Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

“Islamic State”: Pure Evil

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th August, 2014

IS FoleyI have not watched the video of American journalist James Foley being beheaded by a militant from the so-called Islamic State, IS (previously known as ISIS). I don’t need to, in order to share the revulsion and anger felt by most people in Britain, especially as the masked “executioner” in the video would appear to be British, from his accent. Foley was a war correspondent, not a soldier, who had been held in captivity for the past two years before his gruesome death. His only “crime”, in the eyes of his captors, was his nationality, but nothing can possibly excuse his death and the manner of it. It comes hard on the heels of horrific stories of mass executions by IS of Yazidis and other civilians in Iraq and the terrorising of populations. I am not a Muslim, but I have studied enough about the religion over the years to know that this barbarity is as remote from the true teaching of Islam as was the Spanish Inquisition from that of Christianity. There is nothing noble or heroic in the action of IS militants, nor the cause they espouse. The Islamic State is pure evil, and must be condemned as such, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. That means not only action on the ground in Syria and Iraq — which is already seeing some unusual alliances forming against IS — but especially in the mosques and madrasas, and through social media, where the poisonous message of IS must be challenged and exposed for what it truly is.   

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John McHugos’ Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 5th July, 2014

JF interviewing John McHugoEarlier this week I was at Mosaic Rooms in Kensington, interviewing the writer and Arabist John McHugo about his new book on Syria. The topicality of the subject was doubtless one reason that the place was packed — and both John and his publishers, Saqi Books, deserve praise for turning the book round so quickly but professionally, so that it can become part of the national debate on Syria. John and I first met over 40 years ago, in the coffee room of the Oriental Institute at Oxford, though at that time I was studying Chinese with Japanese, while John was already grounded in Arab studies. This helped him greatly in the preparation of his last book, A Concise History of the Arabs (brought out by Saqi last year), but marrying Diana Darke, the author of My House in Damascus, which I reviewed earlier this year, certainly cemented his involvement in Syria in particular. His new book, Syria: From the Great War to Civil War (Saqi, £17.99), really brings alive the trials and tribulations — as well as some periods of relative calm — of the people of Syria over the past century. I was particularly interested in John’s treatment of the French Mandate period, which gets scan coverage in most English-language texts about the 20th century Middle East. He was able to draw on Patrick Seale’s magisterial biography of Hafez al-Assad to help portray the rise to power and its exercise by that remarkable man, who had a very clear vision for the role and future of his country, and was prepared to liquidate anyone who fundamentally disagreed. When the old man died and his second son, Bashar, took over, there was a false sense of reasssurance in many Western capitals, that this partly English-educated newcomer with his medical background would usher in a glorious period of reform — not that the presidential circle and narrow base of vested interests would ever have allowed him to be too radical in challenging the system of patronage from which they benefitted so handsomely. By chance, John and I were both in Syria — he in Damascus, me in Tartus — when the waves of the so-called Arab Spring finally reached Syria in March 2011. Had the authorities handled things differently then, instead of relying on oppression, things might have developed quite differently. Inevitably, in the question and answers at the Mosaic Rooms event, John got asked about what is happening now in what to an extent has become a proxy war, with different foreign powers and even religious ideologies lining up on one side or another. But I am sure he was right when he said that sectarianism between Sunni and Shia was not such  big issues for most of the period covered by his book, though now it is seen as defining the struggle that has so far cost over 150,000 lives.

[photo: Susannah Tarbush]

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My House in Damascus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th April, 2014

