cause grievances mainly among the population, nor military intervention from the West, the international community does not seem to have many options left.
The fate of the Syrian revolution is more dependent on two other factors: economic asphyxiation and military defection. It is more about which one of these factors, if not the combination of the two, will turn the balance of power in favor of the opposition. “Even one million people working in the Mukhabarat are not enough to stifle the protests,” says proudly Shanar, “this is why they deploy the army, but relying on the armed forces is dangerous on the long run.” It is dangerous, firstly because defections could increase with the continuation of the bloodshed and, secondly, because it requires extraordinary military expenses.
* Shanar is Hervin Ose, one of the prominent figures of Mishaal Tammo’s Future Movement. Tammo was killed on October 7 (2011), while she left Syria in 2012.
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