Posts Tagged With: undercover journalism

3. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: 5-6 June 2011, Golan to Yarmuk: Palestinians joining the Syrian uprising?

5-6 June 2011, Golan to Yarmuk: Palestinians joining the Syrian uprising?

28 June 2011
yarmouk unrwa bannerWhat really happened between the 5th and the 6th of June among the Palestinians of the refugee camp of Yarmuk in Damascus? Everything started on May 15, the first initiative launched to commemorate the Nakba on May 18, when some Palestinians refugees living in Syria were shot dead by the IDF, while attempting to break in the Israeli borders from the occupied Golan Heights. Even though protests were coordinated by Palestinian activists from Lebanon to Syria to Palestine itself, the Syrian regime promoted the rally with the ultimate aim to deflect attention from the internal uprising. On the 5th of June, the Syrian authorities were even more keen on organizing the Naqsa commemoration along the same lines, transforming the recurrence into another Israeli bloodshed of Palestinians at the border. But this time events developed in an unexpected way for the Syrians.
On June 13, I had the chance to talk with residents of the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, particularly with Abu Bassem, actively involved in one of the main youth groups inside the camp. Abu Bassem is currently risking to be incarcerated once again by the security forces, because of the outspoken position he took after the events of June 5.
He recalls perfectly the events occurred the night between the 4th and the 5th, when the PFLP (headed by Taher Maher) stood aside while the PFLP-General Command (Qiyada al-‘Amma), the Syrian watchdog in the Palestinian camps, came to gather participants for the Naqsa initiative, helped by the Syrian security forces. Abu Bassem and his group patrolled the camp all night long to prevent anyone dragging people to die at the border, but it was all in vain, since the two PFLP factions helped the Syrians to find secondary routes to enter the camp.
On Monday (June 6), during the funerals celebrated in Yarmuk for the Palestinians fallen under the Israeli fire the day before, some members of the PFLP-GC came to condole with the families of the martyrs, but they were told to leave the procession immediately, being considered the main culprits for the deaths. The reaction of the PFLP-GC was that some of his militiamen started shooting in the air and chaos erupted in Yarmuk. The office of the PFLP-GC was set on fire and several residents were shot dead during the clashes.
Young Palestinians like Abu Bassem are increasingly taking distances from the Palestinian traditional factions, following a widespread trend in the whole Middle East, where the youth is challenging old political elites. According to the videos published on Electronic Intifada, people in Yarmuk were shouting: “the people want the downfall of the factions” (as-sha’b yuridu isqat al-tafasil), echoing the slogans of the Arab Spring (the people want the downfall of the regime/ as-sha’b yuridu isqat al-nizam). “We know the historical leadership of the PFLP and the current one in Palestine, but we don’t know anything about who are these figures leading the party in Yarmuk,” complains Abu Bassem, “they are only good at appearing on Al-Dunya and As-Suriya [Syrian National TV channels]. For this reason, the group Abu Bassem belongs to, remains independent, which in his words is exactly the feature Palestinian political cadres are scared of. For these reasons, Abu Bassem’s group is planning a Third Intifada against Israel, independent from political parties and religious affiliations: it will be the Intifada of the refugees, based exclusively on the right of return.
Palestinian participation to the Syrian uprising went almost unnoticed so far. In the case of Abu Bassem’s group, and probably of other secular groups, the rejection of any religious affiliation has determined the refusal to join demonstrations at the end of the Friday Prayer. Secondly, even though Abu Bassem’s organization is in touch with the Syrian opposition, they avoided to take sides until now. “In the end, as Palestinians, even if we consider the Syrian ‘resistance discourse’ extremely hypocritical and we are not happy with our status of refugees here,” pointed out Abu Bassem, “that’s all we have and we cannot jeopardize the benefits enjoyed in this hosting country.” Yarmuk is probably the best Palestinian camp in Syria, Abu Bassem is fully aware of this: houses are decent, worth market prices and there is continuous energy. A luxury compared to the Lebanese camps! In general, despite restrictions on land ownership, Palestinians in Syria are fully entitled to government services, education and employment, with good opportunities to find the means to move out of the camps: remarkable concessions, if compared with the state of Palestinians in other Middle Eastern states.
Nonetheless, what happened on June 5, could have shifted the balance in the position of Palestinians towards the regime. “They killed our people, they sell our blood at the border,” says Abu Bassem. This is nothing new to him, as he goes on saying: “the biggest harm to the Palestinian cause remain Arab regimes.” Actually, even if it appears less known to those defending a priori the Syrian anti-Zionist resistance, history is full of episodes when Syrian uncompromising commitment to the Palestinian cause looked contradictory, from the Lebanese Civil War to the almost achieved peace with Israel in 2000. Not without mentioning Rami Makhluf’s recent declarations about the essential contribution of the Ba’th regime to Israeli stability.
What is clear is that Syria cannot afford to lose the Palestinians now, it would be a fatal blow to its propaganda. “They are scared of seeing us taking sides against them and even willing to remove Ahmad Jibril [the leader of the PFLP-GC] from his post, if this can help securing Palestinian support,” this is the streets’ voice in Yarmuk, according to Abu Bassem.

A few days ago, I met again with Abu Bassem. He told me the Syrian mukhabarat are still watching over him, because of his active participation in the camp’s uprising again the PFLP-GC. Once again, Syrian support to Palestinians appears selective and based on national interests, rather than on a ‘just cause’.

Interesting Links:

On the legal status of Palestinians in Syria:

The events of Yarmuk reported by Electronic Intifada:

Appendix on Yarmuk

I felt I should have included this as well, it’s a brief talk I had with another resident of Yarmuk…
After a while we were sitting talking in the restaurant, a veteran of the camp, Ghassan, joined us for a drink. He has a seasoned communist look…large red shirt falling out of some blue jeans, long gray hair tied back and remarkable beard. “Well, nowadays, if they stop me is because they think I am a Salafist ’cause of the beard, but then they realize I have blue jeans and they put me in jail anyway…as a communist!” He goes on poking fun at the rumors spread by the government about supposed armed ‘vandals’ (mukharribin)infiltrated in the camp, pointing out how there are only 35 kalashnikov in Yarmuk (a normal quantity for a Palestinian camp with different factions inside), but the Syrian authorities are fabricating the need of security to legitimize further intervention in the camp. For example, they are suggesting that mukharribin are entering Yarmuk from the neighboring area of Hajar al-Sawda.
With regards to the main political stakeholder in the camp, Hamas, the fact that it did not take a clear position on the unrest has extremely upset Damascus, according to Ghassan, but, at the same time, the Ba’th regime doesn’t seem concerned even about losing bigger allies, as it is evident from the exacerbated relations with Turkey. The unique priority is to gain the upper hand in the repression.

This is also evident by the recent opening to the opposition, embodied in the ‘National Dialogue’ initiative, which has not implied a contemporary end to violent repression

Categories: Palestine, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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.
Useful links:

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

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