My House in DamascusBait BaroudiDiana Darke is one of those splendid British Arabists, in the tradition of Gertrude Bell, who combines a passion for Syria and the rest of the Middle East with an admirably Anglo-Saxon cool head, which has enabled her to work for many years as a translator, consultant and writer of Bradt travel guides on the region. Unlike Ms Bell, however, she is not al-Khatun, a Lady of the Court, with one dog-like ear and eye open to pick up on anything that could be of use to the powers that be — despite at one stage in her life being a diplomatic wife. Indeed, it is hard to imagine her hand-in-hand with either William Hague or the family and entourage of President Bashar al-Assad, who is hanging on in there in Damascus while his country proceeds fast down the road to perdition. Such was Diana Darke’s enchantment with the old walled city of Damascus that she day-dreamed of owning one of the Ottoman courtyard houses in its heart, and once that idea had been seeded, it germinated and led to her acquiring Bait Baroudi, and then embarking on a painstaking process of restoration, not to make something pristine and thus suitable for a high-end boutique hotel, but rather as a place of beauty that would wear its heritage with subtle pride, with the aid of some fine pieces of antique stone and artefacts picked up on expeditions round the sellers of the banished contents of disintegrating ancestral homes. Having created this oasis of tranquility — sometimes generously lent out to travelling friends — she then thought of writing a book about the house and its project, but events overtook her. From the moment some teenage idealists in the town of Dera’a wrote anti-government slogans on walls in March 2011, unleashing a crackdown, Syria entered the vortex of the most vicious and unpredictable of all the so-called Arab spring revolutions. 140,000+ dead later, not to mention the millions of refugees and internally displaced, the situation seems as intractable as ever. Diana Darke can no longer visit Syria to spend time in her Arab home, but it now houses its own band of around 30 refugees, including some of those people who had worked with her on the house. So the book she originally envisaged became unviable, unpublishable even, in the current gloomy political climate. And so it transmuted into a really very special volume, My House in Damascus (Haus Publishing, £14.99), which weaves an enchanting tapestry not just of Bait Baroudi, but of Damascus and Greater Syria, drawing on the author’s own youthful studies of Arabic at the old MECAS institute at Shemlan in Lebanon, cleverly threading the weft of her personal story through the warp of Arab culture, past and present, skilfully moving back and forth between the years without losing the reader on the way. The result is a gem that will delight those already familiar with Damascus and be a revelation to those who aren’t. But I suspect all will finish reading it with a sense of deep sadness for the way Syria is being torn apart. Diana Darke determinedly hopes that one day, somehow, it will all turn out all right, and that it will be possible to walk across the hills of the Levant, carefree, before returning home to the gentle charm of Bait Baroudi. I wish I could sincerely believe that she is right.

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Newroz in Finsbury Park

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd March, 2014

Newroz Finsbury ParkThis afternoon I stood in bright sunshine on a stage in London’s Finsbury Park, speaking to a crowd of several thousand Kurds, to mark the festival of Newroz. In traditional Kurdish villages, people would jump over a fire at Newroz, but as I said in my speech, although there was no fire in front of me I could feel the fire in the people before me. They are right to be proud of their long history, culture and language, and to struggle for greater rights in the Middle East. In recent years I have been to Amed (Diyarbakir) and surrounding districts in predominantly Kurdiah areas of south-eastern Turkey, monitoring elections, though I won’t be able to go to cover the local elections in Turkey next month as I’m staying in London to campaign for the European elections. I said to the crowd it is important that they — if they have British or other European Union passports — vote on 22 May for a party that supports the rights of minority peoples and is committed to Britain remaining in the EU, or otherwise urge their neighbours and friends to do so. Apart from Sarah Ludford MEP (who also has a longstanding interest in Kurdish issues) and myself, on the LibDem list for London we also have a Turkish Kurd, Turhan Ozen. The situation in Turkey is frustrating in that Recep Tayyip Erdogan made some significant moves towards recognising Kurdish rights but like so much of his policy, this has often been a situation of one step forward, one step back. In Syrian Rojava the situation is critical for many Kurds and in Iran several Kurdish leaders have recently been executed or harassed. Only in the Kurdish region of Iraq (KRG) — which I visited this time last year — is the situation markedly better. So Kurds have a lot to struggle for. But as I concluded in my short speech, today is a day for celebration. Newroz Piroj Be!

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Is Syria Completely Hopeless?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 15th February, 2014

Lakhdar BrahimiThe Geneva2 Syria peace talks have broken up without any agreement. Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian mediator, nobly apologised to the different parties for his failure to broker a deal, but he really isn’t to blame. There are people entrenched in their political positions on both sides who would rather the slaughter continues than concede that they cannot win an outright victory. According to the Syrian Observatory, 140,00 Syrians have died since the popular uprising began in March 2011, half of them civilians. Millions of others have lost their home or been forced to seek sanctuary outside the country. This is putting a huge strain on neighbours such as Lebanon and Jordan, while meanwhile Syria’s infrastructure and heritage and being destroyed. As I said in an interview on an Iraqi TV channel the other day, there are no angels in this conflict. But something has to be done to bring it to a close. The outside backers of Bashir al-Assad’s regime (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah) as well as the Gulf States arming the rebels (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) need to come up with some workable, comprehensive plan. No-one should doubt the evilness of the Assad clique, who have been killing and torturing for 40 years whenever they felt their hold on power was under threat. But several of the rebel groups are deeply unpleasant as well. I don’t have a magic solution, though choking off all arms supplies to both sides would be a step in the right direction. And as the Syrian parties themselves have failed to agree to a deal, it is now up to the outside world to concoct one. We cannot just sit idly by and say, “Well, Syria is completely hopeless.” Hope is what Syrians need, and quickly.

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Iran Invited to Geneva2. And the Kurds?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th January, 2014

Kurdish area of SyriaThe UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has announced that Iran has now been invited to attend the Geneva talks on the future of Syria, due to be held on Wednesday. That is welcome news, though it is a little odd that the significance was almost lost in the revelation that a whole host of other states have also been invited, including Bahrain, Luxembourg and the Vatican. Given the small size and, at least in some cases, marginal direct involvement of some of the likely participants, it is maybe not surprising that Syrian Kurds — many of whom have also risen up against the regime of Bashar al-Assad — are asking, why not them too? The quick answer from the UN would doubtless be that they are not a state, though some of the other Syrian actors who will be present do not represent a state either. But of course there is a more substantial matter involved, namely the position of Kurds in the whole region. Only in Iraq have Kurds gained a high degree of autonomy; in fact, it is not inconceivable that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq could become an independent country one day. The issue then is, which other areas in the region with a high percentage of Kurds among their population would like to try to become part of some putative Kurdish state? The Iranians stamp hard on any attempts at Kurdish separatism, and Turkey — which houses almost half of the region’s population of Kurds — strongly resists any attempt to undermine the territorial integrity of the Republic of Turkey. Moreover, Kurds in Turkey are themselves divided about how far they ought or ought not to be autonomous, let alone independent. But what is clear from even a cursory study of Middle Eastern history following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire is that the Kurds were denied a proper opportunity for self-determination by the Allied Powers. And if Syrian Kurds are excluded from Geneva2 it will strike some Kurdish activists as yet more of the same.

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A Centenary for Reflection

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th January, 2014

WWI CentenaryThis year’s centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is, according to the British Government, going to be about Reconciliation, and of course that is a noble thing. But I can’t help feeling that reconciliation between the Brits and the Germans (and other parties to the conflict) happened long ago — even though a Second World War occurred in the meantime. So, Reconciliation itself is not enough. 2014 should be a year of Reflection, on a number of very serious subjects. The first is the folly of War — particularly the so-called Great War, of course — and the fact that humankind still hasn’t worked out a way to avoid it. The New Year was ushered in with ongoing hostilities and a humanitarian disaster in Syria, as well as more recent but extremely dangerous conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. It is interesting that most Wars these days are within states, rather than between states, though that does not make them any easier to avert or resolve. And since the horrors of the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, Europe has remained free of War. Some would argue that has been as a result of the existence of NATO (though the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, among others, might raise their eyebrows at that). Certainly, the European Union has played its part, which is why it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The EU is not a perfect institution, but it has provided a framework in which European states can cooperate rather than confront each other, and disagreements can be resolved around a meeting table in Brussels rather than on the battlefields of Flanders. That is no mean achievement. So as Centenary-mania takes over in the UK in the run-up to the European elections in May we should indeed reflect, not just on why we believe “never again” in Europe but also on how the EU can grow and reform itself to be a brighter beacon to bloodier parts of the world.

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What Can We Do about Syria?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th September, 2013

Bashar al-AssadUNSCJust because the House of Commons recently voted against military action in Syria does not mean that Britain or indeed the West can walk away from the tragic situation there. As I said in a speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow this morning, we still have a moral obligation to act under Responsibility to Protect (R2P). That is the evolving doctrine in International Law that when a country’s government is unable or unwilling to protect its population from humanitarian catastrophe or gross human rights abuses the international community must. Military action is only a last resort under R2P, and I am not alone in being relieved that we have not gone to war over Syria, as I fear it would only have made the situation worse. But we need to work closely with Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, to get action taken, over and above the considerable amount of humanitarian aid that Britain and some others have been providing. I praised the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for sticking his neck out in calling for the Assad regime to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and indeed the UN Security Council should pass a resolution to that effect. Moreover, there has been a UN Commission on Syria in existence for over two years but the government in Damascus has not let it in to investigate. The UN (and again Russia) should use every means to force it to allow the team in, as it did with the chemical weapons inspectors. In the meantime, we should have no illusions about the Assads and their cohorts; this is a regime that has no compunction about shelling hospitals, persecuting doctors who treat the wounded or even torturing children in front of their parents. The situation in Syria today is a stain on the modern world and the international community — including the Arab League — must find a way of getting rid of it.

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Could the G20 Sort out Syria?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd September, 2013

Assad and PutinRussia G20I don’t always agree with (Lord) David Owen, but he made a valid point in an op ed piece in today’s London’s Evening Standard when he suggested that the G20 Summit in St Petersburg later this week could offer an important opportunity for negotiations to find a way out of the Syria impasse. The host of the Summit, of course, is Vladimir Putin, who is Bashar al-Assad’s closest European ally. And the G20 brings together an interesting mix of developed, emerging and developing countries: the Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, UK and US, plus the European Union. It is clear that there is stalemate on the ground in Syria; Assad is not losing, but he’s not winning either, and in the meantime yet more people get killed — over 110,00 already — and more refugees are created. The Syrian economy, as well as the country’s infrastructure and heritage, is being systematically destroyed. Despite the UK Parliament’s rejection of a military option last Thursday, it is still possible that the United States (if President Obama persuades Congress), France and Turkey may take part in a strike. But what exactly would that achieve. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wrote in a piece in this morning’s Daily Telegraph that it would be possible to call another vote in the Commons and that the aim of any military strike should be to punish Bashar al-Assad. Well, there is a growing consensus that the Assad regime was responsible for the 21 August chemical weapons attack; the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was the latest authority to state that today. But as I said in a live interview on BBC Radio London this evening, surely the way to “punish” Assad and his clique would be to bring them before the ICC in The Hague, to face charges of crimes against humanity. I genuinely believe that is the best outcome, though I have no illusions about how difficult it may be to get him and his cohorts to The Hague. In the meantime, surely the prime concern must be to prevent as many deaths and as much suffering as possible. And the only plausible way to do that is convene the Geneva 2 peace conference that has been in the air for some time now. It may be uncomfortable to sit down with a dictator, but that may be the only sensible option — and it won’t happen unless Mr Putin is on board.

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Don’t Throw Syria Baby out with the Bathwater

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th August, 2013

Cameron in ParliamentThe Government’s defeat last night over its motion on intervention in Syria was always on the cards given the deep divisions of opinion within all three main parties. It was interesting that some of the strongest speeches against going down a road that could lead to UK military strikes came from Tory rebels. Clearly memories of the way that the House was lied to over Iraq 10 years ago played its part, but there was also a realisation that a sizable majority of the British electorate is against going to war. At one level I am pleased about that; as a Quaker, that is hardly surprising. But I am anxious that we should not throw the Syria baby out with the bathwater. Last night’s Commons vote should not be an end to the affair. Assad supporters in Homs were out in their cars honking their horns in victory once they heard about the UK vote, but now it is important that Britain and other Security Council members work hard to get a negotiated end to the bloodshed in Syria. That means getting both Russia and Iran on board. I have no illusions about how difficult that may be, but that is not a reason not to try. The killing and destruction and dispossession have got to stop and in the meantime the UK and other countries that were braced to go to war should spend some of the resources they would have devoted to that on humanitarian assistance instead. Syria’s neighbours Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey are all struggling under the weight of the refugee influx and deserve support. The Arab League, which has never really lived up to its potential, should also now step up to the plate and take a leading role in promoting a diplomatic solution. The blatant truth is that on progress so far, the armed rebels in Syria are never going to win militarily and frankly the country would probably descend into anarchy if they did. The military benefits of any external strike were always doubtful too. But to reiterate, just because the House of Commons has given the thumbs down to a course of action which could have led to war must not mean that we just turn our backs on Syria’s agony and walk away.

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